First Chapter 2017-03-30T20:28:05+00:00

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From Here to
Fourteenth Street

From Here To
Fourteenth Street

CHAPTER ONE

Mott Street, New York City’s Lower East Side, August 1894

Vita crushed a cockroach with her shoe and bundled her hand-stitched blouses in her arms. Stepping into her tenement hallway, she held her breath and dashed past the shared toilet. The stench sickened her. She rushed down the stairs and into the sticky morning. Pushcart peddlers jammed the street. The pungent odors of raw fish, horse dung and sweat hit her all at once.

Crossing the street, she saw a street urchin lift a cop’s billfold from his back pocket. Trying to fix a broken wheel, the cop didn’t turn around.

“Hey! Gimme that, you!” Vita snatched the billfold from the guttersnipe’s hand. He kicked her in the shin.

“Ow!” She grasped her leg. Her blouses scattered on the ground. He darted into the crowd and vanished.

Straightening up, she met a pair of sharp green eyes. The cop thrust his hand out, palm up.

She gave him the wallet. “I didn’t take this! A street kid slid it from your pocket and I saved it!” she bellowed.

His eyes narrowed. “So where is this kid?”

An ear-shattering gunshot ripped through the air. Heads turned. Mr. Violino, the tailor, staggered out of his shop and collapsed.

Oh, poor Mr. Violino. How could anyone want to hurt such a sweet old man? Poverty turned everybody against one another, even Italians.

“Don’t you dare move, miss,” the cop ordered. “I need to get to that shooting, so stay where you are. Or else.” He pushed through the mob to the crime scene.

Or else what? She wasn’t afraid of cops. But her boss—he decided whether she ate or starved. She turned and ran the other way.

Dodging heaps of trash, she swerved to avoid a dead horse lying in the street. Three half-starved urchins in filthy clothes jumped and played on the rotting carcass.

At Canal Street, she entered the smoke-belching factory. Stark and ugly in muddy brick, it mocked her as she leaned on the wooden door. Climbing the dark stairwell to the sweltering third floor, she braced herself against the wave of body odor. “No leatherhead cop is gonna keep me from my job!” she vouched through clenched teeth. Her vision of his green eyes faded as she bent over her sewing machine to suffer another day of drudgery.

Toiling over the mind-numbing work, she conjured up her favorite daydream: an elegant brownstone with lacy iron gates, bay windows, polished floors, marble fireplaces. No trash flung down air shafts, no shared toilets, no backyard privies…

…above Fourteenth Street.

****

Tom McGlory strode down Mott Street, her image in his mind. He held her dropped blouses, filthy and beyond repair. He must’ve scared the bejeezus out of her that morning. No wonder she didn’t wait around like he’d ordered.

He approached the Broome Shirtwaist Factory. It looked like a jailhouse, bars on the windows, stark and dreary. As he entered, the walls closed in on him. He gasped for air. He could hardly breathe in here. Man alive, what a tomb! The steady rat-a-tat of sewing machines rattled his teeth. Thank God his job took him outdoors.

Tom walked down the narrow aisle. Hunched over their machines, not one woman dared look up at him. He stopped at a beat-up metal desk. The boss chomped on a cigar, his shirt straining at the buttons.

“Yeah?” he croaked, tipping his head back to meet Tom’s gaze. “Whadda you want—officer?”

“A girl who works here dropped these.” He placed the blouses on the desk. “She’s got red hair, about yay high—” Tom indicated Vita’s height, “—and blue-gray eyes, slender, wearing a green skirt and white blouse—”

“Nah, never seen ’er.” He cut Tom off, snatched the blouses, and waved him away like a fly.

“You sure? They have the factory mark on them.”

“Over a hunnerd gals work here. I ain’t never seen one looks like that.” He shooed Tom away again and spat onto the floorboards.

She’s worth the wait, Tom thought. With an about-face, he exited the factory, bought some grapes from a vendor, and waited for her to come out at quitting time. He glanced at his pocket watch. Should be about twenty more minutes. In the stream of the “hunnerd gals” in all shapes and sizes, he’d find her.

