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North River

Chapter One

Delaney knew he'd been in the dream before, knew from the hurting whiteness, the icy needles that closed his eyes, the silence, the force of the river wind. But knowing it was a dream did not ease his fear. As before, he waved his bare hands to push through the whiteness, but as before the whiteness was porous and he knew it was snow. As before, there was no horizon. As before, his feet floated through frozen powder. There was no ground beneath him. There was nothing to grip. No picket fence. No lamppost. And no people.

No friend.

No woman.

As before: just the driving force of the snow . . .

Then he was awake in the blue darkness. A sound. A bell. His hand clumsy with sleep, he lifted the black telephone on the night table. Still dead. Someone at the wrought iron gate below the stoop was jerking the old bell rope, making an urgent ding-dinging sound. A sound he had heard too many times. Shivering in cotton summer-time pajamas, he threw off the covers. Ding-ding-DING. The window shade was raised a foot, the window two inches, part of Delaney's desire for fresh air on the coldest winter nights. Drifted snow covered the oaken sill. He raised the shade and could see the snow moving horizontally from the North River. The wind whined. A midnight snowfall was now a dawn blizzard. Ripping in from the west along Horatio Street. Goddamn you, Monique! Answer the goddamned bell! And remembered that his nurse was gone for the long New Year's holiday, off somewhere with her boyfriend. Delaney pulled a flannel robe over his shoulders and parted the dark blue drapes, as if obeying the orders of the downstairs bell. Ding- ding. Ding-ding-DING. He glanced at the clock. Six-seventeen. The bell demanding attention. On a day of morning sleep all over New York. He raised the window, its glass rimed with the cold. Snow blew harder across the sill. He poked his head into the driving snow and looked down. At the gate under the stoop, a man was pulling the rope attached to the bell. Delaney knew him. A man who looked like an icebox in an overcoat. Bootsie, they called him. Bootsie Cirillo. Snow was piled on his pearl-gray fedora and the shoulders of his dark blue overcoat. At the sound of the window rising, he had stepped back and was now looking up.

"Doc? Eddie Corso sent me, Doc." His voice was raspy. "He needs you. Right now."

"Give me five minutes," Delaney said.

"Make it t'ree."

Delaney sighed, closed the window, and dressed quickly in rough clothes. Thinking: These goddamned hoods are worse since the movies got sound. Make it t'ree. Christ, I'm too old for these guys. He pulled a sweater over his denim shirt, added a scarf and a cloth cap with a longshoreman's pin. A gift from Knocko Carmody of the dock wallopers' union. Delaney pulled on bridgemen's shoes and took his time lacing them. Then he pocketed keys, some dollar bills, picked up his worn black leather bag, and went down the hall stairs to go out through the gate under the stoop. The snow hit his face, again like needles. Again he closed his eyes. The dream, the goddamned dream . . . all the way from the last years of the nineteenth century.

"You took too much time, Doc," Bootsie said. "This is fucking bad." He turned and shook the snow off his fedora and used it to brush powder off his shoulders. Snow was gathering on the roof and hood of the black Packard that was two feet from the curb. Bootsie jerked open the door on the passenger side, gesturing with his head for Delaney to get in, then moved around to take the wheel.

"We're late," he said.

"I did my best, Bootsie," Delaney said, sliding into the front seat and closing the door. The fat man started the car and pulled out, the snow rising loosely from the hood. Bootsie drove east on Horatio Street, the wind whipping hard behind them. There was no traffic. The car skidded on the turn at Hudson Street.

"Maybe I should walk," Delaney said.

"Eddie's maybe nine blocks from here."

"He's a thousand miles from here if you get us killed, Bootsie."

The fat man grunted, slowed down. The window was foggy from their breathing, and Bootsie took out a white silk handkerchief and wiped at it. Then handed the handkerchief to Delaney. The doctor wiped at the steamy front window on his side, then rolled the side window down an inch. Bootsie grunted.

"How come you don't got a car?" Bootsie said. "You could follow me."

"Can't afford it."

"Come on. You're a doctor."

"That's why I can't afford it."

"These bust- outs around here, they don't pay?"

"They're poor, Bootsie. They still get sick."

The fat man turned, made a right and another right, heading toward Little Italy. A few kids were coming down from the tenements. One of them was carrying a surplice, its hem emerging below a wrapping of Christmas paper, the boy off to serve the seven o'clock mass at Sacred Heart. As Delaney so often did, long ago. He noticed that up here the streetlights were still working. Another zone in the city grid. Another world.

"What happened to Eddie?"

"You'll fi nd out."

