On D Street there was no need for alarm clocks: the drays, ever punctual, were an army storming the gates of sleep. The wooden wagons were heavy and low-riding with loud rattling wheels, their broad planks too battered and begrimed to recall distant origins as trees. Each dray was pulled by horses--two, four, or sometimes six per wagon--pounding down nearby Third Street. Windows rattled and floors shook; the sound was a giant hand shaking Lydia Kilkenny ’s sleeping shoulders. Each morning she did not awaken to the sound, but inside it. The sound of the drays came no matter what the season. In winter it came when the sky was still dark, the pounding hooves sharp reports against the frozen cobblestones. In summer, perhaps because the sky was already pale with light, the sound of the horses seemed kinder.
She knew the clattering wagons were bound for Boston proper, but the vague tangle of streets that lay across the Broadway bridge surfaced in her mind with the sound of the horses and resubmerged with its diminishment. As the flow of drays subsided--the wagons no longer traveling two across but single file--pounding hooves gave way to the creak of floorboards and the muffled voices of neighbors. Factory whistles blew. Church bells rang. The vegetable man made his way down D Street shouting, “Fresh tomatoes,” even if there were no tomatoes, because those words distinguished him from the other vegetable men who plied their carts through Southie.
As Lydia stirred, her mother put up water for cocoa and oatmeal. By the time Lydia had the little ones dressed, Michael and their father had finished their morning ablutions and the washbasin was hers alone. By the time she had brushed and pinned her hair, the drays were gone. Indeterminate Boston had once again been vanquished by the certainty of Southie.
South Boston belonged to Lydia as profoundly and wordlessly as her thimble finger. Her knowledge of its streets was more complete than any atlas, her mental maps reflecting changes that occurred from season to season, day to day, and hour to hour. Each time she left 28 D Street--one among a row of identical triple-decker houses, the tenements lining the street like so many stained teeth--her route reflected this internal almanac. If on a Tuesday afternoon her mother wanted flour and jam from Hennessy’s, she would avoid the more direct route along Fifth Street due to her dislike of the soap grease man and his fleshy block of laundry soap. No matter what the errand, Third Street was best avoided in early evening when the flood tide of drays returning to their stables rendered it both dangerous and rank.
In deep winter, when ice and hard-packed snow made walking treacherous, West Broadway was the place to catch a ride on the tailboard of a snow dray delivering milk, groceries, or beer, but sledding was best saved for Dorchester Heights. If a good enough sled could be found, and if the streets were not too crowded, it was possible to start at G Street and traverse almost a quarter of the alphabet--all the way to L Street. Whether because he was luckier or a year older, Michael was the superior sledder; at her best Lydia could only make J Street before her sled or her resolve gave out.
Because Dan Kilkenny was an iceman, the whole D Street gang was in thrall to Lydia and Michael in summer. In the thick of that season there were few things more magical than ice--the blocks that emerged, impossibly, from the back of the wagon, steaming not with heat but with cold, the unmistakable stomp of the iceman conquering the stairwell, gleaming blocks of ice piled on his broad back like enormous melting diamonds. Contrary to Father O’Brian’s Sunday descriptions of a place streaming with light and angel song Lydia was certain Heaven resembled the interior of her father’s ice wagon: a dark place, cool and quiet. There the salt hay, sawdust, and straw effaced the airborne tang of leather and glue from the nearby shoe factory and muted the call of the ragman.
On very hot days there was no need to confer in advance. The lot of them would be playing ball in Commonwealth Park, or ambling toward the beach at City Point, or playing marbles or Kick the Wicket on the street. Without a word Michael would turn to Lydia, or she toward him, and with a whoop they would preempt the day’s pursuit and set out for ice. At the sight of Dan Kilkenny’s brood, the iceman would toss out an extra block, the surplus ice arcing toward the street in a dream of captured light before exploding into frozen bliss on the cobbles. Decorum was traded for the fleeting comfort of ice pressed into the perfect place. Frozen shatterings found their way into mouths, inside shirts and dresses, ears, shoes and underwear, under chins, and atop closed eyes. Ice was nestled into the hollows of throats and hammocked by the webbing between fingers and toes. Ice bent the iron rule of summer for a few precious moments before the heat clamped down again.
