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ONLINE ONLY: In Search of Madame Tang's

Violet hadn't thought much beyond getting out of the Home, but she knew where she'd find her mother.

Fiction by Rae Meadows

Violet skipped, laughing a little as she slipped on the rain-slick cobblestones. The air was heavy with fish and soot, but it was familiar, it was welcome. The sun had just cracked the sky, the morning still cool in the shadow of the Great Bridge. She stopped atop the small hill on Roosevelt Street to watch the masts of the few ships in the East River, black spindles and dirty sails, moving slowly under the bridge's span. She had never been across to Brooklyn, had never been on the bridge itself for that matter, but she didn't think she was missing much.

It was a rare still moment in the neighborhood, the small space between the exhale of night and the inhale of morning. No clopping hooves of carriages, no puttering automobiles, and even the elevated trains were not yet roaring and screeching. The Fourth Ward was a hive of small dark streets that angled in odd directions—no grass, no trees, no open space save the cold river—but Violet was glad to be back.

In just her dress from the Home, she was chilled by the breeze along the wharf. The rigging of the harbored ships clanged against the masts as she walked along South Street, passing grubby kids asleep, tucked in among the barrels and shipping containers and crates waiting to be loaded. She walked up to Water Street and stepped over the gutter stream churning brown with manure and garbage. The neighborhood was coming alive: shopkeepers opening up; sailors fleeced and pilloried, blundering back to their quarters; the box factory night-shift workers stopping for cheap rum; the rag pickers scavenging the heaps of refuse left from the night's debauchery. Violet looked up to the second floor above the vegetable store, but it was too early for the women in the windows; their services weren't generally offered before noon.

Across the street, the Dugan boys searched the pockets of a drunk slumped outside of a bucket shop. Moses Dugan had copper hair and freckles; his little brother had dark hair and olive skin. The others teased them about their mother, calling her a bed warmer or a sailor screwer. But they were just jealous. In this neighborhood, having a mother around was a silent collective longing.

"What'd you get?" Violet called, as she crossed over to the boys.

She had learned fast in the city—just a year out of Kentucky—and she had done her fair share of pocket picking. She liked the surprise of it, the endless possible discoveries. A licorice whip, a deck of cards, a gold nugget—anything could be awaiting quick fingers.

Moses held out his palm, dirty in its creases, displaying a nickel and two pennies. Violet tried to grab them, but he snatched his hand away.

"I'd knock you if you weren't a girl," he said.

Violet teased him with a quick-footed shuffle-ball-change, a step she had learned from her mother.

The younger Dugan boy rubbed his runny nose and kicked the drunk's foot.

"Let's go," Moses said to him, jangling his new coins in his fist.

"Hey, Red," Violet said. "Seen Nino?"

"Nah. I heard some of the newsboys got busted."

The barkeep pushed through the swinging doors and dumped a bucket of dishwater into the gutter. When he saw the boys, he feinted a lunge.

"You, too," he growled at Violet.

She stuck out her tongue at him and jumped into the fetid stream, dousing his feet. The water seeped through the soles of her boots, but it was worth it, she decided, for the zing of retaliation. She took off toward the Mission. She figured her mother would not be there—she was never quite desperate enough for God—but Violet checked anyway.

Rev. Mackerel, his dark beard grazing his shirt, paced in front of a motley collection of seekers and yelled out his sermon, the same tale he told day after day.

"If heaven had cost me five dollars, I still would've spent it on drink if there was a rum hole within spitting distance. You say you can't be saved? Jesus took hold of me just like he saved wretches, and don't you suppose His arm is long enough to reach across nineteen-hundred years and get a hold of you?"

Violet scanned the audience, and then she slunk backward toward the door.

"You, girl," Reverend Mackrel said, pointing. His left eye bulged.

She quickly ducked back out before he could command her to take a seat.

At the entrance to the tenement on Frankfort Street, Violet stood and took a breath before walking on the plank bridge over the sewer channel. In the courtyard, women pumped water into their washtubs, and muddy cats dived at vermin. She pounded on the door to the room where she and her mother had last lived.

