Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 2 · January 2002
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author

All original artwork © 2001 Joshua Brown.

"The dog hunt had turned nasty now, and Padlin--as he scrawled the arcs of flailing arms and the jags and dashes of torn turf and flesh--didn't want to risk a blow from a misaimed club or a bite from a wounded cur."

The Hungry Eye, Episode 2
Joshua Brown

Episode 1: Chapter I | II | III | IV
Episode 2: V | VI | VII
Episode 3: VIII | IX | X
Episode 4: XI | XII | XIII


Our Special Artist

Padlin's familiarity with the dead woman was the result of only one occasion, an incident that had occurred during one of his sketch assignments.

Before Padlin began work for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, its proprietor and namesake had settled upon one particular subject that guaranteed a dedicated readership: disease. While the paper's audience enjoyed the engravings of visiting dignitaries, devastating disasters, and violent crimes, it was fevers, poxes, plagues, and infections that sent circulation soaring, especially when the illustrations portrayed the ghastly purveyors of pestilence. The city seemed to be clotted with an array of tainted animal life, from swill-milk cows rotting in their dark stalls to the bloated carcasses of pigs blocking the streets. So, once he joined the weekly newspaper's art staff, it was Peleg Padlin, weak in rendering humans but masterly in the figuration of fauna, to whom the sanitary assignments fell whenever Mr. Leslie sensed his readership declining.

Which was why, one spring afternoon, Padlin found himself crouching beside an abandoned wagon on a muddy street off the Five Points. He was using the mired vehicle, pungent with the spoiled stench of its earlier cargoes, as a combination easel and shield. The dog hunt had turned nasty now, and Padlin--as he scrawled the arcs of flailing arms and the jags and dashes of torn turf and flesh--didn't want to risk a blow from a misaimed club or a bite from a wounded cur.

Padlin had arrived early on that gray morning just as the seasonal city-sponsored dog hunt got underway. For hours the nooks and crannies of the Sixth Ward were alive with scampering boys and men excitedly chasing a skeletal mongrel here, cornering a sleek wolf there. The air crackled with the boys' chirps, mingling Irish and English into an indecipherable Points pidgin, their bare feet slapping the swampy street. The dogs barked, yelped, growled, and Padlin filled his pad with amusing cartoons:

click to enlarge

two urchins thrown into a bumbling embrace as their intended victim swerved round, teeth gnashing, to call their bluff; a hulking bullyboy munching a cigar and marching down the middle of Bayard Street with a convulsing sack over his shoulder; a trio of Points beauties--a cackling crone, a barrel-like grocery store matron, and a groggy concert-hall damsel--razzing the hunters.

By midday Padlin thought he had enough material for a month's supply of Leslie's sanitary reports. The hunt was over anyway. Most of the animals had been carried off to meet watery deaths in the East River before their sodden corpses were tallied by the city clerks who paid out the bounties. About a dozen miserable mutts still remained, corralled within the triangle of scrawny trees and weeds in the heart of the Points called Paradise Park. The skinniest of the dogs occasionally managed to wriggle through the clapboard fence, but the cordon of jeering lads always succeeded in intercepting them, booting and jabbing the fugitives back into the imprisoned pack.

The sun began to burn through the overcast sky, cutting seams into the grayness that sent blotches of light down upon the Points. The hot puddles of sunlight exalted the scene, giving it an innocent air despite the whooping and hollering, yelping and barking, despite the crooked posture of the low buildings and the crumbling of their facades. Padlin sketched a cartoon in his mind: a skeletal figure marked Rabies rising above the carnival scene, dissipating defeated into the heavens. He'd work the idea out at the office. Padlin pocketed his pencils, slid his sketches under one arm, and prepared to walk the short distance south to Spruce Street. That was when he noticed the girl.

She scampered from sunlit spot to sunlit spot, interrupting conversations, touching an arm, inquiring with an intent gaze that sent heads shaking, eyes averted until she moved on. Then stares followed her course. A host of stares, her progress competing for attention with the shouts around Paradise Park. At first Padlin took her for a beggar requesting a little charity on a rare occasion of neighborhood affluence. But, as she drew closer to Padlin, inquiring and rushing off, inquiring and rushing off, each time barely hearing an answer before she departed, he saw that her face carried a despair that differed from the mendicant's. Each answer seemed to feed a panic that pressed her to move faster, ignoring the turds and trash, the hem of her dress skimming the pools of water that always pocked the Sixth Ward streets.

