I moved to New York City in the year 1900. I was only sixteen years old.
I can't exactly say I was fond of the city at first. Hell, I never even wanted to move here. I yearned to go to New Hampshire and live with Sylvia Brown, a dead friend of mine's aunt. She was a friendly woman, and though her home would be crowded with all of the children she had, I wouldn't mind. I'm sure she wouldn't have minded either, as long as I paid rent. It seemed like the perfect plan at the time; Sylvia and I could mourn over her passed nephew together.
However, I was not to move alone. I had a sister and a fiancee, and it wasn't like I could just leave them. Both wanted to head off to the place that everybody's talking about; and that was Grand Ol' New York City. Being the democracy that America is, their majority vote had won over mine. I wasn't happy about it, but I felt as if it was fair. It wasn't just that I didn't want to move to New York City specifically, it was that I didn't want to move to a bustling city at all. So, I doubted the girls and I would ever find a place that would completely satisfy all three of us. With how many opportunities and jobs there were, the other two felt that New York City would provide us with the biggest restart that life could possibly offer us.
That was the thing, though. The girls wanted to start over and forget about what happened. I didn't. I didn't want to move on.
Eventually, though, I wound up giving in. So, New York City it was.
Thinking back on it, it was no wonder I hated the city. It wasn't exactly the cleanest place in the world, inside or out. We had to share a cramped apartment with complete strangers. The vast majority of our roommates were illegal European immigrants, often carrying disease we'd never been exposed to before, which resulted in a fair share of sickness that first year. It wasn't just the residents that made the place awful, though. The plumbing was atrocious, and the pipes might as well have been put together by a five year old. The entire place dripped so much from different areas that I'd often joke that where we lived should be called Leak City. And don't even get me started on the water itself. The stuff was so visibly unclean that I'd actually walk down to a stream with a flask to try and get a drink.
But that wasn't the worst of it. I'd gotten a job as a shoe-fitter about half a mile away from the apartment. During my walk to and from work, I'd find myself counting how many piles of horse dung I could spot in the street. But that wasn't all; children would step and shove each other in it, throw it at each other like they were goddamn monkeys, and their parents wouldn't do a single thing about it. Forget foreign disease; children throwing literal shit at each other was probably the reason as to why the rascals in my apartment got us sick all of the time.
A few months after our move, I found myself sitting atop of the roof of our apartment building, looking down over the ledge. I contemplated ending my life, and for good reason. I hated my job, I hated my apartment, and I hated this city, but that wasn't all.
I loved my sister and my newlywed wife, no doubt. But, I most definitely resented them for what they made me do.
The previous year had left me absolutely shattered. Everybody who was important to me was snatched away- literally. Except my wife and my sister, of course. And I know I should be grateful that they're still alive and breathing. Still, I can't help but be somewhat bitter.
I relived the event in my mind. Anne, my fiancee at the time, Sophie, my sister, and I were all sitting in the living room of the Connell household, a family that'd been kind enough to take us in for awhile after what happened. We all made each other promise to never speak of it again. With the new century coming up and the new city to move to, the girls basically wanted to start a new life. Like I mentioned previously, they wanted to forget about what happened. They wanted to carry on and never speak, think, or hear about it again. But, that was the thing, as I've said; I didn't.
I wanted to run into Sylvia Brown's arms and cry, tell her all about it, tell her that her sister, nephew, and brother-in-law were dead. I wanted to spill everything that'd been occupying my mind since the day it began. I wanted to tell her how her nephew, Chester, haunted my dreams every goddamn night, and how I still got constant flashbacks to him being pulled into the pitch-black lake. I wanted to bawl and say to her how I regretted not using my Uncle Harvey's revolver to shoot myself when I had the chance. I wanted to go on and on and tell her about how much I absolutely hated flashlights.
She'd understand. She'd believe me. She would be the only person who'd sympathize. She wouldn't try and throw me into a loony bin like anybody else would.
Don't ever speak of it again, they insisted.
We want to move to New York City, they whined.
I had to go along with what they wanted. I'd lost so many people already. Why would I risk losing anymore?
I was actually sitting on the very edge of the roof by now, going back and forth on whether I should push myself off. That was until Anne appeared through the door that lead up to here. "Toby?" she asked in a somewhat hushed tone. I turned my head and looked back at her, then went back to looking towards the city. "Toby." she hissed in a more assertive tone. "Get away from there. You might fall."
"So what?" I barked at her.