"Maybe I could get ready if you told me what happened."

Bootsie sighed, pondered this, made another turn through the snow-packed streets. Parked cars were turning into immense white sculptures in the wind-driven snow.

"Mr. Corso got shot, maybe an hour ago."


"The stomach. Maybe the arm too. And maybe the hand. There's blood all over his fingers . . ."

"I mean, where'd it happen?" "The club. We had a New Year's party, all the guys, the wives. A band too, and all the usual shit, noisemakers, funny hats. Most people go home, maybe t'ree in the morning. Some of the guys go over Chinatown to get laid. Then there's a card game, whiskey, a big pot. I cook up some breakfast, scramble eggs, sausage, the usual. Then in the door comes t'ree jaboneys, guns out. They don't say a word. They just start shooting. Then everybody's shooting. The t'ree shooters go down, but so does Mr. Corso. He's hurt real bad, but he says, 'Go throw these cocksuckers in the river.' I stay with him while the other guys haul the dead guys away. It's still dark, see? Nobody on the street. All the lights out. No cops. Nothing. Just the fucking snow."

He pulled up a few doors from the storefront housing the Good Men Social and Athletic Club. The street was empty. He and Delaney got out. Bootsie knocked on the door. Three fast raps, then two. A sallow man with dead eyes peered out, opened the door wider. Most of the lights were out.

"Took your fuckin' time," the sallow man said to Bootsie.

"Fast as I could, Carmine. It's a fuckin' blizzard out there."

The club was a mess of noisemakers, funny hats, overturned ta- bles, and blood. Delaney could see smears through the blood where bodies had been dragged. Against the wall, Eddie Corso was lying on a cot. He smiled thinly when he saw Delaney.

"Medic, medic," he whispered, and then grinned in a bleary way.

There was blood on his face, probably from his wet crimson hand, but there was a huge spreading stain of blood on the white shirt.

"Jesus, it hurts like a bastard, Doc."

"You've been through worse."

He grinned. "Morphine, morphine . . ." The call of the trenches in the rain. "Please, Doc . . ."

Corso laughed and then moaned, and Delaney gave him what he needed. He swabbed his arm with cotton soaked in alcohol, prepared a syringe, then injected him with a shot of morphine. Corso winced, then sighed in a gargly way. Delaney ripped open the bloody shirt to look at the worst wound, then used pressure and tape to staunch the bleeding.

"You've got to go to a hospital, Eddie."

"A hospital? You nuts? You might as well drive me to the Daily News." His voice was quavering and whispery with morphine. "This can't get out. This---"

"I can't do what you need, Eddie," Delaney said. "You need a surgeon."

"You did it in the Argonne, Doc!"

"And botched it for too many guys."

"You didn't botch it for me!"

"You need a professional surgeon, Eddie. Someone whose right hand works right, not like mine. Someone at St. Vincent's."

"Anybody comes in shot, the nuns call the cops."

"Let me see what I can do," Delaney said. "Your phone working?"

"Yeah," Bootsie said. "Over there."

Delaney called St. Vincent's, identifi ed himself, asked which surgeons were on duty, and held on. His eyes moved around the club, the blood and disorder, and Eddie Corso moaning, and the sallow man guarding the door, and Bootsie nibbling at some cake left on the bar. His gaze fell on the framed photographs of prizefi ghters and ballplayers, of old picnics, feasts, weddings, and then on the browning photograph of the remnant of the battalion. In a gouged field in France. All of them were still young, the farm boys and the city rats, and he could see Eddie Corso laughing like a man who'd won a lottery, always joking, as brave as any man Delaney had ever known. He saw himself too, off on the side, with his medic's armband, his face gaunt, a cigarette in his good right hand.

"Hello, hello," came the voice on the phone. "This is Dr. Zimmerman."

"Thank God," Delaney said, relieved that it was this particular young intern. "Jake, I need a big favor."

It was after eleven when Bootsie dropped him off at the house on Horatio Street. They had taken Eddie Corso through an old delivery entrance at the side of the hospital and hurried him into surgery. If he lived, there would be no records. If he died, it didn't matter. Around ten, Jake Zimmerman came out, young and bony and frazzled, and told Delaney with a nod and a thin smile that Eddie would survive. The nuns would bring him along after the operation, adhering to their own special vows of silence.

"By the way," Zimmerman said, "where'd your patient get those scars? One on the back, one on the leg?"

"The Argonne," Delaney said. "I sewed him up. That's why it looks so bad."

"The Argonne?"


"You never told me that."

"It was a long time ago, Jake."

