Every city is a ghost. New buildings rise upon the bones of the old so that each shiny steel beam, each tower of brick carries within it the memories of what has gone before, an architectural haunting. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of these former incarnations in the awkward angle of a street or a filigreed gate, an old oak door peeking out from a new facade, the plaque commemorating the spot that was once a battleground, which became a saloon and is now a park. Underground, it’s no different. Beneath the streets, this city grows. Tracks push farther out into Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Tunnels connect one place to another, closing the distance between impossible and possible. So many people to move. The city’s aspirations do not stop at ground level. The whine of the drill and the clank of the pickax serenade the workers as they clear out rock for a new subway tunnel. Sweat binds layers of dust to the men till it’s hard to tell where they leave off and the gloom begins. The drill bites away bedrock in small mouthfuls. It’s hard, tedious work. And then suddenly, they’re breaking through the rock too fast. “Watch it! Watch it, now!” A wall of earth drops away.
The men cough and cough, choking on the thick air. One of them, an Irish immigrant named Padraic, wipes a dirty forearm across his sweaty brow and peers into the large hole the drill has made. On the other side is a tall wrought-iron gate gone to rust, one of those ghosts of an earlier time. Padraic shines his flashlight through the gate’s bars, and the rusty coating brightens like the dried blood of an old wound. “I’ll be,” he says and grins at the others. “Might be somet’ing worth havin’ inside.” He tugs and the rusted gate shrieks open, and then the men are inside the dust-choked hole of a forgotten part of the city’s past. The Irishman whistles as his beam bounces around the tomblike room, revealing wooden panels grayed with cobwebs, tile mosaics obscured by layers of grime, a light fixture dangling precariously from a broken chain. A train car sits half-buried under a mountain of fallen dirt. Its wheels are silenced, but in the darkness, it’s almost as if the workers can hear the faint whine of metal on metal lingering in the preserved air.
Padraic’s flashlight beam shines across the tracks, tracing them backward to a dead tunnel. The men move close and peer into the murkiness. It’s like looking into hell’s gaping mouth, tracks for tongue. The tunnel seems to go on forever, but that’s just the dark talking. “What’s in here, then?” Padraic asks. “A speakeasy,” says another man, Michael, chuckling. “Grand. I could use a drink,” Padraic jokes as he heads inside, still hopeful of some lost treasure. The workers follow. These men are the unseen builders of the city, like ghosts themselves, and they’ve no need to fear the dark.
Only Sun Yu hesitates. He hates the dark, actually, but he needs the job, and jobs are hard to come by when you’re Chinese. As it is, he only got the job because he shares a cold-water flat with Padraic and several others in Chinatown, and the Irishman put in a word for him with the boss. It wouldn’t do to make waves. So he, too, follows. As Sun Yu navigates the mounds of fallen dirt and brick on the tracks, he stumbles over something. Padraic swings his flashlight beam over the tracks again and finds a pretty little music box with a hand crank on top. Padraic lifts the music box, admiring the workmanship. They don’t make them like that anymore. He turns the crank on the cylinder.
A song plinks out note by note. It’s one he’s heard before, an old song, but he can’t really remember it. He considers taking the music box but puts it back. “Let’s see what other treasures are down here.” Padraic swings the flashlight. The beam finds a skeletal foot. At the base of the curved wall is a mummified corpse mostly eaten away by rot and rats and time. The men fall quiet. They stare at the tufts of hair gone as thin as candy floss, and at the mouth, which is open as if in a final scream. A few of the men cross themselves.
They left a lot behind to come to this country, but not their superstitions. Sun Yu is uneasy, but he doesn’t have the words in English to communicate his feelings. This woman met a very bad end. If he were back in China, he’d see to the proper prayers and burial. For everyone knows a spirit can’t rest without that. But this is America. Things are different here. “Bad luck,” he says at last, and no one disagrees. “Right. We best be back at it, lads,” Padraic says with a heavy sigh.
The men pile out of the hole. As Padraic closes the gate, he regards the unearthed station with pity. It’ll be gone soon enough, knocked out to make way for new subway lines for the growing city. Progress keeps progressing. “Shame,” he says. Moments later, the high-pitched hum of the workers’ jackhammers melds with the constant rattle of the subway trains; the city’s song reverberates in the tunnels. Suddenly, the work lights dim. The men pause. Wind wafts down the tunnel and caresses their sweaty faces. It carries the faint sound of crying, and then it’s gone.
