I smiled into the faces of the strangers in our entryway, hers first, before I turned my attention to him, because he was the one speaking. He snapped off his words like he was used to giving orders. She was on his left, her arm through his, holding on rather tightly, as though she couldn’t stand alone.
“We’re the Morrisons, Mr. and Mrs.,” he said. “We’d like a room, the best you have, and a meal right away.”
His broad face looked recently shaved, with a nick on his chin and a spot of blood on his white shirt collar. Her face was younger, heart-shaped, with a pinch of modest concern in her smooth cheeks and brow. Newlyweds, exhausted from travel, I decided. They must not have seen my “No Vacancy” sign, because he’d carried in their three suitcases, all quite large and lacking the scrapes and stains of use. He set his hat on one, took off his right glove, and ran that hand through an abundant mop of light brown hair that had been disarranged by the hat. I still had a habit of noticing men’s haircuts, leftover from the years when there’d been no barbershop in Winkler and I’d had to cut my husband’s hair, never sure of myself. I figured Morrison must be vain about his hair, because though it seemed overly long it looked clean, and his sideburns were neatly clipped.
Most people who rang the boardinghouse doorbell turned out to be decent people, and I tried to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, because even if guests seemed rude at the start, they might only be poor at presenting themselves or worried about staying with strangers. The Morrisons had arrived by car and had not yet removed their coats. Mrs. Morrison kept shifting her feet, which I supposed were cold, since her pretty pointed-toe shoes had thin soles, impractical for travel in cold weather. I wondered about their destination, for our town was not on the road to anywhere.
I was already wearing my black hat, a heavy thing I disliked and wore only for funerals. In 30 minutes, Barlow would come to drive Price Loughrie and me to the church. “I’m Mrs. Townsend,” I said. “I’m sorry, at present we have no vacancies.”
Mrs. Morrison glanced regretfully toward the parlor, but her husband stared and held his ground, as though he’d bend me to his will. “You people can always do some rearranging for the right customer. We’ll be staying at least a month.”
“I’m very sorry,” I said again. The rooms upstairs were occupied by long-term residents, three single women, one couple and one unmarried man, all with better manners than Mr. Morrison. The only empty space was the small room formerly allotted to our watchmen, currently cluttered with cleaning equipment and supplies.
The solemnity of this day might have left me vulnerable to the needs of weary travelers, but not to this man, whose impatience contrasted sharply to the gentle and helpful spirit of the one we were mourning.
As Morrison waited for me to give in, Price Loughrie came down the stairs, dressed in his new black suit and carrying his hat, not the everyday Stetson, but a new one in the style my husband called a fedora. Nodding a greeting to the Morrisons, he passed on to the parlor and sat to wait. The Morrisons watched him with a look of curiosity. Price had been a marshal, a bootlegger, a union organizer and occasional preacher; today he looked like a well-to-do banker. He was to speak at the funeral.
I motioned toward the parlor. “Please, warm yourselves at the floor register. We’ll see what we can do.”
Mr. Morrison smirked in satisfaction, like he’d won the day, but I only meant to make him and his wife comfortable while I directed them to our other lodging house, The Eat and Sleep. It was a bare-bones kind of place, but I could guarantee they’d have a clean room and good food. For better or worse, Barlow and I owned it.
Mrs. Morrison stepped timidly into the parlor, looking at everything, the stained-glass lampshades, polished end tables and the broad seats and padded arms of the easy chairs, four arranged in a semi-circle, two paired for a cozy chat, and one apart, for any guest who might want to read or sit alone.
She whirled around with a smile for her husband. Only in a large city might he find a nicer place. He looked pleased with himself.
“I’ll bring coffee,” I said.
I returned to the parlor with a tray of coffee and a platter of hastily-constructed ham salad sandwiches, followed by Freddy and Hettie, who stopped and waited like good children in the arched opening between the hall and the parlor. Either they were getting better about observing their boundaries or they were suspicious of these new people.
Price appeared to be reading yesterday’s newspaper. Mrs. Morrison sat on my rosewood chair with her back straight and her eyes hopeful as her husband strode across the Persian rug toward me, unfolding a sheet of paper.
I set the tray on the nearest table and clasped my hands. “There’s another boardinghouse nearby. The Eat and Sleep. You probably saw the sign.”
Mr. Morrison’s features were well-proportioned, but they currently looked hard as a wall. “I heard about that, and about this place. I was assured we could stay here,” he said. “By the mine owner, Mr. Bell.”
“Mr. Bell?” I knew he meant Randolph, but he’d caught me unaware and I needed a moment’s pause. Randolph surely knew the boardinghouse was full, because he and Glory regularly ate Sunday dinner here with our residents. Mr. Morrison could be the kind of person who assumed too much.