"Sir, have you seen my Jakesy?"

How could he have mistaken her for a beggar? She stood, hands clasped primly at her bodice, her red hair kept in place by a straw bonnet decorated with paper flowers. Attractive, in an unrefined way. A pretty Lize dressed for a Hoboken excursion, looking for her Mose.

"My dog, sir," she said, her eyes widening, blue pupils against a faultless white. "I fear he has been taken off."

"That," Padlin mumbled, "is a distinct possibility."

She emitted a sound--a muffled cry of consternation or a sigh of exasperation, he couldn't be sure which--and swept past Padlin.

"What kind of dog?" Padlin heard himself call after her.

But she ignored him, pressing now toward Paradise Park. As she moved away, Padlin saw her back stiffen, her corseted waist dilate ever so slightly, the encasing fabric going taut. An intake of breath, a strengthening of resolve. He realized the girl's seemingly meandering search had been but preparation for a more grueling confrontation.

He pulled out his pad, hurriedly attempting a likeness: innocence in the Points, a nice bit of pathos to counter the bloody farce. As usual, Padlin failed miserably. In his effort to capture her countenance, he worked the face too hard, the pencil revolving from an oval--no--to sharper lines that harshened her face--no!--to an utterly generic visage: round eyes, button nose, dew-drop mouth. He was grimacing at the mess on the page when all hell broke loose.

He had ignored the first few hearty whoops and squeals, accented by unaccustomed thumping sounds. It was the scream that broke his concentration. A gurgle that catapulted to a high-pitched screech. It coursed up his spine and palsied his drawing hand.

Paradise Park was a chaos of frenzied movement, bodies launching over the fence, brickbats and clubs swinging, beasts snapping, darting--dying. In moments scarlet blotches appeared, dots on clothes, on fists, on the hides of curs flung against the park fence, exploding into gore that seemed to rain upward into the sky. Something had been let loose. The giddiness of the hunt had toppled over into a bloody bacchanalia.

The girl was running toward the massacre, splashing through the puddles and shit, emitting that horrible scream. She reached the perimeter of the park, jittered one way, then another, looking for ingress, knocking aside the excited urchins ululating to the slaughter. Her hands went to her head and Padlin was sure he heard again, through the bellows, bleats, and thuds, her awful cry. Then she threw herself upon the fence, reaching over, wildly grasping out. She caught onto something, Padlin couldn't see what. Her frail frame seemed to go through a series of hiccoughs, the spasms rapidly mounting in intensity, jolting her up, jolting her down. Then Padlin saw that her hands were clasped about a flailing arm. A broad plug-ugly was trying to twist around within the sanguinary clutch of curs and killers, shaking and shimmying his forearm caught by her hands. His club, a limb torn from one of the park trees, spiraled helplessly, sprinkling the air with bits of brain.

No one came to her aid. Instead, the urchins at the fence descended upon her, grabbing at her skirts, reaching up at her shoulders, pulling and pelting. The girl was like an awful convulsing carcass, barely visible under a layer of pecking, digging bluebottle flies.

Instinctively, protectively, Padlin crouched down beside the empty wagon, hurriedly sketching the chaos of movement, concentrating on the dray's remnant fumes. The girl was screaming again, the sound cracking now, cut into gruesome burps as she flew up and down and against the planks.

Padlin stared helplessly at his drawing, at his maladroit strokes. He should do something--yet he'd be a fool to do anything in the Points. What could he do? Stab a bullyboy with his pencil? Despite his size, he was no bare-knuckle bruiser, and anyway, anyway, he had his responsibility right here in his hands. His day's labor. His bread and butter. He looked up and saw a boy scramble over his compatriots and grab hold of the girl's hair, yanking so her head snapped backward. Her bonnet flew off and disappeared under the trample of bare feet and boots.

Padlin grabbed the pad in his two hands and careened toward the park, holding it before him, a flimsy, fluttering shield.

