by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 16 appears
in this issue.
* * *
The village streets were quiet, which was not surprising for a winter evening in the middle of the work week. Madam Hopkins’ brothel was in a respectable neighborhood and the windows of the large homes along the avenue were filled with a cheerful glow. Edgar envisioned the pleasant domestic goings-on behind their facades — the smiling wives, the happy children, the loving closeness that knit families together — and he wondered if he would ever know such contentment.
“Wake up, brother, we’re here,” Henry said, jarring him out of his daydream and leading him up the front walk to the brothel.
Inside, the parlor was thick with the sweetly commingled odors of perfume, smoke and a palpable Eros. Edgar found it slightly nauseating, although exciting, too, in its appeal to the baser senses. He always hated himself for coming here, but tonight he was only going to drink and try to keep his brother out of trouble. A plumpish young harlot had already locked eyes on Henry and was coming his way.
And right behind her was Zack Griswald. He lunged for Henry, who reacted just fast enough to sidestep a slashing knife. Without thinking, Edgar slammed his fist hard into Zack’s bearded face; he heard the crunch of cartilage as his nose flattened. The big man floundered drunkenly, swinging his knife and hollering as ropes of blood trailed from his damaged beak.
Other men jumped into the fray. “He stabbed me in the hand,” one of them yawped. Then the big fellow went down with a thump and three men on top of him, one of them Henry. There was a ruckus from another room and Constable Grey came running out, pulling up his britches as he went. A bare-breasted whore ran behind him with a gun. Grey took it from her and pressed it against Zack’s temple.
“Quit now or I’ll blow yer brains out, asshole,” he said, cocking the pistol. “Nothing I hate more than being pulled out of the saddle.”
Drunk as he was, Zack had the presence of mind to stop struggling. He lay on the floor, his thick mustache sponging up the blood from his nose, his eyes furious with hatred.
One of the girls’ pointed at him. “He’s the one stabbed Clara. He was with her when it happened.”
“I’ll be goddamned,” Grey said, dragging Zack to his feet with the help of three others. “You murderin’ dog. I should shoot yer dumb ass right now.”
Henry was already fading into the crowd that had gathered from all corners of the house. He signaled Edgar to follow him. Edgar slid around some of the gawkers and found himself in a hallway leading to a back door.
“Let’s get out of here,” Henry said.
“Thought you said the Griswalds went home?”
“They shoulda had more sense. Now that boy will hang. But don’t shed any tears; the world’s a better place for it, trust me.”
“You think Zack killed Clara?” Edgar said.
“I don’t see it matters right now, except it’s working in our favor.”
Edgar saw the wisdom in this and followed him through the kitchen and out the back.
“Any other whorehouses in this town?” Henry asked as soon as they hit the alley.
In the days after Zack Griswald’s arrest, Edgar learned that Zack’s brother, Matt, had hobbled into a local surgeon’s office with a gangrenous leg from an untreated wound. The leg was so far gone, it had to be amputated at the knee.
With the Griswalds out of the way, and Henry staying around the barracks, the Poe brothers fell into a desultory rhythm of opium smoking, drinking and playing cards with whatever cadets had the nerve to join them.
Henry always seemed to win, and men were getting into the game just to learn from him. He fleeced some of the wealthier cadets, going easier on those of less abundant means, somehow staying friendly with all of them, such was his charm.
Edgar had his usual luck with cards, meaning he’d win a few hands and then lose a few more, ending up in debt to somebody. Henry was generous with his winnings, though, and he always paid Edgar’s debts. He also kept them in liquor and opium, not to mention food. Tired of eating the mess hall slop, he’d come back with a leg of lamb or a whole chicken to be cooked in the fireplace.
By this point, Henry was also paying off the tac officers in charge of keeping an eye on the barracks, so his presence was never reported. None of the other cadets turned him in either, both out of a sense of honor and because they genuinely liked him. He’d also taken to wearing a uniform on those occasions he was outside the barracks (he’d won its various parts at cards), and he blended in so well he joked about being shot as a spy.
Those cadets who were most apt to report Henry only heard rumors about him and never actually went over to No. 28 because of its reputation as a hard room, a place where one could get into trouble and wind up facing a court-martial.
Henry enjoyed his newfound bottle companions and he entertained them not only with his card-playing virtuosity, but with raunchy stories, ribald poems and knife tricks.
“Ever tell you boys ’bout the time I was on a white sand beach in Greece and three beautiful, naked women came out of the waves to make love to me?” went one of his tall-tales. “Their names were Starheliomos, Malakas and just plain Helen. They’ve been my muses ever since, the secret of my literary fame. I keep ’em all at Mother Hopkins’ House of Joy and whenever I hit bottom and need inspiration, that’s where you’ll find me.”
Except for his bouts of coughing, Henry seemed happier than Edgar had ever seen him. He eased his consumption with brandy and doses of laudanum or pure opium, and Edgar got a couple of extra blankets to keep him warm at night. They also used his gambling winnings to buy firewood, so the barracks room was cozier than most.
