by R.A. Burns
He thought he didn't need anyone. But the girl with flaming hair shows him wrong.
|Chapter 6- A Change
Brooklyn, New York City, 1898
A few moments after I banished Army from Brooklyn, Kathleen entered my little private corner of the harbor, where I was rolling a cigarette out of the shreds of an old newspaper. She waved me down from my perch on the crates and I hopped down, lighting a match on the sole of my shoe as she asked, “How long was I out?”
I couldn’t let on that I had been worrying over her for the past two days. She would think of me as odd. So I blew my smoke into the sky and was casual and a bit cocky, like I normally was. “Well, ya was out for two days straight. It’s Monday. I was beginnin ta think dat ya wouldn’t wake up.” What an understatement.
“Monday!” She pressed her fingers into her temples, muttering to herself, “Oh, I’ll be sleeping on the streets for sure.” As she rubbed at her face, the white kerchief slipped farther down her hair, the curls almost tumbling out of the thin fabric. The setting sun shone off her hair, making it look like her head was on fire, the flyaway strands like tiny tendrils of golden flames.
“Why do ya think ya will be carryin da banner?” She had her eyes closed tightly shut, so I took a quick glance at her. The clothes fit well, and even with the purple bruises that mottled her face and poked out from under her rolled up sleeves, I found it hard to look away.
She sat on the crates, burying her face in her hands. “My employer made it very clear that I’d be fired if I wasn’t home by midnight, and I’d be out on the streets. I’ve been gone for two days straight! They’ve probably already replaced me!” I sat a bit of a ways away from her so I could prop my feet up on a small crate.
As I spoke, I set my sights on a half-empty beer bottle and shot it with my slingshot, the glass shattering everywhere. “Ey, even if ya are fired, it ain’t da end o’ da world. New Yawk’s a big place, an dere’s gotta be hundreds o’ jobs dat ya can have.” There were always jobs on the street that needed to be done.
Kathleen shook her head, annoyed. “Yes, jobs for anybody but an Irish girl. I’ve looked for jobs before, and every place that’s hiring has a sign in the window that says that Irish shouldn’t even apply.”
Fair enough. That was true. A sailor came in to pick up the glass that I had broken and I had a fantastic idea. I sat up straight. “Hey, ya will find work somewhere. As I say, New Yawk’s big enough.” I remarked before I sent a shooter into the bum of the sailor. As he yelled at us in a stream of colorful Spanish profanity, I grabbed Kathleen’s wrist and pulled her along in a run while I snickered at the Spanish sailor’s reaction.
We didn’t get very far before Kathleen yelled breathily, “Spot. Spot! I need to stop! Spot!”
Liking the sound of my name when she said it immensely, I pulled her into another little corner, still laughing while she stared at me. She soon joined me, admitting, “Well, I guess that it was funny.” We laughing together until she looked down and quieted. Through the bruises, the very tip of her nose and her ears turned bright crimson.
I glanced down to see that I was still holding her wrist, and I quickly released it, my laughs dying off as I cleared my throat. I threw my finished cigarette onto the ground and rubbed my toe in it, looking at the setting sun to get an estimate of the time. It was near dusk, so almost nine o’ clock. “Ya know it’s getting kinda late. I insist dat ya stay in me lodgin house. Da superintendent is too much o’ a drunk ta care at all, an I can get ya a room of ya own.” We had private rooms that cost a few cents more than the usual six cent rent. I could pay her rent for a week or so. Hell, I didn’t need to eat dinner.
She glanced around at the docks. “Why can I not just sleep here? It’s very kind of you, but I think that this place looks pretty safe.”
I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the notion of Brooklyn being safe for her. “You’se only been in Manhattan before, haven’t ya? Brooklyn is more dangerous den ‘Hattan. If I let ya sleep hea, you’d be halfway down da East River by mornin. I don’t even let me boys carry da banner in dis borough. You’se gonna sleep in da lodgin house.” I had no control over the boys in Brooklyn that weren’t my boys. I usually commanded my boys to be respectful of women, but the others in Brooklyn didn’t have respect for anyone.
She seemed to consider for a moment, looking at me thoughtfully. “Alright, I’ll stay. Just for the night though. I will find a job tomorrow.”
Grinning in satisfaction, I motioned for her to lead the way back to the Lodging House. “Good. C’mon, da Manhattan boys are comin over, cause I told Fish ta tell ‘em dat you’se awake.”
When we worked from sun up to sun down, we always found reasons to celebrate anything. It was the only source of happiness for us.
Brooklyn, New York City, 1898
We sat on the steps of the Lodging House that were for important guests, and Kathleen leaned over to bet a penny on a roll of Craps. When she lost, Fish snickered and said, “Betta luck next time, dame.”
I didn’t like that he called her a dame. It seemed…degrading, somehow. She deserved to be called nothing less than a lady. I glared at them and asked her, “Do ya got any money left on ya?”
She shook her head, that kerchief falling down her hair even more. “No.”
