“We won!!” Jack cried ecstatically from the balcony. The newsies erupted, cheering and shouting. Jack soaked in the glory of this victory, jumping and waving. Katherine squeezed him around the waist and turned his face towards hers, pulling him in for a long kiss. Jack’s mind fell into a loud buzz, not sure whether to keep cheering the newsies’ victory or to sweep Katherine off her feet, take her inside, and ask for more than just this kiss. Her father, though, standing right there…
Jack pulled away, choosing not to make eye contact with Mr. Pulitzer. It was bad enough that he had gotten the deal he had with him; his daughter was another matter entirely. Jack knew Katherine had agreed to come back to the World now that the strike had been settled, to help her father save face. Jack didn’t blame her, Pulitzer was her father after all, but he wasn’t sure he should be kissing her right there, just then.
Jack hadn’t felt this good in a long time. He ran downstairs and out into the street to celebrate. Davey, Les, Race, Crutchie… Davey’s parents would be thrilled. He should tell Miss Medda. Once he got some money again, he could buy her some flowers, maybe. He could actually buy groceries for Davey’s folks too, to thank them. Jack turned back to the balcony to wave up at Katherine. She smiled and blew a kiss, waving back. He kissed the fingers of both of his hands and tossed a kiss up to her.
He saw Mr. Pulitzer turn and go inside.
Jack and Crutchie were up early the next morning, first in line at the distribution center.
“Weasel, miss me?” Jack shouted, grinning back at the newsies in line.
“The name’s Weisel. And you don’t get any papes, wiseass,” Weisel said, smirking at Jack.
Jack stopped. “What do you mean, I don’t get any? The strike’s over. We won. So here we is, ready to sell,” he said, starting to heat up a little.
“Everybody but you, Kelly. Pulitzer’s orders,” Weisel answered. “Move along.”
“Don’t mind him, Jack,” said Race. “Give me your money and I’ll buy your papes for you.”
“You do that, then you’re on the list too, Race,” said Weisel, smiling broadly. “That what you want? Easy.” He licked the end of his pencil.
“What list?” Jack asked angrily. “Ain’t no list like that, saying who can’t sell papes.”
“There is now, Kelly. And you’re the only one on it. For every paper in the city,” Weisel said. “Move along or I’ll get the bulls in here.”
Jack glared at Weisel. All that work. A victory for the newsies. Everybody but him. He should have known. He should have seen this coming. Rich guy like Pulitzer was going to get the last word in. They always do. Pulitzer, Snyder, they’re all the same. They just like to see guys like Jack squirm and never get anywhere. It’s all for laughs for them. Jack felt his breathing getting heavier and faster. What if he just took the papes. Stealing again. Refuge, if not prison, again.
He suddenly became aware that the other newsies were shouting at Weisel.
“Knock it off, all of youse,” Jack shouted. “Ain’t worth it. Get your papes and get on with it.” He shoved through the line and went back out on the street. Crutchie followed him, his bag full.
“I’ll split what I make with you, Jack,” Crutchie said. “Don’t you worry about nothing. We’ll cover for you till this blows over.”
“Ain’t gonna blow over, Crutchie,” Jack said. “I gotta find other work. Pulitzer ain’t gonna change his mind. I’ll see you later.” Jack stormed off. The docks were always hiring. He could do that. He could find something.
“Name?” the desk clerk asked.
“Jack Kelly,” Jack answered. He looked down the dock at the men unloading the ships. You had to pay attention, that was for sure. He’d figure it out.
“Sorry, kid,” the clerk said. “Can’t hire you.”
“Why not?” Jack asked. “It says right here you’re hiring.” He pointed at the sign in the window. “I’m strong. I can work, and I ain’t a complainer. I been working for years.”
“You’re on the list,” the clerk said, pointing to his clipboard. “I hire you, I lose my job.”
“What list?” Jack asked. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
“The blacklist. You’re on here, you don’t get a job anywhere in the city,” answered the clerk. “I’m real sorry, kid.”
No. No. No. No. Jack had to hand it to Pulitzer. He did have eyes all over the city, and lists too. Now what, he thought. Medda had been more than generous. No way could he go to her and ask for a job too. Kloppman gave crap advice, Jack thought, rolling his eyes. The last time he listened to Kloppman, Katherine had nearly broken up with him. Not that Jack wasn’t grateful to Kloppman, but still. And Jack didn’t want Kloppman to lose his job for helping him, either.
Tired, Jack turned back to the lodge, hoping to meet up with Crutchie. Race met him at the stoop.
“Can’t stay here, Jack,” he said. “Pulitzer put the word out that if you stay here he’ll shut the lodge down.” Jack nodded. He should have known. Race walked alongside him as Jack turned back. Jack didn’t know what to say or where to go. He was hungry. It wasn’t that cold out, but the nights weren’t real comfortable yet either. He could try Miss Medda, but he couldn’t keep asking her for help. Jack didn’t want to inconvenience Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs anymore either. Dave and Les might be next on the list if Jack stayed there. Or even Mr. Jacobs could get on the list.
“Where’d you stay before the lodge, Race?” he asked.
“Under the benches at the track,” Race replied. “It ain’t any comfier than the alley over there, I promise. Better find an alley with a couple of boxes that can keep you off the ground, anyway.” Jack sighed. Maybe he should try Miss Medda.
“I heard,” Medda said. “Crutchie came by.”
Jack looked at the floor. “I keep owing you for more stuff, Miss Medda.”
“Jack, look at me,” she said. Jack looked up and then looked away. “You can work here. You have always worked hard for me. You can stay here. If I get tired of you, I’ll let you know,” she continued, smiling. Jack tried to smile back. When would she get tired of him? Lots of people had gotten tired of him. The whole city seemed tired of him. She seemed to think she was joking. Was she joking? Jack shifted around.
“So, you got work for me, Miss Medda, so’s I can stay a night? Pulitzer might shut you down if he finds out I worked here, though,” he asked, looking at the chair in the corner.
Medda’s smile faded. “Ain’t no way Pulitzer is gonna find you here tonight. You let me worry about that. And yes, baby, of course I have work for you. I need help like you wouldn’t believe. You’ll be working all night.” Jack smiled at last.
Jack woke up early the next morning. Habits, he groaned to himself. The theater was quiet. He should check on her coal room, much as the thought of working in a coal room unsettled him. Still, he could do that. Spittoons should be washed. Someone had to do it, and it might as well be him. He’d swept the theater many times, but when was the last time someone had scrubbed that floor? Again, a grim job, but Jack felt good that he could do those things for Medda after all she’d done for him.
Jack got up and started in to work. Medda wouldn’t be up for a while, so he had the place to himself. Coal buckets refilled for the entire building, fires rebuilt. He brought the spittoons back to the kitchen sink, setting them on the table he had scrubbed the night before. He tried to be quiet, but it was hard not to rattle them around, and it wasn’t long before Miss Medda appeared, hands on her hips.
“Jack Kelly. What on God’s green earth are you doing? Do you want Pulitzer to hear you banging around back here? He could hear you from China!” she said, exasperated.
Jack put the last spittoon on the table. “I’m sorry, Miss Medda. Just trying to help you out.” He grinned sheepishly. “They’re done now.”
“Wonderful. Thank you very much. Now, let’s have some breakfast. You’re eating with me.” Medda started pulling out some food and looked at the side table. “Oh, Jack, honey, I completely forgot. I am so sorry. You remember the lady who brought you here the first time? The one who knew your mama?” she asked.
Jack looked at her. “Yes.” He tightened his mouth.
“She dropped off a letter for you a few days ago. I didn’t see you much during the strike, except for the rally, and it just didn’t seem like the right time to bring it up. Here, baby. I’m sorry I forgot about it last night.” Medda held out a letter.
Jack took it. He’d never gotten a letter in his life. He turned it over and around. It had his name on it, addressed to the house he’d stayed at so long ago, it seemed. How... and yet here it was. From his mama.
“Do you want me to open it, Jack?” Miss Medda asked softly. “Or would you like to open it in private?”
Jack didn’t know. “In private, please, Miss Medda, if that’s all right with you. I’ll take it down the hall.” Jack went back to the room he had stayed in and sat on the bed, holding the letter. She wasn’t dead. He had gotten used to thinking she was. She wasn’t. She had thought about him. And written to him. Mama...
He gripped the letter in his hand and tore the side off. One sheet of paper was inside, folded into thirds. She greeted him and hoped he was well. She had made it to Maine a while ago now. She found a new husband who had a son a year younger than Jack, and a daughter four years younger. They lived in a nice house. Maybe Jack could join them. Love, Mama.
Jack sat on the bed for a long time. His mama wrote this? This wasn’t a mistake, meant for someone else? Dear Jack. Maine? Did she know her husband in New York? Was he the one who loved her more than Jack had, when she said she had to go where someone loved her? She was mama to his son? And daughter? When Jack was in jail, she was being someone’s mama? When he had cried for her, daydreamed of her? When she gave up on him? This couldn’t be from his mama. There’s a mistake. He didn’t need a mama anymore. He won the strike against Pulitzer and helped all the newsies in New York. She could stay in Maine. He could say he never got the letter. Mrs. Jacobs cared about him. Medda helped him. His mama could stay gone. Jack held the letter in his hands, ready to rip it up. And yet, “love, Mama.” Love? Could she still love him? Would she? He was a criminal, a thief. He’d taught other kids how to steal. He’d begged on the street, from restaurants, for anything, food, money. She had left.
