Here are some pictures of Minerva, Minnesota in the early Twenties, when my mother was a young woman. This aerial shot shows the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railway that ran through town, parallel to Main Street, bringing in commercial travelers, hoboes and migrant workers, even the occasional jazz piano player. Here’s a photograph of the Minerva skyline. The tallest building isn’t the water tower or the grain elevator but the steeple of Saint Anne’s Catholic Church, followed by that of Mount Olive Lutheran, and First Presbyterian. Here is a hand-tinted postcard of the Hamilton Creamery and Pop Factory, the biggest employer in town. Before Prohibition, it had been Vietzke’s Brewery, but in January 1919, Mr. Hamilton, Presbyterian that he was, moved his creamery business in from its old location and started up the soda pop factory. “If there’s no beer, people will just have to drink pop,” was one of his more famous quotes.
Although it’s not as easy to find their pictures, Minerva also had its bad women. Some of them merely slept with the wrong person or had a child or two out of wedlock. Then there were those whose crimes were truly shocking. More than one woman in my mother’s town committed the unthinkable and then disappeared. What was unique about Minerva was that it produced the rarest of creatures–a female outlaw.
Only a handful of people ever found out the true story concerning Penelope Niebeck. Here is a photograph of her, taken before she vanished from Minerva and embarked on her long journey. In the snapshot, she is fifteen, her long dark braid pinned around her head. Her eyes are large, her nose and cheeks dusted with freckles. In those days most people looked solemn and slightly bewildered in front of the camera, but this girl is beaming with an outlandish happiness that completely transforms her face. She is holding a baby.
This photograph hung over the mantelpiece of my childhood home in the small Mexican town where my mother and I were the only foreigners. Penny Niebeck’s image is woven into my earliest memories. When, as a seven-year-old, I asked my mother about my guardian angel, she pointed to the photograph and said, “She’s your angel. She saved us both.”
The day before the heat wave began, Penny Niebeck cleaned Irene Hamilton’s room. Stooping to her knees, she picked the strewn stockings and underwear off the floor, and the dress that had been worn only once since its last washing and was now crumpled and stained. She was stuffing it all into the laundry bag when Irene marched in, pale and plump, white-gloved hands clenched. Penny struggled to her feet and steeled herself, sweat beading under her armpits as she met Irene’s colorless eyes. Irene’s hot breath, smelling of breakfast bacon, fanned Penny’s cheeks. Both girls were fifteen, their birthdays five days apart. For the past eight years, Penny’s mother had worked as the Hamiltons’ cleaning woman. For almost as long as she could remember, Penny had clothed herself in whatever Irene had worn out and cast away.
“You want to know something?” Irene let out a swift exhalation that lifted the hairs on the back of Penny’s neck. “Your mother named you Penny, because she’s cheap and so are you.”
Penny took a step backward, nearly stumbling over the laundry bag. “You have to go catch your train,” she said. Irene and her sisters were leaving for summer camp that day. “Doesn’t it leave at noon?” A glance at the porcelain-faced clock on the dresser told her that it was nearly half past eleven.
“I forgot something.” Irene turned to snatch her mother’s photograph from the lace-topped vanity and clutched it to her chest, her arms carefully folded around it. The photograph had been taken before Mrs. Hamilton fell ill from the sleeping sickness. For the last four years, Mrs. H. had been an invalid in the Sandborn Nursing Home. Her face was frozen up like a statue’s. She didn’t talk anymore, didn’t do anything but sleep and let the nurses feed and change her like a baby. The doctors couldn’t say said how long she would live or if she would ever get better.
“You know why Daddy’s sending us away.” Irene spoke accusingly.
Penny breathed hard. “No, I don’t.” But her voice faltered and the blood began to pound at her temples.
“You know.” Irene spoke so vehemently that her spit landed on Penny’s face. “Even someone as dumb as you could figure it out.”
“I’m not dumb.”
“Oh, yeah? Then why aren’t you going to high school this fall?”
Penny looked down at her cracked old shoes, the color of potatoes left to rot in the cellar. When she had finished eighth grade that spring, her mother had told her it was time to leave school and earn her own keep. High school was for people from well-off families or children whose parents cared about education and that sort of thing. At fifteen, Penny’s hands were already as swollen and red from all the cleaning as her mother’s were.
“Your mother’s too cheap to keep you in school,” Irene said, sticking her face into Penny’s so that she couldn’t look away. “She’s as cheap as they come.”