“Mr. Bell of the Winkler Mine,” he said. “I’m his new superintendent. I’ll be starting immediately but our house will not be ready for a few weeks.”
“I see.” I’d heard nothing about a new superintendent, much less a promise that he could lodge with us, but I needed a clarification from Randolph, who’d always gone the extra mile for Barlow and me.
“Please, help yourselves.” I nodded toward the tray of coffee and sandwiches. “I’ll speak with my husband.”
He held out the sheet of paper. “This is Mr. Bell’s letter.”
“I don’t need to see it. I’ll be back in a moment.”
The children followed me to the office, and I closed the door. While the telephone operator rang the store, they sat side by side in my desk chair, which they liked because it rocked and swiveled.
Barlow had a short answer. “Send the Morrisons to the Eat and Sleep. I’ll be home in a few minutes.”
“Should we speak with Randolph?”
“You think the Eat and Sleep wouldn’t be good enough?”
“They seem choosy. I’d rather Randolph came and dealt with them.” Sent them to the Eat and Sleep, I meant.
“He should have asked us first,” Barlow said. “I’m sure he’s going to the funeral. I’ll see if I can reach him.”
I took the children to the kitchen to be minded by our live-in helpers, Dessie and Tom, while I attended the services. When I returned to the parlor, Mrs. Morrison was sipping coffee while her husband devoured a sandwich in large bites. They’d removed their gloves and had hung their coats on the hall rack.
Price waited near the office door. He finally looked healthy, after years of punishing his body with alcohol and a job that had landed him frequently in jail. Since retiring from the United Mine Workers and resuming residence with us, he visited the barber every day for a trim of his short, pointed beard and a weekly trim of his graying hair. He reminded me of a photograph I’d seen of a southern general.
“Mrs. Townsend, a word?” He nodded toward the office, then followed me in and closed the door. “If you want to accommodate this couple, I can move to the Eat and Sleep,” he said.
I didn’t want to accommodate the Morrisons, and I did not want to exchange them for Price, who was not just a resident, but a close friend. “You can’t go, we’d miss you.” Our female residents, especially, enjoyed Price’s gentlemanly presence in the house. I doubted they’d enjoy Morrison’s.
“Smitty’s room, then,” Price said. The watchman’s room at the back end of the hall was a third the size of the others. I could have assigned it to Dessie and Tom when they accepted my invitation to come back to Winkler, but I’d put them in a guest room because they were more than employees—we shared an important history. Also, they’d given up their own home to help me in the boardinghouse.
Barlow telephoned while Price and I were in the office. “I know how difficult this is,” he said, “but Randolph wants to please this man. He’s come from a big mine in Pennsylvania and he’s experienced in mine mechanization. Randolph thinks he could make a difference here.”
Save the mine, he meant. Barlow didn’t have to say Randolph was distracted these days, and not just with the troubles of the mine. Randolph and Glory were newly married, and she was expecting, frantically busy with her new sewing shop as well as the newspaper, and probably not easy to live with. They were family, too, so I felt obligated as well as concerned for the mine.
Before I could ask why Randolph hadn’t notified us, Barlow explained. “He thought they weren’t coming.”
I hung up the receiver and looked at Price.
“Smitty’s room,” he said.
“You’re a saint.”
“Far from it, as you know well.”
“The Morrisons will have to wait until after the funeral.”
His eyes smiled. “It’ll be good for them,” he said.
The Morrisons looked up from their seats in the parlor when Price and I came out of the office. I’d put on my coat, and Price took his overcoat from the hall rack.
Mr. Morrison stood up, frowning.
“If you care to wait, we’ll arrange a room for you when we return from the funeral,” I said.
“I don’t care to wait,” he said.
“You can be settled in your room in three or four hours.” I pulled on my gloves. “Or you may choose now to take a room at the Eat and Sleep. A number of miners live there. Mrs. French is in charge. Tell her I sent you.”
He sat down with a show of disgust. I went to the kitchen to ask if Tom could move the cleaning supplies from Smitty’s room to the attic stairway. Like me, Dessie and Tom had little regard for demanding bosses and guests, and like me, they knew when it was necessary to grit our teeth, smile, and do our best to please.
Barlow was coming in the door when I returned to the hall. I quickly introduced him to the Morrisons, then said, “Please excuse us.”
“Our room…” Morrison began.
“We’re late for a funeral.”
Barlow held the door for me.
“…will be at the funeral,” Barlow said. “I’m certain he’ll be very glad to meet you when it’s over.”
I was glad to turn my back on this new guest, who did not seem to understand how any event could be more important than his arrival.
