Sitting on the edge of the bed in the front room, Blanche stoops to rip at the laces of her gaiters. “ ‘Dors, min p’tit quinquin — ’ ” Her husky voice frays to a thread on the second high note. She clears her throat, rasping away the heat.
A train hurtles north from San Jose. The light from the locomotive’s headlamp jabs through the long gap between the peeling window frame and the green blind, illuminating the room for Blanche: the shabby bureau, the bedstead, and Jenny, lolling against the scarred headboard. The Eight Mile House shakes like cardboard as the freight cars rattle by. Here at San Miguel Station, they’re right at the southern boundary — the last gasp — of San Francisco.
Two days Blanche and Jenny have been boarding with the McNamaras, auld acquaintance to Jenny but still virtually strangers to Blanche. How much longer will Blanche be stuck in this four-room shack, she wonders, on the parched outskirts of the outskirts of the City? And how will she decide when it’s even halfway safe to go back?
Blanche has got the left gaiter off now, and the boot below it, but the laces on the other one have snagged, and in the light of the single candle stub she can’t find the knot; her long nails pick at the laces.
Dors, min p’tit quinquin,
Min p’tit pouchin,
Min gros rojin . . .
Sleep, my little child, my little chick, my fat grape. The old tune comes more sweetly now, the notes like pinpricks. A silly Picard rhyme her grandmother used to sing to Blanche in the tiny attic in Paris.
“ ‘Dors, min p’tit quinquin, min p’tit pouchin . . . ’ ” Jenny slides the refrain back at her like a lazy leaf in a river.
It still amazes Blanche how fast this young woman can pick up a song on first hearing.
“How does the rest of it go?” Jenny asks, up on one elbow, brown cheeks sparkling with sweat. Her flesh from nose to brows is puffy, darkening. She’ll have a pair of black eyes by morning.
But Blanche doesn’t want to think about that. Jenny never harps on what’s past, does she? She wears her bruises like parade gear, and they fade fast.
Blanche sits up straighter on the edge of the bed and sings on.
Te m’f’ras du chagrin
Si te n’dors point qu’à d’main.
“ ‘Shut your trap, little baby, before I shut it for you,’ ” Jenny translates very loosely, nodding. “Guess most lullabies boil down to that.”
And Blanche is suddenly winded by an image of P’tit, wherever he is. A stern hand coming down to shut his trap. If only she knew the baby was all right: just that much. Has Jenny ever in her life stopped to think before opening her own goddamn trap?
But her friend’s eyes are half sealed already, feline as she settles back on the limp pillows. Above the nightshirt borrowed from McNamara, Jenny’s battered face is flattening toward sleep.
Blanche hauls up her skirt and sets her right ankle on her left knee to get a better look at the tangled lace. The gritty canvas of the gaiter clings to her calf like skin that won’t be sloughed. Mud flecking the floorboards, the dingy sheets; the whole shack is probably crawling with fleas and lice. Blanche bends closer to make out the knot. Another few seconds and she’ll have it undone. Her lungs fill, stretching rib cage, skin, corset, bodice, as she croons again: “ ‘Te m’f’ras du chagrin — ’ ”
The cracks come so hard Blanche takes them for thunder. The hot sky must have finally exploded, forking its blades into the eaves of the Eight Mile House. Oh, she shouldn’t have been singing, she thinks with a superstitious shiver; she’s brought on a storm.
“Qu’est-ce — ” Is that the start of a question from Jenny, or just a gasp?
The candle’s out, and it’s so dark here in the hinterlands. “Wait,” Blanche tells Jenny, lurching to her feet with her right boot still on. A sulfurous tang on the air — she’s never known a thunderstorm to smell like that. Fireworks? But what is there to celebrate on the fourteenth of September? Outside, the dogs of San Miguel Station bark in furious chorus. What can blow out a candle? Knock it over, spatter its burning wax — is that what’s running down her jaw?
“John!” That’s Ellen McNamara in the back room, bawling for her husband.
A thump, something falling near Blanche. Has the little washstand toppled off the bureau?
Blanche’s right cheek is dripping as if with scalding tears, but she’s not crying. She swabs it and something bites — some monstrous skeeter? No, not an insect, something sharp. “Merde, I’ve been cut,” she cries through the stifling dark.
No answer from Jenny. Behind the thin bedroom wall, in the saloon, a door bangs. McNamara, only half audible, and his wife, and the children, shrieking too high for Blanche to make out the words.
She’s staggering now. The boards crunch under her bare sole. Glass: that must be what’s cut her cheek. The lightning’s shattered the window and made a hole in the blind, so a murky moonlight is leaking in. Blanche pants in outrage. Will those dogs ever shut up so she can hear herself think? She squints across the bedroom. “Jenny?” Kicking shards off her foot, Blanche clambers onto the bed, but Jenny’s no longer there. She couldn’t have got past Blanche without opening the door, could she?
The sheets are sodden to the touch. What can have wet them?
Blanche’s eyes adjust to the faint radiance. Something on the floor between bed and wall, puddled in the corner, moving, but not the way a person moves. Arms bent wrong, nightshirt rucked obscenely, skinny legs daubed with blood, and wearing a carnival version of a familiar face.
Blanche recoils. A second. Another.
She forces her hand down toward — to feel, to know for sure, at least — but the geyser spurt against her fingers sends her howling back to the other side of the bed. She clings to the foul sheets.
Light smashes in the doorway from the saloon: McNamara with a lamp. “Miss Blanche, are you shot or what?”
She blinks down at herself, scarlet all over.
Not quite a month ago, at the House of Mirrors in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
From the piano, the soft opening chords of a waltz. In the very center of the little stage, rising like the stigma of a flower: Blanche. All in white tonight, true to her stage name. She begins very slow and stately, as chaste as any ingenue in her first role; that’s the trick of the skirt dance. With delicacy, with wonder, as if she’s only just discovering the sleek waterfall of white satin spilling from her waist to her toes, Blanche circles the platform. She enfolds herself in the glossy material (forty-four feet around), lingers in its caress.
She makes sure to act as if she hasn’t noticed the men in the tight rows of crimson velvet chairs, as if they aren’t even there. The Grand Saloon is already packed early on this Saturday evening in the middle of August. Lamplight ricochets from the floor-to-ceiling looking glasses, and the red walls and matching tufted carpet seem to pulse with heat. Inside her frilled bodice, sweat is trickling down Blanche’s sides. But she holds herself as serene as any swan spreading its milky wings. She makes a screen of the vast silk skirt to silhouette her curves. The michetons must be leaning forward by now, eager to peer through the fabric, but she doesn’t so much as cast them a glance.
Delibes’s sweet melody gives way to the bolder theme, and Blanche starts to hop, glide, spin. She pushes every pose to its precise extreme. Face dipped to one knee, she raises the other leg behind her, pointing her toes at the gilt-coffered ceiling. The skirt slithers down her thigh, catching a little on the gauzy tights, threatening to turn inside out, and a few gasps erupt from the audience, even though they can see nothing yet — what thrills them most, Blanche knows, is what they can only imagine — but she rights herself and starts waltzing again as the music returns to the calm opening tune. Her face still cool and virginal.
Michetons who pay this much to watch a dance have complicated cravings. They need to be roused and refused at almost the same moment. Blanche is an expert tease, an allumeuse who lights the flame and snuffs it, lights and snuffs it.