I could hear her footsteps approach me, and they were surprisingly calm as they echoed off the pavement. She let out a sigh as she stood next to me, and there was silence for a few moments. Well, silence between the two of us, anyways. The city was always noisy. There was never a moment of silence here.
She spoke. "I know you hate it here."
I nodded. I noticed she started shivering a bit. I wasn't really surprised, as it was barely above freezing; it was only March, after all, and now that I thought about it, it was getting close to the day when it all began. Must've been only three days off by now.
Dennis Herbert comes rolling into town, flashlight raised in the air as Chester and I chase his motor wagon, cheering him on.
Dennis gets out, and says he wants to use his flashlight to find gems in that cave. We go down there with him, he crawls into the narrow cave, gets bitten in the neck, drives back to down to town, and promptly drops dead as soon as he steps out of the automobile.
Yup. Three days from today, that'd be a year from now. Damn, weren't things a hell of a lot different then. I had no idea my life would come crashing down like an avalanche. Not just any avalanche, though; an avalanche where I get trapped underneath it, and eventually pass away as a result.
It sounded ridiculous, didn't it? A man's supposed to live fifty years, yet I peaked at fifteen. How terribly sad- and pathetic.
"The stars look nice tonight, don't they?"
That's when I remembered Anne was still there. I looked up at the sky, and had no idea what she was talking about. There were far too many oil lamps that filled up the night sky; stars were no longer visible.
Oh, and the electric lights. There were some of those at fault, too.
I noticed Anne was still shivering. I hated to see her suffer, even in the most minuscule of ways, so I got off of the ledge and walked back into the apartment with her.
I hated my miserable life and most definitely wanted to end it. But, I knew my wife and sister would be absolutely devastated if I died.
And they'd already lost enough people in their lives, too.
In 1901, I'd taken up the habit of drinking.
I technically wasn't old enough to do it when I started, as you needed to be eighteen, and I wasn't there just yet. But, nobody tried to stop me, so I figured I had nothing to lose.
It all started when my boss at the shoe store suffered a major heart attack and died in his sleep. His name was Victor Cooke. His much younger son, Benjamin Cooke, took over. He was far more likable than his grumpy father ever was. Even though my former employer was a man, I'd still describe him as an old hag.
Yeah, I know you aren't supposed to speak ill of the dead, but there was nothing about that man worth respecting. He'd often throw innocent black folk out of the store, which pissed me off enough, but that wasn't all. After he threw out the black folk, he then yelled at me, his words always being something along the lines of "I ain't paying you to stand around, boy!"
What the hell am I supposed to do when you just threw out the customer?! Run outside and fit his shoes out on the street?! Goddamn, I hated that man. He'd harm his own business just to fuel his stupid prejudice. I didn't see any black folk walk into the store after my first year working there, and I'd wound up working there for twenty-nine years. Little did Victor know, he'd only end up harming his son in the long-run, make business harder for Benjamin, all the while he got to rest in peace in his neat little coffin six feet under ground.
Fuck you, Victor Cooke. I hope you're enjoying Hell.
Benjamin himself- who I called Ben for short- was around fifteen years older than me, but we somehow winded up clicking and making good friends. My guess is because he had two daughters, and really wanted somebody to view as a son. One night after work, Ben decided to take me out for drinks at a bar.
I gagged as the rum I'd ordered made its way down my throat. The bitterness of the alcohol was nearly unbearable; the soda aspect of it didn't improve the flavor whatsoever.
"You alright there, Toby?" he asked, the concern clear in his voice.
"Fine." I reassured him, the word a bit strained as it came out of my mouth.
"You don't seem to have a lot of experience with booze." he commented, and chuckled a little.
"No, I don't." I confirmed.
"Well, why didn't you tell me?" he questioned.
"You never asked." I insisted.
"Fair enough." he acknowledged, and looked away for a moment. "You ever have it before now?"
I nodded. "Once. On my tenth birthday. My uncle gave me a shot of whiskey. Wasn't exactly a fan of the taste, either."
"Well, nobody drinks it for the taste." Ben chuckled, "But to be fair, I don't think I would've liked alcohol at ten, either." he then pulled out a lighter and a cigarette. "Smoke?" he offered.
I laughed a little. "Nah." I declined. "My wife caught me bumming off of one of the guys we share the apartment with. She nearly slapped me, ranted on about how it was a nasty, smelly habit. If she knew I touched another cigarette, I'd never hear the end of it."