He never reached the mayhem. A bloodied, slimy ball of a pig, mistakenly corralled amidst the curs, dislodged itself from the slaughter, squealing and stinking, and made straight for the sketch artist. The swine caught him across the shins. In a rare exhibition of coordination, Padlin managed to raise the pad above his head before he catapulted and landed, face down, in the muck.

He spent what seemed an eternity mired, teetering back and forth on his belly, his arms outstretched above him, trying to keep the pad out of the mess. Then he felt a sudden tug and the pad was wrenched from his grasp.

In a panic, shouting oaths, Padlin scrambled up, in the process submerging his arms in the cold slime of the street. He made it to his knees, furiously scooping mud out of his eyes, and found that he was being watched by a kid, soaked to the knees in blood, standing a few feet from him.

Padlin agitatedly examined his muddy clothes, wiped his hands on the few unbesmirched sections of his coat, and snatched the pad from the wide-eyed boy.

"You do those pictures, huh?" The kid stared up at the soiled sketch artist. A jagged tear split his shirt up one side, the faded red fabric parting to reveal the grimy ladder of his ribs.

Padlin peered around. The adults were wandering off and disappearing into the houses, grocery stores, and saloons bracketing the Points, eager to slake thirsts generated by the exertion of extermination or observation.

"You do those pretty pictures. Right, mister?" The kid took a careful step forward, nodding toward the pad in Padlin's hands. "Of them dimber morts and swells?"

Padlin suddenly remembered the girl. He scanned the park fence. She was standing--miraculously, she was standing--gazing into the park, her hands gripping the pickets. He approached, fearful to observe her face, which she averted toward the ruins within the triangle. Her dress was torn, her bonnet lay shattered at her feet.

Padlin opened his mouth and, unsurprisingly, nothing came out. He stood behind the girl, mouth agape, unaware that he was parodying the wide-open jaws of the slaughtered beasts spewing mucous and blood before him. For want of anything better to do, Padlin finally closed his mouth, unfurled his pad and began to draw the scene. His heart wasn't really in the task, yet in a few moments he found that an excellent sketch was emerging.

"I did you a good turn. Right, mister?" The kid was standing on tiptoe, trying to gaze around Padlin's peripatetic elbow. "You do me and Mike, huh?"

Padlin shrugged and quickly drew two boys standing to one side of the park fence, two smudgy and beslopped urchins gesticulating and slapping their thighs in a way that nicely set off the girl in the sketch.

"Mister!"

The kid's nose grazed the side of the pad, knocking Padlin's pencil across the page. Padlin looked aghast at the long black line that now bisected his drawing. He swung around and slapped the boy across the top of his head.

"Hey!" The kid looked incredulously at the artist, rearranging his matted hair as if Padlin had mussed a carefully arranged coiffure. "What'd you do that for?"

"You ruined my picture, you little guttersnipe."

"That's the thanks I get, huh?" The kid shook his head, displaying a disdainful look that would have been more effective had he not, at the same time, stepped back several paces. "You was ruining the picture."

Padlin advanced toward the kid, who simultaneously scampered back a few more feet.

"You got Mike all wrong," the kid shouted.

"Go away," Padlin said, checking his voice at the last moment, aware that the boy might have a few burly friends in the vicinity.

"You drew him wrong, mister, that's all I'm saying." The kid moved a little closer. "Mike ain't a person. He's my dog."

Padlin cursed, but before he could do anything foolish he was stopped by a sharp tug at his elbow. The girl stood by his side, holding the fabric of his muddy sleeve. Her face was working through several expressions in an effort to locate some equilibrium.

"Your dog?" her voice like a wisp of smoke, curling around the perspiration dotting her upper lip. She tottered over to the boy and grasped his shoulders. "He's alive?"

"Sure he's alive," the kid said, checking Padlin for support now that he was in the clutches of something less predictable than brutality. "I locked him up."

"Where?"

"Kit lets me keep him at the Bandbox when the hunt's on. You know Kit?"

"I know him."

The kid flinched: "You do?" His eyes shimmied to the whirring of the cogs and wheels in his head as he tried to work out the trajectory of the interrogation. "You sure we're talking about the same rabbit, ma'am? Kit Burns?"

"Yes."

"The sole owner and proprietor of the Sportsmen's Hall on Water Street? The best dogfighter in the Frog 'n Toe?"

"Are there any new dogs in his pens?"