We settled into a heavy silence on our way to the church, preparing ourselves for a last, unbearable goodbye to a friend. Simpson Wainwright had lingered a month after his final bad spell, including ten days when he’d eaten nothing. Dr. Madison said he just wasn’t the kind of man to give up.
We were the last to arrive, and as I’d expected, the church pews were full. Mr. Wise, our funeral director, met us at the door and led us to the second pew, usually reserved for family. Barlow and I weren’t family, but Wanda, my stepdaughter, qualified, since Simpson had married her Aunt Piney. Wanda and Will sat at the end of the first row, then Simpson’s three grandchildren and their mother, Blanche Herff, then Piney beside the center aisle.
Price left us to join our new preacher on the platform. Rev. Shreve had been with us only a few months, but he’d made a good impression because he’d been a faithful visitor during Simpson’s illness. The casket rested on saw horses just this side of the altar rail, very close to Piney in the first pew. The lid was open, but if I hadn’t seen Simpson in the long months of his illness, I wouldn’t have known him. Only the wisps of red hair seemed the same, and the few freckles on his pale, shrunken face. His eyes had stayed blue to the end, but now of course they were closed. Forever. I couldn’t imagine the depths of Piney’s sorry when it was so hard for me, merely a friend, to let him go.
I led the way into the pew, pausing to lean forward and kiss Blanche’s cheek and then Piney’s, then sitting beside Piney’s mother, Lucie Bosell, who never remembered me, though she’d been many times in my house. I turned around briefly to smile behind me at Alma, Luzanna’s daughter, who shared the depths of our loss. In the days when we’d been a tiny settlement of women and children, Simpson Wainwright had served as everyone’s uncle, grandfather, handyman, and hero. I nodded at Dr. Madison, Alma’s fiancé. He was a hero too. Our little town seemed full of them.
The service proceeded in a comforting, familiar way, and fortunately Lucie Bosell slept through most of it. Our funeral customs were not elaborate, but we seemed to be helped in the early hours of bereavement by letting tradition carry us through. The preacher gave the prayers and a short sermon, and Price, who’d been in and around the territory for a long time, spoke about Simpson’s life. At times his stories made us cry with sweet memories and at times they made us chuckle.
Like Piney’s family, Simpson’s people could be traced to early settlers, hardy folks who’d made a living by growing and making everything they needed. He’d been best known in Winkler as the miller, though old-timers knew he’d also built many of the company houses. I couldn’t count the times he’d lent his hands and wisdom to us.
“He loved to work,” Price said, “and he loved his family, his dear wife, Piney; his daughter, Blanche; his grandchildren, Ruby, Robert and Ralphie.”
The boys’ deportment had not improved during Simpson’s illness, but today they sat quietly with their shoulders hunched down and their heads bowed. I supposed someone had threatened them. Not Piney or Blanche. Charlie, maybe.
“He always gave and never asked for anything. Piney, most of us in this house owe a debt of gratitude to our friend and brother Simpson Wainwright. We’ll do our best to repay some o’that to you. Just tell us what you need.”
Price brought his violin from beneath the podium. “In his younger days, Simpson loved to dance the jig.” He drew the bow across the strings. “So remember him like this.” As Price played, I smiled at the vigorous music and the idea of Simpson prancing and clicking his heels. The music, though, was the right choice. Our blue-eyed, freckle-faced Simpson had been a delightful man.
At the end of the jig, Price beckoned to Wanda, and she stood beside him and harmonized: “Farther along we’ll know all about it, farther along, we’ll understand why.”We were getting close to the end, the end of the service, the end of our time with Simpson, the end of our own days. Barlow reached for my hand. Lucie opened her eyes briefly and closed them again.
When Wanda sang, she seemed taller and more at peace. Her tan from the summer hayfields had faded, but her rusty, curly hair was newly cut and from a distance the scars on her forehead and cheeks from that long-ago ordeal were undistinguishable. I noticed Will’s stare. He was mesmerized, and no wonder. She looked beautiful.
In the congregation, people fell in with the rhythm of the song, nodding and singing along with quiet voices. “Farther along we’ll know all about it, farther along, we’ll understand why. Cheer up my brother…”Our hymnal was full of assurances of a time when mysteries would be solved and loved ones reunited. I loved those songs, though I wondered if they’d console me if the person I needed most in the world could no longer hold my hand. It would be hard to cheer up.
Price motioned us to stand when he switched to “Amazing Grace.” Grateful for the release, we sang in gusty fashion. Much as I’d dreaded the funeral, I had to admit it had been satisfying, the kind that always left me feeling in touch with a fundamental truth—that good people were our greatest gifts. But uplifting as the funeral was for me, I doubted it had done anything to ease Piney’s grief or spare her the lonely time ahead.