Thrill parties every night over on Hussel Street. That tiny house, why, it's 600 square feet of percolating, Wurlitzering sin. Those girls with their young skin, tight and glamorous, their rimy lungs and scratchy voices, one cheek flush and c'mon boys and the other, so accommodating, even with lil' wrists and ankles stripped to pearly bone by sickness. They lay there on their daybed, men all standing over round, fingering pocket chains and hands curled about gin bottle necks. The girls lay there on plump pillows piled high with soft fringes twirling between delicate fingers, their lips wet with syrups, tonics, sticky with balms, their faces freshly powdered, arching up, waiting to be attended to by men, our men, the city's men. What do you do about girls like that?
He was a kind husband. You couldn't say he wasn't kind.
He found her a rooming house and paid up three months, all he could manage and still make his passage to Mazatlán, where he would take up a steady post, his first in three years, with the Ogden-Nequam Mining Company, for whom he would drain fluid thick, yellow as pale honey from miners' lungs.
He purchased for her, on credit (who wouldn't give credit to a doctor, even one in a suit shiny from wear), a tea set and a small Philco radio for her long evenings, sitting in the worn rose chair writing letters to him, missing him so.
He purchased for her a pair of kidskin gloves and tie shoes and a soft cloche hat the deep green of pine needles.
He took her on strolls around the neighborhood so they might look for the one hundred varieties of cactus promised in the pamphlet given to them at the Autopia Motor Court, where they'd spent their first two nights after the long drive from California. He found the cholla and the saguaro and the bisnaga, which had saved the life of many a thirsty traveler who, beaten down by the sun, cut off the spiky top and mashed the pulp within.
He helped her fill out all the papers to begin her new job, which he had found for her. She would start Monday as a filing clerk and stenographer at the Werden Clinic. She passed the typing test and the dictation test and Dr. Milroy, the director, who was very tall and wore tinted spectacles and smelled sweetly of aniseeds, hired her right then and there, taking her small hand between his palms deep as serving dishes, as softly worn as the leather pew Bibles passed through three generations' hands in the First Methodist Church of Grand Rapids, and said, "My dear Mrs. Seeley, welcome to our little desert hideaway. We are so glad you will be joining us. I have assured your husband you will be happy here. The entire Werden community welcomes you to its bosom."
On Sunday night, late, he packed his suitcase for his long trip, first to Nogales, then Estación Dimas, then ninety miles on muleback to Tayoltita. The mining company didn't care about revoked medical licenses. They were eager to have him. But, with her, he had always been clear: where he was going was no place for a woman. He would have to go alone.
When he was finished packing, he sat her down on the bed and spoke softly to her for some time, spoke softly of his grief in leaving her but with solemn, gravely worded promises that he would return in the spring, would return by Easter, arms filled with lilies, and with all past troubles behind them.
And on Monday morning at seven o'clock her husband, having made all these arrangements, walked her to the trolley and kissed her discreetly on the cheek, his chin crushing her new hat, and headed himself to the train depot, one battered suitcase in hand. As she watched him through the trolley window, as she watched him, slope-shouldered in that ancient brown suit, hat too tight, gait slow and lurching, she thought, Who is that poor man, walking so beaten, face gray, eyes struck blank? Who is that sad fellow? My goodness, what a life must he lead to be so broken and alone!
The doctors at the clinic were all kind as could be, and all seemed concerned that she felt comfortable and safe in her rooming house. They left a cactus blossom on her desk as a welcome gift and offered her a tour of the State Capitol, pointing proudly to its copper dome, which could be viewed from the clinic's thirdfloor windows. Right away, Dr. Milroy and his wife began inviting her to Sunday dinner and she heard again about the one hundred varieties of cactus she might see around town and she heard that no other place in the world is blessed with so many days of sunshine and she heard how, as she must know, the desert is God's great health-giving laboratory. Then, at the end of the evening, Mrs. Milroy always sent her home with a dish steaming over with creamed corn casserole, a knot of pork, sweet carrots in honey glaze.
