Flour Riot

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Bean wasn’t supposed to see the flour. It was her birthday. Stu was late at the office, so Matty brought their daughter to the tall room. To get there, they climbed stairs, two cases. And when her mother opened the door, Bean saw where her father lived–that room she knew only from a distance. His office was bathed in brilliant white, its ceilings pitched to a point, at top a loft where birds swooped. Ledger books one on top of another lined the walls. Receipts filled boxes on the floor. A lamp shined a perfect circle on her father’s desk. But Bean was interested in what she saw behind this room where a door slightly ajar revealed three storerooms stacked with barrels and sacs of flour. So this was where Papa-Stu kept the flour!  Sacs on top of sacs of the softest, whitest flour imaginable. Everywhere clouds of white drifted in the air.  Like a promise, a fine silt hovered and danced before Bean’s eyes. She thought she would like to sleep here. She would dream sweetly all night rolling on barrels and lounging atop sacs of pure white.

Bean was eight and she refused to wean. When her mother heard her whistle between her teeth, soft then loud like a tea kettle screeching, she knew Bean was hungry. Whatever Matty was doing, she stopped. Bean’s whistle would become piercing if unattended.

Bean was looking for her. It was dark on their side of the building. Since they rented the well-lit parlor to the widow Hooper, their lives had been narrowed to the dim bedroom on Dey where they sat by the window, the two of them waiting.

They found each other in the darkening room. Bean climbed onto Matty’s lap, and Matty settled her, patting and smoothing as if her daughter were an apron or wrinkled dress. They sunk low in Papa-Stu’s chair while Bean rummaged under her mother’s blouse.

Bean’s hair was black as the crow trapped in the alley.  When he beat his wings they flapped so hard, they turned transparent, until the crow looked like an egg beater spinning too fast. For all that flapping the crow never went anywhere. He just sat in the alley and beat his wings until you could see clear through to the other side of him. But when he was still his wings shined black as onyx.

Bean was big now, bigger than girls her age. Her face was round, her body so puffy in places it folded. She fed four sometimes five times a day. Bean slurped and slobbered when she sucked. She was a noisy eater. It made it more delicious, Bean thought, to make big noises.

Matty had tried to end it. She listened when Stu said she should wean her. But Bean was a stubborn child. No one knew how forceful she could be. Truth was, Matty was afraid of her.

When Bean was born she was active, they said. But when she didn’t settle by three, then four, it was apparent she would be different. “She’s special,” Matty declared. And she looked at her with moist eyes. “She is my special one.”  

In many ways, Bean took after her father. Papa-Stu had a habit of pointing, his feet always tapping. He was a man of motion. And he kept working even after he heard the Uptown alarm that day. Only when the second siren sounded at the Battery, did he come down from his office.

His eyes bleary from bookkeeping, Stu Wirth squinted up and down the street. He wiped his glasses clean, then anxiously looked toward the park.  

All week people had been walking by, in pairs and small groups. They’d stop, stare up at his office and curse him.

“Thief!”

“Crook!” they yelled.

Some whispered under their breath.

It was in the newspapers:  Wirth was hoarding flour. Reporters said he was the reason prices were up. In letters to the editor, readers called him deplorable, reprehensible.

By Sunday, flyers were posted in public buildings. Notices hung from fences. Small groups formed to drink and scheme. A meeting in the park was called for Monday. These rumblings were ominous. So Stu stayed in his office longer hours, counted barrels and sacs of flour, then recounted. Past midnight, he reviewed his books.  He ran his thumb down the long column of numbers in his ledgers.

He had been meticulous. It was hard to understand how working all those hours, all those years, could bring him to this. It was a good thing, he believed, to have invested himself in work. For three years his grocery was the busiest in the neighborhood, his numbers the best downtown. All that time, he continued to work longer hours than any of his competitors. He never splurged but saved carefully, consistently, so when prices dropped, he’d been able to buy more flour than the others. 

When Stu Wirth was buying flour downtown, it had been exciting. He was smart and outbid other city grocers like Meech and Herrick. But now that people were hungry, and they couldn’t afford his flour, they said he should lower prices. They complained he was holding out on them. They accused him of being a monopolist. They were desperate and wanted to get even.

But how could he stop what had begun so long ago, the code by which he lived?  A work ethic passed overseas from grandfather to father and now to him, profit was as natural to Stu Wirth as the sign of the cross was to his wife.

He bought so much flour, it filled three rooms to the ceiling. The more he bought, the faster his heart raced, the less he slept. He added a night watchman to sit beside the barrels, a young boy to sweep twice a day. He brought a stray cat upstairs and gave her bowls of milk because he hoped if there were mice the cat would catch them.