“Is that so?” Penny shot back. “Well, your father seems to think she’s just fine.” She watched Irene’s face go from flour white to chicken blood red. “You better hustle,” she said, “or you’ll miss your train.”
Downstairs Mr. H. was calling for his daughter to hurry. “You mother’s a whore,” Irene whispered, something glinting in her eyes, which had suddenly gone pink. She hugged her mother’s photograph even tighter. “You don’t even know who your father is,” she said, her voice breaking as she dashed out the door.
* * *
After the Hamilton girls left for horse camp in Wyoming, the hot sticky weather moved in–the kind Penny hated most. Those nights the back bedroom she shared with her mother seemed far too cramped, the sloping ceiling about to collapse on them. At least winter, for all its bleakness, was pristine, the glittering snow covering everything, even the manure on the road, making the world look immaculate. But in the heat of late June, everything stank and decayed–the garbage pail near the back door with the trail of ants marching up its side, the reek of her sweating body as she scrubbed floors and heated the iron on the stove. With the windows wide open, she heard every noise at night–the raccoons knocking over the garbage pail, the laughter of lovey-dovey couples walking up the street. The sound of Mr. H. pacing in the master bedroom while her mother rolled in her narrow bed, the springs creaking beneath her.
* * *
Penny and her mother were hanging up laundry on the clothesline when Mr. H. appeared without warning, home from the Pop Factory at 11:00 in the morning. Without more than a hastily mumbled hello, he ducked past them and disappeared inside the back door. A furious pounding filled Penny’s head like someone hammering away on scrap metal. Her mother, her beautiful mother, turned, chicory blue eyes narrowing against the sun’s glare.
“I ‘spose he forgot something.”
Clothespins clamped between her lips, Penny grabbed a wet bedsheet from the laundry basket and was about to pin it up on the line when her mother yanked it out of her hands and threw it back into the basket. Penny stared at her, too furious to speak.
“We need bleach,” Barbara Niebeck told her daughter, forcefully but quietly. “Go get some bleach.” She pulled two dimes out of her apron pocket.
Spitting the clothespins out of her mouth, Penny fisted the coins her mother thrust at her.
“Go on,” she said, squaring her shoulders and using the tone Penny knew better than to argue with. Her mouth trembling, Penny shot out of the yard. She hid behind the lilac bush in the alley and watched her mother head toward the house, watched her skirt swing from her slender hips like a bell. There was nothing hesitant in her mother’s gait.
* * *
As Penny stumbled off in the direction of the store, she didn’t hear the dogs barking or the whistle of the train pulling into the depot four blocks away. She only heard her mother’s voice, as hateful as a stranger’s. Go buy bleach. Afterwards her mother would try to disguise the odor by dribbling lily-of-the-valley toilet water all over her bed. The smell was enough to make Penny gag. With Mr. H. of all people. Mr. H. with his wife in the nursing home. How could her mother possibly find him attractive with his sissified New England accent and his high balding forehead? Penny understood without wanting to what he saw in her mother’s firm body, in her thick, lustrous hair that wasn’t dark brown like Penny’s but blue-black–exotic coloring in Minerva where most people’s hair was blond or mousy brown. Once Penny had overheard Mr. Wysock from church telling someone that her mother looked like Mata Hari. If people said unkind things about Barbara Niebeck, they all agreed she was a stunner.
Once Penny had been very fond of Mrs. Hamilton, who, in the days before her illness, had been kind to her. Mrs. H. had baked shortbread, which she cut into delicately pointed triangles called petticoat tails. When they were fresh from the oven, she had invited Penny to join her daughters at the table for shortbread and sweet milky tea. Mrs. H. had made her daughters be nice to her, had even made them let her join their games. Penny remembered going to bed praying that Hazel Hamilton was her real mother, but that was four years ago, before Mrs. Hamilton’s illness. Penny told herself she was too old for such games of make-believe. No one could get away with being too soft in life, and Mrs. H. had been soft like a big hortensia bloom. Look where it had gotten her. The Hamilton daughters would do much better for themselves. They were prickly little porcupines trundling along, knowing that no one would ever lay a hand on them.
Turning on to Main Street, she could feel the heat of what would be another merciless day, the humidity coating her skin like grease. When she walked into Renfew’s Grocery and Mercantile, loudly jangling the bells on the door handle, Mr. Renfew didn’t glance up from his crossword puzzle. His two customers, Mrs. Deal and Mrs. La Plant, were too caught up in their conversation to look her way.
