Set in Boston at the end of the First World War, Dennis Lehane's "The Given Day" tells the story of two families — one black, one white — swept up in a maelstrom of revolutionaries and anarchists, immigrants and ward bosses. Featuring a number of the most famous and influential figures of the era, including Babe Ruth, Jack Reed, Calvin Coolidge, Eugene O’Neill and W.E.B. Dubois, the novel is a remarkable work of historical fiction. An excerpt.
On a wet summer night, Danny Coughlin, a Boston police officer, fought a four-round bout against another cop, Johnny Green, at Mechanics Hall just outside Copley Square. Coughlin-Green was the final fight on a fifteen-bout, all-police card that included flyweights, welterweights, cruiserweights, and heavyweights. Danny Coughlin, at six two, 220, was a heavyweight. A suspect left hook and foot speed that was a few steps shy of blazing kept him from fighting professionally, but his butcher-knife left jab combined with the airmail-your-jaw-to-Georgia explosion of his right cross dwarfed the abilities of just about any other semipro on the East Coast.
The all-day pugilism display was titled Boxing & Badges: Haymakers for Hope. Proceeds were split fifty-fifty between the St. Thomas Asylum for Crippled Orphans and the policemen’s own fraternal organization, the Boston Social Club, which used the donations to bolster a health fund for injured coppers and to defray costs for uniforms and equipment, costs the department refused to pay. While flyers advertising the event were pasted to poles and hung from storefronts in good neighborhoods and thereby elicited donations from people who never intended to actually attend the event, the flyers also saturated the worst of the Boston slums, where one was most likely to find the core of the criminal element — the plug-uglies, the bullyboys, the knuckle-dusters, and, of course, the Gusties, the city’s most powerful and f--- out-of-their-minds street gang, who headquartered in South Boston but spread their tentacles throughout the city at large.
The logic was simple:
The only thing criminals loved almost as much as beating the sh-- out of coppers was watching coppers beat the sh-- out of each other.
Coppers beat the sh-- out of each other at Mechanics Hall during Boxing & Badges: Haymakers for Hope.
Ergo: criminals would gather at Mechanics Hall to watch them do so.
Danny Coughlin’s godfather, Lieutenant Eddie McKenna, had decided to exploit this theory to the fullest for benefit of the BPD in general and the Special Squads Division he lorded over in particular. The men in Eddie McKenna’s squad had spent the day mingling with the crowd, closing outstanding warrant after outstanding warrant with a surprisingly bloodless efficiency. They waited for a target to leave the main hall, usually to relieve himself, before they hit him over the head with a pocket billy and hauled him off to one of the paddy wagons that waited in the alley. By the time Danny stepped into the ring, most of the mugs with outstanding warrants had been scooped up or had slipped out the back, but a few — hopeless and dumb to the last — still milled about in the smoke-laden room on a floor sticky with spilt beer.
Danny’s corner man was Steve Coyle. Steve was also his patrol partner at the Oh-One Station House in the North End. They walked a beat from one end of Hanover Street to the other, from Constitution Wharf to the Crawford House Hotel, and as long as they’d been doing it, Danny had boxed and Steve had been his corner and his cut man.
Danny, a survivor of the 1916 bombing of the Salutation Street Station House, had been held in high regard since his rookie year on the job. He was broad-shouldered, dark-haired and dark-eyed; more than once, women had been noted openly regarding him, and not just immigrant women or those who smoked in public. Steve, on the other hand, was squat and rotund like a church bell, with a great pink bulb of a face and a bow to his walk. Early in the year he’d joined a barbershop quartet in order to attract the fancy of the fairer sex, a decision that had served him in good stead this past spring, though prospects appeared to be dwindling as autumn neared.
Steve, it was said, talked so much he gave aspirin powder a headache. He’d lost his parents at a young age and joined the department without any connections or juice. After nine years on the job, he was still a flatfoot. Danny, on the other hand, was BPD royalty, the son of Captain Thomas Coughlin of Precinct 12 in South Boston and the godson of Special Squads Lieutenant Eddie McKenna. Danny had been on the job less than five years, but every cop in the city knew he wasn’t long for uniform.
