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Imogene penned in reasonable rates under the name of the hotel.

           

            The laundry did not pour in. Fred said the people in Reno who were genteel enough to wash their clothes didn’t like asking a white woman to do it for the pittance they could pay a Chinese.

            Sarah was bedridden, her recovery progressing so slowly that at times Imogene feared her health had been destroyed by the fever and the shock of being driven from her child and home. Most of every day, Imogene sat with her, reading or writing letters. Propped up in bed, small against the bulwark of pillows, Sarah spent the days uncomplaining, watching the shadows move across the wall.

            Imogene coaxed her with books and lively talk, and spread breadcrumbs on the windowsill so the birds would stop there, but Sarah seemed too tired; the books would slip from her hands and her mind wandered from conversation.

            Mid-May brought a letter from Mam, and with it the first spark of interest Sarah had shown.

            Dear Sarah,

            I’m hoping this letter finds you on your feet again. There’s not a lot of news from here. Gracie’s taken to going over to Sam’s once or twice a week to do his housekeeping for him. He gives her a little pin money for it and she wants to do it. He doesn’t allow talk of you, she said; I guess he’s made his mind up on it.

            The baby’s still with Mrs. Beard. I’ve seen him a time or two when I’ve been in town, and he’s as fat and happy as can be. I’ve bent Sam’s ear on the subject and just got grunts out of him, but I think he’s softening. I expect to have little Mattie here at home by the end of summer. Big news is—Mattie talked. Not ten months and a word! He can stand, too, Mrs. Beard says, if you give him a finger to hang on to.

            There’s no new schoolteacher as yet. Joseph stepped down from the board and people have kind of let it go. I’m working on your pa to step up, we’ve got Lizbeth to school yet, but she’s such a pretty little thing your pa says she won’t be needing it.

            Tell Miss Grelznik I asked after her. There’s still people here speak kindly of her.

            Love, Your Mam

            Enclosed in the letter were four one-dollar bills.

            Over the next few days, Sarah read the letter again and again until Imogene teased that she could repeat it by rote. The letter gave Sarah no pleasure and there was an unhealthy sense of urgency when she pored over it.

            One evening after reading it through again, Sarah lay back on the pillows. “When last I saw him, Sam called me an abomination in the sight of God.” Imogene looked up from her book. Sarah was tearing soundlessly at her sunken cheeks, her nails raking the skin red. Imogene held her hands until she slept, and stayed at the bedside long into the night, afraid to leave her. After that, the letter was put away and Sarah never asked for it.

            The four dollars went to Lutie in partial payment of May’s room and board. Lutie was a gracious creditor, but her mother-in-law, Evelynne, never missed a chance to remind Imogene that she lived at the Broken Promise on “Bown-yay” (as she insisted Bone was pronounced) charity.

            In June, Imogene had a caller. She was upstairs with Sarah when Lutie came up to announce that there was a man waiting in the parlor. “Looks like a beau.” Lutie winked at Sarah. Embarrassed, Imogene shook her head a curt “no” and preceded Lutie down the stairs.

            Evelynne had come in from the porch to cross-examine Imogene’s guest, and he stood by the hearth, parrying the old lady’s questions with a guilty air. He looked up with relief when Imogene came into the room.

            “How do, ma’am. I’m McMurphy. You probably don’t remember me.”

            “I remember.”

            “You do?” He looked sheepish. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, but what with one thing and another…”

            Mrs. Bone hung on his every word. Annoyed, Imogene checked him with a look. “Is there something I can do for you, Mr. McMurphy?

            A tattered piece of paper was crushed in his hands along with the hat. He spread it out apologetically. “I found it all messed up like this or I wouldn’t have mashed it.” He smoothed the page. “Did you write this?”

            Imogene glanced at the sheet briefly; it was one of her handbills for laundry. “It’s my advertisement.”

            “No, ma’am. Did you write it yourself? The letters?”

            “Yes. I wrote it myself. Please make your point, Mr. McMurphy.”

            “Mac.” He pulled some crumpled dollar bills out of his shirt pocket and held them out to her. “I was wondering if you’d write a letter home for me. My writing is not so good as yours, and I want it to be a good letter.”

            Imogene fetched pen and ink and led McMurphy into the kitchen, where there was a steady writing surface. “About that other…” Mac began when they were alone.