A gentle knock on the door. “Jack? Can I come in?” Medda called.
It was her theater. “Um, yeah, Miss Medda,” he said awkwardly. She opened the door and sat in the chair across from him.
“Is it from your mother?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he rasped. He couldn’t read it again. He gave it to her. “You can read it.” Medda unfolded the paper and read the letter. She was silent.
“I didn’t love her enough. That’s why she left. She said so,” Jack said softly.
“Oh, Jack,” said Medda, “no. She was the adult. You were the child.” Jack looked at her. What did that mean? What difference did that make?
Jack shrugged. “She still left. It was still my fault.”
Medda sighed. “Are you going to go?” she asked.
Jack shrugged again. “I dunno. I guess not. But I can’t stay here neither. Not without a real job. I ain’t got a way to work here. Maybe they got jobs in Maine.”
“Well, that’s true enough. You could be Jack the lumberjack,” she said lightly. Jack tried not to smile but couldn’t help himself.
“Listen, Jack, don’t go until you’ve scrubbed my floor,” said Medda. “You were talking to yourself this morning and I could hear you through the vent. You can have dinner and another night here if you finish that job today. And it gives you another day to think about what you want to do.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Jack. “No theater in New York will look better, I promise.”
Jack sat back on his heels, hands sore, pants wet, shirt sticking to his back, face sweaty. There was a reason no one scrubbed this floor very often, he thought to himself. It’s too hard to crawl down the aisles and squeeze between the seats, water dripping everywhere. He smiled. The theater looked great. Miss Medda would be pleased. That’s all that mattered.
“Miss Medda?” He called up to the stage. “You think I’m done?”
Medda looked down. “Honey, anything you did would improve that floor. It looks fine.”
“Do you think...” he started. Maybe she had more work she needed him to do. Never mind.
“Do you have any more work that needs to be done?” he asked. Don’t be rude, Kelly. You owe her everything, and don’t forget that.
“Was that really what you were going to ask me, Jack?” she asked, skeptically.
“No, ma’am.” She could see right through him. “Miss Medda, do you think, maybe, I could go out for a bit and come back to clean up after the show? I can work extra late,” he said.
“Of course, Jack. I’ll see you later. And I need you to come back, so don’t go wandering off,” she said, shaking a finger at him.
“No, ma’am, Miss Medda. I’ll be back, I promise.” Jack stood, pulling his arms behind his back and stretching. He looked down at himself. Well, he’d dry off soon enough. He pulled on his cap and sprinted out the door.
“Jack, what is it?” Katherine asked, giggling as she let Jack pull her behind a stack of crates. “Albert sounded like you were on fire and I was the fire department.”
“I just gotta talk to you, Kath,” Jack said, holding her waist with both hands, bringing her closer, smiling at her big brown eyes. “I...”
“Ugh, Jack, you’re soaking wet! What have you been doing?” she exclaimed, pulling away.
“It’s just water! And sweat. I been cleaning all day,” he said, laughing. “You afraid of a little water?” He pulled her in again, taking her chin and guiding her mouth to his, starting a long kiss. He held both sides of her head, thumbs caressing her cheeks, kissing her more deeply. He loved it that she gave in and kissed him back, wrapping her arms around him. At long last she broke away.
“That was your big emergency?” she asked.
“Kind of,” he said, pausing. “Kath, I gotta go. Out of the city. I can’t work here, first of all...”
“What do you mean? The strike is over, and all of the newsies can go back to work,” she said, astonished.
“Not me. I got blacklisted,” Jack said. “Your father’s making sure I can’t get work nowhere. Ain’t no one gonna hire me till your father says so.”
“Let me talk to him, Jack. I’ll give you money if that’s what you need,” she said. “We can figure something out together. You don’t have to go anywhere.”
Jack laughed, and gently pulled her hair back behind her ears. “I know you can twist your father into a pretzel, Kath, but I gotta work. I ain’t taking no money from you, neither. Nothing good happens when you do that, remember? But I gotta go away anyhow.” He stopped, not quite sure how to explain.
Katherine put her hands on his chest, fiddling with his buttons. She leaned in and kissed his neck. “Why? We’ll find a job for you somewhere.” Jack nearly collapsed at the touch of her lips on his neck. He didn’t have to go to Maine. Maybe that was a dumb idea. Here he was, him and Kath just now figuring each other out... why did he insist on ruining everything? He tilted his head back, praying silently that she would keep kissing him. She moved down his neck to his collarbone. He really was going to black out at this rate.
“Kath, I gotta tell you something,” he choked out. Please, keep going. Lord.
She stopped. “What, then?”
Jack slowly brought his head back down. Was his face red? Probably. Could he even focus on her face? Get it together, Kelly.
“I, um, got this letter,” he stammered. “My mama. She’s in Maine. She wants me to come.”
Katherine stared at him. “Say that again? I thought you were an orphan. Why is she in Maine? Why now?” Jack didn’t know what to say or how to reply. He leaned in for another kiss, but Katherine pushed him back. Please, just one kiss, he thought. Just one.
“Jack.” She pushed him against the wall this time.
“I thought she was dead. I didn’t know for sure. I don’t know anything else. She married someone with kids. That’s it.”
“Well, then, I’m coming with you,” she said. “We’ll take the train and see what she wants.”
What. She wanted to come? No. Pulitzer would disown her. He’d put a posse together to murder Jack.
“Kath, no. Thank you,” he added hastily. “But I was hoping you’d stay here to keep covering the case against Snyder. You’re the only one writing about it. You’re almost there. You gotta shut that place down. Please,” he pleaded. All of this was true, he thought. She alone had the power to keep the story going, to make sure the case was followed and considered important. But he couldn’t have her meet his mama. Not yet.
Katherine sighed. “That much is true,” she agreed, “but let me give you the money for a train ticket to Portland, then.” She came in close to start kissing his collarbone again. Mercy.
“And what do you think would happen?” he whispered. “A guy like me with money hanging out of his pockets? I’d get robbed or arrested, yeah? How about you just pay me with some more of this?” He started kissing her ears, the side of her neck, and gradually they came together for a long, deep kiss. She gripped his shirt.
Albert leaned against the building at the end of the alley and rolled his eyes. Jack had said he needed a guard for a quick conversation with Katherine. Jack owed him now, that’s for sure.
Katherine slipped back onto the sidewalk and quickly hailed a cab. Jack followed a minute later, stumbling into Albert.
“Thanks for keeping an eye out, Albert,” Jack said hoarsely. “I owe you.”
“Damn right you do,” said Albert. “You said it’d be a quick conversation with your lady. Didn’t say nothing about making love all night.”
“Quit griping. It was ten minutes,” said Jack, tucking his shirt back in and running his fingers through his hair.
“You really going to Maine to see your old lady?” Albert asked.
“Yeah. Don’t tell the fellas until I’m gone tomorrow, you got that?” Jack glanced at Albert, making sure he understood. “Ain’t no one coming with me.”
“I sure as hell ain’t going to fucking Maine. You’ll get eaten by a fucking bear.” Albert looked at Jack. “Try not to get eaten by a fucking bear, okay?”
“Okay,” said Jack.
Jack settled back into his corner of the boxcar, glad to find one that was empty. Boston wasn’t that far, and he’d figure it out from there. He felt for the letter in his pocket, even though he’d memorized the address just in case.
The train jerked and squealed as it got underway. Jack slowly drifted off, rocking with the car. The wind was still a little sharp, but not so bad that he couldn’t ignore it. What would she be like? She lived in a house, so maybe she had more money now that she was married. They had enough to keep two kids. He wondered where they worked. Maybe they didn’t work, like Davey hadn’t until he had to. Maybe they went to school. They’d know a lot more than Jack did, then. Where was their mother? Dead, probably. But then, maybe not, right. What was he like… Would he like Jack? Jack was grown now. Maybe he wouldn’t want Jack to stay with them at all. What kind of rent would he want? Maybe he beat on his kids. Well, he wouldn’t be doing that to him, that’s for sure, thought Jack. He’d seen enough of that. Maybe he could get Jack a job. Maybe they’d get along.
The train slowed. Jack heard the sound of a bag hitting the floor, and opened his eyes. Two men were standing there, watching him. Jack pushed his cap back and looked up.
“I ain’t got nothing,” said Jack. “I ain’t got nothing at all. No money. Nothing.” He put up his hands.
“You don’t mind if we check, then,” said the heftier one.
Jack scrambled to his feet and set himself. “I do mind. I’m telling you, I ain’t got nothing.” The train picked up speed. Jack put his hand against the side of the car to keep his balance as the two approached.
Jack finally stopped at the bottom of the hill. He took a moment to breathe. No immediate feelings of a broken bone or nothing. Even his cap lay nearby. They hadn’t spent a lot of time beating on him before tossing him out of the car. What, another black eye and a few bruises, but other than that, not much. He’d gotten in a few punches himself, which felt good. They’d remember him, probably. Jack bent to push himself up, only to feel a searing burn in his right hand. What was that? His hand, his palm, dripping blood, a gash from somewhere. Damn, that hurt. He had to stop the bleeding, he knew that much. Well, his shirttail would have to do. He tore off the bottom strip of his shirt and wrapped it around his hand. It wasn’t very clean, but it was better than bleeding all over himself. He’d have to wash it sometime, but that wasn’t going to be here in the ditch, that was for sure. He looked around and wondered whether to follow the road next to him or follow the train tracks. There were some houses nearby, so maybe a town was coming up? He could find someone to give him some odd jobs, maybe, and then go walk along the tracks to Boston.
