After he left us, Mama tried calling me Ada anyway, but it was too late. I only ever answered to Moth.
"Where's my papa?" I would ask. "Why isn't he here?"
"Wouldn't I like to know. Maybe you should go and talk to the tree."
"What if I get lost?"
"Well, if you do, be sure not to cry about it. There's wild hogs that run through the city at night, and they'd like nothing better than to eat a scared little girl like you."
My father had thought to put coal in the stove before he walked out the door. Mama held onto that last bit of his kindness until it drove her mad. "Who does such a thing if they don't mean to come back?" she'd mutter to herself each time she lifted the grate to clean out the ashes.
She knew exactly what had happened to him, but it was so common and cruel she didn't want to believe it.
Miss Katie Adams, over on Mott Street, had caught my father's eye. She was sixteen, childless and mean, with nothing to hold her back. Mrs. Riordan, who lived in the rear tenement, told Mama she'd seen them carrying on together in the alley on more than one occasion.
"You're a liar!" Mama screamed at her, but Mrs. Riordan just shook her head and said, "I've nothing to gain from lies."
Standing in front of the girl's house, Mama yelled up at the windows, "Katie Adams, you whore, give me my husband back!"
When Miss Adams' neighbours complained about all the noise Mama was making, my father came down to quiet her. He kissed her until she cried, but didn't come home.
"He's gone for good," Mrs. Riordan told Mama. "Your man was a first-time man, and that's just the kind of man who breaks a woman's heart."
She meant he was only after the firsts of a girl - the first time she smiles at him, their first kiss, the first time he takes her to bed. There was nothing Mama could have done to keep him around. Her first times with him were gone.
"God damn Katie Adams..." Mama would whisper under her breath whenever something went wrong. Hearing that girl's name scared me more than when Mama said piss or shit or fuck right to my face.
The day my father left was the day the newsboys called out in the streets, "Victory at Shiloh!" They shouted it from every corner as I stood on the stoop watching my father walk away. When he got to the curb, he tipped his hat to me and smiled. There was sugar trailing out of a hole in his pocket where he'd hidden Mama's silver bowl. It was spilling to the ground at his feet.
Some people have grand, important memories of the years when the war was on - like the moment a brother, or lover, or husband returned safe and sound, or the sight of President Lincoln's funeral hearse being pulled up Broadway by all those beautiful black horses with plumes on their heads.
"Victory at Shiloh!" and my father's smile is all I've got.
The rooms I shared with Mama were in the middle of a row of four-storey tenements called "the slaughter houses." There were six of them altogether - three sitting side by side on the street with three more close behind on the back lots. If you lived there, there was every chance you'd diet here too. People boiled to death in the summer and froze to death in the winter. They were killed by disease or starvation, by a neighbour's anger, or by their own hand.
Mothers went days without eating so they could afford food for their children. If there was any money left, they put ads in the Evening Star hoping to get their lost husbands back.
MY DEAREST JOHN, please come home.
We are waiting for you.
Searching for MR. FORREST LAWLOR.
Last seen on the corner of Grand and Bowery.
He is the father to four children,
and a coppersmith by trade.
MR. STEPHEN KNAPP, wounded in the war.
Excerpted from The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay. Copyright © 2012 by Ami McKay. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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