"The longshoreman's got it now," a girl said. She was pregnant, her arms like sticks. "I ain't seen the southern lady for weeks."

Violet held her disappointment in a tight knot in her stomach, trying to keep the fear from springing loose. She had not thought much about what came after getting out of the Home, had not considered that she might not find her mother. She knew where she needed to go. If her mother had gotten money from Mr. Lewis or one of her other boyfriends, she would surely be at Madame Tang's.

Back out on the sidewalk, Violet's stomach growled. She saw a banana cart on the corner, manned by the one-legged Sicilian who couldn't chase after her. She ran, picking up speed, and swiped two bananas and kept on running, dodging big-skirted women and top-hatted men who never saw her or didn't care enough to respond to the old man's curses.

She zigzagged through traffic, making drivers shake their fists, zipping through the crowded street, running, running, until her breath gave out and she had to stop. She wolfed down her haul and threw the peels into the gutter. The sun burned hot on her neck. For a moment she closed her eyes amidst the staccato hooves, the grind of carriage wheels against gravel, the jangle of harnesses, the putt-putt of motor cars, the clang and hiss of the box works, the hum of conversation and transaction, the cries of seagulls, and sank into a cool muddy stillness—her soul, she sometimes thought—as the world spun in dizzying discord around her.

The merchant wagons lined up in front of RW & Sons, packed with crates of bruised turnips, quinine tonic, walnuts, flour, smoked oysters, chicory coffee, oleomargarine and powdered soap. Violet was not up for a run-by—she had nowhere to stow whatever she might be able to grab—but she did see a cigar box on one of the driver's buckboards. It was shiny black, and on its lid was an image of a girl holding a rose blossom. Violet pretended to play alongside the wagon, whistling and hopping on one foot, before she snatched the box. After a safe distance, she hid it for future barter under a pile of matted straw behind the dry goods store, and set off to find Nino.

She reached Slaughter Alley and held her nose, peering into the foul darkness.

"Nino!" she called. "Hey, Nino!"

"Shut up!" a man yelled back.

Nino's Italian parents rode a mule-led wagon through the surrounding neighborhoods sharpening knives. Their apartment was so crowded that when the weather was fair, Nino slept in a rusted, straw-padded boiler at the base of one of the bridge supports.

Nino leaped over a puddle into the light of the street.

"You look like a boy in a dress," he said, frowning at her hair they'd chopped off at the Home.

"You don't exactly look like the King of England," she said.

He pretended to straighten a tie against the neck of his ratty flannel shirt. His knuckles were swollen and scarred from street fights, and around his eye was a fading yellow bruise.

Violet was warmed by the sight of him, but tried not to give herself away.

"Where you been?" he asked.

"She put me in the Home," she said.

Nino shifted his coal eyes sidelong to her.

"I escaped," she said.

He shook his head, not swayed by her bravado.

"You should have stayed in as long as you could."

He walked away, and Violet ran to catch up, stepping over the putrescent frothy blood running in a crooked stream from the slaughterhouse.

Violet was struck by how Nino looked older from behind, his shoulders broad, his arms long and muscled. Gangs didn't bother with the boys until they were old enough to be valuable, but Nino had already been approached by the Batavia Boys on account of his size. He didn't want to be a gang runner, but he didn't have any illusions that he wouldn't be one. Newsboys graduated to be criminals. Violet knew what her options were. She could be a sewing girl, a paper-flower seller or a prostitute. She didn't like to think about the future, none of the kids did. They feared growing up because when they became adults, they would no longer be invisible. They would live in flophouses or sagging tenements and drink and gamble away what little they had. They would fight. They would be picked over by kids as they slept off their hangovers on the sidewalk. Or they would be dead.

"What I miss?" Violet asked.

"Same old shit," Nino said. "Some lady jumped off the bridge. Filled her stockings with sand. But she lived, I guess."

Nino couldn't read, but Ollie, the newsboy captain, read them the headlines before they headed out with their papers.

"Your grandma'am still sick?" Violet asked.

"Coughs and rattles the whole place. She'll be dead by fall, my papa says. Not soon enough, he says."

They stepped over Moses Dugan, already drunk, his red hair ablaze, a silly smile on his face.

