"Then this is the last day I go to school," Tommy declared.
His mother turned away from the window and wiped the tears from her face. “No, I won’t have that. Your father’s dearest wish was that you be educated.”
“When he comes back, then, I’ll go back to school,” Tommy promised. “But, until then, we need money. I’m twelve years old now and I need to be working like the other boys in this neighborhood.”
“This neighborhood,” Mrs. McMahon repeated, looking out the sooty window at the crowded scene below.
The street was strewn with garbage and crowded with men pushing carts of vegetables, clothing or cheap tin pots and kettles. Another had a grinding-wheel and sang out for knives to sharpen. A man in a horse-drawn wagon shouted his offer to buy old rags and bones.
Around and through them ran small children, playing tag. Directly below and across the street, Mr. Goldstein had come out of his grocery store to catch an older boy trying to slip two oranges into the pockets of his tattered jacket. Mr. Goldstein had the boy by the collar and was shouting for a policeman.
“Working, do you call it?” she snapped. “That’s your friend Shanahan now, isn’t it?”
Tommy looked over her shoulder, “Stork and I aren’t friends.” He looked into his mother’s disapproving face. “Because his legs stick out of his pants,” he explained. “Somebody said he looked like a stork.”
“That’s hardly his fault,” his mother said. “His poor mother can barely feed him, never mind buy new pants every time the boy grows again.”
Tommy laughed. “Everybody has a nickname on the street. That one’s nothing. There’s a boy who’s blind in one eye ... “
“I don’t want to hear it!” Mrs. McMahon said firmly, walking away from the window.
“Do you know what they call me?” Tommy asked, but answered without waiting for her. “Shakespeare.”
“Shakespeare!” she repeated. “And what on earth has William Shakespeare got to do with anything?”
“It’s because they see me go off with my books to school every day,” Tommy explained.
His mother turned to look at him for a moment. “Well,” she said, “then let them keep calling you ‘Shakespeare’ and you keep going to school.”
Tommy sighed. “You know I can’t do that, Ma,” he said gently. “What would we do?”
He looked around at their tenement apartment. It was just two small rooms and a tiny kitchen, but it had a window to let in light, and it looked out on the front street instead of the filthy, narrow alley behind. “Where would we live next?”
Mrs. McMahon sat down heavily in a wooden chair. “I don’t know, son. Lord help us, where would we live next?”
It had been nearly two years since they had heard from Tommy’s father, and a year since they had to move from their neat, small home in Brooklyn to the crowded tenement on Hester Street in Manhattan.
Before that, they had money each month in the mail, from faraway places like Minnesota, Kansas and Colorado, where Tommy’s father was working the farms, the mines or the forests. Once a year, he’d come back to New York on the train.
Always, when he came back, he promised that some day he’d be home to stay. But the jobs back East weren’t as good as they were out West, and so, after a few weeks at home, he’d be off again to where he could earn enough to keep his family and still save to buy their own place one day.
But then the letters and the money stopped coming. They didn’t know where he was, or if he were even alive.
After a year, Tommy’s mother decided they couldn’t wait any longer or their savings would be gone entirely. She and Tommy and the baby, Bride, left their little home for this sad apartment, and Mrs. McMahon took a job sewing shirts for Brown and Company, a men’s clothing store, so that she could work at home and watch the baby.
The store gave her 25 cents for each shirt she finished. It was just enough for the rent and some food. From what was left of their savings, she bought extra food, and took money so that Tommy could keep going to his old school in Brooklyn.
And now, even that little income was gone. Tommy had found out that day when he got off the Wall Street ferry on his way home.
His friend Dutch, a bootblack who worked at the ferry slip polishing the shoes of the businessmen as they came and went, called out to him.
“Shakespeare!” he shouted. “Did you hear about Brown and Company? The store burned down!”
“It’s gone?” Tommy asked, as they began to walk up to the neighborhood together.
“Nothing but ashes,” Dutch said. “The whole building burned, and the buildings next to it got some, too. But the fire started in the store. It’s gone, all right!”
And gone with it was his mother’s job, his family’s income and his chances of finishing school.
Text copyright 2007, Mike Peterson - Illustrations copyright 2007, Christopher Baldwin