****

Vita hunched over her piecework, imprisoned in the numbing toil. A hairy hand clamped down on her shoulder. She looked up at Mr. Strozzoni, or “Wrench Neck” because of the way he strained his neck—a nervous tic or something. Sweat stained his celluloid collar. “Hey. A copper come lookin’ for you,” he rasped in his cigar-gruffened voice. “He wait for you outside.”

“What copper?”

He yanked her up by the elbow and dragged her to the door like he couldn’t get rid of her fast enough. Twenty rows of eyeballs followed her out of the workroom. She stumbled, dizzy with fright. Oh, no, Butchie got run in again? Her brother couldn’t stay out of trouble.

Wrench Neck shoved her out into the stairwell. “Don’ you come back here no more. You’re a thief. We don’ wan’ no thiefs here.”

Thief? She’d never stolen a spool of thread. Then it hit her—the blouses she’d dropped in the street. Someone must’ve turned them in—but who knew she’d dropped them?

It didn’t matter now. She was out of a job. Still in shock, she couldn’t think straight.

Her shoes clanged down the metal stairs. She went outside and squinted in the sun.

An imposing figure startled her. Those green eyes, it couldn’t be…the cop from this morning.

He stood before her, arms folded across his chest.

She turned, ready to bolt. But a silent command told her to stay put.

“You dropped some blouses on the street this morning.” His voice was gentler than this morning. So he’d found the blouses! “They have the factory label,” he went on. “I described you to the boss man. He told me he’d never seen you. But I could tell he was lying.” His arms unfolded. His posture relaxed. “I had to wait for you. Why are you out before everybody else?”

She stepped back. Her bottom smacked into the brick wall. “Why do you think? He just fired me. But I didn’t take your wallet. A street arab took it.”

He nodded. “I believe you. I’m not accusing you of anything.”

“Then why are you waiting for me?” She tilted her head, really curious now.

“I just wanted to find you.” He took a step forward. “Look, let me help you get another job. I feel responsible—”

She gaped up at him. The sun formed a halo of light about him. His jawline curved nicely, not too square. “No, you done enough already.” She turned away but needed one last glimpse of those green eyes. As she turned, she tripped over her own feet.

He grabbed her arm to steady her. “I’m just clumsy,” she stammered.

“It’s quite all right,” he said.

No one ever said quite, not around here. A smile frolicked on his lips, as if he knew she’d been staring. Crescent laugh lines cut into his cheeks.

“I really want to help you.” His voice softened with apology.

Shaking her head, she started to leave, but he walked beside her. She sneaked sideways glances at him. The planes of his face weren’t weatherbeaten like the railroad yard laborers. Black hair crowned his head in glossy waves. It reminded her of long-ago nights in Italy, the sky bejeweled with stars. A trimmed mustache rimmed his upper lip. Muscles bulged beneath his blue jacket. His graveness seemed to mask some deeper emotion. She sensed sadness in those eyes that held a spark of streetwise spirit.

Neighbors halted in their tracks and stared with narrowed eyes. Vita Caputo in trouble with the law now? She pictured them saying, Eh, the whole tribe’s a bunch of rowdies…over their purple wine tonight, Mott Street buzzing with gossip louder than the organ grinders. Head held high, she matched them cocked brow for cocked brow. But inside she went on praying—I need another job, I need another job!

“Will you tell me your name? Please?” He drew her from her thoughts. A shiver of alarm coursed through her. Should I tell him my real name or give him a fake one?

“It would be an offense to withhold your identity from a policeman.” He ended that with a smile that sent strange tingles through her belly.

“Miss Caputo. Now goodbye.” She didn’t want him calling her Vita.

His lashes blinked like bats’ wings. “Your father wouldn’t be Lorenzo Caputo, would he?”

“What if he is?” she shot back.

“Then your brothers are Bruno and Vincente.”

