David Jacobs opens his eyes. His palm is alive with light.
He curls his fingers out carefully, one by one, studying them with a journalist's curious detachment. The slim bones of his hand, the clean nails, the alive, moving skin. New York's particular breed of morning is fierce and white, and in it his hand glows like a strange and luminescent spider, independent, inexplicable. He blinks. He yawns. His teeth are dirty with sleep. He pushes the sheets away.
Light leaks into his flat like water might from a tub, illuminating the dingy but serviceable baseboards, the outdated wallpaper, the minimal furnishings. It illuminates him – David Jacobs, newspaper man, twenty four years of age – as his body uncurls stiffly, as large, capable feet find worn flooring. It lights his pale legs. It outlines his waist, tapered as it was when he was a teenager. It turns the already pale skin along his chest blinding; it makes his dark hair shine. It turns his hands into things he does not recognize. It pulls the page back on his parameters; the hardwood worn from pacing, the frenzy of paper on his table denoting deadlines, the prints on his window from where he has pressed his hot forehead against the glass. Also, the one rumpled pillow, the one pair of shoes by the door, the one tooth brush in the metal cup.
In this particular flat, on this particular street, he is far from newspaper row. As he crosses to the wash stand wearing his undershirt and little else he is not prepared to admit this as a persuasive reason for choosing this particular flat for his twenty third birthday.
"And so far away from your poor mother," Esther had fretted, her bony hands reminiscent of sparrows as she cleared the table, wiping it of crumbs. "Bubbala, your father will worry himself half to death, and you want to bring that on this family?"
"I'll be fine, Esther," David's father's voice from the other room.
"You see? Look how he lies for you," she shook her head, fluttered her hands, dirty and brown. He and Sarah caught eyes, and he had to work his mouth to hide a smile. Now, in the privacy of his glowing flat, David plunges his hands wrist-deep into yesterday's water. Outside, the vendors are beginning to holler. He washes the last of his restless, moving dreams away, strong hands moving deftly, drenching his face, his lips, his hair. He can feel the water pouring from his skin, can taste it when he opens his mouth – dusty, warm, like an August afternoon. His towel clean-smelling, rough. As New York City wakes up, David Jacobs gets ready for work.
"Newspaper man through and through," his father's proud smile, the feeling of his warm, broad palm thumping down hard on David's right shoulder blade, like a second heart beat. His mother, pursing her lips and putting up a façade of brusqueness to hide wet eyes. "Well," was the only thing she said when she found out about the promotion. "Well. Well." And Sarah, smiling like the Mona Lisa, hair half pinned.
"How does it feel to be on the other side of the desk?" She had asked in her way, the way of questions going nowhere. David checks his pocket watch, lying supine on his bedside table, and picks up his one good suit from its sleepy place on the ironing board.
"Ahh," he remembers saying. "Great," a laugh. "It feels great."
It feels great. The flat is not large, but David has never required much space, moving restlessly in his mind while his body stays clipped. He puts on his suit with little flourish, eyes focused on thin air, lips closed. He drowns in light now, it is relentless, flooding the little room, creeping up the solid stalk of his throat – somewhere in the back of his mind, perhaps buried in a dream, he recalls Sarah saying something about sunlight, it's bigness. Something she'd picked up somewhere. He glances at the papers he has left on the table and the new sun is making them glow. On one sheaf, a report on rising crime rates on the subway, now in operation for two years. On another, the socialistic angle of the automobile, with an exclusive interview with Princeton University president Woodrow Wilson. More yet, an overview of the unveiling of the memorial fountain dedicated to the General Slocum disaster, a report on the brutalizing of a policeman in the Tenderloin district, a note on political turmoil in Europe. And his newest piece, front and center in the pile, the piece that had kept him up late into the night – a blazing editorial on backlash against the ill reception of Eastern European immigrants and the overcrowding of Ellis Island.
"Don't you go causing trouble, bubbala," – his mother's voice again, from years ago.