She knows this routine so well, and the famous “Swanhilde Waltz” it’s set to, that she can let her mind wander. What was that slip of an Italian called, the first Swanhilde, at the premiere of Coppélia they attended, back in Paris? Five, no, six years ago; Blanche remembers being dazzled by every pirouette. Arthur came home one day during the siege with the news that she’d died, the little Italian. Even top ballerinas had had their wages frozen while the Prussians were at the gates of the city, and this one half starved, it was said, and succumbed to smallpox on her seventeenth birthday.
Goddamn it. Blanche has been trying to keep it outside the walls of her mind, the pestilence that began infiltrating San Francisco back in May. Smallpox: the very word makes her itch.
She almost stumbles. Then strikes a pose, very classical: a fleeing nymph metamorphosed into marble. As the music darkens in the final section of the waltz, Blanche bends back, all the way back, till her fingers are almost stroking the boards, and she starts to spin, her whole body the trumpet of a white lily revolving helplessly on its stem.
The accompaniment spirals upward, frantic, and Blanche whips upright, her swirling skirt engulfing the stage. Thunderous, triumphant chords. At the crescendo she touches the secret tape at the small of her back and the whole thing flies free, creamy satin swooping toward the audience and landing, albatross-like, on a pair of old millionaires.
The men’s whoops break the tension, but that’s all right. It wouldn’t be burlesque without a few laughs.
Blanche, now wearing only her bodice and a pair of shirred white pantaloons over her translucent tights, sucks one fingertip. As if she’s an innocent, discomfited by the greedy stares. The Professor, at the piano, knows to wait. She sings the first verse a cappella, like some creamy-skinned beggar girl on a street corner:
Darlin’, better love just one —
Darlin’, better love just one.
You can’t love more than one,
And have all the fun —
Darlin’, better love just one.
Now the piano takes up the tune, adding some sauce. “ ‘You can’t love two,’ ” Blanche warns the crowd, wagging that wettipped finger, “ ‘and keep me true to you — ’ ”
The minute she first heard this song, crooned off-key at the back of a streetcar, she knew she could make an act of it. She does a different little dance after each verse. Blanche is gaining in knowledge, ripening before their eyes. By the fourth verse her strut behind the footlights grows impudent. “ ‘You can’t love four, and come knocking on my door — ’ ” Can’t, she insists, but her dance is saying Can, can, can, can. Her hips respond to imaginary handling. Blanche moves as dancing girls have moved for as long as there’ve been dancing girls, through the whole sweaty history of the human race.
You can’t love five,
And eat honey from my hive —
Darlin’, you can’t love five.
A surge of heat goes through Blanche. She’s counting: fifty dollars from this performance, plus whatever she’ll make from a private rendezvous afterward. Every dip, sway, pout, wiggle, grind, she converts into greenbacks in her head and that gives extra vim to her movements, burnishes the shine of her eyes. “ ‘You can’t love six, and teach me any tricks — ’ ” she scolds the crowd, flicking a couple of hats off their front-row wearers with rapid-fire toe kicks. One red-faced visitor squeals with such delight, she fears he might drop down in an apoplectic fit.
At the back of the Grand Saloon stands a nunnish figure in gray, the proprietor: Madame Johanna Werner. She gives Blanche a sober nod of approval.
Jump splits now, panting just enough to make it interesting:
You can’t love eight,
And get through my pearly gate —
Darlin’, you can’t love eight.
Did Blanche forget the seventh verse? Who cares. Down on her hands and knees, shaking her hips as she taunts the michetons over one round shoulder. “ ‘You can’t love nine, or you’ll run out of time!’ ” She jerks as if rammed by an invisible lover. “ ‘You can’t love ten, and do that to me again — ’ ”
At the twelfth verse, Blanche shuts her eyes and belts it out as urgently as she can.
Darlin’, you can’t love twelve —
Darlin’, you can’t love twelve.
You can’t love twelve,
Or I’ll have to manage by myself —
She lets her voice crack with desperation. One hand slips inside the waistband of her pantaloons; now the other. Men are groaning, writhing in their velvet chairs. Every cigare in the house is smoking now. And Blanche is excited too. Her genius for this job is that she doesn’t have to pretend, because every throb of her salty little crack is real.
Flat on her back now. Legs thrashing in the air. Assailed by an unseen crowd of thrusting incubi. Blanche gasps: “ ‘You can’t love thirteen, or it’s gonna start hurting . . . ’ ”
Later that evening, as she steps out of the International Hotel, her sleeves instantly glue themselves to her arms. The ink-black porter holds the door, and the quarter she drops into his pink palm is sticky from hers.
The organ-grinder at the corner is cranking out the Triumphal March from Aida, the same barrel he was playing more than an hour ago when a cab brought Blanche to the hotel. The man has stamina, she’ll grant him that. His organ must weigh a hundred pounds, and despite the spindly hinged leg it leans on, its strap is pulling his shoulders down like a millstone. His wife gives her tambourine a listless smack on every fourth beat, and their spaniel capers in a joyless, practiced way.
Twilight now, and the light is dimming but the warmth has only thickened. L’heure bleue, they used to call it at home, “the blue hour,” when the sky turns that serious azure and the jagged horizon blackens. Not that this cockeyed metropolis is a patch on Paris, to Blanche’s mind, even if some call it the Paris of the West. The Capital of the West, maybe, but San Francisco is a tenth the size of the City of Light, and it hasn’t a smooth boulevard, a promenade, even an avenue worth the name. The City, the locals call it, as if it’s the only one. All hills, like some feather bed that a giant’s shaken and left a crumpled mess. Blanche has been marching up and down these slopes with all the other human ants for a year and a half, since she arrived from France, but she’ll never get used to the dizzying gradients.
She’s tired now. It’s not the leg show at the House of Mirrors, or the quick glass of champagne at the International with the micheton she’s just left winded on the hotel’s fine sheets. (He wasn’t a regular of hers but a silver millionaire passing through town for the night who begged Madame Johanna to bump him to the top of Blanche’s line. Actually, Blanche rather prefers the flyby-nights, since it’s easier to make a spectacular impression if it’s one time only.) No, it’s this strange heat that’s wearing her out. The summer began civilly enough, with warm breezes whisking away the morning fogs, but now, heading into the second half of August, the City can’t breathe. The air’s a stinking miasma of all the steams and soots San Franciscans can produce. One newspaper’s dug up an odd little fellow who’s been noting down what his thermometer tells him every day since he arrived in ’49. This summer of 1876 is the hottest season in his records, with the mercury hitting ninety every afternoon.
Half a block down Jackson, that same opera seems to be dragging on at the Chinese Royal Theater, all screeching strings, drum and gong. Blanche shakes her head to clear it. She gathers speed as she marches down Kearny, fuchsia skirt swaying lankly, heels knocking puffs of dust out of the wooden sidewalk. She’ll be back at her apartment in ten minutes. Then she can get out of these sticky clothes, and maybe have a drink with Arthur, if he’s home.
The Pony Express Saloon is already advertising September’s grand-prize-gala dogfight. Spotting a yellow smallpox flag nailed over the door of a dress shop, Blanche holds her breath and veers away. Red dots on face, hands, or feet, that’s what you look out for, according to the so-called experts. Not that they can agree on how you catch it, whether by poisonous vapors leaking from the ground or invisible bugs jumping from the sick to the well. And really, who can bear to stay shut up indoors holding their breath all summer?
