Read an excerpt of Mary Pat Kelly’s Of Irish Blood, publishing February 3rd.
June 23, 1903
“We’ll have to run for it, Ag.” I can see Johnny Murphy forcing his old nags into the traffic on Archer Avenue. Miss the horse tram and I’ll be late for work— again—and my niece Agnella for class at St. Xavier’s High School.
“Come on,” I say to her.
“Oh, Aunt Nonie. He’s pulled away from our stop. We’ll never catch up,” she says, panting.
“Ah, now,” I shout, “what God has for ye won’t go past ye,” imitating my Granny Honora’s brogue. I start running.
“You shouldn’t make fun, Aunt Nonie!” Agnella says, but begins trotting along beside me. One block left to Archer and Arch, where the brown brick bulk of St. Bridget’s chides us. Should have left earlier.
Full summer now and the sun, finally serious about Chicago, turning our few trees green. A warm breeze too but from the west. So all clogged with the smell of the Stockyards.
Now Agnella and I pound along faster. I’m too old and too corseted to be running hell for leather through the neighborhood, as I’ll be told by somebody I’m sure. Maybe my hobble skirt’s a bit too tight around the ankles. Fashionable though. We’re almost to Archer Avenue. I’m twenty-four, Agnella’s fourteen, but she’s already up to my shoulder. Her pleated black serge school uniform makes for easy running. Another tall Kelly woman. Though she’s a blue- eyed blonde, and I have ginger hair and greenish eyes.
Johnny Murphy, the driver, sees us. I wave, but what does the amadán do but slap the reins on his swaybacked horses, making good his threat of yesterday morning. “I’ve my schedule, Miss Nora Kelly, and I can’t be waiting for you every day.” Leaving us, when it’s not my fault we’re late.
A big row at the breakfast table started by my sister Henrietta, Agnella’s mother. Some nonsense about my not wringing out my shift properly and who but her had to wipe up the drips on the bathroom floor. You’d think she’d be grateful we have an indoor privy— all thanks to our big brother Mike, the master plumber. Henrietta railed on about me to poor Mike, who was trying to enjoy a second cup of coffee before heading to his job site. Supervisor now. Doesn’t have to go out at the crack of dawn like my other brother Mart, who meets the fellows delivering newspapers to the little candy store Mike bought for him. Or James the youngest boy, who works for the railroad. My sister Annie’s out early too. A policewoman, if you could feature it, but then we’re four years into the twentieth century and we women are coming into our own, though Henrietta’s too busy feeling sorry for herself to see any opportunity. Not easy for her, widowed at twenty- one from a husband called Kelly, would you believe? She and her three children having to move back in with the family. Still that was years ago. Mam spoke up for me at breakfast but Henrietta got all offended and asked Mam didn’t she appreciate her and the way she runs the house and maybe she should leave and take the children with her though how they’d survive, she didn’t know. And that stopped Mam because it’s looking as if Henrietta’s kids might be the only grandchildren she’ll ever know, what with Mike coming up to forty already and not married, and the rest of us four stair- steps the same.
Only my brother Edward has a wife, and they live away in Indiana with her people. Mam always says her greatest sorrow is that her own mother back in Ireland never knew any of us. And Granny Honora had agreed. Bad enough to have to say farewell to your children but to never set eyes on grandchildren . . .
I remember Mam talking to Granny Honora right before Granny died, the two of them wondering why we didn’t find mates when even in the worst times in Ireland and the early days in Chicago people couldn’t wait to pair up. Better chance with two working together, Mam said, and now with plenty of good jobs going and her children blessed with work, they stayed clustered at home.
Granny said, “Ah well, maybe they’re only taking their time. I’d say young Honora won’t be lollygagging.”
But that was then. Granny’s gone four years now and me still not married. Granny was the only one called me Honora. Named after her. But I was always Nora in school, and Nonie in the family, which seemed right because she, Granny, was the true Honora Kelly. Henrietta held my name against me. Said she should’ve been called after Granny. “You carry the name of two women who helped this family,” Granny had told her which shut Henrietta up. Still, there’d be no bickering at the breakfast table if Granny Honora were still alive.
Nor would we be rushing out at the last minute and have to run for our lives to catch Johnny Murphy.
“Johnny!” I shout. He’s trying to maneuver the tram past—of all things— a Model T Ford bumping along leading the parade. Rare enough in Bridgeport. I’m trying to talk Mike into getting an auto. Now that would be the bee’s knees.
“Wait! Wait!” I yell.
So close now— if I can get a grip on that pole— I stretch out my right hand, pulling Agnella along with my left. Suddenly I’m flying, swinging up onto the platform with Agnella beside me, just like that. And each of us held by one big hand of this fellow. Now I stumble into to him and doesn’t he hug me to himself, laughing.