"Causing trouble," his father, jovial, fiercely proud. "You bet he's going to be causing trouble. You're a newspaper man now, David, you go out there and cause just as much trouble as you want."
"Mayer!" A dishrag, whipping. "You don't listen to your father; no son of mine is going to turn into a penny-chasing, muck-raking…sensationalist! You think you're so smart? Think you're going to write books on the meat and the oil like that no good gonif from Baltimore? Oh don't make that face at me, David, I read the papers…" David smiles and handles his latest article, admiring the firm, insistent march of letters, the occasional note added in ink along the margins, his name blazing across the top. And then another voice, unwelcome this time. "Remember, the first line is the most important in any article." Dimmed light, a different flat, the insistent press of knees. "Your first line should tell the reader all they need to know. It is the bones, and every line after…" A pen, stroking the paper, a quick, firm line. "Enlarges upon those bones."
David shakes his head – no need to remember these things. As the light angles in through his flat window, David Jacobs sorts the papers into a satchel, handling the latest with particular care, grabs a slice of dry bread off the counter, palms his hat up onto his head and leaves, his apartment glowing in his wake.
"I'm going to go find him."
David is staring up at the ceiling. The night is humid, just as the night before, his underarms are wet , staining his undershirt a darker gray. Across the room, the shape on the other mattress shifts. Sarah sniffs sleepily, rolls over.
"You know who."
David's fingers are braided behind his head, and the pull of the arms expands his chest, narrows his waist. Sarah's eyes are red in the darkness.
"David," she says slowly, firmly, "go to sleep."
"I want to. I'm going to," David says.
"Momma needs you," Sarah says. David breathes out hard through his nose. "David, why?"
A pause. David shifts just slightly, feeling the stiffness in his upper arms from running the printing press that morning. Sarah waits.
"You don't know," she says finally, her voice cracking. "Go to sleep, Davey."
David does know, and cannot articulate. He makes believe, for the sake of his sister's dignity, that he does not hear as she rolls over and buries her face in her pillow, pretending not to cry for reasons that she will not explain to him. As she bites into the sour linen, he breathes slowly, the basket of his ribs expanding, contracting, expanding.
Newspaper row is blinding. Already the district is fluid with movement; David is jostled by men in suits, knocked into by children, skirted by women in flashes of hair and impossible ribbon. Accustomed to being in the company of giants, he nimbly crosses Spruce street, sparing only the briefest of glances to the buildings that dwarf him – Staats-Zeitung, Potter, Harold. A car sputters past him, he catches a whiff of fuel, rubber, perfume. Before him stands the Park Row building, improbable in height, near monolithic, jutting up from the sidewalk with stiff shoulders.
"On a Sunday?" His mother's frown, a severe notation.
"There's a Sunday edition, ma," David had said, awkward in a flat that was no longer his own. "I gotta come in. I'll be here for dinner, I'll just be…late."
"Hrm," she had said. "Who do they think they are that they can't take a day off like the rest of us?"
"I don't know, ma."
Down the road he knows, but does not turn to see, the great brass dome of The World, the awkward square of the distribution offices, the moving clusters of boys with dirty faces and arms full of newsprint. The headlines are already being hawked; rough, obnoxious bird calls. He turns his face away from them, cutting towards the Park Row building, one hand on the flap of his satchel. Tactically, he does not reminisce. Only one summer, really, he thinks every time, years ago.
"It's important," he had said to her, warming, thinking of that article still unfinished. "Mr. Walters is one of the most accredited editors that I work under, if he gives me this story on the election, I may even get to work under Whitelaw Reid himself!"
"Oh really," she had replied, hands on hips. "And if you were to work under Whitelaw Reid himself, would he give you even just one Sunday night off to come see your poor mother? Who works her fingers to the bone to make a nice dinner for you, Mr. Big Shot Reporter?"