Past the Bella Union Theater, where what sounds like a full house is chanting for the variety show to begin. The Ice Cream Boudoir is stuffed to the gills, but City Hall’s deserted — except for a prisoner in the lockup who clangs on the bars of the basement window as Blanche walks by, making her jump. Portsmouth Square is fenced with iron spears dipped in gold. Confetti of limp flower beds. Snoozers stacked like war dead under every canopied tree. In the fountain, two drunks wrestle for a chance to lie full length under the spout. Children hover out of range, gathering their nerve to dash in for a faceful of water. The sight makes Blanche thirsty, but she doesn’t fancy pushing her way through the bums and gamins to take a drink.
The streets are filling up now the sun’s gone down. Folks burst out of their stifling rooms. When Blanche stares west, past Nob Hill, she catches the last of the light sinking into the Pacific. On the corner of Clay, she spots that old one-eyed woman dragging her stained valise. To avoid her, Blanche pivots to cross Kearny but has to wait for a horsecar to rattle by. The fist-shaped cobbles release all the stored heat of the day into her shoes’ thin soles. She steps out in the streetcar’s wake, watching for fresh dung in the uncertain dusk — which means she doesn’t see the thing till it’s on top of her.
Black antlerish handlebars, that’s all she has time to glimpse before the gigantic spokes are swallowing her skirts. Her scream seems to break the bicycle in two. Machine explodes one way and rider another, smashing Blanche to the ground.
She tries to spring up but her right leg won’t bear her. Mouth too dry to spit.
The lanky daredevil jumps up, rubbing one elbow, as lively as a clown. “Ça va, mademoiselle?”
The fellow’s observant enough to read Blanche’s nationality from her style of dress. And the accent is as French as Blanche’s own. But the voice —
Not a man’s, Blanche realizes. Not a boy’s, even. This is a girl, for all the gray jacket, vest, pants, the jet hair hacked above the sunburned jawline. One of these eccentrics on whom the City prides itself — which only aggravates Blanche’s irritation, as if the whole collision were nothing but a gag, and never mind who’s left with merde on her hem.
A cart swerves around Blanche, hooves close enough to make her flinch. She gets up onto her knees, but she’s hobbled by her skirt.
The young woman in pants holds out a hand, teeth flashing in a grin.
Blanche slaps it away. For this female to run her down and then smirk about it —
A long screech of brakes: another horsecar at the crossing, bearing down on them. The stranger offers her hand again, with a theatrical flourish. Blanche grabs hold of the cool fingers and wrenches herself to her feet, hearing a seam rip under one arm. She staggers to the sidewalk, her skewed bustle bulging over one hip.
As she shakes out her aching right leg, she realizes she’s alone. The daredevil’s run half a block up Kearny and is roaring in English at some gamins who’ve seized their chance to make off with her fancy machine. Serves her right if it’s gone!
But by the time Blanche has hauled her bustle straight and slapped the dirt from her skirts, the rider’s back. Perched above the gigantic front wheel, she glides down the street to Blanche, then swings one leg over, hops down, and hits the ground running. “Jenny Bonnet,” she announces as if it’s good news, the accent thoroughly American now even if she says her surname in the French way, with a silent t. She tips her black hat to a natty angle. “And you are?”
“None of your business.” Blanche blows at the strand of hair that’s stuck to her damp lip and summons her crispest English, because what she lacks in height she can make up for in hauteur. “Listen, you he-she-whatever, the next time you get the notion to make the street your playground — ”
“Yeah, this thing’s the devil to steer,” interrupts Jenny Bonnet, nodding as if they agree. She has only about six inches on Blanche, up close. “Didn’t hurt you, though, did I?”
Blanche bristles. “I’m bruised from head to toe.”
“No bones sticking out, though?” The young woman makes a show of looking her up and down, mugging for a laugh. “No actual bloodshed per se?”
“You might have killed us both, imbecile.”
“If it comes to that, I might have fallen off a steamer to Lima this morning, and you might have caught your death,” says Jenny, jerking her thumb at a smallpox flag on a tobacconist’s just behind them.
Blanche jerks back and takes a few steps away.
“Instead, it appears we’re both safe and sound, and so’s my high-wheeler.” Jenny lets out a cowboy whoop.
And oddly enough, Blanche’s wrath begins to lift a little. Maybe it’s the whisper of a breeze rising off the Bay, where the masts of the quarantined junks and clippers seem to be swaying a little, unless that’s a trick of the dusk. Or the soft trill from a flute player in some apartment overhead. The lights are flaring on in the cafés and shops along Kearny, and soon Chinatown’s border will be as glittering as a carousel.
“Let me buy you a drink,” suggests Jenny, nodding toward Durand’s brasserie.
Blanche always likes the sound of that. “As an apology?”
“If you like. Never found them worth the candle myself.” Blanche hoists her eyebrows.
“If you’re sorry, folks can tell,” remarks Jenny. “No use piling on the verbiage.” She lays her bicycle flat outside the brasserie’s door and beckons a boy over to guard it.
“Do you reckon this kid won’t run off with it as fast as the others did?” asks Blanche, sardonic.
“Ah, I know where this one lives.”
That disconcerts Blanche. “I never imagine them as living anywhere in particular.”
Jenny nods up at the building’s rickety overhang: “He’s a Durand.”
As the two of them step into the garlicky fug, a couple of customers glance up, but nobody gives the young woman in pants a second glance. This Jenny must be an habitué.
Monsieur Durand greets her with a nod and clears a space at the bar with his elbows. His fat mustache is leaking wax as he comes back and slaps down their glasses and a carafe of wine. Blanche pours the wine, takes a long drink. Ah, that’s better. She wipes sweat out of her eyes. “Aren’t you sweltering under all those layers?”
A shrug as Jenny fills her own glass.
“September can’t come too soon for me. It has to cool down by then.”
“The City’s the exception to any rule,” says Jenny. “I’ve known it to be hottest in October.”
Blanche groans at the prospect.
Durand returns with two bowls of cuisses de grenouille au beurre noir they didn’t ask for. Discovering that she’s hungry, Blanche rips the firm, aromatic flesh from the frog thighs. “These aren’t like back in France.”
“No, they’re better,” Jenny counters. She lets out a grunt of pleasure as she chews. “Only ten minutes dead, that’s the trick. But a touch too salty. Tell him he’s still oversalting,” she throws at Durand.
The owner thumbs his mustache off his unsmiling mouth. “Portal,” he roars over his shoulder.
“How long have you been here?” Jenny asks Blanche. “Since the winter before last.”
“So why’ve you stayed?”
Blanche blinks at the question. “You have no manners, miss.” “Oh, I’ve got some,” says Jenny, “they’re just not what you might call pretty. Diamond in the rough, that’s me.”
Blanche rolls her eyes. “And why shouldn’t I have stayed, may I ask?”
“Most move on through,” observes Jenny. “As if the City’s just a mouth, swallowing them whole, and the rest of America’s the belly where they end up.”
Blanche winces at the image and pours herself more wine. California was Arthur’s choice, she recalls. Blanche couldn’t have found it on a map. All the French they got into conversations with on the ship were heading, like Arthur and Blanche and Ernest, to some big city — New York or Chicago if not San Francisco — where, it was said, the hospitality and entertainment trades paid well. “We came because we heard you can cock your hat as you please here,” she says, “and stayed for the same reason, I suppose.”
But Blanche has had enough of this style of questioning. “And you, when did you arrive?”
“Portal!” roars Durand again.
“I was three,” says Jenny, neat teeth nibbling her last frog leg, “but even then I was choosy about my food.”
“What are you now?”
“No,” says Blanche, “I mean — ” A chuckle. “Twenty-seven.”