“F---in’ taking this guy so long?” Steve scanned the back of the hall, hard to ignore in his attire of choice. He claimed he’d read somewhere that Scots were the most feared of all corner men in the fight game. And so, on fight nights, Steve came to the ring in a kilt. An authentic, red tartan kilt, red and black argyle socks, charcoal tweed jacket and matching five-button waistcoat, silver wedding tie, authentic gillie brogues on his feet, and a loose-crowned Balmoral on his head. The real surprise wasn’t how at home he looked in the getup, it was that he wasn’t even Scottish.
The audience, red-faced and drunk, had grown increasingly agitated the last hour or so, more and more actual fights breaking out between the scheduled ones. Danny leaned against the ropes and yawned. Mechanics Hall stank of sweat and booze. Smoke, thick and wet, curled around his arms. By all rights he should have been back in his dressing room, but he didn’t really have a dressing room, just a bench in the maintenance hallway, where they’d sent Woods from the Oh-Nine looking for him five minutes ago, told him it was time to head to the ring.
So he stood there in an empty ring waiting for Johnny Green, the buzz of the crowd growing louder, buzzier. Eight rows back, one guy hit another guy with a folding chair. The hitter was so drunk he fell on top of his victim. A cop waded in, clearing a path with his domed helmet in one hand and his pocket billy in the other.
“Why don’t you see what’s taking Green?” Danny asked Steve.
“Why don’t you climb under my kilt and pucker up?” Steve chin-gestured at the crowd. “Them’s some restless sots. Like as not to tear my kilt or scuff my brogues.”
“Heavens,” Danny said. “And you without your shine box.” He bounced his back off the ropes a few times. Stretched his neck, swiveled his hands on the wrists. “Here comes the fruit.”
Steve said, “What?” and then stepped back when a brown head of lettuce arced over the ropes and splattered in the center of the ring.
“My mistake,” Danny said. “Vegetable.”
“No matter.” Steve pointed. “The pretender appears. Just in time.”
Danny looked down the center aisle and saw Johnny Green framed by a slanted white rectangle of doorway. The crowd sensed him and turned. He came down the aisle with his trainer, a guy Danny recognized as a desk sergeant at the One-Five, but whose name escaped him. About fifteen rows back, one of Eddie McKenna’s Special Squads guys, a goon named Hamilton, grabbed a guy off his feet by his nostrils and dragged him up the aisle, the Special Squads cowboys apparently figuring all pretense could be chucked now that the final fight was about to begin.
Carl Mills, the BPD press spokesman, was calling to Steve from the other side of the ropes. Steve went to one knee to talk to him. Danny watched Johnny Green come, not liking something that floated in the guy’s eyes, something unhooked. Johnny Green saw the crowd, he saw the ring, he saw Danny — but he didn’t. Instead, he looked at everything and looked past everything at the same time. It was a look Danny had seen before, mostly on the faces of three-bottles-to-the-wind drunks or rape victims.
Steve came up behind him and put a hand on his elbow. “Mills just told me this is his third fight in twenty-four hours.”
“Whose? F---ing Green’s. He had one last night over at the Crown in Somerville, fought another this morning down at the rail yards in Brighton, and now here he is.”
“How many rounds?”
“Mills heard he went thirteen last night for sure. And lost by KO.”
“Then what’s he doing here?”
“Rent,” Steve said. “Two kids, a pregger wife.”
The crowd was on its feet — the walls shuddering, the rafters shimmying. If the roof suddenly shot straight up into the sky, Danny doubted he’d feel surprise. Johnny Green entered the ring without a robe. He stood in his corner and banged his gloves together, his eyes staring up at something in his skull.
“He doesn’t even know where he is,” Danny said.
“Yeah, he does,” Steve said, “and he’s coming to the center.”
“Steve, for Christ’s sake.”
“Don’t ‘Christ’s sake’ me. Get in there.”
In the center of the ring, the referee, Detective Bilky Neal, a former boxer himself, placed a hand on each of their shoulders. “I want a clean fight. Barring that, I want it to look clean. Any questions?”