"No, but he'll pay me more," David mutters to himself now as he crosses the wide, warm sidewalk. Though he looks well enough to pass, the lining of his jacket is torn, the hems of his pants beginning to fray. "Ever thought about that, ma? Maybe you wouldn't have to work so hard. Maybe not your fingers, all the way to the bone." He cuts towards Park Row, and is reminded once again of the strange feeling he gets upon seeing his co-workers, fat with cash, dressed well, shoed expensively. He cannot prove he is not getting paid well enough for the work he does, but he feels it. He won't admit this to his mother, though, not even arguing with her memory. He knows precisely what she'd say. As he moves towards his building, thoughts running sour on this, he is stopped by an agile seventeen year old, greasy hair, skin the color of sunlight.
"This just in, mister," he says, and David's heart gives an irregular bump at the guttural accent. He takes in the stranger, the wide, warm planes of his face, the green bandana knotted around his throat in lieu of an ascot, the slender, agile legs. "British launch the Dreadnought in open waters today." David tries to sidestep him. "S'capable of reaching death defying speeds," the boy continues, walking backwards, long legs scissoring, tracking him like a lion would track prey. "Carries twenny inch guns! It's virtually unbeatable! What does it mean for America? Buy a pape, mister?" His rough charm, his narrow hands, all achingly familiar.
"No thanks," David manages with a smile. The boy jack-knifes back, already moving on, eyes seeking out the next customer with the skill of a consummate professional. David pauses, tonguing the inside of his cheek, before turning and saying suddenly "I wrote it, you know."
The boy turns, hazel eyes darkly picking at David's face, seeing him truly for the first time and mining for sustenance.
"So?" He says finally. " 'm'I in trouble?"
David lets out a brief laugh, but the boy is not smiling.
"No," David says finally. "Um…twelve inch guns."
"Twelve inch. Not twenty."
The boy considers him, face impassive. "Lissen, mister, I gotta eat tonight."
"Fine," David says, shrugging. "Sure."
He turns away and jogs up the steps to the Park Row building. The boy with the papers moves on.
David's office is cramped, closet-sized, fuzzy with heat. He wipes away the sweat with the heel of his hand, and then flips open his satchel, light with nerves.
"So this story's the big one?" Sarah's voice again as he thumbs through the papers, pressed like dried flowers.
"No," David had replied, hunched perpetually, pen picking out the weak words as a bird might peck at a gutter. "This is my ticket to the big one." She had been visiting that evening, a beautiful evening; suffused in late sunlight, she appeared like a nun in his doorway with stale bread and coffee beans. "Walters just needs to know I'm capable, so this…" he shifts the paper slightly, "is my Ellis story, which I think will be huge once it hits the streets. And then…" he frowns at the paper, as though arguing. "Hopefully. You know."
"Oh," her accomplished hands, tipping the coffee beans into the ancient grinder. "What's the big one then?"
"Uhh…" David's pen, a knife, slashing. "Gubernatorial election coming up. The Tribune is finally in a place," a pause, his nib scratching, "to actually cause some damage. I think if I can get in even just a few words about Hearst and the corruption in Tammany, it might just sway a few voters…"
"You think you're going to get the story?" She had asked practically, already grinding the beans into a crumbly powder; she was unable to be idle, a trait, he suspected, that came directly from their mother. He straightens now, holding the finished product in his hand, feeling strangely light headed.
"I think I am," he had told her. David smiles faintly, turns, and walks out of his office.
Sarah woke to the sound of slamming footsteps against the fire escape.
She sat up, pulling the sheet up to her neck, pale as bone in the winter moonlight. Restless, eyes still wet with dreams, it took a moment for her to realize where she was – the room pulled her down, back to her bed, water swirling through a drain. Her eyes focused on the calendar that her father had tacked up next to the window – November, 1903.
"Hello?" She whispered, before realizing the window was shut against the cold.