In another life. Now he was on Horatio Street, with the snow still blowing hard. Bootsie's exhausted breathing had fogged the windows. Delaney opened the door.

"Thanks, Bootsie," he said.

"Thank you, Doc."

Then he reached over and touched Delaney's arm.

"You're a good fuckin' man, Doc."

"I wish," Delaney said, and stepped into the driving snow.

He looked up at the small brick house, the one he'd been given at her death by Evelyn Langdon. Ten years ago now, in a good year, before the goddamned Depression. She was the last of the old Protestant families who had come to the street in the 1840s, fl eeing cholera and the Irish, building their impregnable brick and brownstone fortresses. He had kept her alive until she was seventy- three. She had outlived her two children and all of her friends. When she died and the will was read, there was a note to Delaney, explaining that the house was now for him and his wife, Molly, and his daughter, Grace. You have been my last and perhaps truest friend. Please use this house to enrich human life.

Well, I did try, he thought as he opened the iron front gate under the stoop, remembering Evelyn's note. I tried, and too often failed. Most of all, I've failed those I loved the most.

Then he noticed the disturbed snow on the stoop itself, and, at the top, a fog rising on the tall glass windows of the vestibule. It was like Bootsie's fog in the car, a streaky, uneven fog made by breathing. He hurried up the steps, gripping the iron banister with his good left hand. Foot marks were drifted over with fresh snow. He glanced back to the street, but Bootsie was gone.

The vestibule door was unlocked. It was always unlocked, so that in bad weather the boy from Reilly's candy store could drop off the newspapers. In the left corner, he glimpsed the Times, the News, the Mirror. Maybe the footprints belonged to the newspaper boy. Maybe.

Then, pushing the door open a few inches, he saw the baby stroller. It was worn and ratty with age, strands of its wicker hood sprung and loose. Like something bought at a secondhand shop. Under a pile of covers, his head wrapped in a green scarf and a yellow wool hat, was a child.

He knew this boy with the wide, wary brown eyes. He had not seen him since the boy was six days old, another unformed infant huddled in the nursery of New York Hospital. But he had his mother's eyes, and her blond hair. That morning Grace had let him hold the boy, saying only that the boy's father, Rafael Santos of Cuernavaca, Mexico, was out running errands. She was not even seventeen that morning, his and Molly's only child. Now a child with a child. Smart, gifted, spoiled, but a child. Like ten thousand other young mothers in New York. When Delaney returned to the hospital, late the next morning, she and the baby were gone. Almost three years now. The postcards came for a while. From Key West. From Cuba. Later Grace wrote a longer letter from Mexico, telling Delaney and Molly that all three Santoses had boarded a ship to Veracruz, with stops along the way. I tried calling before we left, she wrote. Nobody was home. Molly read the letter fi rst, then slapped it against Delaney's chest. "Spoiled rotten," she said. "By you." There were a few more letters, cryptic or guarded, as if Grace was afraid of having them read by anyone else. And then the letters stopped. It was like an erasure on a charcoal drawing. Grace was there in his life, and in Molly's, but not there. He never did meet the goddamned husband.

He unlocked the inner vestibule door and wheeled the silent boy into the hall, closing doors firmly behind him. His own bedroom was to the left on the street side, the former parlor converted long ago by some forgotten inhabitant, with the former bedroom now full of chairs and couches, looking out on the back garden. Sliding oak doors separated the rooms, but the parquet fl oors stretched from front windows to rear like a dense oaken plain. He gently freed the boy from the blankets, thinking: Goddamned swaddling clothes. The boy had a lighter version of his mother's dark blond hair, and he gazed up at Delaney in silence. And then Delaney saw the letter on the boy's lap. Addressed DADDY. Sealed. He dropped it on the bed. Thinking: I'll read this later, but not in front of the boy. I don't want him to see my rage. She will explain herself, of course, but I can't stop now. He slipped off his heavy clothes and felt a chilly dampness penetrating the room. Thinking: Build a fire. He lifted the child, breathing hard on the boy's cold cheeks. Then the boy moved his arms. His face looked as if he had a toothache.

"Mamá," he said, waving a freed hand toward the door. With an accent on the second syllable. "Mamá?"

"We'll find her, boy. Don't worry."