Danny said, “This guy can’t see.”
Green’s eyes were on his shoes. “See enough to knock your head off.”
“I take my gloves off, could you count my fingers?”
Green raised his head and spit on Danny’s chest.
Danny stepped back. “What the f---?” He wiped the spittle off on his glove, wiped his glove on his shorts.
Shouts from the crowd. Beer bottles shattered against the base of the ring.
Green met his eyes, Green’s sliding like something on a ship. “You want Green met his eyes, Green’s sliding like something on a ship. “You want to quit, you quit. In public, though, so I still get the purse. Just grab the megaphone and quit.”
“I’m not quitting.”
Bilky Neal gave them a smile that was nervous and furious at the same time. “They’s getting restless out there, gents.”
Danny pointed with a glove. “Look at him, Neal. Look at him.”
“He looks fine to me.”
“This is bullsh--. I — ”
Green’s jab caught Danny’s chin. Bilky Neal backed up, top speed, and waved his arm. The bell rang. The crowd roared. Green shot another jab into Danny’s throat.
The crowd went crazy.
Danny stepped into the next punch and wrapped Green up. As Johnny delivered half a dozen rabbit punches into Danny’s neck, Danny said, “Give it up. Okay?”
“F--- you. I need ... I ...”
Danny felt warm liquid run down his back. He broke the clinch.
Johnny cocked his head as pink foam spilled over his lower lip and dribbled down his chin. He’d stood like that for five seconds, an eternity in the ring, arms down by his side. Danny noticed how childlike his expression had become, as if he’d just been hatched.
Then his eyes narrowed. His shoulders clenched. His hands rose. The doctor would later tell Danny (when he’d been stupid enough to ask) that a body under extreme duress often acts out of reflex. Had Danny known that at the time, maybe it would have made a difference, though he was hard-pressed to see how. A hand rising in a boxing ring rarely meant anything but what one naturally assumed. Green’s left fist entered the space between their bodies, Danny’s shoulder twitched, and his right cross blew up into the side of Johnny Green’s head.
Instinct. Purely that.
There wasn’t much left of Johnny to count out. He lay on the canvas kicking his heels, spitting white foam, and then gouts of pink. His head swayed left to right, left to right. His mouth kissed the air the way fish kissed the air.
Three fights in the same day? Danny thought. You f---ing kidding?
Johnny lived. Johnny was fine. Never to fight again, of course, but after a month he could speak clearly. After two, he’d lost the limp and the left side of his mouth had thawed from its stricture.
Danny was another issue. It wasn’t that he felt responsible — yes, sometimes he did, but most times he understood the stroke had already found Johnny Green before Danny threw his counterpunch. No the issue was one of balance — Danny, in two short years, had gone from the Salutation Street bombing to losing the only woman he’d ever loved, Nora O’Shea, an Irishwoman who worked for his parents as a domestic. Their affair had felt doomed from the start, and it had been Danny who had ended it, but since she’d left his life, he couldn’t think of one good reason to live it. Now he’d almost killed Johnny Green in the ring at Mechanics Hall. All of this in twenty-one months. Twenty-one months that would have led anyone to question whether God held a grudge.
His woman took off,” Steve told Danny two months later. It was early September, and Danny and Steve walked the beat in the North End of Boston. The North End was predominantly Italian and poor, a place where rats grew to the size of butchers’ forearms and infants often died before their first steps. English was rarely spoken; automobile sightings unlikely. Danny and Steve, however, were so fond of the neighborhood that they lived in the heart of it, on different floors of a Salem Street rooming house just blocks from the Oh-One Station House on Hanover.
“Now don’t blame yourself,” Steve said. “Johnny Green’s.”
“Why’d she leave him?”
“Fall’s coming. They got evicted.”
“But he’s back on the job,” Danny said. “A desk, yeah, but back on the job.” Steve nodded. “Don’t make up for the two months he was out, though.”
Danny stopped, looked at his partner. “They didn’t pay him? He was fighting in a department- sponsored smoker.”