Each night before retiring, Stu Wirth personally made rounds through his supply rooms, his eyes half-closed behind the golden rims of his glasses. He was concentrating, counting. Wirth ran his hand over the flour sacs to be sure there were no split seams or tears. He checked corners, watched for insects. He was a diligent man. 

He was also cautious. Wirth walked out to the sidewalk and locked the wrought-iron gates at the front of his store. The second siren had sounded. It was Monday afternoon and all was suddenly too quiet.

Matty knew what the alarms meant. Two sirens signaled the beginning. She’d heard talk in the park yesterday while walking with Bean. To Wirth’s was the plan. Her husband was now the enemy.

Matty crossed herself too often. This embarrassed her and she tried to hide it. When she touched her forehead–Father–she pretended to brush her hair to one side. When touching her chest–Son–she fixed her blouse. Left then right shoulder–Holy Ghost–well, all she could do was turn away from the window and hope her husband was talking to an employee or busy in his storerooms. He didn’t approve.

When she saw the shadow creeping down Broadway, that long dark splotch, like ink spreading, Matty crossed herself again.

Always, she crossed herself before feeding Bean. Closed her eyes too. Actually, Matty was opening her eyes, but to another place. If she stayed present in that chair it would have been excruciating.  She was skin and bones. Times were tough for everyone. Matty wasn’t the only one who went to bed hungry. Although Bean was too old, it was useful and efficient to nurse her. Who would have thought food would be so difficult to come by?  

There’s really no explaining why Stu Wirth held onto all that flour when his own family was desperate with hunger.

Matty knew her daughter’s hunger. She held her, stroked her in daylight and under the cover of night. She felt Bean’s body heaving, gobbling. The weight of Bean’s body pressing helped ease Matty’s own hunger temporarily. Her daughter’s weight gave her shape. When feeling was slipping away from Matty, Bean helped her mother remain aware of herself.  Bean pushed Matty’s back against Papa-Stu’s chair until Matty felt the knobs of her own spine. Bean’s weight on her lap brought the heat from the chair to the backs of Matty’s thighs. Without Bean, Matty feared she might float away.

You could read it in Matty’s eyes and on her skin. She had lost not only weight, she had lost substance.

There was a time when Matty loved plants. She kept a shelf of purple pansies in the sun on Mrs. Hooper’s landing. When she moved into the bedroom on Dey, Matty’s pansies shriveled. The apartment’s floors became littered with dust then, Bean’s jumper stained. Hunger was no longer a thing to be held back. It had moved in, and all that Matty had been moved out. Matty no longer showed interest. Her skin lost color. 

Bean attached herself first to one breast then the other. She latched onto her mother and drew from her all she could. As if her mother were her own private well, Bean dipped lower each time with no thought of running out.

Bean didn’t breathe through her nose or mouth, she breathed through both at the same time. It was a wet breath, a bubbling, gurgling breath. This sound was unique to Bean, a part of her like feathers flapping belongs to a bird.

While Bean drank, Matty whispered to her. Having someone to tell, that’s what mattered.

Matty told Bean about the bakery where she’d met Papa-Stu. It was a storefront and when she walked through that door each morning, she walked into heaven, she said. As if in some underneath part of herself she had known what would be taken from her one day, she breathed that bakery’s air deeply, completely. She invited it to fill her for the future. The warm smells of breads baking, buns and cakes, ingredients like molasses and cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Dark and rich, mysterious smells.

Then one day there was a new clerk. His brother had brought him from the Black Forest near Darmstadt. He couldn’t speak English yet, but he would learn, his brother promised. And, could he bake!  He made sticky buns and Lazy Daisy cakes, pineapple upside-down tarts. He taught Matty how to bake date-and-nut bread. He gave her a taste each time he pulled something from the ovens. He fed her from his hands, came back to wipe a dab of flour he’d left on her cheek.

It was so easy to bake in those days. But Papa-Stu’s English improved quickly and he found a better paying job managing a grocery on Seventh.  Matty married him and they moved away from the bakery.  Just like that, he gave up baking. And soon all that was left of the good smells of bread and cake existed only in Matty’s memory.

Neither Stu nor Matty could bake any more. If asked why, they wouldn’t have been able to answer. Put simply, when their oven broke, they didn’t fix it.

Truth is, over the years, the flour her husband had stored in his back rooms had become a commodity rather than a food. He no longer thought of it as anything that could feed or nourish. For Stu, the flour had become a number:  how many barrels, how many sacs.

For Matty, the memories she had stored in the back of her mind had become like food. Telling stories to Bean, she felt full. 

But as Matty whispered, Bean’s eyes were floating side to side. What were they tracking?  She was somewhere else. She was on the brink of speaking, saying something, anything. The only thing certain was that it would be unrelated. Because Bean wasn’t listening to Matty. She hadn’t heard a word she’d said. Bean was worrying a mark on her skin, the tear in her jumper. Bean was studying her own reflection in the window.

