Fever Dogs

Holyoke, 1923; Boston, 1924

When, in a man’s hand, the finger of Jupiter is short and crooked, the first phalange of the thumb heavy, and the second phalange poor, the lower mounts over-developed, the Heart-line short and without branches—it would be well not to marry that person.

                           —E. René, hands and how to read them

Boston is a club-fingered spatulate hand. Maps show this. Mother says: If the city were a man, he would do best to be a butcher.

Esther does not want to go seaward. Water is to die in, to extract your sins or punish them. If you’re runty, drown in a sack. If you’re weepy, wet your head. Nothing like cold water down your collar to dry your eyes. Esther and Doris eat no fish, just fries with curd and gravy Fridays. Holyoke has one algae-slick pond like a digestive tract. This is Shrike. Whatever you toss in it is gone, juiced. Both Esther and Doris were baptized in that pond by a blind itinerant deacon who was later exposed as a Methodist and sighted. He was caught wearing glasses two towns over. Before baptizing, he tongued their nostrils languorously, so that they would know the odor of God.

The parish men who found him removed his glasses. They removed his eyes with pliers before they tossed him in Shrike.

Esther and Doris do not swim. Both their left-hand Luna mounts are grilled with small lines. On each a bad star. In this they are alike, and Mother says: Luna mounts like that make you unsafe for water.

Yet Esther’s right hand is her own to write, and west of Holyoke are just more pulp mills and cows. Busybody parishes. Waitressing and strangers to Esther sound good. When consumption takes Mother, Esther sells off the last old animals. She takes Doris east. Fearing damp, they ride the Boston–Albany line ninety miles wearing every piece of clothing they own. They look like laundry. Woolen capuches rash their foreheads red. Each balances on her knees a lurching tourtière that neither can stomach to eat or to part with. In Esther’s pillowcase: E. René and underwear. In her boot, egg money. At the end of the line, their laps stink of pork.

What they find is a brackish city. Boston waging a grudge match with sea. It lops off its hills to soak up its ponds. It dams its mudflats to shore up a river. A fingered mass flattening out to gain ground. Twice a day the tide retreats and children scavenge the defunct mill sluice for shells, hoops, coins, bones.

Beyond South Station a dock extends in a scarf of fog. Up flap gulls and beanied men shout. Bowsprits crosshatch the far-off blue.

A man docks a dory. He has a pepperbox and cruet and says, Come and get it. He has no legs. The empty dungarees fill and fall like lungs. He sorts a mound of deformed rocks in a crate beside him and knives his selection and twists the blade and administers vinegar and pepper while Doris stares. He inserts the split stone in his mouth and throws back his head. Oysterman, says the station newsboy. Across the street gapes a hole in the ground big enough to consume a house. A guard in a jumpsuit waves off traffic. Subway expansion, says the boy. Irish tunnel under at night, he says. Try the South End, he says when Esther and Doris do not move.

Bostonians would conceive rivers out of marsh, then ride trains beneath them as if rivers were conceptions.

And as you walk the tracks south, people do not see you, like you are a thing not yet conceived. This suits Esther. Humid air hits her face like fresh plaster. She strips off a coat, an apron, a sweater. Five-story walk-ups sag and go provisional, revert from stone to brick to wood at Fort Hill.

Doris says experimentally, I hate it here.

I like it, says Esther. Doris, a poor but jealous eater, will hunger for anything on Esther’s plate. In this way Esther tricks Doris into appetite, and in the same way she will trick Doris into good faith.

Doris hangs off Esther’s arm and plucks at the tender skin above the elbow. When Esther says that hurts, Doris checks her own skin for bruises. Esther finds herself checking Doris too.

Aren’t you hot? says Doris and spits. I’m hot. Is that interesting?

Doris is a prodigious spitter.

Keep Doris close, Mother had said.

Doris carried a screwdriver. At night she lifted pretty bits of hardware off parish doors for a month. Sunday, she gave those to Shrike. If she fed it, it would feed her.

Out of Shrike rose a hound.

The hound broke the pond’s green mantle, swam a line to Doris, climbed ashore, and shook free a thick suit of algae. Its skin was furless, the pink caul of an infant. Mother was born wearing her caul, a silly hood. It gave her her second sight. She wore it around her neck in a pouch.