For ten years, this was enough. Then in fifth grade, Lydia saw a city map and realized her entire world was a mitten dangling from Boston’s sleeve. The hazy destination of the morning drays acquired focus. Across the bridge lay Boston Common and the swan boats of the Public Garden. Across the bridge lay Washington Street--the longest street in all New England--which began like any other but then continued south, a single, determined thread of cobblestone that wove itself through every town from Boston to Providence. Once Lydia saw Washington Street she knew she could not allow it to exist without her.
She had imagined Washington wide like West Broadway but instead it was narrower, its buildings taller. On Washington, men in blazers and boaters strutted three and four abreast and bustled women drifted cloudlike between shopwindows. The air on Washington smelled neither of factories nor piers but of occasional cigar smoke and wafting perfume. The buildings--with their marble façades and grand entranceways and their seemingly endless layers of arched windows--resembled fancy wedding cakes. On Washington Street there was not a clothesline in sight, not a single vegetable or fish man. Striped awnings stretched proudly above showcase displays of objects Southie had never seen: a silk opera gown with black glass buttons, a set of tortoiseshell combs, a rocking horse with a mane of real hair. Lydia turned toward Michael--whose trolley fare she had provided from a cache of saved pennies, their passage across the Broadway bridge her eleventh birthday present to herself--and announced this was her future.
On graduating eighth grade, when her girlfriends found jobs behind sewing machines, Lydia rode to Washington Street alone and procured a position in the stockroom of Gilchrist’s department store. Now every morning she had to wake before the drays in order to be waiting for the streetcar. During dreary hours of inventory and reshelving, her resolve to work on the far side of the bridge would falter, but her doubts vanished whenever she was called onto the gleaming sales floor. Walking among the wonders of the display rooms, she would calculate the weeks of salary required to purchase a beaded French chapeau or the impossible amount of roast ham that could be eaten in lieu of one opal earring. Rather than discouraging her, these extreme calculations bred optimism. Once she was promoted to sales, she hoped eventually to save enough so that she too could point to one of those fantastical objects and have it delivered into her outstretched hand.
Michael joked that his sister rode the streetcar every day to make up for never having outdistanced him on a sled. Though he was as immune as the rest of her family to the forces that drew her to Washington Street, he formulated a theory to explain the aberration.
“I don’t know how it came to be,” he informed her once it became clear she would not be abandoning her streetcar commute, “but it looks like you turned out the migrating bird in a family of pigeons.” Lydia treasured his gift, picturing herself as she rode the streetcar as one of the long-necked geese whose silhouettes she observed angling south in late autumn.
On the other side of the bridge, in the stockroom, Lydia learned the difference between a heavy tub silk and a crepe de chine shirt and the relative merits of a Norfolk versus a sacque suit. She learned that the best suit jackets were nipped in at the waist and slope-shouldered. When a counter girl was fired for tardiness, Lydia was ready. She claimed the sales floor for herself.
For four years she worked behind a lustrous wood counter on the ground level, amid the polished marble floors and hanging crystal lamps of the showroom. Gilchrist’s Tiffany rotunda gazed down from three levels above like an emerald eye. Inside her starched, white shirtwaist, her hair piled into a careful bun, she felt as if her best self lurked just beneath her skin, a shimmery fish that might breach the surface at any moment. Standing before a selection of men’s shirts in a dazzling array of colored fabric, she could eye a man’s collar size, budget, and tastes in a glance and knew, just by looking, the thread count of a cotton shirt or the origins of a piece of silk.
Even after four years, she thrilled at sealing a customer’s payment into a pneumatic capsule and sending it to the cashier for change. Miles and miles of pneumatic tubing crisscrossed Gilchrist’s walls and ceilings. Capsules left Men’s Furnishings on a current of compressed air to travel over Silks and Velvets, over Embroideries and Trimmings, past Veilings, and past Black and Colored Dress Goods. Lydia pictured her customers’ sales slips speeding past countergirls whispering among themselves in Millinery, past the solitary salesgirl at Umbrellas who every day prayed for rain.