The sun was nearly up by the time Jack arrived at the town. Not much was open, he noticed. The church bells began to ring, and then he did see several carriages heading toward the one church. Some people were walking. Well. They’d probably be feeling good after church and want to help him out. He had had success selling papes this way on Sundays. Jack slowed and looked for a place to wait until church was over. The store across from the church had a wide stoop. Jack sat down on a step and leaned back against the stair railing, hands hanging between his legs. His hand had stopped bleeding, but the rag was soaked. He watched the people going to church. Families, mostly. Most of them dressed pretty nice, he noticed. Not too many that looked like him, walking in alone. The kids his age walked with their parents. Maybe he would be doing that soon, too. All of them together, walking to church after eating a big breakfast, with lunch waiting for them after. No work all afternoon, then dinner too.
“You coming in, son?”
Jack jerked around, startled by the sound of the old man’s voice. Why was he letting people sneak up on him like this? Stupid daydreamer.
“Nah, I’m moving on,” he said. He got up, facing the man and backing away down the sidewalk. No need to get picked up for loitering.
“I’m Peter. You hungry? We’re having lunch after church.”
Jack looked at him and glanced around for the cops. “No, thanks. I’m moving on,” he repeated. Lunch sounded really good. Why hadn’t he swept the theater last night? Medda was probably mad at him for not coming back. He could have found some money to buy lunch at the church. Not many places out here were going to open on Sunday, not even to steal from, he realized. He wasn’t a fan of picking locks. That got you for breaking and entering in addition to just plain stealing. Then again, he thought he’d be close to Boston by now, where more places would be open.
“Okay, suit yourself,” said Peter. “It’s free, you know. You’d be welcome.” Like hell, thought Jack. His stomach growled.
Peter laughed. “Not hungry, is that it? Listen, you stay here if you want, and I’ll come get you when lunch is ready. And we could take a look at that hand.” Jack paused. They’d have clean water in the church, probably, and he could wash out his rag if they’d let him.
“Do they need help getting lunch ready?” Jack asked. “I helped in a kitchen before,” he said, hoping that maybe his time with Mrs. Jacobs would come in handy.
“Probably. We eat a lot,” said Peter. “Let’s see what the ladies say. They might not want you to bleed on the food, but we can ask.”
Well, shows what Peter knows, thought Jack, slouching down in his chair, flipping his cap in his hands. The ladies in the church kitchen had taken one look at him and made it clear they did not want his help, even before they gasped at his hand. He was their guest, and would sit at the table in the meeting room until lunch was ready. One lady had even stopped making lunch and whisked him into the washroom to clean his hand. She had a clean bandage ready when he came out, and didn’t seem to mind that he couldn’t pay for it. Jack was grateful, but also wished he’d never come in. He wanted to work, not be their charity case. Like a kitchen full of Miss Meddas, but she let him work. He didn’t have to stay, he realized. But they were going to still give him lunch, for free, so maybe for once in his rotten life he could make a sensible decision and stay. He heard talking from the church, and singing every now and then. It was a smaller church than he was used to. The nuns lived in a big stone church. Lots of long pews to hide in and sleep in when it was raining. This place was different. Small. Wooden. Did his mama go to church now? Snap out of it, Kelly, he thought bitterly. Pay attention.
People started filtering into the meeting room. Jack sat up straighter and pushed his hair off his forehead. He got some curious looks, but no one came over to tell him to get lost, either. He spotted Peter with some relief, and was glad when Peter sat down across from him. Others soon came to sit with them.
“Everyone, this is…” Peter started. “Son, I guess I don’t know your name.”
“Jack,” Jack said quietly.
“This is Jack,” said Peter. “He’s visiting our town today.” Jack looked at him hard. Visiting? The hell?
“Got yourself another hobo friend, Peter?” called a man further down the table. Peter just waved back, but Jack felt his face turn red. Hobo. Peter made a habit of this, evidently. A long line of hoboes. Jack moved to leave. People didn’t like hoboes. Jack knew the bulls raided their camps, using their clubs to beat them out of their tents and shacks. He was next. This town could be as bad as New York that way. He should go.
Peter leaned over and touched his arm. “Jack, sit down. I hope you like the lunch today.” Jack wasn’t sure what to say to that, and slowly sat down, eyeing the man down the table, noticing his wife next to him, not smiling. Jack felt a little prickly, but soon found a plate being put in front of him which consumed his entire attention. Luckily nothing that needed to be cut with a knife. Jack wasn’t sure he could hold one at this point. Fried chicken was easy. He finished and looked up, only to see the same look on Peter’s face as he had seen on Davey’s when he’d first had dinner with them. He’d forgotten already. Normal people don’t shove food in their faces, Kelly. Peter wasn’t even halfway done with his plate.
“I’m sorry… Um, that was real good, uh, Mister…” he started.
“Peter,” Peter said.
“That was real good, Peter,” Jack said awkwardly. “Thank you. I’ll be on my way. Thanks for the lunch. And letting me clean up my hand. Thanks.” Stop repeating yourself, idiot. Just get out. The bulls surely knew about him by now. Jack pushed back his chair and put his cap on. “Thanks again,” he repeated.
Jack took in a deep breath once he was outside. Free lunch for the hobo. Time to get out of here. Where even was he? How far was he from Boston? He figured he could catch a train in Boston to take him to Portland, and walk from there. But which way was northeast? He stood on the corner. This place didn’t even have many blocks or addresses like New York did. The sun. Well, it was pretty well overhead. He’d have to see where it would be going down and take it from there. Even if he found the train tracks again, he wouldn’t know which way to go.
“Need help?” Jack heard Peter call down the block. “Where are you headed?” Jack sighed. This fella seemed like he wanted to be friendly, but Jack really had to get on his way.
“Boston,” Jack said.
“Is that right,” said Peter. “Well, you got a ways to go.” He came up next to Jack and pointed him down the road they were standing on. “Thataway, son.”
Jack held out his hand to thank Peter, hoping that he wouldn’t squeeze too hard. The new bandage was already stained with blood. Peter laughed and just patted Jack on the shoulder. “You take care,” Peter said. Jack nodded once, turned away, and began to walk. Fast.
It wasn’t long before Jack heard a horse come up the road behind him. Two horses. He turned to see two cops coming toward him. No way he could outrun them, on the road or off. He stopped and pulled off his cap.
“That’s him,” said one. Jack watched him carefully.
“Just making sure you’re leaving,” said the other.
“Yes, sir, I’m leaving,” said Jack. Was that all they wanted?
“You got any money on you?”
“No, sir,” said Jack. Not this again. Cops wanting their money, from the time he was a kid. This never ended well either way.
“Show us your pockets.” Jack turned his pockets inside out. The letter fluttered to the ground.
“Ain’t nothing in there,” said Jack, reaching down and picking it up. “Just a letter.” He pulled it out to show them.
“We’re just gonna provide you with a little escort to the town line,” said the first cop. “Make sure you’re gone.”
“Yes, sir,” said Jack. He put his cap back on and turned around. He kept walking, listening to the horses walk behind him. No good escape here, Kelly. Just hope they leave you alone. The town line sign came up on the road a couple of miles later.
“Stop walking, boy.” Jack heard from behind him. He stopped. He heard one dismount, and Jack started to run. No way. No more goodbye presents. The second cop rode his horse in front of Jack and turned to face him as the first cop caught up to Jack, club raised.
When they were done with him, Jack heard one of them say, “Gotta get Peter to quit bringing them into town. Regular hotel stop for vagrants these days.”
“You,” said the other, nudging Jack with his boot. “Tell your bum friends to keep moving, got it?”
“s-sir,” Jack mumbled.
Jack spent the next few days walking at night and sleeping during the day, usually in the woods. Stealing was pretty easy in the smaller towns, but you had to get out fast since it was easier to spot a stranger. Some stores didn’t even lock up at night. He wasn’t going to talk to anyone anymore, though, save for occasionally asking directions. Most people were happy to see him leave. What was he even thinking doing this. Seemed like he couldn’t never get ahead. Was his mama even still waiting for him? What would she think, him looking like this? What would he think? Troublemaker. He’d know. He’d probably think he had to show Jack who was boss, too. Or would she be like the ladies at the church and want to help him clean his hand? It was definitely going to leave a scar. He’d tried to wash out the bandage, but it was pretty dirty again already. Would she be ashamed of his clothes? Davey’s shirt wasn’t going to make it to Les at this rate. He’d have to show Mrs. Jacobs where he tore the shirt off for a bandage. She might get mad about that. He wouldn’t blame her. Mrs. Jacobs could probably fix it with something else, though. What would his mama’s husband think? He probably didn’t want a bum for a stepson. But maybe he’d let Jack borrow some clothes so he could get a good job. If Jack stayed. If they wanted him to stay.
Jack kept walking.
Jack wished he’d gotten his coat back from Crutchie. Nice, he thought to himself. That’s real nice, Jack. He sat back in the boxcar, shivering at the wind coming through the slats as the train rattled through New Hampshire. He was glad he’d stayed a few days in Boston, though. He smiled. It wasn’t so different being a newsie there as in New York once he’d made sure he wasn’t edging out anybody else’s territory. The boys had been okay with him working there, knowing he’d be moving on. At least he had a little money now. Not a lot, but enough to keep him from stealing as much as he had been; he hadn’t felt great about picking a pocket to get himself started in Boston. Plus those newsies knew which train to get him on to get to Maine.
He peeled back the bandage on his hand. It’d be a mean scar for sure once it healed. He tied the bandage up again.
It was dark by the time the train pulled into Portland. No way he could figure out where to go now. Westbrook, the letter said. He’d have to look for that road in the morning. Jack slipped out of the boxcar just as the train stopped, and moved as fast as he could toward the end of the terminal, such as it was. No cops. His bruises had mostly faded away, which was good. He’d make a better impression that way.
He walked through the downtown streets, looking for a place to keep him out of the wind. Soon he was in the residential area on the west end of the city. Maybe a stable or a barn somewhere would be open. A hayloft would be nice, he thought. You could get warm there. Just pick one, Kelly. He pulled on the door, which opened obligingly. The horses stayed quiet. He clambered up to the hayloft, sinking into the hay and falling fast asleep.
“You touch him. I dare you.”
“No. I’m telling Papa. He’ll get the police. Maybe he’s a murderer. Maybe he’s wanted in six states.”
“You’re such a baby. I’m gonna wake him up.”
“Don’t! He’ll murder you, too. And then maybe me!”
Jack lay still, listening to every word. He’d better get these kids to calm down before any bulls showed up. How had he slept like this? It was well into the morning, judging from the light. He moved a little, so that he wouldn’t scare them too much. He stretched his arms and yawned.
“Hey! Are you a murderer?” Jack felt a small boot gently kick his leg.
Jack opened his eyes. “Nope,” he said. “Sorry.”
“Hey,” said Jack, “I can show you something, though.” He untied his bandage and showed them the deep cut on his hand.
“Wow! How’d you get that?!! Did you try to kill someone?”
“Someone tried to kill me, how about that,” said Jack. He enjoyed the look of admiration he got. “Listen, could I ask you boys something?”
“Anything!” was the eager reply.
“Don’t tell no one I’m up here, okay? I just need to get out the back door and down the street a bit without no one knowing.” Jack brushed off some hay from his shirt and pants.
“Because you killed someone?” asked the older boy.
“No. Because I ain’t got a lot of money to pay for being up here,” said Jack, putting his cap back on and checking for his letter.
“Okay,” with a hint of disappointment.
“I got a few cents to buy a breakfast from you, though, if you can get the food up here without no one noticing,” offered Jack. “You’d be like a spy.” He laughed to himself as the boys scrambled down the ladder. Not five minutes later they came back with bread spread with jam and some hardboiled eggs.
“We told Mama we’re going camping today, and she piled up the food right quick,” said the younger boy. “Do you like it?”
“I love it,” said Jack, mouth full. “Jam sandwiches and eggs are the perfect food for murderers.”
“You said you ain’t a murderer!”
“But I could be. Maybe I was lying. Murderers lie all the time,” grinned Jack. He gulped down the food. “Naw, I ain’t a murderer. Promise. But you want to help with my getaway and pretend like I was one?”
The boys nodded enthusiastically.
“Okay, then. Which way to Westbrook?” Jack asked, praying the boys knew their way around. They snuck down the ladder with Jack, where he had them point in what he hoped was the right direction. Looking around quickly, Jack ran from the stable to the street and started walking, head down, hands in his pockets.
Well, now what. Here he was in Westbrook. What was he going to do, just march up to the door? All this time, and he hadn’t really thought about what he was going to say. What if they weren’t home? What if her husband answered? What if one of his kids did? What if his mama changed her mind about him coming? What would she say to him? Could he tell her about jail? What if they didn’t want a convict in their house? Maybe he could watch the house and see when they were all there. He’d better knock before it got dark, though, so he wouldn’t scare them. He had some time.
He asked directions a few times before finding the street. It was a nice little street. The houses weren’t as big as the ones he had once delivered messages to, but they weren’t exactly shacks, either. He saw the house that matched the address his mother had given. He slowed his pace and stood behind a tree a little ways down the block, hoping no one was home in the house he stood in front of. Loitering again. He studied his mother’s house. Two stories, even. Maybe his kids had their own rooms. Definitely they had their own beds, then. There was a stable in back. Their own horse or even horses. The porch had a rocking chair, and there were bushes out front. It was really pretty, thought Jack. He tried not to think about why he couldn’t have lived here too, with his mama. At least until now. The shed. The Refuge. The lodge, the theater. An alley sometimes when selling was tough. And he could have been here, maybe.
He brushed away a tear. Pull yourself together, Kelly. No one asked you, and no one wants to know what you think. You’re here now. You won the strike. He lifted his chin. Kath was proud of him no matter where he’d been. What he wouldn’t give to pull her into the alley again right now.
He saw a man walking down the street from the other end. He turned onto the front walkway and went into the house. That’s him. Why hadn’t he paid closer attention. The light started to fade. Lamps were lit in the house. He could see that they were home, but he hadn’t seen his mama yet. Did he have the right address? He double checked. Yes. He’d have to go now or wait until tomorrow. Now, Kelly. He stopped. Front door or back door? He’d never gone to a front door in his life. Back door. Look at him. Back door for sure.
I heard a knock at the back door.
“Ella, get that, would you please,” I called to the cook. I turned back to my newspaper, annoyed at the interruption so close to dinnertime.
“Mr. Conrad, sir, there is a boy at the back door asking to see you,” Ella said, poking her head into the parlor.
“What’s he want? No beggars, please, Ella,” I said.
“He won’t say, sir. He says he has to talk to you,” she repeated. I sighed and put my paper down. What now.
At the bottom of the steps from the back door stood a boy just a little older than my own. He was obviously a vagrant, and had a dirty rag around one hand. His face was smudged. What was this, I thought. I told Ella no beggars.
“We already give to charity, boy. Move along,” I said, frowning at Ella.
“Mr. Schmidt,” he said, his voice cracking, “I’m Jack Kelly.” He looked at me expectantly.
“And?” I asked. I had no idea what he wanted me to say.
“My mama…” he started. “You’re married to my mother, sir.” He looked terrified now.
“Pardon me?” I replied. “This isn’t funny, young man.”
“No, sir,” he said. “You married my mother, sir. Mary Kelly. I’m Jack Kelly,” he repeated.
“My wife was the former Miss Mary O’Brien,” I said firmly. “And again, I don’t understand what you are doing. My wife passed away two weeks ago. If this is some kind of joke, it needs to stop now or I will summon the police.”
The boy stepped back, shaking. He took out a letter from his pocket and unfolded it. He held it out to me without saying anything, and I took it. A letter in Mary’s hand, to be sure, addressed to this boy, Jack Kelly. She asked him to come stay with us? Her son? I looked back at the boy. The eyes, the chin. Why…
“Mary had no children,” I said. “She had no fortune save that which I shared with her, so if you are here in some ill-advised attempt to claim her inheritance, you will soon find yourself in police custody.”
The boy pulled in his lips and blinked hard. “May I have my letter back, please, sir,” he said, holding out his bandaged hand. I gave it back. He looked at it and slowly folded it back up and put it back into the envelope.
“Where is she buried, please,” he asked, his voice trembling.
“The Congregational Church cemetery,” I answered. “Whoever you are, you have no business there. I will advise the church to keep watch and report you immediately.”
The boy wiped at his face with his filthy sleeve.
“Do you understand?” I asked in the firmest voice I possessed.
“Yes, sir,” he said. He looked away. He backed away from the steps, paused, and ran down the drive to the street. I moved to the front of the house and watched him run.
Jack knelt at the gravesite and began to sob. Great, heaving, wracking sobs wrenched from his body. The ground was damp from recent rains, and soon his pants were soaked and muddy at the knees. Tears ran down his face and he rubbed his cheeks raw with his sleeve. Mary Schmidt. He didn’t care if Mr. Schmidt called the cops. People would beat on him in or out of jail. It didn’t matter. Guys like him just got beat one way or the other. Go ahead, send him back to jail. He’d done one good thing in his life with the strike, so the rest of it would just be a long line of being told he was nothing. Mama was right to leave him. She would have been so disappointed. Even if she was still here, there was nothing for her to be proud of. No wonder she’d never told Mr. Schmidt about him. What was there to tell? Meet my convict son? He can teach your kids how to lie and steal. He can teach them how to sell papes. Real useful. He can sweep and scrub real good, too.
Mama. Why couldn’t he have come with you? Was he really that bad? He couldn’t remember. He must have been. Whatever it was, he was sorry. He would have loved her better if he had known she would leave otherwise. Had she told him how to do that and he didn’t listen? Jack gave up and just cried.
“Jack.” Jack stopped and tried to hold back his next sob. It was a man’s voice. Usually bad news for Jack. Jack braced himself for handcuffs, a hit to the back of his head, something. “Jack, it’s true, isn’t it.”
Jack turned and looked up at Mr. Schmidt. He didn’t know what to say. He wiped his face again. “I... I... She didn’t tell you about me.”
“No.” Mr. Schmidt extended a hand to Jack. Jack pushed himself up on his own, using his left arm. “I’m sorry I was harsh. I was surprised, to say the least. She only just passed, Jack. Please try to see how it appeared to me. The handwriting was hers, though. And you don’t appear to be swindling me.”
“I ain’t,” said Jack. “She said maybe I could come here to see her and meet you.” He stopped. Just stop, Kelly. He don’t want nothing to do with you. “I ain’t looking to get arrested here. I’ll be heading back to New York.” He adjusted his cap and went to go around Mr. Schmidt.
“Stay the night,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Stay at our house.”
