For Bread Alone
n the year 1860, when the Western Great Plain of America was the home of the buffalo roaming, the cobbled hard pavement of New York City was the roofless and only domicile of thirty-five thousand children. In our hideous number we scraps was cast outdoors or lost by our parents, we was orphans and half orphans and runaways, the miserable offspring of Irish and Germans, Italians and Russians, servants and slaves, Magdalenes and miscreants, all the unwashed poor huddled slubs who landed yearning and unlucky on the Battery with nothing to own but our muscles and teeth, the hunger of our bellies. Our Fathers and Mothers produced labor and sweat and disease and babies that would’ve been better off never born. The infant ones, small as a drop of dew on a cabbage leaf, was left wrapped in newspaper and still bloody on the doorsteps of churches, in the aisles of dry goods stores. Others among us was not older than two, just wee toddlers with the skulls still soft when they was thrust Friendless upon the paving stones of Broadway. These kids dressed in bits and pickings. They begged what they ate or filched it. Many never had known a shoe. The girls started out young to sell themselves and the boys turned to thuggery. Half the babies dropped at the foundling hospital died before they had a birthday. The rest of the so-called street Arabs was lucky if they lived to twenty.
Me and my sister Dutch and my brother Joe was nearly permanent among this sorry crowd, but by the mossy skin of our teeth we got turned from that path by a stranger who came upon us and exchanged our uncertain fate for another, equally uncertain.
The day in question I was not more than twelve years of age. Turned up nose, raggedy dress, button boots full of holes and painful in the toe, dark black hair I was vain of pulled back, but no ribbon. And my father’s eyes, the color of the Irish sea, he always said, blue as waves. I was two heads taller than a barstool. My legs was sticks, my ribs a ladder. I was not no beauty like Dutch, but I managed with what I got. And That Day we three got our whole new proposition. It walked right up and introduced itself.
Hello there, wayfarers.
We stood in the doorway of the bakery. If you stayed there long enough, you could get maybe a roll that was old, maybe the heels they would give you of the loaves. We were not particular. We would eat crumbs they swept out for the birds. We was worse than birds, we was desperate as rats. That day the smell was like a torture, of the bread baking, them cakes and the pies and them chocolate éclairs like all of your dreams coming up your nose and turning to water in your mouth. We Muldoons had not eaten since yesterday. It was February or maybe March, but no matter the date, we were frozen, no mittens, no hats, us girls without no woolies under our skirts, just britches full of moth bites. We had baby Joe warm in our arms, heavy as beer in a half keg. Dutch had my muffler I gave her, she was so cold. We wrapped it around my head and her head both, and there we stood looking like that two-headed calf I saw once in Madison Square. Two heads, four legs, one body. Two heads is better than one, but we children should’ve been smarter that day and seen what was coming.
A customer started in the door. This big fat guy with big fat neck rolls over the collar of his coat, like a meat scarf.
Dutch said, —Mister? with those blue eyes she has, such jewelry in her face, sparkling sadlike eyes.
The Meat Neck Gent said, —Go home to your Ma.
Dutch said back, —We ain’t got no Ma.
—Yeah yeah yeah, he said. —I heard that before, now beat it.
—Please mister, I said. —We ain’t. It’s the truth. (Though it wasn’t exactly.)
—Just one a them rolls or a bannock of bread.
And the guy said, —Beat it, again. He was a miserable cockroach in fine boots, but he was not the one who ruined us, that was the kindness of strangers.
So we started to cry very quiet now, me and Dutch, because we had not had food since yesterday noon, standing there the whole morning with pain like teeth in our guts. The scarf around our head was frozen solid with our tears and snuffle.
Along at last came another customer, quite fancy. This one had the type of a beard that straps under the chin, and a clump of hair left stranded in the center of his bald dome that we saw when he removed his tall hat, like a rainbarrel on his head.
With the tears fresh in our eyes, we said, —Hey Mister.
—Why hello there, wayfarers.
Right away he got down low, peering hard at us like we were interesting, and asked in the voice of an angel, —Why you poor children! Why are you here in the cold? Don’t cry, sweet innocents. Come inside and warm yourselves.
—Nossir, I said, —we ain’t allowed. They tell us scram and kick us.
—That’s an outrage, he said. —You’ll freeze to death.
Picking baby Joe out of our arms and handling him, he marched us into the warm smell of the shop. We were hemorrhaging in the mouth practically with want. You could eat the air in the place, so thick with bread and warmth that it stang our cheeks.