He knew them, all right, but not as friends, since they were just Larry, Butchie, and Vinny around here. But cops weren’t on her family’s list of friends, either. To them, cops rated lower than parish priests.

“Does that have anything to do with me?” She steadied her voice.

“No, but they’ve been booked for minor offenses before, and assaulting a policeman twice—my cousin Mike McGlory.” The stern tone returned as he swung his nightstick.

“I know what they did, and I ain’t proud of it,” she admitted. “But here I am, obeying the law, and I get kicked outta my job.”

Her family’s offenses ranged from starting a brawl at a cousin’s wedding to robbing geraniums to assaulting a cop. To them, the first two were none of the law’s business. The fight at the wedding was over whose wine was better. The flower-robbing, in Vinny’s eyes, was legit—“God put them here, so why should I pay for ’em?” was his reasoning. Simple Italian logic.

She looked up at the cop, almost hoping she’d trip again so he’d catch her. But he was still the leatherhead who put her out on the streets.

“I’m Tom McGlory, and I want to help you find another job. Where are you headed, Miss Caputo?” His question sounded innocent enough, but his butting in riled her. She took a deep breath to calm down.

She set her eyes straight ahead at the horse and cart parked by the grocer’s. “It’s none a your business where I’m headed,” she snapped. She didn’t trust cops. Maybe he wanted to use her for something. Cops bamboozled immigrants into doing their dirty work. She wasn’t falling for none of his lowdown schemes.

“Since your visit cost me my job, the only place I can go is looking for another one so I can eat tonight.” Why not sling some guilt his way? Maybe, if he was half human, he’d appreciate what she’d just gone through.

“I’m sorry for the trouble all this has caused you.” Again, his tone gentled. “I can talk to your boss. He should take you back. I’ll head back there right this minute and explain that you stopped a robbery and that’s how you dropped the blouses.”

“Don’t do me no favors, Officer.” She held up her hand. “You don’t owe me nothin’.” She glanced around for a clock so she could figure how much money she’d lost already. She wasn’t about to ask him for the time of day. She had to find another job before she lost a whole day’s pay. Forget a kitchen curtain—that got shoved onto the luxury list. They might have to give up eggs and eat stale bread for a while.

“Then may I escort you somewhere?” he pushed on, his voice casual, yet his eyes sparkled.

She knew hers didn’t, so she avoided his stare.

He gave her agita in her stomach. But he seemed so kind. She’d seen strongarms in action, and he wasn’t one of them. Still, she didn’t need his help. “No, I need to get myself into another wage-paying job. Nobody’s paying me to make chit-chat with a cop.” They halted at the corner as a streetcar rumbled past. “But I have one question first.”

“What is it?” His eyes lit up.

“Why would you wanna help me? I ain’t even Irish.”

She didn’t wait for an answer, cause she didn’t care. She just wanted him to think about it. She turned and walked away, hoping to lose him.

She wished she had a pocket full of rocks, to feast on a sausage sandwich and enjoy this rare stint of freedom. But forget it. Leisure—and big lunches—were luxuries she’d have to wait many more years to afford. Now she had to skip lunch until she found a job.

Walking toward the nearest factory, self-scolding comments fell from her lips: “You’re a fool, letting thoughts of this cop amuse you!” This fantasy was no different from her daydreams at the sewing machine to fight the deadening boredom. But at that rattling machine, she made her lofty plans. In her quest to get ahead, she attended neighborhood meetings for tenement reform with her cousin Baldo, the “mayor” of Mott Street. All the streets down here had unofficial mayors, businessmen on the lookout for the neighborhoods. Baldo, a barber, got along great with everybody. He and Vita badgered the ward heeler, the district boss, and sometimes even a sympathetic reporter for decent living conditions. But she had to do more.

She saw how bosses treated her family, how cops and judges took payoffs from politicians and let criminals off, and how slumlords made their tenants live six families to a flat. But hers was one of the blessed families on Mott Street. They had plumbing.

