Today's Reading

Handing Finn the starting gun, I grabbed the field glasses that hung from my neck and lifted them to my eyes. My sights landed first on the flotilla of bobbing watercraft that had come out to watch the Independence Day race, some decked out in green in support of Simon Shaw's Wieran Club, others waving the yellow flag of Dan Oakley's club from the adjoining assembly district. I aimed a little lower, sweeping across a peeling tugboat and a stretch of open, roiling water, until a magnified Simon suddenly popped into view. I jumped—and then, with a twinge of voyeuristic guilt, adjusted the knob to bring his features into clearer focus.

Simon was sitting in the stroke seat, setting the pace for the lads behind him. I could clearly see the determination on his sun-bronzed face, and the contraction of his muscles with each pull of his oar. The team had been practicing for several weeks, and Simon's already well-tempered physique had only improved with use. I dipped the glasses slightly to follow the sculpted lines of his shoulders and biceps, and immediately wished I hadn't. The sight sent a familiar flutter through my belly that I, in what seemed to have become a regular practice, tried vainly to ignore.

I dropped the glasses to my chest. Barely a day went by that I didn't think of the kiss I'd shared with Simon the previous winter, after he helped absolve my patient of murder. To tell the truth, I'd been more or less waiting since then for him to take things up where we'd left off. But over the past six months, he hadn't so much as pecked me on the cheek. At first, I'd assumed he was just being discreet. After that memorable kiss, we'd agreed to continue exploring our feelings for each other despite the difference in our stations, trusting that, with time, we could overcome the prejudices against us. But we'd never articulated a strategy for accomplishing this feat, or discussed what our individual expectations might be. I knew that Simon, who'd once been my family's stable boy, was acutely conscious of the differences in our upbringings, and had concluded that he was avoiding public displays of affection out of respect for what he believed was my own sense of decorum.

When he proved equally chaste during our few private moments together, I'd decided instead that he was being chivalrous, remembering how I'd thrown myself at him in the stable all those years ago and not trusting me now to know my own mind or body. Embarrassing as this possibility was, I preferred it to believing he wasn't attracted to me. But as months continued to roll past without the smallest amorous advance, this explanation too was growing thin.

A drunken shout brought me back to the present. I raised the field glasses and scanned the florid faces of the spectators along the riverbank, trying to gauge the general level of inebriation and the corresponding likelihood that my services would be required. Although my interest and advanced training were in neurology and mental therapy, this wasn't the first time Simon had recruited me to tend to the bodily injuries of his constituents. As a Tammany captain responsible for delivering votes to his party's candidates, Simon was a sort of perpetual Santa Claus to the residents of his election district, providing them with whatever assistance they needed. I'd resisted his requests for medical help at first, thinking a general practitioner would be more qualified for the job. But as doctors had turned out to be scarcer than fur coats in the local immigrant neighborhoods, I'd become unexpectedly adept at stitching bashed skulls and bandaging bleeding knuckles. Today, my medical bag was stuffed with arnica and alum powder and catgut, just in case.

"Come on, Doc," urged Finn, grabbing my elbow. The spectators were streaming up the bank away from the pier, cutting through the adjacent stone yard and the produce stands of the Harlem Market to follow the boats upriver. Finn, who as the eldest of the Wieran Club boys had been saddled with my care by Simon, was clearly eager to be among them.

I picked up my bag and we joined the moving throng, staying as close to the bank as possible to keep the race in view. I watched with a shudder as a trio of half-naked boys jumped off the sewer pipe at 102nd Street and swam toward the boats with gurgling whoops of excitement, undeterred by either the clumps of sewage or the giant water rats that bobbed along beside them. The Oakley boat reached them first, rowing at a higher cadence than the Wieran boat, which was almost two seats behind. I heard unhappy muttering from a group of men sporting green Wieran flags and hoped there wouldn't be trouble. The rivalry between the two clubs had a long and contentious history. The day before, one of Simon's rowers had injured his hand at the bottling factory where he worked, causing some Wieran supporters to question why his machine had just happened to break after he took over another worker's shift. Luckily, the boy's injury hadn't prevented him from taking part in the race, which kept the grumbling from erupting into something ugly. Knowing how many bets had been laid, however, and how much beer was flowing along the twenty-block stretch of the course, I didn't trust the peace to last.
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