“Oh boy, it’s gonna be a hot one today,” Mrs. La Plant told her friend. “Supposed to get up to 99 degrees. And with this humidity!”
Inside the store, it was almost bearable. An electric fan whirled from the high, pressed-tin ceiling. Positioning herself to get the most of the circulating air, Penny rubbed the sweat from her forehead with the heel of her hand. She crossed to the shelf where the chocolate bars were displayed and fingered the illustrated wrappers. Her favorite showed a fancy city lady walking a Scottish terrier. Raising the bar to her nose, she smelled the rich chocolate through the layers of colored paper and foil. In the heat, the chocolate had lost its firmness and went limp as butter in her hands. Her fingers sank in, leaving indentations on the lady’s face.
Taking a quick look around to make sure no one was watching, she returned the misshapen bar to the shelf before slinking to the water dispenser in the corner. During the summer months, Mr. Renfew set out a big tin canister of iced water and a tray of glasses beside it. Often farmers came in, dry and dusty from the fields. Some farm hands and hired girls walked all the way into town. Sipping from her glass, she read the hand-written ads on the notice board. One in particular made her smirk. WEDDING DRESS, WORN ONCE, CHEAP, FIVE DOLLARS. How was it, she wondered, that girls spent a month or more—and all their savings besides—sewing their wedding dress, decorating it with ribbons, lace, and fake pearls? Why put so much work and expense into a dress they only wore one day? Once it was used, they were lucky if they could sell it for a few dollars.
Mrs. Deal and Mrs. La Plant wilted in the heat. Their carefully crimped hair went lank. The sweat rolling down their faces left snail tracks in their powder and rouge. When Mrs. Deal raised her hand to order another glass of Hamilton’s Strawberry Pop, Penny couldn’t help noticing that the armpit of her brittle crepe dress was dark with perspiration. The heat appeared to have stripped away Mrs. Deal’s inhibitions, as well. In a harsh whisper, she asked her friend, “And your Sidney, does he ever get rough with you? Does he ever want it . . . you know . . . in ways that aren’t nice?”
Penny gulped at her water.
Mrs. La Plant giggled nervously. “Oh, Edna, I can’t believe what you just said!”
Before Mrs. Deal could say anything more, the screen door opened and a farmer strode heavily into the shop. The two women looked over at once. Even Mr. Renfew lifted his eyes from his crossword puzzle. Penny stared at the farmer’s manure-crusted work boots, his patched overall legs, and the buttoned overcoat he wore in spite of the heat. He was not anyone she recognized. His smooth young face, shadowed by a dusty white Panama hat, was guarded and expressionless. When the farmer approached the main counter, she saw in profile the burgeoning belly the overcoat was meant to hide, that belly curving out like a firm ripe melon. Even she knew it could not be the belly of a fat man.
The Maagdenbergh woman. Of course, Penny had heard the rumors about her, but until this minute, they had seemed like tall stories. Yet there she was, digging her grocery list out of her overcoat pocket and reading it to Mr. Renfew, who pulled the items down from the shelves and packed them into an orange crate for her.
“Insane,” Mrs. Deal muttered to Mrs. La Plant. “That creature is insane.”
Penny inhaled sharply, wondering if the Maagdenbergh woman had heard. She saw her stiffen, but she just went on reading her shopping list. “Two pounds of coffee beans . . . four bars of Luna White Soap . . . a bar of Castille soap.” Her tone was smooth, resonate. “A quarter pound of brick cheese . . . two pan loaves . . . a pound of rice . . . a box of Ralston Crackers . . . two pounds of Cream of Wheat . . . a dozen cans of tomato soup.”
“How’s the farm?” Mr. Renfew managed to ask.
“The price of wheat has dropped so low, it’s a sin.” A spark of emotion crept into the Maagdenbergh woman’s voice. “I’ve heard some farmers are switching to potatoes. At least the mills can’t fix the price of potatoes, but what can I do? The wheat’s already planted. Let’s hope the weather will hold for the harvest.”
After paying Mr. Renfew, she hoisted the box of groceries and made her cumbersome way to the door. Penny winced, not willing to believe that such a hugely pregnant woman would carry such a load.
