Elvis Finley shouted, flying up to a sitting position on his camp cot. It was an attack! To arms!
But the darkness around him wasn’t that of a Pennsylvania night. The sounds around him weren’t that of war. Well, not of the kind fought in open fields, under stars and sunshine. He was in a dark basement, and the dragging sound he heard was that of men in the tunnel between his tenement and the next, hauling stolen goods, or a body.
He rose and fumbled for the lantern, practiced hands lighting it in the dark. Other bodies groaned around him, protesting the light. The flimsy folding cot beneath him protested at his every movement. He was a giant for his day, six foot four inches tall, and even though hard times had wasted thirty pounds off his frame, his every action still resonated heavily.
Elvis was an observant man, a trait which had kept him and his men alive in the War, when so many around them had perished. He’d learned the patterns of the night, what all the sounds in the woods around him meant, when it was safe to stop and eat and sleep, and when to be silent and vigilant.
The sounds here had their own pattern and meaning. The groans his motions inspired were those of men who’d only recently come home from a long night in the grog shops. The scuffling and dragging he could hear in the basement tunnel, that connected this tenement to the next, was from the “Peter Players,” done drugging and robbing their victims, and now disposing of the unconscious or the dead in a canal somewhere. This was a cellar, below the basement, so he was too far from the street to know the time from the light or the clatter of horses’ hooves, but he guessed from the other activity that it was a little after 4 am.
The cellar stank, from the garbage left to rot on the streets as it seeped down into the ground and through the walls, from the men’s sour sweat and, worse, the sickly-sweet odor of alcoholic rot, leaking from their failing organs through their skin. But at least it was cool down here. Up on the street, the summer heat would have barely dissipated overnight.
The cellar had the cheapest rent in the tenement, even cheaper than the seventh floor apartments. Still more expensive than a flophouse, but at least, Elvis could console himself, he hadn’t fallen that far. Yet.
He patted his torso – yes, still there. Every night, the shoelaces he’d sell on the street were tucked securely against his chest, guarded against theft. One wouldn’t think that a thief would dare to try the man known on the street as “Elvis the Great” for his height and size, but desperate times made for desperate men.
Since he slept in the only clothes he had, preparing for his day was a matter of tucking in his shirt, tugging his vest down, and running a dirty hand over his greasy blond hair. He trudged up the steps to the street level and prepared to meet the day.
Irish Mags was already out, her cart loaded with apples and “Bolivars,” flat gingerbread cakes. As always, she leaned over her wares when someone was near, ready to shoot out a powerful arm and crush the wrist of anyone who thought they had quicker fingers than she.
“Mags,” Elvis said, fumbling in his pocket for a coin.
“Finley,” she nodded back, her eyes wary and hard, waiting to see if his hands would produce cash or not before she grudged him any warmer welcome.
He handed her the coin and then she smiled, the false cheer of the merchant, and he took his apple and half a cake. “God bless you, Finley,” she said.
He smiled back, no more sincere than she. “And God bless you, Mags,” he said as he discreetly turned the apple over to look for decay. The old bitch had sold him more than one rotten apple, but it didn’t do to make enemies on the streets.
A baby started to cry. It had been sleeping with the rest of its family on a fire escape, the apartment too hot and stifling at night. The cry echoed in the Cow Bay cul de sac, rousing others sleeping on fire escapes and rooftops to sigh, then shout, then hurl garbage at the baby and his family for stealing their precious rest. A man woke up with a cry of terror as he turned to the commotion and rolled off the escape, plummeting two stories into a pile of garbage.
He left the cul de sac, but Little Water Street was no better. The wooden sidewalks were piled high with trash, and the street was full of horse shit, the horse piss puddling in the wagon tracks where they’d flattened down the shit.
The city never slept, and even now there were other men and women on the street, looking to stake a prime position for their day’s work before another took it. Or at least, to stake a position worth fighting over when the “owner” came to claim it.
Around here was little difference between the cutpurses and Peter Players and card sharps who worked the night, and the “merchants” who worked the day. Haberdashers would lure men in and sell them a fine suit of clothes, which would fall apart at the seams before they got home. Auctioneers would sell off pawn tickets, hinting broadly about their potential worth, and those who redeemed them would find only a wallet full of Confederate money. Fruit in the stalls was rotten on the bottom, knives would break the first time you cut anything firm.
Elvis had his pride, still, if nothing else. The shoestrings he sold were of decent quality – they’d last long enough, at any rate. Longer than the man wearing them would live, probably.
He nodded to the other veterans at their spot outside City Hall Park. They’d fought, hard, for this spot. Elvis had personally killed one interloper and crippled another, when a gang of Germans had tried to claim the spot for their sausage carts. Death was part of everyday life here, and dead bodies excited no more comment than the rest of the trash on the street. It was said you could fire a shotgun around here in any direction and not hit an honest man.
Cpl. Nathan Aldyne nodded to him. “Morning, Captain,” he said, touching his cap with his left hand, his right one having been blown off at Spotsylvania.
“Corporal,” Elvis said, smiling. He’d been a Captain for only a moment, and by all rights if the corporal wanted to address him by his wartime rank, he should have called him sergeant. But these men knew that, however he had lost the higher rank, he’d first earned it by saving their asses.
Other veterans of the War soon arrived, taking their spots, ready for the stream of civil servants and businessmen heading to City Hall. Those spots were left empty by the other vendors gathering to sell candy and cigars, magazines, tobacco, gloves, and the like, however desirable they were. They’d fight over other spots, but not these. “King Elvis,” as he was known for his size and strength, would gouge an eye, or shatter a collarbone, as easily as look at you, if you tried to take a spot from one of his men.
He was a lucky man. A lucky man. He told himself this over and over, looking at the men around him, missing limbs, eyes, ears, bits of their skulls. Somehow he’d emerged from the war unscathed, like some maniacal general of legend who’d stand up in a hail of bullets and never get so much as a nick on his hat.
A lucky man, he reminded himself, pulling out his flask and taking the first nip of the day, to ease the pounding in his skull. Around him the hawkers were crying out their wares, men were arguing or just shouting every word, as if that was their normal tone of voice. The sound would make him shake, and the crowd around him was already pressing, pressing in on him, like the bodies of men on the battlefield, their cold dead weight on top of him, crushing him into the wet barren ground…
“Captain,” the corporal said gently. “Captain!”
Elvis shook himself. “Thank you, corporal.”
The corporal knew what the men at the War Department didn’t, or wouldn’t. What the officers in tents with their maps and their swords and their telegrams would scoff at. A man who shook in battle, especially a man who’d been in so many? Who should have been hardened to it, not softened by it? What kind of character flaw did a man have, to grow weaker the longer he survived this damn war?
Clearly such a soldier had a “feeble will,” or had a case of “moral turpitude.” The excitement of an active campaign, that was what such men needed to shake them out of this. “Damn it all, the man has all his arms and legs, what has he to complain about?”
The corporal knew what he had to complain about. The other men around him knew. When they looked at Captain Finley, they didn’t see a man whole, unwounded. His mind, his soul, was as hacked and scarred as their bodies. He was one of them.