The green plaque reading "DUANE STREET LODING HOUSE" was in the process of being taken down before a hostile audience of ragged boys. They stood on the snow-blanketed sidewalk with their arms crossed, somberly watching the workmen on ladders take down the sign.
"This is crazy," Jack scowled as he looked on, his breath visible in the chilled night. He cradled the saint medallion around his neck while Race broke out his last cigar.
"It's criminal," Race said, cigar between his teeth, fumbling to light the match he struck against the box. Breathing smoke from his mouth and nostrils, Race squinted up at the sign and gave a disheartened nod.
"It's worse than criminal, it's a crime," Itey replied, his English getting muddled as it often did. The others nodded quietly in agreement, shivering amidst the falling snow.
"Kicked out a week before Christmas," Skittery mumbled with a drag from the cigarette he and Snoddy were passing back and forth like an opium pipe. "Oh cruel fate, when wilt thou weary be."
Race raised an amused eyebrow, shifting his eyes to glare at Skittery in disturbed awe. "That, uh...that Poe again?"
"Who?" Race returned his unfazed eyes to the sign. "You just made him up."
"Her, and no I didn't. Read something besides the headlines, Race."
"I thought it was Ophelia," Specs muttered with chattering teeth, his arms wrapped tightly around himself to keep warm.
Race grunted in protest. "I'll have you know I read more than just the headlines."
Jack rolled his eyes. "Who cares?"
"Or am I thinking of a completely different thing? Isn't she from Shakespeare?" Specs continued to no one in particular, stuck on the name.
Skittery rolled his eyes, still not looking directly at Race. "Sure Race, the Sheepshead pony listings don't count."
Specs furrowed his brow, oblivious to being ignored. "But 'oh cruel fate' sounds more like Romeo and Juliet."
Race folded his arms, still staring at Skittery. "Well, sorry I ain't the Don John of poetry, Skitts."
"Don Juan," Skittery replied, not being able to hide the small smirk on his lips.
"Why do you know that?"
"I am not going to miss sleeping in the bunk between you two," Pie Eater said in annoyance, shaking his head.
This reminder brought everyone back to the current state of things, bleak as it was, and now the plaque that had been there as long as any one of them could remember was being loaded in the back of a large wagon. The lodging house now looked barren and out of place, with its cheap modern extensions grafted onto elegant vintage architecture and crumbling little angel statuary that had been there for years. The house's fortunes had clearly fallen during the past half-century.
"This was the best lodging house in the east," Jack sighed, catching a reflection of his younger self in the French windows and remembering back to when he'd first arrived.
Bumlets shrugged. "I don't know, that one lodging house in the Bowery ain't too bad. We could all go there."
"What lodging house in the Bowery?" Race asked in confusion. "There's a lodging house there? Since when?"
Bumlets racked his brain, trying to describe it. "You know, the one with the nice curtains and bright lanterns? It's right across from the pawnshop."
Kid Blink narrowed his eyes. "Yeah, that's a cathouse, Bumlets."
Bumlets scrunched up his face in uncertainty. "No, I think we're talking about two different places."
"The big fancy place in the Bowery, across the pawnshop, with nice lacy curtains in the windows and gas lamps? I'm pretty sure that's a brothel – Suicide Hall," Blink said in such a way that made Race raise an eyebrow.
"Oh," Crutchy whispered.
"You seem way too confident about that, Blink," Race mumbled.
"Okay, then I'm thinking of somewhere else," Bumlets said, taking a drag from Skittery's cigarette and then giving it to Snoddy. "I know there's for sure a place in the Bowery that takes in kids off the street."
"Yeah, that brothel in the Bowery," Skittery said without a beat.
"Jesus, Skitts, that's real bleak," Specs replied. "Stick with the dead poets, you're not good at jokes."
Race heaved a heavy sigh, turning his pockets inside out. "I near lost every penny I had to Spot's damn poker game, so I might be sleeping outside anyway. I don't have a cent to pay for lodging."