—Out out out out, cried the bakery hag when she saw us. The dough of her body was trembling with fury. —Out! I told you.
—These children shall have three rolls of that white bread there, and tea with milk, said the Gentleman, and he slapped down his money bright on the counter.
The dark scowl of the miserable proprietress smoked over at us in fumes. But she swallowed her bile when she seen the Gentleman’s copper and fetched us tea. It scalded our tongues but did nothing to damage the softness of her bread or the crunch of its golden crust. It made no sense to have such a hard woman with such soft bread. We were fainting and trying not to wolf it down like beasts. The Gentleman watched us eat the same as if we were a free show.
—There now, he said, his voice a low burr in his throat, —there you are, children.
Dutch threw her arms around his neck. —Oh thank you kind Gentleman, she said. Her sweetness was like payment to him, you could see by his smile. Even with the grime on her face, Dutch was a pretty child. No one could resist her blarney and her charm, and though she was only seven years of age, she knew this well.
When we were done with the first bread, he says, —Are yiz still hungry?
Wait. Let me get his voice right. In fact, he said it all beautiful, with elocution: —Do you jolly young wayfarers still have an appetite?
And we said, —Yessir.
It was our lucky day then, for he bought us another round of penny rolls and fed us under the glare of the bakery woman’s eyes.
—Children, where are your parents? the Gentleman said.
—Please mister, our father art in heaven, said Dutch. It was the wish to be proper was why she mangled her vocabulary with a prayer. Our father was not our Father Who Art in Heaven, though he was dead. Perhaps he was in hell, what with the one sin we knew of him, which was his death two years before, from drunkenness and falling off a scaffold while carrying a hod of bricks, leaving Mam with us girls and Joe, his infant son. It was just after Joe’s arrival and our Da was celebrating with his lunch bucket and a drop, for he did like his drop, Mam said, coming home every night, so dusty and singing Toura loura loo, a stick of licorice in his pockets if we was lucky and a blast of whiskey in our faces if we wasn’t. —Fill me the growler, there’s a good girl, Axie, he says to me nightly, and I’m off like a shot for the shebeen downstairs and back in a flash without spilling. Then Da would raise the bucket in a toast and sing out, —You’re a Muldoon, dontcha forget it girls. Descended from the Kings of Lurg. The daughters and sons of Galway.
—The Kings of Lurg did not have nothing over your father, Mam said in her grief when he fell. —He was a grand hard worker, and more’s the pity for there will be no payday now he’s gone to God.
After he was gone to God we was gone ourselves, away over to Cherry Street to live with our father’s sister Aunt Nance Duffy, while Mam went out to work as a laundress to a Chinaman.
—Where is your mother then? the Gentleman asked.
—She got an injury, I says. —She can’t get out of her bed for three days.
—And where do you live? he asks us. —Have you warmth and shelter?
—Truth, says I, —it’s the food we miss.
—My name is Mr. Brace. He put out his hand, which I inspected, lacking the manners to shake it. It was clean and soft as something newborn. —Who might you be?
—Axie Muldoon. And these here is my brother Joe and sister Dutchie.
—A pleasure to make your acquaintance.
He did not look like it was a pleasure exactly, and stared like he was a police trap in brass buttons, frisking us in the face to find out our secrets. He was a big gaunt man, with pale eyes dug back in his face, an overhung forehead, jutting jaw, nose long as a vegetable, and big flanges of nostrils. There were hairs in them that I could see from down low where I was. Like any child I was disgusted by the hairs, but hoping to extend his philanthropy just a few pennies longer, I said, —Thanks mister for the bread.
—Certainly, my dear. Still you must know that man does not live for bread alone, but lives by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord.
We gazed up at him without no idea of what he was going on about.
—I should like you to have bread, said he quite gently, —yes, but more than bread. I should like you three children to come along with me.
It seemed he was going to give us cakes and ale and possibly a handful of silver, so I was all for it. He picked up our Joe and took Dutch by her hand, which she surrendered, trusting as if he was Our Lord the shepherd and she was the sheep. Not knowing we were marching off to our Fate, we all trooped out together. I was last, which was to my advantage because on the way out I gave a loud raspberry to the bakery lady. Very satisfying it was, too, and you should have seen her face, the cow. Full of her baking, we followed the Gentleman down the street.
