The Meaning of Us

1

Too late, I changed my mind about how easy it would be to own the Eat and Sleep.

I’d convinced Barlow that owning a second business would be no trouble—Minnie would manage it, as she’d intended to do when she and her disreputable man had built the first one. Before the flood and fire. Before her man had been shot in our back yard. Before she’d become my friend.

Barlow had agreed, the lot was a prime location, and if we didn’t buy it, a competitor would snap it up.

Rebuilding the Eat and Sleep had been an exciting time, with much to discuss, decide, and watch. Throughout autumn, we’d been encouraged by the sight of what was happening at the roadside: the wagonloads of lumber, the arrival of workmen, the new wood framing going up in place of the burned ruin.M2_The_Meaning_of_Us

The difficult part began when the Eat and Sleep opened for business, though it opened with a promising rush of long-term guests, the best kind for a steady income. I might not have thought a thing about Minnie being on her own in a houseful of men if the place hadn’t belonged to Barlow and me and if we hadn’t come to care about her. Minnie’s security would have been her business, her problem. Now it was ours.

Minnie’s new residents, six miners, had previously lived in the bachelor house, but the bank had bought the house and decided to rent it to a single family. When I welcomed the idea of the bachelors living in the Eat and Sleep, I’d forgotten that men who lived without the civilizing influence of women often behaved badly. I might have forgotten because our good watchmen, Smitty and Mr. Cunningham, had once lived with some of those men in the bachelor house. In hindsight, I should have asked their opinion. But like Minnie, I was eager for the Eat and Sleep to start paying for itself.

Minnie, I’d learned, was the kind of woman who liked to take care of problems without calling for help, so I might not have learned so quickly about her difficulties if I hadn’t walked in on a disturbing scene. It was a blustery December morning, a Saturday, and a delivery man from the company store had left two boxes of groceries in the boardinghouse kitchen. Contents of the boxes were identical—canned milk, flour, coffee, rice, dry beans and sugar—but one was meant for the Eat and Sleep. I didn’t notice the mistake until later, when I started to put the groceries away.

There was no work at the mine that day, so Smitty was lounging in our kitchen, drinking coffee and exchanging stories with Luzanna’s new husband, Truman Cunningham, while Luzanna stood at the worktable, laughing at their jokes and slicing thin strips from a roll of noodle dough. Her daughter Emmy was also in the house, taking care of my children, so when Smitty said he’d carry the box to the Eat and Sleep, I decided to accompany him and see how Minnie was getting along on her third day in business.

Like the original building, the Eat and Sleep had an outside staircase to the second floor, but Barlow had designed a few changes, giving Minnie a bedroom, sitting room and bath on the main floor. The eight small rooms upstairs were connected to the main floor by an inside stair that had a door that could be locked on both sides. He’d insisted on the double locks, both to protect the guests and to keep them from invading the kitchen cupboard on the main floor.

I’d spoken to Minnie about the advisability of hiring a watchman for the Eat and Sleep who could also serve as handyman. Today I intended to ask again if she thought any of the residents might be interested in a free room in exchange for evening duties and occasional odd jobs. Minnie expected to do most of the work herself, possibly employing a kitchen helper for the restaurant, which she hoped to open to the public sometime in the next week. Today she might need the groceries to feed her residents.

Smitty and I put on our heavy coats, boots and hats, for the morning was cold and windy, with about a foot of dry snow. Smitty walked ahead down the lane to the main road, keeping to the snow-filled tracks left earlier by Barlow’s car and the delivery truck. I followed, my head bent against the wind, holding up the hem of my coat and trying to step in his footprints. Our winter landscape was often gray, muddy, and smoky from coal fires, but this day was hushed and cleansed by a heavy drape of white, and so quiet we could hear the drift of snow and the trickle of the icy river.

Where our lane met the main road, I stopped to brush snow from the sign advertising our boardinghouse. I’d reluctantly agreed to a roadside advertisement last summer when competition from the first Eat and Sleep had loomed like a threat. The first sign I’d commissioned had been a poor attempt. I liked this one because it didn’t merely advertise—its border of greenery, flowers, birds and butterflies enhanced the scenery half the year and provided a nice spot of color when the days were bleak and the trees bare. But nobody could appreciate it all stuck with snow, and I couldn’t reach even to its middle. I’d have to ask Smitty to bring a broom and brush it off. Today might not matter; few would travel in this weather, though any who were out might need to stop somewhere. Being right on the main road, the Eat and Sleep was easier to find than our boardinghouse.

