the museum of americana

a literary review

Delancey Street, 1903—Fiction by Paul Jaskunas

The woolly day grew yet windier. Snow came whipping sideways, and great gusts sent hats sailing. Puddles became lacy with ice.

Tired from walking, Rasa stepped away from the flow of foot traffic and leaned against a brick wall to rest beneath an overhang. She didn’t know it yet, but she’d caught the influenza from a cousin she’d been nursing, and for whom she’d ventured into the city to find chamomile.

She could scarcely see the people passing by. It was beautiful how the snowfall disguised New York’s dinginess, how it filled the broad street with its own light and grace. It felt good to be still, to close her eyes and recall that now it was night in Lithuania, where her children would likely be in bed. She was trying to will herself into their dreams—a tender spirit, a benevolent visitor from afar—when she sensed a rustle of life approaching, the scraping of shoes.

When she opened her eyes, she found two boys before her—large boys, thick and strong with stern faces made pink by the cold. They stared at her, not saying a word. They stepped closer.  One grabbed hold of both her arms while the other pulled the coin purse from her hand as if picking an apple from a tree. She opened her mouth to call out, but the boy who’d taken the purse smiled at her, and the smile confused Rasa, made her think this was a joke and he’d give the purse back. Without a word, though, the boys ran off into the crowd.

No one seemed to have noticed. She hadn’t made a sound. Her purse with its coins and bills was gone. Follow them, she told herself—stop them; but she merely looked down at her hands, as if to confirm she hadn’t hallucinated the boys taking her purse. Her money was gone, gone, all two dollars and thirty-five cents of it—one third of a week’s pay—no trifling amount, money for chamomile and for her children, gone.

Why hadn’t she protested? Why allow those boys to take what they wanted? The audacity of it had shocked her. The silence of their approach, the confidence they’d get what they wanted. The guilt was all hers. She ought not to have rested, to have made herself vulnerable and exposed.

At last she began to move, reentering the traffic on Delancey. Where had the boys gone? Not far, she guessed—they belonged to the neighborhood, perhaps lived nearby, might still be within shouting distance. Ought she go to the police? How to say steal? Rob? Theft? She did not know the most important American words even now.

The will to act dissipated into the sky over Delancey. The rushing crowd, the falling snow, the stacked-up factories overcame her; the city had taken what it needed—her two dollars and thirty-five cents. Who could fight such a hunger as that? The boys were gone. She’d had one instant to resist, and failed. A stronger, braver, fiercer animal might have lashed out, but she’d been thinking—of what? Her children’s dreams …

She walked on, wondering how she would buy chamomile now.

*

Up ahead, like an apparition, strode a woman in mourning. She wore a dress of black lace and coat of black wool and a broadbrim hat with a fluttering veil. To protect herself from the snowfall, she held high a black umbrella with frilled edges. Arrayed in these woeful garments, the woman slowly made her way through the hurried crowd. Stricken with curiosity, Rasa watched her as she walked.

Rasa had followed people in New York before—in particular, well-dressed women who for their own mysterious reasons had drifted into the lower Manhattan streets where Rasa spent much of her time. She would track them out of the slums and into their proper neighborhoods, where they would disappear into middle-class homes—a brownstone usually, on a quiet, tree-lined block. These excursions were exhausting, for they took Rasa long distances across the city, but they were also thrilling. There was always the danger of being discovered, and the fascination of learning a little something about her quarry. Sometimes the women would stop to rest in a park to feed pigeons, or buy a book in a bookshop, or have tea in a teahouse, and during such pauses along the way, Rasa, too, would pause—find a bench on which to sit, or a tree behind which to dawdle and watch and wonder—wonder what might be passing through the mind just behind the woman’s distant face. Was she mourning a lost lover? Wishing for a son? Brooding over an inattentive suitor? She presumed, usually, the women longed for someone or something, and the longing was transparently obvious in their maneuvers about the city. No matter how grand the house they returned to, Rasa found cause to pity their condition, as they climbed the brownstone steps and vanished behind thick walls forever.