The lights brighten again. The men shrug—just one of those odd things that happen in the city under the city. They start in again; their machines turn up the earth, burying history in their wake. Later, the exhausted workers return to Chinatown and climb the stairs to their shared room. They fall into their beds, the dirt of the city still caked under their ragged nails. They’re too tired for bathing, but they’re not too tired for dreams. For dreams, too, are ghosts, desires chased in sleep, gone by morning. The longing of dreams draws the dead, and this city holds many dreams. The men dream of the music box and its song, a relic from a time long ago. “Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me / Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee.
…” The song calls to their blood, ferries them into the best dreams they’ve ever had—dreams in which they are aboveground, men of fortune and renown, owners in a country that smiles on owning. Michael dreams of overseeing his own construction company. Padraic dreams of a farm upstate filled with horses. Sun Yu dreams of returning to his village as a prosperous man, and of the pride in his parents’ faces as he brings them to America, along with a wife for himself. Yes, a wife to share the burdens and joys of life here. He can see her smiling at him. Such a sweet face! And are those his children beside her? They are! Happy sons and daughters welcoming him home at the end of the day with his slippers and pipe and happy cries of “Baba!” as they beg for a story. Sun Yu reaches for his youngest child, and the dream fades to embers. There is only the dark of the tunnel they found earlier in the day. Sun Yu calls out for his children and hears soft crying.
It breaks his heart to hear it. “Don’t cry,” he soothes. In the gloom, there’s a sudden spark. For a few seconds, his longed-for family life comes alive again, as if Sun Yu were looking through a keyhole at happiness. One of the children crooks a finger, smiles. “Dream with me…” he whispers. Yes. I will, Sun Yu thinks. He opens the door and steps across the threshold. It’s cold inside, so cold Sun Yu can feel it even in his sleep.
The stove isn’t lit. That’s the trouble. Sun Yu moves forward and notices that the stove isn’t really a stove at all. It wobbles, and underneath that image, he can make out old bricks gone to rot and ruin. Out of the corner of his eye, he spies a rat. It stops to sniff a pile of bones. Alarmed, Sun Yu turns to his family. The children are no longer smiling. They’re lined up, staring at him. “Dreamwithusdreamweneedyoutodream…” the children chorus, his wife looking on, her teeth sharp and her eyes like coals.
Sun Yu’s heartbeat begins to double, an autonomic response. Fight or flight. Even in sleep, it works. Sun Yu wants to wake up, but the dream won’t let him. It’s angry that he’s trying to escape. When he runs for the door, it slams shut. “You promised,” the dream growls in a voice as thick as a choir of demons. The music-box song plays. The last of the pretty facade peels away. The dark moves in.
One by one, the other men sense the danger lurking beneath the beauty. It’s a trap, this dreaming. In sleep, their fingers stiffen as they try to fight back against the terror invading their minds. For the dream knows their fears as well as their desires. It can make them see anything. Unspeakable nightmares surround the men now. They would scream if they could. It’s no use. The dream has them, and it will not relinquish its hold. Ever.
Back in their beds on Mott Street, the men’s bodies go limp. But behind their closed lids, their eyes move frantically as, one by one, they are pulled deeper and deeper into a nightmare from which they will never, ever wake. A gust of winter wind battered the colorful paper lanterns hanging from the eaves of the Tea House restaurant on Doyers Street. Only a few diners remained, lingering over plates scraped clean of food and cups of tea whose warmth they were reluctant to leave. Cooks and waiters bustled about, eager to end their shifts so that they could unwind with cigars and a few games of mah-jongg. At the back of her father’s restaurant, Ling Chan, seventeen, glared through the carved slivers of a teak screen at the lollygagging patrons as if her stare alone could compel them to pay up and leave. “This night will never end,” George Huang said, suddenly beside Ling with yet another pot of tea from the kitchen. He was Ling’s age and as skinny as a greyhound. “You could always lock the door,” Ling said. “And have your father fire me?” George shook his head and poured Ling a cup of tea.
“Thank you,” Ling said. George gave a half smile and a shrug. “You need to keep your strength up.” The door opened, and a trio of girls entered the restaurant, their cold breath trailing misty white tails. “Is that Lee Fan Lin?” George said, staring at the prettiest, a girl with red lips and a Marcel Wave bob. Quickly, George put down the teapot and smoothed a hand through his hair. “George. Don’t—” Ling started, but George was already waving Lee Fan over. Quietly, Ling swore an oath as Lee Fan broke from the group and glided past the lacquered tables and potted ferns toward the back, the panels of her beaded dress swishing from side to side. Lee Fan ran with what Ling’s mother called “a fast crowd.