Best of all, Henry’s dipsomania was under control and the intense hostility that surged in him when he was roaring drunk never fully showed itself. For the first time in years Edgar enjoyed the blood tie of kin and family. Henry shared the bond, too, and said so. With it came a sense that they finally fit in somewhere. Despite their talents, or perhaps because of them, they had always felt they were outcasts who never quite belonged.
Not that they were uncomfortable in social situations. On the contrary; they were both driven to excel in the company of others, to entertain with their wit and charm and knowledge. In Richmond, they’d always been invited to the best parties. Yet, even in their happiest moments there was a lingering emptiness, a void. Only the night before, Henry had said they were “fatherless bastards” raised by women who cared for them, and stepfathers who didn’t.
“We don’t know how to be men; no one ever taught us,” he confessed to Edgar while deep in his cups. “We’re pathetic, always trying to prove ourselves. That’s why we write the doggerel we write. That’s why I drink and fight and fornicate whenever I can. Because, mon ami, I’m a fuckin’ man, don’t you see?”
Fortunately, none of the other cadets were in the room at the time because Henry would have throttled the first one to laugh at him.
He’d soon passed out anyway, and when he awoke in the morning, he was quiet and sat on his bunk reading Edgar’s French text. Edgar decided to leave him alone, figuring he was in a brown study and needed time to himself. “I’m tired of breathing this stale air,” he said, hoisting himself off his bed. “Think I’ll go for a walk and leave you to your thoughts.”
“That’s the last thing I need,” Henry said. “They’ll gang up on me and send me to the bughouse.”
“I thought you wanted to be alone.”
“I’ll have plenty of time alone soon enough, when I’m dead and gone.”
“Don’t say things like that.”
“Ah, but it’s true. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about sharing a secret with you.”
“You’ve got more opium?”
“We’ll get around to that, don’t worry. I wanted to tell you about our father, that he’s still alive.”
Edgar’s heart bolted in his chest. “What? Have you lost your mind?”
“I’m sane as you are, which, admittedly isn’t saying a whole lot. But, yes, David Poe is alive and I know where he lives.”
Edgar was too flummoxed to say anything more and he waited for Henry to go on.
“Forty-nine Mulberry Street in the city. That’s the Five Points, a haven for lowlife, hoodlums and degenerates. And of course, our dear Papa. I’m sure he’s happy there.”
“You’re lying. He’s been dead for years. This is a bad joke.”
“I’m serious — and sober, I might add. When I told auntie I was going to New York to see you, the old woman just couldn’t contain a secret she’d kept for years. Namely, that David was alive and living in the city. She wanted me to find him and to ‘make things right’ between us. Since then, I’ve dreamed about sticking a knife in his heart and watching him die, a notion that has afforded me much pleasure.”
Edgar was too astonished by the news to pay much attention to Henry’s empty threats.
“We’ve got to find him, Henry. There’s so much I want to know, so many questions I want to ask. We’ve got to go, now, today.”
“Why ruin such a promising day? He’s scum.”
“Because he’s our father. We don’t need any other reason.”
* * *
Five Points was every bit the hellhole they’d heard it was. They arrived at the junction near Cross and Mulberry streets in the late afternoon as smoke from innumerable chimneys drifted across the rooftops to create an untimely dusk. Despite the November chill, the cobbled streets were teeming with men, women and children, many wrapped in befouled rags and not a few begging for alms. Stray dogs and swine were everywhere. Several women, one of them at least sixty years old, and another blowing cankerous kisses, propositioned them before they had gone two blocks. All the while, a grubby gang of children trailed along caterwauling for money. Henry encouraged them by tossing a handful of pennies in the air.
“I’ve seen boys begging like that in Mexico City and in Athens,” he said. “Didn’t think we had them in the States, though.”
On every dilapidated city block they passed saloons and dance halls already overflowing with rowdy patrons. Henry observed that even the grocery stores did more business in booze than bread, and he was right; scores of unsavory-looking men loitered up and down the street, many guzzling from bottles in front of bins of rotting fruit and vegetables.
“Could be us in a few years,” he said humorlessly.
Approaching a corner crowded with street toughs, Henry advised him to keep one hand on his wallet and the other on his gun. “There are some rough customers around here,” he said. “I recognize the breed.”
They made it past the thuggish youths, who eyed them silently, apparently deciding they weren’t easy marks. It wasn’t long before they were in the city’s deepmost cesspool of humanity, where the narrow alleys reeked of decaying garbage, piss and offal, both human and animal. What appeared at first to be a pile of trash would move and thrust a gray hand out for coins. Or some other lost soul would rise up from the debris, unearthed like a living corpse and crawl along the cobblestones.
