A few months after he left the hospital, Danny began his dire love affair with Nora O'Shea. On one of the days of their secret courtship, she kissed the scar on his neck and told him he was blessed.
"If I'm blessed," he said to her, "what was the thief?"
This was in a room at the Tidewater Hotel that overlooked the boardwalk of Nantasket Beach in Hull. They'd taken the steamboat from downtown and spent the day at Paragon Park, riding the carousel and the teacups. They ate saltwater taffy and fried clams so hot they had to be waved through the sea breeze before they could be swallowed.
Nora bested him in the shooting gallery. One lucky shot, true, but a bull's-eye and so it was Danny who was handed the stuffed bear by the smirking park vendor. It was a raggedy thing, its split seams already disgorging pale brown stuffing and sawdust. Later, in their room, she used it to defend herself during a pillow fight, and that was the end of the bear. They swept up the sawdust and the stuffing with their hands. Danny, on his knees, found one of the late bear's button eyes under the brass bed and placed it in his pocket. He hadn't intended to keep it beyond that day, but now, over a year later, he rarely left his rooming house without it.
Danny and Nora's affair had begun in April of 1917, the month the United States entered the war against Germany. It was an unseasonably warm month. Flowers bloomed earlier than predicted; near the end of the month their perfume reached windows high above the streets. Lying together in the smell of flowers and the constant threat of a rain that never fell, as the ships left for Europe, as the patriots rallied in the streets, as a new world seemed to sprout beneath them even quicker than the blooming flowers, Danny knew the relationship was doomed. This was even before he'd learned her bleaker secrets, back when the relationship was in the first pink blush of itself. He felt a helplessness that had refused to leave him since he'd woken on the basement floor of Salutation Street. It wasn't just Salutation (though that would play a large role in his thoughts for the rest of his life), it was the world. The way it gathered speed with every passing day. The way the faster it went, the less it seemed to be steered by any rudder or guided by any constellation. The way it just continued to sail on, regardless of him.
Danny left the boarded-up ruin of Salutation and crossed the city with his flask. Just before dawn, he made his way up onto the Dover Street Bridge and stood looking out at the skyline, at the city caught between dusk and day under a scud of low clouds. It was limestone and brick and glass, its lights darkened for the war effort, a collection of banks and taverns, restaurants and bookstores, jewelers and warehouses and department stores and rooming houses, but he could feel it huddled in the gap between last night and tomorrow morning, as if it had failed to seduce either. At dawn, a city had no finery, no makeup or perfume. It was sawdust on the floors, the overturned tumbler, the lone shoe with a broken strap.
"I'm drunk," he said to the water, and his foggy face stared back at him from a cup of light in the gray water, the reflection of the sole lamp lit under the bridge. "So drunk." He spit down at his reflection, but he missed it.
Voices came from his right and he turned and saw them--the first gaggle of the morning migration heading out of South Boston and up onto the bridge: women and children going into the city proper for work.
He walked off the bridge and found a doorway in a failed fruit wholesalers building. He watched them come, first in clumps and then in streams. Always the women and children first, their shifts an hour or two before the men's so they could return home in time to get dinner ready. Some chatted loudly and gaily, others were quiet or soggy with sleep. The older women moved with palms to their backs or hips or other aches. Many were dressed in the coarse clothing of mill and factory laborers, while others wore the heavily starched, blackand-white uniforms of domestics and hotel cleaners.
He sipped from his flask in the dark doorway, hoping she'd be among them and hoping she wouldn't.
Some children were herded up Dover by two older women who scolded them for crying, for scuffling their feet, for holding up the crowd, and Danny wondered if they were the eldest of their families, sent out at the earliest age to continue the family tradition, or if they were the youngest, and money for school had already been spent.
He saw Nora then. Her hair was covered by a handkerchief tied off behind her head but he knew it was curly and impossible to tame, so she kept it short. He knew by the thickness of her lower eyelids she hadn't slept well. He knew she had a blemish at the base of her spine and the blemish was scarlet red against pale white skin and shaped like a dinner bell. He knew she was self- conscious about her Donegal brogue and had been trying to lose it ever since his father had carried her into the Coughlin household five years ago on Christmas Eve after fi nding her half- starved and frostbitten along the Northern Avenue docks.
She and another girl stepped off the sidewalk to move around the slower children and Danny smiled when the other girl passed a furtive cigarette to Nora and she cupped it in her hand and took a quick puff.
He thought of stepping out of the doorway and calling to her. He pictured himself reflected in her eyes, his eyes swimming with booze and uncertainty. Where others saw bravery, she would see cowardice.
And she'd be right.
Where others saw a tall, strong man, she'd see a weak child. And she'd be right.
So he stayed in the doorway. He stayed there and fingered the bear's-eye button in his pants pocket until she was lost in the crowd heading up Dover Street. And he hated himself and hated her, too, for the ruin they'd made of each other. chapter two Luther lost his job at the munitions factory in September. Came in to do a day's work, found a yellow slip of paper taped to his workbench. It was a Wednesday, and as had become his habit during the week, he'd left his tool bag underneath the bench the night before, each tool tightly wrapped in oilcloth and placed one beside the other. They were his own tools, not the company's, given to him by his Uncle Cornelius, the old man gone blind before his time. When Luther was a boy, Cornelius would sit on the porch and take a small bottle of oil from the overalls he wore whether it was a hundred in the shade or there was frost on the woodpile, and he'd wipe down his tool set, knowing each one by touch and explaining to Luther how that wasn't no crescent wrench, boy, was a monkey wrench, get it straight, and how any man didn't know the difference by touch alone ought just use the monkey wrench, 'cause a monkey what he be. He took to teaching Luther his tools the way he knew them himself. He'd blindfold the boy, Luther giggling on the hot porch, and then he'd hand him a bolt, make him match it to the box points of a socket, make him do it over and over until the blindfold wasn't fun no more, was stinging Luther's eyes with his own sweat. But over time, Luther's hands began to see and smell and taste things to the point where he sometimes suspected his fingers saw colors before his eyes did. Probably why he'd never bobbled a baseball in his life.