The Green Cake
My sister, my mother and I sat in a row on the front stoop of 238 North Pearl Street, feeling overwhelmed and diminished by the unfamiliar bustle of the big city. Beside the stoop was a stack of twine-bound cardboard boxes bulging with bedding, clothing and kitchen things. Around them were clustered our few scraps of furniture looking scuffed and shabby in the unforgiving glare of daylight. It was Saint Patrick's Day, and the mid-March sun felt good, but chill winter air still lurked in the shadows. The year was 1936; I was six years old, my sister was three, my mother was twenty-seven, and we were beginning a new life.
We had been sitting on that stoop long enough for the gritty brownstone to mottle the backs of my legs between my short pants and my knee-high stockings. My sister wore a starched, frilly dress that Mother had bought out of money meant to tide us over until we got on our feet because she wanted Anne-Marie to look pretty the first time her father saw her, but the dress had got crushed during the long drive with the three of us crammed into half of the front seat of my uncle's rattletrap of a truck. And now we sat hip to hip on that step, Mother in the middle, my sister and I drawing comfort from contact with her, while she drew maternal strength and determination from contact with us. Anne-Marie was hungry and sleepy and close to tears. Taking her onto her lap, Mother looked anxiously up and down the street for my father whom she hadn't seen for four years, not since the morning he went out to look for work and didn't come back, leaving her with a toddler, a baby, and two dollars and some change in her purse.
She didn't hear from him again until a letter arrived just three days earlier saying how sorry he was for running away from the family he loved, the family he had worried about every single minute since he left. There was no excuse for behaving like that, he admitted, but he just couldn't stand being made to feel he wasn't man enough to support his own wife and children. He had been sure that her family would give us a hand once he was out of the picture. He knew that Mother's father considered him to be little better than a flashy hustler and a con man--exactly what he was, in fact. The letter said that he had found a job and an apartment in Albany. Not much of a job and not much of an apartment, but it would be a start, and he had something big in the works. That letter had come in the nick of time, because the owner of Lake George Village's only all-year restaurant had just told my mother that he wouldn't be needing her as a waitress when the tourist season began. Her frequent absences during that winter when she was sick with lung trouble had shown him that she was unreliable, and he had decided to replace her.
During the whole trip down to Albany, my uncle had grumbled about the time and money this was costing him, and when we didn't find my father waiting at the address he had given us, my uncle just unloaded our stuff in grumpy haste and left us there, saying that he had to make it back before nightfall because he didn't trust the headlights of his old truck. He was in such a hurry to get away that he drove off without shutting the passenger-side door, which flopped open. As he reached over to shut it he stepped on his brakes, causing the door to pinch his hand. He roared a curse as he furiously stomped on the gas to get the hell away from that goddamn hole of a goddamn slum, but the truck stalled and a car behind him sounded its irritated horn, so he shouted at the driver to go to hell and started up again, and he drove off pounding his good fist on the steering wheel, glad to see the end of his wife's goddamned freeloading cousin and her goddamned brats!
Mother and I exchanged glances and couldn't help smiling.
My father's letter had said that we should wait for him on the steps of the building because he was planning a big surprise for us, but now Mother was tired of sitting there with people peering at us from windows and stoops all around. She rose to go inside and look for him, but I grabbed her wrist. Like most kids, I loved surprises, and I didn't want her to ruin this one. Let's wait just a little while longer.
