The Boardinghouse


Someone was trying to find me. The letter came from a lawyer’s office in Philadelphia, printed by type machine on paper crisp as parchment, dated August 4, 1919, and signed in elegant script. The paper cut my finger, a deep, painful slash that dripped blood. I pressed the cut to my tongue while I read the letter again. It did not identify the person inquiring, merely asked if I was May Rose Percy, approximately 38, raised in Stillwater, Ohio, by Burt and Sweet Jonson.

I had no reason to assume the letter meant bad news. It might be seeking information about someone I’d known as a child in Ohio. I was tempted to toss it away, but the paper and signature looked too important to disregard, as though ignoring it might put me—and thereby all of us—at risk.

The idea of being found should not have been frightening. I was innocent of wrongdoing, but knew well that innocence did not always ward off evil. I’d had more than one nightmare in which I was arrested, tried, and judged guilty of being married to a murderer, my first husband, Jamie Long.

Blood dripped on the letter and spread into a blot above my name. I dug in my apron pocket for a handkerchief to press against the cut and tucked the blood-stained letter into my account book. Here was one more troubling thing to discuss with Barlow when he returned from his sales trip. I’d had no letter from him for three days. Surely that meant he was on his way home.

The room where I stood was at a front corner of the boardinghouse, near the wide entryway and across from the parlor. It was meant to be a cloakroom, but on admitting our first residents, Barlow and I had realized we did not want to conduct business in our apartment. We’d taken the coat hooks from the walls and added a small desk, chairs, and a lamp. I usually kept the door open, but today I not only closed the door when I left, I considered locking it. I didn’t go that far, but I did carry the account book to the apartment and secured it in our parlor desk. Then I peeked into the children’s playroom to satisfy myself that all was well.

Back in the hallway, I hurried toward the kitchen without looking to see or stopping to greet the man starting down the center stairs. I knew, of course, who it was—we had only two guests, husband and wife. He had a heavy tread, and she seldom left her room.

My need for privacy had changed in the three months since we’d accepted strangers into our boardinghouse, and I now understood the adage about familiarity breeding contempt. I didn’t want to be well known—or found—by anyone except people I trusted.

Next to our own apartment, the kitchen was my favorite room, partly because my friend Luzanna was almost always there with her welcoming smile and help for any urgent need. With Barlow on sales trips, I’d quickly found I couldn’t manage the house, the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and our two small children, even with only two guests, so I’d hired Luzanna and her daughter Emmy. Less than two years after selling his share of the Winkler Mine, Barlow had gone back to work for his former partners, not as business manager, but as a salesman. In our present circumstances, we were lucky he had this job, but it had never been part of our plan. We were supposed to operate the boardinghouse together, making decisions and doing most of the work ourselves. I’d expected to have abundant time to spend with Freddy, nearly three, and Hettie, who’d just learned to stand alone. My husband wasn’t meant to be gone for weeks at a time.

Luzanna was leaning on our kitchen worktable, turning pages of yesterday’s Fairmont West Virginian. “The Women’s Christian Temperance Union is for giving us the vote,” she said, keeping her eyes on the paper. In June, the federal government had approved the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, acknowledging that no citizen could be barred from voting on the basis of sex. Now it had to be ratified by the states. Many had already done so, and West Virginia newspapers were full of comments and notices of rallies.

She turned another page, still not looking up. “I like how the WCTU says women has better morals than men and will elect better leaders. I’d say the morals part is true, judging by men I’ve knowed. What do you think?”

“Umm. I haven’t thought about it.” Our countertop egg basket was empty. “The egg and butter man was here today, wasn’t he? Where did you put the eggs?”

“Cellarway. Our morals is better than men’s, wouldn’t you say?”

“I’m sure I admire more women than men, but except for the men in our families, we never get to know their minds or natures very well. Not like I know you and you know me and we know Piney and Wanda and the rest of us. Egg salad for lunch, all right with you?”

“Seasoned with a little bacon,” she said. “I’ll whip up the dressing. I’d like a man who’s as good as my friends.”

“What?” Luzanna always said she’d had enough worthless husbands and would not waste herself on another. I waited until she glanced up from the paper, then said, “I’m not going to forget that.”

“Bacon? Dressing?”

“That you’d like a husband.”

“Whoa, Nellie. I mean I wish my husbands had been as good to me as my friends. Lord, can you imagine me with more kids? I’m better off as I am. I like this work.”

“Which is my good fortune,” I said. If she married, she might leave me and concentrate on her own household. But like every woman who’s happy with her husband, I wanted the same good fortune for my friends.

Our work in the boardinghouse was unending, but Luzanna claimed its steadiness and dependability was easier than gathering up and washing laundry from the town bachelors and sewing gloves late at night. Since she and her children had begun taking most of their meals in our kitchen, her cheeks had filled out and at times she looked almost as pretty as her girls.