” Her mother did not say it admiringly. “Hello, Georgie. Ling!” Lee Fan said, taking a seat. George grabbed a cup from a tray. “Would you care for tea, Lee Fan?” Lee Fan laughed. “Oh, Georgie. Call me Lulu, won’t you?” Lee Fan had taken to calling herself that after Louise Brooks, a crime of affectation that Ling placed on a par with people who hugged in greeting. Ling did not hug. George stole glances at Lee Fan as he poured her tea. Ling knew for a fact that Lee Fan could have her pick of beaus, and her pick would not be gangly, studious George Huang.
Boys could be so stupid sometimes, and George was no exception. Lee Fan pretended to be interested in Ling’s stack of library books. “What are you reading now?” “Ways to poison without detection,” Ling muttered. Lee Fan examined the books one by one: Physics for Students. The ABC of Atoms. Atoms and Rays. “Oooh, Jake Marlowe, the Great American,” she said, holding up the last one. “Ling’s hero. She wants to work for him someday.” George tried for a laugh but snorted instead.
Ling wanted to tell him that snorting was not the way to win any girl’s heart. “What did you want, Lee Fan?” Ling asked. Lee Fan leaned in. “I need your help. My blue dress is missing.” Ling raised an eyebrow and waited for the words that might make her care. “My aunt and uncle had it made for me in Shanghai. It’s my best dress,” Lee Fan said. Ling managed a patient face. “Do you think you lost it in a dream?” “Of course not!” Lee Fan snapped.
She glanced back at the girls standing up front, waiting for her like good little followers. “But just the other day, Gracie was over to listen to my jazz records, and you know how the old girl is, always asking to borrow my things. I saw her eyeing my dress, which was certainly too small for her, what with those big shoulders of hers. Anyway, that night, when I went to look for it, it was gone,” Lee Fan said, adjusting her scarf as if its asymmetry were her greatest concern. “Naturally, Gracie claims she doesn’t have it, but I’m sure she took it.” Up front, big-shouldered Gracie Leung examined her fingernails, none the wiser. “What do you want me to do about it?” Ling asked. “I want you to speak to my grandmother in one of your little dream walks. I want to know the truth.” “You want me to try to reach your grandmother to find your dress?” Ling said slowly.
“It’s very expensive,” Lee Fan insisted. “Very well,” Ling said, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. “But you should know that the dead don’t always want to talk to you. I can only try. Second, they don’t know everything, and their answers can be vague at best. Do you accept the terms?” Lee Fan waved away Ling’s admonitions. “Yes, fine, fine.” “That will be five dollars.” Lee Fan’s mouth rounded in shock. “That’s outrageous!” It was, of course.
But Ling always started the bargaining high—and even higher if the request was downright stupid, which Lee Fan’s was. Ling shrugged once more. “You’d spend that for a night at the Fallen Angel.” “At least with the Fallen Angel, I know what I’m getting,” Lee Fan snarled. Ling concentrated on creasing a napkin seam long and slow with a thumbnail. “Suit yourself.” “The dead don’t come cheap,” George said, trying for a joke. Lee Fan glared at Ling. “You probably make it all up just to get attention.” “If you believe it, it will be.
If you do not, it won’t,” Ling said. Lee Fan slid a dollar across the table. Ling let it sit. “I have to cover my expenses. Make the proper prayers. I could never forgive myself if I brought bad luck on you, Lee Fan.” Ling managed a quarter smile that she hoped passed for sincere. Lee Fan peeled off another bill. “Two dollars. My final offer.
” Ling pocketed the money. “I’ll need something of your grandmother’s to locate her in the dream world.” “Why?” “It’s like a bloodhound with scent. It helps me find her spirit.” With a drawn-out sigh, Lee Fan twisted a gold ring from her finger and scooted it toward Ling. “Don’t lose it.” “I’m not the one who seems to be losing things,” Ling muttered. Lee Fan rose. She glanced down at her coat, then at George, who jumped to help her with it. “Careful, Georgie,” she stage-whispered, nodding toward Ling.
“She might curse you. For all you know, she’ll give you the sleeping sickness.” George’s smile vanished. “Don’t joke about that.” “Why not?” “It’s bad luck.” “It’s superstition. We’re Americans now.” Lee Fan marched through the restaurant, slowing to allow everyone to watch her. Through the holes in the screen, Ling watched Lee Fan and her acolytes walking easily into the winter’s night. She wished she could tell them the truth: The dead were easy to talk to; it was the living she didn’t like.