She dashed down Orchard Street, past the crowded tenements where the poorest souls lived. She had to end the dreaming and get back to the heat, the stench, the real world out there. Hunger for food replaced her hunger for reform.

She pushed Officer McGlory out of her thoughts. The face-off with the cop was over. But his presence still sent tingles down her spine.

****

Tom watched her walk away. Her proud bearing was not that of an immigrant pieceworker. A tough exterior fronted the delicate beauty. Wisps of her auburn hair escaped from her bun, framing her polished features. He could tell, despite her toil in the factory, she took time to care for her hair and her skin. “I believe in you, Vita,” he said and didn’t care who heard.

Those poor Italians, how they suffered. It broke his heart. This lovely woman now on the streets without a job was one of them, yet she seemed to have risen above that. She carried herself with dignity. Oh, she’d make it out of here someday, all right.

Now she was out on the street because of him. He needed to find her another job. A decent one.

Just as she turned the corner and vanished, his heart leapt. An invisible force pushed him: No, don’t let her go! He ran after her. “Miss Caputo, wait!”

She turned, eyes wide with surprise.

“Miss Caputo, to make amends, may I please do just one little thing for you?” He straightened his collar.

“No, you done enough for me. Now just—”

“Please.” He leaned forward.

She looked him up and down, and her eyes clouded in distress.

“I just thought of something. I know a bank that’s hiring clerks. They have immediate openings. Please go there. They’ll hire you. I’ll make sure of it.” The words rushed out in one breath.

She shook her head, strands of hair following the delicate curve of her cheekbones. “Oh, no, forget it. I’ll get my own job. I know nothin’ about banks, I can only sew and do piecework. For now, anyways.”

“They’re not looking for someone highly skilled. They want young energetic people they can train their way. It’s the New York Bank and Trust on the northwest corner of 20th Street and Fifth Avenue. You’d be perfect for the job.”

“No, I don’t want nothin’ from—”

“Vita! Hey!” Her brother Butchie stalked towards them, his hulking chest straining under a cotton skivvy shirt. “What the hell you doin’?” He shot Tom a dirty look. “Leave her alone, you!”

Butchie shoved her behind him, spitting out accusations in Italian. “What ya doin’ wit’ my sister, ya dirty cop?” he growled.

“It’s all right, Butchie. He’s a clean cop.” Vita stepped forward. Butchie’s eyes looked like bullets waiting to pierce Tom’s heart.

“He knows I’m a clean cop, I’ve seen him get booked enough times,” Tom shot back. A few months ago, Butchie’d gotten into a brawl with Tom’s cousin Mike in Mulberry Bend. Butchie did time. He’d loathed Mike ever since. Tom knew Butchie didn’t give a fig about his sister—he was just being his obnoxious self.

“I’m telling your sister about a job,” Tom explained.

Butchie turned to Vita and jerked his thumb in Tom’s direction. “Don’t trust this crum bum.”

“I don’t!” She brushed her hair off her face.

How badly Tom wanted to touch that hair, just to see how soft it really was.

“I was telling him to leave me alone.” She shot Tom a pleading look as if to say, just go away. My brother is embarrassing me.

Butchie stepped up to Tom, reeking of stale cigarette smoke and garlic. “Stay away from my sista.” He poked Tom in the chest for emphasis.

Tom could’ve run the ruffian in for assault, but he didn’t bother. Italians touched everybody when they talked. He longed to make eye contact with Vita as she gave her brother a deadly glare. His last sight of her was Butchie tugging her away as she swatted him with her bag. Tom had to laugh through his sadness. He hoped she’d turn around and look at him, but she didn’t. Oh, he had to get her that bank job.

****

Butchie dragged Vita home, his hand clamped around her wrist like a handcuff, jawin’ about what a disgrace she was. “You cavortin’ on the street with that crum bum cop…” She didn’t bother arguing back. Most things weren’t worth arguing about with her family.