Really? “Huh. That’s three years older than me, and I still look pretty fresh.”
Jenny grins back at her, neither agreeing nor contradicting.
“It must be your outfit,” says Blanche with a sigh, nodding at the pants. “It’s as odd as all get-out, but it does take years off you.”
They’re bantering as if they’ve always known each other, it occurs to Blanche with a prickle of unease. She’s not one for making friends with women, as a rule.
A mournful face looks through the hatch from the kitchen, and Durand snaps at him, “Ease up on the salt, Jeanne says.”
This must be Portal. The cook makes a small, obscene gesture in Jenny’s direction.
“You know I’m right, mon vieux,” she tells Portal.
“Stick to swamp-wading.” He mops his forehead with his sleeve and disappears again.
“So come on now,” says Jenny to Blanche, greedily, “who are you and what’s your story?”
“Hold on. Swamp-wading?” Blanche repeats.
“I caught these last night, out by Lake Merced,” Jenny tells her, holding up a glistening bone.
“That’s your trade? Hunting frogs?” Well, it would go some way to explain the young woman’s getup. “Don’t they give you warts?”
“That’s pure dumb superstition.” Jenny offers her small hands for examination.
They’re brown but smooth. “Couldn’t you work at something . . . I don’t know, less disgusting?”
“Guess I don’t disgust easy,” says Jenny. “The City has three hundred restaurants, and all the French and Chinese ones need frogs.”
“But they’re such ugly, clumsy creatures.”
“Clumsy? You ever seen them swim?”
Now that she thinks about it, Blanche realizes she’s never seen a live frog except on sale in barrels on Dupont Street. “But the smell, the slime — ”
“That’s fish you’re thinking of. Frogs don’t smell of anything,” Jenny corrects her, “and without a touch of slipperiness, you can’t have it both ways.”
“Live on land and in water as well. I call that crafty.”
Blanche purses her mouth. “That’s my glass you’re drinking from, by the way.”
Jenny blinks at it. “Sorry.” She gestures to Durand for another. “An apology at last,” marvels Blanche under her breath, satirical.
When the proprietor slaps a clean glass down in front of her, she refills it and strips the last shred of garlicky meat from a delicate bone with her teeth. “Since you’ve drunk from my glass,” she tells Jenny, “you should be able to read my thoughts. Except you’d probably call that more dumb superstition.”
Jenny furrows her brow. “Your name is Patience Vautrien . . . and you’re a dairymaid.”
Blanche makes a small sound of outrage. Those girls are known for their reek. “I did once work with horses,” she says. A fact, if a misleading one.
“But not anymore?” Jenny presses her temples, frowning with effort. “Mrs. Hector Losange, mother of five lovely offspring, known for her charity teas?” She waits. “Arabella Delafrance, lady spy?”
“Enough!” The joke suddenly sours on Blanche. As if it’s not as clear as day from her flowered bodice, fuchsia skirt, and general gaudiness that she’s a showgirl, at least, and probably on the town.
Why should she care who knows? If Blanche didn’t want to be recognized for what she was, she wouldn’t dress this way, would she? She never exactly intended to be a soiled dove (that curious euphemism), but neither can she remember putting up any real objection. She stepped into the life like a swimmer entering a lake, a few inches at a time.
“So where did you grow up,” she asks, to change the subject, “America’s belly or mouth?”
“Some gristly part, anyway,” Jenny jokes instead of answering. “How much?” asks a man at Blanche’s shoulder.
She decides to assume he’s addressing Durand. “Have you family?” she presses on.
“Found under a cabbage leaf, I was,” says Jenny, deadpan.
“I said, how much?” The American is breathing right in Blanche’s ear, and she can smell the chaw in his mouth.
“I’m eating,” she says without looking around.
“Only asking a civil question.” The big man squeezes up to the bar between the two women, dark wheels of sweat under his arms.
“You’re bothering the lady,” mentions Jenny.
He turns to look her up and down. “You reckon I can’t afford her?” Jingling coins in his pocket. “Because for your information, I could hire six of this slut” — jerking his thumb at Blanche — “with change to spare.”
“As the fellow says,” Jenny remarks, “better keep your mouth shut and seem stupid than open it and remove all doubt.”
The last thing Blanche wants is a quarrel. Across his bulk, she frowns furiously at Jenny.
“You calling me stupid?” asks the fellow after a second’s delay, reddening as he shifts his quid of tobacco to the other cheek.
“A leather-headed lunk of the highest order,” says Jenny pleasantly.
He presents his fist for inspection, inches from her face. “Somebody ought to teach you to keep your nose out of other folks’ business, girlie.”
“My friend Mr. Colt here would not concur.” Jenny slides her jacket aside to show a tapering shape in her trouser leg.
Blanche is off her stool and an arm’s length away, butter dripping. Absurdly, she wishes she’d picked up her napkin to wipe her mouth.
“Oh,” growls the American, “you’ve got nothing on you that impresses me, you, you puny — goddamn morphodite!”
Durand has finally noticed what’s brewing. “Dehors,” he roars, pointing toward the door.
Jenny hops down from the stool, a Harlequin in a pantomime.
The American follows obediently, but when Jenny holds the door for him with flip courtesy, he backhands her into the wall. The crack of the young woman’s skull against a faded print of the Champs-Elysées makes even the most dogged drinkers glance up.
“Monsieur Durand!” protests Blanche.
But the owner only raises his eyes to heaven.
Jenny, with the look of a stunned calf, bends to retrieve her hat.
The print falls to the floor with a tinkle of glass. And now the connard has her wrist behind her back and he’s marching her out, using her shoulder to shove the door open.
Blanche races out after them, yanks at his arm: “Have you no shame, whaling on a female like some brute?”
The American flicks her against the wall.
Struggling for breath, clutching her side, Blanche curses her size. At times like this she feels like some fairy in a world of trolls.
The man has dropped Jenny on the sidewalk. Is he going to stave her ribs in, stamp on her head?
Blanche lets out a wail.
No, he just lands a squirt of brown juice on Jenny and slouches off down the street. Without a second glance at Blanche, she notices — which tells her it was a row more than a woman that he was itching for all along.
She leans on the windowsill of the brasserie, dizzy. The leg bruised by the bicycle wobbles under her, and her ribs throb. Nothing’s broken, though. Blanche has enough experience to know that.
Kearny Street is humming around them, burners and reflectors multiplying the light of oil lamps in every storefront. Drinkers shuffle arm in arm from bar to bar, bawling dirty choruses. Knots of men head for the bordels on Commercial or Pacific to sample Jewesses, Mexicans, black girls, Orientals (though they’ll still pay highest for French, Blanche thinks with a certain satisfaction). A river of faces, festively red-eyed, as if they’ve given up even trying to sleep till the heat breaks. Smallpox be damned, nobody’s staying in tonight.
Jenny sits up and lifts her sharp chin with an attempt at a grin. Her face is swelling already: a dark-edged cut below the left eyebrow. She turns aside and pukes her supper neatly into the gutter.
How the evening’s complicated itself. Blanche should just walk away, right now, from this gun-packing jester who’s caused her damage twice in as many hours. Life in the City by the Bay is demanding enough without the company of someone who runs toward risk like a child to bonbons.
But she lets out a long breath. The fact is, Blanche hasn’t had so much fun with a stranger since — well, since leaving France, and farther back than that. Their little circle in San Francisco is — as it was in Paris — composed of Blanche, Arthur, Ernest, and whoever the two men bring home. Blanche can’t think of another acquaintance she’s formed as fast (and on her own) as tonight’s with Jenny Bonnet. Such a strange sense of familiarity and ease along with the novelty. “You should slap a bit of meat on that eye,” she advises.
