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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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“Next week, Mac?” she said.

“Maybe sooner if you’re lucky.”

“I’m feeling lucky.” She gave his butt a playful slap.

The man headed down the hallway to the main staircase without looking back. When he was gone, the woman’s posture changed, melted, and she slumped against the doorjamb. She ran a hand over her left side and made a face as if she’d touched a tender place, then she saw me. Her posture didn’t change, but a quizzical look came to her face.

“You’re him. Julia’s boy.”

“Her nephew,” I said.

“Right, right,” she said. “You need something?”

“Rain came in my window. I need a towel.”

“Let’s see what we can do for you, hon.”

She went to a small closet in the hallway, reached in, and pulled out a fluffy, white towel. “Do the trick?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Polite. I like that. What’s your name again?”

“Odysseus.”

She held out a hand. Her nails were painted a deep, enticing red. “Dolores. Pleased to meet you.”

She was still holding my hand when Aunt Julia appeared, coming from the stairway where the man had just descended. When she saw me with Dolores, her face darkened and her step quickened.

“I told you to stay upstairs, Odysseus.”

“He just needed a towel,” Dolores said.

“Rain came in my window,” I explained.

“Well, close the damn window. And, Dolores, you need to get yourself put back together.”

“Sure thing, Julia.” She winked at me and vanished into her room.

“Upstairs,” Aunt Julia said and followed me.

In the lamplight, she stood assessing the puddle that spread across the floor from below the opened window.

“It was stuffy,” I said. “I just wanted some air.”

“Give me the towel.” When I handed it over, she knelt and began to mop up the rain.

“I can do that.”

“It’s not your fault, Odysseus. I should have thought.” She sat back on her knees and said, “I’m sorry I was short with you. I just wanted the right time to explain everything.”

“That’s okay.”

She stared at the soggy towel in her hands. “There’s so much you don’t understand.”

“I’m okay.”

“Tomorrow,” she said and returned to her mopping. “Tomorrow we’ll talk.”

She left me alone again, insisting gently but firmly, “You’ll stay in your room the rest of the night.”

She didn’t lock the door, but I couldn’t help feeling that, except for the fact I had a mattress instead of a layer of straw, the attic room wasn’t so different from the quiet room at Lincoln School.

CHAPTER SIXTY-ONE

IN THE NIGHT,
I had to pee. Once again, instead of going all the way to the basement to relieve myself among the spiders there, I opened the window and peed onto the old stone patio far below, then slept until morning. I got up late and now needed the kind of relief an open window couldn’t provide. I headed down the back stairs, as Aunt Julia had instructed, hearing as I went the sounds of women in the kitchen.

The basement surprised me. It wasn’t at all the nest of crawling insects I’d imagined but was tiled and brightly lit and housed an appliance I’d heard of but had never seen—an electric wringer/washing machine. At Lincoln School, washing the clothes and linen had been done by hand, all of it the work of the girl residents. The wet things had been hung outside on long lines to dry, even in the bitterest winter cold, a circumstance that, by the time the work was finished, often had the girls crying because their fingers were iced to a point near frostbite. In the basement, drying racks, empty at the moment, stood in three lines, enough to accommodate, I reckoned, all the sheets from all the beds in the house. No need to hang anything outside in the cold or, on a day like this one, to worry about rain delaying the work.

To my great relief, the toilet was clean and modern and even had a small shower stall. I took care of business. When I came out, Dolores was dropping laundry into the tub of the washing machine. She turned, and her face was plain, no makeup, but still pretty. In fact, even prettier.

“Good morning, sleepyhead,” she said.

“Morning.”

She took stock of the clothes I wore. “Have those ever been washed?”

“Not for a long time.”

“I guessed from the smell. If you slept in those, I probably should wash your sheets, too.”

“I didn’t.”

“Strip off your things and I’ll throw them in with the rest.”

“I don’t have anything else to wear.”

She smiled, as if she found my reply somehow quaint, and said, “Wait here, sweetie.”

She came back downstairs a few minutes later with a pink terry-cloth robe. “You can wear this till everything is dry.”