Nodding at that, I stepped of the stairs, and watched the crowd of people, trying to find the sucker I would target. He was easy to spot- whistling and looking up at the sky like only a hayseed would in New York. I started walking in the opposite direction that he was, timing it just right so that I collided with him, making it seem like it was his fault. As we apologized profusely, I slipped two fingers into his pocket, withdrew a quarter, rolled it over my fingers, and palmed it. He walked away from the incident, completely ignorant of the sham I had just pulled.
I handed her the quarter. “Hea. Dis can probably hold ya till ya get back on ya feet an get a job. Sorry it can’t be more.” I would have given her money from my own pocket, but I needed it to buy papers the next day and her private room.
She frowned and shoved the quarter back into my hands, thoroughly insulting me. “I understand that you were just trying to be nice in your own way and I appreciate it. But I do not accept stolen money, especially right after I watched you pickpocket that poor man!”
The grin I had put on to make her feel more at ease disappeared. “Kathleen, dat man was hardly poor. He had a pocket fulla money dat I coulda took, an I just took dis quarter. An I’se learned dat if ya wanna survive in dis city, ya gotta bend some rules. I didn’t have any ta spare for ya, so I did da next best t’ing. Please take it; I’se just gonna be offended if ya don’t.” I held the quarter out again, hoping that she would take it, if only to get me to shut up about it.
She nodded and took the coin, her fingers brushing mine as she did. “I guess…” As she tucked the money into the hip pocket of her skirt, she glanced over my shoulder and waved.
It was the crew from Manhattan. As I shook hands with Blink, he looked over Kathleen. “Damn, Spotty. Ya really soaked her good.”
I had always hated that little pet name he sometimes called me, especially now that she had heard it. “Don’t call me Spotty.” I reminded him, maybe a little more forcefully than necessary.
They all removed their caps for Kathleen, which was the most respectful I had ever seen this group of boys be. Crutch hobbled over and put his hand on her arm. “Are ya gonna be alright, Kay? I couldn’t stand it if ya ended up as a crip like me.”
She smiled brightly, but I saw the small pain in her eyes as she clapped him on the shoulder. “I’m fine. Besides,” She started speaking in a nearly spot-on New York accent, and she sounded just like a native. “I ain’t no crip. Crips get money an help, cause dere crips. I ain’t gonna accept help from nobody.”
Crutch grinned back at her in his yellow stained goofy way. “I taught ya dat!”
She nodded. “I had a good teacher. And besides, these bruises will fade, and I’ll be back to looking like normal old Kathleen again.” How long had they known each other, for them to all know what the normal old Kathleen looked like?
Race smiled as well, moving in to cut me out. I felt as if I was intruding on a private moment between her and the Manhattan boys, so I moved off a little to give them room. “Once you’se back ta feeling good, maybe I’ll take ya ta da Sheepshead Tracks. An’ I gotta word o’ me own wisdom for ya.”
“Hmm? What’s that?”
“I live by dis. Blood is thicker den water.” Why, oh why, did he have to go straight to that Mafia rhetoric? Sure, it had been crammed down his throat for years in Little Italy, but this was an Irish Jewish neighborhood. There was no need for that here.
Especially when Kathleen shook her head and tears collected in her eyes. “My family’s all dead, Race. I watched most of them die, and left my father to die. That saying means nothing to me now. I have no family. It’s just me and I’m alone.”
She plopped down on the steps, wiping away her tears with her sleeve. Race got wide-eyed, not seeing what he had said wrong. The other boys stepped away, clearly wanting me to do something about the crying girl.
After making quite a rude gesture at them, I sat down next to her and muttered in her ear so that they wouldn’t hear me. “Ya think any o’ us got a family? Blink’s da only one, an his Ma kicked him out. We’se each other’s family an da newsies look out for each other. An I’ll swear ta ya dat every newsie in Manhattan an Brooklyn’ll have ya back. I’ll be ya family, Kathleen.” I didn’t like watching her cry, and right then I knew that I’d do anything to keep it from happening again.
As she sniffed away her tears, I reached over and gently took her hand from her face, just barely touching her. Her nose turned bright red and she scooted away. Of course. Why would she want me near her? She smiled and blinked away the last of her tears, which now stuck to her eyelashes. “Thank you, Spot. I’ll remember that.”
Blink called her to him. “Kathleen, come walk wit me.”
He led her away by her arm, and as soon as they were out of earshot, Race asked, “So where’s da weddin?”
The boys all laughed, but I had a wise crack of my own ready. “Higgins family restaurant in Little Italy.”
With the insults out of the way, things quieted and I crouched down to start a game of Craps. Just as I was starting to wonder why Blink and Kathleen’s walk was so long, they came back and Race was smirking in that way that we all knew something was coming. “Thank God ya two came back! I was beginnin ta think dat da both o’ ya fell in love an Blink decided ta take Kathleen back ta France wit him.” Blink narrowed his eye at Race; he was missing his eye patch, and I saw the red hole in his head and I had to look away.
We all snickered at that, but Blink was not to be outdone. “You is a clever devil, Race. Let’s see how smart ya are in a poker game. Kathleen an ya versus me an Spot. Now.”
Letting out a crow, I was swept up with the others into the Lodging House as we made bets and threw insults around like it was nothing.
I'll add more chapters to Spot's story as I write them.