A derisory grunt from Jenny. “Where do you live?” “Nowhere in particular.”
What a one for secrets this young woman is. “Come on, let’s get you home,” says Blanche, holding out her hand.
“Fact is,” says Jenny, clambering to her feet, “I’m only out a week.”
Out? Out of . . . ah, doesn’t that just take the cake: a jailbird. “What were you in for?”
“Oh, the usual. ‘Appearing in the apparel of the other sex,’ ” quotes Jenny in a pompous voice.
Blanche frowns. Can that be an actual crime? “Well, if this outfit gets you arrested,” she asks with a hint of impatience, “what makes you keep putting it back on?”
“It suits me,” says Jenny.
So deadpan that Blanche doesn’t register the pun until a second later. This young woman’s spirits sure revive fast. “You must be lodging somewhere,” Blanche persists.
“Been high-wheeling, mostly,” says Jenny.
Zooming along on that contraption, day and night? “What, you sleep on the wing like some seabird?”
“I take naps in parks or theaters, or on a friend’s sofa when I feel the need,” Jenny concedes.
There’s blood trickling onto the woman’s collar, Blanche notices now, and a trace of vomit on her chin. Blanche lets out a small groan. After all, it was for her sake, out of some kind of misguided gallantry, that this curious female got herself beat up. “Come on. I’m just a step away, on Sacramento Street.”
“Lady, what makes you think you have to — ”
“Come if you’re coming,” she snaps.
The Durand boy, perched astride the great spokes of the bicycle’s front wheel, is taking in the whole scene as comfy as if he’s in the stalls at the Bella Union Theater. Jenny flicks him a small coin and leads the machine off by the handlebars down Kearny Street.
She suddenly cuts sideways, nearly knocking Blanche down again, and rattles her machine across the cobbles. She halts below a window from which a song is drifting in a scratchy voice.
’Tis you who makes my friends my foes, ’Tis you who makes me wear old clothes.
Jenny leans against the wall, her face alight as she listens to the unseen man.
He sings, “ ‘Here you are so near my nose — ’ ”
“ ‘Tip her up,’ ” Jenny carols in an oddly sweet soprano, “ ‘and down she goes.’ ”
From inside the building, laughter, and several voices roar the chorus back at her.
Ha, ha, ha, you and me,
“Little brown jug,” don’t I love thee! Ha, ha, ha . . .
Blanche turns away with a sudden yawn. She crosses at the flagstone strip on the corner.
“ ‘The rose is red,’ ” Jenny belts out, gliding after her, standing straight-legged on the mounting peg of her machine.
My nose is, too,
The violet’s blue, and so are you;
And yet I guess before I stop,
We’d better take another drop.
Blanche leads the way west on Clay into Chinatown proper, where the streets are sinking into the patchy blackness of their accustomed night. The moon’s waning C has got caught in one of those alleys so skinny that the overhanging balconies almost touch. When Blanche and Arthur came to the City, they naturally washed up in Chinatown, where the rents were low and patrolmen hardly ever penetrated the warren of passageways. Few of the businesses here can afford to hire Specials to guard the streets, so folks live more or less as they like. Passing her favorite noodle house now, Blanche breathes in hot oil, ginger, and sesame. Then rotten vegetables, from the next alley. This quarter’s always filthy — mostly because the City supervisors won’t fix its sewers or pay for garbage collection. Arthur relishes it, claiming that skirting piles of fishtails makes him feel like a true bohemian. The newsmen call Chinatown a laboratory of infection; if even half what they say were true, Blanche thinks irreverently, she and Arthur and all its other residents would be dead by now.
Dupont Street is littered with yellow flags that shopkeepers must have ripped off their doors so they could get back to business. “I hope you’ve had your scratch?” she asks Jenny, suddenly wary.
Jenny slaps her sleeve above the elbow. “Stood in line for a day, eight years back, when it hit the City last.”
“I thought perhaps you’d take your chances,” Blanche teases, “being so devil-may-care.”
Jenny grins back. “Devil-may-care’s not the same as dumb as an ox.”
In the middle of the street, a spectral man in silk pants and bonnet is stooping to collect the little flags. Chinatown’s a soup of these pigtailed bachelors — more and more of them stirred into the mix every month. Low Long, Blanche’s lodger, tells her that’s because no one will rent to Orientals elsewhere in the City.
“What do you want with those?” Jenny calls out to the man. He blinks, doesn’t have enough English to answer her.
Blanche laughs under her breath. “Word’s going round this week that the flags aren’t the mark of the disease, but the opposite — they scare it away.”
Jenny shakes her head in wonder. “Like some old girls I met in jail, quite convinced by the scaremongers that vaccinations give you syph!”
Looking into an alley, Blanche glimpses knots of people bedding down on skinny balconies, flat roofs, even stoops — anywhere that might offer a breath of air in the suffocating night. At the corner of Sacramento Street, she and Jenny pass a metal drum full of smoldering blankets and rugs. A rubber-masked man is hammering a wet sheet over the door of a building that has steam pouring out all its windows. Another white official is herding a dozen Chinese men with waist-length braided pigtails into a wagon stenciled Board of Health.
Blanche and Jenny step off the sidewalk but both catch pungent facefuls of sulfur and start coughing.
Merde. It’s that one-eyed wreck of a Frenchwoman whom Blanche tried to avoid earlier. She’s hovering over the paraphernalia she hawks from her suitcase.
“Maria, chérie, ça va?” Jenny calls back, rattling her machine across the cobbles to reach the old witch and then kissing her on both cheeks.
Perhaps a cancer, or is it leprosy, eating the woman down to the bone? Blanche wonders with a shudder. She can’t bring herself to look at the melted face. The rouge only makes it worse, and so does the kohl ringing the remaining eye. Breasts hanging in this Maria’s bodice like thirsty tongues; she still dresses like what she must have been, though who’d pay for a piece of that? Still, no accounting for men’s tastes.
“You ride this thing?” Maria’s asking Jenny in a gravelly voice. “I fly it,” Jenny corrects her.
“Till you land and smash your face.” She puts one yellowed nail to Jenny’s swollen cheekbone.
“Nah, that was in a little scrap,” says Jenny with a hint of pride. “You know my friend?” she asks, gesturing to Blanche.
Who’s already shaking her head.
But Maria makes a ghastly curtsy. “Blanche Beunon, Blanche la Danseuse, top of the bill at the House of Mirrors!” Jerking her head down the block toward the brothel. “I haven’t had the honor.”
“Blanche la Danseuse,” repeats Jenny with a grin, “the famous dancer, that’s right.”
To avoid looking at the woman’s missing eye, Blanche examines the litter laid out around the valise as if there’s something she might possibly want: a set of brass weights, a stained cravat . . .
“Is that your mac I’ve seen with you, that long string of misery, Ernest something?” Maria steps so close, Blanche gets a reek of spirits off her.
“No,” she says, edging away.
“Ah, his ami intime, then? Albert, Arnaud?”
Blanche fights the impulse to tell the hag it’s none of her business. “Arthur Deneve,” she corrects her coldly.
But Maria’s already turned to Jenny. “You should put some meat on that to draw out the bad blood.”
“What claptrap. Blood’s just blood,” says Jenny.
Blanche takes her by the patched elbow of her gray jacket and hurries her west on Sacramento, the high-wheeler clattering along beside them. “Are you mad, kissing that creature?” she hisses when they’re out of earshot. “These things can be catching.”