Ben wheezed. "Well, she's not exactly wrong, is she? It is pretty smelly." he then let out a grin, and took a good look at me. "You're seventeen, right?"
"Yeah. Don't worry, I'll be eighteen in July. Don't have to fear about anyone catching me drinking then, only a few more months." I insisted.
He rolled his eyes. "It's not that. It's that you have a wife already. I swear, kids these days are eager to marry off sooner and sooner. Back in my day, we'd usually wait until nineteen or twenty. I was only courting my gal at your age."
"Well, since my fiancee and I moved here together, we figured we might as well tie the knot as we settled down. We'd been courting since we were fifteen. I didn't know marrying a bit older was more common here." I responded.
"Where are you from, anyways? You say Maine, but where in Maine?" Ben questioned.
I looked down, inclined not to respond at first. "Portland." I lied. I mean, it wasn't like I could tell him what happened to my real home.
"Portland." Ben echoed. "Where you eat lobster for every breakfast, lunch, and dinner." he joked. I let out a nervous laugh, and Ben laughed along with me. Truth be told, I've never been close enough to the seaside to even try lobster. Ben continued to talk. "Portland is a little place, innit? What was it like moving to the big city?"
I snorted a bit. Portland? Little? As if. Growing up, Portland was the "big city".
"I'll be honest, Ben. I hate it here." I admitted.
He chuckled. "Kinda figured. Why do you think I took you out for drinks?"
"I guess that's true. You make it a bit better, though. I never really liked your dad." I replied.
"Never really liked my old man, either." he agreed. "See, I'm not too fond of New York as well. It smells. It's crowded. It's dirty. But at least there's jobs, y'know? That's what I love about it. Everybody's got the chance to work on something different. Nobody has to be just a farmer anymore in this day and age. More opportunities. And if you get big enough, you don't even have to work anymore. You can just pay people to work for ya."
I slowly nodded, and took another sip of my drink. It was still just as bitter, though I managed it better this time. By this point, Ben was getting considerably drunk and in turn, considerably annoying. So, I figured getting equally as drunk would make him a bit more bearable.
The feeling was pretty nice. I loved being able to just forget about what happened two years prior as well as my current living situation. I loved being unable to think. These past two years have been absolutely brutal on my brain, and it never felt like it got any rest.
Oh, and my theory also proved correct; Ben was far more tolerable when I was equally as intoxicated as him.
That would ultimately wind up with the two of us spending many more nights at the bar together, for years to come.
In 1902, my sister Sophie finally announced that she was engaged to Louis William Robson. Don't be fooled by the eloquent name; he was just some poor English fellow who shared the apartment with us.
My reaction to the engagement was one word: "Finally."
Honestly, though. It felt like Sophie and Louis had been ogling each other as soon as she first stepped foot into the place. Anne wasn't too thrilled to hear about the engagement, but I didn't really mind it all. Louis was the guy who bummed me the cigarette, which, now that I think about it, was probably the same reason as to why Anne wasn't thrilled that my sister would end up marrying him.
I was honestly happy for Sophie, though. I never thought she'd be able to move on after what happened to her former lover, Clyde Theodore. At least, if I were her, I wouldn't have been able to move on.
Their wedding was held later in the year. By Christmas, they announced a child on the way. This was the news that I wasn't too ecstatic about. I'd stupidly tried to start my own family with Anne far too soon after moving to New York- we were only sixteen, for Christ's sake- but she wound up being unable to conceive. At first, we were both devastated, but soon enough, as awful as it sounds, I was thanking the lord that Anne couldn't bear children. Living with rascals and seeing them throw feces at each other in the streets was enough to make me develop an aversion towards them.
Besides, what happened before we left for New York changed me, and not for the better. I'm much more cynical and bitter than I was before it happened. I'd be a terrible father. Sophie had suffered through the same thing I did, but she somehow managed to recover from it a hell of a lot better than me. And, arguably, what happened to her was worse. We both lost Uncle Harvey, but she also lost her own lover. Yeah, my very best friend was taken away from me, but I couldn't even imagine how I'd feel if I'd lost Anne instead.
It wasn't a competition, though. I needed to stop thinking like that. It's not like Sophie won anything. This was just how she pursued her happiness, how she wanted to live her life. It didn't mean she was better at it than me. She got her joy by moving on and starting a family, and I got my joy from going out drinking with a man nearly twice my age to try and forget about the pain that's been haunting me for nearly four years now.
Sophie's rascal was born on July 5th, 1903, just one day after my twentieth birthday. It was a baby girl, and she was named Elizabeth Parker Robson.