Then Bean began to bite her mother. She bit hard enough to leave marks. Matty thought it might be the stories, and she was careful to speak quieter, to keep her words kind. But eventually, Matty figured out that it had nothing to do with what she said. It was her milk. When the milk didn’t flow fast enough, Bean felt frustrated and she bit down.

There were times she bit so deeply Bean came away with tiny flecks of her mother’s flesh in her mouth.

Matty gasped. She would never be used to the sharp sting of her daughter’s bite. And her neck snapped back, away from the child, as if her face had been slapped hard and unexpectedly.

As pain does, it threw her into another place–outside that window and onto the street. And this is how Matty imagined herself one with the rioters as they left the park that day. 

“No food!” they cried.

No food! she cried silently while Bean burped and turned to her other side, sleeping now.

The mob moved like flood water, dark and unstoppable, down Broadway then Cortlandt Street to Washington. They met a posse of police at the end of Dey. Although the group wasn’t large yet, they were fired up and rushed at the police. They managed to disarm them, pulling clubs from their hands, breaking these into small pieces, then pelting the officers with an arsenal of bricks and stones.

The mayor!  On the steps in front of Wirth’s stood the mayor who tried to reason with the gathering crowd. But this was futile. There was such fire in their eyes fueled by hunger in their bellies. They were convinced they’d been wronged, and Wirth was the culprit. The mayor’s speech was met with “boo’s” and throwing of hard objects, such that he quickly took cover and left the crowd to multiply.

At this point, Wirth himself ran to the front gate, his fingers frantically pressing on the bolt, trying to lower this behind the lock. On the other side people were yelling and lifting the bolt so that he couldn’t fit it in place. No one recognized him. If they had, there would have been no delaying them. Back and forth they struggled. Wirth’s fingers were sweating and slipping. It was him on one side and hundreds now on the other. Together the rioters dislodged the bolt until Wirth understood it was a losing battle. One man can’t fight so many.

Emboldened in the heat of each other’s desire, the group rushed the gate. The police were pushed forward. They became part of the force used to break through the store’s wrought iron. When they still couldn’t break through, three men ordered the others to stand back. Stu stood away from the gates at the foot of the steps. The three lifted the middle gate from its hinges. The crowd watched as they stumbled, trying to balance. Wielding the gate forward and back above all those heads, with a running start and cheering behind them, they used the gate to ram through the other two.

The mob rushed the stairs and knocked down the upper door.  A wave of people chanting, “Eight dollars a barrel!” invaded Stu Wirth’s counting room. They tore his papers, kicked his receipt boxes until they spilled, tossed ledger books to the floor.

 One after another, Crash!, Bang!, they broke his windows with their fists.

The shouts of the crowd and glass shattering woke Bean.

 “The soldiers are coming!”  

Bean began whistling.

Boots clicking, the National Guards from Colonel Smith’s and Hele’s regiments marched up Dey.

Bean latched onto Matty.

Soldiers issued commands outside the window. In a long line they marched.

Matty wrapped herself around Bean.

The first barrel was lifted to the sill in the upper room of her husband’s offices.

But Matty was weak, fading in and out. Her arms shook and she couldn’t hold on.

The barrel was pushed through the gaping hole where window used to be.

Bean sucked but her mother’s breasts were dry.

The flour-filled barrel teetered on the edge, turned, and tumbled in the air. It began its spiral down.

Like thousands of individual stalks of wheat blown east by a convincing wind, the crowd swayed. Matty watched the drama as they leaned ninety-degrees back in deference to the barrel. Then she slumped in the chair and everything went dark as midnight.

Bean’s whistle reached above the boots clacking and guns drilling. She whistled even higher as she climbed from her mother’s lap and left Papa-Stu’s chair. Bean screamed then slammed the door behind her just as a tremendous thud, the first of many heard that night, rocked the sidewalk.

It was a different world on Dey street. Flour had spilled from that barrel and  landed everywhere.  Like frosting on a cake, everything and everyone was coated white. On the sidewalk and lining the street, there were huge mounds of flour, like snow accumulated in a blizzard. Flour hung in the air.

More barrels were rolled through the upper windows. Sacs of flour followed. One, two, three, four. Forty. Four hundred. They fired through the empty window holes, splitting mid-air and raining flour down on the crowd. Hundreds of barrels, thousands of sacs were stolen that night. Robin-Hood rioters released a flood of flour onto the street.

Word spread and women in rags were wandering now, carrying baskets. Others knelt. Barrels rolled down the street, crashed and broke, littering the sidewalk with heaps of flour, the barrels open like hands offering. What had been scarce was now available in abundance. Women made sacs of the aprons they wore, pouring the free flour inside to bring home. People scooped flour with trembling hands. There was a joyfulness, giddiness. Fullness!  It was fleeting. Soon there would be none. But for this moment flour was plentiful.