Forty-nine Mulberry was a saloon, not a residence, and its entrance was in the building’s basement below street level. They stood on the sidewalk peering down into its Stygian darkness, where thick fumes of alcohol curled forth from the dungeon.
“Is this the right address?” Edgar asked in dismay and increasing dread at the decaying wood-frame building that appeared to lean up against a neighboring three-story edifice of rotten, unpainted board. He looked up and down the street at the other storefronts and houses, none of which had seen a fresh coat of paint or whitewash in years.
“Absolutely,” Henry said. “It’s perfect.”
They went down a series of stone steps and through the cavernous doorway. Inside the vile lair men were drinking, gaming and even fornicating in the murk. Off in one corner, Edgar saw a heavyset man lying atop a woman pressed into the sawdust-covered floor, her petticoats lifted and her fattish white legs thrust apart as the humpbacked figure mechanically pumped away. Several other inebriated louts looked on, some of them fondling themselves.
Edgar, too, watched with perverse fascination until Henry jogged him. “There he is,” he said, indicating the other end of the bar where a group of men were clustered, some drinking from crockery mugs, others from a ladle they dunked into a slop bucket and handed round. A gray-bearded, older man was singing or reciting lines for the tipplers; Edgar couldn’t quite tell which because of the hubbub in the place. As soon as he finished his performance, the others cheered.
“Here, here!” another old coot in an ancient powdered wig exclaimed. “You’ve earned yer swill, mate,” he said, handing him the ladle. The man slurped up the poison, tipping the ladle until the slop ran into his beard. Then he dipped in the bucket for more, but a muscular young thug with a broken nose shoved him away. “Enough,” he ordered. “Give us another show.”
“You fellows familiar with the Bard?” the man asked, evidently not expecting an answer. “Here’s a little something you’ll appreciate from the great “Tragedy of Macbeth.” I played Malcolm once, you know, in Boston. A great role.”
“Shut up with the fucking history lesson and just do the part,” the bully said, twisting his arm.
“All right then,” the actor said, grimacing with pain and then puffing himself up as though he was important, even regal. “It’s like this: ‘I grant him bloody, luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful, sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin that has a name... I...’
He stopped in mid-sentence, suddenly befuddled.
“Spit it out,” someone yelled.
“I can’t remember the rest.”
“Shit for brains,” the bully said, and gave him a shot to the head with an open hand. The blow dashed him against the bar, crumpling him to his knees. The young tough moved in to beat him some more, but Henry was on him like a maelstrom. He chopped him in the throat with his fist, then smashed his head on the edge of the bar as he went down.
The big man slumped inertly to the floor, bleeding into the sawdust from his pulverized nose. Henry kicked him several times in the ribcage for good measure. When one of the tough’s comrades made a move for Henry, Edgar drew his pistol. “No you don’t,” he said, stopping him cold.
Meanwhile, the senile actor cowered against the back wall, beneath a crude portrait of Andrew Jackson swinging a sword at the Battle of New Orleans.
“No need to hurt me, young sir,” he cried at Henry, his hands up in supplication. “I don’t want any trouble. I don’t even know that fellow.”
Henry’s eyes brimmed with scorn as he advanced on him. “Here’s some Malcolm you might remember,” he said, halting just inches from the terrified man. “’Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it. He died as one that had been studied in his death, to throw away the dearest thing he ow’d, as ‘twere a careless trifle’.”
He let the lines sink into the rummy’s feeble brain and when he spoke again, his words were acid. “Remember that, you old wastrel? Boston, eighteen ought-nine. The critics shellacked you, and deservedly so. They always said your wife outshined you, and they were right.”
David Poe fell back, his eyes beseeching. Henry had his knife in his hand now, its blade gleaming in the dark. “Her life was worth so much more than yours. And yet she died at twenty-four while you, you filthy piece of excrement, are still in this world.”
“Don’t, Henry; he’s our father!” Edgar cried out and snagged his brother’s arm.
David Poe’s eyes went wide and he opened his emaciated arms to embrace them. “My sons,” he whined through blackened, broken teeth. “My sons!”
For Edgar, it was a scene of indescribable revulsion. Everything about his father disgusted him: his bad teeth, the leprous sores on his face, his tattered clothes and tobacco-brown fingertips — his smell of the premature grave. Yet there was no denying that under the crust of degradations he had acquired in twenty years of debauchery, he resembled them; he was a Poe.
Henry slapped their father’s hands down and the old man slunk further toward the floor, reflexively protecting his head with his arms to ward off the anticipated blow. But Henry only clapped him on his shoulders and wrenched him to his feet like a sack of bones.
“I had to leave,” David Poe wailed, a wash of tears streaking the grime on his cheeks. “I’ve hated myself ever since. But it wasn’t my fault. She was the one. She took on a lover. I couldn’t stand for that, could I boys?”
This time Henry gave him a savage slap that sent his head bouncing off the wall behind him. Then his knife was at the derelict’s throat, pinching his parchment skin.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott