First the eyes, he thought. Watch the eyes—where are the eyes watching? Forward, searching over heads, sorting out the familiar ones ahead on the rickety gangplank? Or backward, back to the steamship, the eyes glancing over the shoulder—the right shoulder, usually, which sometimes even turns to accommodate the search? Or, luck willing, do the eyes look only down?
The train from Philadelphia took a long time to get to New York City, and the horse-drawn trolley took a long time to get to the docks for this unplanned return to Castle Garden. That was a long time to think, so Aaron had it all decided. First, the eyes, where they were watching. That was the most crucial thing, more important than any pretty face the eyes might sit in, or an attractive body that, as it was December, would be swaddled and hard to judge in any case. Second, the question. He had rejected many questions. He knew—recalled—he would have time for only one question before the vendors closed in to sell a million cheap wonders of their New World, before the makeshift porters pressed in to snatch the bags.
There was a woman coming down the gangplank now, a small stranger, very young—a girl, maybe. And the eyes were in the right direction. Although downward eyes might have been merely caution, for the flimsy gangplank swayed ominously underneath the back-to-belly packing of the greenhorns. But the question would sort things out, would ratify what the eyes suggested.
Aaron approached the gangplank on the dock as the woman approached the dock on the gangplank. “I can help you find your family?” he inquired. In Yiddish, this having the benefit of establishing her fitness in an additional regard.
The eyes dropped farther, if this were possible. “It’s only me,” she answered, a little sadly.
“An orphan?” he asked, struggling to hide his delight that maybe he was not going to have to ask a second griner kuziner to find somebody without a family temporarily invisible somewhere on the ramp behind her, or on the dock ahead.
He did not need one more family.
Also, he noticed, the face was not unattractive, an additional plus. Pale, but that was understandable—he remembered there was often not much sun on the ocean in December, or in steerage. Heart-shaped, he guessed such a face was called, the result of a little brown widow’s peak showing under her babushka, and at the bottom a sharp chin. A smallish nose, dark brown eyes. He guessed they were dark brown, for the eyes were still so downcast that he was catching only the shortest glimpses. She was half a head shorter than himself, and he was no Goliath; however, she was carrying two bulging satchels, one in each hand, and she was not even puffing.
Maybe, he thought, maybe that should come after the eyes. If—luck forbid—I have to try again. Maybe whatever burdens and how they’re managed should come before the question.
Now she was explaining at him, shyly, hesitantly. She is one of three daughters, the oldest and also—she blushes—maybe the smartest. At least her father thinks so. Her mother being dead. She will work—they say there is work here in New York—and bring her family here, home.
This was what anybody thought, what anybody planned. It didn’t have to happen; often these particular plans fell through. So Aaron was maybe not hoping a false hope.
“A shame your plans are made,” he told her, walking her away from the gangplank, through the vendors, past the porters, though both bags were still in her own hands. It was all going so smoothly, he could not quite believe his luck.
She looked back to where they had come from. The gangplank was gone, all folded up and gone, and even now a sailor on the dock was throwing up the last rope and the steamship was huffing away. Her eyes were down again. “No plans,” she murmured, “Not exactly.” Then, looking up to smile at him, or at a memory, “Addresses. A couple addresses.”
“Your father gave you these before you left?”
She nodded a tiny nod.
“But by now those addresses will be pretty old.” He made his tongue go, “Tsk.” He elaborated, “Here in New York now, things are bad.”
He shook his head to indicate that she could not imagine how bad things had gotten in New York.
Suddenly, as if hired for the purpose, a beggar slipped through Aaron’s invisible cordon that had until now miraculously held off the world. The beggar had an intelligent face and, worse—or better, from Aaron’s perspective—he was dressed in a tweed coat that appeared to have once belonged to a gentleman. Except now lining showed through a large rip in the left side seam and strips of lining hung down below the woolen hem. And the hand that was extended toward them, palm cupped to hold the coins he hoped for, was covered with a formerly-fine leather glove, two of whose fingers had come unsewed.
She shivered; Aaron took one menacing step at the beggar, who disappeared in nothing flat without a word. Aaron greeted the departure with an open, up-turned palm pointed in the man’s direction plus a shrug, and these were words enough. He had proven his point: things were awful in this New York. She drew a little closer to him.
They walked; he gave it a minute or two then he went on, “What I meant to say was, since things are bad here, maybe the people at those addresses are gone by now—left a little early in the month—you catch what I’m saying here?”
Quickly, she thought this one through, then edged away from him a step or two.
