Excerpt of North River by Pete Hamill
(Page 5 of 7)
Printer Friendly Excerpt
"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
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."
Copyright © 2007 by Pete Hamill