They trudged up the dark stairwell, past the festering garbage piled in the corners. She almost stumbled into the toilet on the landing between the flats as he shoved their door open. It banged against the wall and wobbled. She tripped on the warped floorboards. Gathering her skirt, she sat at the scarred table. As usual, her stepmother had removed Vita’s prized possession—her table cloth.

Papa shambled in, buckling his belt. She took a good look at him. Daylight slanted through the dirty window, lighting the streaks of his thinning hair, the same gray as the ship railing she could never forget. He coughed and wheezed, blowing his nose into a hankie.

“You know where she was?” Butchie started in. “She was on the street with McGlory, that cruddy cop.”

“Why?” Papa’s fist pounded the battered kitchen table. “Why you do this to us? He hates us, they all hate us.”

“It was nothin’, Papa,” she answered. “He was tellin’ me about some job. I wasn’t interes—”

“Don’ you talk to no Irish cop.” Papa’s voice rasped, thick with catarrh. “They think they better than us, make us sit in back-a the church, and you talk to one of ’em? You lucky he don’ run you in for a streetwalker, just cause he feel like.” He grabbed his wine jug off the windowsill and took a swig.

She couldn’t tell them what happened that morning. He hated her being with this cop for one reason, his name. McGlory.

She thought of Tom, hiding a secret smile. Maybe he did want to help her. He thought enough of her to send her uptown for a job. What a noble gesture! But if she didn’t get another job, would he really care? Of course not. His job was on the streets; he dealt with tramps and vagrants and street arabs. “Nobody but family cares,” Papa had taught her. The Italians who set their fellow immigrants up with jobs were as brutal as bums slitting throats for pennies.

No, the cop didn’t care. Ptui on him. Her smile vanished into a snarl.

The door swung open and in flounced her stepmother, Rosalia, sporting ankle-high button-up shoes. She’d either bought them with grocery money or swapped with one of the neighbors. She dutifully kissed Papa on the cheek. But there was nothing dutiful about Rosalia’s role as Papa’s wife. They all knew she slipped in and out of rum-holes on his card-playing nights and stayed out till minutes before he got home. Vita couldn’t blame her; Rosalia was only ten years older than she was, sent here to marry Papa after Vita’s mother died.

Rosalia had worked in a feather factory when she first got here, but the swirling fluff gave her asthma. She’d never worked a day since.

“Whatcha screamin’ about?” Rosalia pulled off her shoes and tossed them under the table.

“None of your business what we’re screamin’ about.” Butchie got up and leaned out the window, his muscles tense underneath the thin shirt.

“I’ll see ya’s later.” Vita headed for the door. She had to get a job—fast. She pinned her hair back up into her tight bun.

“Where you go, back with that cop?” Butchie cracked his knuckles.

“What cop?” Rosalia turned from the sink, tipping a pan over, droplets of grease splattering on the floor.

“Hey, I scrubbed that yesterday.” Vita sopped it up with a towel.

“That crum McGlory. Butchie caught him talkin’ to her in the street,” Papa said.

“Mike McGlory?” Rosalia’s amused smirk brought out the wrinkles around her eyes. Her face soured again when Papa glared at her.

“Not Mike. His cousin or somethin’,” Vita interjected.

“Why ain’t you at work anyway?” Papa turned to Vita, as if he’d just realized she wasn’t supposed to be there.

“I got fired.”

“Ah, madonna mia,” Butchie spat.

Vita ground her teeth and went out the door, calling over her shoulder, “I’ll have another job by tonight, and it’ll be better than anything you can get!”

“Yeah, you go, you get anudder job.” Papa’s last words died inside his wine jug as he swigged some more. “Butchie, walk ’er down.”

“Don’t bother, Butchie.” She turned her back on him and strode out the door.

“No. I walk you.” His voice tight with apology, he followed her.

She went down the stairs holding the wobbly banister. The place was a nightmare—the arguing, the heat, the bugs. It made them all say cruel things they didn’t mean, and they had short tempers to begin with. It all came out of the endless struggle to survive.