The cold wind whistling around the curve of Doyers Street made Ling’s teeth chatter as she and George walked home toward Mulberry Street. The laundries, jewelers, groceries, and import shops were closed, but the various social clubs were open, their cigarette smoke–drenched back rooms filled with businessmen, old-timers, newcomers, and restless young bachelors all playing dominoes and Fan-Tan, trading stories and jokes, money and ambition. Across the rooftops, the Church of the Transfiguration’s steeple loomed at the edge of the neighborhood, a silent judge. A trio of slightly drunk tourists stumbled out of a restaurant talking loudly of heading over to the Bowery and the illicit delights to be found there in the deep shadows beneath the Third Avenue El. Beside Ling, George jogged up and back, up and back, in little bursts like the track star he was. For a slight boy, he was surprisingly strong. Ling had seen him carry heavy trays without much trouble at all, and he could run for miles. She envied him that. “You charge too much money. That’s your trouble.
Other Diviners charge less,” George said, panting. “Then let Lee Fan go to one of them. Let her go to that idiot on the radio, the Sweetheart Seer,” Ling said. Lee Fan might live it up in nightclubs uptown, but Ling knew she wouldn’t go outside the neighborhood for fortune-telling. “What are you saving money for, anyway?” George asked. “College.” “Why do you need college?” “Why do you let Lee Fan run you like a dog?” Ling shot back, her patience at an end. “She doesn’t run me,” George said, sulking. Ling rebuked him with a guttural “ack” of disappointment. Once upon a time, Ling and George had been close.
She’d been his protector of sorts. When the Italian boys from Mulberry Street harassed George on the way to school, it was Ling who had told them she was a strega who would curse them if they didn’t leave George alone, and whether they believed her or not, they didn’t bother him after that. George had thanked Ling with a prune hamantasch from Gertie’s Bakery on Ludlow, the two of them laughing as they picked the tiny seeds from their teeth. But over the past year, Ling had watched George grow moody and restless, chasing after things he couldn’t have—tagging along with Lee Fan’s set as they went to the pictures at the Strand, sitting in on picnics arranged by a local church, or squeezed in the backseat during Sunday drives in Tom Kee’s car, one foot in Chinatown and the other outside, angling for a spot they thought was better, a spot that didn’t include Ling. “She’s changed you,” Ling said. “She has not! You’re the one who’s changed. You used to be fun, before—” George cut himself off abruptly, but Ling could fill in the rest of his sentence for him. She looked away. “I’m sorry,” he said, chagrined. “I didn’t mean it.
” “I know.” “I’m just tired. I didn’t sleep well last night.” Ling drew in a sharp breath. “I don’t have the sleeping sickness!” George said quickly. He held out his hands. “Look: No burns. No blisters.” “So what’s the trouble, then?” “I had the oddest dream.” “Probably because you’re odd.
” “Do you want to hear this?” “Go on.” “It was incredible!” George said, his voice hinting at wonder. “I was at one of those mansions like the millionaires have out on Long Island, only it was my house and my party. I was rich and important. People looked at me with respect, Ling. Not like here. And Lee Fan was there, too,” George said shyly. “I didn’t realize it was a nightmare,” Ling muttered. George ignored her. “It all seemed so real.
Like it was right there for the taking.” Ling kept her eyes on the uneven edges of the bricks. “Lots of things seem real in dreams. And then you wake up.” “Not like this. Maybe it has something to do with the New Year? Maybe it’s good luck?” “How should I know?” “Because you know about dreams!” George said, jogging in front of her. “You can walk around inside them. Come on—it has to mean something, doesn’t it?” He was practically begging her to say it was so, and in that moment, she hated George a little bit for being so naive, for thinking that a good dream could mean anything other than a night’s escape from reality until the morning came. For thinking that wanting something so badly was enough to make it come true. “I’ll tell you what it means: It means that you’re a fool if you believe Lee Fan will give you the time of day once Tom Kee comes back from Chicago.
You can keep throwing yourself at her, but she’s never going to choose you, George. Never.” George stood perfectly still. His wounded expression told her that the words had hurt. She hadn’t meant to be cruel, only truthful. George’s eyes went mean. “I pity the poor soul who takes you for a wife, Ling. No man wants to have the dead in his bed every night,” he said, and then he marched away, leaving Ling just short of her building. Ling tried not to take the words inside, but they’d already settled there. Why couldn’t she have just left George alone? For a moment, she had half a mind to call him back, tell him she was sorry.
But she knew George was too angry to hear it now. Tomorrow she’d apologize. For now, she had Lee Fan’s money in her pocket and a job to do. Ling moved slowly toward her building, feeling each bump and brick up her spine. Above her, yellow-warmed windows dotted the building facades, forming urban constellations. Other windows were dark. People were asleep. Asleep and dreaming, hopeful that they’d wake in the morning. For all you know, she’ll give you the sleeping sickness.