Chapter 1

July 13, 1977

“Mami, tell me the story!”

“Which story?”

“You know which story!”

Althea sighed and brushed her thick black hair off her forehead with one hand. With the other, she ushered her nine-year-old daughter through the subway turnstile, down the platform and onto an empty bench.

“Ay, Celia, kukla, not again,” she smiled to herself. “You already know that one. You could tell it to me.” She unfastened a button at the neck of her blouse and pulled the lapels sharply away from her skin to lure the damp breeze that drifted from the dark subway tunnel. Even for July it was too early for it to be so hot. Not even 7:30. And too early for her to feel so bone weary, as well. Although she’d been up since six, she now had barely enough time to get her daughter uptown to her mother’s apartment, and get herself to work back in midtown. She could hardly afford to be late – again. She’d been warned twice. Althea listened hopefully in the direction of the uptown train. Silence. She could not afford to lose this bookkeeping job – their only income and barely enough to cover their rent and living expenses

There were only three other people on the platform this morning, all women, and none of them looking in her direction. She unfastened one more button. From her purse Althea took a small round box of dusting powder and plumped its fleecy puff against the skin between her breasts. The lemony smell of Jean Naté clouded around her head, momentarily replacing the subway stench.

Her daughter jumped up onto the scarred bench and stood resolutely on top of it, arms and legs splayed wide, one hand clutching a bagel with guava jelly that Althea had made for breakfast and served to her on a plate, but which Celia insisted on saving to eat on the train.

“I am the starfish, Mami! I live in the sea and you are walking past my house with your little speckled goat.”

Althea tried to look stern. “Celia, stop playing around and sit down. You’re too old to be acting like this. If you’re not careful, one day you’re going to get hurt.”

“Then tell me. Tell me the story. Tell me, tell me!” The girl jumped down and began to spin in a slow circle, waving her fingers like fat tentacles. The wide legs of her flimsy, blue-and-white-striped shorts flapped around her bony knees. The pants were too large. But they were Celia’s favorites, a gift from her Aunt Eleni back in Greece.

Althea knew her headstrong daughter wouldn’t give up. Althea’s own mother had cursed her with this – that she should have one just like herself. And here she was. A wild thing – always racing away down the sidewalks of Manhattan, as Althea herself had galloped the cobbled paths of Skiathos. But the streets of New York held many more dangers than the urchin-strewn cliffs of that rocky Mediterranean island. In the end, Althea knew she would have to give in if she wanted Celia to be still. The puny breeze from the tunnel had died away. The hope for a train was a false hope. Althea patted the space beside her on the wooden bench and Celia sat down and turned her face up expectantly. Althea planted a kiss on top of the girl’s head. The sweet smell of her daughter’s scalp melted the last of her resistance.

“Once, on the pine green island of Skiathos, a little girl laid down the first of the morning footprints in the sand where the sea had slept, tossing and turning through the night,” she began. The words, sinuous and familiar even in her adopted English, wove their spell, stilling Celia and binding mother and child just as endless retelling of ancient myths had bound the Greek people.

“Following behind her, a small goat – as black as the little girl’s eyes and with speckles as tan as her skin – laid down the second set of tracks. Each morning they walked, the girl heading across the pink sands to school, and the naughty goat, who had slipped out the gate, sneaking along behind. The girl knew the goat was there, and the goat knew the girl would have to take him home if she turned and saw him. But she didn’t turn, and he didn’t hurry, and in that way they walked the crescent of beach until she disappeared into the schoolhouse with its red tiled roof, and he settled into the shade of an old olive tree to nibble the sparse, dry grass.”

Celia was humming under her breath as her mother spoke. Humming and kicking her legs as she sat on the edge of the bench. A bit of jelly stained the corner of her mouth. Althea looked down the tracks for a sign of their train, but there was none, so she continued on with the story before her unruly daughter leapt up once again. It was a fulltime job, keeping Celia safe from her own untamed impulses.

“The sun, rising higher and higher in the tile blue sky, made the day hot. Inside the schoolhouse, the children’s eyes grew heavy, hooded; outside, the little goat beat the bare ground with his hooves, making the dust rise before he bent his spindly legs and lay down to sleep, his head in the last sweet patch of grass. Eventually, the special rhythm of the little girl’s feet on the sand woke him and he tottered up to follow her back home. Each time, she turned to greet him, pretending surprise.

“‘Why, Tragos, how did you find me here?’ she crooned to him, slipping her arms around his bony head in a hug. Then they walked side by side, their six feet lapped by the waves.”

As she spoke, Althea ran her fingers through her daughter’s hair, marshalling the frothy curls into a pair of high, dark pigtails held with a pair of elastic bands she had pulled from her purse. Her daughter wriggled under the attention, but remained seated.

“One day, the goat stopped and lowered his horned head to the water. When he raised it, his nimble lips held a small pink starfish. Quickly, before the animal could swallow the creature, the little girl grabbed at it, and it came away in her hands – minus one pink leg, which the naughty goat dropped back into the sea to be carried away on the next slip of a wave. The starfish’s single red eye, in the almost-center of its body, winked with what the little girl saw was a tear. She stamped her feet at the goat. ‘Bad Tragos!’ she shouted – and in her fury she threw shells and sharp stones until the goat ran from her. From the satchel on her shoulder, she pulled a cup, which she filled with seawater. Gently, she slid the starfish into the cup, and then she hurried the rest of the way home, careful not to spill. She placed the starfish in a large bowl – the one her mother used for pickling – and filled it with more water drawn from the sea.”

“But where was Goat, Mami?” Ceci suddenly asked. “What happened to Tragos?” The question troubled Althea. Celia had never asked it before – she had always been more interested in the survival of the starfish – and Althea did not answer. Where had the goat gone after she chased it away in a rage? Her brothers told her that it was surely dead, food for the vultures and gulls that wheeled over the rocky spine of their small island. Her mother said it would probably find its way home eventually. And indeed, the following week, a mottled goat – skinny and ragged – came wandering in from the parched hills behind their house, but it never followed Althea to school again, and she knew that it was not her Tragos. Her father slaughtered it the following Easter.

Sitting on the platform, Althea just sighed. The goat had been her responsibility. In one moment of misplaced fury she had failed it. Her gaze wandered now, unfocused from time or place.

“This is what can happen to you in the world,” she said, sadly. Her hands floated up, palms open and helpless.

Celia was off the bench again, sweeping away down the dirty platform, her arms and legs once more splayed like those of a starfish. Althea jumped up after her, her heart racing, and quickly looped one arm around her daughter’s shoulders as she tottered at the edge.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked. Her daughter froze, staring.

“Mami, look! What’s that?”

Althea followed Celia’s hand, still clutching the last bite of bagel, pointing to the tracks. At first she saw nothing beyond the usual accumulation of damp and crumpled newspapers, fast-food bags and gum wrappers. Then a slight movement caught her eye. From under the third rail, a gray and hairy shadow broke, weaving from side to side between the rails, twitching, stopping and moving on at a jerky, broken pace. It was about the size of her two fists held together.

“It’s a rat, Celia,” she whispered. “An ugly old subway rat. Look at something else.”

“But Mami, it’s missing a leg.”

Althea looked again. Sure enough, the rat’s jerky pattern was caused by the fact that it ran on only three legs, giving the creature a little lurch at the end of each step. Celia was as observant as she was energetic.

“Will it grow back, Mami, like the starfish?”

“No Kukla, it won’t.”

The other three women waiting nearby – all except the one with her nose in a book – were now shooting uneasy looks at the animal and then around the platform. Their eyes flickered in a brief unity of disgust.

But Celia had already lost interest. Now she turned to stare at a homeless woman, mountainous in layers of soiled clothes, who sat slumped on a bench, a paper cup for begging set on the floor at her feet.

“Mami!” Celia began.

Althea took her daughter by the hand. Would there never be a moment of peace?

“Shh, Celia. Come away,” she said, tugging. “Nobody likes to be stared at.”

* * *

Judith took three small steps backward on the platform and then three forward, toward the tracks.

A-do-nai s’fa-tai tif-tach, u-fi ya-gid t’hi-la-te-cha, she chanted in a bare whisper. Open my mouth, oh Lord, and my lips will proclaim Your praise.

The gusts blew from left to right down the platform. With each one Judith adjusted the scarf she had draped over her hair and steadied the onionskin pages of the battered leather-bound book in her hands. This time, the sour wind from the tunnel stole the page from her moist fingertips just as she was about to turn it herself. From left to right, which would have been a hindrance had it been any other book, but with her prayer book it was a mechayah, a blessing.

Boruch (she bent her knees) atah Adonai (she straightened again)… “Praised are you, Lord our God…” A few stray hairs blew from the edges of the flowered scarf tied around her head and tickled her nose. Ignoring that, she fastened her concentration more deeply on the blessed words before her.

…E-lo-hei-nu, Vei-lo-hei a-vo-tei-nu,

E-lo-hei Av-ra-ham, E-lo-hei Yitz-chak, Vei-lo-hei Ya-a-kov,

Ha-eil Ha-Ga-dol Ha-Gi-bor v’Ha-No-rah Eil Eil-yon…

Her lips and tongue raced each other through the holy invocation. It was not enough just to read these blessed words each morning; one must say them out loud, or as she was, in a fervent whisper. Praised are You, LordourGodandGodofourancestors, GodofAbrahamof IsaacandofJacob, great, mighty, awesome, exalted God who bestows lovingkindness, Creator of all. You remember the pious deeds of our ancestors and will send a redeemer to their children’s childrenbecauseofYourlovingnature. Amen.

“This is what can happen to you in the world,” she heard a voice say dreamily. A young woman, not much older than herself, with an indefinable accent – Spanish? Italian? – was talking to a young girl beside her; the woman’s bare arms raised, palms open, toward the ceiling. Judith followed the direction of her hands. The paint above their heads was peeling in thick, ragged strips. A greasy stain underneath oozed and sweated like skin. But the woman’s half-closed eyes looked neither at the ceiling nor at her little girl.

Judith turned her back against the subway wind, and faced down the length of the concrete platform. Under a partially shredded poster still hawking the March opening of Star Wars, a beggar woman struggled to her feet gripping the sides of a shopping cart half-filled with rags and sacks. Judith wished she could have plinked more than one quarter into the dirty paper cup at the rag-wearer’s feet. It was a mitzvah to give to the poor, but it was one Judith could ill afford now that she had to pay for rent, food, books and tuition out of the small salary she earned at her aunt and uncle’s jewelry store. Hashem had showered her with so many blessings – chief among them the love of her family. Judith gave thanks daily for them and for the work that allowed her to pursue her aspirations. She watched as the woman rose laboriously and worked her way onto a bench by the wall. Judith looked away, not wanting to be caught staring. Someday, God willing, I will be a doctor, she thought. Will I be able to touch the bodies of women such as this, unwashed and doughy?

Judith adjusted the scarf, which had slipped down around her neck, so that it covered her hair again. As an unmarried woman, she didn’t have to wear the headcovering, but modesty was expected in the shop, and the many frum customers would assume that at her age, almost 23, she was married. She wanted no speculations raised. She wanted no shidachs made, either – no sweaty, nervous young men paraded by in hopes of making a match. Under the scarf, her hair was damp from the shower and from the beads of sweat that were beginning to make her scalp itch. Judith turned her attention back to morning prayers and anchored her heart more firmly to the words before her.

* * *

Ratus Norwegicus. Back when she was an intern, Johanna had seen more than one case of rat bite and the infection that often followed. The suppurating skin and willful fever that left its young victims fretful and moaning. Pediatrics. Her last rotation. Unless you counted Psych. A quick yawp of laughter broke from her throat. Quite an education, being on the sharp end of all that Thorazine, now wasn’t it? How long ago was that? She scratched deeply through the layers of clothes that encased her thick torso, from the shapeless pink sweater on down, and took a furtive glance around the platform. Up and down. Up and down. And then again. Of the four people standing before her, waiting for the train, only one seemed unaware of the loathsome creature prowling the tracks at their feet. And that person was talking to herself, her nose in a book.

Johanna watched through hooded eyes as the women darted nervous looks at the rodent and then blinked away, as if they could tolerate the sight for only seconds at a time. But over and over their eyes were drawn back, keeping track, making sure that it didn’t get too close – God forbid it should race up onto the platform and touch one of them. She could practically feel these women’s toes curl against their fancy shoes. Again and again, the rat darted in and out from under the tracks, looking for food that the filthy pigs who traveled these subways were only too happy to provide, with their greasy McDonald’s bags and sugar-smeared doughnut wrappers. European Brown Rat. Most reviled mammal in the world by these same exalted humans who pissed in the corners of the station late at night when they thought no one would see.

Johanna hunkered down on the bench and pulled on a heavy gray wool coat that she yanked from a shopping cart full of her possessions. Even that didn’t stop the trembling. She knew – she was a doctor, goddamit – that she needed Amoxicillin, 500 milligrams, qid. Her tongue was thick in her throat. She dug through her pockets and found the mirror half of an old folding comb. Sure enough – her tongue was coated. Probably strep. When she wasn’t sweating in this hellhole, she was shivering. Fever and chills, fever and chills. Baked Alaska. Another of her hoarse laughs echoed through the station.

That kid – the first to notice the rat – was now staring at her. The child was skinny in that little girl way. Stick figure arms and legs; her torso, not yet touched by puberty, was lost in her tee shirt, which hung from neck to waist like a sack. She was the little girl with the ratbite fever. She was the little girl with the strap marks on her back. Daddy’s little girl. Burns on her thighs. She was six and ten and seven and nine. Makes thirty-two. My age? I was born in the year of the Rat. Exactly. Or maybe not. Johanna’s mind rolled and tumbled, then halted like a stubbed toe.

The girl on the platform was staring at Johanna and scratching one ankle with the toe of the bright pink sandal on her other foot. Soon her mother would turn to see what her daughter was looking at. She’d pull the girl closer and whisper. Don’t stare. She’s nobody. Or, that could be you if you don’t listen to your mother. Wash your hands when you get to school. Don’t touch the strange dog. Nobody likes to be stared at.

Nobody – that’s me, all right. I’m nobody. Who the fuck are you? If I were nobody, I’d like to be stared at, too. I used to be somebody. I used to be somebody. I used to be…who?

She had stopped shivering and begun to sweat. The heat made her feel thick and dozy. Johanna lifted one swollen leg onto the empty bench, and leaned heavily against the straw basket she had propped against the arm for padding. She reached out to lift a pen off the desk and wrote herself a prescription. Take two of these three times a day with water, she mumbled. Don’t drink and drive. Call me in the morning. Let Hertz put you in the driver’s seat.

She dozed then, with one leg still on the ground until the train rushed shrieking into the station with its hot electric breath. The sound split her eardrums. It rushed into the station and screeched to a halt, then stood there panting with fury before rushing away, taking everyone. Taking the little girl away. She’d never see her again. Gone. Johanna opened her eyes and spat at the receding lights – a big soapy gob of spit. Then she pulled her other leg up to the bench and dropped off into the black and airless pit that passed as sleep.

* * *

Phnf….phnff….phnf…. Rat’s soft gray body twisted out from the silver rail following her nose.

Food, where? Here? Not here? No. Here?

There up there under soot black sky.

Toss it here toss it down dammit here. Nasty baby claws. Pink and flutter. Fuck it all drop it here. Nasty baby fingers nasty gnawing baby teeth.

Climbandbite. Grabthefood? Bite hernastylittlehand.

Phnf…phnf… Mine. Food-is-mine. Foodismine bellyfullbitch.

Whereismine?

Food? Greasy paper crumple. Greasy-meaty-sharp-and-meaty.

Bait? Poisoned? Phnf…phnf… Good then. Food then. Fucking good. Fuckinggreasygood.

Metal roar. Steelroar wind. Phnf…phnf… Steelbeastwindrush. Windrush?

Over and under overandunder overandunder.

Where to hide? Metalstink. Wheretodragfood?

Phnff…phnff…

* * *

TAKI 183. Swollen letters, green and black and red. Could that really be TAKI 183? Pia’s arms prickled with electricity, her breath caught in her throat. And again, TAKI 183, TAKI 183, TAKI 183 – the individual subway cars flashed by. It was all Pia could do to keep herself from running the length of the platform in an effort not to lose them. Her eyes filled – but maybe that was just in response to the stinging subterranean wind. When the train finally slowed to a halt, it was not TAKI 183 but another tag that marked the car in front of her. She felt let down.

The train that swept into the station brought Pia more than mere relief from the stagnant heat on the platform – it delivered the surging energy of rogue art that made each day’s journey uptown a carnival – dizzying and aggressive. PISTOL, TRACY 168, BLADE ONE, CAINE 1, STAY HIGH 149. Graffiti tags raged across car after car. Some turned an entire car-length into a vivid mural. Others just screamed FUCK YOU in violent fuchsia. In the brief pause before the train doors opened, Pia’s right hand shot up and traced the broad, angry strokes of a tag that slashed across the car’s siding. TEENY 128. A broad swath of green rimed with orange, purple, black. Her fingers curled around a phantom spray can, forefinger crooked over the nozzle. She dreamed of being part of the crews that blazed their marks by flashlight, moonlight and sometimes even torchlight.

This city, she discovered upon arriving only five weeks ago, was literally awash with graffiti, from the strident and malicious to the subtle and the just plain mundane. Advertising posters sported handlebar mustaches, sure, but also, more often than not, poetry. Along the seedy blocks of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, where Pia was living with her father’s aunt, there were virtually no blank walls. Steel shuttered storefronts wore Mardi Gras colors and abandoned buildings bore vivid memorials to those who’d died in the neighborhood’s angry streets. Out her window onto Prospect Place, she gazed upon a 10-foot portrait of a dark, doe-eyed young man. Eighteen-inch letters proclaimed Shawan James – Never Forgotten 1960-1977. Smaller testimonials ringed the memorial. Yo, Man you the best – Mel; Solidarity, Peace. T, Wherever you gone, I’m coming – Linda. Every block had its fallen warriors. No one dared paint over their markers.