—I would like to bring this bread to your Mother, he says. —Where do you live?
He had a parcel with the telltale shape of fat loaves under the brown paper, so despite Mam’s instructions never to truck with strangers, there was no choice but to lead him home. For bread alone, I done it.
nknown to me, My Enemy Comstock, meanwhile, was in a different order of life altogether, a fussbudget lad growing plump on pie and milk in the bosky dells and stony fields of New Canaan, Connecticut. His muttonchop whiskers was then still dormant under the skin of his smug expression as he pursued his hobby: writing in his diary about how he trapped wee soft bunnies and happy squirrels by crushing them under stones. He still had hair in those youthful days and had not yet acquired the bald pate or rotund shape of an inflated hog’s bladder that was his in later life. Still, photographs of the young Tony Comstock reveal that his slack jaw and dull mean eyes were in place from the time he was in knee pants.
It has been propositioned to me by intelligent freethinkers and kindhearted gentlefolks that no soul is pure evil and while I accept that My Enemy was a dutiful son, a doting husband, a loving papa, I can think of him only as a cabbage-hearted weevil and MONSTER for what he done to me and other good citizens too many to count.
He was just three years older than myself, and though we grew through the same times, we was worlds apart. While I was picking the ash barrels of Washington Square for scraps of gristle, My Enemy romped around his Papa’s 160 acres of pasture, dawdled in the family sawmills where money grew like chestnuts on the bushes. He feasted on ice cream in the parlors of church ladies and went forth on outings to the shore at Roton Point in Norwalk, where (he told his dear diary) he chastised some sailors for looking under ladies’ dresses. Even then he was a prig, with his chin weak and hands folded in his lap. Every Sunday of his boyhood My Enemy sat through four Congregationalist sermons about hellfire and damnation (so that he would know how to inflict these on me) and went to sleep each night fearing the hot breath of Satan. On weekdays he collected stamps and tried (without success) to avoid impure thoughts. He prayed and whetted the knife blades of his righteousness, all the better to smite me and the likes of me, while listening to Bible stories at the knee of his adored mother. Poor Mother Comstock! She had ten children before she died from birthing the last one. Surely she turned in her grave to see the fat poltroon her little Tony became, how he waddled along, huffing like a locomotive and bragging about how he had driven fifteen people to SUICIDE—including MYSELF, his greatest conquest—as if he had attained some esteemed heights of accomplishment.
Many years later, on the Day of our Fateful Encounter, I myself noticed his asthma and panting as he marched me, his trophy, to the courthouse. Even as we drove downtown, his wheeze was pronounced. It is still a question as to whether Mr. Comstock’s heavy breathing was the result of excitement at all the smut he rounded up (to burn, he claimed), or whether it was the strain on his heart that came from carrying around so much of his own flesh.
—Madame DeBeausacq, he said, as he escorted me to jail, —I do the work of God.
—What a coincidence! I cried. —So do I!
—Yours is the devil’s occupation, he said, prim as a doily. —Mine is the Lord’s.
—Perhaps your God is a two-faced employer, says I, —for many’s the time I have been thanked in the name of that same Lord for rescuing his poor lost lambs, which is more than you can say, I am quite sure.
—Your evil practice has come to an end, said he.
At this point, I offered him thirty thousand dollars. —Or more, I said, —if you wish.
He did not condescend to glance at me, but the bristles of his walrus mustache stood on end, while fire and brimstone came from his ears. —Madame DeBeausacq, as you call yourself, I will have you down for bribery.
I will have you down for a yellow-bellied sapsucker, you imbecile, I thought. I stared straight ahead at the liveried back of my coachman John Hatchet, listening to the hoof clop of my dappled team of grays, and adjusted the velvet cape around my shoulders with a laugh. My backbone was a ramrod, the diamonds in my earlobes sparkled in the winter sunlight, and the plumes of the ostrich feathers on my hat waved merrily in the breeze.
—The Tombs, John, and hurry, I said to my driver. —Mr. Comstock is eager to show off his prize.
It did not escape my attention that, as we traveled downtown together to meet my fate, we passed directly in front of Number 100 Chatham, the former Evans abode, with its dirty white paint and sagging roofline. It presented a dreary and unassuming façade, what our Mr. Brace might call a DREADFUL ROOKERY OF THE POOR. But I knew it once long ago as home, as the very place where I was apprenticed, and where I became the one the papers called the Notorious Madame X.