“But these are good people, my father said!” she disagreed, a tiny bit less than mildly. “Not somebody who tries to cheat a landlord.”
Now both of Aaron’s hands were up in protest, palms facing her. Simultaneously, both shoulders were hunching toward his ears.
“You think some landlords don’t deserve the worst?” He drew a sharp breath; this familiar street was not the one to be on. He swerved, “Who said cheat? Did I say cheat? No, no, things are so bad in New York, what I meant to say was, maybe the people your father knew were put out on the street. Or knew they would be on the street tomorrow, and so they already left today. Maybe it was all they could do.”
This caused, to his intense gratification, a gasp of horror. And then, “You think?” The eyes were worried now, the hands clenched around the handles of the heavy satchels.
“Here, let me help you with those,” Aaron offered.
Slowly, her eyes running over him, evaluating him, she offered him the smaller of the bags.
He said nothing. Experience told him he’d better let her think she had the choice of whatever should come next. They walked; she asked into his silence, “So, what else could I do?”
He pretended to weigh her options. Slowly, as if he had not thought all this through a hundred times, he answered, “Philadelphia.”
“Filadelfer?” It was a long word. She had trouble saying it, and it was no surprise to Aaron when she added, “But I don’t know from this Filadelfer.”
“This is my home, Philadelphia.” He puffed his chest out with pride of ownership, though in truth it had not been his home for long, comparatively, and he knew the lack of a New World accent must betray him to her if she, despite her alarm, was still capable of thinking. Which, luck willing, she was not. Then he took the great leap: “I am a doctor there.”
It was while studying himself in the tiny mirror in the tiny bathroom on the train that he became a doctor. He looked the part: the expensive-seeming borrowed suit, the carefully trimmed triangular little beard and the moustache that flowed into it. The watchful, deliberately kindly eyes. The neatly cut hair, receding a little, graying a little more than that, but all of it adding to the impression of a man who is carrying the cares of too many other people on his shoulders, though a man who is more than adequately reimbursed.
And this was true—the first part. The number of people he hoped to carry once more on his shoulders was eight. Plus a memory, one year old.
Of snow. Of so much white snow, so much already fallen, so much falling as he tramped from place to place, peddling his shoes. The year’s luck had been good to him, and he had managed to build the capital he earned from selling just a few shoes into a little more and a little more, until, when he started out that day, he had as many shoes to sell as he could carry. But this meant he must walk farther from his home and stretch the truth more often. Because he hadn’t enough capital or strength to carry every single size in every single style.
So sometimes the genuine shoe did not fit the real-life foot, and therefore something had to be manufactured out of words. This was not so much a sin as a necessity; the fault was with the buyer, after all, if she believed him instead of her own cramped feet. And there were nine lives depending on his shrewdness, nine beloved lives. Nine lives plus one, his own. And each of these was familiar to him, was not some credulous stranger. What else could a husband and a father do?
So it was still snowing this other December morning, snow that to him was seeming a wet curse. But as it would turn out, the snow would be a white blessing, because it was mounded up three feet thick near the old brick wall of the row house where they were living on the third floor. Lived.
The wholesaler he bought the shoes from once called them Trinity houses. Three floors, he’d amplified: the Father; the Son; the Holy Ghost. And laughed. Aaron did not get it, but he laughed too, because it was not his habit to be caught out by anything and because the wholesaler seemed to expect it. And afterward he asked around discreetly, but no one knew. No one among the immigrants like himself in the tenements on his block could understand the joke.
Later, when he had worked around a while, gone a little farther away to sell in some of the less Jewish neighborhoods, he unraveled it. The meaning, but more than that, the poverty inherent in these Trinity houses, and the shame. Once the buildings had housed one family only, when they were new—or newer. But now so many people were coming in and needing housing that the smart men with some money were buying up these buildings and breaking them into thirds—one family to a floor. At least in theory.
Where he was living—lived—there were streets full of Trinity houses, one beside the next, rows of them with no space between, sharing their side walls, making, as you looked at them from the street, solid walls of red brick pockmarked with door and windows, door and windows, door and windows, twenty five or thirty on each side of the street all down the block. Block after block. Filled with hard-working, honest people like himself. Plus the occasional gonif. Which it had been, unfortunately, his luck to encounter for a landlord.
How was he to know his landlord was in trouble? Aaron always paid the rent on time. The families who lived in this house of their landlord’s had all paid the rent. So how was it that their landlord went and chose their house to try to ease his tsorres?