Aunt Ida clicked her tongue dismissively when Pia told her how the portrait of Shawan moved her.

“Shoot, those boys ain’t nothing but criminals,” she sniffed. “They just tearing down the neighborhood with they nasty selves.” She slammed down the ashtray she was dusting. “Shawan James broke his mama’s heart long before that bullet stopped his,” she said, sweeping out of the room. Pia never mentioned it again. The whole city was up in arms against graffiti, she knew. It went hand in hand with crime, filthy streets, drugs, and a palpable mounting rage. Still, she savored new tag sightings like an ornithologist tracking rare birds. She had to admit it: her first glimpse of the infamous TAKI 183 made her cry.

In her most secret feral heart, Pia roamed the city’s dark byways armed with spray gun and paint. All the while, the rest of her traversed its streets outfitted demurely in the two-piece, polyester-blend armor of the mild-mannered job seeker she was. With her, she toted the large black portfolio full of the drawings she hoped convince some art director to give her a break. She had three more interviews lined up today. Any of them could be The One. Better be. The clock – and her money – was ticking down.

In the beam of headlights that had preceded the train into the station, Pia watched a rodent dive for cover under the electrified third rail. Rats. The city was crawling with them, her aunt had said, but this was the first one Pia had seen. If it came toward her, she could fend it off with her portfolio. Maybe she could find a seat on the train and sketch it before she lost the details. Pale, matted fur flecked the color of pewter, the texture of a moth-eaten pony jacket she’d once found in the attic of her father’s cottage on the lake. Whiplike tail. Delicate pink ears, onyx eyes. Harder, though, to capture its gait – more hop than scurry, really, as it swung itself out of danger at the last possible second.

But when the doors slid open, it became apparent that there would be no way for Pia to dig through her bag for her notebook and pencils and draw. This was one of the few air-conditioned cars on the train. Despite the early hour, it was elbow-to-elbow and hip-to-hip with bodies. Blue suits, white shirts, arms hairy and smooth – Pia worked her way through the fleshy obstacles until she could grasp a few inches of space on the pole in the middle of the car, and there she staked her claim.

 * * *

Danielle’s closed eyelids twitched impatiently. From the moment she’d changed to the express, at 72nd Street, she had held them shut. She steadied herself with her breath. Air in, air out, air in, eyes closed. This is what it will feel like to move through the world blind, she told herself, gripping the slick silver pole with both hands, swaying in the dark as the train lurched around bends, bouncing lightly on the balls of her feet as the subway bumped and screeched along the downtown track.

Even with her eyes closed, Danielle knew what surrounded her on the train. Crushed and tangled pages of yesterday’s Post and Daily News whispered at her feet, and the burnt smell of coffee – a rusty umber scent in her personal mental conflation of tastes/smells/colors – rose from abandoned paper cups printed with whimsical depictions of the Parthenon. The walls and windows of every car were etched with knives or spray painted with the names of faceless thugs who shared an overwhelming need for recognition. Her nose told her that at least one person had relieved himself in this car.

The announcements from stop to stop were, as usual, an auditory jumble, practically indecipherable, but Danielle counted off the successive stations in her head: 42nd Street – Times Square, 34th – Penn Station, 14th Street, Chambers Street, Park Place and now, finally, they were approaching Fulton Street, her stop. There had been a long delay between 14th and Chambers with no explanation. Now she would have to hurry to get to the fish market. The fans went off, then on again, the lights flickered, and finally the train lurched back into motion. It took real guts to keep her eyes closed during the wait. Like a feral creature, she sent mental feelers out into the space around her to sense whether anyone was coming close. No one was. The people on the train this early in the day were drawn into themselves.

The car in which Danielle rode was sweltering. She could scarcely bear to think what it would be like in another hour or so when the hordes of rush hour travelers and gaping tourists began to heave themselves into already-packed coaches. The train shrieked around the last bend and slowed to a stop. The doors receded along their metal runners and the recognizable smell of the Fulton Street station – yeasty and yellow-green like fermenting fruit – rushed in. She had reached her destination. Danielle took two steps away from the pole before she allowed herself to open her eyes. She stepped gingerly across the palm-wide gap between train and platform –she’d have to remember that when she was forced to navigate in the dark – and onto the concrete.