The footsteps slowed, and she caught a glimpse of a shoulder through the lace curtain, the curve of a cheek and stiff corduroy. David – he was supposed to be back hours ago. She breathed out hard through her nose and pushed the blankets away, swinging her legs over the side of her narrow bed, not even wincing at the icy floor. Mama had been so worried, Papa had chewed his bread noisily, watching the door, went to bed without even saying good night. Where had he been?
She turned to go wake her parents, but something about the resolute angle of his jaw, something about the slope of his leg as he sat down, drawing his thighs up tight to his chest and resting his chin on his knees slowed her feet. She watched him for a moment, focused like a needle. Her little brother had passed the age where he trumpeted his feelings loudly, but she still knew a thing or two.
And so she moved towards the window instead, reaching out for the sill, mouth half open, his name already forming on her tongue. He would speak with her, he couldn't keep a thing from her, and momma, would get the sanitized version in the morning, she would keep her brother's secrets. Her fingers hit the pane noiselessly, skin dry and silent, and just then he turned to see her. His blue eyes, so unlike anyone else's in the family, caught on her sparrow brown ones and held. At that moment, she could not move. Not even to say his name.
Gregory Walter's office was impressive in the way that David's never would be. David, dwarfed by high ceilings, by fat carpets, crosses the floor to where Walters is sitting, resolute and impressive. The sun slants in, heating the mahogany, illuminating the dustless air.
"Ah, Jacobs," Walters says, bestowing him with the briefest of looks. "Sit down, sit down."
David pulls the chair out from the other side of the wide desk, and does as he is told. Walters is writing something; broad, bloated hands busy, face turned down. Even when not backlit, he cuts an imposing figure; rich and round, with piercing blue eyes, and thick gray beard ornamenting a strong, American jaw. David discreetly wipes his hands against his knees, sweat heating his underarms and chest, watching as Walters writes his name and underlines it, imposing, authoritative. He thinks of his mother, what she would say in this situation, what she would really be thinking. He bites back a grin.
"Now," Walters says, replacing his pen in its well and looking up. His handsome mouth curls upwards in a small, polite smile. "We have a lot to talk about today, don't we Mr. Jacobs?"
"Yes sir," David says automatically, stomach clenching slightly. "I believe you wanted to see me personally about the Ellis Island story." He places the article face up on the desk and slides it forwards, noting the smoothness of the wood through paper. Walters braids his fingers together and rests his hands on the desk, still smiling, unmoving. David waits a moment for him to take the paper, and the stillness feels like a stone.
"Um…" he manages finally, clearing his throat. "I actually meant to talk to you about the gubernatorial election, sir…"
"I know you did," Walters cuts him off, the smile promptly vanishing. "Jacobs, I feel like I should cut to the chase with you here. I gave the story to Matthews. He was just in this morning to ask about it."
David feels as though his hands have been plunged into cold water. He clears his throat again, but his mouth is dry. He knows Matthews.
"Oh," he finally says. Walters is still watching him, not unkindly, but closely. "Well, that was all I really wanted to…ah, inquire about, sir, so unless there are further issues you want to…"
"As a matter of fact…" Walters says, and David swallows his words. Not the election, but perhaps another story, he thinks as Walters pushes aside the memo he had been writing and brings up a stack of papers from out his desk. The slide and quiet, rich sounding click of the drawer makes him nervous. "I have a piece for you, David. It's…a little different than what you're used to, if I may say so, but I think you can handle it."
David sits up straighter, pulse drumming in his wrists. Walters extracts a sheet from the pile and passes it across the desk; David realizes, as he takes it, that his own article still lies unread. He looks down at the proposal.
"Piece for the society section," Walters says magnanimously, his smile back in place, as though fixed. "The Van Pyke oil well out west is celebrating its third year running. I have the train tickets, you'll be on the spot. I'd like the article finished by the end of the month. Just a little something."
David reads, feeling his heart drown. Another fluff piece. Words boil in his throat, so he clears it again, nods, and places the paper neatly on his lap. He looks up, but Walters is already occupied, writing out another memo, hands steady and certain.