 Bean pushed through the crowded street, her round face in contrast to the many gaunt silhouettes surrounding her. Her feet were bare, her black hair flying. She pushed and kicked, sometimes batted at those in her way. This is how Bean arrived in her father’s storeroom, flour like glue stuck to her perspired skin.

“What?” she cried, when she found the rooms emptied.

No more barrels, no more sacs. Just the remnants of papers strewn across the floor. And the hollowness of his empty storerooms.

“Where?” she cried because she’d expected it to be the way it had been. 

Her eyes slid left and right. Like tiny silver balls in a child’s game, they rocked a full minute. Until she began whistling. Her tea-kettle whistle almost at a boil, Bean ran the perimeter of the counting room. Then she ran it again.

When Matty woke, she was alone. She lifted herself,  summoned enough strength to follow Bean. But she was weak and the crowded streets were like blockades. She couldn’t see her way through all of those people. Frantic, she stumbled forward.

“Bean!” she called.

It was a desperate, from-the-gut call. Because Dey Street felt like a foreign country to her. Neighbors, the landscape, nothing was recognizable since Matty had lost her daughter, the child who’d been attached to her for eight years.

“Bean!!”

People seemed taller, their legs longer, boots heavier. Bean could be trampled. 

Flour whipped around Matty. It struck her skin in clumps and stung. The riot was like a storm, a great blizzard, the flour hail. Matty’s heart beat so fast, searching.

“Bean!!!”

The sound that issued forth from her surprised Matty. It was deep, animal-like. This, she knew, was her mother-sound.

All around her, people were being arrested and sent to Bridewell. The police were succeeding in breaking up the crowd. They would arrest as many as they could that day. The streets were a mess. Police and rioters were beaten. People clashed. They fought. Clothes were torn from bodies. And still Matty couldn’t find Bean.

Finally, someone shouted “Meech!”   This was Wirth’s competitor on the East River at Coenties Slip. Others took up the call:  “Meech!  Meech!” 

There was talk of stopping at Herrick’s to destroy his barrels, too.

And, as the crowd turned its attention from Wirth to Meech and Herrick, and the tide on the street switched direction, Matty was pulled and nudged from the sidewalk.

There was something unusual then:  a person out of sync. As if from another time or place, a woman stood on the sidewalk beside Matty. She seemed separate from the chaos, as if she hadn’t come from it and was perhaps oblivious to it. 

Matty lost balance.

 “Excuse me,” she whispered to Matty. In her voice was the voice of those Matty had known before–her mother, grandmother, Stu when he’d just arrived from Darmstadt, Matty when she was newborn.

Her hair was white, her eyebrows and lashes too. Flour coated her so she was entirely white, head to toe.   The woman extended her hand. And it was the most beautiful hand Matty had ever seen. Pure white nails and fingers, a palm that curved like the shade of a country road, and the most heartbreaking, delicate white wrist.

She leaned closer to Matty, wiped a dab of flour from her cheek.

She tried to steady Matty and it hurt. The woman was neither rough nor careless. Matty was afraid she would break down, cry in the middle of this chaotic street, it had been so long since she had felt such kindness.

“Let me help you,” the woman said.

But her comment was out of order. Because Matty hadn’t yet slipped. It wasn’t until after the woman’s offer that Matty fell.

Lying flat on the ground, when Matty looked up into that sea of people, she realized she was totally alone. She crossed herself. Father, Son–  At the same time, above her head one last barrel heavy with flour rolled over the ledge.

Stu Wirth lost everything that night, all he had bought and counted for so many years. The barrels he had climbed, sacs he had minded. All that had been his was now gone. Had he looked down to the street afterward, he would have seen flour dirty like day-old snow. Broken barrel pieces and shredded sacs littered the sidewalks. His night guard and young sweeper sat, sweated and exhausted, beside the broken gates.

Had he looked from Broadway back to Dey he would have found her. Because there was his wife, or the indent where she had been. Matty was buried beneath one of his own flour barrels.  

He never saw her, though. He didn’t look. Instead, Stu Wirth turned the corner in back of his tall office. Because on the floor of his now empty storeroom, Bean crouched over the cat’s bowl. It was just the two of them, Papa-Stu and his daughter. The day was fading, the air speckled with dusk. Stu heard a slight whistle from below. Bean looked up at him, then went back to the business of the cat’s bowl. Hurriedly, she lapped up the cat’s last drops of milk.

 

Jill Birdsall’s work appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, Ascent, Crazyhorse, Emerson Review, Gargoyle, Iowa Review, Kansas Quarterly Review, Northwest Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review and Story Quarterly. Read Jill’s Gertrude Stein Award winning story “Salvage” in Eckleburg No. 18.

 

Jill Birdsall

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