“You really want to know?”
“Because the last couple months? A man brings up Johnny Green’s name around you and you shut him down surer than a chastity belt.”
“I want to know,” Danny said.
Steve shrugged. “It was a Boston Social Club–sponsored smoker. So technically, he got hurt off the job. Thus ...” He shrugged again. “No sick pay.”
Danny said nothing. He tried to find solace in his surroundings. The North End had been his home until he was seven years old, before the Irish who’d laid its streets and the Jews who’d come after them had been displaced by Italians who populated it so densely that if a picture were taken of Napoli and another of Hanover Street, most would be hard-pressed to identify which had been taken in the United States. Danny had moved back when he was twenty, and planned never to leave.
Danny and Steve walked their beat in sharp air that smelled of chimney smoke and cooked lard. Old women waddled into the streets. Carts and horses made their way along the cobblestone. Coughs rattled from open windows. Babies squawked at so high a pitch Danny could imagine the red of their faces. In most tenements, hens roamed the hallways, goats shit in the stairwells, and sows nestled in torn newspaper and a dull rage of flies. Add an entrenched distrust of all things non-Italian, including the English language, and you had a society no Americano was ever going to comprehend.
So it wasn’t terribly surprising that the North End was the prime recruiting area for every major anarchist, Bolshevik, radical, and subversive organization on the Eastern Seaboard. Which made Danny love it all the more for some perverse reason. Say what you would about the people down here — and most did, loudly and profanely — but you sure couldn’t question their passion. In accordance with the Espionage Act of 1917, most of them could be arrested and deported for speaking out against the government. In many cities they would have been, but arresting someone in the North End for advocating the overthrow of the United States was like arresting people for letting their horses shit on the street — they wouldn’t be hard to find, but you’d better have an awfully large truck.
Danny and Steve entered a café on Richmond Street. The walls were covered with black wool crosses, three dozen of them at least, most the size of a man’s head. The owner’s wife had been knitting them since America had entered the war. Danny and Steve ordered espressos. The owner placed their cups on the glass countertop with a bowl of brown sugar lumps and left them alone. His wife came in and out from the back room with trays of bread and placed them in the shelves below the counter until the glass steamed up below their elbows.
The woman said to Danny, “War end soon, eh?”
“It sounds like it.”
“Is good,” she said. “I sew one more cross. Maybe help.” She gave him a hesitant smile and a bow and returned to the back.
They drank their espressos and when they walked back out of the café, the sun was brighter and caught Danny in the eyes. Soot from the smokestacks along the wharf seesawed through the air and dusted the cobblestone. The neighborhood was quiet except for the occasional roll-up of a shop grate and the clop-and-squeak of a horse-drawn wagon delivering wood. Danny wished it could stay like this, but soon the streets would fill with vendors and livestock and truant kids and soapbox Bolsheviks and soapbox anarchists. Then some of the men would hit the saloons for a late breakfast and some of the musicians would hit the corners not occupied by the soapboxes and someone would hit a wife or a husband or a Bolshevik.
Once the wife beaters and husband beaters and Bolshevik beaters were dealt with, there would be pickpockets, penny-to-nickel extortions, dice games on blankets, card games in the back rooms of cafés and barbershops, and members of the Black Hand selling insurance against everything from ?re to plague but mostly from the Black Hand.
“Got another meeting tonight,” Steve said. “Big doings.”
“BSC meeting?” Danny shook his head. “ ‘Big doings.’ You’re serious?”
Steve twirled his pocket billy on its leather strap. “You ever think if you showed up to union meetings, maybe you’d be bumped to Detective Division by now, we’d all have our raise, and Johnny Green’d still have his wife and kids?”
Danny peered up at a sky with glare but no visible sun. “It’s a social club.”
“It’s a union,” Steve said.
“Then why’s it called the Boston Social Club?” Danny yawned up at the white leather sky.
“A fine point. The point of the matter, in fact. We’re trying to change that.”
“Change it all you want and it’s still just a union in name. We’re cops, Steve — we’ve got no rights. The BSC? Just a boys’ club, a fucking tree house.”