When we’d bought and rebuilt the Eat and Sleep, we hadn’t changed its roadside sign, which was bold and stark and merely stated the name and price of a meal and bed for the night. Minnie said the price was important because people liked to know, and though I disliked the sign I’d given way to her opinion. I’d changed my mind about a number of things. Last summer I’d thought her manner was excessive and false—too warm, too friendly. Now I knew she was as warm and friendly as she seemed, and she knew as much about this business as I did, possibly more. Before coming to Winkler she’d operated a roadhouse tavern, dealing with all types of people. If she was afraid of anything, she never let it show.

The Eat and Sleep was about forty yards from the end of our lane. I’d just passed its snow-crusted sign when the quiet was broken by bursts of angry voices and thumps. Smitty hurried forward, leaving greater spaces between the imprints of his boots. By the time I reached the front of the building he’d dropped the box of groceries in the snow and was hesitating at the door, clutching a broom like a weapon. From the ruckus inside, I was sure the residents were destroying everything. “Minnie,”I worried.

Smitty and I stepped back as something hit the wall. He opened the door a crack, then pushed it wide and stepped over the threshold. I peered over his shoulder in time to see a man fall against one of our new square tables. A sugar bowl slid off, bouncing and rolling and scattering its contents on the floor. Before the man could right himself, his attacker bent and began punching.

In the middle of the room, two other men pushed each other among overturned tables and chairs. One of them swung a fist, but his aim was wild. His opponent stumbled toward the man now pinned to the floor, but the other caught him and pushed him against the lunch counter, breaking a glass and knocking over a cup of coffee.

Minnie was nowhere in sight, but a burly sort of man peeked briefly from behind the new linoleum-topped counter.

Smitty dropped the broom and wrapped his arms around the back of the nearest fighter, who was still punching the one he’d pushed into the table. For a moment he stopped punching and tried to throw Smitty off, then another brawler jumped on Smitty’s back. Caught between the two, Smitty squirmed, stomping on toes and swinging his elbows. I picked up the broom and swung the handle like a paddle across the rear of the man holding Smitty from behind. The handle broke from the impact, but the blow was enough to make the man let go and whirl around to me. His face changed from rage to surprise.

I shouted, “Stop this,” grasping the splintered end of the broom like a spear, feeling weak and foolish.

The man paused long enough to frown and sneer, then turned and grabbed Smitty again. Smitty was short but stocky and strong. With a roar, he elbowed and shook him off, then pulled the other fighter from the man he’d pushed against the table.

I hadn’t expected this—the injured man was colored. He sat up and held his shirttail to stop the blood streaming from his nose. He looked younger than the others, but surely old enough to know some places might not be safe for him. Colored miners and their families lived in Pleasant Grove, some two miles away. The men passed through Winkler on their way to the mine works, and their women shopped in the company store, but they had their own church and school.

Smitty picked up the other shattered piece of broom and stood beside me, facing everyone else. The men he’d fought off recovered their balance and took a step away. I still hadn’t seen Minnie, and I didn’t know whether to be angry or afraid for her.

One of the two remaining fighters was now pushing his opponent’s face into the counter. Smitty shouted. “Mrs. Townsend said you’re to knock off! She’s the boss!”

The two at the counter backed away from each other. I was not surprised by the smirks and low laughter that followed Smitty’s declaration. Even men who treated women with politeness and civility often did so with a manner suggesting our ignorance could be excused and our opinions disregarded, because after all, we were only women. We weren’t supposed to give orders to men.

One came forward and gave the injured man a hand up. He took a few steps and sat with his helper on one of the padded stools at the counter. The other three slowly made their way to the left. The man crouched behind the counter stood up, his face sullen and wary.

I didn’t know these men, and I doubted they knew me. Barlow and I had agreed we needed to let Minnie manage and not attempt to guide the day-to-day operation. But where was she?

“See if you can find Minnie,” I said.