And that starts it, God forgive me. A kind of enchantment. In Granny Honora’s stories, women in Ireland are whisked off to fairyland where they dance and feast through the night, only to come home the next morning to find a century has passed. Is that what’s happening to me?
“Thank you,” I say when I get my breath. Agnella and I stare at this giant of a fellow. She nods and hurries toward the back of the car, but I smile right into his face. “One in the eye for Johnny Murphy,” I say, “but I’d best pay my fare now.”
“No, no,” he says. “All taken care of. When I saw you and your sister . . .”
“Niece, then— but the both of you running flat out, you reminded me of this game filly I own who can’t bear to lose so I had to lend a hand.”
“Game filly? A horse?” I say, ready to get mad but he laughs again and raises his straw boater hat. Wearing one of those new cream- colored suits that show the dirt.
“I’m Tim McShane, miss. Or is it missus?”
“Miss,” I say, “Miss Nora Kelly,” and stick out my hand. And doesn’t he take it in both of his and wink at me. Much too bold for the Archer Avenue tram at eight in the morning with every eye on us.
I pull my hand away and walk back to where Agnella waits with our friends Rose and Mame McCabe in the seats they save for us every morning since they board the tram earlier at the Brighton Park stop near where they live in a boarding house run by my Aunt Kate. The sisters work with me at Montgomery Ward, telephone operators too, taking orders for the catalog, the three of us, which my sister Henrietta finds suspect.
“Nattering away to strangers all day? Not what I’d call proper.” But my brother Mike loves to get us telling stories about the orders we get. He calls us “the Trio”— me the oldest at twenty- four. Rose with her big hazel eyes and round, sweet face is twenty- two. Mame’s just twenty- one but regal somehow— dark eyes, high cheekbones, straight nose . . . mine turns up a bit. All of us old to be unmarried, as Henrietta reminds me often. “Old maids, the lot of you,” she’ll say to me.
“Better than being a crabbed widow like you,” I say back to her. Cruel, I know, but that tongue of hers sets me off before I even realize it.
Henrietta loves to tear down the McCabes. Jealous because we three are always so well turned out thanks to Rose’s skill as a seamstress. Any outfit I can draw Rose can make. Mame’s wearing one of mine now— deep brown skirt with a burnt- orange fitted jacket. Though Rose copied her own navy blue cotton from Woman’s Home Companion. I had offered to design a dress for Henrietta that Rose would sew. She’d only laughed.
But now both McCabes shake their heads at me. Rose clicks her tongue. “Oh, Nonie,” Rose says. “That’s Tim McShane.”
“I know,” I say. “He introduced himself.”
“No decent woman in Brighton Park would even speak to him.” Agnella nods along with Rose and then Mame speaks up.
“He is a bit of a bad hat, Nonie. Trains race horses at the track in the Park.”
“So? What’s wrong with that? Mike and my cousin Ed go to the track all the time.”
“But they don’t spend their time with gangsters. They say Tim McShane does all kinds of things to the horses to make them win,” Mame says.
“Or lose,” Rose puts in. “And he’s Dolly McKee’s fancy man.”
“The singer, Dolly McKee? But she must be years older than he is,” I say.
I was twelve years old the first time Mam took me to the McVicker’s Theatre to see Dolly McKee perform and Dolly wasn’t young then. Still gorgeous though up there under the spotlight in that sparkly dress, singing “Love’s Old Sweet Song” with Mam crying next to me thinking of my father, who died so young. Still able to fill a theater all these years later is Dolly McKee, and living like a queen in the Palmer House. So she picked out Tim McShane. Interesting.
“Dolly is always at the track, and they say she owns the horses Tim trains. Took up with him years ago,” Rose goes on.
“You two have his seed, breed, and generation,” I say. “Why haven’t you talked about him before?”
“There’s a new boarder come to Aunt Kate’s who works at the track. A little runt of a Cavan fellow. He’s been telling us all about Tim McShane,” Mame says.
“And now he’s very kindly rescued Ag and me. I wonder, did I thank him properly?” I stand up but Ag and Rose pull me down.
“Maybe I’ll ask him for tickets to Dolly’s show,” I say.
“Oh, Nonie! You wouldn’t!” Rose says.
“Not like you two to be so skittery,” I say.
“A man to stay away from,” Mame says. “According to the little Cavan fellow.”
“Look there, he’s getting off anyway,” Rose says.
The tram stops at LaSalle right near the new City Hall. Tim McShane steps off then looks up to see the four of us pressed against the window. He tips his hat and gives a half bow. The McCabes and Ag lean back, but I wave at Tim McShane and incline my head. He smiles. Oh!