That the hound followed Doris home was no surprise. It followed her anywhere. It wanted only to be close. As they walked, Doris held the low bowers of tamaracks so that they would not beat the hound’s half-made flesh.

Doris called the hound Deacon.

The lodging house lady asks if Doris is Esther’s child. Doris is five years younger! But also a foot shorter and that catenary noodle of a body looking always on the verge of a fit or a jig, whereas Esther is tall and hinged, deliberate. When Esther says no, the lady says good.

Days Esther does dish duty in a canteen for boys studying law. Another red-brick box larded white past the Fens. The basement scullery is swampy. A communicating dumbwaiter takes the dirty things down to it. Two for one, Esther says to the Bridget who hires her, because she can see that the woman thinks Doris too young. Doris is young, a too-young twelve. Aging skittishly, forward and backward. But where else can Doris go all day? Doris sweeps, Esther says, and buses tables and sticks by me—that last part true. Doris herds Esther. Doris sweeps but forgets her sweepings. Aban- doned anthills of bread crumb and gristle. One day, she breaks two plates dancing some kind of reel. The other day girl, Irma, adjusts her hairnet. Pits caked in orange pock her cheeks, and she has a habit of hiding by not meeting your eyes. Let me finish, will you, whispers Esther to Doris. Go up and clear the last tables. Don’t talk to anyone. Doris leaves, her pliable face gone flat.

The room falls wordless. Steel and stoneware and stuck bits of forcemeat. Bird jelly scums Esther up to the wrist. As she rinses the last spoon, something like applause spills down the shaft in a current. Esther goes up. There in the dining hall is Doris, three sweet buns in her mouth and cramming another. A small circle of aspiring lawyers in cufflinks holding out spares. Doris spits out bun bits, gags, swallows, and says to her audience, Also, I juggle.

Esther collars Doris. Downstairs she says, You really went for it, didn’t you. Irma has gone. Esther raises her hand to smack her sister. She has never hit anyone. She has wanted to, often. Now the mechanics of it stump her. Her arm goes pins and needles. Blood pools at the elbow. I’m tired is the thing, she says. Her arm lowers and her eyes shut to enable recollection of trees that she knows by sight—white oak blackjack hemlock pine chinaberry pecan mockernut hickory—then open at a watery clap. Doris stands drenched. Her hand holds an empty glass. Water travels her chin to the puddle she stands in. Doris shakes her head, spraying droplets like a very wet dog. She looks surprised.

Doris says, They gave us these, and pulls from her right pocket a nickel, a matchbook, and a broken potpie.

Doris keeps to herself what was not given: two enamel cufflinks backed in gold.

Doris lifted scrap from her plate to feed Deacon.

She slept with Deacon locked in embrace. They were the same height precisely.

When Mother took to bed with fever, she spoke to Doris of fever dogs. Pour some milk in a bowl and let the dog drink it. Then the fevered person drinks. Back and forth goes the bowl. When the milk is gone, the person is cured.

And the dog? said Doris.

Mother said that every death needed a home. She said that Deacon would house her death, as Mother had housed him.

Before dawn Doris led Deacon to Shrike. She told him go. He would not go. Weeping, from her pocket she drew five stones. She threw them in order smallest to biggest, first at his feet, then at his shank. Deacon would not go. The fifth was the size of his head and aimed for it. Deacon ran blind. Roots tripped him. Tree trunks fenced him. Until she lost sight of him in the forest litter, Doris counted the blows his tender skin took and for each extracted a hair from her head. She fed those to Shrike. Shrike ate those, but hair is the body’s practice death and what is already dead cannot sate hunger.

Shrike said: More, more, more.

Doris gave Mother’s bowl of milk instead to a barn cat. Deacon is drinking, she misinformed her mother. Your turn next.

Esther and Doris prop the slatted chair beneath the doorknob and undress to slips. On the sheets they print thin sweat selves. Doris swats off Esther’s comb. She chops at deerflies, robust and furred. She lobs them like shuttlecocks with the flats of her hands. Esther reads a chapter on tarot. With a steak knife she pares dead skin from her heels. Doris dips her hand in a jar of molasses and suckles each pointed finger in turn. Where did you get that? says Esther. When do you get out alone?