The boy was wearing a pale blue snowsuit with a dark blue sweater underneath, and Delaney removed it and then lifted him and placed him standing beside the bed, his feet planted on the threadbare Persian rug. Carlos. His name is Carlos. A good weight. Maybe twentynine, thirty pounds. A healthy weight. Clear skin too. Small white teeth. He smelled of milk. The boy stood there, a hand on the mattress, gazing around at the strange high- ceilinged room, with its electric lights rising from the channels of old gas lamps, the dark glazed paintings on the walls, the dresser that held Delaney's clothes. The boy was looking at the two framed photographs on top of the dresser. Delaney's wife, Molly, when she was twenty-five. Grace, when she was sixteen, about the time she met Rafael Santos somewhere out in the city. Delaney thought: The boy has intelligent eyes. Yes. His mother's eyes.

"Mamá!" the boy said, pointing. "Mamá!"

"Yes," Delaney said, "that's your mama."

The coals were ashen gray in the fireplace, and Delaney squatted, crumpled an old newspaper, built a small house of kindling, struck a match. He thought: What the hell is this, anyway? I've treated about three thousand kids this size, this age, but I don't know a goddamned thing about taking care of them. Not even for a day. I didn't even know how to take care of my own daughter when she was this boy's age. I went to the war instead. The boy watched him, his dark eyes widening as the flame erupted. He glanced back at the photograph, then looked again at the fi re, as Delaney used a shovel to lift a few chunks of coal from the scuttle. Delaney felt his right shoulder begin to ache. Not from the cold. But he would have to do something to keep the boy warm in this large, drafty house. In the good years before the Crash, Delaney had installed a hot-water system in the house, not easy because it was built in 1840. Before he could convert the house to steam heat, the banks had failed, taking his money with them. The heat still belonged to the nineteenth century. Wood and paper and coal in a manteled fi replace. The boy seemed to love it, flexing his small hands for warmth. I've got to feed him too. But almost no restaurants would be open on New Year's Day. Not until tonight. He must need to eat. Christ, I need to eat. Breakfast. Christ, no: lunch.

"How about some food, Carlos?" Delaney said. "I think I've got cornflakes and eggs and stuff like that."

The boy looked at him blankly, and Delaney realized that he didn't understand the words. For almost three years, they had been in Mexico, where the boy's father had family and friends. They surely had spoken to him each day in Spanish, even Grace. So had the maids. And the cook. For Santos was not a peasant, according to Grace's meager letters. He came from money, as so many revolutionists did. Delaney knew a few words in the language, but he wished he and Molly had spent their European time in a land of vowels, instead of among the consonants of Vienna.

"Quiere . . . comer?" he said, making a spooning motion with his empty hand.

The boy nodded, Delaney took his hand. I'll have to keep him off these stairs. Have to buy some of those folding gates. I'll have to do a lot of things.

The boy ate two bowls of cornflakes and kept sipping from a cup of cocoa. He was watching Delaney, as if trying to understand who this strange man was. And where they were now, in this vast house. He started to imitate Delaney too, shifting his spoon awkwardly from hand to hand, the spoon too large, slopping the wet flakes on the table, spilling some milk. His mother must have fed him for too long. Or a maid. Spoiling him rotten. The boy was propped up on a cushion, and his eyes kept glancing from Delaney through the two kitchen windows to the yard. Glancing at the blinding whiteness.

"O," the boy said, gesturing with the spoon.

Delaney followed his gesture.

"O," the boy said.

Delaney smiled, suddenly understanding.

"Yes, that's snow."

Thinking: At least your mother found time to teach you one word of English. You probably never saw snow before this morning. And your mother waved a hand and said its name. Before abandoning you in a goddamned doorway.

"Want to see the snow?"

Delaney got up and lifted the boy off his cushion.

"Wait," he said, groping for the words of the Cuban orderlies at the hospital. Wait. What was the word? And said it: "Espérate."

Delaney climbed the hall stairs two at a time, retrieved the boy's wool cap and new hooded jacket with mittens attached, and came back down, again wearing his winter clothes. The boy was at a window, squinting at the glaring snow.

"Let's go," Delaney said, pulling on the jacket, shoving the boy's hands into the mittens, tying the hood under his chin. "Vamos, boy. Let's see the snow."

He opened the door leading to the outside shed. This was the place of everything that didn't fit anywhere else: shelves stacked with boxes of detergent; stacks of old magazines and newspapers, tied with twine; unused Christmas decorations; milk bottles; a rake hanging on a nail; a wide- bladed snow shovel; a large red toolbox. Most of the space was taken by Delaney's Arrow bicycle, its pedals and gears wrapped tightly in oiled cloth. He and the boy eased past the bicycle to a second door, leading to the yard. Delaney had to push hard on the door to move the piled snow.