The miners lit cigarettes. As Smitty walked toward Minnie’s apartment, he passed one who said, “Sorry, Bud.” I supposed he might know some of them.

I crossed behind the counter to the kitchen nook and picked up a dish towel, aware of the men’s eyes and my shoes tapping on the wooden floor. No one spoke as I gave the towel to the injured man.

Smitty came out of the apartment with Minnie, who looked around the room, opened her mouth when she saw the injured man wiping blood from his face, then hurried to me. “Poor Franklin. I couldn’t stop it. I was trying to reach you on the telephone. Luzanna said she’d send her husband.”

Smitty pointed to a man on the left and then to the man behind the counter. “You over there, and you, Wilson. Straighten up them tables and chairs. If any’s broke, I’m gonna give the boss every one of your names and tell him to dock your pay.”

Wilson was the burly man who’d hidden behind the counter. “I had no hand in this,” he said.

“Don’t look like you tried to stop it, neither.” Smitty gave him and each of the others the benefit of his scowl. “Get to cleaning this up.”

The men began to upright the chairs, but slowly, like pouting children. Except for differences in height, most looked alike—shocks of poorly trimmed brownish hair, thin, middle-aged faces that might be shaved only on Sunday, faded shirts and pants, scuffed work boots. Only one was young and clean, the man with the darkest skin. His bloodied shirt had a stiff collar and freshly pressed creases in the sleeves.

The door behind us banged open with a blast of cold air and Truman Cunningham hurried in. He stopped abruptly, surveying the room and the men up-righting tables and chairs. “Guess you got this in hand. Mrs. Townsend, what do you want us to do with these brawlers?”

“Do all of them live here?” I didn’t mean the colored man, who might innocently have wandered in.

“They do,” Minnie said.

Did she mean everyone?

“Come with me.” She motioned to her apartment. “I’m sorry,” she said, when she’d closed the door behind us. “This started because I sat down at the table with Franklin.”

“Which one is he?” I was afraid I knew.

“The colored one. His poor nose!”

“That’s Franklin, and he lives here?”

She nodded. “We were just talking and drinking coffee, but I guess a couple of the men didn’t like how I was laughing. One pulled Franklin out of his seat, then Franklin’s roommate came and pushed that one away. Right away others ganged up on him and Franklin—at least that’s how it looked. I ran to call you—the phone rang and rang and finally Luzanna answered.”

“How long has Franklin been here?”

“He came with the others from the bachelor house,” she said. “I thought they all got along—he said he’s lived with these men since last summer. He makes them laugh, and I supposed everyone liked him. Maybe there are problems I don’t know about?”

I slipped off my coat. My fingers and toes were still icy, but my head was hot. Problems?“People here have fixed ideas about what’s right and wrong, especially what’s right and wrong for everybody else. They talk about colored people ‘knowing their place.’ Men, especially, get upset when they see a colored man with a white woman.”

“I feel terrible. It was my fault.”

“Maybe the men thought they’d warn him, should he decide to take advantage of your hospitality. I’m not defending them, just saying how it is. Surely you knew?”

She clutched her arms to her middle. “I’m so stupid. I’ve never been around many colored people. I’ve heard that talk about keeping them in their place, but I didn’t know they could get in trouble if they didn’t. I thought it was likely no different from Protestants and Catholics and Jews not wanting their kids to marry each other, or how all the foreigners keep to themselves.”

“It’s worse. I saw a lot of mistreatment of the Indian population when I lived in North Dakota. We had children of mixed race in the orphanage, and some of our staff did not like them. I don’t think there are laws against marriage between people of different religions or nations, but we have laws against colored and Indians marrying whites. A colored person who does that can go to jail—if he’s lucky enough to escape lynching.”

“I’m sorry. I thought that was in the South. Or is West Virginia part of the South?”

“It’s a border state, but don’t quote me, because I know about this only from what people say. I came here with my first husband when Winkler was a sawmill town.”

“Your firsthusband?”

Minnie had lived in Winkler less than a year, but I thought someone would have told her. “Barlow is my second. He was manager of the lumber company when I met him, long before we married. After Jamie died—my first husband—I lived 15 years in North Dakota. My point is, this town has always had a jumbled kind of population, some old settlers and others like Italian and Slovak immigrants and the colored coming up from the south for the logging and coal mining jobs. People do tend to stick with their old ways. As for being a southern state, West Virginia was on the side of the North in the war between the states, but many fought for the South.