Vita and Butchie headed east on Bayard and made a left onto Bowery. Neighborhood Italians owned all the shops here. Factories would be her last resort.

They stopped in front of Gallucci’s Millinery Shop. “I’ll be fine, Butchie. You ain’t gotta follow me around.”

“I wanna make sure you won’t get cornered by that leatherhead again.”

“Butchie, there’s a lot worse that can happen to me than a cop cornering me, believe it or not. He was—” She knew he would never believe this. “He was tryin’ to be nice to me, me gettin’ fired and all. Forget about him.”

“Then I see you tonight.” He turned and loped away.

But she wasn’t going home until she had a job.

Gallucci’s had nothing. She hadn’t thought they would; she’d just wanted Butchie out of her way. Wanting to do this right, she went to her friend Angie Paluzzi’s on Elizabeth Street to map out a job-seeking route. Their front tenement faced the street. Mrs. Paluzzi took in boarders, but during the day she worked at home alone. On the way over, Vita gave half her change to a bum, wishing she could buy him a decent meal.

“Vita! Avanti! Come in!” Mrs. Paluzzi called from two floors up. She climbed the stairs and held her breath to block out the stench of garbage. But here she’d have a view of the street instead of dead chickens falling down an air shaft.

Vita’s stomach growled, but she didn’t want to ask Mrs. Paluzzi to feed her. Mercifully, she fixed sausage and peppers without asking. Vita devoured it in three bites.

“Why ain’t you at work?” Mrs. Paluzzi asked as Vita wiped her hands on a towel.

“I got fired. I’m gonna look for another job when I leave here. I just wanted to come here and think for a while. You know how hard that is to do over our place.”

“Wha’ happen?” Mrs. Paluzzi cleared the table. “My Angie, she get fire too?”

“No, it was a…just a misunderstanding, but I’ll find somethin’ better, I know it.”

“I know you will too.” Mrs. Paluzzi went back to her work, putting yellow centers into forget-me-nots. Her nimble fingers made more than the standard three cents a gross. “Where you gonna look?”

“I’ll start with the shops. Martinelli’s, Ugo’s, the others. Then, next year, I’ll try something on Wall Street—maybe one of those places where they sell stocks.”

Mrs. Paluzzi beamed at her. “Ah, I can say I knew little Vita. Now she deals in big money!”

“Oh, I don’t know if I’d be dealing with any big money. All I could get to start is a clerk’s job. But I’m gonna dress nice, hold my head up, show them what a hard worker I am, let them know I graduated grade school…and use a different name.”

“What kind of different name?” Mrs. Paluzzi’s fingers didn’t stop.

“An American name.” She went over to the sink and got a glass of water. “So I’ll take no chances. I’ll still be Vita Caputo around here, but I gotta be a real American to get a good job.”

“You are a real American.” Her voice rose.

“Yeah, but in places like Wall Street they don’t think so.” Vita went back to the table and sat.

“What you call yourself then?” Mrs. Paluzzi broke the thread with her teeth and expertly threaded another needle.

“How does Violet Greene sound? With an extra ‘e’ at the end?”

Mrs. Paluzzi smiled. “Like-a something you plant in your garden.”

“I think it sounds cultured.” Vita waved a pretend fan through the air.

“Why Greene?” She kept on stitching.

“It’s a solid American-sounding name, and those money people love anything green.”

Mrs. Paluzzi laughed. “You lucky you don’t look Napolitan. But you also smart girl. You go uptown, you use American name, you won’ get kicked around.”

Now Vita needed to tell her about the decision to stay away from home till she got a job. “Signora P., can I come back here for supper? I’m ashamed to go home.”

“Why you ashame?”

“I told them I won’ be back till I got a job. I don’ wanna go back on my word. So—just in case I don’t find nothin’, can I come back here?” Her throat still dry, she gulped more water.

Mrs. Paluzzi nodded. Thank God she understood. “You come back here for supper, but I want you right back with your family where you belong.”

There it was again. Family. Oh, how she wished she’d been born into a different one.