She re-folded and smoothed the newspaper, making it suitable for the parlor table. “Women against the vote talk like all of us has a good man to lean on. I bet a nickel all of them against it has rich husbands or fathers and maids and such and never worked a minute in their lives. Like our Mrs. Chapman.”

We continued to speculate about the vote and about women of leisure as we prepared lunch for Mr. and Mrs. Chapman, my children, Luzanna’s two, and ourselves. Work being necessary for our security, we were perplexed and irritated by the idleness of our current guests. I didn’t know if Mrs. Chapman had opinions. Indeed, I had no idea what she did in her room all day long.

“She’s an odd one,” Luzanna whispered.

“In her place, I’d go mad.” Rona Chapman was the second woman I’d met who didn’t work morning to night, the other being Barlow’s first wife, Alice, who’d seemed to crave an important duty but found no dignified opportunity. Childless like Mrs. Chapman, Alice had spent her day reading and worrying about the news and forming her strong opinions. Barlow’s sister Hester had not approved of her, but both Alice and Hester would have wanted the right to vote.

Since building the boardinghouse, I’d thought and spoken often of Hester Townsend. We’d modeled it after the one she’d operated nearly on the same ground. Too late, I’d learned that my memory of her boardinghouse was not entirely correct—it had not paid for itself, though it had seemed busy and prosperous. The difference, Barlow explained, was that he and his sister had not borne the cost of building and furnishing it. Much of that had come from his two elderly cousins, who’d become its permanent residents.

Thus far we’d not had enough guests to meet expenses. Instead of being able to work with my husband every day, my ambition to operate an enterprise like Hester’s now separated us for weeks at a time. Already I wondered if we should give it up.


Often in dreams I seemed to be someone else, wandering on unknown paths and cliffs, searching, following or hiding from unknown groups of people, traveling on, never knowing where. Now with Barlow away so many lonely weeks, I sometimes dreamed of the two of us, heated and desperate to cling together, frustrated because people were in our room, watching.

That night my dream frightened me awake, for I’d been myself, and parts of the dream had been too real. I’d seen the chinked walls of the mountain cabin, the skillets hanging on the wall above the stove, the butchering knives on rawhide ropes. Cold air had rushed through the open door, and I’d risen from the bed in the corner, wondering if Jamie had come home in the night or if he’d gone out and left the door open. I’d called his name but couldn’t hear my voice over the shrill of wind. I’d stood in the open door, searching the dome of starry sky and untracked blue-white snow, but Jamie was nowhere to be found, and I knew he’d run away, and maybe that was why a logging train had stopped on the tracks near the cabin. There could be no other reason, for trains never went down the mountain in the middle of the night. The flat cars were piled high with logs and men who laughed and pointed but made no sound, and I closed the door because I was naked and cold.

Then Jamie had appeared, wearing his sheepskin coat, but the day was too hot for a coat and he’d thrown it on the floor and taken off his shirt and stepped out of his trousers and pulled me to the bed. This bed, the one in the boardinghouse, with everyone watching.

Afraid to go back to sleep, I sat up until I had a good sense of what was real and what was not. This dream of Jamie was not as terrifying as the one where I kept trying to fasten the cabin door against a pack of wolves, and not nearly as frightening as the one in which I stood helpless as Freddy fell under the hooves and wheels of a horse-drawn wagon. Barlow’s arms had helped me recover from those dreams, but even if he were beside me now, I couldn’t tell him about this one.


Learning that someone was trying to find me was only the start of disturbing events. The next afternoon while Luzanna and I were shredding cabbage and peeling potatoes for dinner, my stepdaughter rushed into the kitchen, looking like she’d had a fright.

“Wanda, my goodness me,” Luzanna said.

Wanda breezed past us to the hallway door, motioning me to follow. “Let’s talk a minute.” She was out of wind, like she’d run all the way from her house or from the company store where she worked when she wasn’t helping her husband in his medical practice.

I wiped my hands and hurried after her into the hall, concerned that she needed to relay something not only urgent, but too private to share even with Luzanna, our closest friend.

Wanda passed the door to my apartment, glanced into the parlor and continued to the front porch, where she stopped and scrutinized the landscape. Apparently satisfied that no one else could hear, she plopped in one of the porch rockers like her legs had given way.

She’d made me too anxious to sit.

“You won’t believe this,” she said. “It’s impossible. Guess who showed up?”

Her eyes shifted back and forth, a nervous habit I thought she’d conquered. The afternoon was hot, but my skin turned cold and damp. I could think of only one person whose impossible appearance would make my voice tremble like hers. I whispered, “Jamie?” From where I stood I could see the spot where I’d seen him for the last time, the back gate of Hester’s boardinghouse. Railroad employees had brought out the dead and injured after a trestle collapsed, plunging a train into a gully, but they’d not found one passenger, assumed to be Jamie Long, wanted for murder.

Occasionally when I was feeling blessed to be with Barlow, I’d have a brief fear that Jamie would appear, expecting us to take up as before, even though his brother said he’d found and buried him, even though Russell had brought me the money from Jamie’s coat and said he’d kept Jamie’s gun. I knew where Jamie had gotten the money and I knew he’d had a gun; he’d shown it to me.

