Book excerpt: 'Mercy Street'
By Jennifer Haigh
It’s hard to know, ever, where a story begins. We touch down in a world fully inhabited by others, a drama already in progress. By the time we make our entrance—incontinent and screaming, like dirty bombs detonating—the climax is a distant memory. Our arrival is not the beginning; it is a consequence.
The starting point is arbitrary. When Claudia looks back on that winter (as New Englanders can’t help doing), the days fuse together in her memory: the weak light fading early, salt trucks clattering down the avenues, a bitter wind slicing through her coat. She had no sense, at the time, of forces aligning, a chain of events set into motion.
Like everyone else, she was distracted by the snow.
The season had arrived late, like a querulous old man who refused to be rushed. The first weeks of January were arid and silent, bare pavement and short blue afternoons, a blinding glare off the harbor, seagulls diving in the slanted winter sun. Then a massive nor’easter roared up the coast, spinning and kicking like a kung fu fighter. A foot of snow fell overnight. Schools were closed, flights grounded, entire neighborhoods without power. The clinic’s waiting room was empty, Mercy Street nearly impassable.
Three days later, the second storm hit.
Snow and more snow. With each passing week, the sidewalks narrowed. Pedestrians walked single file, stepping carefully. Parking spaces shrank and eventually disappeared, replaced by towering piles of snow.
On a frigid Wednesday morning in mid-February, a crowd gathered in front of the clinic, their backs to Mercy Street. Claudia stood at a second-floor window in the staff kitchen, counting heads.
“Thirty-six,” she said.
Seen from above, the group looked organized. They stood in concentric circles like the growth rings of a tree. In the center were the professionals—Archdiocesan priests in slick nylon dress slacks, a few monks from the Franciscan monastery in New Bedford, the tails of their brown robes peeking out from beneath winter coats. In the outer rings were the regular people, holding rosary beads or carrying signs. They had come straight from church, their foreheads marked with dark soot. Like gunshot victims, Claudia thought. That morning, riding the MBTA train to work, she’d seen a lot of dirty foreheads. In Boston—still, despite recent events, the most Catholic city in America—Ash Wednesday could not be ignored.
Mary Fahey, the intake nurse, joined her at the window. “For Ash Wednesday, that’s not so impressive. Last year we had twice that many.”
Claudia said, “It must be the snow.”
The staff kitchen was small and cluttered, a fresh pot of coffee brewing. The television was tuned to NECN, the New England Cable Network. Winter was the top story—the snowiest in 364 years, which was roughly how long people had been complaining about the weather here. Another storm was on the way, a low-pressure system forming in the Caribbean. Batten down the hatches, folks. It’s another monstah nor’eastah. The weatherman, a shovel-faced man in an ill-fitting sports coat, couldn’t hide his glee.
“Did you count those guys in back?” Mary asked. “Behind Puffy.”
A few lurkers stood at the margins, staring at cell phones like bored strangers at a bus stop. Whether they were protestors or indifferent bystanders was impossible to say.
“No,” said Claudia. “I wasn’t sure about them.”
Thirty-six, she felt, was a sizable number. In their bulky coats they might have been carrying anything. There were twelve staff working at the clinic—except for Luis the security guard, all female, all unarmed.
She studied the foreheads. The significance of the ritual was a little murky. The idea, apparently, was to remind the faithful of their mortality—as though anyone could possibly need that. How it all ended was a poorly kept secret. Spoilers were everywhere.
Thirty-six was a sizable number. And anyway, it only took one.
A monstah nor’eastah. It was that year’s accepted usage, the agreed-upon nomenclature. In the winter of 2015, in Boston, a storm couldn’t be called severe or powerful or even wicked. By Ash Wednesday, the season had been branded. Another Monster Nor’easter™ was on its way.
Mercy Street is barely a street. It spans a single block southeast of Boston Common, in a part of town once known as the Combat Zone. Long ago this was the city’s red-light district, a dark, congested neighborhood of taverns and massage parlors, peep shows and skin flicks, twentieth-century perversions that now seem quaint as corsets. Prostitutes loitered in front of Good Time Charlie’s, calling out to the men in uniform, sailors on shore leave from Charlestown Navy Yard.
They’re all gone now—the girls, the sailors. Over the years, the neighborhood has gentrified. By all appearances, combat has ceased. After the Navy Yard closed, the dive bars were razed, crumbling streets repaved. The porn theaters hung on a few more years, until the digital age finished them off completely. Now lonely men stay home to masturbate in front of computers, a win for technology. There’s no longer any reason to leave the house.
Sex left the Combat Zone. Then the builders came. The new erections were office towers, parking garages, commercial space for shops and restaurants, easily accessible by the Chinatown and Downtown Crossing T stops. When they leased the building, the clinic’s board of directors—a thousand miles away, in Chicago—had never heard of the Combat Zone. Completely by accident, they made a poetic choice.
The clinic is a member of Wellways LLC—a small but growing network of detox centers, drug-testing labs, and women’s and mental health clinics, in eighteen states and the District of Columbia. Of these, the labs are the real moneymakers. Though technically a nonprofit, Wellways is a major player in the urine business.
Drug addiction and alcoholism, depression and anxiety, accidental pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. These conditions are believed to share a common etiology, the failure of virtue. Whatever their diagnosis, all Wellways patients have this in common: their troubles are seen to be, in part or in full, their own goddamn fault.
Hanging above the clinic’s front door is a wooden sign, painted blue and lemon yellow: WOMEN’S OPTIONS, a name no one uses. In Boston it is known, simply, as Mercy Street.
From Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh. Copyright 2022 Jennifer Haigh. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.
This segment aired on February 3, 2022.