The woman in mourning walked neither fast nor slow but at a comfortable pace, so that Rasa did not have to rush or hold herself back to keep her distance. Through the crowd, Rasa observed her  long, relaxed stride. The woman held her umbrella high so it bobbed overhead, a beacon to follow, and when Rasa lost sight of her body—for sometimes the crowd became too thick—she could still see the umbrella with the black silk fringe.

Rasa thought the woman must be mourning someone close to her—a husband most likely—she looked very free in the way she walked. Perhaps she wasn’t in the least bit sorrowful, but quite relieved—guilty for being so, but relieved all the same, now that she was on her own, and, by the looks of her dress, wealthy to boot … Which raised the question: What was this woman doing here on Delancey Street? What would call a rich, lonely widow down to the Lower East Side in the dead of a New York winter? Perhaps to see parts of the town into which her deceased husband had forbidden her from venturing? 

Vigor returned to Rasa’s step. What was two dollars in the midst of this richness? In a city where death wore lace? Where snow fell at once on the heads of thousands, each human with his own pocket of money, his own meager wants and treasure? Two dollars belonging to a solitary woman meant very little here …

Now the woman’s pace had slowed. She paused, lingered on the walk, gazing at a storefront, then quickly walked down a small flight of stairs, disappearing through a black door just below street level.

It was a cellar shop; Rasa came before it and tried to make sense of the lettering. Chinese, she guessed—yes, Chinese—a tea shop? Is that what had brought the woman all this way, tea leaves from China? Curious, and eager to get out of the cold, Rasa went down the steps and pushed open the black door as the woman had.

Here, underground, in this windowless shop, a kerosene lamp on a wooden counter emitted a soft light, revealing shelves of colorful tins. They surely contained all varieties of tea, the delicate perfume of which filled the small, dim room. An old man sat on a stool behind the counter grinning at Rasa. The two of them were alone; the woman in mourning had vanished. It seemed to be some magic trick, but then Rasa saw the red velvet curtains at the back of the shop. The old man said something and snickered. He must have chamomile for sale here—heaps of it, perhaps—but how to ask? What languages did this ancient speak? On a whim, she asked in Russian if he had what she wanted, and he simply laughed again, waving his hand toward the red curtains.

She passed through into a darker, more spacious lair arrayed with couches on which men and women lounged with long wooden pipes. On the walls, black coats hung from hooks like exhausted ghosts. A dingy dragon unfurled along a scroll. The air, heavy with smoke, made Rasa’s eyes sting. A snore emerged from a bearded man curled on a sagging cot beside her. Rasa peered further into the room, looking for the woman in mourning. Was that her, on the daybed in the back of the room, facing the wall? She had already removed her coat, hat, and boots. A cat dozed at her side. An empty bed adjacent to hers beckoned Rasa. She ventured deeper into the room and took a seat, watching over the wayward mourner, who clutched a pipe near her chest, inhaling its fumes with her eyes shut to the world.

What was Rasa doing here? Why did she care about this stranger? The woman was merely a sign of beauty and death in the streets, and she’d lured Rasa underground where one could scarcely breathe or see … Rasa had heard of opium dens, of course, but never had interest in visiting such a place. Without money, how could she buy opium? Yet here she was, wanting to reach out and stroke this woman’s hair, hoping she would turn around and look into Rasa’s eyes. Yes, Rasa wanted to be recognized by someone—this more than anything—to be recognized by the city and so made a part of it. But the woman did not move.

An old Chinese woman appeared from the dark. She carried a tray with a bottle of water, an empty glass, a pipe. These were for Rasa, for some undisclosed price. Rasa wanted badly to lie down, to rest her eyes. She was tempted, too, to try the opium and follow the woman into her gentle delirium. But she had nothing to exchange for the pleasure. She said, in English,

—No money.