And I hated her.
She cried all the goddamn time. She was constantly shitting herself, and constantly sick. Honestly, I was impressed when she lived to be three months old.
I was used to the sound of crying babies by now, but at this point, I was questioning as to why Anne and I were even sticking around. We were pretty well off, the both of us. She'd secured a job as a schoolteacher, and made just about the same amount of money as me. We both agreed to head off on our own, and moved out of the shared apartment that fall. We got our own private one a few blocks away, and I honestly had trouble falling asleep for the first few nights; it was too quiet.
The new apartment really made me feel better. It helped my brain unwind, but sometimes, it just gave me too much room to think. Too much room to think about Chester, about Uncle Harvey and Clyde, John Raymond, his dog, anybody in the goddamn town at that point.
As much as I hated him, I wondered how John was doing. He was one of the survivors, after all. Albert, too. And Jane. She was there as well.
I fantasized about what they were all doing with their lives now, four years after the fact. I imagined John and his dog, Hazel, were out living in the woods together, John chopping lumber and Hazel using her jaws to pick up the logs and put them in a pile for him. In John's cabin, he'd have a huge arsenal of weapons displayed across his wall, waiting for it to happen again.
Albert would be living with his extended family in Jayridge, and he'd be retired. He'd be finally be relaxing with a book and a cup of tea in the sun.
Jane, well she'd live to the fullest she could. She'd probably started her own company, maybe having nothing to do with the railroad. She'd live in Portland and have lots of employees, and everybody would know her as a successful businesswoman.
I knew my fantasies were likely not the case. Truthfully, after the living hell we went through, I would be surprised if all of them hadn't killed themselves by now. I mean, I'm surprised I haven't. I had Anne and Sophie to cling onto, and that was it. And I'm sure they had the same views; that if it weren't for the people the loved, they'd already have their brains splattered against the wall.
John Raymond had nobody except Hazel, and she was an animal. Maybe her companionship was enough to give him a will to live.
Albert Connell did have his extended family, but I'm not exactly sure how close he is to them. Hell, he might've even died from old age by now if he hadn't died from suicide.
And Jane Herbert? Well, Jane lost everything she ever had. Maybe I'll go looking for her tombstone in the next couple of years.
The next four years seemed to be all the same. I'd go to work, drink with Ben, come home to Anne, and fall asleep and have nightmares about the events from when I was fifteen. Oh, and I'd watch my sister's rascal grow, too. I visited her family sometimes, I guess. Maybe a few times a month, and during the holidays, of course. It wasn't like I hated them or anything, we were just all too busy with our own lives to be spending every day together.
1908 was finally the year things felt like they changed. And I'll explain why to you in two words: Henry Ford.
Automobiles were finally starting to be mass-produced, and that really excited me, because that meant there'd be no more horse dung in the streets. Hell, I was around the smell of shit so much that I wouldn't be surprised if I started missing the stench once steeds were no longer commonplace.
After saving up for months, Anne and I finally got our hands on our very own automobile in 1909. I was excited, like a kid at Christmas. I flexed my hands on the steering wheel as I started it up, and then I froze. Anne shot a perplexed look at me.
The sound of the engine was all too familiar. It was a weird experience, as I'd heard automobile engines in the streets all the time. I guess it was just different when I was sitting in one. It felt too close to home.
I turned it off the engine, got out of the car, and began to walk away, Anne chasing after me. I caught a glimpse of the man the man selling us the car; he was equally as perplexed as she was. "Toby!" she yelled, and caught up to me. She put a hand on my shoulder and spun me around.
I was shaking like a goddamn leaf. I swore I could hear the screeching echo across the sky, the explosion of dynamite ringing through my ears. Anne's eyes went soft, and I knew she knew exactly what I was thinking about.
"I don't want to buy it." I admitted in a low tone.
She let out a sigh, and rubbed her arm, looking down at the concrete.
It'd been ten years since it happened; it'd been nearly ten years since Anne and I even spoke about what happened. And I knew there was just no way she was breaking her oath now.
"Okay." she let out a sad smile. "I'll talk to him, then. You just head on home." I could sense the irritation in her voice, but I didn't bother to try and say anything in response. Instead of going home, I went to the bar.
"No Cooke today?" the bartender asked as I sat down.
"Nope." I replied, not looking him in the eye.
"You feelin' alright, son?" he inquired as he wiped down a glass.
"No." I admitted. "Can you fix me something a little strong today?"