Lydia once visited the Cashier’s Office just to see the veritable pipe organ of commerce where each capsule arrived with a thunk, its contents scrutinized by a woman whose hands must have smelled always of money. Lydia wondered if the woman scrubbed the scent from her skin at night, or if her dreams glimmered with visions of wealth. Whenever Lydia retrieved the returning capsules containing a customer’s correct change, she felt the cold, dry breath of the pneumatic tube on the back of her hand. On slow days she listened to the exhalations of the tubes behind her counter. After four years, she still marveled at the notion that money pumped through the store no less fervently than blood through her own veins.
The morning of Lydia’s first lunch with a customer, she had been standing with her back to the sales floor straightening her stock when her attention was redirected by a neighboring countergirl, who whispered Lydia’s name once the gentleman had been standing a few moments unattended. The fellow was impressively dressed for someone so clearly uncomfortable in his own skin. His clothing seemed to subsume rather than enhance his form, as if his legs were no match for worsted wool, his chest unequal to the task of imported linen. Though he was a striking man, Lydia was reminded of a child, dressed with care by his mother.
“How may I help you?” she asked, having already determined his measurements. She intended to skip straight to silk unless cotton was specifically requested, and then only cambric would do; Fridays were slow and the hardest days in which to make her sales quota.
“Oh, but you see, you already have helped me,” the man stammered. “I wanted to thank you. The shirt you sold me? My mother liked it very much.”
“Of course!” Lydia lied with professional zeal. She racked her brain for a memory of the sale; normally she was good with faces. “I suppose you’ve come for another shirt,” she offered. “I’ve just the thing. We received the shipment this week from Italy--they’re brand new for the season. I’m sure you’ll appreciate the quality.” She hoped to convince him to buy two.
The gentleman shook his head and looked at Lydia with such regret she wondered if she had insulted him, though she could not imagine anyone taking offense at an Italian shirt.
“Ah no,” he replied with a quavering sigh. “Thanks all the same, but I don’t intend to make any purchase at all today.” He was blushing with unusual violence. “I was hoping I might accompany you to lunch. To thank you. You see, my mother really did like the shirt and she is so often hard to please. You were very kind and patient, and I thought it was the least I could do.”
“You want to take me to lunch?” Lydia echoed.
“To thank you,” the fellow repeated. Though he appeared to be in his twenties, he had the demeanor of a much older man. “For your assistance. That is, if you’re permitted?” When she did not immediately respond, his blush renewed. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry. I haven’t even introduced myself. My name is Henry Wickett. You can be certain of my good intentions, and if my motives prove unseemly you could easily wallop me yourself.” By this time the fellow’s voice had grown so soft it was difficult for her to hear him above the bustle of the store.
Lydia scanned the floor for the manager, but Miss Palantine so seldom left her desk that she had been dubbed “Her Royal Boulder.” There were rumors Miss Palantine had been barred from sales after an incident in which she had tearfully but with some force thrown a ladies shoe at the head of a male customer after a heated exchange in Neckties. It was difficult for Lydia to imagine the drab, officious Palantine involved in passionate discourse of any sort, but then she had also been shocked to learn that Her Royal Boulder was not a spinster in her thirties, but merely twenty-three.
Among the countergirls, invitations from customers were uncommon but not unheard of; it was not technically improper to take lunch elsewhere so long as one did not return late. Until now Lydia’s intrepidness had been bounded by her reluctance to be an object of pity or lust, but such intent was glaringly absent in Henry Wickett who, true to his own assessment, was far less imposing than some of the Southie boys she had, on occasion, needed to put in their place.
“I haven’t got the time for a proper lunch,” she replied, “but I won’t say no if you don’t mind being quick about it.” The smile Henry offered in response was fit for a conquering hero.
As well as she knew Washington Street, she was a stranger to its early afternoon habits: Gilchrist’s was a creature that inhaled its personnel in the morning and held its breath until evening. Amid the businessmen and lady shoppers Lydia was revisited by the feeling, birthed by her girlhood visits, that she had arrived at the center of things. After years of close observation she had perfected her bearing. She walked with the ideal combination of confidence and propriety, and held her chin at just the right angle. The appeal of this lunch invitation, she realized, lay in walking in such a fashion and in such company. Having studied the world of Washington Street for so long, she could now display her erudition.