"Excuse me, ma'am, but I ain't seen you 'round the Bandbox. And I'm the closest a cove comes to being Kit's apprentice."

"Are there new dogs there?"

"You mean besides my Mike? Not that he's a permanent resident, you understand." The kid was seesawing his shoulders now, like a sweep worming his way up a chimney.

But the girl tightened her grasp. She was barely a head taller than the boy, yet she easily subdued his squirming. "I mean a special dog," she said. "One you'd never confuse as being like any other."

"No," the boy said. But his eyes and his imperfect attempt to anneal his features contradicted the word.

Then he said, "I got to go."

Then he whimpered, "Please, ma'am."

And when the besmeared young woman began to moan, a fluting "Oh no, oh no, of course, of course," the kid really put his heart into wriggling free.

But she held him fast. She pressed her face close, her forehead colliding with the boy's quivering brow, and she wailed: "Tell me! Tell me or I'll place a curse on you and your kin and your wretched Mike and every filthy thing you ever touch! Tell me, does he have my Jakesy!"

"There ain't no dog called Jakesy!" the boy yelled back with equal desperation. Padlin, once more the helpless, hapless bystander, noted faces peering from windows, heads turning in the street toward a new sensation in Paradise Park.

"No dog with blue eyes?"

The boy blinked back at the question.

"You've noted the eyes, huh?" The girl nodded in triumph. "Sort of, yes, sort of like yours. Like a young boy's. Frightened one moment, ecstatic the next. But, there's calculation in Jakesy's eyes, like he knows the worst that a human being can do and he's sizing up everything you say. He's seen terrible acts, that's what his eyes say. He's seen them, been the victim of them, and understands them. I've had him but a month, but it's been like seeing a panorama of men's deeds, looking into those eyes. I know you've seen him, I can see it in your eyes."

Padlin discovered that his mouth was hanging open again.

"His name ain't Jakesy," the boy said. "Kit calls him Butts."

A tremor jolted the girl's frame, a quake that blurred the gingham of her dress and the tatters of the boy in her clutches. In the spasm, she released the kid, who scampered off toward the wagon behind which Padlin had earlier sought refuge. From there he watched her stationary dance, as did Padlin, whose emotions were now lost somewhere between awe and trepidation.

Later he would wonder if the girl had not been some kind of wraith, a spirit haunting the city's underworld. Or, perhaps, she was afflicted by such a feathery force; her eyes, rolling up in their sockets, the shaking of her limbs, and the moan escaping her lips seemed to come from a hidden presence bubbling within.

The next moment she was gone. A sharp nod, a grimace, her hands clutched her head, and then the girl was cascading forward, gallivanting on a straight course, unmindful of the terrain. Her feet sent up gasps of muck as she went, her shoes became churning blocks of mud, her hair flew free like flames pouring from the mouth of a locomotive stack.

"Ma'am!" The boy called after her through cupped hands. "Ma'am!"

She did not turn.

"Ma'am!" the kid tried again. "I don't think Kit'll be too keen to let him go."

Her maniac tread went uninterrupted. Her feet made slight shifts as they momentarily lost footing, but she did not stop, did not falter in her forward momentum, heading toward the East River.

"Did you hear me?"

The girl passed a corner grocery, attracting the attention of a clutch of b'hoys quaffing liquor at the entrance. Necks craned to follow her passage, a few shouts peppered her footsteps--"Where you off to, me doxie?" "Run, Saratoga Sally, run!"--and she disappeared from view.

The heads around the grocery door bent back to mark the frozen Special Artist. Padlin quickly closed his pad. Drying mud crumbled out of the creases of his coat. He patted his stiffened pockets to make sure his pencils were still there, as if he would bother to tarry if they weren't. Pulling the brim of his hat lower so it hooded his eyes (which he knew, despite his best efforts, carried the vulnerable look of bewilderment), Padlin set off.

"Hey, mister!"

Padlin ignored the boy.

"How about my picture?"

Padlin paused. The girl had earned herself an audience that would have made any Bowery performer proud. Padlin opened his pad and turned to his damaged sketch of the girl and two urchins. He tore the page from its binding. He draped the sheet over the park fence and exited the scene.

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Copyright © 2002 Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc., all rights reserved