Mush turned to him worriedly. "You'll freeze. Wouldn't Spot let you have any of the money he won to pay for lodging?"
Jack scoffed. "Does that sound like Spot?"
Race huffed onto his frozen hands, rubbing them together. "I asked him for five cents, but he wouldn't let me have it."
Specs nudged Bumlets in the arm. "Wait Bumlets, are you talking about the boarding house up above the Sun office, near St. Marks? That would've been a good place, but I think it burned down. I swear I remember reading about that in The Eagle."
Race snorted. "The Eagle? Brooklyn would be mooching Manhattan's news. Typical bums."
"Spot's gonna love that you said that," Jack said with a laugh, his arms still crossed against his chest.
Race glared at him. "Don't."
"Actually," Dutchy spoke up, rolling his eyes. "It didn't burn down because I just walked past it the other day. It is very much up and running. It's called Ascension House or Assumption House or something like that."
"Oh, I know that place," Jack said upon realization. "But ain't you have to be Catholic to live there?"
Race shrugged. "I guess we're safe then, eh Jack?"
Skittery looked at Snoddy and gave a dry laugh. "You're fucked."
Snoddy returned the look with a mock chuckle. "You're fucked, too."
Blink tilted his head. "Wait what are you? Quakers or something? Come to think of it, I've never seen either of you in a church."
"Well if you must know, Blink, we're Jews," Skittery said with exaggerated reverence. "I feel like you knew that."
"How would I have known that?"
Snoddy blew out a cloud of smoke from his nose, handing the cigarette to Bumlets. "You don't remember when I went to my sister's house for Passover last April?"
"That's what that was?" Blink's eyes widened. "I thought you were going to a wake."
"Why would you think I was going to a wake?" Snoddy asked with a sideways look.
Blink sighed. "I don't know. Passover sounds like you're helping the dead move on or something."
"Jesus," Snoddy grumbled.
"No, he's one of us, am I right?" Race asked, holding up his hand to Mush who frowned and shook his head, refusing to return the gesture. Snoddy and Skittery exchanged an amused look as if they were having their own private joke.
"What's a wake?" Crutchy asked.
"It's when you're not sleeping," Jack laughed, earning a few blank stares. "I thought it was funny."
"I guess that means I can't stay at that boarding house either," Mush sighed, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
They turned to look at him.
"I ain't Catholic either," Mush shrugged.
"You could convert," Jack said. "And get a bed and a hot meal."
Pie nodded his head. "Yeah that's a good reason to change religions, I would say."
"At least we'd have a warm place to go for the winter," Mush said grimly. "Hey maybe the suckers on Fifth Avenue will take pity on some poor orphans."
This sentiment was met by a chorus of agreements from the others as they stood shivering in the cold. It was hardly sensible to beg Fifth Avenue swells for money. Between all of them, the boys had a combined total around five dollars, besides a few personal trinkets of value that none of the boys could part with, even if it meant life or death.
Old Kloppman appeared in the doorway of the shabby lodging house wearing a most devasted expression, as he had taken the news of the lodging house's foreclosure the hardest. It had been his home for 26 years, and he'd raised most of the boys that stood outside in that house since they were small.
"Well, what are you all standing around there for?" He bellowed with the same authority in his voice as always, looking at the boys' grave faces and feeling his heart sink. "Come on inside, boys, out of the cold. This is still our home."
"Until Friday," Race muttered as the boys congregated up the front walk and through the doorway.
"Now, now boys, chins up," Kloppman barked, watching as the boys shuffled in like a funeral procession. "It's a foreclosure, not a draft notice to Gettysburg. Let's all have a bit of hope." He counted each boy out of routine as they mounted the staircase to the dormitory upstairs. "And say a few prayers before bed." Then, to himself he added, "We're all going to need it."
Dejected, his boys climbed the rickety stairs, swearing under their breaths and keeping their eyes trained on the ground.
Not even a game of craps or poker could lift their spirits. Jack soon grew so distracted, unable to keep still, that he opted to leave the poker game that was occurring in the middle of the bunk room. He wandered out the window and onto the metal fire escape for some air, stretching out his stiff muscles, maintaining that ever-present expression of despondence.