“Ma’am!” Mr. Renfew cried. The ma’am must have slipped out before he could stop himself. He leapt out from behind the counter and attempted to wrest the box from her arms. “That’s awfully heavy.”
The Maagdenbergh woman trundled right past him. “I’m perfectly capable of carrying my own groceries, Mr. Renfew.”
He held the screen door open for her as she hauled her load out to her pickup. As soon as she was gone, he turned shakily to Mrs. Deal and Mrs. La Plant, opening his mouth as if to comment on what had just transpired, when the Maadgenbergh woman marched back in and handed him a piece of ivory-colored letter paper.
“Mr. Renfew, would you mind putting this up on your notice board?”
He pinned it beside the scribbled ad for the used wedding dress.
“Thank you.” The Maagdenbergh woman’s voice was as smooth as that ivory paper. “Goodbye, Mr. Renfew. Goodbye, ladies,” she added, turning to Mrs. Deal and Mrs. La Plant. The look she gave them spoke loud and clear. It was as if she had shouted in their faces, Don’t think I didn’t hear what you were saying about me.
Then her green eyes sank into Penny, fixing her in place so that she could not look away. She felt as though the Maagdenbergh woman could see right inside her, right to the bottom of her humiliation. As though she knew her mother had sent her to the store so she could have a dirty tumble with Mr. Hamilton. Penny shrank, the cheap tumbler falling from her hands. At the sound of the glass striking the floor, everyone turned to her. Mr. Renfew, Mrs. Deal, and Mrs. La Plant looked at Penny in startled confusion as if seeing her for the first time.
“Goodbye, miss.” The Maagdenbergh woman stepped out the door. Only when she was gone could Penny take a deep breath and meet Mr. Renfew’s eyes.
“Indestructible, that glass,” he said as she picked it up, still in one piece, and set it back on the tray. Mrs. Deal and Mrs. La Plant smiled at her a little too sweetly. At least none of them seemed to notice her terrible shame. Only the Maagdenbergh woman had seen that.
“Penny?” he said. “Is everything all right? You look kind of pale.” It was true she was shaking.
“It’s the heat.” Mrs. La Plant sighed. “A person can’t even think straight in this heat.”
“You better sit down,” Mr. Renfew said. “Why don’t you eat something? How ‘bout a piece of pie?” Penny edged her way to the counter and took a seat, leaving an empty stool between herself and Mrs. La Plant. Mr. Renfew cut her a slice of his wife’s rhubarb pie. “Want some ice cream with that?” Penny offered him one of the dimes her mother had given her, but he shook his head. “This one’s on the house.”
“I can’t believe her nerve,” Mrs. Deal whispered to Mrs. La Plant. “Going around dressed like that and in her condition.” She glanced at Mr. Renfew. “Did she have the rifle along in her pickup again?”
He nodded glumly. “It was there in the gun rack. I don’t like to see a pregnant lady riding around with a gun.”
“Heard she took a shot at the Nelson gang the other week,” Mrs. La Plant said. “They drove by her place looking to stir up trouble . . .”
“She’s asking for trouble,” Mrs. Deal cut in.
” . . . and she shot clean through their windshield.”
“The Nelson brothers are no good,” Mr. Renfew said. “Serves them right. I just wish she’d try a little harder to stay out of harm’s way. Nothing good can come of her living alone on that farm. I don’t know how she’ll manage when the baby’s there.”
They went on talking, their three faces a closed circle. Penny ate her pie in silence, grateful to be invisible once more.
“What was that notice she wanted you to put up on the board?” Mrs. Deal asked.
“She’s looking for a hired woman.”
“God almighty!” Mrs. Deal slapped the counter and laughed. “No one in their right mind would work for a creature like that.”
“Now, Edna,” Mrs. La Plant said. “Don’t be so uncharitable.”
“I don’t see why she doesn’t go back to where she came from.”
“Back where?” Mrs. La Plant asked. “Back to her husband in Evanston?”
Mrs. Deal didn’t say anything.
“I don’t understand,” Mrs. La Plant continued, “why you can’t feel a little more sympathy for a lady who had to run from her own husband.”
“Is it true she tried to shoot him?” Mr. Renfew lowered his voice to a murmur.