I stripped in the bathroom. Dolores was no taller than I, and the robe, which I assumed was hers, fit me nicely. She took my clothes and tossed them into the washing machine tub, which was filled with hot water and soap and was already agitating.

“We’ll let those wash for a while. Hungry?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Ma’am? Hell, I’m not much older than you. Why don’t you take a shower, then come up to the kitchen.”

The kitchen, when I got there, was abuzz with activity. Several women, all young like Dolores, many still dressed in their nightwear, were busy making breakfast. I decided this was a women’s residence of some kind. I’d heard of such places in cities. The young women treated me with a kind of sisterly jesting, which made me feel welcome, and then I sat with them at a big table in the dining room and we ate together. Some of the food was familiar—scrambled eggs, ham, toast with raspberry jam—but there were grits and also fried green tomatoes, which I’d never had before and fell immediately in love with.

“Is breakfast always like this?” I asked.

“We used to have a cook,” one of the girls, a redhead named Veronica, said. “But we had to let her go.”

“Same with our laundress and maid,” Dolores said. “This damn economy.” She looked to Monique. “All of ten customers last night, right? Worse than a Sunday.”

“The storm,” Monique said.

Dolores looked out the window at the rain, which still fell heavily, casting a gloom over the morning. “Won’t be any better tonight if this downpour continues.”

Aunt Julia appeared and the talk quieted. It was clear to me that she held a unique position in this women’s residence. She was obviously surprised to see me and her eyes shot questioningly around the table.

“He was up and we invited him,” Dolores said.

“And the robe?”

“Mine,” Dolores said. “His clothes are washing.”

Aunt Julia glanced out the dining room window at the wet and the gloom. “I’d hoped to take you shopping today, Odysseus, but with this rain, I’m afraid that will have to wait. Ladies,” she said, taking the only empty chair at the table, “today is a day for catching up on housekeeping.”

I was put to work in the basement, helping Dolores with the washing, which was mostly bedding. Since the laundress, who had also been the housekeeper, was let go, the women rotated that particular responsibility, which, for reasons not then apparent to me, had to be done every day.

“You remind me of my brother,” Dolores said as we hung sheets on the drying racks.

“Does he live around here?”

“Mayville. Little town outside Joplin. You’re what? Thirteen, fourteen? That’s what he’d be.”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“The day I left home. Five years ago. About your age.”

“What do you do here? Do you have a job?”

She held up in her work and gave me an odd look. “Do you know what this house is, Odysseus?”

“A women’s residence, I figure.”

“Yeah,” Dolores said. “A women’s residence. Exactly.”

The rain showed no signs of letting up, and in the afternoon, when
the work had been done, Aunt Julia told me to go to the attic and she would be up shortly. Upstairs, I stood at the window and stared beyond it and thought about all those people down on the river flats. The paths they walked would be nothing but mud by now, and waiting in line for food at the Welcome Inn, they would be soaked to the bone. I knew I was lucky and felt guilty because although the attic was stuffy, there was a good roof over my head, and my stomach was full, and I had an aunt who cared about me.

I heard her mounting the stairs. She came carrying a silver tray on which sat two glasses of lemonade and a plate of gingersnaps. She set the tray on the bed and patted the mattress. “Come, sit,” she said.

“Is this your house?” I asked after I’d sipped a bit of the lemonade and had taken a bite of a cookie.

“Yes.”

“You must be rich.”

“It cost me more than you can imagine, Odysseus.”

“I was only here once,” I said.

“Still, you found your way. The last time I saw you was just after Rosalee died.” She was talking about my mother. “When Zeke came to tell me the news.” That was my father. Ezekiel O’Banion. “Do you recall?”

“Not much. I remember that you gave me and Albert a few pennies to buy fudge.”

She smiled and said, as if I’d brought back a good memory for her, “That’s right.”

“What was she like? My mother?”

“You don’t remember?”

“Not really.”

“Rosalee was a wonderful big sister, and she was a fine mother to you.”

“But what was she like?”

“For someone who couldn’t hear, she was awfully talky. I remember when Mom and Dad sent her off to Gallaudet, oh, did I cry my
eyes out. When she came back to visit at Christmas, seeing her was the best present I could have asked for.”

“Gallaudet? What’s that?”