Jack looked at him suspiciously. “No, thanks. I ain’t got much money to pay for nothing. I don’t need you calling the cops saying I stole your food or broke into your house or nothing.”
Mr. Schmidt studied Jack. “You’ve had trouble with the police before.”
Jack tried not to laugh, pulling up the last of his sobs and looking up at the sky. “Yeah, Mr. Schmidt. A lot. They robbed me regular and left me with black eyes every time. I’ve been to jail three times since Mama left and got the shit beat out of me more times than I can remember. I’m a convict. You want to see my scars from jail?” Jack pulled up his shirt and turned a little. “I ain’t got a home. I ain’t had a real one since Mama left. I stayed in the shed at the whorehouse where she used to work. Did you know about that? I steal. I’ve taught other kids how to steal. How many times your kids begged for food? Or money? I steal for me and for little kids who didn’t get nothing to eat because big shots like you can’t buy a stupid pape from them. I’m blackballed in New York right now so I can’t get any work or go back to the lodging house. So go ahead, send me back to jail. You know what? I don’t care anymore. Get the cops. Hell, I’ll turn myself in and save you the time.” Jack stopped, suddenly aware that he was shouting.
“Come home with me, Jack. One night. We can talk about your mother there.”
“Like hell. Fuck you.”
“I don’t know why she left, Jack.”
“She left because you loved her more than I did. That’s what she said.”
“I didn’t know that, Jack.”
"You met her in New York, right?”
"No. I met her in Boston.”
Jack looked at him closely. “How long you been married?”
"We were married only two years, Jack, before she got sick.”
"She’s been gone longer than that.”
They were both quiet.
"Now what,” said Jack.
"Now you come home and have dinner with me,” said Mr. Schmidt, “as my guest. That means I won’t call the police. People in my circle frown on summoning law enforcement when they have invited someone into their home.”
"No cops,” Jack said, making sure he understood.
"No cops,” Mr. Schmidt said. “And you can call me Conrad.”
It had been strange to walk up the front walk behind, um, Conrad and go in the front door. Dinner was on the table, and Jack saw his two kids already sitting there, waiting. Jack wished he didn’t feel so scared of dinner here. Grow up, Kelly. You can bring down Pulitzer but you can’t have dinner in a nice house? You been to jail three times but you’re scared of this guy’s kids? Jack pulled off his cap and ran his fingers through his hair. He wiped his hands on his pants and swiped at his face with his sleeve before he walked into the dining room. His hand and his pants couldn’t be helped. Chin up, Kelly. No cops. He'd be okay. Don’t eat like a pig. He could probably take his son if it came to that.
“Sam, Sarah, this is Jack,” said Conrad. “He’ll be joining us for dinner.” Ella was to have told them who Jack was, Conrad had said. “Jack, you can sit here, across from Sam.”
Jack pulled out the chair and sat down hesitantly, not knowing where to put his cap. He eventually slipped it in his vest, glancing up at Sam and trying to look friendly. Sam didn’t say anything. Jack looked at the food on the table, not sure how this kind of dinner worked. Conrad came to his rescue, offering him each dish as it was passed around the table. Jack didn’t know how much to take. Not too much. He’d had breakfast, after all. He had a few cents to buy food tomorrow. No need to overdo it here. He ate carefully, making sure not to go faster than Conrad. The knife was still hard to manage with his hand, but he made it work.
“Mr. Conrad, I’m so sorry, but one of your patients needs your attention,” said Ella, peering in from the kitchen. “The Connor child is not well.” A doctor, huh. Good for Mama.
Jack saw Conrad give Sam a look as Conrad rose from the table. “Jack, I’ll be back soon. This shouldn’t take long.” He left the dining room quickly, the kitchen door swinging behind him.
“So, Jack, what year are you at school?” Sam asked.
Jack looked at Sam. Nice vest, tie, cuff links. Clean hands. The kind of kid who’d knock your pape out of your hand just to watch you dive after it to keep it from getting messed up on the sidewalk. “I’m done with school,” Jack said.
“What was your best subject?”
“Math,” said Jack. “I’m real good at counting.” He ate a little faster. He’d have dinner and get out of here.
“Mary liked telling stories,” said Sarah.
Jack stopped mid-bite and looked at the tablecloth in front of his plate. “I know,” he mumbled. He shoved more food in his mouth.
“What are you going to do now that you’re done with school?” asked Sam. Was this kid joking, Jack wondered? Or was he really this dumb?
“Work,” said Jack. He ate some more.
“What kind of work?” Sam pushed on. Jack took a long look at Sam. Maybe he should leave now.
“I dunno. Anything that pays good,” he said. What does that mean, what kind of work? The kind that can pay for food and a room, dumbass.
“What did you do to your hand?” Sarah interrupted. Jack was almost relieved.
“I cut it.”
“How?” These kids didn’t quit, did they. Had to know everything. Jack thought about the boys from this morning and wondered if he should tell them he cut his hand trying to kill someone. He smiled a little.
“I got pushed out of a boxcar on my way here, and cut it when I fell down the hill.” No need to stoop to lying.
“Baloney,” Sam said, eyebrows raised skeptically.
Jack took another bite and pushed back his chair. “I gotta go,” he said, pulling out his cap and putting it on. “Glad you had my mama for a couple of years. Wish I’da had her too. See you later. Tell your dad thanks for the dinner.” Jack put the rest of his money on the table. He tried not to start crying again as he pushed open the front door and took a deep breath as he strode down the front walk. Don’t be such a baby. You’re grown. Get back to Katherine. And Miss Medda. And Mrs. Jacobs. And Crutchie. And Race. And even Albert. You’ll get a job, somewhere. No need to put up with this. Your mama’s really dead now.
Jack found the road back to Portland. Just keep walking, kid. He'd find the train station soon enough.
Mary had a son? He was here? Why hadn’t he come before? Mary never said she had a son. He never wrote, never visited. No wonder Mary wanted a new family with my father, with children who would love her. I could hardly remember my real mother, and Mary had been so kind, even if she hadn’t lived that long with us.
And look at him, this thug. I know my father donates to charity and believes in doing charitable acts, but this was a bit much, wasn’t it? Sitting at our table, holding his fork like a little kid? He didn’t even look up from his plate at all. And how did his school not go beyond counting in math? And look, I’m not squeamish, but who wants to use the same serving spoon as this kid after his nasty bandage had just rubbed all over it? Had he ever washed his clothes? Or washed his face? Why didn’t Dad make him clean up, or give him a new bandage?
I just asked him a few questions. How could he not know what kind of work he wants to do? Dad has been asking me that for years now.
Sam didn’t know. He didn’t know what he was saying to Jack. I wish I’d had time to talk to him before Jack came, but too late now. I’d rather not be out at night like this, but then a doctor’s life is often this way, right? I should be grateful for a healthy horse and good carriage. Aha. There he is.
“Jack!” I called. Jack didn’t even look back before taking off as fast as he could. Of course. I should have known. “It’s me! Conrad! Stop! Please!” I thought I saw him glance over his shoulder. “It’s Conrad! No cops!” Jack slowed and looked again, still backing away. “No cops, Jack. Just me.” I pulled up and stopped a little ways from him so he could see it was just me. Jack stopped and looked some more.
“It’s just me, I promise,” I wheezed. Jack started walking towards me.
“I gave you all the money I got, Mr. Schmidt,” Jack said. “I ain’t got nothing else.”
“That’s not why I’m here, Jack. Come back with me, please. I think you and Sam got off on the wrong foot. He didn’t know what he was saying. I’m sorry. Please come back. I can clean up your hand for you.” At least I could do that for the boy.
“No, thanks. I’ll be fine. I gotta get back to New York.” Jack walked a little closer. “Thanks for the dinner.”
“You don’t have to come back to the house. You can come to my office in town. Just let me clean your hand properly.” I could see Jack hesitating. Almost there. “Please trust me, Jack.”
He didn’t know why he went to Conrad’s office. Just hours ago this man had threatened to have him arrested, like every other man Jack had ever known. But he had said he was sorry. And he hadn’t gotten the cops when Jack swore at him. He seemed sad about Mama.
He sat in the chair in Conrad’s office, watching Conrad get a bandage and put a bowl of warm water on the table in front of him. Conrad gently untied the bandage on Jack’s hand and placed his hand in the water. Jack winced and bit his lip.
“We’re going to have to do this a few times, Jack,” Conrad said. “Your hand is pretty dirty, and it’s already been trying to heal for several days.” Jack nodded. What was another scar, anyway.
“Going back to New York so soon, hm,” Conrad continued. “What will you do for work if you’re blackballed?”
Jack shrugged. “I can find something. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough before.”
“Do you have a skill?” Conrad asked.
Jack shrugged again. “I can work. I can lift boxes and unload ships once I’m off the list. They always need men at the docks.”
“Have you ever thought about anything you want to do?” Conrad asked, trying again. He went to change out the water in the bowl.
“I want a job where I can eat every day and pay for a bed,” said Jack. “I did that as a newsie and it ain’t so bad. I bought my own shirt once. And pants.”
“Jack. Other than manual labor, what would you want to do?” Conrad asked, trying his best not to sound frustrated. He put Jack’s hand in the fresh water.
Jack looked at him blankly. “In case you ain’t noticed, I ain’t the educated type, Mr. Schmidt. I like it if I eat most days and sleep indoors. That means hauling stuff most of the time. I ain’t like you, or Sam.” He looked at his hand. “You done?”