Wanda fanned her face with her hand. “Pa? No. Someone way worse.”

For me there could be no one worse. If Jamie Long should turn up alive, Barlow and I might not be legally married. I didn’t know the law. Jamie had been presumed dead for nearly 20 years.

Wanda’s usual manner in confronting a problem was to attack it head on or dismiss it with a wave of her hand. She now waved it in a confused way, as though her hand could help get her words out. “It’s old Mrs. Donnelly,” she said.

I had not recovered from the terror of Jamie ruining our lives. “Not…?”

“The very same. Calls herself Mrs. Herff, now, but I recognized her right off. And I guess she could be Mrs. Herff if she married nobody after Will’s pa died.”

My feelings about the woman were deeper and more bitter than Wanda’s. Irene Donnelly had repeated the lies that I’d displayed myself without clothes to loggers from her husband’s camp. She’d called me a whore.

Wanda rushed on. “She must know the old man is dead, ’cause she didn’t ask for him—she asked for Will. Can you beat that? Lordy, she’s still Will’s stepma. My step-ma-in-law! I can’t bear it.”

I dropped into a chair and squeezed the arm rests. The Donnellys had plagued our earliest days in Winkler. I hated that the mother of the clan was making a claim on Will, especially considering her family’s damage to his. “Do you suppose we’ll have to tell Luzanna? And if we do, what will we say?” Unfortunately, our friend had been married to Irene’s older son, John Donnelly.

Wanda got up and paced on the porch. “We never told Luzanna that her husband’s ma was married to Will’s stinker of a pa, did we? I almost forgot it myself. Will said them two wasn’t together much more than a month before her and her boys was kicked out of town.”

“I told no one.” It was an easy secret to keep, because we didn’t like to think about it. We hadn’t even told Luzanna we’d known her husband when he was a boy, partly to protect her and her children and partly to protect ourselves.

“I don’t think I blabbed,” Wanda said. “No, I’m sure I didn’t, but sometimes when I think I’ve forgotten something it pops out, loose-like.”

“I wonder if Irene knows Luzanna and her children are here.”

“I’d say she don’t, ’cause she would of asked for them too, wouldn’t she? She come into the store half an hour ago, and age ain’t improved her. She walks like she can hardly put one fat foot in front of the other. I don’t think she recognized me, though there’s no reason she should, ’cause I grew up and she just grew old. Will was out on a call, so I told her to come around later. She said she’d heard somewhere that her stepson had made himself a doctor and owner of a coal mine to boot. She sat down at the store table, said she’d just wait. There’s other clerks there today so I left her. What do you think she wants?”

“Nothing good.” The last time I’d seen Irene she was threatening to shoot Will’s father with a shotgun. In those days, the town belonged to the Winkler Lumber and Logging Company. The town guard had said if she didn’t take her boys away he was going to send them to reform school.

“If she sticks around, she’ll find out about Luzanna’s Emmy and Tim. Poor kids, to have such a granny. At least their pa can’t come back, can he? Lu’s sure he’s dead?”

“Killed in a mine, John and his brother both. She saw the bodies.”

Wanda puffed a loud breath of air. “I know it ain’t right to say I’m glad somebody’s dead, but I can’t help it. If that woman lets loose one word of brag about her boys, I might spit out what they done to us.”

I’d had too many bad thoughts for one day. “For sure, we have some confessions to make to Luzanna.”

“Maybe not yet. Probably the old woman’s just come to get money from Will. Maybe she’ll leave and we won’t have to explain a thing. All right. Gotta go.” Like everything was now settled, Wanda bounced up and rushed down the path.

I did not return to the kitchen when Wanda left; I went to my apartment. I needed to hug my children and I needed my husband to come home. This house we wanted so much had separated us, sending him to sleep in hot hotel rooms, ride dusty trains and wait every day in the offices of power plant operators for a chance to ask them to buy coal from the Winkler Mine. I was the lucky one. While he was on the road, he lived without the consolation of family, but I could hold Freddy and Hettie at any time.

The children were sitting in a circle on the playroom floor with Emmy, Luzanna’s daughter, who every day looked more like a young lady. I stood in the doorway as she put a block in Hettie’s hand and helped her set it on Freddy’s stack. At her age, Hettie did not have the coordination to build, but she’d learned how to destroy, and she liked the effect. With a swing of her arm, she tumbled Freddy’s blocks across the floor. Freddy yelled, leaned forward and gave his sister a shove. Emmy caught her, but Hettie cried anyway.

Emmy looked at me like she needed to be rescued. “Go keep your ma company,” I said. “I’ll stay with the children for a while.”

At three and one, my children did not play well together, but at 13, Emmy seemed extraordinarily grown-up. She was also patient and good-natured. I did not want her to learn the bad things I knew about her father and his family, just as I did not want her to hear the bad things they’d said about me.


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