Some blocks from the lodging house a fifty-foot molasses drum leaks. From their window, they can see kids coming and going. They ferry the tarish syrup in old chipped-beef cans.

Doris walks the plank of the bed to the end. Stiff as a stiff, she drops. At the moment of collision she cinches up and rolls. Her spine lashes the rag rug. Soon the lodging lady’s broom end will Morse code quit.

I wish I could be shot from a cannon into snow, says Doris from the floor. It’s hot.

Mother’s chief worry for Doris derived from those fingers— short and knotless like a religious fanatic’s. The palms too are bad. The heart lines islanded, and surmounting the bracelets are deep lines of intemperance. Both hands show it. These things might be averted, but by Esther, not Doris. It was best if Doris did not know, Mother had said.

You’re on my watch till you marry, thinks Esther. Doris wipes her gummy hand in her hair and works at contortion. She licks molasses off her fingers and works at second sight. Esther thinks, I will find you someone.

Doris thinks, You needn’t. I will find my own.

The barn cat died.

But it was too small a home.

In her last week, Mother’s cough went thready. She spoke to Esther of how when she died she might bring mischief upon them, as the dead were now bringing mischief upon her. Esther asked her what sort of mischief, and would she not, in death, to her capacity, mother them.

Mother’s face was a hatchet in shape, a sponge to touch. Her breath smelled like meat.

Mother said, Look at me.

Mother said, Can’t you see that I am being eaten? Can’t you see that when dead I will eat you?

Mother said, When I die, dig out my heart. Burn it on a fire of sally twigs. If you do not, go away from here. Run far or not at all. My heart will hunt you and feed upon you.

Nights, while Doris sleeps, Esther gets into her Gypsy getup. She knots a shawl beneath her chin. She does her lips gash-red and bigger than life and runs a dozen bangles up one forearm. Until closing, she sits in the greasy window of the rail yard Forest Club that serves good chips and wretched pickled things—knuckles, eggs, baby onions, tongues. Her job is to lure. To detect and smile at money passing by. When money enters, she watches how it moves. She watches how it eats, and when it comes to her twitchy and hands rotating upward, she knows already half of what to say. She thickens the accent. None of them place it.

Few men come to her. The Forest Club men are there to be alone, communing and smoking and alone like each table is an adjoining stall and the place a kind of safe house for privacy, a public theater or toilet in which you can get fed. They do not look at her. She senses in the quality of that not looking fear. It comes to her that first night that her cheap costume has overshot the mark. No one sees her as seventeen or a girl. They see her as some grim reaper in drag. They see her as fate, their personal predator.

Those who do come have confession on their lips. They want the opposite of what a confessor gives. Whatever it is—and it is theft and betrayal, that’s all, that’s enough—they don’t want forgiveness, do not believe in it. They want to know if they will be caught. They have concerns about cost. There is something groveling and abject in the way they cast their eyes about the floor and she finds herself repulsed and full of mercy. She cannot help them except by lying. In a lying style, she does not say the worst to them, faggots of lines and stars and crosses, withered Mercurys and crooked Saturns, but carries it home like a bad food ingested.

From two to six in the morning Esther tosses next to Doris and craves fresh boudin. Craves licking the bloody innards from the intestinal casing the way Doris would go at a sugar-pie whisk. Not hunger. Need like a splinter she can’t stop poking. Their hallmate, the needlewoman, says it only gets worse. She says nothing cures it. She says not all the boudin in the world cures it.

At six Esther rises and fills their basin down the hall. She brings it back and sponge bathes while Doris grinds her face in a pillow.

Do you think it’s hot out? Doris says.

The window right there for looking out of. A drugget shade stirs and sun stripes their feet.

To Doris, Esther says, I’m glad you asked, because there’s no way of knowing. To herself, she thinks, I will find you someone.

You needn’t, thinks Doris. I can find my own.