David pushes back his chair and stands, turns to leave, but his feet are stones. After a moment, awkwardly twisted, he sits back down. Walters looks up, and his eyes make David's stomach feel cold.
"Sir, I…" his hands, dead white birds on the desk top. "May I speak frankly?
Walters nods once, eyeing David not unkindly, one hand moving up to caress the flesh ballooning between his chin and collar. David's mouth is cotton.
"I…" he swallows, licks his lips. "I'm one of the best reporters you have." Walters' eyes are blue, placid. "And I'm not boasting, sir, that's a fact. You've had me on pieces like this all year, and it's only through my own efforts that I've been able to write on issues of substance! I'm…sir, I'm better than Matthews, I know it. The awards I've been recommended for alone, my track record, my…my extensive experience within my field, my letters of approval from…from…" but here his tongue stops. While he tries to gather his wits, will himself to stop stalling, Walters speaks.
"Bryan Denton's recommendation persuaded me to give you this position against my…original instincts," he says. David can tell he is choosing his words carefully, can tell by the weight with which they fall. "To be perfectly honest with you, Jacobs, were it up to me entirely you would not be working at the level you are at currently. Now, this has nothing to do with your, I admit, sterling skills as a reporter. Do you understand?"
David's body is beginning to understand. His hands are clenched; the blood is beating hard in all the narrow parts of him.
Walters consider him again, before shuffling through a stack of papers placed in front of him. David drops his eyes automatically, follows those hands, catches a photo of someone he decides not to recognize.
"When you were seventeen you were arrested as a ringleader of a rally that was deemed to have disturbed the peace, been dangerous to the general welfare of civilians, not to mention officers of the law themselves, and was socialistic in origin…"
"Charges were dropped," David's words are knives. Walters continues.
"At eighteen, you were appointed to the post of vice president of your high school's labour rights and solidarity committee, disbanded the same year."
"It wasn't an illegal group until…"
"At nineteen, both you, your father, and your sister were arrested in connection with the sympathy riots for coal strikers in the Utah…"
"Sir," David's mouth is cotton, "did you read anything about…"
"And frankly, your track record at the Tribune has displayed astonishing tendencies towards those socialists making noise over in Russia." Walters' eyes are frost when caught by the light. "This, coupled with your…family background, we feel is sending our readers the wrong message. And we don't want to send our readers the wrong message, Jacobs. I'm sorry, but it's been deemed necessary for your position here to change. I'm sure you understand."
David's words are gone. There is no bending in light of that wily, crystal blue.
"My position?" He manages.
"I think articles of this persuasion are what you do best here, Jacobs. From now on."
David ignores the wound. There is something else. "And…my family background? Sir?" Walters does not drop his gaze, but his lips rumple, closing like a purse. "What do you mean by that?"
Outside the noise is mounting, growing like the light, he can still hear the newsboys calls over the clip of horses, the newer, stranger growl of engines. Walters finally does drop his eyes, extracts a lone sheaf from within the stack he has in front of him. David knows he is not reading.
"Jacobs is a Jewish name, isn't it?"
David's hands twitch, dying creatures.
"German," he manages.
"Yes, well," the papers settle, falling neatly into stacks. Walter's smile is a glittering shard. "I'm sure you understand."
David's feet move without him. Like his hands, they are unfamiliar. He descends the steps of the Tribune building, mechanical, like a bicycle, listening to the noise of his breathing in his ears. Tonight he will wash, re-iron his collar, wear his fresh undershirt and give up a nickel so the black boy on the corner will shine his shoes. He will present himself, a newspaper man, rich and gleaming to a family that would love him anyways – he does not want them to know. He will tell them where he is going; an assignment, out of town, a free ticket. Out west! Les will be excited, tall and gangly now, forehead maybe clipped from when some boys were throwing stones earlier. His mother will fret, his father will shine.
Sarah will know, he thinks to himself, clenching the proposal in his fist. She'll know right away.