Boston, February, 1882
Mary O’Cooney shivered as she strode away from the elegant Parker House Hotel into the winter night, her shoe leather and stockings already soaked through, coat and maid’s uniform wet at the hems. She had a mile farther to trudge to the two- room flat she shared with her da, Paddy O’Cooney. She grabbed a lamppost as her heel slid on treacherous ice. Steadied, she squinted up into the snowfall dimming the haloed light. White swirls would purify the city for a few hours before it slouched back to dirty grey. Sighing, she resumed walking.
Paddy’s payday fell exactly when their rent came due. She must beat him home, cook a hot stew to put in his stomach. Full and content, he’d give her something toward the rent before heading to the pub. Her da drank too much, usually with boisterous cronies. America hadn’t cured that. In truth, he imbibed every night, drinking up most of his laborer’s wages, leaving her to scrape together the rest for rent, food, and clothing.
If he went directly to the pub, his uneven tread on the stairs would later disrupt even the sleep of a hotel maid’s exhaustion. She shook her head, but guiltily tamped down resentment. She loved the warmth and fun of him for all his feckless ways. He’d had so much pain in his life, losing a beloved wife in Ireland to consumption and then his freedom-fighting son to a British hangman’s noose.
Mary’s footsteps crunched on the snow. As though conjured, a figure stepped out of the alleyway below the lamplight ahead. Gaunt to the point of spectral, the woman carried a bundle that might be an unnaturally still baby. She spoke Gaelic in a thin, urgent voice, holding out a dirty hand, sores visible on her arm below a ragged sleeve. Mary started. A ghost from the Great Hunger? No, just another Irish woman crushed by circumstances. Only about three paydays separated Mary from the other’s fate.