Seattle, Washington Territory--February 1878
The little restaurant was nearly full. I slipped inside, letting the heat from the bodies and the kitchen warm me while my sodden skirts dripped into a puddle on the floor.
There was one table in the corner, and I went to it as quickly as I could, trying to ignore the men I passed, trying to hide my fear. I sat down, chilled all over again by the wet fabric of my dress beneath me and the steady trickle down my collar frommy soaking hat. As miserable as it was, at least I was out of the rain. My hands were numb with cold as I shoved my portmanteau beneath my chair, glanced at the chalkboard menu on the wall, and felt the eye of every man in the place on me.
Warily, with the habit born of months, I checked their interest--anything undue, any recognition. There was none of that, but another kind of interest instead, and the shipboy's words came back to me. "Best not to go beyond Mill Street after dark, ma'am.Them's the Lava Beds. The only women there are . . . well, it ain't no place for a lady anytime." I should have known what it would be like. I did know. But what other choice had I? This was the end of the world; there was no place else to run. Twice already I'd nearly been discovered; women like me did not own jewels of the sort I'd carried, and Pinkerton agents and cunning reporters seemingly never slept. But now those jewels were gone, all sold, and where else could I go where no one would expect me to be ortry to find me? Where no one would recognize me or care enough about a lone woman with a terrible scar to ask questions?
An Indian with long black hair that shone oily in the gaslight approached. He wore a flannel shirt and denim trousers, along with an apron that had once been white but now was grayed and stained and filthy. He smelled of rotting fish. When I looked upat him, he spoke to me in that strange Chinook jargon I'd heard from the peddler women and about the streets and on the steamer, a mix of Indian and English words it seemed everyone here spoke but me. "Klatawa. Halo mesachie klooshman."
I stared at him uncomprehendingly, then I sighed. "Chowder, please."
He glared at me.
Clumsily, I opened my purse and pulled out my last twenty-five cents with fingers that could barely hold the coins. "I have money. I can pay."
"Halo mesachie klooshman."
"I don't understand."
"He's sayin' the owner don't serve whores." A man appeared over the Indian's shoulder. He had curling dark hair and a ruddy face, and I could tell by his watery eyes and his slight sway that he was very drunk.
"Tell him I just want a bowl of chowder. Then I'll go. Please. I'm so hungry. Tell him I can pay."
The man spoke to the Indian in that same language, and the Indian shook his head violently, gesturing to the door. He yelled "Go!"
The restaurant had grown silent; every man in the place had paused to watch. A few rose, as if they meant to help--not me, but the Indian. I grabbed the handle of my portmanteau and left, tripping over my skirts in my haste, pushing by the men who crowdedaround me to block the door.
I ran back into the dark rain, flattening myself against a rough wall, sliding down until I sat on the narrow, slippery boardwalk fronting the building, and people stumbled over me and cursed. I closed my eyes and buried my head in my arms until my fear quieted.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, heavy--too heavy, as if it needed my support. When I looked up I saw the man who had translated for me in the restaurant. Curly dark hair, a missing canine tooth that made his face look lopsided.
His hand tightened on my shoulder. I could only stare at him.
He slurred, "Looks like you could use some warmin' up. I got a room near here. I been lookin' all night for someone to fuck. I guess you'd do as well as any."
I glanced away, toward the deep mud of the street and the streetlight, haloing now before my blurring eyes, and the rain pouring down like a gray curtain beyond it, where the men moved within like spirits. Then I turned back to him. He fell against thewall, squinting, as if he couldn't quite pin down where I was, and I felt a surge of revulsion and, close on its heels, acceptance. Who was I to disdain it now? How small the price was really, for warmth and someplace out of the rain. Well, why not? It's no different than what you've done before.
I didn't let myself think beyond that. I didn't want to think. "Yes," I said, and then, desperately, "it'll cost you . . . two dollars--and a bowl of chowder."
He smiled. "All right then. All right, girlie. Let's go. I got a room at Gray's."
He helped me to my feet, and once I was up he began to tug me after him. I said, "The chowder first."
For a moment he looked mutinous. Then he nodded and staggered back into the restaurant, leaving me to wait. He came out with a steaming bowl and a spoon and a drink he kept for himself. I lifted my veil, dodging a quick glance at him, but there registeredno recognition on his face. He'd barely handed me the bowl before I dove into it where I stood, shoving the chowder into my mouth so quickly that it burned my tongue. I barely tasted it, which was probably a good thing, as the clam smell was strong and a layerof fat pooled on top, and there was something mushy and stringy and unpleasant in it.
My drunk waited impatiently for me to finish, lodging his shoulder against the doorway and slinging back his drink. When I was done, he grabbed the bowl from my hand and threw it into the street, where it broke into pieces that men trod into the mud. Hetook my arm and jerked me into his side, wrapping his arm around me as much to keep himself upright as anything.
The boardwalk ended abruptly, and we went into the street, which was mobbed with horses and men, dogs and whores, nightmarish and strange as they moved through the gasping flicker of streetlamps, falling again into darkness that moved and shifted withthe rain so that few things could be seen and what could didn't seem quite real...
From the Trade Paperback edition.