"You're nothing but a whisper of a girl. But you'll need something on your bones for when you start your family. When Dr. Seeley comes back, you know he'll be ready for a son. Am I right?"
She smiled, she always smiled. Dr. Seeley hadn't talked of sons, of children since before the first monthlong stretch at St. Bartholomew's narcotics ward. They'd never talked much of babies, even as she was sure when she married three years, seven months back that she'd be near the third time large with child by now, like all the girls she knew.
It was Friday, her fifth day at the clinic, and she had seen Nurse Louise stalking the halls more than once, stalking them, a lioness. A long-limbed girl with a thick brush of dark red hair crowning a pale, pie face, painted-on brows thin as kidsilk and a tilting Scotch nose. When she walked, her hips slung and her chest bobbed up round apples and the men on the ward took notice my, how could they not? She was not beautiful, but she had a bristling, crackling energy about her and it was like she was always winking at you and nodding her head as if saying, always, even when stacking X-rays, C'mon, sweet face, c'mon.
And now here was Nurse Louise dropping herself, hard, in the chair across from Marion in the luncheon room. She smelled like licorice and talcum powder.
"That's for beans, kid," she said, jabbing her thumb dismissively at Marion's jelly sandwich. "Have a hunk of my brown bread. Ginny that's my roommate swabbed it up good with plum butter. Tell me that ain't the stuff."
And Marion took the wedge offered her and it smelled like Mother's kitchen even if Mother never made any bread but white or sometimes milk-and-water bread. And the plum butter, well, that stung sweet in her mouth since she hadn't had much but bean soup since Dr. Seeley left her, left her all alone five days past.
"What's your name, answer me now with your cakehole plug full," she said, laughing. "I'm Louise Mercer. I've been here going on a year now, so I guess there's not much I don't know. I'm happy to show you all the dials and knobs and pulleys, if you like. So nothing crashes down on that slippery blond head of yours."
"Well, I'm Marion. Marion Seeley," she finally got out, eyeing a dab of butter still smeared on her thumb.
"Go on, Marion." Louise smiled, nodding toward the pearly butter. "We don't believe, none of us, in wasting fine things."
Suddenly, she was under Louise's red-tipped wing and everything became easier. She learned the best place to hang her hat and coat so they didn't smell of disinfectant, the trolley route that'd get her home seven minutes faster and two blocks closer to boot and that you should punch the clock before you even set your purse down each morning.
Each day, they ate lunch together and Louise gave her the what's what on everyone at the clinic. The doctors no longer seemed half so frightening once Louise had told her about the one who was always pinching nurses' behinds, and the one who tipped his bill in his office all day long, the one who never even gave a pretty penny to the St. Ursula's Annual Blind Children Drive and the one who had ended up here on account of losing his medical license in the state of Missouri for operating a still in his office.
Louise always brought treats small cakes, a glass canister of baked beans with brown sugar, a sack of jelly nougats, a crimson jar of pickled beets. Wanting to return the favor, Marion brought in her mother's sturdy currant jelly and, later in the week, steamed bread she had spent all evening making in the kitchen of the rooming house. Neither could eat it. Louise crossed her eyes like Ben Turpin.
"It's for the birds, kid," she said. "But a girl as pretty as you, what could it matter?"
Marion was embarrassed, mostly because she thought she was a very good homemaker and Dr. Seeley had dined on her food for years with never a complaint. He always smiled and said, "Very good, Marion. Very fine, indeed."
"You come by our place," Louise said. "You should try my creamed onions. You'll think your tongue ran across a cloud."
What might a cloud taste like, she wondered. Like Mother's snow pudding made for birthdays and Sunday summer suppers. No, no, like dew, like rain gathering on the edge of your winter muffler, brushing against your lips.
Copyright © 2009 by Megan Abbott