“We’re setting up a meeting with Gompers, Dan. The AF of L.”
Danny stopped. If he told his father or Eddie McKenna about this, he’d get a gold shield and be bumped up out of patrol the day after tomorrow.
“The AF of L is a national union. You crazy? They’ll never let cops join.”
“Who? The mayor? The governor? O’Meara?”
“O’Meara,” Danny said. “He’s the only one that matters.”
Police Commissioner Stephen O’Meara’s bedrock belief was that a policeman’s post was the highest of all civic posts and therefore demanded both the outward and inward reflection of honor. When he’d taken over the BPD, each precinct had been a fiefdom, the private reserve of whichever ward boss or city councilman got his snout into the trough faster and deeper than his competition. The men looked like sh--, dressed like sh--, and didn’t give sh--.
O’Meara purged a lot of that. Not all of it, Lord knows, but he’d fired some deadwood and worked to indict the most egregious of the ward bosses and councilmen. He’d set the rotted system back on its heels and then pushed, in hopes it would fall over. Didn’t happen, but it teetered on occasion. Enough so he could send a good number of the police back out into their communities to get to know the people they served. And that’s what you did in O’Meara’s BPD if you were a smart patrolman (with limited contacts) — you served the people. Not the ward bosses or the midget czars with the gold bars. You looked like a cop and you carried yourself like a cop and you stepped aside for no man and you never bent the basic principle: you were the law.
But even O’Meara, apparently, couldn’t bend City Hall to his will in the latest fight for a raise. They hadn’t had one in six years, and that raise, pushed through by O’Meara himself, had come after eight years of stalemate. So Danny and all the other men on the force were paid the fair wage of 1905. And in his last meeting with the BSC, the mayor had said that was the best they could look forward to for a while.
Twenty-nine cents an hour for a seventy-three-hour week. No overtime. And that was for day patrolmen like Danny and Steve Coyle, the plum assignment. The poor night guys were paid a flat two bits an hour and worked eighty-three hours a week. Danny would have thought it outrageous if it hadn’t been steeped in a truth he’d accepted since he could first walk: the system f---ed the workingman. The only realistic decision a man had to make was if he was going to buck the system and starve, or play it with so much pluck and guts that none of its inequities applied to him.
“O’Meara,” Steve said, “sure. I love the old man, too, I do. Love him, Dan. But he’s not giving us what we were promised.”
Danny said, “Maybe they really don’t have the money.”
“That’s what they said last year. Said wait till the war’s over and we’ll reward your loyalty.” Steve held his hands out. “I’m looking, and I don’t see no reward.”
“The war isn’t over.”
Steve Coyle made a face. “For all intents and purposes.”
“So, fine, reopen negotiations.”
“We did. And they turned us down again last week. And cost of living has been climbing since June. We’re f---ing starving, Dan. You’d know it if you had kids.”
“You don’t have kids.”
“My brother’s widow, God rest him, she’s got two. I might as well be married. Wench thinks I’m Gilchrist’s on store-credit day.”
Danny knew Steve had been putting it to the Widow Coyle since a month or two after his brother’s body had entered the grave. Rory Coyle’s femoral artery had been sliced by a cattle shear at the Brighton stockyards, and he’d bled out on the floor amid some stunned workers and oblivious cows. When the stockyard refused to pay even a minimal death benefit to his family, the workers had used Rory Coyle’s death as a rallying cry to unionize, but their strike had only lasted three days before the Brighton PD, the Pinkertons, and some out-of-town bat swingers had pushed back and turned Rory Joseph Coyle right quick into Rory F---ing Who.
Across the street, a man with an anarchist’s requisite watch cap and handlebar mustache set up his wood crate under a street pole and consulted the notebook under his arm. He climbed up on the crate. For a moment Danny felt an odd sympathy for the man. He wondered if he had children, a wife.
“The AF of L is national,” he said again. “The department will never — f---ing ever — allow it.” Steve placed a hand on his arm, his eyes losing their usual blithe light. “Come to a meeting, Dan. Fay Hall. Tuesdays and Thursdays.” “What’s the point?” Danny said as the guy across the street started shouting in Italian. “Just come,” Steve said.