Nights, while Esther dresses to go, Doris half sleeps. She listens for the lodging-house door latch behind Esther then rouses too to dress and to earn. She has two hours to do exactly what she wants—enough to run six blocks through gaslight and chill to the molasses drum, to consume as much as her hands can collect. Three blocks more to the dead mill sluice, where small treasure can be had, unhindered by competition, and half a dozen more past the Fens to Muddy River. Muddy River is the mouth of the tidal flats and stinks—but is lucky in proportion to stink and generous in proportion to what she feeds it. Muddy River returns her the gifts of shipwrecks. One night she feeds it a canteen cufflink and within the hour receives from the effervescent mud below the rotten dock two mercury dimes and three peace dollars. For cufflink two, one week later, Muddy River returns three bottles of intact Canadian whiskey. She feeds it canteen forks, and it pays her in bottles. Beneath the rotten dock is a ledge to keep her take. Sedge grass hides it. When she has enough, she can discharge Esther of her night work and of Doris. Esther must be free to leave her. It is what Doris owes.

Esther’s good luck is this: wide-spaced level straight conic fingers, unwaisted thumb, and a feathered heart line. Farsightedness with the right things. Speak of hawks, she can spot one miles off by its wingspan. A good man at twenty yards by his cranial geometry, and then, at close range, by his hands, she corroborates.

Whatever boldness made her come here was not foretold and not welcome in Holyoke. Esther willed it. Compare the Mars mound of her right hand to that of her left.

The day they buried Mother, the tamaracks acted as if Doris was strange. They made no way for her. They argued in whispers.

Doris wore Mother’s gift in its pouch at her waist hidden between her apron and skirt. Mother had said, You need the second sight more than Esther will.

At Shrike, Doris loosened the pouch. She tipped out the gift. The caul was pink, the size of a prune. It looked to her just like a piece of Deacon. She took a small bite, swallowed, tossed the rest to Shrike.

The caul skated the green to the deepest middle but would not sink. Then Shrike said, No.

Shrike said, I need what is needed. Shrike said, I made him.

Doris said, If you don’t want my caul, then give it back. Shrike said, If you will not feed Deacon, give him back.

Esther had her back to the stove studying her hands when Doris returned wet to the waist. On the table was open the book Mother gave Esther.

The pot is boiling over, Doris said.

Esther moved it from the heat and looked at Doris. She did not ask why Doris was wet. She asked Doris what if we leave.

He is really something.

Esther first sees him passing her by, through glass. She knocks. She tents her eyes.

You want to talk to me, she mouths.

He walks a chicken-sized dog with fur like a tux and stands a head taller than the crowd but moves slow.

He stays the dog to look at her.

You want to talk to me, she mouths and signs.

He scoops up the dog.

Wrong man, he mouths back and keeps looking. Square hand, fingers equal in length to palm, big. Ring.

No, big doesn’t cover it. Hands to bully oxen or uproot trees. But two weeks after, he’s at the nearest table ringless, paying her this compliment: Excuse me for saying it, but sister, you’ve had rotten luck.

Better than what small, what white, what green, what-have-you. He says, What kind of rotten luck does it take for a girl like you to wind up here?

He has a quiet and hoarse sort of accent of his own. Like a person spent from yelling and now done. She hefts her clangorous left hand and says, If by luck you mean what you’re dealt, that’s this hand only. That’s only the half of it.

His black eyes so wide set she has to favor one speaking. Buttressing cheeks and mansard nose. A shock of dark hair drains into the summit of his skull, which dimples profoundly, two handholds back of ears. Like his head is a thing to lug.

She says, I don’t know your sister, but you look nothing like my brother.

Where’s he? he says. A man shouldn’t let his sister work a place like this.

I ditched him, Esther says. Wouldn’t stop following me. Bossy, too.

The man says, I see.

His breath slow beneath crossed arms.

Who said I have a brother? Esther says. I have a sister, much nicer than me, and older than she looks. Esther plucks an ice cube from her tonic and draws a wet letter on her arm. She erases it slowly. Hey, where you from? Don’t you have a dog? A real little lapdog, like the kind for a lady.

Esther likes to hurt people she likes, just a bit, to show them that she knows where their hurt lies. Pain is intimate and nice when withheld. What good is withholding if you don’t show that you hold it.

That’s the past, he says. You’re billed here as some oracle.