Penny listened to them hash out the story, pieced together from so many different scraps of gossip that it was hard to sort out the truth. The Maagdenbergh woman’s real name was Cora Egan. She was the wife of Dr. Egan of Evanston, Illinois, a man who had served as a military surgeon in the Great War. That was where they had met–supposedly she had gone to France as a Red Cross nurse. People said Dr. Egan came from money and owned a big house a few blocks from Lake Michigan. As a young wife, Cora Egan had been a celebrated beauty, renown for her charity work, her picture all over the Chicago papers. Then the previous November she had appeared at her grandfather’s farm outside Minerva and asked if she could stay. Roy Hanson the hired man claimed she had gone straight for the kitchen shears and hacked off the thick and waving chestnut hair that had garnered her such praise in the society columns. She had burned the shorn tresses in the stove along with the dress she had traveled in. From that day onward, she had only worn men’s clothes, straight from her grandfather’s closet. Then one night her husband showed up. First he acted all gentle and nice, but when she cussed him out and said she’d never go back to him, he started to get mean.
“Roy told me he tried to protect her,” Mrs. La Plant said. “Threw himself between her and her husband and got a punch in the gut. Said he was all doubled up on the floor.”
“Now that I don’t believe,” said Mrs. Deal. “Whoever heard of a doctor knocking down a hired man?”
Mrs. La Plant ignored her. “Roy ended up on the floor and Old Man Van den Maagdenbergh was too frail to do anything but shout. So she got her grandfather’s rifle and shoved it in her husband’s face. Told him to get out and if he ever came back, she’d shoot him dead.”
For a moment no one spoke.
“Roy said she was all shaky and white in the face.” Mrs. La Plant fiddled with her handkerchief. “But she wasn’t bluffing. Her finger was on the trigger. One false move and her husband’s brains would have been all over the kitchen.”
Penny looked down at the sticky red remains of the rhubarb pie.
Mr. Renfew cleared his throat. “I remember when she and her brother used to come visit their grandpa in the summer. In those days she seemed like a nice enough girl. I went to school with her mother,” he added. “Theodora Van den Maagdenbergh.” A distant look passed over his face. “She was a tomboy but nice to look at. Sharp as a nail, too.” He wiped the counter meditatively. “Went to Chicago on scholarship money and met some swell rich fellow. They ran off together . . . to Argentina, I think it was. She must have broken her old man’s heart.”
“Argentina,” Penny broke in. Startled by her voice, they turned to her. “Why would somebody from here go all the way down there?” She thought of the globe in the Hamiltons’ study. Argentina was at the bottom of the world.
“A lot of people were going to Argentina in those days,” Mr. Renfew said. “It was after the Wild West closed up. Down there they still had a frontier. They had mining and cattle ranches bigger than the ones in Texas. People thought they could strike it rich.”
“Argentina’s where the tango comes from,” Mrs. Deal said knowingly.
“I think Roy said her parents ran a hotel down there,” said Mrs. La Plant. “They died when she was twelve. She and her brother came up to live with the Chicago grandparents. They’re dead, too, now. She doesn’t have anyone.”
“What about her brother?” Mr. Renfew asked.
Mrs. La Plant shrugged. “I don’t know anything about the brother. She had Roy, though, but then she fired him. Right after her grandpa died and everyone was ready to feel sorry for her and help her out. Told Roy he didn’t show her the proper respect.” She laughed in disbelief. “Can you imagine? He took a punch in the stomach for her sake, and she tells him he doesn’t respect her.” She rolled her eyes. “None of this trouble with the Nelson gang would have happened if she had a man with her on that farm.”
“It would be a lot easier to feel some sympathy if she let her hair grow back,” Mrs. Deal said, “and put on a dress.”
“Things are never that simple.” Mr. Renfew let out a sigh. “You have to keep up with the times. Harriet cut her hair as short as a boy’s.” His daughter Harriet lived in Minneapolis. “She wears trousers sometimes. Smokes cigarettes and drives her own car. All the young gals in the Cities are cutting their hair. It’s the new fashion.”
“Fashion?” Mrs. Deal snorted. “You know darn well the Maagdenbergh woman doesn’t give two hoots about fashion. She wants to be a man.”
Mr. Renfew blinked and took away Penny’s empty plate. Mrs. La Plant plucked a hair off her skirt. Silence settled over everyone, stifling as the heat. Penny slid off her stool and slipped away.