After their shift, Danny had dinner alone and then a few too many drinks in Costello’s, a waterfront saloon favored by police. With every drink, Johnny Green grew smaller, Johnny Green and his three fights in one day, his foaming mouth, his desk job and eviction notice. When Danny left, he took his flask and walked through the North End. Tomorrow would be his first day off in twenty, and as usually happened for some perverse reason, his exhaustion left him wide awake and antsy. The streets were quiet again, the night deepening around them. At the corner of Hanover and Salutation streets, he leaned against a streetlamp pole and looked at the shuttered station house. The lowest windows, those that touched the sidewalk, bore scorch marks, but otherwise you’d be hard-pressed to guess anything violent had ever happened inside.
The Harbor Police had decided to move to another building a few blocks over on Atlantic. They’d told the papers the move had been planned for over a year, but nobody swallowed it. Salutation Street had ceased being a building where anyone felt safe. And illusions of safety were the least a populace demanded of a police station.
One week before Christmas 1916 Steve had been felled by a case of strep. Danny, working solo, had arrested a thief coming off a ship moored amid the ice chunks and gray sea chop of Battery Wharf. This made it a Harbor Police problem and Harbor Police paperwork; all Danny had to do was the drop-off.
It had been an easy pinch. As the thief strolled down the gangplank with a burlap sack over his shoulder, the sack clanked. Danny, yawning into the end of his shift, noticed that this guy had neither the hands, the shoes, nor the walk of a stevedore or a teamster. He told him to halt. The thief shrugged and lowered the sack. The ship he’d robbed was set to depart with food and medical supplies for starving children in Belgium. When some passersby saw the cans of food spill onto the dock, they spread the word, and just as Danny put the cuffs on, the beginnings of a mob congregated at the end of the wharf. Starving Belgian children were the rage that month, the papers filled with accounts of German atrocities against the innocent, God-fearing Flemish. Danny had to draw his pocket billy and hold it above his shoulder in order to pull the thief through the crowd and head up Hanover toward Salutation Street.
Off the wharves, the Sunday streets were cold and quiet, dusted from snow that had been falling all morning, the flakes tiny and dry as ash. The thief was standing beside Danny at the Salutation Street admitting desk, showing him his chapped hands, saying a few nights in the slammer might be just the thing to get the blood circulating again in all this cold, when seventeen sticks of dynamite detonated in the basement.
The exact character of the explosion was something neighborhood people would debate for weeks. Whether the blast was preceded by two muffled thuds or three. Whether the building shook before the doors flew off their hinges or afterward. Every window on the other side of the street blew out, from ground floor to fifth story, one end of the block to the other, and that made its own racket, impossible to distinguish from the original explosion. But to those inside the station house, the seventeen sticks of dynamite made a very distinctive sound, quite different from all those that would follow when the walls split and the floors collapsed.
What Danny heard was thunder. Not the loudest thunder he’d ever heard necessarily, but the deepest. Like a great dark yawn from a great wide god. He would have never questioned it as anything but thunder if he hadn’t recognized immediately that it came from below him. It loosed a baritone yowl that moved the walls and shimmied the floors. All in less than a second. Enough time for the thief to look at Danny and Danny to look at the duty sergeant and the duty sergeant to look at the two patrolmen who’d been arguing over the Belgian war in the corner. Then the rumble and the building-shudder deepened. The wall behind the duty sergeant drizzled plaster. It looked like powdered milk or soap flakes. Danny wanted to point so the sergeant could get a look at it, but the sergeant disappeared, just dropped past the desk like a condemned man through a scaffold. The windows blew out. Danny looked through them and saw a gray film of sky. Then the floor beneath him collapsed.