Now, at the sound of Rasa’s voice, the woman in mourning turned to look, showing her face in the light of a lamp to be fair, young, very pretty. She reached into a pocket of her dress and pulled out a nickel. She offered it to Rasa, who took the coin without a word, and then gave it to the hostess. The Chinese woman left the tray on the floor by Rasa’s feet and went away. The woman in black turned to the wall, and Rasa was left alone again, now with a pipe to smoke.

—Thank you, she said.

The woman made a little shrug of her shoulder, signaling, perhaps, that a nickel meant nothing to her. But it meant so much to Rasa, who’d never before received such kindnesses from the city. She bent to pour herself a glass of water. It was delicious to drink, and with a little gasp she set the glass down, then let herself ease back onto the daybed. Her body needed just this. Chamomile, yes, but first this swooning rest.

She could imagine the city directly above her—the cells of workers laboring at their sewing machines; the street with its carriages and wild circus of snow, its ash barrels and gutter swill and stray mutts; while up and down the island of New York, people poured through avenues and alleys, yet here, how much better it was to give in, to plunge into darkness.

The pipe tempted her. She’d heard a murmur of pleasure from the woman in mourning. What soft magic did the drug work on the soul deep in this cellar on a winter’s day? The woman seemed unreachable in her reverie. She had the look of a Spaniard, or what Rasa imagined a Spaniard to be. She wished to speak to her and confess her attraction: I have been following you, I don’t know why, but tell me what secrets you have! The pipe might contain such secrets; it must offer some special magic, to make the woman cling to it so.

But Rasa had never smoked anything, and was too feverish and distressed to begin now. She shut her eyes. She heard, or thought she heard, the rumble of carriage wheels from above; the city labored on; the sun had begun its descent; before long she would have to rise and hurry to the market, but now she lingered on the bed. Knowing herself to be ill, she left the pipe untouched and allowed herself to slip into sleep. 

She dreamed she was on a train, heading west, toward some better place. The train was underground, and going too fast, plowing through mountains, plunging deeper and deeper, and she feared they would never again surface into the light. The woman in mourning was moving through the car with her umbrella, and Rasa left her seat to pursue her into the next compartment where there were couches on which people lounged and smoked pipes and spoke Chinese. They were going to China, through the center of the earth, where Rasa would have to try to find chamomile for her cousin—and it was the memory of her errand that pulled Rasa out of the dream, out of her sleep, with a guilty conscience, for she should not be loitering here while her cousin still needed help …

Rasa’s eyes fluttered open. She saw the face of a man, the man with a red beard who’d been snoring on the cot; his eyes were glassy, his teeth brown. He grinned at her, leaned in to steal a kiss. His chapped lips grazed hers before she sat up, pushing at the man’s face. He fell back onto the floor like a sawdust doll and moaned. The woman in black had left.

How much time had passed? A blanket had been draped over Rasa. Drool had dried on her chin. She got up on her feet, took a step forward, stumbling over the boots of the man on the floor. The old Chinese woman appeared again from the dark and said something in Chinese, or maybe English, there was no telling what those sounds meant! Rasa moved past her, through the red curtains, into the tea shop where the man still sat with his tins. He eyed her darkly, disapproving, and she wanted to protest: she hadn’t touched the pipe! Yet she must look like a delirious addict all the same. Her face felt hot, and she wondered if this were still a dream, or if she’d gone to China on a train …

No, no, it was New York that greeted her when she pulled the door open and walked up the steps. It was Delancey Street, not China, and daylight still. The sun hung lower in the sky, but not quite halfway down, and the streets were filled with people and carriages, as if this were an ordinary day of business in Manhattan, and there were no lost souls having extraordinary pipedreams in an underground windowless shop just under their feet. Here and there, above and below—it was happening all at once. Rasa walked on, dizzy as she went again in search of chamomile.

 

~~~

Paul Jaskunas is a faculty member at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and the author of the novel Hidden, which won the Friends of American Writers Award. He is the founding editor of Full Bleed, an annual journal of art and design, and his writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, America Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Cortland Review. He can be reached at pjaskunas@mica.edu. 

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