“Not yet.” Conrad took a breath and rushed on. “I know someone in Boston who does business in New York, Jack. They make furniture. You’re a bright kid, I can see that. Here’s an idea: maybe you get a job learning how to make this furniture. You see the business and work there for a while. Then you think about opening a business of your own. It doesn’t have to be furniture. It could be anything. But you could learn, Jack. And you could be your own boss someday.” Conrad held his breath, taking Jack’s hand out of the water and studying it. He reached for the towel.
Jack looked at his hand. Conrad drying it so carefully, so gently. Run a business? Him? Jack suddenly remembered dreaming of his mother when he was at the Refuge, picturing himself working in a store. Scratching the concrete, praying to escape the beatings. He jerked his hand back without thinking.
”Everything all right, Jack?” Conrad looked concerned.
“Uh, yeah.” Jack said. “Maybe.” He looked at his hand again. “Do you really think I could do that? Run a business?”
”Well, maybe not tomorrow, but once you get the feel for it, I know you could,” replied Conrad. He reached for Jack’s hand and started rewrapping it with the new bandage. Jack let him. Snap out of it, Kelly. What’s in this for Schmidt, he wondered.
“So let’s say I get this imaginary job that Pulitzer doesn’t take away,” Jack said. “What do you get? You get a cut of my pay? You get free furniture? I don’t care, I just want to know what I’m signing up for here.”
Conrad raised his eyebrows. “I get the satisfaction of helping my wife’s son get a decent job so he can eat every day and sleep indoors.”
Jack was silent. “I’m sorry.”
”No harm done, Jack. But please,” he glanced at Jack, “please trust me.”
I didn’t know he would stop in, I swear. I looked at Jack. “Jack, no, it’s not what you think,” I begged. “It’s not.”
Jack didn’t say anything for the one second he paused and looked at me. The hurt, the betrayal. He pulled open the back door and ran.
“Dr. Schmidt, are you all right?” Officer Connor called again from the front room. “I saw your light on and thought I’d make sure since you’re not usually in town in the evenings. My boy is feeling better, by the way. Thanks for coming by earlier.”
Jack ran as far as he could. He threw himself in the ditch when he couldn’t take another step, gasping for breath, his body shaking from fear and exhaustion. Fuck. He rolled onto his back, chest heaving. Gradually he calmed down and got to his feet. Go get a train, boy, he told himself. Get the fuck out of here. Get moving.
A carriage. And another horse? It didn’t matter. Jack flung himself back in the ditch and lay still. Was it him? And the cop? He buried his face and arms as they passed.
Jack forced himself to keep walking. What else was he going to do? Just get to the train station. What if Schmidt was waiting for him there, with the cop? Go at it sideways, Kelly. Just take your time. A couple of hours later, Jack pulled himself up into a box car of a train that would be headed south, as best he could tell. No night watchman that he could see. No sign of Schmidt or the cop. Just wait now. Unless Schmidt came looking for him in every car with his cop friend, Jack was okay. He peered out through the slats. He should have picked a car with a better view of the road.
What a mistake, coming here. But now he knew Mama was dead. No more wondering. But no more hoping, either. That’s enough. Forget about Schmidt. Furniture? Was he serious? Still, a business. But what was all that? Stalling until the cops showed up? How had Jack let himself be so gullible? Was there any place where cops wouldn’t be after him? Out west, maybe. He could just stay on a train... But Katherine. Katherine kissing him on his neck. And collarbone. He could find a job Pulitzer wouldn’t touch. He couldn’t run the whole city. Or maybe Jack could change his name until things calmed down. O’Brien. Sullivan. Who did that Sam kid think he was? Best subject. Jack’s best subject would be kicking Sam’s ass.
A crunch of gravel stopped the whirlwind in Jack’s head. It got closer, now on both sides of the train. He could hear people getting into the boxcar ahead of him. Someone banging a what, a club? a nightstick? on the crates and sides of the car. “Get out now, you lazy bums, unless you want us to toss you out over a bridge,” a man shouted. Jack looked around in a panic. This car was completely empty. How could he have been so stupid. No place to hide. He heard them jump out of the car and approach the one he was in.
“Got one!” the taller one shouted after lifting himself into the car, lantern on the floor. The other cop was soon silhouetted in the other open doorway to the car. “Come on out, kid, nice and slow.”
Jack took his chances with the first cop, heaving his shoulder into him and knocking him off balance. Jack jumped out of the car and started running, only to trip on the neighboring rails and go flying into the gravel. He dug his hands into the ground and started to get up, only to feel himself get pushed down again. A blackjack whacked his head. He fell onto his forearms, head down, with a grunt. The heavy kick to Jack’s ribs was just the start. He curled up, trying to protect himself. The kicks and nightsticks bashed his back and arms. One hit his bandaged hand. He let out a yell at that one. He heard them both laugh. “Up you go,” shouted the taller one cheerfully, heaving Jack up and pinning his arms behind him. “Time for boxing training for my partner. Get it? Boxing? Boxcars?” The other cop pretended to box in front of Jack, dancing back and forth, punching Jack’s face, his chest, his stomach. Jack felt blood running down his left cheek. Another punch to his face.
Jack was finally released. He fell to the ground, and he grabbed at an ankle, hoping to bring one of the cops down. “Oh, no, you don’t,” the cop said, jumping away. He stomped on Jack’s outstretched hand, directly on the bandage. Jack let out another yell and grabbed his hand.
“Hey, boys, who you got there?” Jack heard a new voice.
“Hey, Connor. Some hobo kid. Just making sure he feels good about traveling through the great state of Maine,” said the taller cop. “We’re getting him ready for bed at the jail.”
“Lemme have him,” said Connor. “He owes him some money.” Jack looked up just enough to see Dr. Schmidt standing nearby. Jail either way, Jack thought blearily. He put his head back down and cradled his hand.
“Suit yourself, Connor. He’s all warmed up for ya.” The two train cops walked away, swinging their clubs, laughing.
Jack tried pushing himself up and away from Connor. Connor took his arm, but Jack pulled away and staggered backwards, looking over his shoulder to see a way out of there.
“Jack, stop,” said Conrad. “Officer Connor’s not going to arrest you. He stopped by my office because I’d treated his son during dinner. He wasn’t there for you. He was there to talk to me.”
“I ain’t got any more money, I told you,” Jack said, holding his right hand up against his chest, still backing away. “How much do you want for the dinner? I can work it off.”
“I didn’t say you owed me money, Jack. I owe you money. The money you left on my table. It was just a little confusion for the train officers, that’s all, so they’d let Connor take you.”
Jack paused. “You ain’t arresting me?”
“I’ll be on my way then,” said Jack. “Ain’t no sense in staying.”
“Jack, your hand,” started Conrad. “Let me make sure it’s okay before you go.” Jack looked down at his hand, newly bloodied and hurting worse than it had ever hurt before.
The ride back to the clinic was quiet. Jack tried to hold his hand still, biting his lip and closing his eyes.
Ella would send Sam to the clinic with breakfast for me, and for Jack, on Sam’s way to school, as she always did when I didn’t come home. Sure enough, in he came with a full basket. I stretched from my cramped position in the chair. Jack was still asleep on the exam table, my coat under his head for a pillow, his hand stabilized and bandaged so thoroughly that no man could get to it. His hand was broken, that was for sure. On top of the gash that was still healing, it would be some time before he could use it fully again. The police had beat him pretty badly, but that hadn’t seemed to faze him much. “I been beat worse,” he had said. No stitches had been needed, luckily. And he had warned me about the scars as I took off his shirt last night. They were bad, but as soon as I saw he had mostly bruising but no broken bones, I got his shirt right back on, bloody as it still was, which helped him relax. His face would be a sight today, but he hadn’t seemed worried about that either.
“How much, doc,” he’d asked me as I’d buttoned up his shirt for him.
“How much what?” I had asked back.
“You fixing me up. How much,” he had repeated, a little louder, as if I hadn’t heard him.
“No charge,” I had said. He wouldn’t like that, and I was right. He had scowled at me. “Okay,” I had conceded, “you’re my assistant for a week. Carry my bag, help me on my calls, all one handed. That fair?” He had nodded, satisfied. “Now get some rest.” What a day he had had. His exhaustion finally caught up with him, and soon he was curled up on the table like a small boy.
Sam set the basket on the table in front of my chair, plates rattling. Jack awoke and sat up, legs hanging off the table, looking for the source of the sound. He still seemed a little groggy to me. Sam stared for just a moment at the blood stains on Jack’s shirt. Sam has seen plenty of blood, being the son of a doctor, but not usually as a result of a beating like Jack’s.
“I brought you breakfast,” Sam said. “Hope you like it.” Jack didn’t say anything or move toward the basket. “I’m sorry I was rude last night, Jack. I didn’t mean to be, honest. I was surprised, is all. And I miss Mary, too.” Sam was quiet for a moment. “I’ll see you at lunch.”
Jack watched Sam leave. I hope the boys can be friends eventually.
Sam missed Mary. The boy his mama loved more. Jack felt himself turn to stone.
Jack didn’t touch the breakfast, saying he wasn’t hungry. He’d bargained for getting his hand fixed up by Conrad, that’s it. He could go hungry a couple of days, and maybe by then he could figure out how to get his own food and place to stay. Or he could just leave tonight and walk on out of here down a different road. But he said he’d help for a week. Stupid, as usual. What was worse, breaking his word or stealing food or both at the same time? Officer Connor might be getting to know him better after all.