Aaron had been a mile or more away that snowy morning when the landlord’s fire started. It was daytime luckily, school time for the two who were in school, work time for the oldest two who had already completed the third grade. But that left four at home with Hannah—and the little one was only three months old, the next, two years, the next one three, then, finally, the four year old. All on the top floor of the building. With its ancient stairwell, open top-to-bottom, clogged with the debris of years.
What happened next Aaron kept constructing over and over again from what he had been told. Waking, sleeping, now leaving Castle Garden in New York, where what he was doing was no more nor less than fighting a war to win his family back. The fire blazed. Hannah and the children were caught upstairs. She tried to send the older ones down the steps, but the fire was already climbing up that way.
There were spectators now, standing on the sidewalk. There were children at the window, his children. And also Hannah. She opened the window. “Jump!” screamed the people on the sidewalk.
She whispered to the oldest little one. He was one of their brave ones. He edged out the window, sat on the ledge for just a moment, took the gamble, jumped. And someone caught him.
Their second now, this one more timid than poor Hannah herself. He did ease himself out the window, he got that far, the neighbors would tell Aaron, but then he sat and measured off the distance between himself and the snow, and sat still, paralyzed.
Inside their room, the smoke was seeping beneath the door, was growing thick enough for the people on the street to see. Hannah whispered to the second one. He would not go. She whispered again. She saw he would not go. She gathered all her courage, the tiny store she’d borrowed from her husband’s excess. She pushed, though gently. He fell and he was caught.
The little ones were easiest—they did not know from fear. Hannah seized the blanket from the bed and then a pillowslip. She wrapped Miriam in the blanket and kissed the two-year-old on her yellow curls and dropped her from the window. And she was caught. Bluma, the baby, went into the pillowslip and over to the window and was dropped. Into the deep snow, which cushioned her fall. The four-year-old ran to her, expecting a corpse, but came up with his baby sister, squalling and alive.
Hannah had stayed too long. By the time she jumped, coughing, her lungs were wrecked. She died three days later, and so the children were dispersed, no longer at home to be with Aaron, to serve him cool water in the summer, his glass of tea in winter, to amuse him, love him.
This stranger on the dock, this little woman, was tugging at his sleeve, a fish waiting to be reeled in, a customer begging to buy shoes that might not fit. He knew every one of his customers by name; he realized now that he did not know this stranger’s. No matter.
“A doctor?” she was asking. “What kind of doctor?”
He weighed her words: curiosity or suspicion? Curiosity, he decided. Luck willing. “How many kinds of doctor are there?” he asked her in return.
He watched until she smiled.
“Married?” she inquired.
He shrugged. “Widower,” he corrected.
“There are children?”
“A couple,” he told her without a second’s hesitation, though fear coursed through him at the thought of how much she might force him to explain. Whether he would have to tell her about his oldest two, left in Europe to fend for themselves because they could; about the two who had been working when the fire started, and worked today, and the two erstwhile schoolchildren, the boy now already working, all four of them now bedding down at night on that staple of immigrant life, the foldout lunchka. And the two who jumped, also farmed out to relatives who had some use for them. And the two who were tossed? Too small to do anybody any good. But somebody in Hannah’s family had heard about some nuns. Who knows how a Jew finds out about nuns; luck excavates the strangest knowledge from the mines. So the two youngest were living with some nuns. Which made Aaron unhappiest of all.
It had been a year. He was here in New York City on borrowed money and borrowed clothing and a profession borrowed until he could achieve the right result. “Well,” he said, as if the idea had just struck him, “you could come with me to Philadelphia.”
The idea, he saw, had not occurred to her until he said it. But she was smiling; she was buying the idea. This is even easier than shoes, he thought. A shame I’ll only get to do it once. Luck willing.
“But I don’t know anybody there,” she said.
“You know me.” He seasoned his voice with hurt. With the hand that did not have possession of her satchel he fingered the watchless chain that Hannah’s cousin’s husband had lent him. He waited. He recognized this as the crucial moment, that he must hurry nothing or the sale would disappear.
She was looking at her satchels, first the one in her own hand, then the one in his. She was looking at his face, examining his clothes. “I know,” she said, then, “I have heard that in your America they do things different. But still—to go with you to this Filadelfer, and I am not, that is, we are not …”
“Married?” He hoped the smile he felt on his lips appeared a kindly one, not the gloating one he’d share only with himself after a pair of shoes was taken. A person should be smart, but the smartest person was the one who knew when to keep from revealing truth.
The little nameless stranger nodded once, sharply.
“But getting married is easy,” he explained. He corrected himself, “Or so they say.”
“You can find somebody right here in New York?”
“So they say,” he answered.
He knew there was, and where—the exact address.