****

She tried the paper-box plants, the artificial flower shops, even the candy factories. “I’ll carry trays and shell nuts,” she promised. But they all turned her away. That didn’t discourage her, though—she marched on, the fire of determination in her belly. She still had the streets east of Bowery to cover. But she didn’t go past Fourteenth Street. She didn’t belong there. Yet. She’d get there someday, but in small steps, not leaps. Wall Street and uptown seemed like a million miles away in both directions.

****

“You comin’ up for supper?” Angie Paluzzi asked Vita as they went up Angie’s stairway at six o’clock. Vita leaned on Angie’s arm for support. Her parched throat hurt as she swallowed. Sweat drenched her blouse. “When Mama tol’ me you got fired, I acted surprised, but they was buzzin’ about it all day. The gossip buzzed louder than the machines! What the hell happen?” Angie lowered her voice to a whisper as they approached her apartment door.

“I stopped a street arab from pickpocketing a cop,” Vita said. “The cop came to the factory to thank me, but old Wrench Neck threw me out. I ruined some of his blouses and he thought I stole ’em.”

Angie’s gasp echoed through the hallway and died in the depths of the plaster peelings all around them. “Oh, Madonne!” She blessed herself.

“Of course it couldn’t be any cop. It hadda be the one who Vinny had that fight with’s cousin.” She let out a heavy sigh, going over those events in her mind, stopping at the same place—when her eyes first met Tom McGlory’s. “Don’t tell your mother any of this.”

“No, I won’t tell her nothin’.” Angie walked ahead of her and pushed the door open. “But she knows you got fired.”

“Yeah, I told her.” Vita followed her friend inside.

“Okay then. Let’s forget it and eat.”

****

Mrs. Paluzzi let Vita stay the night there. “But only one night. Then you go back home. Butchie come down here lookin’ for you about an hour ago. He’s gonna come back again after, I know it.” She shook her finger, but Vita was too tuckered out to argue—she closed her eyes and stretched her weary muscles.

“Just tell him you don’t know where I am. I don’t wanna go back till I get a job. Like I said.” Vita rubbed her eyes and helped herself to a glass of water.

Mrs. Paluzzi clasped her hands and raised them to heaven. “I say a novena for you. But don’t you be ashame. They your family, Vita.”

“I know that. But I’ll go back tomorrow. After I get a job. A good one. I’m no use to them right now.” She gulped down her water.

After supper, she took a pillow, loosened her clothes and slept out on the fire escape across from Mrs. Paluzzi’s eight-year-old son Nicholas. At least the air out there circulated a little.

By noon the next day, not having found a job, Vita offered to watch Mr. Mongibelli’s cart for a few hours, while he went to tend his sick wife, in exchange for three oranges and a bunch of grapes. The cart stood kitty-corner to Joey Cap’s Saloon, where the cops always went for a beer after their beat. Is Tom in there? she wondered. Her heart danced. She stared at the saloon’s frosted glass doors, hoping to see him, praying he wouldn’t see her. An image of him flashed in her mind. She counted so many emotions in those eyes; compassion, interest, and…pity. She realized she hadn’t thought of him all morning. Then a flash of light hit her from across the street. A dressed‑up Rosalia slipped into the saloon’s ladies’ entrance, the sun glinting off the frosted glass as she threw the door open. Her open blouse buttons exposed her neck. So she’s on the prowl again. Vita sighed, shaking her head.

****

Tom, hot and sticky in his uniform, longed for another horn but had to be content with the two beers he’d just had; he was going on duty. He ran a finger under his collar. He sat in Joey Cap’s with Mike, his fellow police officer and cousin.

“Hey, what’s bothering you, Tom?” Mike slurped his beer. He’d just gotten off duty and tucked into his corned beef sandwich. After two nickel beers, “Moose” Murphy the owner gave cops a free lunch.