Jenny giggles. “Acid, catching?” Blanche is taken aback.
“One splash of vitriol, that’s all it took to wipe out half Maria’s face,” says Jenny. “They didn’t do things by halves back in the Rush. She was the first French dove here, or so she claims . . .”
Blanche shudders. The Gold Rush was almost three decades ago; could the one-eyed hag really have lasted that long? “I say it again: you like everything disgusting.”
“You mean Maria?”
She does, but that sounds harsh. “I mean her story.” “I just like stories,” says Jenny with a shrug.
Blanche insists they stop at Hop Yik and Company for some meat. Mei’s face is glassy with sweat as he serves his countrymen unrecognizable things in bamboo boxes and twists of paper. He charges Blanche only two bits for a steak, though she suspects that’s because it won’t last another day. It has that tinge of gray, but it’s cold, at least.
She badgers Jenny into holding it to her swollen eye, and she wheels the machine for her across the busy intersection with Dupont Street to Blanche’s building, number 815. This block of Sacramento’s so steep, the sidewalk slashes diagonally in front of the first floor, where Low Long has his living quarters, workshop, and shoe store. With one of the keys on the ring hanging from her waist, Blanche lets them into the pitch-black stairwell.
“ ‘Au clair de la lune,’ ” she sings softly, “ ‘on n’y voit qu’un peu.’ ” By moonlight, you can’t see much.
“Can’t see a thing, in fact,” says Jenny. “What a deep voice you have for such a slip of a girl. Did Maman teach you that one, back in Paris?”
Blanche snorts. “She smacked me if she heard me singing.”
“She said it would attract lightning,” says Blanche, a little defensive. “Did you never hear that one — that a song can turn the weather?”
“More pure dumb superstition, I suppose.”
“Some folks just like to hit kids,” remarks Jenny, “the way others like a drink.”
“Oh, Maman liked that too,” says Blanche under her breath as she heads up the stairs. She thinks of her bedbound grandmother who shared Blanche’s mattress and taught her all the old songs sotto voce, mouth to ear. “You can leave your darling machine down here,” she throws over her shoulder.
“Won’t the landlord object?”
“That would be me,” says Blanche, smiling in the dark. “Huh,” says Jenny behind her.
It still sounds incongruous to Blanche. She never aspired to own property until a few months back, when one of their fellow lodgers mentioned that the building’s Swiss owner was desperate for cash to pay some fine. It gives her a twinge of amusement to remember bargaining him down to fifteen hundred dollars. All that legwork at the House of Mirrors, all those bouts in hotel rooms, converted by alchemy into bricks and mortar . . .
“Don’t much care for buying things, myself,” remarks Jenny.
Blanche bristles a little. Remembering Arthur’s laugh, the day she produced the deed with a ta-da. How he told her she’d make a good little bourgeoise. Not that he objects to the cash she collects every week from Low Long and their nine other lodgers of all trades and tints. “What about that revolver you were brandishing at Durand’s?” she counters.
“Ah, my equalizer,” says Jenny fondly. “Won that off a California infantryman in a poker game.”
“Why’s it called an equalizer?”
“Because anyone can load and fire it, easy.”
“I bet it’d be easy to shoot yourself in the leg if you keep bicycling around with that thing in your pocket,” Blanche tells her. “Yourself or the next innocent party you crash into, of course . . .”
“It can’t go off if I haven’t cocked it,” says Jenny, laughing. “Hey, if you don’t much care for buying things, where did you get your precious high-wheeler? I can’t imagine what such a fancy contraption costs.”
“Me neither,” Jenny assures her. “I found it last week on Market Street.”
“Found?” repeats Blanche, dubiously.
“Saw the wheelman come a cropper and get toted off on a stretcher,” explains Jenny. “That little back wheel’s treacherous — one rut and it flips you over the handlebars.”
“So you stole a valuable machine from a wounded man!” They’re on the second-floor landing now. The scent of oregano wafting down from the fourth story tells Blanche that the pickle-factory men from Corfu are cooking on their tiny stove.
“Well, I sure wasn’t going to just leave it lying there for the next passerby to grab.”
“The next thief, you mean,” retorts Blanche as she lets them in her front door.
“Well, a toff that can afford such a toy, I figure he can afford to lose it too,” says Jenny.
Blanche finds the matchbox and strikes a light.
When they first came to number 815, Blanche and Arthur lodged in a nasty chamber on the fifth floor — and then, once she’d been dancing for a month or two, they moved down to a better set of rooms on the third. After Blanche bought the building, she let the little room on the fifth to a pair of Irish hat trimmers and the one beside it to a Chinese vegetable-seller; two Scots, widow and daughter, lodge and run their photography studio on the third floor. Which means Blanche and Arthur have this roomy apartment that takes up the second story and gives them the fewest stairs to climb (which helps, when his back is bad). Air and light and space. No kitchen, but really, in San Francisco, why bother cooking if you can afford to eat out?
Jenny stands just inside the door, steak still pressed to one eye, gazing around with a child’s frank curiosity.
When Blanche has lit a few hanging lamps she can see that Gudrun’s at least cleared away the detritus of lunch, though the long deal table’s still speckled with crumbs. (Their help is a Swedish seamstress who lodges in the attic in exchange for light housecleaning. Blanche and Arthur prefer this arrangement to having some live-in on top of them; Gudrun flits in and out, morning and evening, as if nervous about lingering long in such a ménage.)
Trying to see through the stranger’s eyes, Blanche registers the bare windows, the motley furnishings: a fine Turkish shawl draped over the balding back of the sofa. Not so much la vie de bohème, it occurs to her, as life in a dump. But why should Blanche give a rat’s ass what this visitor thinks? Jenny Bonnet’s a vagrant just out of lockup. An admitted thief, too, whom Blanche has invited into her home for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to her.
Jenny’s over by the window now, apparently relishing the view of Sacramento Street.
While the woman’s back is turned, Blanche undoes the top buttons of her greasy silk bodice and tugs out half the cash she earned in the International Hotel this evening. She tucks the notes into the emerald chamber pot that sits cheekily in the fireplace. (It was Arthur’s brain wave, one drunken night, to stash their money where burglars were unlikely to look.) The pot’s not as full of notes as it was, Blanche notices before she sets the lid back on; Arthur must have taken a big handful as his night’s gambling stake.
Looking in the huge mirror, she considers her hair, a cloud of maddened bees. In lieu of an hour with hot irons and pins, she catches one honey-brown curl and thrusts it back into the hive.
Ah, there’s yesterday’s Courrier de San Francisco over the back of a rush chair; Blanche flattens it on the sofa. “Take the weight off your feet,” she orders, “but keep that steak on.”
Jenny stretches herself out in a gingerly way. Shifts, then pulls her revolver out of her pocket and slides it under the sofa. The meat juice trickles down her face onto the newspaper, and her hat tips sideways, letting out her shock of black hair.
Blanche sinks into an old lion’s-claw-footed armchair. She should boil up some coffee on the spirit lamp, change her butter-stained bodice. But she’s spent, all of a sudden. The unending August heat, the collision with the bicycle, strong wine, that connard hurling her against the wall outside the brasserie . . . She lays her head back, just for a minute.
In the saloon of the Eight Mile House at San Miguel Station, on the fourteenth of September, Blanche huddles on one of the barrels that serve for stools. Dead. Dead, she repeats in her head, trying to grasp it. Jenny’s dead on the floor in there. In our — the McNamaras’ front room.