"Surely." he replied. Once he got me the drink, he leaned on the bar. "You wanna talk about it?"
"Can't." I insisted.
"Alright." he replied, obviously not wanting to push me any further. He left me to my own devices, and I observed the rest of the bar as I downed my drink.
I wound up stumbling out of the place drunk as all hell, and I passed out in the middle of the street, right next to a nice and smelly pile of horse dung.
I usually didn't purchase newspapers, but in 1911, there was a huge fire in a place called the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where over a hundred women died. If I walked far enough, I could go visit it the site of the place myself. I wound up doing such. It was a pretty brutal scene, but it wasn't like it was the first time I'd seen something in ruins. Anyways, I bought the paper to get more details on the event, and to see the pictures. I don't think I realized exactly how tall skyscrapers really were- the firemen's ladders couldn't reach the blaze.
Reading that newspaper, I found a small article which claimed the average human lifespan was slowly but surely increasing, and by the year 2000, any regular man could possibly live to be seventy or eighty years old. I scoffed at the thought of it. Eighty years old? Count me out. I was alright with living fifty years. It was long enough. I couldn't imagine being old and crippled for most of my life. Besides, my life already felt like it'd been long enough, after going through what I went through when I was fifteen.
Poor twenty-first century folks. They'll have to live with wrinkles and brittle bones most of their lives. They'll never know what's coming to 'em.
On the night of July 4th, 1913, I found myself sitting on a park bench, taking a swig at my bottle of booze which was hidden in a bag. Anne, Sophie, Louis, and Elizabeth were all resting on a picnic blanket, watching the fireworks. I was just trying to drown myself in my own misery.
It's my birthday. I'm thirty. Damn, I feel old.
Tomorrow was also the rascal's tenth birthday. I usually got her a small gift each year, but being ten was special. I know I'd never forget my tenth birthday. I needed to do something she'd never forget, either.
Then, I was struck with the perfect idea. I knew I was risking being disowned by my sister, but it was worth it. I wanted to carry on Harvey's tradition. The next day, when her parents weren't looking, I poured me and Elizabeth a shot of whiskey. She was glancing around nervously. "What if my mom smells my breath?" she asked.
"She won't." I reassured her. "Besides, even if we are caught, I'll be getting in trouble, not you."
She let out a slow nod.
"See, whiskey isn't like a normal drink." I began, "The whole point of whiskey and vodka and all those other hard liquor drinks you hear about is to make you feel funny. They don't taste all that great, so you gotta drink them quickly. That's why we call them 'shots'." I finished. Then, I proceeded to tell her about my tenth birthday. "When I turned ten like you, my Uncle Harvey decided to bake me a cake, except he failed at it. Really failed. The entire place was covered in flour."
Elizabeth giggled, and I smiled.
"So he was like, 'Alright, I'll give you a shot of whiskey instead.' and he did. He made me promise not to tell anybody, and I didn't. So I wanna carry on my Uncle Harvey's tradition. Can you keep quiet?"
"Yeah." she nodded.
"Alright." I acknowledged. I clinked my glass up against hers. "Cheers. Remember, swallow it fast." I said, and took the shot. She took hers too, and I could see her almost spit it out, but she managed to swallow it. I was actually pretty impressed. "Good job!" I said, giving her a high five.
Elizabeth was shaking as her hand slapped mine. "Gross." she mumbled.
I smirked. "Trust me, you'll get used to it if you stay around here."
The following year, war broke out- overseas, anyways. America decided to not get involved, but I wouldn't stop hearing about the damn thing, whether it be through the news, the radio that the bar had gotten its hands on, or through the whispers of folks. I mean, in a way, I understood. There'd never been a world war before; that's why they called it "the war to end all wars".
I wasn't as foolish as the people who insisted that. Just because the war was big didn't mean it'd be the last war. It just meant that it was a big war. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if there were ten more world wars by the time the year 2000 rolled around. If people are gonna live up to eighty years old by then, they'd be old and cranky way more often than ever before. Hell, this war was started just because one man was killed. I bet there'll be world wars started because someone'll accidentally crush their neighbor's tulips.
What invested me in this war so much wasn't the war in itself, though. It was true, technology was advancing at a scarily high rate, we had things called airplanes now, they allowed men to fly like birds. But even then, it wasn't the weaponry or the transportation that occupied my mind; it was the soldiers. If they didn't die from this war, they'd come home traumatized, and I could most definitely sympathize with that.