            “There’s no need, Mr. McMurphy. A joke is a joke and it’s done.”

            “Oh no, ma’am! That was the straight goods. I’m sorrier’n hell if you took me wrong. I don’t blame you for getting your back up, but it’s dead earnest. A big, handsome gal like yourself might not get around to looking at a wart of a fellow like me if I was to wait for the natural course of events. I wanted to get my bid in first, is all. No offense meant, none at all.”

            McMurphy’s manner was frank and open, his head bowed over his fisted hat, his eyes as clear as a mountain lake and as blue.

            Efficient and businesslike, Imogene dipped her pen and readied the paper, but her cheeks were warmed by the gnarled little man’s sincerity. “It’s quite all right, Mr. McMurphy. Please sit.”

            She was at a loss where to look. With an abrupt gesture of annoyance, she brushed her belated girlishness aside and snorted. Meeting Mr. McMurphy’s eye, she said, “I am flattered and I thank you for thinking so well of me, but I don’t think I will marry. Not in this lifetime.”

            Halfway through the dictation, old Mrs. Bone found reason to busy herself in the kitchen—a part of the house she avoided at all costs on most days. Neither Imogene nor Mac took any notice of her until the letter was finished and Mac had asked Imogene to sign his name for him. When the ink was dry he folded the page reverently and tucked it into his wallet. Then he hovered near Imogene, standing stiffly by the table, looking pained and pulling absently on his bottom lip. Imogene stoppered the ink, wiped the nib clean, and waited.

            “There’s something I want to ask you,” he finally muttered. Imogene inclined her head. “In private, I mean.” Imogene started to say no, but caught Evelynne Bone cocking an eager ear. She escorted Mac out onto the front porch.

            “I wasn’t exactly straight with you. I said I didn’t write so well. Truth is, I don’t write at all. Do you think you could teach me? Enough to sign my name? And maybe to read some. I can pay for it.”

            A light kindled behind Imogene’s tired eyes and she smiled. “Teach? Yes, I think I could teach.”

19

            WITHIN A MONTH, IMOGENE HAD FIVE STUDENTS AND WAS PAYING for half of her room and board. Lutie had volunteered the parlor for lessons, but the men were so self-conscious that they preferred taking their instruction in the rough hominess of the kitchen and agonized over their second-grade primers among the potato peels and onion skins rather than risk someone catching sight of them through the parlor windows.

            Sarah Mary was not any better. Sometimes she would sit up, away from the window in her borrowed nightdress, looking out on the town and the river beyond, but mostly she lay abed. She was terribly thin; white skin stretched over the fine bones of her hands, and dark-ringed eyes dominated her face. The recurring fever continued to sap her strength. Her greatest comfort was listening to Imogene tell of the goings-on in the hotel and the town she had never really seen. Imogene found in Sarah a haven from the pressure of earning their keep and the noise and dust of Reno. Together they would watch the change of light on the mountains or talk quietly.

            After sunset on July Fourth, 1876, the Centennial, Imogene and Sarah sat in the security of their room. The two women were watching fireworks from their window, the distant explosions carried to them on a soft night wind, when Fred Bone knocked and stuck his head in.

            “Lutie sent this up,” Fred said, “for nerves.” He left them with a jar of homemade wine. In a moment he was back, peeking around the jamb. “By the way, Miss Grelznik, if you like this teaching you got yourself into, you ought to pay Bishop Ozi Whitaker a call. Today I drove by that fancy girls’ school he’s a-building, and it looks darn near ready for business.” Imogene thanked him but said no more about it.

            Rockets and noisemakers were joined by drunken shouting and gunfire. Later, down by the Riverside Hotel, some shanties caught fire, sending showers of sparks and flame into the air that paled the gaudiest rockets. The two women sat by the window, hand in hand, until long after midnight, sipping Lutie’s nerve medicine.

            When they were too tired to watch any longer, Imogene brushed out Sarah’s hair for the night and helped her into her nightgown. The scars on her back were still livid against the pale skin, and ridges ran from shoulder to hip.

            “Are you going up to that school?” Sarah asked.

            “I thought I would.”

            Sarah closed her eyes and Imogene smoothed the lids with the tip of her finger.

            “Sing to me?”

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