"What do you want, anyway?" Nino asked.

"My mother's gone again."


"I can't go up there alone."

Nino shook his head.

"Ollie's giving me Cherry Street. Evening edition."

"You'll be back in time," she said.

Nino crossed him arms and wedged his hands into his armpits.

"What do you got for me?"

He followed her for two blocks to the small alley where she had hidden the cigar box. She wiped the straw-dust off with her dress and held the box out to him. He took it and looked it over, opening and closing the hinged lid, checking again to see if there was anything inside.

"I could just take it, you know," he said.

But she knew he wouldn't.

As they reached Chinatown, Violet thought this was what a foreign country must be like. The smells were sharp, the words indecipherable. She and Nino found the building and looked up at its crooked façade, a worn Star of David over the rusty front door left over from the old days. Inside it was hot and close and, despite the hour, too dark to move about. They waited until their eyes adjusted before trying to find the stairs. The building's residents were indentured to various brokers and smugglers, packed 10 to an apartment, their narrow windows lined from the inside with newspaper. From under the doors seeped smells of frying food and urine, of smoke and men.

"It stinks in here," Nino said.

"So do you," she said.

He roughly shoved her shoulder, and she knocked into a wall, something sticky against her sleeve.

Madame Tang's was on the fourth floor. For the initiated, a separate entrance with a chute-like staircase led straight from the street to another door. Violet knew better than to attempt access this way. She and Nino had to wait until the boy Li emerged to set out milk for the cat. They sat and watched the door.

A skinny Chinese boy slipped through the door and squatted with a saucer.

"Li," Nino whispered.

Li squinted into the grim light and scrunched his nose, waving them away. They knew him from the docks. When the boy wasn't at Madame Tang's, he hawked the scraped-out tar from opium pipes to foreign sailors.

"Let me in," Violet said.

"No way," Li said. "Scram."

"Leave the door unlatched or I'll beat your face in," Nino said.

Li twitched in resignation and disappeared, leaving the door cracked.

Nino stood and clapped the cigar box at Violet like it was a mouth.

"I got to get my papers," he said.

"Okay," she said. "Go on."

Nino tucked his cigar box under his arm and saluted her with his free hand before bounding down the stairs, jumping two-footed onto each landing with an echoing boom, all the way down.

Violet kneeled on the grimy floor and pulled the door open with her finger, peering in. The ceiling was high, and bands of sunlight stole through fabric nailed across the windows. Madame Tang had parchment skin and corn-cob teeth, a layer of flesh between her chin and neck. She reclined on a frayed divan, fat bare feet peeking out from beneath the hem of her long silk smock. Patrons lay on their sides on straw mats or on flat, mismatched cushions, their heads on their arms like napping children.

The smokers were all men except for Violet's mother, her baby-blonde hair mussed around her face like a halo, her body curved around her tapped opium pipe. Here she is, Violet thought with a mix of hunger and disappointment. Her mother's eyes were at half-mast, but they seemed to smile in spite of her slack, slightly parted lips.

"Mama," Violet said.

Violet's mother slowly lifted her ice-blue eyes.

"Vi," she said, in a low, throaty voice. "Vi, Vi, Vi, Vi, Vi. What am I going to do with you?" She patted the mat beside her.

Violet didn't know that in a year she would lie about her age and board a train bound for Minnesota to be a nursemaid, never to see her mother again. Or that at 17 she would marry and move to a small house near the limestone bluffs of the cold and clear Root River. Or that at 18 she would give birth to a glacier-eyed baby girl. Or that as an old woman she would daydream about Nino and the other boys—the wild freedom of the street—and she would feel an ache for that teeming city of her youth, for those gritty, quicksilver days, so long ago. But Violet did know, as she took in her mother here at Madame Tang's, her mother whose love could never be enough, that she dared to hope for more than this.

Violet lay down under the crook of her mother's arm and breathed in the smell of stale, sweet smoke from her sleeve, the faint hint of lilac from her perfume. She took hold of her mother's delicate fingers, and closed her eyes.

RAE MEADOWS, '92, who lives in Madison, Wis., is the author of Calling Out and No One Tells Everything.

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