Tom slapped together some cheese and cold ham between two slices of rye. “Just tired, I guess.” He took a bite. Tom didn’t want to repeat yesterday’s events. Then they’d get talking about Lorenzo Caputo and his son, and he knew Mike didn’t want to hear that name again. But ever since Vita’s brother dragged her away, Tom couldn’t stop thinking about her. How had she made out? Had the father beat her? He wished he could’ve escorted her home to make sure they wouldn’t lay a hand on her.

Mike nodded, taking a long draw of his beer. He knew when to leave Tom alone.

When Tom stepped outside, back on duty, dazzling sunshine startled him. Then he saw her—Vita—tending Mr. Mongibelli’s pushcart. His heart skipped a beat.

Tom watched her talking to Mongibelli, her hands waving in lively gestures. Her hair’s luster winked back at the sun. Her eyes accented her fair skin, flushed with a pink tinge, the color of blossoms. She held her head high with a proud composure. Her presence graced the ugliness around her. He wanted so badly to part those lips in a kiss…

Mongibelli gave her a few coins. She thanked him, slid them into her pocket, looked up, and saw Tom. Her face turned ashen. Tom walked toward her with a big grin. Oh, thank God she’s all right.

“Hello, Vi—Miss Caputo.” He plucked his hat off, grabbed an apple off the cart, and overpaid Mongibelli. “It’s nice to see you again. You’re looking well.”

The color came back into her cheeks. Her posture eased. Guilt stabbed at him—how could he be so selfish? He shouldn’t want to talk to her so soon after yesterday. She must still be shaken up over that. “Have you found another job?”

“No, no, I haven’t. Not yet.” She turned to the peddler. “A presto.”

“May I walk a ways with you?” Tom asked as they headed down Canal Street, sidestepping heaps of trash.

“No, you better not. I mean, I better not.” Her eyes darted around, no doubt on the lookout for her brother.

“Don’t worry about him seeing us together. I’ll protect you now, and I’ll protect you later,” he promised.

She raised a brow and took another glance around. A corner of her mouth lifted. She looked at him and nodded. “Okay. Well…at least I won’t get robbed now. But you might.” She gave him a sideways once-over before turning back to watch where she was going. He hoped she’d stumble like she did yesterday, so he could catch her in his arms again.

“Hey, some of these street arabs are good at their trade. Even a cop can be blindsided.” He didn’t want to let her go. He needed to know if she was okay, if she had enough money, enough to eat. Although these things were none of his business, he wanted her to be his business.

He wanted her.

“Did everything go well for you yesterday, with your family, I mean?”

“It’s really none of your concern, Officer.” She kept her voice steady.

He’d expected that reply, so he didn’t even wince. “I was just hoping you’d be all right.”

“Well, you can save your time. You caused me enough trouble already.” She quickened her pace, her shoes clumping on the pavement.

Why should she confide in a nosy cop? he asked himself. Italians didn’t trust anyone, especially cops. He wouldn’t dare offer her charity in the form of money, food or shelter, so he repeated the bank job offer. “Go see Mr. Liam Johnson,” he urged. “I wish you’d do yourself a favor and go up there.”

“I wouldn’t be able to work in a bank. I’ve never even been inside a bank.”

He tried to hide his surprise, but while his family certainly wasn’t well off, he had to remind himself that they were a long way from the bottom. “There’s places I’ve never been to either. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.” They reached the corner of Mulberry and Broome, surrounded by shabby wooden houses, storefronts, and the jostling crowd. “This is where my beat starts. I want it to work out for you, Vita. I mean that.”

She nodded and went on her way. He watched the curve of her hips, trying to keep his eyes averted from her derriere but unable to resist. Oh, to have that body pressed against mine—his imagination took over as he lost sight of her. He fought back even more forbidden thoughts as she disappeared into the crowd.

How he hoped she’d take that bank job! He clenched his fists and pounded the air. In a way, he could almost guarantee it. The bankers owed him a favor. If she got a job there, they’d be connected, however remotely. At that moment he decided Vita Caputo would be a major part of his life, even though it would be ages before she even knew it.