“Minnie,” I said, softening my voice because it sounded like I was scolding. “I’m no wiser than you in matters like this.”

“It’s still my fault for being too familiar,” she said again. “And I should have set stronger house rules—no fighting, no spitting anywhere but in their rooms, they gotta use the outside stairs, and nobody comes into the restaurant unless they’ve washed off that mine grit. I’ve already told them they’re responsible for emptying their own spittoons, and they have to set them on newspaper, because half the time they spit, they miss.”

“So you’re going to allow Franklin to stay?”

“Like I said, the others like him. Maybe after this he’ll want to move out, but I’m not going to ask him to go.”

I appreciated Minnie’s determination to make the miners behave. I didn’t allow spittoons in the boardinghouse, but we’d anticipated a different sort of resident for the Eat and Sleep. Rules could always be cited as a reason for eviction, and they might even improve some of the men. Still, I worried about Minnie living alone with them.

“The mail carrier is going to move in next week,” she said. “A widower. He wants a room to himself. I’ll still have empty rooms because the miners are doubled up so they don’t have to pay as much.”

I was glad to hear about the mail carrier, known to be a polite, church-going man. “Maybe he’ll be a good influence. Have you had any inquiries from women?”

“Just one, Mary Myers, but she had no money to pay. She’s being evicted from her place in Barbara Town because her man died. I felt bad, turning her away. She said she’d get work and come back, and I think she will—she looks strong enough to do any kind of work, even in the mine. Not that the men would tolerate a female underground, or in any man’s job. They say a woman in a mine is bad luck.”

I had no desire to work underground, but I didn’t like being identified as a bringer of bad luck, inferior, and one to be kept in her place. Why did some men think so poorly of us?

“What about Wilson, the big man? He didn’t appear to be fighting. Could he be your watchman and handyman?”

“Not until I know him better. So far, I don’t like him much,” Minnie said. “I don’t know why.”

Feeling united, we returned to the restaurant, where everyone now seemed oddly at peace. Smitty, Mr. Cunningham and Franklin sat at tables with the other miners, smoking and exchanging a bit of conversation as though the fights had never happened.

Minnie stood in front of them with a stern smile and hands on her hips. “This is how it’s going to be. I’m going to tell you the rules, and if you don’t intend to follow them, you better pack up. If you leave now, I’ll give you this week’s rent back, but if you break the rules I’ll kick you out and keep your advance money. Take your choice.”

Her residents looked offended but spoke no objections as she recited the new rules. If not for the wind whistling around the corners of the building, they might have walked out instead of grumbling and looking mean.

I was proud of Minnie but a bit uneasy about the future success of the Eat and Sleep. Steady residents were good for business as long as they didn’t give the business a bad name.

Smitty, Mr. Cunningham and I walked home without talk, our collars pulled up, hats pulled down, our hands in our pockets and the wind at our backs. When we reached the boardinghouse, Smitty stopped to sweep the front steps and porch, and though Mr. Cunningham was no longer part of our staff, he began to shovel a path along the side of the house to the back door. Minnie needed someone like them. No snow had been swept away at the front of the Eat and Sleep, and the outside stairway was enclosed in a drift. I couldn’t expect Minnie to do everything. It wouldn’t hurt those men to brush away a little snow—maybe all she had to do was suggest. And should they be allowed to use the restaurant as their sitting room? We hadn’t talked about that.

I followed Smitty onto the porch and entered by the front door. The house seemed to welcome me. I liked to imagine how it must look to new guests. For a cozy welcome, I kept an amber-colored glass lamp burning in the entry hall and another in front of the parlor window. Day and night, they glowed softly on their polished mahogany stands.

I set my rubber boots side by side on the thick rug and hung my coat and hat on the wall rack. The entry also had an umbrella stand and two chairs near the door to the small front office, a convenience for anyone who had to wait.