A couple of boys detached themselves from a knot of kids and sauntered past our stoop, disdainfully eyeing our cardboard boxes and our shoddy furniture, then letting their sassy eyes slide over me. I knew that my short pants and knee socks made me an object of scorn to these two boys dressed in knickers. From school I was familiar with those universal rituals among boys when they puppy-sniff one another for the first time, measuring and hefting for rank and dominance. I could tell that the smaller of the two boys, a big-eared kid about a year older than I, was wondering if this skinny new kid would turn out to be a regular guy or a sissy, if I would fight my way out of school-yard challenges or run to the teachers. I kept my eyes on him as he strolled by, but I held him in a soft, tired look. To look hard-eyed would be to send a challenge; to avoid his eyes would be to submit. Boys are born with this canine pack-hunter's instinct for caste and nipping order. After the kids had passed, one of them crossed the street and spoke to a flat-faced, boneless woman sitting on her stoop, obviously his mother, and I could see she was asking him about us, especially about my mother, who wasn't anything like the faded, marshmallow mothers of other kids. My mother was young and slim and had short bobbed hair; she could dance and run and play games, and she wore slacks in an era when few women did. I don't know what the kid said, but his mother sniffed in a way that was both competitive and dismissive. I was used to that sort of reaction to my mother, but still sensitive about it. It wasn't that I wanted her to be the same as other mothers. I was proud of her youthful good looks and her feisty independence, but I sometimes wished she could be different in a less obvious way because it's hard having a mother who's different.
Some bigger boys, fourteen or fifteen years old, loitered in front of a cornerstore diagonally across the street from our stoop. Fully aware of the gaggle of girls who admired them from two stoops away and whom they ostentatiously ignored, the boys talked loudly, pushed one another in gruff play, snorted out forced laughs and repeatedly glanced at their reflections in the cornerstore window with satisfaction, although now and then one of them felt obliged to hook a comb out from his back pocket and drag it through his Brylcreem'd hair, then press the sides into place with a caressing palm. They played an endless round-robin of that finger game in which paper covers rock, rock smashes scissors and scissors cut paper, known by different names in various parts of the country, but called 'Rochambeau' in the urban Northeast by generations of kids who had no idea that a French general who had helped our infant republic defeat the British at Yorktown had been immortalized in a child's game, much less how to spell the chanted sound as they threw their fingers out on the '-bow!' of the third syllable. The loser of Rochambeau had to let the winner 'knuckle' him, hit him on the top of the head as hard as he wanted to with the knuckle of his middle finger. The one who got knuckled would snort disdainfully although the pain sometimes dampened his eyes with fugitive tears, which he quickly blinked away as he rearranged his hair in the store window. Two of the boys were smoking, the biggest one, who was the leader, and a small ugly one who played the role of flunky and clown. They smoked like kids new to smoking do, trying to appear supremely casual, but fussily examining the burning ends of their cigarettes with grave frowns and tapping off the ash more frequently than it could gather. These older boys wore long trousers and were bare-headed, while the younger boys of the block were in knickerbockers and caps. Only very young boys wore short pants. Except for me, of course! The principal bane of my life was my mother's need to dress my sister and me better than other kids, in compensation, I suppose, for our lack of a father and a secure breadwinner. Because she couldn't afford new clothes, the hand-me-downs my sister and I wore were always cleaner and more freshly ironed than those of our playmates, yet another of those differences that kids will not endure.
The strange new sounds and gestures of life and play that I observed with a mixture of fascination and malaise from our stoop that first afternoon would, in the course of the eight and a half years I was to live on North Pearl Street, become the unremarkable and unremarked ambience of 'my block' with its noise, its squalor, its childhood rites and ordeals, the awkward rutting rituals of its adolescents, and its shoals of dirty brats with runny noses, nits and impetigo playing their screaming games of kick-the-can or stick ball, sassing icemen and pushcart vendors, blocking traffic and exchanging insults with truck drivers who wanted to get through.
On that first day, the game of stick ball in the middle of the street broke up when second base drove off. The preening boys in front of the cornerstore drifted away down Livingston Avenue toward the deserted warehouses between the freight yards and the river where, as I would learn by being one of them, they would snoop around the dripping, echoey, broken-glass-crunchy-under-foot, piss-smelling vastnesses of abandoned buildings, and they would chuck stones at the few window panes that remained tauntingly intact. North Pearl Street was a typical slum of the first half of what would be called the American Century. These slum blocks were identical in their essence and social effects, varying only in the cultural decoration of their ethnic concentrations. Pearl Street was Irish. More precisely, it was bog Irish.