Then it was before them, and the boy took a deep breath and exhaled. The North River wind was not as strong here, the buildings making a brick- walled fortress of the backyards. But it still had the magical power to whirl snow into small mountains, some of them taller than the boy. The rosebushes were blocky and irregular and white. And the olive tree, a gift from Mr. Nobiletti, the shoemaker, stood in its corner, wrapped for the winter in tar paper, so white it seemed like a giant ice-cream cone. The bases of the three fences had vanished under drifts. Delaney reached down and made a snowball.

"Snowball," he said, hefting it for the boy to see.

"O-baw," the boy said.

With his left hand, Delaney lobbed it toward the nearest fence, where it exploded in powder. He said, again, "Snowball!" The boy was awed. Delaney made another and threw it harder against the back fence. A snowy bas- relief fell off the fence. Now Delaney's lower right arm ached, though he had not used it for throwing. The boy pulled some snow off a small mountain and tried to make it into a ball. The fi rst ball crumbled in his hands. Then he tried another, and this one was packed better, and he threw it about two feet and saw it vanish into another small mountain. He laughed in delight.


He made another snowball and threw it, and another and another. Always with the left hand. Delaney understood why he kept shifting spoons over his cornfl akes. Looks like we've got a southpaw here. Like his grandmother. Like Molly.

"O-baw!" the boy squealed. "O-baw."

He looked at Delaney, as if trying to decide how far he could go. Delaney smiled. And then the boy dove into one of the snow mountains and rolled and pummeled the snow with his arms and kicked with his small legs.

"O! O! O! O!"

The boy fell asleep in his arms as he carried him up the stairs. Delaney laid him on his own unmade bed and removed the heavy clothes and the shoes. The boy came suddenly awake, his eyes taking in the strange room and Delaney's face. He didn't move and looked afraid.

"Mamá? Dónde está Mamá?"

"Don't worry. She's coming back."

Thinking: She'd better come back. Fast. I can't do this. He felt a wash of dread. Something out of rainy dawns with fixed bayonets. Thinking: I must read the letter. Afraid of it too. Thinking: I want to hit someone. Anyone. But not this boy.

"Everything's okay," Delaney said softly. "Todo bien, Carlos."

The boy's eyes moved around the room. His left hand went to his


"Oh, okay, I understand, come on." He lifted the boy and took him to the bathroom between the bedroom and the living room. He lifted the seat and helped the boy stand on the ceramic rim of the toilet. Delaney thought: I need to get a box in here. A cheese box, low and fl at and strong. I can paint it red. Or maybe yellow. What else do I need? What does the boy need that I cannot give him? When the boy was finished, Delaney showed him the chain for flushing and how to do it, and then turned on the hot water in the sink. He washed with a facecloth, and then the boy took the warm, wet cloth and washed his own face. Delaney dried him, lifted him, and took him back to the bed. He covered the boy with sheet and blanket, and the boy pushed his face into the pillow. He was still for a long moment. Then he sobbed.

"Mamá, Mamá, dónde está?" he murmured.

Delaney went to the boy and sat beside him. The boy's need and uncertainty --- perhaps even fear --- were almost tangible. He patted the boy on the back, swift, steady pats like an extra pulse, and spoke in a low voice. It's all right, boy. You're safe here. You will eat. You will sleep. Your mama will be back. But as the child's sobs ended, Delaney could sense unspoken questions rising in the warming air: Where am I, and who is this man, and where is my mother? He placed his hand fi rmly on the boy's back, steadying him the way he had steadied so many people who were injured, hurting, confused, and full of fear. On beds all over the neighborhood. At last the child fell into sleep.

The clock told Delaney it was two thirty-seven in the afternoon. The end of a very long morning. He stood up as silently as possible and put some fresh coals on the fi re. And now? What now? The letter. I must read the letter from Grace. He fought off a shimmer of dread by thinking only of the immediate needs of the boy. I can lay out a bed for him on the floor, made of blankets and pillows, just for tonight. Or take him to one of the two bedrooms upstairs. But what if he wakes up in the dead of night? I can't have him roaming the stairs in the dark. Christ . . .

His own exhaustion was eating at him now. As he undressed and donned pajamas, he wondered about Eddie Corso. About who shot him and why. About whether he would live. As always, questions but no answers. He'd have to wait. The nuns had taken Eddie into their consoling hands. Now he had other things to do. Or one big thing. He had to read the fucking letter.

Excerpted from NORTH RIVER © Copyright 2011 by Pete Hamill. Reprinted with permission by Back Bay Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group USA. All rights reserved.

North River
by by Pete Hamill

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316007994
  • ISBN-13: 9780316007993