Race was already outside, having folded out of the game a few rounds ago. That's how Jack knew things were getting bad, when Race folded. It seemed like no one was in the mood for anything other than wallowing in the Lodging House's misfortune. "Think Snyder will cart us off?" Race asked.
Jack shook his head, only half-amused, as the two started casually climbing the fire escape up to the roof, both tense, as if the Refuge wagons would pull up at any second. "If I had any money I'd be at the tracks first thing tomorrow morning. And then blow all my winnings at Coney Island," Race said absently.
"You've been saying that for years," Jack mused.
Race offered a weak grin at that, wishing more than ever that he had enough dough for a little dinner, maybe a drink at Tibby's, and then a night at Medda's theater. "I'd give my right arm for a smoke," he said grimly, sinking his teeth into the knuckle of his forefinger, something he often did when he was going crazy for one.
The two sat quietly on the roof, staring off into the city skyline, Jack with the thoughtful gaze of a young man absorbing the magnitude of his boys' situation.
"If only our mothers married rich, Race," he lamented to his friend.
"What, and leave all this?" Race smirked, his knuckle coming back from his mouth slightly bruised. "We'll go to Coney Island one day, with money in our pockets to spend. All of us."
Jack just stared off with a vague smile, knowing Race probably cursed the likelihood of that by daring to voice it aloud. Race didn't seem to realize it. He did, however, remember whose turf it was located on.
"Ah, Conlon," Jack says dryly, as if reading Race's mind.
"Brooklyn lodging house is in worse shape than ours, yet that lucky son of a bitch gets to keep his bed," Race sighed.
"Skitts, do you have any cigarettes left?" Race whispered as he hovered by Skittery's bunk in the dark dormitory, shifting anxiously from foot to foot.
Skittery looked up from the dime novel he'd borrowed from Jack under the light of a lit candle, the wax pooling around the boy's fingers. "No," Skittery said in a voice at normal volume.
"Don't that hurt?" Race asked somberly, his face darkened in the shadows of the room.
Skittery followed his gaze to the hot wax coating his thumb and fingers, shrugging slightly. "Should it?"
"Nevermind. I can't sleep," Race sighed, raking a hand through his hair. "I keep having the same dream over and over."
Skittery smirked. "The one about Medda in the bathtub?"
Race shot him a warning look. "No, not that one. The one where we all get carted off to the Refuge for vagrancy." He shook his head, looking nervous as he recalled his nightmare. "And it always ends with me falling down a well in the dungeon of the place for some reason. What do you think that means?"
Skittery nodded while ignoring him, returning to his book. "Not sure, Race, I ain't no Blackwell's quack. Now leave me alone, I'm trying to read."
Race paused, silently cursing and then turned back toward his bed. He reached under his pillow, grabbed a match box and struck a light, heading for the door to the hallway.
"Where are you going?" Skittery asked in a quieter voice.
"I'm going to grab a smoke out of Kloppman's stash, he always keeps 'em in one of the hollowed-out books in the attic," Race replied without turning around.
"Higgins, you're a fiend," Skittery said, shaking his head as he looked back down at his book.
But Race was already gone and headed up the creaky stairs toward the attic. Upon entering, he bent down in a half-crouch and scurried along the planks, turning a corner and continuing along a bank of rusted, dripping water pipes.
One foot missed the plank and plunged through the soft insulation material on the side, his match going out. Race lost his balance and fell through the tear, and the ceiling that had been softened by the leaking pipes gave away.
With a crash loud enough to wake the dead, Race hit the floor in the second-floor hallway, barely missing the staircase railing. Pieces of the ceiling debris fell down after him, traveling past the banister and hitting the carpet below on the first floor.
Race heard footsteps and voices coming from the sitting room just down the hall, and he quickly made his way into a nearby coat closet, resting in the shadows and holding his breath as he peered out of the cracks.