Pearl Street was the sort of place that appeared, laundered and tempered with humor and hokey sentimentality, in films starring the Dead End Kids: sassy-mouthed but essentially good boys who only needed one of Hollywood's grittier stars to sort them out and make honest, hard-working citizens of them. But the violent, reality-calloused kids of North Pearl would have scoffed at the efforts of a tough (but warm-hearted) Father Pat O'Brien or a wryly knowing Father Spencer Tracy to 'save' them by opening a boys' club and showing them that priests could be reg'lar fellas.
While we were sitting on the stoop anticipating the surprise my father had prepared for us, a thin layer of milky cloud began to spread over the sky, and the chill of a March afternoon settled on us. I was ready to give in and suggest that we go inside to look for my father, when the front door of a building across the street flew open, banging against the brick wall, and out poured a yelping, shrieking pack of children belonging to what we would come to know as the Meehans: a wild, drunken, dim-witted tribe that inhabited three contiguous houses on the east side of the street. All the Meehans were related in complex and unnatural ways. The four old Meehans, two brothers and two sisters, had produced half a dozen loud, dirty, boozy Meehan adults; and random, transient matings between and among this second generation of brothers/sisters/cousins and their parents had spawned some twenty offspring, who combined among themselves and with the earlier generations to produce a scattering of son/nephew/uncle/cousin/grandsons and daughter/niece/aunt/cousin/granddaughters. While all the Meehans had earned their family name at least twice over, only one of them was called 'Mrs Meehan'. The rest were known by their full names: Old Joe Meehan, the tribal chief, Young Joe Meehan, the heir apparent, Patrick Meehan, the dangerous one, Maeve Meehan, the nasty one, or Brigid Meehan, the willing one.
Ironically, the one called 'Mrs Meehan' on the block was the only woman of that tribe who was not related to the rest of the adults by blood. One of the Meehan men had been put into an institution for the dim-witted for a while, and he returned with a woman he had found there. It was she who did most of the tribe's cooking, cared for the younger children, and did such cleaning as took place in their warren...mostly scattering the litter around by batting at it with a ratty broom.
This 'Mrs Meehan' was the epicenter of the consternation and wailing that erupted through their front door and poured down the stoop. She was clutching a smoking iron skillet, and the kids surrounding her were sobbing and screaming, 'Drop it, Ma! Drop it!' Her face was twisted in agony because the skillet handle was burning her hand, but still she clung to it, whimpering. A Meehan male appeared at the top of the stoop wearing a sweat-stained undershirt, beer bottle in fist. He shouted at 'Mrs Meehan' to put the goddamned skillet down, for the love of Jesus! What did she think she was playing at, there?
"Help me!" she beseeched, the pain causing her to bare her teeth.
But he only sniffed and shook his head. "Crazy bitch."
A tousled female opened the front window of the next Meehan house and thrust out her inflamed face, a cigarette glued to her lower lip. "What the hell?"
"It's only herself," the man informed his sister/cousin/mate in a tone of weary exasperation. "Up to her old tricks, she is."
The woman shrugged and closed the window.
One of the children tried to wrench the skillet out of his mother's hand, but he yelped and sucked at his burnt fingers. Just as my mother took Anne-Marie off her lap and was rising to dash across the street to help the poor woman, Old Joe Meehan, the doyen of the clan, appeared at the doorway. His sunken cheeks were white-stubbled and he had obviously just pulled on his tatty low-crotched trousers because the flies were agape and he was still thumbing his suspenders up over his bare chest and tufted shoulders. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" he complained as he swatted his way through the swarm of kids.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Crazyladies of Pearl Street by Trevanian. Copyright © 2005 by Trevanian. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.