But at least nobody would call the soldier crazy. Nobody would make the fellow shut up and have him promise to never speak about the war again.
I sure wish I had that luxury.
It was a warm, somewhat quiet summer night in 1917.
"I'm telling ya, nobody likes booze anymore." Ben insisted as we walked out of the bar. "Barely anybody inside there tonight."
"Maybe it's just a slow evening." I said.
"Nah, I'm telling ya, people are trying to get rid of it. I see women protestin' in the streets, they say they're tired of seeing their husbands come home drunk every night. They want liquor gone almost as much as they want the right to vote."
"The alcohol industry might suffer a bit now that America's spending money on the war instead." I guessed. We'd gotten involved only a few months ago, and honestly, I wasn't really happy about it. It wasn't like I feared I was going to be involved in it; I was nearly thirty-four, I didn't have to worry about the draft. Hell, I was twice a solider's age these days. It was the young men who were being drafted now that I feared for. They were excited fools, going into war. They'd never come home the same. No young fellow should be subjected to trauma for the rest of his life- I knew this from experience.
Ben dragged me out of my thoughts. He shook his head. "Nah, I'm telling ya, people are trying to get rid of it, I swear."
"Alright, Ben, goddamn. You made your point." I hissed. "People hate booze. So what? We like it, so we'll continue to buy it." I pulled my key out of my pocket. "'Night."
He gave me a small wave as I headed off into my apartment building. "'Night." he echoed, and turned around to go back to his own home.
As I made my way up the stairs, I began to think about what he was talking about. He wasn't exactly wrong. I did see booze protesters in the street sometimes, and I've heard folks talk about how we should stop giving services to local breweries because they were German; Germany was our enemy in the Great War.
It didn't feel right. It's not like the brewers decided to go to war. They came to America for a reason, and it wasn't like their money was going back to Germany.
From that night on, I feared losing booze. It was the only way I could cope with my life tumbling into bits eighteen years ago. I had nobody to confide in, and even if I did, I'd be called crazy. I didn't even trust Ben. We were on good terms, no doubt, but we weren't exactly friends. He was just my drinking buddy who I happened to work for. In the sixteen years I'd known him, I'd only ever been to his house four times.
No, Ben Cooke wasn't my friend. Chester Smith was. He was my best friend, and he died in 1899. He was barely fifteen.
I still think about him everyday.
Trying to restart my life didn't work. I still feel like I'm stuck in the nineteenth century. I still feel fifteen, I still feel like I'm in Maine, and I still have that pit in my stomach that I felt when I watched Chester be pulled down into his death.
Whoever said time heals all wounds is full of more dung than a busy street in New York City. What a bunch of baloney. It'd been nearly two decades since it happened, and I was still hurting just as much as I was then.
I just got better at dealing with it.
The 20's would prove to be an interesting time in my life.
For starters, I began the decade with the law declaring that I was no longer allowed to drink booze. It was 1919 when I'd heard the news, Ben was reading the paper and it was all over the headlines. He spoke aloud to me. "Says here that 'the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited'. It'll be enacted on January 17th, 1920."
I let out a sigh, and stared at the ground. I let out a sad chuckle. "Welp, now what? Stock up on booze before then?"
"Maybe we can switch to chewing tobacco?" Ben suggested, though I couldn't tell whether he was being serious or not.
"Nah." I shook my head, "Chewing tobacco doesn't let you forget what a goddamn slum you live in."
"Right. Yeah, probably best to get what we can now. I'd imagine the shelves are empty today, though. No point in going out." Ben insisted.
"Also, we're working." I laughed. "Can't leave in the middle of your shift."
"I can, I run the damn place- though it'd harm my business, and we'd probably get a few thieves. Anyways, yeah, it's probably better to wait, innit?" he chuckled.
"If you think we're going out of business, you're nuts." the bartender insisted that Christmas Eve of 1919. He glanced around the bar, and pulled out a napkin and ink pen. He began to write down an address on the napkin, as well as a word in quotes. The word in question was "cerveza". I had no idea what it meant. "We're moving underground." the bartender continued to speak, "This is where we're going. You'll need to say the password in order to get in. The word's 'cerveza', which is Spanish for 'beer'. Don't tell anybody else about it, aight? Getting caught could get us all in jail."
I let myself process the information, and then Ben and I grinned at each other. "Yessir." I finally responded, and took the napkin. "Thank you. We were pretty damn scared of losing our booze."
"Welp, you two have been loyal customers since my father worked here. You're basically my uncles. Can't lose ya now." he joked.