Barlow and I had overspent on the boardinghouse furnishings, choosing what we liked and what would be comfortable and wear well. The residents valued comfort and tranquility, and I believed Luzanna, Smitty, and the girl who came in to do laundry appreciated the orderly progress of our daily tasks. The congenial atmosphere was enhanced by our current residents—Mrs. Fellows, who was a partner in the new bank; our two teachers, and Glory, Barlow’s niece. Once or twice a week we also had transient guests who provided an interesting variety to dinner table and parlor conversation.

Minnie and I knew we wouldn’t charge as much or have the same kind of customers in the Eat and Sleep, and we’d been frugal in choosing the furnishings. Still, everything was clean and new, and I wanted it to stay nice. In only three days, her residents had tracked and smeared the main floor with watery coal dust, scraped their muddy shoes on the chair rungs and knocked about our tables and chairs.

Luzanna was waiting in the kitchen, which was cozy with steamed-up windows and the hearty aroma of fresh-baked bread. Six browned loaves cooled on the worktable, and her noodles were spread to dry. The sink was empty, dishes put away, and the linoleum was spotless. “I cut up chickens to boil with noodles for Sunday,” she said.

“Ah, good. You’re wonderful.”

At that moment Mr. Cunningham and Smitty came in the back door. Smitty took off his coat and boots and went to his chair at the breakfast table. Luzanna and her husband smiled when they saw each other, as though each was experiencing a pleasant surprise. Since her marriage, she’d stopped confiding details about herself and her family. I missed that, but always got a pleasant feeling when I saw them together, a contented, compatible pair with their own private life.

“Well,” she said, “what happened?”

I let the men tell about the fight, then I described Minnie’s new rules. The men said nothing about Minnie sitting down at the table with Franklin, so I didn’t mention that.

“She should of give those rules at the start,” Luzanna said.

“Rules won’t make no difference,” Smitty said. “If it ain’t the colored man it’ll be something else, ’cause in my way of thinking, them men is the dregs, Franklin Jones excepted.”

I saw Luzanna’s eyebrows lift at the mention of “colored.”

Mr. Cunningham lit his pipe. “I gotta say I’m surprised Minnie has took in colored. Did you and Mr. Townsend know about that?”

I hadn’t known, and I was glad I’d been relieved of the decision. “She’s in charge,” I said.

“I’m surprised Franklin’s risking himself, boarding with them white roughnecks instead of with some law-abiding family in Colored Town,” Smitty said.

“Pleasant Grove,” I said. “People who live there call it ‘Pleasant Grove.’”

Luzanna put on her coat. “The colored man is Franklin Jones?”

“That’s him,” Smitty said. “Younger than them others, maybe 20.”

“If he’s the one I’ve heard of, likely he feels safer over here in Winkler,” Luzanna said. “There’s been talk about him having trouble with women, married ones too. Could be he’s hiding from their men.”

“And could be he’s bragging about them women,” Mr. Cunningham said. “Gives him an excuse to mix in with whites, move up in the world.”

I would have laughed if I hadn’t seen Franklin’s bloody face and swollen nose. “No one is going to go up in the world by mixing with those men at the Eat and Sleep.”

“Likely you’re right about that,” Mr. Cunningham said. “Maybe him and them old coots will get along, but think of this. Will other white people stay in the house with Jones there? Or that restaurant Miss Minnie’s gonna run—will folks eat there with a colored man?”

I didn’t know, but having seen its current residents, I might not choose to eat or sleep at the Eat and Sleep unless I was desperate. “Nobody seems to mind if a colored person cooks their food or takes care of their children,” I said.

Smitty took the pipe from his mouth. “Ma’am, it’s the way things is. Maybe it keeps the peace.”

I knew what he was saying. Until I was 17, I’d lived in a farming community, seeing colored people only occasionally in larger towns. If they’d had problems different from ours I hadn’t known about them, though in truth I’d given no thought to anyone else’s problems, fixated as I was on myself and what I considered my lack of interesting marriage prospects. Here in Winkler there’d been occasional fights between groups of colored and white boys during Trading Days, when everybody mixed on Main Street, but the white boys fought among themselves as well.

I felt a rise of stubbornness about how easily we gave in to the customary ways of doing things.

A fight, and a colored resident in the Eat and Sleep. I wondered what Barlow would say.

End of the first chapter.

Ebook available on Amazon.com. The Meaning of Us will soon be out in paperback too.

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