I heard the steps. The screen doors were locked, front and back. Certainly locked, yet above the whir of the apartment fan I heard those steps, a firm tread on the hall runner, then the squeak of the swinging door to the kitchen. Not Price Loughrie, our only boardinghouse guest, whose progress, at those times when he sobered up enough to leave his room, was hesitant and tottery. Not my husband, who walked with a cane; not Luzanna, employee and best friend, currently in her own home; and not our watchman, working his day shift in the mine. Not someone who knew me, who would have called out. An intruder.
I was in the apartment bathroom, perched on the edge of the tub, minding Hettie on her potty and Freddy in his bath of cool water. Throughout the house, windows were open, shades drawn halfway to block the worst of the August sun. Screen doors front and back were locked with hooks meant to keep my children in and make honest folks ring the bell—no protection against someone up to no good.
It could be the house settling or something else, but I couldn’t think what else. Freddy floated his bar of Ivory soap, rippling the bathwater and making engine noises, a murmur in the silence of a near-empty house.
After a peek in the potty confirmed that Hettie hadn’t done anything, I set her on my hip and hurried to be sure we were securely locked in the apartment. Confirmed. I pressed an ear to the door. No footsteps, nothing more than the soft swing of the grandfather clock pendulum. I went from window to window, lifting an edge of curtain to peek outside. The east windows gave a view of most of our back yard, my garden, carriage house, shed, and the hills beyond. The south windows looked out on the brushy hill and ravine that separated us from town. Without leaving the apartment, I could not see anything that lay west or north—our summerhouse, field and lane, the main road, and beyond that, the railroad tracks and river. My intruder could be long gone or lurking out of sight. Or still in the house.
Keep the outside doors closed and locked, my husband would say. Install a second telephone in the apartment, I’d insist.
The downstairs windows were too high to reach from the ground without a ladder. Nevertheless, I went from one to another, pulling down the sashes and sliding the locks. From the front of the house, our office telephone started to ring, shrill and loud. To answer, I’d have to leave the apartment. I let it ring.
If not for the children, I might have taken our shotgun from its rack and searched the rest of the house to be certain the intruder—if there’d been an intruder—had gone. Instead, I finished their baths and set out their night clothes, alert to the smallest sound.
“Mama,” Freddy said. “It’s not dark.”
“Oh…your mama’s silly.” The baths had been for cooling, not for bedtime. My children’s skin was clean and fresh, but I was a sweaty mess. The heat might be affecting me in more ways than one.
Upstairs, the toilet flushed. In the midst of pulling a light dress over Hettie’s head I stopped and listened to halting steps on the stairs. Price was coming down.
The telephone rang again. It rang for a long time, then I heard Price’s voice. “Hello? Hello?”
These days Price was not reliable, but I felt more confident about leaving the apartment with another adult downstairs. Still, I insisted that Freddy hold my hand when we went into the hall.
“It rang,” Price said. “Nobody there.”
“It’s all right.”
The hook on the screen door was securely in its eye, and the screen had not been cut. There was, however, an edge of fraying, a small opening, possibly enough for one or two fingers, unlikely, but still…
A wagon went by the end of our lane, traveling north on the main road. After it passed I saw the figure of a man standing still, looking toward the river.
“Price, would you close the door? And turn the bolt?”
He complied. Since he had shaky fingers, he probably did not notice mine.
“If you’re hungry, come with us to the kitchen.” He’d eaten neither breakfast nor lunch.
In the kitchen I looked toward the back door and caught my breath. The screen was unhooked. I set Hettie in her high chair, put the hook in place, then shut and bolted the door.
“Outside,” Freddy said.
“Not now. When your father comes home. “We’re going to fix Mr. Loughrie something to eat.” Outside, someone might be waiting.
“Hot,” Price said.
I turned on the fan. The children and I had been to the yard that morning; I couldn’t swear I’d hooked the screen when we returned.
Price sat at the kitchen table, commonly used only by family and the boardinghouse staff. “What would you like?”
“Coffee, if you please.”
“Cold or hot?” After breakfast, I’d let the fire go out in the stove, but there was cold coffee in the pot.
“Cold will be fine.”
“I have rice pudding.” He ate so little, I was sure his stomach could do with something bland.
“I’ll try,” he said.
I set two bowls of pudding on the table and one on Hettie’s tray. She’d make a mess but be safely occupied for a while. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
I was emboldened by the shotgun as well as the certainty that I’d find nobody else in the house, so I wasn’t too afraid, walking through the parlor and dining room, going up the stairs, looking into every guest room. I returned to the kitchen breathless but assured. There might have been no intruder, but I’d seen what was possible. From now on I’d keep the doors bolted when we were essentially alone.
By dinner time, my better senses returned, and I decided there’d been no intruder. The ground everywhere was damp and the lane was muddy, but I’d cleaned the porches in the morning, and there’d been no new tracking. I didn’t confess my imaginings to anyone, and after a few days I forgot I’d ever been afraid. I was relieved, though, when work began on a foundation near the main road—at last, a neighbor.
Events of the following week made me think we’d be better off with no neighbor. There was nothing we could do about it—we were getting a competitor. Its sign was planted by the main road as its walls went up. Minnie’s Eat and Sleep.
“A low-class place,” Luzanna said. “You can tell by the name.”
She meant we had no need to worry; the boardinghouse would not suffer. But living in a mining town, we measured our days by shift whistles and evaluated our futures by the passage of trains loaded with coal. Like me, Luzanna saw the ghost of loss in every change of the wind.
The Eat & Sleep was distantly visible from our front windows, and each time I passed through the parlor or stepped to the porch, I noted its progress, much the same as I’d watch the rising of the river or smoke that might signal a house afire.
When I couldn’t sleep, I’d get out of bed and take my sewing basket to our sitting room to mend rips, darn holes, and re-attach buttons, for only with busy hands could I suppress my worries. I’d chosen to live in this poor town because everyone I loved was here, but it had very little commerce and offered no real opportunity to improve ourselves. Barlow and I were only slightly better off than the families of miners, whose weekly earnings were spent before they were paid. I wanted the boardinghouse to be successful because I could imagine a day when my husband would no longer be able to manage the company store. He was 58, one of the older men in Winkler, for only the young and strong could shovel coal.
We’d decided that when we received the inheritance from my father we’d invest it in something safe for our children’s futures, and we’d designated Glory Townsend and Barlow’s former partner Randolph Bell as their guardians. But what if the inheritance wasn’t enough? What if something happened to Glory and Randolph? I didn’t share my nighttime worries, assuming other women had enough of their own and didn’t need to hear mine.
The boardinghouse was my child too, and from the moment the Eat and Sleep sign went up, I had new cause to fret. I’d slowly come to see that our establishment was too ambitious for a poor coal town, too large and fine, requiring more staff and upkeep than might ever be justified by its income. We scraped by, because except for the two rough sleeping rooms offered to travelers by the company store, ours was the only guest house in Winkler. Single women such as our teachers felt safe here, and all the guests appreciated its comfort and good food. Occasionally Barlow murmured that I worked too hard, but he never said I worked too hard for too little. I worked hard to keep that from being true.
When we learned about the Eat and Sleep, business was already suffering, with one or two transient guests each week and our three resident teachers away for the summer. Price was our only steady occupant, an old friend who’d returned from the chaos of the mine wars in West Virginia’s southern counties. He was drinking again, though he tried to be discreet about it. Another worry. He had no other permanent home.
The foundation of the Eat and Sleep was laid early in July, and in ten days the new structure rose two stories, topped by a flat roof and a high false front. Being on the main road into town, the Eat and Sleep would be better noticed by travelers than our establishment, which was set well back from the river, slightly uphill, with the fenced field between us and the road. The field provided a bit of consolation. Minnie’s Eat and Sleep might take some of our business, but it would not obstruct our view.
We’d chosen our location to avoid the noise and smoke of the coal trains. We also were aware that buildings formerly bordering the road—the hotel, bar, and boardinghouse of the original Winkler—had all been ruined by flood, though that was the kind of thing Barlow said happened only once in a thousand years. Sometimes I regretted that a hill blocked our view of the main part of town, and sometimes I was glad.
“Perhaps we should have a sign at the road,” I said, an idea I’d resisted. As my husband often observed, for a businesswoman who needed public awareness, I had a contradictory desire for privacy.
“Something big,” Luzanna said.
“Something tasteful. Townsend’s Boardinghouse: Reasonable Rates.”
“Superior Cooking,” she said.