I caught on when Jack said he’d be cleaning out the stable for me during lunch. That would be a trick, one handed, but at first I had consented. Then I realized what he was doing. I went out to the stable and watched him wrestle with the shovel. He wasn’t going to do a very good job. Sam would have to do it again.
“Jack, do you know what you are to me?” I asked.
“A pain in the ass,” he said, grinning. “A troublemaker. I can’t even do this right,” he said, pointing at the stable floor. “I’ll get it good so that Sam won’t have to do it after me, I promise.”
“We’ll see about that,” I said jokingly. “You might be better off hanging wallpaper at this rate.” And Jack laughed. What a laugh. A smile that transformed his face, even as bruised as it was...
“Jack, you need to come in for lunch,” I said more seriously. “You are my wife’s son. My stepson. That means you are family to me. Families eat together.”
Jack’s smile vanished. He looked at me hard before speaking, his voice harsh and loud. “You seem okay, Conrad. I appreciate what you did last night, and you fixing my hand. But I don’t need you, understand? I’ll work for you this week to pay off my bill and then I’m gone. You don’t need to keep fussing over me. You got kids of your own. Kids my mama liked better than me. Now if you don’t mind, I got a stable to clean.”
“And how do you expect to eat today, Jack?” I asked, putting my hand on the shovel.
“I been hungry plenty. It don’t bother me,” he said, getting up close, looking up in my face. He pushed my hand off the shovel, daring me to push back. I stripped off my coat and rolled up my sleeves. Jack’s eyes flashed a look of surprise, but he got ready to fight, broken hand and all. He put the shovel against the wall behind him, rolled his shoulder, put up his left hand, and sized me up one last time. This kid.
I reached around him, yanked the shovel from the wall and started cleaning the stall. “I work, you eat. You work, I eat. Now get up to the house and have some lunch so I can eat. I’m starving,” I said, cleaning out the corners so vigorously the horse wouldn’t recognize her own stall by the time I was through.
Lord, this man was strange. What was he doing? Jack was supposed to work for him, not the other way around. He was going to hurt himself, working like that. Jack stood in the barn, frozen to the spot. He couldn’t go to the house alone and have lunch without Conrad. What would Jack say to Sam and Sarah? Ella would probably wouldn’t believe him. Hello, Officer Connor.
“Conrad, stop!” Jack finally said, leaning into the stable. “Stop!” Conrad stopped and looked over his shoulder at Jack. “I’m sorry,” Jack said. “I’m an ass. I’m sorry.”
“We’re both asses, Jack,” Conrad said. “Let’s go see what Ella has for us before she decides to feed the pigs our lunch, okay?”
Jack let himself smile. Just a little.
Jack enjoyed accompanying Conrad on his calls. No one seemed to mind him tagging along. No one asked about the bruises on his face or his broken hand. No one tried to push him around. He watched the patients carefully. The widow. The young parents. The arthritic man. Rich. Poor. Middling. Everyone needed Dr. Schmidt.
Conrad let him stay at the clinic, sleeping on the table or the floor, whichever Jack preferred. Jack felt strange staying in the house his mother had lived in. Staying at the house might be too much to think about, they agreed, although it was convenient for Jack to take his meals there. Conrad had also wondered if Jack just might enjoy having a space all to himself for a little bit, and he did. Jack cleaned the clinic every night on his own, taking his time with his one good hand. He studied the set of instruments in the clinic, trying to remember when Conrad had used them and for what. The quiet felt good.
They talked about Mary on their walks to the in-town calls, and on their rides to the country calls. Neither of them could figure out Mary completely, and there was a lot Jack couldn’t remember. Jack wished Conrad had the answers to his questions, but he was glad Conrad would at least listen.
Jack was a quick study. He’d been here only a few days and already I liked relying on him to hand me my instruments, to run errands and do exactly as I had instructed after being told only once. Sam had no interest in medicine; he was bright, but he was thinking about business or law. Jack had a practicality that impressed me. I had prided myself on my clean clinic before, but now it was spotless. He wasn’t educated, though. He had no desire to go to school and felt he was too old. He repeatedly told me how stupid he was, apologizing for how useless and ignorant he was. He was just a convict, he said. I couldn’t even get him to say ex-convict. At this rate he was heading straight for back-breaking labor for the rest of his life, and he didn’t seem to question it.
I wasn’t able to tell him much about his mother that he wanted to know. I felt helpless in the face of his questions, but at least his anger was at a simmer now, not a boil. He’d nod and look away. I let him down.
The boy lay on the ground by the barn, his leg badly crushed by the hay wagon. Conrad rushed over, Jack close behind with his bag. Even Jack could tell this boy would likely lose his leg below the knee, if he survived.
“Jack, hold him still,” Conrad ordered. Jack laid down next to the boy, tenting himself over the boy’s hips with his left arm. The boy looked at him in a panic. Jack had seen this look before many times. He looked at the boy steadily and started to breathe slowly and deliberately. The boy calmed.
“Let’s get him inside and get ready for amputation,” said Conrad. They lifted the boy up and got him on the kitchen table. Conrad readied the instruments and started measuring the chloroform. Jack looked at the boy again. He knew it would take a little time for Conrad to plan this out.
“Hey, look at me,” Jack said. “Right here. Look at me. That’s it. You know what? I got one good hand right now. See this other one? Ain’t doing me no good at all. But I got good at using my other hand. I can button my shirt with one hand.” Jack undid and redid a button, the boy watching intently. “And guess what else? I got a pal with a bum leg. Crutchie. Don’t no one boss him around, neither, not even me. You don’t want him taking a crack at you with his crutch. I seen him take out guys twice his size just by sticking it between their legs one way or the other. You’d like him. He ain’t much bigger than you, actually. And he can move, too. Ain’t the same as two legs, but he’s pretty good. Ain’t nothing wrong with his brain. He’s real smart. One time he...” Jack trailed off as he saw Conrad approach with the chloroform-soaked cloth. “Time to get some medicine now. Dr. Schmidt’s real good at this.”
Jack’s week with me was almost up. I’d miss him. He missed his friends, I could tell. And there was a girl. And somehow I had to get Jack an education. He didn’t have to be a doctor, but he showed a lot of promise. I let myself think about passing on my practice in my old age. Would this girl come to Portland?
I bought him a round trip ticket. Then I bought another one.
Jack had to think. The train rushed on, faster than Jack had remembered it going on his way to Maine. He liked sitting in a paid-for seat. He looked over at Conrad, who had fallen asleep not too long ago. Was Conrad nuts or was he really being serious?
Was Jack really so stupid that he’d say no to this plan of Conrad’s? What would Katherine say? It hinged on her. It would take so long Jack could hardly fathom it. He hardly ever thought past tomorrow, he had realized. Would she laugh at him? A year of studying just to get ready for an entrance exam. Two years at Bowdoin. Two years at the hospital in Portland. Conrad said he’d help. Even Sam and Sarah said they would help. Conrad had actually said he thought Jack was smart. Smart. Jack picked at his bandage. But he didn’t have to be a doctor, Conrad said. Maybe he’d want to do something else. He’d even talked to the owner of the general store. Jack could work there in the mornings, for Conrad in the afternoons, and study in the evenings. Maybe he’d want to run a business after all. He could live in the little storage room Conrad had fixed up in the clinic for him, complete now with a cot, in exchange for working for him. Conrad had offered it for free in addition to paying him, but Jack thought it was too much. He was already taking free meals at the house. That was plenty. He’d have to save for tuition and a place to stay at Bowdoin if he made it in. Conrad had laughed when Jack said he knew how to live cheap. Amen to that, Conrad had said.
Would she wait? Would she want to move around like that? He’d still be poor, at least until he got a practice going, Conrad said. Even then people would pay you with a chicken. Jack thought that sounded pretty good. But what would Katherine think? She might not be impressed by a chicken.
And what about Crutchie? And Miss Medda? He’d finally made friends. Miss Medda always helped him. He thought back to the first time she’d seen him, straight from six months in the Refuge. She’d still helped him, even knowing he was a criminal. Did they let criminals like him into medical school? He hadn’t even asked Conrad that.
He nudged Conrad. “Conrad, I got a question,” he said. If this plan wasn’t going to work, Jack should probably get off the train now. “Conrad.”
Conrad blinked. “What?”
“Do they let criminals into medical school? We got a problem.” Jack tried to keep his voice down so he wouldn’t alarm the other passengers. They’d probably throw him off if they listened in too much.
“You were a kid, Jack. You stole food and clothes, not bars of gold.” Conrad resettled himself and closed his eyes.
“I’m an escaped convict,” Jack whispered urgently. “I escaped from jail. Twice.” Conrad’s eyes flew open.
“Twice,” Conrad repeated. “Jack, we saw the headline in the Globe about the Refuge being closed. If they ask, you can tell them how you were abused there and why you escaped.”
“You sure?” Jack asked. “Most people would say I got what was coming to me.”
“Please just trust me, Jack,” sighed Conrad. Jack waited for him to continue, but Conrad went back to sleep.
“Yes, Jack.” Conrad kept his eyes closed.
“You really think I can do this.”
“I do. You put in the work, and you can do it. You have a lot more common sense than a lot of new doctors, Jack.” Conrad still kept his eyes closed. Jack waited again.
“I don’t talk right,” said Jack.
Conrad finally opened his eyes. “Jack, when that little boy was about to lose his leg, do you think he cared how you talked?”