Oh, he was the son of the original bartender? Damn, I didn't even notice. To be fair, the place was dimly lit when I first moved here, but that was because of the oil lamps. I guess they wanted to keep that feel, or something, because even though they had upgraded to electric lights a few years back, the bar was still pretty goddamn dark.
Drunk at secret parties- otherwise known as speakeasies- was how I spent most of the 20's. I was in my goddamn forties and partying like I was half my age. It was the first time I felt happy since moving to New York. It's hard to think about the past when your mind is constantly jacked up on booze.
The parties themselves were pretty damn fun. I even got Anne and Sophie in on them. There'd be energetic jazz music, dancing, laughing, poker, basically anything you could imagine at a large party. Oh, and then there were the women, of course. The young, daring flappers. I was a married man and far too old for them, but they were damn nice to look at. I was all for those ladies pushing the boundaries of modesty.
I went to several speakeasies throughout the twenties, with only a fair share of them getting busted. Hell, even the busts were fun. We'd flee out the door and leap into our automobiles, and take off. Sometimes I'd end up in a complete stranger's vehicle. I was often far too drunk to even feel panicked when sitting in the back of one. Occasionally we'd find ourselves being chased by the law, and there'd be lots of screaming and cheering as we fled from the fuzz. We'd always get away.
I was beginning to love New York City. The economy was on the rise, and Anne and I were making more money than we ever had before. Electricity was taking over, and everything felt so much more colorful. Carnivals! Movie theaters! Broadway! Couldn't get enough of it, and the best part was that there was no more horse dung in the streets because nobody needed a damn horse anymore. I also found it funny that I was drinking the most I'd ever drank when alcohol was deemed illegal.
They called it the Roaring Twenties for a reason, I'll tell you that.
I woke up on a cold morning in 1929 to frantic knocking at my apartment door. I opened it to find Ben holding a newspaper. He practically shoved it in my face. "Stock market crashed!" he yelled. "We've lost everything, Toby! I lost my business! I have no money!"
I was processing what he'd just said when I heard Anne's voice from behind me. "What?" she asked, and grabbed the newspaper.
"Everything?" I whispered quietly, not looking Ben in the eyes.
"Everything, Toby!" he exclaimed.
"We gotta get to the bank." Anne urged. "We need to withdrawal what we can... Toby?"
I felt a migraine beginning to form, and I went to sit down, placing my head in my hands.
"Toby, are you alright?" Ben asked as he walked up to me, and he placed a hand on my shoulder.
"Take her to the bank. Get what you can. I'll stay here." I insisted.
"Okay." he agreed. "Will you be alright?"
"I'll be fine." I insisted. "Get Anne to the bank." I continued to insist. I didn't look up at them. I heard the two exchange a few words, and then the door shut behind them. I got up and looked around my apartment.
How much longer was I going to be able to live here?
I turned on the radio and listened in on what was going on, then peeked behind my blinds. The entire street down below seemed uneasy, and there were even a few fights going on. I saw a man get knocked out cold as his head was slammed into the side of an automobile.
I fixed myself a glass of wine, and sat back down, continuing to listen to what the man on the radio said. My mind eventually wandered, and I ultimately wound up thinking about it.
God, why couldn't I move on?! It was thirty years ago, and I was a teenager then. I'm nearly fifty now. I've changed since then. I've lived in New York twice longer than Maine. Why must my mind torture itself like this? Why am I so goddamn preoccupied? Why can't I just move on already? It was nearly 1930, for Christ's sake. I was already over a quarter of the way through the damn century.
I let out a sigh and sipped at my wine. I thought about how I've always wanted to die at fifty. Fifty was quickly approaching; less than four years from now, anyways. And I'll be honest, I felt ready to go. Even though your average man is already expected to live to sixty nowadays, I wanted to live no longer than fifty. I already knew the thirties weren't going to be a good time. I'd gotten my high in the twenties, after two decades of suffering from traumatic memories of it. It was time to sink back into my crippling misery.
It would be my time to go soon enough, wouldn't it?
Surely my days were numbered.
We couldn't afford booze anymore, and honestly, that was probably for the better. The stuff was still illegal, anyways, but nobody enforced the law on it anymore. Before the stock market crashed, I went to the doctor's office due to getting sick. The doc informed me that I was sick due to liver damage, and that if I kept up with the excessive drinking, I could be dead within years, or even months. He told me I was lucky to live as long as I did with how much I drank previously. I wanted to tell him that if I survived what I went through when I was fifteen, then I could live through anything. But, I obviously kept my mouth shut. I didn't listen to the doctor's advice, of course. I continued to drink. I didn't mind dying, anyways. At least I'd die doing what I loved.
