I walk across this street exactly thirty-four times a day, dodging a dozen Brougham carriages, curricles, and Runabouts, carrying exactly twenty-two duffels of linens, thirteen wooden slat-crates of pewter dinnerware, and well over a hundred odd articles in need of cleaning or repair. Tad Bellingham’s rocking horse is the heaviest item in recent memory, and Mary Drader’s brass lapel pin with the New Orleans Greys flag is the smallest. Her grandpappy died in the Alamo, and the pin came from his coonskin cap. Or so she always says through a haze of tears. But then, heck, everyone’s grandpappy died in the Alamo these days, and it doesn’t seem like there were that many soldiers in the Siege, so there’s that niggling feeling when Mrs. Drader cries that maybe … just maybe … it’s simply a plain, old pin from nothing at all. But who am I to tell Mary Drader, daughter of an English earl and founder of The Ladies Sewing Circle of Baltimore, that her grandpappy never saw Day One of the Alamo? No one. I am no one to say that to her. My only job is to make that brass sparkle, and sparkle I make it.
I will never live among the richest families in Baltimore, but I know what it is to be among them, to see their fine pine balustrade staircases and their hand-carved mahogany hutches, to watch them wind their expensive music boxes and pick at the ruffles of their fancy dresses like they’re embarrassed that I’ve seen them wearing the frippery. I will wash that frippery clean a dozen times, in all its stages of embellishment, as it receives new sashes and fabric-covered buttons and lowered, raised, lowered, raised, lowered, lowered, lowered necklines as they go in and out of fashion—anything to let society think each iteration is an entirely new frock. I’ll show up without shame at the rear door in the same clothes I wore yesterday and each day before that, and I’ll collect those frocks and scrub them spotless in all their reincarnations.
Mary Drader particularly likes me to take her linens. She has an endless supply of them, that woman. Just as all the fine ladies of Baltimore, she prefers the linens scrubbed until they’re soft, never starched, as white as new snow, and folded very meticulously from corner to corner, then end to end, then corner to corner again. Unlike some laundresses and seamstresses, I’ve learned that the sun at noon will bleach out the darkest stains in wet fabric—that baking soda and borax dry too stiffly, vinegar leaves a potent stench, but hydrogen peroxide is virtually undetectable.
Jefferson Mooring particularly likes me to take his copper. He says I make it shine like no one else can. Lately, I’ve gotten his pewter, too, beating out Elizabeth Ward to take on the entire dinnerware collection of one of the most prominent families in Baltimore. I’ve learned, unlike some of the girls, that a mere kiss of lemon can scour the dullest copper pot to a brilliant luster worthy of kings and that a strange paste of flour, vinegar, and salt dried onto polished pewter will make it at least worthy of a king’s guests. Ma taught me all she learned from her antebellum aunts before they lost their home and belongings in the Reconstruction. What I do, I do well.
Today, I have to knock on a new door. I’ve heard from Baltimore’s gossipy laundresses that it is a hard door to knock upon, for the man behind it has a scowl that would curdle milk. I think I know what this means, but since I have only ever drunk curdled milk for the entirety of my life, this does not sink in as perhaps it should. When Mr. Bateman—the Mr. Enoch Bateman—opens his door, I am instantly scrutinized. My dark, black hair is too out of place here. Buoyant, yellow curls and fair, unblemished skin is the fashion. I am leathered from the sun, and I imagine he would not like that my high cheekbones and black eyes descend from the blood of the Mohegan and not from the breeding of a Yankee gentleman. He thinks me too scrawny, too unkempt. But there are things I have come to learn, and though his scowl is undoubtedly received by all the young maids who approach his elegant silver doorknocker, I know his scrutiny stems not from my scrawniness or my pockmarks, but rather … because I am a boy. A boy laboring at what Mr. Bateman considers woman’s work.
The disgust he shows me is surely the same disgust he shows all creatures, but there is different derision reserved for a boy resigned to what this man has decidedly deemed a station for women. Not even women: girls. Mr. Bateman thrusts a duffel of linens at me, certain I cannot possibly fold them corner to corner with any expertise. Next follows jangling pewter spoons crashing into my arms and a spavined copper cuspidor requiring polish to a shine. His smirk says he expects the thing never to shine again and gives me a cold good-luck. Then, there are coins, very few of them. Far too few of them. I’ll give the coins to Ma and abide the silent appraisal she’ll comb over the pitiful lot and then over her cheated son, just as I’ll abide Mr. Bateman’s silent glower that states plainly that a woman’s station is for a woman to learn; and it is for a man to learn a different place. Oh, I’ve learned—learned and rejected. He will not be so haughty when his linen is folded corner to corner, end to end, bleached with the wrath of the sun at high noon. He’ll not stand so tall in his station when his pewter gleams for kings’ guests, when his copper shines with the kiss of lemons.