“I just wanted to keep his mind off of you,” said Jack.
“Exactly. You kept him occupied and calm. Grammar had nothing to do with it. He needed you to be steady and caring, and you were. I never told you to do that, or what to talk about, or how to talk. It takes some doctors years to learn to do what you did,” replied Conrad.
“They’ll laugh at me at medical school,” said Jack.
“We’ll work on it, Jack, this year. You just need to learn to translate a little. You’ll be fine.” Conrad closed his eyes again.
“What if she says no?”
“Any girl who says no doesn’t deserve you.” Eyes still closed.
Jack looked down and picked at his bandage.
“This is it,” Jack said, gesturing grandly to the lodge. “The place I can’t stay no more.” He ran up the steps and banged on the door. “Albert, Race, Crutchie, you guys in there?” He turned and grinned at me. I knew the lodge wouldn’t be a palace, but this place was worse than I had imagined. A couple of little boys opened the door.
“Hey, fellas,” said Jack. “How you doing?” The boys shouted Jack’s name and threw their arms around him. He swung them around so they’d laugh. “Listen, can you get Crutchie and Race and Albert for me? I ain’t allowed to come in.” The boys grinned up at Jack and raced back inside.
“Jack?!” I saw a boy who must be Crutchie come to the door. “You’re back!” Crutchie came out and slapped Jack on the shoulder. Polio? An accident? Jack pretended to punch him in the stomach with his bandaged hand. Crutchie laughed and turned to me. “Hi. I’m Crutchie,” he said, holding out his hand.
“Conrad,” I answered, shaking his hand. “Jack came to see me in Maine.”
A red-headed boy crashed through the door next. He looked at me somewhat skeptically and then turned to Jack. “You see your old lady?”
“She’s dead,” said Jack. His bluntness took my breath away. It was still so fresh for me.
But the red-headed boy just nodded. “I figured. Who the fuck is this?” he said, looking at me.
“This is Conrad, Albert. He’s my... he was married to my mother,” said Jack. “He wanted to see New York.”
“What the fuck happened to your hand? He do that to you?” Albert lifted his chin in my direction.
“No. I got pushed off a train. By someone else. And then a cop stomped me. Would you relax?” Jack looked at me apologetically.
“What you doing here then, Jacky?” Albert demanded.
“I came to talk to you guys. Where’s Race?” Jack peered into the doorway. “Race! Come on down! I gotta talk to you!”
Race came down, lighting a cigar as he leaned in the doorway. “Glad you’re back, Jacky. You been gone a while. Pulitzer’s still mad, though. You can’t stay here yet.”
Crutchie had sat down on the steps. “What’s going on, Jack? What are we talking about?”
Jack looked back at me, obviously afraid. I smiled at him, trying to look encouraging.
“Guys, I can’t get work here. You know that already. I can’t stay here neither, and you know that too. I can’t keep staying at Medda’s. Pulitzer will catch on sometime and do something bad.” Jack looked at me again. “Conrad here is a doctor. He thinks I can go to school. Maybe be a doctor or something, like him, I don’t know. Maybe. But it would be in Maine. I’d be gone a while.” He stopped. I looked at the three boys. Race puffed on his cigar. Albert looked like he was going to punch Jack.
Crutchie looked up after a minute. “You could maybe fix my leg, Jacky.” Albert snorted. Race smacked the back of Albert’s head.
“It’s a good idea, Jack,” said Race. “Nothing but trouble for you here. They’d send you to the real prison the next time you got arrested for something.” Next time, like it was inevitable. Jack the convict, now and forever. He wasn’t kidding.
”What did Kath say,” asked Albert. “Didja drag her into another alley to explain your great plan to her? Tell her the kissing’s better in fucking Maine?”
”I ain’t told her yet,” Jack said shortly.
Albert smirked. “She’s the one who’ll tell you yes or no, right, Jacky? Get lost. Come back when you have a real plan.” He turned and went inside, slamming the door.
Medda was kind enough to let us stay in Jack’s little room at the theater. I looked at him stretched out on the floor, sound asleep, head on his arm, as I lay in the bed he insisted I take. What would he have done without her? No wonder he had grabbed a broom last night and worked. Medda had just shaken her head and let him do what he felt he had to do.
“Jack was a bad case, Dr. Schmidt,” she had said. “I wasn’t sure he was gonna make it. Now look at him, thinking about something like school.”
“I know the Refuge was an awful place, Miss Medda,” I had said hesitantly. How much did I want to know? “Is there anything I should know? To help Jack?”
She looked at me. “I never seen a child more beat than Jack when I first saw him. Bruises from top to bottom. Clothes all ripped up. Hungry but too proud to say so. Seemed like he ain’t smiled in his whole life. And angry... He didn’t want nothing from nobody. And then he went back. Twice. You gotta remember that,” she had said. “Jack, honey, you can stop,” she called. “You can get the rest in the morning. You ain’t given me a hug yet, and I ain’t going to bed without one.”
Jack had come over to her and wrapped his arms around her. “How’s that?” he had asked.
“Perfect,” Medda had said.
Jack had grinned at her. “I’m gonna go finish up now, though. I’ll be quiet. No spittoons tonight, I promise.” Medda shook a finger at him, smiling back at him, and retired to her room. Jack had whistled softly on his way back to his broom.
I watched him sleep a little while longer.
Finally, we saw Jack. He didn’t want to put us in danger, which I appreciated, but I’m glad he took the chance to come see us. David and Les were at school, and Mayer was at work, though. Jack didn’t know. But here he was, telling me about this Dr. Schmidt. How I loved his ideas.
“You think I can do it?” Jack asked me. “Do you think it’s a dumb idea?”
“I know that you can do it,” I said, reaching out for his good hand. “Mayer will be so proud to hear this. So proud.” Jack gave me a smile at that.
“You need to see Katherine,” I said. “But Jack, remember. You are my son. You can come here to see me whenever you want to.” And I put my hands on his chin, drew his face next to mine, and pressed my cheek on his. I kissed his cheek and let him go.
Jack’s chin trembled. “I’ll miss you, Mama Jacobs,” he whispered. He turned quickly and ran down the stairs. He didn’t wave goodbye.
Jack should see Katherine alone. I had to talk to Albert. The newsie I stopped told me where Albert usually sold, and he was easy enough to find. I gave him a dime for a newspaper so I’d get his attention. It worked.
“I can get a teacher to come to the lodge in the evenings, Albert,” I said. “I just talked to the Teachers College this morning. Any newsie who wanted to pay a penny could go to class.”
Albert looked at me scornfully. “Out to save the world, are you,” he asked, flipping my dime.
“You could get a better job when you’re older if you work on math and writing, and you know that’s true,” I replied. “I know you can read just fine, obviously,” I finished, pointing at his newspapers.
Albert watched my face. I held his gaze.
“You’re one of the leaders, Albert. If you do it, the other newsies will too. You’ll help everyone get ready for a better job when they’re done being newsies.” I kept my eyes on Albert’s face.
“You really a doctor?” he asked.
“You really think Jack can be one too?”
“I’ll talk to Race and Crutchie about this teacher idea,” he said, still watching me.
“Thank you, Albert,” I said.
“Jacky better become a doctor or I’m coming to fucking Maine and I’m gonna feed him to a fucking bear. And then I’ll kick your ass.”
Race had successfully delivered the message to Katherine. She came to the little room at Medda’s that afternoon. Jack asked Conrad to wait in the hallway, or even somewhere else entirely, and was glad when Conrad said he wanted to see more of the city. Jack took one look at Katherine and pulled her into a long kiss before even saying hello. He had missed her. He hadn’t even realized how much. Here she was, kissing him back, holding his face as he wrapped his fingers of his left hand in her hair. Finally they pulled apart, still touching, still looking.
“Race told me everything,” she said. Jack suddenly didn’t want to talk about it. What if she hated this idea. He wanted another kiss and came in to kiss her forehead, her eyes... she laughed and pulled away.
“Come be a reporter in Portland,” Jack blurted out.
“Jack, really. I don’t know anyone there. How do you know they are even hiring? Do they hire women reporters up there? And where would I live?”
“Ella said she’d like a boarder. She’s real nice. She’d help you. And you don’t have to come until we see an ad for a reporter job. They’d be crazy not to hire you,” he pleaded. Please, let this work. He kissed her eyebrows, her nose.
“You could find a job in Portland until they need a reporter. You could be a tutor. You could work in a store. I’ll be making a little money at the general store in Westbrook. I can help you find something, I promise,” he said. Katherine held his bandaged hand, looking down.
Jack felt her slipping away.
“Kath, I ain’t gonna have much money for a while. I gotta save for tuition. And new doctors don’t make a lot until people get to know them and they get their office going. Conrad said some folks will pay me with a chicken. But it will taste good, won’t it?” He tried to catch her eye. He placed his hands on her shoulders and guided her to the chair. He took off his cap and tossed it on the desk.
He knelt down, putting his hands on hers, in her lap. “Kath, you won’t be hungry. I swear it. I’ll do anything. You’ll always have a place to stay. I ain’t never going to let you down. Not ever.”
He stopped and took a breath. “Kath, it shouldn’t be now, or even soon, but will you marry me someday?” He looked at her lap, not daring to look at her face.
He felt her touch his hair, and then lift his chin. He raised his eyes to look at her. She smiled at him. “Yes, my Jack, my future Dr. Kelly. I will.”
Jack buried his face in her lap and felt tears rush down his face. He had never known that a person could cry from happiness.