“Very tasteful.” We laughed about it, then agreed we did not need to imitate Minnie’s Eat and Sleep, which might need a sign because it was unknown and untried.
When no workmen were present, I was tempted to sneak through the field and step through one of the rough openings to explore. I didn’t go, but the boys of the town did. Luzanna’s son Tim said the building had plank flooring, outside walls, a few interior supports, and openings for windows and doors. Tim couldn’t judge the number or size of guest rooms or if there would be one or more inside toilets.
Barlow tried to moderate my fears with an economic explanation. “Winkler is experiencing a small business boom, so we might expect some competition.”
“But next door?”
“It’s a smart business decision.”
Smart for them. “It’s not right.”
With that I had to acknowledge that I was not a real businesswoman. Real business people probably loved competition.
“We’ll survive,” he said. “Now I’m working again, we don’t exactly need the boardinghouse.”
He’d completely missed my feeling. At the present time the boardinghouse didn’t have to support us, but what about the future? Above all, I did not want to give up. I liked receiving our guests’ payments and deciding how our receipts should be spent. I liked planning with Luzanna and I liked the order of our work in the kitchen, even the frantic pace when we had an overflow of guests.
I needed the boardinghouse.
Winkler’s small business boom included a much-needed hospital, a bank, meat market, a movie theater, and a combination barbershop, newsstand, and pool hall. The hospital was under construction on a knoll not far from the school, and the other businesses were tearing down or repurposing houses along Main Street. All of this was an exciting infusion of hope for a coal town which originally had only a company store. “Someday you’ll have to turn guests away,” Barlow said.
If we could stay open until then.
Thus far, new guests had been directed to turn in at our lane by someone at the store, the mine office or the railroad station, and I liked to think our reputation was sufficient to ensure new business. Guests knew they were in the right place when they reached our steps and saw the discreet sign on its iron post.
With the prospect of a competitor, I gave in to the idea of a sign on the main road, one that would identify our lane as the path to the boardinghouse. Like Barlow said, the sign was a necessary adjustment to changing times and the fact that ours would no longer be the only guest house in town. Winkler’s one doctor’s office needed no more than a small iron plaque on its door, and our only bank had its name discreetly chiseled in the stone façade. Still, ordering the sign hurt my pride, like I was publicly announcing that I was threatened by a coarsely-named newcomer. I was also embarrassed by a sudden thought that in the past, a sign might have brought us more guests.
The sign maker was a miner who lettered beautifully. He’d come to the house with samples, a young man known by reputation, a go-getter who needed no other advertisement for his side business, though as far as I knew, he was the only sign maker in the region. Maybe if he had competition, he’d advertise himself, too.
The miner’s name was Calvin Winslow, and his enthusiasm for producing the right sign was hard to resist. Well, not only his enthusiasm. No woman—perhaps no man, woman, or child—could ignore the fact that he was physically attractive, built like a gladiator, with long arms and strong, well-shaped hands. He seemed independent, the type to defer to no one, yet he was eager to please.
Mr. Winslow showed me a sample that was four by four feet. “This will show up nicely by the road. It’ll be five dollars with your choice of lettering at no extra cost,” he said. His blue eyes sparkled.
No matter how compelling the salesman, I was not going to buy something I didn’t like. The sample looked garish and undignified, and it was exactly the size of the one announcing the Eat and Sleep “I think a smaller sign will suit,” I said. Also, five dollars was more than I wanted to risk for an item that probably wasn’t necessary. “How much for a two by two?”
He showed me a smaller sign with the words “For Sale.”
“Upwards of two dollars,” he said, “depending on the letters you choose and the number of words.”
For the lettering, I chose a fine script, the exact opposite of the fat letters on Minnie’s sign. I’d carefully written the message it should carry.
He frowned as he studied my paper. I wondered if he could read.
“Will that fit?”
“I can make anything fit,” he said. “That’ll be four dollars, two now and two on delivery. You show me where you want it and I’ll stake it to the ground.”
“Four dollars? You said it would be two.”
“I said ‘upwards of two.’ You’ve got a lot of words, and script takes more time. Now for one dollar more…” He lifted the larger, bolder sign for my inspection.
“No, thank you.” I paid the deposit. Calvin Winslow, I thought, was just the kind of enterprising, persuasive young man that caused mothers to hope and fear for their daughters. Fortunately, my daughter was still a baby.
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