Behind the bar, John McNamara fumbles open the case of the clock. What’s he doing? He clutches the pendulum, stills its tick: 8:49, Blanche sees, squinting at the clock hands. The time. He’s stopping the time.
“The boy,” Ellen McNamara howls suddenly from the back room. She appears in the doorway, crazy-eyed. “Where’s the boy?”
Her husband only blinks at her.
Blanche’s mind is moving as slowly as syrup. That wasn’t thunder she heard, a matter of minutes ago, but bullets shattering the window. A hard hail that just missed Blanche where she was sitting, on the edge of the bed. Bullets winging over her head as she bent down to undo her right gaiter.
She presses her teeth together so as not to say his name: the man whose bullets have ripped her friend to pieces. She thinks she may puke.
Jenny! All that light snuffed in a single second.
The door bursts open and Blanche almost screams.
But it’s not him. Only little Phil Jordan from the grogshop next door, eyes wide, dancing from foot to foot like a featherweight. With the twelve-year-old hunched behind him. “Did you hear that?” demands Jordan.
Then his eyes take in Blanche, the butcher-shop state of her. “Hear it?” wails Ellen McNamara. “Wasn’t there gunfire punching through the wall within an inch of my head?” She glimpses her son behind Jordan and runs over to enfold him in her arms. “John Jr., are you shot?”
The boy only yelps in her grip.
“This young fellow was sitting in the outhouse doing his business,” says Jordan, patting him awkwardly on the head. “The noise put him into such a fright, he leaped up and gave his arm an awful thump on the door.”
“Jenny’s — ” McNamara, sunken-faced, tilts his head toward the bedroom.
“Ah no,” cries Jordan. “Not Jenny.” Dead? He mouths it as if it’s an obscenity.
Blanche notices, for the first time, spatters on the floor by the bedroom door.
“To think of you stumbling around in the middle of murderers,” Ellen keens over her boy.
“Don’t upset yourself,” her husband soothes her.
“Upset myself, is it? Hoodlums roaming the countryside, or them slit-eyed gurriers from Chinatown for all we know, and I amn’t supposed to turn a hair?”
“Did you see anything, son?” asks McNamara. John Jr. shakes his head, eyes huge.
“Would you not have thought to throw something over the looking glass?” Ellen rebukes her husband, slopping whiskey as she pours herself a measure.
“Anything, Mother of God, what does it matter?”
“Never mind the mirror,” Jordan butts in. “John, shouldn’t you and me — I reckon — ” He casts a nervous look over his shoulder, toward the front door.
Suddenly stern, McNamara collects a scarred billy club from behind the bar.
“You aren’t going to leave women and childer alone while there’s some class of slaughterer roaming?” protests Ellen.
“Just a wee look around,” John promises her, shouldering his weapon and handing Jordan a lamp to carry.
What good is a club against a gun? Blanche wonders.
The men step outside. Their voices, muffled, going round the side of the house.
Twenty-seven, Blanche thinks; that’s how old Jenny was. Twenty-goddamn-seven years old, cut down halfway through a song.
In the back room, the smaller boy, Jeremiah, is still sobbing with fright. Kate and Mary Jane’s voices, soothing him. Ellen goes in to them without a word to Blanche, tugging John Jr. behind her.
Blanche shudders on her stool. Her clothes seem to be tightening. She stares down; Jenny’s blood is stiffening the fabric of her once-white bodice.
She makes herself picture him out there on the porch: the killer.
Stepping soft and sure-footed across the rot-edged planks. Peering around the skewed green blind, through the grimy glass, into the circle of candlelight where Blanche and Jenny were chatting about a lullaby as they got ready for bed.
Ellen comes back with what looks like a mackintosh and gets up on a stool to drape it awkwardly over the big looking glass. Mumbo jumbo, that’s what Jenny would call all this fussing with clocks and mirrors.
The Irishwoman gulps her drink and doesn’t offer Blanche one. Blanche keeps her eyes down. She can’t let these people guess that it’s she who brought the contagion trailing invisibly behind her from the City. That Blanche knows who’s killed Jenny, and more: that it’s all her fault.
The men thump back in. “It’s dark as the pit out there,” complains McNamara.
What about the moon, wasn’t there a trace of moonlight? Blanche wonders. Through the saloon’s caked window, she sees that the sky is wadded with clouds now. Au clair de la lune, on n’y voit qu’un peu.
“No sign of anything,” adds Jordan.
Is he gone already, Jenny’s killer? Blanche’s heart sounds in her throat at the thought of his face, the last time she saw it, gaunt with complicated rage.
Ellen is filling two glasses.
McNamara downs his in one swallow. “Miss? Miss?” Blanche twitches, registering that her host is talking to her. “Will you take a nerve-settler?”
She manages to nod and hold out her hand. The whiskey is harsh in her throat; just right. As the fellow says, quips Jenny in Blanche’s head, sometimes too much to drink is barely enough.
“We’ve been round the building twice, and my grocery as well,” Jordan announces importantly, “and over past the pond to the railroad track. Not a trace.”
As if these fools would know the trace of a murderer if he left it painted a mile wide!
Blanche can’t say his name even in the privacy of her mind, in case it shows on her face: her awful knowledge. She knows, which doesn’t mean she understands — not a bit of it. How could he have discovered that she and Jenny were staying in the middle of nowhere, at San Miguel Station, of all places, eight miles south of downtown?
The two men go into the front bedroom. From what Blanche can hear, they’re heaving what’s left of the guillotine window up and down on its ropes. She hopes they’ve straightened out Jenny’s poor forked body so it looks halfway human. Or thrown a sheet over her, at least, the way you might cover a chair in a vacant house? That’s what Blanche would do if only she could uncurl, make herself stir from the barrel she’s crouched on like some survivor of a shipwreck.
Ellen’s disappeared, but the two small McNamaras emerge from the back with the fifteen-year-old, Mary Jane. Their bare toes hover at the edge of the browning shadow around the door of the front bedroom. They all stare at what the men are doing, owl-eyed. Blanche wishes somebody would shoo them away from there. She can’t. She can’t so much as stir.
“Shotgun, must have been,” says Jordan over his shoulder as he steps out, nudging the children aside. “Ten-gauge, would you say, John?”
The Irishman comes out shaking his shaggy head and holding his hand up to the wall lamp to squint at its sticky contents. “Twelve-gauge, more like, loaded up with buckshot. Six — no, five balls we have now, Phil, with the one you pulled out of the wall, and others stuck in the headboard still. Common number-ones, by the looks of them.”
“Number-twos, I reckon.”
Like small boys proud of their harvest of berries. Shaking with
such rage, all of sudden, Blanche feels she might slither to the loor. Ten-gauge, twelve-gauge, where would the man have gotten a shotgun, or learned how to use it? None of it makes sense. How many days ago did he decide that the only solution — no, not solution, but the only fit expression of his fury — would be to shoot Jenny dead?
Blanche thought she knew him. She thought a lot of things that have turned out to be bunkum.
McNamara drops the bullets on the bar and wipes his hand ineffectively on a rag. He refills his glass and clinks it against his wife’s so hard the liquid slops. “Rest her soul,” he mutters.
“The dogs,” says Phil Jordan suddenly. “How could some Chinaman have climbed onto your porch with the dogs there?”
They all stare at him.
“The smell off him, you mean?” asks McNamara.
The little man waves that away. “Any stranger from town, hatchet man or hoodlum or the Lord knows what. Wouldn’t the dogs have gone mad barking?”