From thunder to collapse, maybe ten seconds. Danny opened his eyes a minute or two later to the peal of fire alarms. Another sound ringing in his left ear as well, a bit higher-pitched, though not as loud. A kettle’s constant hiss. The duty sergeant lay across from him on his back, a slab of desk over his knees, his eyes closed, nose broken, some teeth, too. Danny had something sharp digging into his back. He had scratches all over his hands and arms. Blood flowed from a hole in his neck, and he dug his handkerchief out of his pocket and placed it to the wound. His greatcoat and uniform were shredded in places. His domed helmet was gone. Men in their underwear, men who’d been sleeping in bunks between shifts, lay in the rubble. One had his eyes open and looked at Danny as if Danny could explain why he’d woken up to this.
Outside, sirens. The heavy slap of fire engine tires. Whistles.
The guy in his underwear had blood on his face. He lifted a chalky hand and wiped some of it off.
“F---ing anarchists,” he said.
That had been Danny’s first thought, too. Wilson had just been reelected on a promise that he’d keep them out of all Belgian affairs, all French and German affairs. But a change of heart had apparently taken place somewhere in the corridors of power. Suddenly it was deemed necessary for the United States to join the war effort. Rockefeller said so. J. P. Morgan said so. Lately the press had said so. Belgian children were being treated poorly. Starving. The Huns had a reputed fondness for atrocity — bombing French hospitals, starving more Belgian children. Always the children, Danny had noticed. A lot of the country smelled a rat, but it was the radicals who started making a ruckus. Two weeks back there’d been a demonstration a few blocks away, anarchists and socialists and the IWW. The police — both city and harbor — had broken it up, made some arrests, cracked some heads. The anarchists mailed threats to the newspapers, promised reprisals.
“F---ing anarchists,” the cop in his underwear repeated. “Fucking terrorist Eye-talians.”
Danny tested his left leg, then his right. When he was pretty sure they’d hold him, he stood. He looked up at the holes in the ceiling.
Holes the size of beer casks. From here, all the way down in the basement, he could see the sky.
Someone moaned to his left, and he saw the top of the thief’s red hair sticking out from beneath mortar and wood and a piece of door from one of the cells down the hall. He pulled a blackened plank off the guy’s back, removed a brick from his neck. He knelt by the thief as the guy gave him a tight smile of thanks.
“What’s your name?” Danny asked, because it suddenly seemed important. But the life slid off the thief’s pupils as if falling from a ledge. Danny would have expected it to rise. To flee upward. But instead it sank into itself, an animal retreating into its hole until there was nothing left of it. Just a not-quite-guy where the guy had lain, a distant, cooling thing. He pressed the handkerchief harder against his neck, closed the thief’s eyelids with his thumb, and felt an inexplicable agitation over not knowing the man’s name.
At Mass General, a doctor used tweezers to pull whiskers of metal from Danny’s neck. The metal had come from the piece of bed frame that hit Danny on its way to imbedding itself in a wall. The doctor told Danny the chunk of metal had come so close to his carotid artery that it should have sheared it in half. He studied the trail of it for another minute or so and told Danny that it had, in fact, missed the artery by roughly one–one thousandth of a millimeter. He informed Danny that this was a statistical aberration on a par with getting hit in the head by a flying cow. He then cautioned him against spending any future time in the kinds of buildings that anarchists were fond of bombing.
A few months after he left the hospital, Danny began his dire love affair with Nora O’Shea. On one of the days of their secret courtship, she kissed the scar on his neck and told him he was blessed.
“If I’m blessed,” he said to her, “what was the thief?”
This was in a room at the Tidewater Hotel that overlooked the boardwalk of Nantasket Beach in Hull. They’d taken the steamboat from downtown and spent the day at Paragon Park, riding the carousel and the teacups. They ate saltwater taffy and fried clams so hot they had to be waved through the sea breeze before they could be swallowed.
Nora bested him in the shooting gallery. One lucky shot, true, but a bull’s-eye and so it was Danny who was handed the stuffed bear by the smirking park vendor. It was a raggedy thing, its split seams already disgorging pale brown stuffing and sawdust. Later, in their room, she used it to defend herself during a pillow fight, and that was the end of the bear. They swept up the sawdust and the stuffing with their hands. Danny, on his knees, found one of the late bear’s button eyes under the brass bed and placed it in his pocket. He hadn’t intended to keep it beyond that day, but now, over a year later, he rarely left his rooming house without it.