Why do you think I’m here if not to meet you? she says.

He reangles the lamp head at her. A line, he says. How old are you anyway.

Open up, she says and holds one ice cube high. He does not open. Open, she says. He does not. Open and hurry, she says, I can’t stay like this forever, my arm is sore enough to fall off right now. Where will that leave a girl like me? No one cares a fig for a one-armed girl.

He does not appear to move, but the next thing the ice cube is in his hand, not hers. Just like that.

Do you consider yourself a creative complainer? he says. He shakes his hand dry.

Don’t look like that, says Esther. What good is that face? I read hands.

The next time he puts a chair opposite Esther and fits himself to it with his legs shot sideways in an attitude of waiting.

She continues reading the funny papers by a candle nub. She can read words, unlike Doris, but pictures tell more.

Hello, Eddy, she says. The pub owner has given her that much. His face is this immaculate platter, calmness sweeping it ear to ear. What it is is lack of strain. She feels more or less like an ant or rodent, tunneling for air. He has no shortage of air. It is not about height. Esther is tall. She says, I can’t hear myself think with all your chatter.

When he does not answer, she says, What’s that, you’re concerned for my health? My feet hurt. Is that interesting? Not at all, no. You’re in the mood for a joke. There’s a woman and a doctor. The woman says my feet hurt and my tooth aches and sometimes my ear rings. Also this, she says and points to her face, not bad, rather ugly. Is that all? says the doctor, and she says, You mean you can fix me? The doctor pulls from a drawer a shotgun and says, Good news.

Eddy grows bigger through some black magic of his.

Some people, Esther says, enjoy what is called a sense of humor. My sister for one. She could teach you about it.

In the room behind them other men dwindle and conduct interior lives and chew foods rounded and brined to fleshy, to brainy, to eyeball consistency.

Actually the woman is not ugly, just plain—I told it wrong, Esther says. And the doctor, he says nothing. He just flat out shoots.

Don’t hog a conversation, Esther says when she cannot bear it.

Eddy holds out his hand. Calm down, he says. I want my reading cold.

Yes, that’s right, no talking and no touch either, Esther says. That’s stage one. That’s by the book. Sight only. That’s the only way to do it if you want it done right.

Hush, Eddy says and opens.

The last night Doris visits Muddy River is not hot but cold. Freak snow in June. A light rain falls, curdles, lazes to a float. Each gas lamp an astonishing aquarium of flakes. Ice hangs her lashes and gums the drum leak and sheathes the sedge grass that cracks loud beneath her. The season gone bad. She must harvest her take. But when Doris reaches beneath the dock to her safekeeping ledge she finds just slime. Numb fingers fumble, find only limpets. Muddy River would not take what is hers without a return—it pays up square, she counts on this—so she pinches her nose against the stink and scrambles down the bank. In waist-high muck she hunts one-handed. Under the dock is a reeking dark cave. Moss scuttles her scalp. She can see little in this light beyond her own hand patting the scum for bottles. Her own hand shattering frozen sedge grass. Foot by foot through the cold suck of mudbed. By the last dock post, her hand closes on something. Not bottle. Flesh.

Perhaps she screams.

Next thing she observes is herself on the dock in a violent foot-to-skull shiver. The sky powdered with stars.

That is when Muddy River grows verbal.

Look again, it says. I have what I owe you.

Once more, she finds her way down the bank, through mud, under dock, to the post. There awaits Deacon in the body of a small man faceup afloat. His flesh is quite blue—no clothes whatsoever. Four bruises trace a line where her stones had struck: single file from foot to hip. Beyond this, he looks wholly serviceable. Doris drags him to shore and clutches him to her to warm him. His face in repose is appropriate. The right human house. She rubs the rough blue cheeks in circles. Sluggard blood moves, animates the fingers. They turn a fine pink. Then the small good hand encloses her wrist. She knows its touch.

Deacon has come home to her for good. He can free Esther of Doris. She has paid for him and he is hers to keep.

The day Doris and Esther left for Boston, all the front doors of Holyoke failed to close. They sagged and could not clear their jambs. The doors had sent word, one to the other, and it was agreed: Not a thing goes uncounted. Not one stolen screw.  

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