After sending her daughter off to buy bleach, Barbara Niebeck headed for the kitchen where she unknotted her apron and folded it over the back of a chair. She prided herself in never doing anything slovenly. No rush, she told herself as she climbed the stairway. No excitement, now.Making him wait was part of the game. When she stepped into the back bedroom, they would trade places: she would be the lord and he her servant. She enjoyed taking the role of the man, enjoyed opening him up and making him submit to her. Of course, he paid for it and quite handsomely–he could afford to–and afterwards he was so grateful. She knew what she was doing, knew she was exactly what he craved: an experienced woman, not some hysterical young thing who might foster false hopes or make unreasonable demands. The notion of romance had been beaten out of her a long time ago, starting at the age of fourteen when her father had pushed her down in the wood shed, his hand clapped over her mouth. Having given birth to Penny at fifteen, she knew more than anyone the importance of averting pregnancy. A few weeks ago, she had gone to a special doctor in Sandborn who had fitted her for a diaphragm. She’d waved her fake wedding ring in his face and bribed him, and in the end she’d gotten what she wanted. You couldn’t rely on the man to take precautions. You had to go all the way to Sandborn to buy condoms, and Mr. H. could never do that. The way people talked, the rumors would spread through the entire county.
Barbara slipped into the bathroom and took the diaphragm from its hiding place behind the can of Borax Abrasive Cleanser. The thing she hated most about Minerva, she decided, was that everyone thought they knew you. They thought they knew all about you, but they only saw what fit their own notion of a person, what they were comfortable seeing. People looked at Laurence Hamilton and thought he was some kind of paragon of decency when anyone with half a brain would be able to figure out the mystery behind his coming home in the middle of the day. People thought that she was a hussy paying the wages for her sins, hiding her disgrace behind the lie of being a widow, but they didn’t know the half of it.
For an instant, as she held the tube of spermicidal cream over her diaphragm, she allowed herself to remember Mrs. Hamilton in the days before her illness. Squeezing cream out of the tube, she recalled Mrs. Hamilton’s lace-edged handkerchiefs, her jeweled brooches, her fading gold hair. Eight years ago, Mrs. H. had hired her. She was one of the few people who had believed Barbara’s story about being an unfortunate widow left alone with a child. Previously Barbara had slaved away as a chambermaid at the Commercial Hotel where she spent her years between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two dodging the traveling salesmen who had tried to grope her in the dim hallways. She supposed Mrs. H., in a way, had been her savior. Mrs. H. had been too noble to hold Barbara’s reputation against her. She hadn’t considered the consequences of hiring a cleaning woman who was young and pretty.
As Barbara shoved the diaphragm into her vagina, she told herself she wasn’t being heartless but merely clear-headed. Sentimentality was not a luxury she could afford–not after having Penny at fifteen and then having to run away from her own father who had tried to drown her newborn baby in the rain barrel. After all she had been through, bringing up her daughter on cleaning woman’s wages, she had systematically rooted out and destroyed every naïve impulse. As long as Mr. H. wanted her, she would let him have her, but she would be sure to get as much out of him as she could. She was no fool. When Hazel finally got around to dying, he would dismiss Barbara, then find some respectable woman to marry, someone of his own station, a fellow Presbyterian like that Miss Ellison who gave his daughters their piano lessons and couldn’t take her eyes off him. Wasn’t Miss Ellison already training for the role of stepmother, judging from all the attention she gave his girls? Those heart-to-heart talks she had with Irene? By the time Mr. H. was ready to marry again, Barbara planned to be long gone. At the end of summer, she hoped to have enough saved so that she and Penny could get on a train and head out to some place like California where it was always warm, and where she could imagine a much easier life.
Appraising herself in the bathroom mirror, she brushed her black hair. Her life was far from over: she was thirty and looked even younger, especially if she compared herself to the farm wives her age who had already birthed a whole litter of brats and had to squeeze their sagging flesh into rubber corsets before going to church. With the money she’d made so far from these odd mornings and afternoons with Mr. H., she had bought kidskin gloves to hide her work-roughened hands. In a pair of good gloves, she could pass as a lady. She had bought silk stockings and a smart black crepe de chine dress. For the time being, she wore them to mass. Every Sunday, she took her daughter to Saint Anne’s Catholic Church, not out of any hypocritical notions of piety, but so all those biddies and stuffed shirts who thought they were better than her could see how respectable she looked in her new clothes. She knew what irked them most was that if she had the right clothes, there was no telling the difference betweenher and them. She wanted Penny to sit up and notice her mother wasn’t any old drudge. She wanted the girl to take a good look at the way men stared at her while their wives seethed. This is the way you do it, she wanted to tell her, so they don’t grind people like us into the ground.
