He is coming.
Ruth leaned out the door as far as she dared, peering down Paradise Alley to the west and the south. Past the other narrow brick and wood houses along Cherry Street, slouching against each other for support. The grey mounds of ashes and bones, oyster shells and cabbage leaves and dead cats growing higher every day since the street cleaners had gone out.
Fire bells were already ringing off in the Sixth Ward, somewhere near the Five Points. The air thick with dust and ash and dried horse droppings, the sulfurous emissions of the gasworks along the river, and the rendering plants and the hide-curing plants. It was not yet six in the morning but she could feel the thin linen of her dress sticking to the soft of her back.
"The good Lord, in all His mercy, must be readyin' us for Hell -- "
She searched the horizon for any sign of relief. Their weather came from the west, the slate-grey, fecund clouds riding in over the Hudson. That was how she expected him to come, too, fierce and implacable as a summer storm. His rage breaking over them all.
He is coming
But there was no storm just yet. The sky was still a dull, jaundiced color, the blue tattered and wearing away at the edges. She ventured a step out into the street, looking hard, all the way downtown, past the church steeples and the block-shaped warehouses, the dense thicket of masts around lower Manhattan.
There was nothing out of the ordinary. Just the usual shapeless forms lying motionless in the doorways. A ragged child with a stick, a few dogs. A fruit peddler with his bright yellow barrow. His wares, scavenged from the barges over on the West Side, already pungent and overripe.
Nothing coming. But then, it wasn't likely he would come from the west anyway --
With a muted cry she swung around, then ducked back into her house, bolting the door behind her while she fought for breath. The idea that he could have been coming up behind her the whole time. She remembered how quickly he could move. She could feel his hands on her, could see the yellow dog's bile rising in his eyes. That merciless anger, concentrated solely upon her --
She had not truly believed it before now -- not even after Deirdre had come over to tell her yesterday afternoon. Standing there on her doorstone, one foot still in the street as if she were hanging on to the shore. Wearing her modest black church dress, her beautiful face even sterner than usual. She was a regular communicant, Sundays and Fridays -- no doubt especially agitated to have to see Ruth on the Lord's day. She told her the news in a low voice, all but whispering to her. Deirdre herself, whispering, as if somehow he might overhear.
He is coming.
He had come -- all the way back from California. It was a fearsome, unimaginable distance. But then, what was that to a man who had gone as far as he had already? A friend of Tom's, a stevedore, had seen him on the docks -- as stunned as if he had seen Mose himself stepping off a clipper ship, back from his bar in the Sandwich Islands. Coming down the gangplank with that peculiar, scuttling, crablike walk of his, fierce and single-minded as ever. Moving fast, much faster than you thought at first, so that Tom's friend had quickly lost him in the crowd waiting by the foot of the gangplank. Already disappeared off into the vastness of the City --
Which meant -- what? The mercy of a few days? While he found himself a room in the sailors' houses along Water Street, began to work his way relentlessly through the bars and blind pigs, sniffing out any news. Sniffing out them.
Or maybe not even that. Maybe he had hit it right off, had found, in the first public house he tried, a garrulous drunk who would tell him for the price of a camphor-soaked whiskey where he might find a certain mixed-race couple, living down in one of the nigger nests along Paradise Alley --
No. Ruth calmed herself by sheer force of will. Picking up a broom, she made her hands distract her. Sweeping her way scrupulously around the hearth, under the wobbly-legged table even though she knew there was no need, they would never live here again after this morning.
When she made herself think about it logically, it wasn't likely he could be that lucky. He had never had much luck, after all -- not even with herself -- and his own face would work against him. He couldn't go out too bold. They would remember him still, after what had happened with Old Man Noe. Men would remember him, would remember that, and keep their distance. Maybe even turn him in, for the reward --
They still had time. A little, anyway. She and Billy had talked it out, deep into the night. Time enough for Billy to go up to his job at the Colored Orphans' Asylum in the Fifth Avenue today, and collect his back wages. Then they would have something to start on, at least, to see them through up to Boston, or Canada.
Why aren't we in Canada already? We should be there --
She swept faster, in her anger and her frustration, kicking up the fine, black grit that crept inexorably through the windows and over the transom, covering the whole City over, every day. They had talked about leaving, all these years, but somehow they had never actually gone. She had put it down to Billy's moodiness and his obstinacy, the lethargy that seemed to hold him sometimes, particularly when he'd been drinking.
Yet it was more than that, and she knew it. They both felt safer here -- on their block, miserable as it was, in the bosom of their friends and neighbors. They told themselves there would be risks if they ran, perhaps even worse risks. A white woman and a black man, with their five mixed-race children ...
Excerpted from Paradise Alley © Copyright 2003 by Kevin Baker. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins. All rights reserved.
- paperback: 676 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial
- ISBN-10: 006095521X
- ISBN-13: 9780060955212