Danny and Nora’s affair had begun in April of 1917, the month the United States entered the war against Germany. It was an unseasonably warm month. Flowers bloomed earlier than predicted; near the end of the month their perfume reached windows high above the streets. Lying together in the smell of flowers and the constant threat of a rain that never fell, as the ships left for Europe, as the patriots rallied in the streets, as a new world seemed to sprout beneath them even quicker than the blooming flowers, Danny knew the relationship was doomed. This was even before he’d learned her bleaker secrets, back when the relationship was in the first pink blush of itself. He felt a helplessness that had refused to leave him since he’d woken on the basement floor of Salutation Street. It wasn’t just Salutation (though that would play a large role in his thoughts for the rest of his life), it was the world. The way it gathered speed with every passing day. The way the faster it went, the less it seemed to be steered by any rudder or guided by any constellation. The way it just continued to sail on, regardless of him.
Danny left the boarded-up ruin of Salutation and crossed the city with his flask. Just before dawn, he made his way up onto the Dover Street Bridge and stood looking out at the skyline, at the city caught between dusk and day under a scud of low clouds. It was limestone and brick and glass, its lights darkened for the war effort, a collection of banks and taverns, restaurants and bookstores, jewelers and warehouses and department stores and rooming houses, but he could feel it huddled in the gap between last night and tomorrow morning, as if it had failed to seduce either. At dawn, a city had no finery, no makeup or perfume. It was sawdust on the floors, the overturned tumbler, the lone shoe with a broken strap.
“I’m drunk,” he said to the water, and his foggy face stared back at him from a cup of light in the gray water, the reflection of the sole lamp lit under the bridge. “So drunk.” He spit down at his reflection, but he missed it.
Voices came from his right and he turned and saw them — the first gaggle of the morning migration heading out of South Boston and up onto the bridge: women and children going into the city proper for work.
He walked off the bridge and found a doorway in a failed fruit wholesalers building. He watched them come, ?first in clumps and then in streams. Always the women and children first, their shifts an hour or two before the men’s so they could return home in time to get dinner ready. Some chatted loudly and gaily, others were quiet or soggy with sleep. The older women moved with palms to their backs or hips or other aches. Many were dressed in the coarse clothing of mill and factory laborers, while others wore the heavily starched, black-and-white uniforms of domestics and hotel cleaners.
He sipped from his flask in the dark doorway, hoping she’d be among them and hoping she wouldn’t.
Some children were herded up Dover by two older women who scolded them for crying, for scuffling their feet, for holding up the crowd, and Danny wondered if they were the eldest of their families, sent out at the earliest age to continue the family tradition, or if they were the youngest, and money for school had already been spent.
He saw Nora then. Her hair was covered by a handkerchief tied off behind her head but he knew it was curly and impossible to tame, so she kept it short. He knew by the thickness of her lower eyelids she hadn’t slept well. He knew she had a blemish at the base of her spine and the blemish was scarlet red against pale white skin and shaped like a dinner bell. He knew she was self-conscious about her Donegal brogue and had been trying to lose it ever since his father had carried her into the Coughlin household five years ago on Christmas Eve after finding her half-starved and frostbitten along the Northern Avenue docks.
She and another girl stepped off the sidewalk to move around the slower children and Danny smiled when the other girl passed a furtive cigarette to Nora and she cupped it in her hand and took a quick puff.
He thought of stepping out of the doorway and calling to her. He pictured himself reflected in her eyes, his eyes swimming with booze and uncertainty. Where others saw bravery, she would see cowardice.
And she’d be right.
Where others saw a tall, strong man, she’d see a weak child.
And she’d be right.
So he stayed in the doorway. He stayed there and fingered the bear’s-eye button in his pants pocket until she was lost in the crowd heading up Dover Street. And he hated himself and hated her, too, for the ruin they’d made of each other.
Excerpted from "The Given Day." Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis Lehane. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins. To read more, click .