“A school for deaf people. But she didn’t stay there long. Dad died the next year and Mom took a job teaching school, which paid nothing. Rosalee came home to help make ends meet. I’d always had a flair for fashion and made my own clothes, so I went to work in a dress shop in town, saving whatever I could. Then Mom died. Zeke had been in love with Rosalee since they were kids, and marrying him seemed like the best thing for her. Me, I wanted to get out of that suffocating little Ozark town in the worst way. So I left and ended up—” She looked around her and held out her hands, indicating the stuffy room and the house it was in. “Ended up here.”

“You bought this place?”

“The man who owned it before I did was put away in prison.”

“What for?”

“He killed a man. Before he went, he deeded me the property.”

“You were married?”

“Just . . . good friends. But that didn’t answer your question about your mother. Rosalee was smart and read everything and was kind, and all I ever wanted when I was a kid was to be just like her.”

“Why . . . ?”

“Why what?”

“After my father died, why didn’t you bring Albert and me back here to live with you?”

“It was a long time before I learned about your father’s death. I was told that you were both being well cared for in a school in Minnesota. I sent money to help with things there, and, well, that was really the best I could do under the circumstances.”

“I would have been happy living here in this room. Albert would have been happy, too.”

“I thought it was better that you were with other children.”

“That place was hell,” I said.

“Oh, come now, Odysseus. It couldn’t have been that bad.”

“There was a room that used to be a prison cell, and they put kids in it who didn’t do exactly what they were supposed to do. They called it the quiet room.” The words were bitter as they came from my lips. “It was cold in the winter and hot in the summer and there was a rat who lived there. That rat was the best thing about the room. Before they put you in there, they usually beat you with a strap. A man named DiMarco gave the beatings, and he loved it.”

“You were put in there?” she asked.

“I practically lived there.”

“They really beat you?”

I saw that tears rimmed her eyes, and I softened my tone. “All I’m saying is that I wish I could have been here with you.”

She cried and hugged me, and even though everything I’d said was God’s truth, I felt terrible for having told her.

“I’ll make it up to you, Odysseus. I swear I will.”

“Just let me stay.”

She wiped her eyes. A smile appeared, like the first ray of sunshine that day, and she said, “Of course, you can stay. Everything’s going to be better from now on, I promise.”

NOT ONLY DID
the rain not let up, it fell more heavily, fell as it must have in the days of Noah. I sat at the window with its dreary view, and because I had nothing else to do, pulled out my harmonica and began to amuse myself with riffs on some of my old favorites. Before I knew it, several of the girls had crowded into the attic room and were making requests. Finally Dolores asked, “Do you know ‘Shenandoah’?”

When I played it, I saw the sad look in her eyes, and I thought about Cora Frost and Emmy and what that song had meant to them, and for some reason, it made me like Dolores best of all the girls. That, and the fact she reminded me a little of Maybeth Schofield.

Aunt Julia joined us, and after she’d listened to “My Wild Irish Rose,” she smiled and said, “Your father used to play.”

“His,” I said, holding up my Hohner. “The only thing I have left from him.”

“Girls,” Aunt Julia said. “Odysseus and I need some time alone together.” When they’d cleared out, she sat beside me on the bed. “You haven’t told me how you got here. I’d like to hear the story.”

So I told her everything, laying on her shoulders every crime and every sin. She heard the truth about DiMarco, Emmy and the kidnapping, shooting Jack, Albert and the snakebite, Maybeth Schofield, the Tornado God, and why I left Saint Paul. When I’d finished, had completely unburdened myself, she did something so unexpected it left me speechless. She got down on her knees in front of me, took my hands in hers, and as if we’d changed places, sinner and confessor, begged, “Forgive me.”

CHAPTER SIXTY-TWO

LATE THAT NIGHT
the rains finally passed and the next day, after breakfast, Aunt Julia called for a taxi and sent me shopping with Dolores.

“She’s young and knows what you’ll look good in” was her explanation. But when I was in the taxi, Dolores said, “Julia never goes out. It’s like that house is a prison for her. She holes up in her room and all that comes out is the sound of her sewing machine.”

BOOK: This Tender Land
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