The door to the dimly-lit dining room opened, and Kloppman followed by his assistant Norman Hayes, emerged into the second-floor hallway with candles.
"What on Earth?" Kloppman murmured in disbelief.
A woman peered over their shoulders. "What happened?"
Kloppman looked up at the hole in the ceiling. "The ceiling caved in from the leak. God damn that plumber."
Hayes rubbed his eyes tiredly. "I'll get him to come around in the morning."
They turned to go back into the sitting room and left the door ajar, the light fading from the hallway.
Race crept out from his hiding place and crawled to the dining room door, listening quietly and peeking through the small sliver that was left ajar. Who was that woman?
Kloppman and Hayes resumed their chairs before the fireplace, and the woman sat next to her formidable-looking husband. About five other men were present, and Race suspected that they must be from the Children's Aid Society that operated many of the lodging houses in the city. Coffee mugs and cake crumbles littered the tables, and the general atmosphere of the adults seemed to be exhaustion and irritability as they interrupted one another.
"You made a terrible mistake not to consult me on this or even the boys," Kloppman was saying angrily. "I'm sure I could have put up the money we need, Reverend, if I had known in advance—"
"With all due respect, Lawrence, it would not have made a difference," the man in minister's clothing said. "We have been meaning to close this place for years."
The woman spoke up. "This lodging house is only alive because of what Caleb and I give you every year," she said, nodding to her husband.
"Ms. Scholten is right. The fireplace in the parlor downstairs is crumbling, you cannot make the payments on the new boiler, and now the ceiling has collapsed," the Reverend continued.
"You've been here for ten years, surely you know what a mess this place has become," Mr. Scholten added.
"Twenty-six years," Kloppman corrected him with a frown. "I've been here for twenty-six years."
Mr. Scholten opened his mouth to reply as everyone quieted. Kloppman and Hayes exchanged a 'here he goes' look.
"Well that proves my point even further," Mr. Scholten said confidently. "Come now, Lawrence. I have none but the best intentions for the boys when I say you would be foolish to not accept this offer for the merging of the two institutions."
Racetrack listened to the voices, his eyes growing wider.
Mr. Scholten continued. "To move the poor boys of Duane Street Lodging House into Mary Immaculate Home for Girls. It's one of the finest and oldest homes for wayward girls in New York, and it is a dynamic step into the future—"
Racetrack leapt up from his hidden position and dashed down the hall, avoiding all the creaking boards. When he got to the dorm, he quickly shook Jack awake, trying to catch his breath.
"Jack! I just found out...we're moving to Mary Immaculate!" He whispered the rest into Jack's ear, all the way Jack's sleepy confusion twisted into a look of horror.
"Mary Immaculate Home for Girls?" He asked in disgust, wiping his eyes in exhaustion. "Can you please get out of my face and let me sit up?"
Minutes later, Jack, Race, Kid Blink, Mush, and Skittery huddled in the largest stall in the washroom with a few candles for light, everyone jabbering in hysteric whispers.
"We have got to find a better place to do this," Skittery muttered, looking around the cramped stall.
"So when is this happening?" Kid Blink asked Race.
Race shrugged. "Next week, I think."
Jack shook his head, crossing his arms in contempt. "This is bullshit."
Mush gave Jack a sideways glance. "Why? Mary Immaculate girls are pretty."
"Things will be so much stricter there than they are here," Skittery frowned, running his index finger quickly through the candle flame. "I'd rather go back to sleeping in alleys."
"Are we sharing a dorm with them?" Mush asked.
Skittery shrugged. "I ain't sharing a dorm 'em. They'll get me carted to the Refuge just for smoking."
Mush didn't him any attention. "This is the best thing to happen since we won the strike," he went on, thinking about all the beautiful girls at Mary Immaculate.
Jack side-eyed him angrily. "Oh sure, you would just go from skirt to skirt until you got to the headmistress."
Kid Blink laughed. "They'll have to change the name to Mary Once-Immaculate."
Jack shushed them. "We have to keep this a secret. Meet tomorrow after the noon edition."