And, of course, our supervisor Miss Allen is annoyed as the three of us come sliding into our chairs and clap the headphones over our ears just as the nine o’clock start bell rings. Mad at us for cutting the time so close and madder still that we’d made it and she couldn’t scold us. Not a bad sort really, Miss Allen, but not from Chicago, unmarried, no family here, a neat, well-dressed woman. Devoted to the company.
“You are Montgomery Ward to the world,” she says to us now as she does every morning. “Your voice, your diction, your cool professional manner creates confidence in our customers. They need to trust you.”
I take out the dog- eared script she’s written for us and begin. Twenty of us in a long row push the plugs into the switchboard, then say in the clear, unaccented voice that Miss Allen demands, “Good morning. I am a Montgomery Ward operator, ready to take your order.” No deviation, as Miss Allen walks along behind us, listening.
We start together. The Good- Morning Chorus, Rose calls us, but with each call and order the pace changes. “What sizes? What colors? How many?” we ask.
“How much?” they come back. “How long before my order gets there?” Men mostly.
My first caller’s new to the telephone. I imagine him standing next to the cracker barrel at a country store, shouting into the round black receiver. Had to be heard in Chicago, after all. He repeats his name and address twice, sure I wouldn’t get it right the first time.
“I’ll send your seeds out COD on the next train,” I say to him three times.
“Nora,” Miss Allen says to me, “keep it short.”
My voice tangles with the others as words twist up and down the rows.
Miss Allen moves to the other end of the row and I hear Mame, beside me, say, “Thank God your wheat is growing well!” She pauses and then says, “Yes, rain is a blessing. Though when I was a little girl in Ireland I thought God blessed us too well!” Another pause. “Oh, Sweden?
How lovely. We have a large community of Swedish people living right here in Chicago. My sister and I buy the best rye bread there.” A pause, then, “Your wife makes rye? Wonderful,” and, “Yes, please send me the recipe. Address it to . . .”
Rose hisses at Mame but it’s too late. Miss Allen is standing behind them.
“Not again, Miss McCabe! How many times do I have to tell you, we do not engage the customers in private conversation?” Miss Allen leans over Mame and speaks right into the telephone: “Thank you, sir, for your order . . . Yes, I’ll tell the sweet little Irish girl.” She chomps out the words. Mame still has a hint of the lilt that came with her across the ocean.
Miss Allen ends the call, turns to Mame. “That’s it, Miss McCabe! You have been warned innumerable times. Now come with me to Mr. Bartlett’s office. You are fired.”
Rose stands up. “She was only being nice, Miss Allen.”
“You are here to take orders, not to be nice.”
I get up then.
“Now, Miss Allen, be honest. Doesn’t Mame get bigger orders than any of us? The customer starts talking and remembers something else he wants to buy.”
“That’s true, Miss Allen,” Mame says. “Why, yesterday this fellow had completely forgotten his wedding anniversary until I asked him how he met his wife and then . . .”
“You what?” Miss Allen says. “This is beyond anything I can even imagine!”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Miss Allen,” I say. “I chat a bit, too, if the customer is willing. So what?”
“Time, Miss Kelly. Time and money. Come with me, Miss McCabe.”
“If you’re firing her, better fire me too,” I say.
Rose has already taken off her headset.
“And me,” she says.
The switchboard buzzes away, but no one is answering the calls. Every one of the girls is watching and listening to us.
I remember my great- uncle Patrick’s story of the strike he led of the fellows digging the Illinois and Michigan Canal and wonder if I say, “Girls, rise up!,” will they follow me?
Mame smiles at Miss Allen.
“I know why you’re upset with me,” she says. “You think I’m being disrespectful, that I ignore all your teachings and don’t deserve the money Mr. Ward pays me. But say that fellow does send his wife’s recipe to me, and I maybe write a note saying thanks. Wouldn’t he be more likely to think of Ward’s instead of Sears when he wants a new tractor?”
“That’s beside the point,” Miss Allen says.
She realizes the rest of the girls are ignoring the ringing phones. “Girls! Man your stations!” she shouts, and the “Good morning”s start up.
“Mame won’t do it again,” Rose says.
“Why not?” I say. “Miss Allen, take all three of us to Mr. Bartlett. You make your case, and we’ll make ours.”
Just then Josie Schmidt calls out from the end of the row. “I’ve a man here wants to give his order to the Irish girl who spoke to him in Polish.
He and three other farmers have pitched in to buy a harvester, and he wants . . .”
“Tell him she doesn’t work here anymore,” I shout back.
Miss Allen doesn’t like that one bit. “Go and take the order, Miss McCabe,” she says, and to us, “You two get back to work.”
Copyright © 2015 by Mary Pat KellyPre-order Of Irish Blood today: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books A Million | iBooks | IndieBound | Powell's