Anne and I lost our apartment by the time 1930 rolled around, and we moved in with Sophie and her family, though her daughter was fully grown now. Elizabeth was well off on her own with a husband and a job as a nurse, and she had gotten pregnant a few months before the stock market crashed. She moved back to her parents' with her husband before the year ended. She admitted to me in private that if she knew that the crash was going to happen, she would've gotten that baby inside of her ripped right out. But by the time it did happen, she was already months in- it was too late. I didn't judge her. Raising a kid in poverty isn't exactly the easiest thing in the world.
Her husband was a pretty nice fellow, though. His name was Giles Peter Francis, and he'd actually gone to high school. I found it a bit funny that his parents gave him a girl's name, but I didn't give him any crap for it. Nobody can help what they were named.
Elizabeth gave birth to a baby girl on April 18th, 1930. Her name was Mercedes Rose Francis. I found it funny that they named her after a car nobody could afford. That was even worse than Giles having a girl's name.
I was too busy trying to find work to even think about what happened when I was fifteen. I wasn't exactly the most employable man in the world, being the age I was; too old and tired for a labor force's taste. It didn't help that I barely got any sleep, because I was always trying to figure out a way to obtain food and money. It was hard not having booze to fall back on, and I felt like I was stuck in a dark abyss that I'd never find my way out of. At forty-eight years old, I found myself sitting on the ledge of the apartment building's roof, looking down and contemplating ending it all, just like when I was sixteen. I mean, I wouldn't be the first fellow to do it. It wasn't too uncommon to see a splattered body against the concrete these days. Who could blame 'em? I'd rather quickly fall and have it be over just like that instead of slowly starving to death because nobody can afford a damn thing.
I laughed a little, thinking about when I was merely sixteen. In that moment, I regretted not using Harvey's revolver to shoot myself. Now I regret sitting there and thinking about my regrets instead of just jumping. Goddamn, I should've jumped then. I should've jumped nice and high.
What was I waiting for, anyways? To be fifty? I was forty-eight, I was pretty damn close.
I did something I'm ashamed to admit. I pushed myself off, but I wasn't ashamed of that. I was ashamed that Giles managed to grab the back of my shirt and pull me back onto the roof. My hearing was absolute shit these days, and I had no idea he was behind me. He began to yell obscenities at me as he stood me back up, scolding me for what I'd tried to do, called me a crazy old fucker, the kinds of things you wouldn't expect a man who went to high school to say. He grabbed my arm and dragged me back inside, though I didn't even resist.
"You ain't going today, you crazy old fucker." he said for what felt like the fifth time, "Nuh-uh. Now's not your time, ya hear? You gotta wait your turn to visit the reaper. You still gotta wife who needs you, man."
I didn't respond. I was thankful he didn't push me to talk.
Something about the experience of my life being saved by Giles drew me closer to him. We never spoke of what I did to anybody else, and he became my new Ben, in a way. Since I was no longer working for Ben, we never really spoke to each other anymore. But living with Giles meant I was around him all the time.
We decided to save up money for the two of us to see a movie. We would've tried to get the rest of the girls and Louis to come with us, but it was simply not affordable, and we were planning on seeing a pretty early showing. Louis, Sophie, and Anne had work, anyways, and Elizabeth had to stay home to take care of her daughter.
Giles and I walked to the theater on the morning of my forty-ninth birthday, and we looked up at the movies that were playing.
TARZAN THE APE MAN
I stopped reading as soon as I saw that last word.
That was a word I never thought I'd ever have to see or hear again.
I collapsed to my knees and grabbed at my chest. I could hear the blood pumping quickly throughout my body, and Giles called for me, but I could barely hear him.
I couldn't ignore it anymore.
I needed to spill. I needed to do something. I couldn't keep it locked in anymore. I couldn't. I couldn't. I absolutely couldn't. I needed to get it out.
I began to sprint back towards home, slamming the door open so loudly that Elizabeth screamed and Mercedes started crying. I began to tear through all of our belongings, desperately searching for paper and a pen. Elizabeth demanded to know what I was doing, but I ignored her. Once I finally found what I needed, I locked myself in the bathroom, sat down on the toilet, and began to write.
JANUARY 1ST, 1899