But didn’t they? Blanche seems to remember a terrible howling.
Mary Jane steps out of the dining room with a bucket over one arm and a mop and brush held erect like weapons in the other.
“Let the girl into the guest chamber there now,” says her mother, “or we’ll be tracking blood and glass round the house all night.”
The children scatter. But John McNamara holds up his hands. “Ah, we couldn’t take it on ourselves to — ’tis the police should survey the scene of the crime first.” McNamara pronounces the word “polis,” with the weight on the first syllable, in his bog-Irish way. And “the scene of the crime” — that’s the jargon of a penny dreadful.
Blanche could slap this man to the floor for his drunken slur and his saloon full of flies circling every stale drip of liquor. The lousy sheets and slick boards in the front room where something that used to be Jenny lies in the corner like garbage.
Mary Jane sets down her cleaning things, uncertain.
“Did you not send for the police yet?” Ellen McNamara barks. “What time is it?” asks her husband instead of answering. “How should I know?”
They all stare at the frozen clock, whose hands still stand at death: 8:49.
“Would you ever nip up to Mrs. Holt with the telegram, Phil?” asks McNamara.
His neighbor’s neat hands leap, averting the notion. “Ah, now, it’s not my house.”
“What the hell kind of difference does it make whose — ”
“I’m only saying, I’m glad to lend a hand, neighbor-like, but I don’t want cops in on top of my business.”
“Isn’t it me sending the yoke, and paying for it too?” roars McNamara.
“Why can’t you take the message up to the depot yourself?” “Because the old harpy has it in for me,” admits McNamara, lifting his glass to his lips. “Called me and mine all manner of filth a fortnight back. If I go banging on her door this late — ”
It can’t be very late yet. Blanche’s eyes slide back to the paralyzed clock.
“What should I put in this telegram anyway?” John McNamara asks.
“ ‘On the fourteenth of September,’ ” Ellen dictates in a grand tone, “ ‘at my residence, to wit, the San Miguel Hotel, San Miguel Station — ’ ”
“Ten words is a dollar, Mammy,” mentions Mary Jane. Blanche longs to get out of this room. This is some awful farce,
misremembered in a dream.
“Why would the police need us to tell them today’s bloody date?” objects McNamara. “All we need to say — ”
“ ‘Jenny Bonnet has been shot by persons unknown at San Miguel Station,’ ” suggests his daughter.
“ ‘Persons unknown,’ well put, girl. Will that do?” McNamara asks.
Nobody answers him.
“Ah, the City police know her well enough, don’t they? ‘Jenny Bonnet shot by persons unknown at San Miguel Station. Stop.’ ”
Blanche is swaying, dizzy.
“You don’t need to put ‘stop’ unless there’s two lines, Dadda,” says Mary Jane.
“ ‘Dead,’ ” says Phil Jordan. “ ‘Shot dead,’ you ought to say, or they might think she’s only wounded, like.”
“ ‘Jenny Bonnet shot dead by persons unknown at San Miguel Station’? ‘In San Miguel Station’?” McNamara flounders, as if this is a foreign language.
“How many words is that?” Ellen asks her daughter fretfully. “Eleven.”
Blanche clambers off the barrel like a very old woman. Her bare left foot isn’t cut, she notices dully; a dancer’s soles must be tough enough for broken glass. “It’ll say on the form where the telegram’s coming from,” she points out, hoarse from all the screaming she did earlier. “Put ‘Jenny Bonnet shot dead’ and be done with it.”
Jordan breaks the silence that follows. “Short and sweet. Shouldn’t cost two bits.”
Blanche lowers herself to the floor and slumps, her back against the barrel.
“The pair of us could go up to herself at the depot in a while,” says McNamara softly to his neighbor, as if proposing an excursion. “Another nip first, maybe, to steady ourselves,” Jordan suggests, reaching for the bottle.
McNamara watches the level in his glass rise, then takes a long sip. “Not much the police could do in the pitch-dark, I suppose, anyway.”
Sliding, sliding. Blanche is stretched on the floor now, her bustle a stone in the small of her back, her splattered bodice as tight as a straitjacket. The voices blur into a cloud. Just to close her eyes for half a minute —
She jerks to consciousness to find John Jr. taking the weight of her head in his small hands, pushing a folded flour sack underneath her hair. The boy’s angular cheek almost touches hers. “Thanks,” she says, so raw it’s barely audible.
His sky-blue eyes have the sheen of oily puddles. How’s the boy ever to forget this night? His head turns toward the front room, the speckled shadow of blood.
“Don’t look,” says Blanche, grabbing him.
He hisses, his hand flying up to his injured arm. “Sorry.”
Ellen McNamara is suddenly on her feet. She crosses the floor and pulls her son away, making him yip with pain. “Down on your knees, you should be, Miss Blanche, thanking the merciful that you were spared.”
Spared, repeats Blanche in her head. She’s been learning English since she was fifteen but still sometimes a word turns strange to her, as impenetrable as a pebble.
“Leave her be, would you,” says McNamara, without lifting his head off the bar.
“Well, tell me this,” Ellen demands, “how did every godforsaken bullet happen to miss Her Nibs here, but Jenny’s lying in there in flithers?”
Nobody answers. Blanche can taste the hatred, like vinegar on the air. The funny thing is, these people don’t know that she’s the source of the bloodshed, the cause. But even so, she can tell they all wish it were the other way around, with their old friend Jenny sharing a late-night jar with them, and the other visitor’s body askew in the next room.
She struggles up until she’s sitting against the barrel, the room spinning around her. It’s a fair question: How did every godforsaken bullet miss Blanche? She bent down, that’s all she can think of to explain it. She leaned down to undo the knot of her gaiter. Mary Jane’s gaiter; Blanche asked for a pair only yesterday to keep the skeeters off. Yesterday? Thursday morning. This morning, because this is Thursday night. Blanche stares at her single small boot with the gaiter taut over it. It feels as if her right foot’s been tied into its borrowed skin for a lifetime. Must ask for a knife, a knife to cut the laces. What a fluke. To owe her life to a borrowed gaiter. Because when Blanche doubled over to pick at the knotted lace, that happened to be the very moment —
Now her heart hammers with belated panic. What if she’d stayed sitting up straight, singing one more verse — if she’d gotten her laces undone without a struggle — would there be two bodies in the next room right now, a tangle of stiffening limbs in a lake of blood? Was the gun aimed at both of them?
No. Just at Blanche. It’s all a mistake.
How stupid she’s been this evening, how she’s misunderstood from the moment the shots tore the air. Blanche’s creamy body cut down, that’s what he wanted. That makes a horrible kind of sense. Isn’t it Blanche, not Jenny, he has most reason to resent? Blanche who could be said to owe him something, everything, according to the twisted logic of men? What did Jenny ever do to him except make the error of befriending Blanche?
A thought occurs to her, like a hand around her throat. Did he stay to look through the shattered window afterward? Does he know what he’s done, and what he’s left undone? Christ! Blanche wants to run straight out the door of the Eight Mile House — except that he might be waiting out there for her, half a mile up the County Road, to finish the botched job. She could let her dancer’s legs carry her far away, if she had any idea where in the world she’d be safe from him. Her pulse sounds so loud, the room seems to shake with it.
Excerpted from Frog Music by Emma Donoghue. Copyright © 2014 by Emma Donoghue.
First published 2014 by HarperCollins Publishers, Toronto, Canada. First published in the United Kingdom 2014 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
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