Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Story A Week: View from the Tenement

Our tenement row got its own cloud today.

A dark, black one that stretched from one edge of the neighborhood to the other. The blue sky came peeping along the edges and that’s how I knew it was our very own cloud.

Monday is the day we do the wash. Mam has a poem to tell us which days are for which purpose. She looked up at our cloud through the window, then came back to the rocker shaking her head.

“You don’t know what to do when the weather don’t cooperate with your poem, do you, Mam?” I always say the words she won’t say.

“No, Teish, I suppose not,” she said without smiling.

But then again, her not smiling don’t mean much. Perhaps I’ve seen her smile three times in my whole life. Her mouth is so small, maybe it don’t stretch at the edges enough to smile. Maybe smiling is a discomfort. And she only says as many words as will fit in her mouth at once. When she was young back in the old country, she had eight teeth yanked because her mouth couldn’t fit them all. But Gran told me that, not Mam. Of course it came from Gran, because Gran never stopped talking.

Gran’s dead now, though, going on two years. Two years of silence in our little hole, as Da cheerfully calls our room in the tenement.

The wind picked up and that fool cat was at the door, scratching for all he was worth. I could hear the scrape, scrape, scrape of his claws, enough to drive anyone wild. He always comes up here in a storm. Da says maybe the people who lived here before us were kind to the cat and he never forgot.

Mam shook her head at the sound. She’d begun mending by the licking light of the fire, because her fingers do all the work her mouth don’t.

“Some storm this must be coming,” I said. I knew what Mam would want me to do. I went to the door and creaked it open and stuck my foot out. “Shoo, cat! Just wait in the hall, why don’t you? You’ll be more than dry.”

The cat skittered away, tail fussed like a chimney brush.

He’s a scrawny old thing. Digs in the rubbish for scraps. Good luck on you, Mr. Tom, trying to get the scraps from the tenement children. Some of them children haunt the rubbish heaps for anything. Like those O’Reilly kids, for instance, the ones down the hall. Whilst I’m home complaining of more mush, they’re out digging through rubbish. Maybe Da is right and we have more to be thankful for than we think.

When I’d shut the door and kicked it in the spot to make it stay, Mam said, “Thank you, Teish,” and then the rain began to fall, big drops fat as my thumbnail. They splattered against the window sill, so I went and shut it tight, and blocked the chink up with the old rag we keep just for that purpose.

“I’ll be soaked through on my way to school,” I said.

Mam said, “Take my scarf then.”

Da says we’re blessed being on the first floor as we are. Underneath us are shops. All I have to do is go out our door, out the hallway door, run down the front steps, and I’m right in front of Mr. Kelly’s grocery. It’s the simplest thing in the world.

“Washing next Monday instead, Mam?” I asked, picking up my slate from the table by the wall. The cloud made the window dark, so the fire was all there was to see by. I moved closer to it.

Mam nodded.

“We’ll make it through,” I said. “I don’t have to change my knickers every day.”

Mam gave me a look. I knew she’d like it if I changed my knickers every day because Gran always made her do it when she was a girl. But those were different times, I tell her, and Gran was fussy.

Da works at a factory. Mam’d like to get a job, too, as a seamstress in one of them big rooms where the women keep the treadle going all day long in a strange, tapping dance. Mam’d be good at the sewing.

But Da says don’t push our luck by sending Mam out to work, that we could be living in abject poverty like a lot of people around us do. Like those O’Reilly children whose da hasn’t been able to work since they got off the boat. And their mam died in the passage. Only thing that keeps them alive is that the oldest boy who’s my age got a job at the machines.

Da says I’m a lucky girl to have both parents and to keep going to school and that I’d better keep up with my figures and spelling because then I’ll get a good job someday. He says lots of girls are going out as secretaries now, and that if Mam could read, that’s what she’d be doing. That’s what I’m holding out for.

If I were a secretary, I could get Mam, Da and me out of the tenements all together.

The rain drove against the window rat-a-tat-tat, like hard pecking. I wonder if Mr. Kelly’ll have a flood to deal with like last time.

“The pan, Teish,” Mam said.

I’d nearly forgotten the pan. I fetched it from the cupboard, set it under the leaky spot that always runs down the wall.

“Good lass, Teish,” Mam said.

When I came back, I pulled the iron bed closer to the fire and settled down on top of the quilt Gran brought from the old country. I think we must have the prettiest tenement room in our block, on account of the quilt and Mam keeping everything lovely thanks to her poem and not having to go out to work. I unbuttoned my pinching shoes and curled my legs under me. Mam never minds me sitting like this.

Then I worked at my figures until school time, like Da would want.

Thank you to Teish who gave me the three inspirational words for this story: abject, whilst, and dance. Thanks for the challenging words, Teish! They definitely knocked me out of my comfort zone. I think I've rewritten this story more times than any of my other short stories. The story grew out of deciding on a historical setting where a character might use a word like "whilst." Then the word "abject" made me think of abject poverty, which made me think of tenements. I had to do some research, though, since I didn't know very much about them when I started. I admire people who write historical fiction. There's a lot to get right, and I apologize if you're an expert on turn-of-the-century tenements and I screwed anything up!


  1. Neat story- and it's funny (Tell me if I'm wrong) but it sounds like there's a tint of Irish.

  2. Thanks, Esther! Yes, I don't know how accurate it is, but I did mean there to be a "tint of Irish" in there. Very perceptive of you!! ;)


  3. Thanks! :)

  4. I liked the voice in this one, and it made me think of Ireland, too. I think it was the Da and Mam - isn't that what the main character in BOG CHILD called his parents?

  5. Yes, totally, Krista. I think I still have Bog Child and, more recently, A Swift Pure Cry, on the brain. :)