One still saw pigs in the streets, and looking back now their freedom to roam the nation's leading commercial city seems like proof that the United States was only half civilized, but I didn't think so since I was a child with no basis for comparison. So far as I knew there had always been pigs on Broadway, along with carriages and omnibuses. It had all been there before me, in the era of fleur de lis, in the era of pussy willow, forever. And if new houses were rising on new streets to the north, that too had been going on for ages, and no one knew how much longer it would be permitted to continue. The world would end soon, according to several upstate New York ministers.
One of my earliest memories is of the time my mother lost me on the docks; she used to make a story of this episode, stuffed with morally fortifying lessons like all her stories, so that I remember some of it from her point of view. She left my brother Lewis in the care of the hired girl and took me to Pearl Street. It was an ambitious journey; for months the most she had been able to manage was a trembling descent of the stairs and a brief constitutional in the park across the street, with frequent rests. Now she was feeling better, glad to be out again, strong againmaybe all better, cured by some miracle?and she walked, testing herself, one step and then another, with a fierce secret joy, gripping my hand, all the way to the docks.
Since it was so long ago I must explain that she was misbehaving. Women of her class were not supposed to go to the waterfront, certainly not on foot; but my mother wished to investigate a dry goods store known for its quality and reasonable prices. She did it with the pretext of visiting my father at his place of business. (As she explained later, she overreached herself, stepping out of her sphere and she was punished for it.) We bought hot roasted peanuts from a pushcart. While she was talking to a clerk I wandered out of the store and crossed the street to watch some children of the poor who lay face down on the edge of the dock. They were holding a yard of cheap cloth beneath the water. I remember that the reflections of pilings, ropes and masts wriggled like worms, with the children's faces seemingly contained in the cloth. Abruptly the picture disintegrated; the boys' arms were webbed with the river's slime; the cloth dripped, tiny fish writhed. I turned to tell my mother about it; she wasn't there. I didn't know which of those many doors I'd come out of and had no idea how to find it.
To my left were the wooden ships, a bewildering thicket of masts, with vines of ropes and leaves of reefed sail, pigeons sitting on the yardarms, bowsprits drawing undulating lines of shadow on the cobblestones. To my right were three- and four-story buildings, many signs, doors and awningshorses, wagons, dogs fighting over shreds of offal, men pushing wheelbarrows, heaving casks, spitting in doorways. I ran through all that in elemental terror shouting "Mama! Mama!" until, with a sudden pressure beneath my arms a man with brown teeth and rum breath, in a coarse-woven dirty shirt and pants and suspenders picked me up. He held me high, walking, while I kicked at his head. "Who lost a babe? Lost! One babe!" A little later: "What am I bid for this fine babe?"
"That's my child! Thank heavens, oh thank you, thank you," said my mother, who moments before had been picturing my body fished lifeless out of the water, and I was handed down to her so quickly it was almost falling. Her grip, much weaker than the rough man's, was tighter than usual for her. I could hear her quick heartbeat and wheezesshe had been runningand I did not feel entirely out of danger yet. I sensed her fear of this man, the kind of man our family considered a good object for home missionary work. When other prosperous merchants were rewarding themselves with a convivial midday libation or the comforts of home, my grandfather, accompanied by my father or one of his clerks, was busy spreading the word of God, as they believed all serious Christians should do whatever their regular profession. In combed black hats and immaculate somber suits they patrolled the waterfront, distributing Biblesgripping calloused hands, saying, "Take this sir, and may God bless you," while peering into the eyes of sailors and dockers unaccountably not reached by the gospel after 1800 years.
Excerpted from Belle Cora by Phillip Margulies. Copyright © 2014 by Phillip Margulies. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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