Honestly, she didn’t know what to do with that girl. Penny could be so nerve-wracking with her drooping shoulders and mournfully accusing eyes. But sometimes her daughter looked at her slyly, as though she knew things she had no business knowing. There were times Barbara saw something in that girl’s sharp and merciless stare that reminded her against her will of her father. Sometimes—God forgive her—she wanted to take Penny by the shoulders and shake her until her bones rattled. Once, in a moment of rage, she had even told her daughter about how her grandfather had tried to drown her in the rain barrel. Although she had never meant to do it, she had spit out the words. “Show me some respect! I’m the one who saved you.” But she had never told Penny that her grandfather was also her father. She would jump off a bridge before she revealed that to anyone.
Stepping out of the bathroom, she thought of Hazel Hamilton’s daughters: pasty, second-rate miniatures of their mother. Once she had caught Irene cornering Penny on the stair landing and taunting her. “What’s a penny worth? Nothing, that’s what your worth.” Barbara had rushed up from behind and told Irene in her chilliest voice, “My daughter’s name is Penelope, if you please, and some would consider it a nicer name than Irene.”
When Barbara entered the back bedroom where Mr. H. lay waiting, she tried to forget that this was also her daughter’s room. The drawn curtains made it dim enough for her to pretend not to see Penny’s bed lurking in the far corner. On Barbara’s own iron-framed bed, he stretched out naked. She heard his breath catch as she began to undress. He was so eager, she nearly pitied him. His whole life he had been obliged to be so correct, so upright, a pillar, but only here in her bed could the man inside him unfold. Straddling him, she loosened her long black hair so that it swept down and touched his yearning face. As she kissed him and drew his hands to her breasts, she imagined the weight of his world dropping away.
Penny was halfway down Main Street when she remembered that she hadn’t bought the bleach. For a moment, she paused, reaching in her pocket for the two thin dimes. Then she bit her lip and kept walking until she reached the Bijou Motion Picture Theater. The matinee had already begun. In the shadows near the screen, Mrs. Jensen played piano to accompany the silent pictures as Penny found her way to an empty seat, sticky with spilled lemonade. Houdini’s face hovered before her in the darkness. Her heart beat fast. The heat made her half-faint as she watched them bind him with chains as thick as his arms. His eyes leapt off the screen and locked with hers. She winced as his face contorted, her fingers kneading the armrests as he struggled, his muscles chafing against the chains. She leaned forward, her stomach tight as she watched him wriggle like a powerful fish straining against a net. Mrs. Jensen’s triumphant chords drowned out Penny’s gasp as Houdini finally broke free.
* * *
When she returned to the Hamiltons, it was nearly three o’clock. She braced herself as she marched in through the back gate. Just let her mother ask her where she had been all afternoon and what she had done with the bleach money. She lifted her chin in defiance. But her mother, busy taking the laundry down from the line, didn’t appear to take any notice of the time Penny had spent away. Her face was set and fixed, with no trace of shame.
“I’m nearly finished here,” she said. “Take these sheets in and get started on the ironing.”
The sheets, to which her mother was referring, were the real linen sheets that went on Mr. H.’s bed. Something grew so tight in Penny’s throat, she thought it would burst. When was she going to wash her own stinking sheets? Penny remembered the look the Maagdenbergh woman had given her in the store.
“Penny! Did you hear what I just said?”
She tried to stand her ground, the way her mother always did, to hold herself as tall and proud as the Lombardy poplars in front of the public library. “I’m not ironing his sheets.” Her voice was strong even though it took all her courage to meet her mother’s gaze.
“Pardon me? I don’t think I rightly understood what you just said.”
“I said I’m not ironing his sheets.” Penny raised her voice and prayed there was no tremor in it. “You can’t tell me what to do anymore,” she added, astounded by her own nerve.
“Very well then, Miss Smarty Pants.” She could tell her mother could just manage to rein in her temper. “If you’re too high and mighty to do your work around here, then you can pack your bags and go some place else.”
“Maybe I will.” If she broke down now and allowed her mother to bully her into ironing those sheets, she thought she would die inside. “Maybe I’ll just go.”
“Any place in mind?” The corners of her mother’s mouth twisted into a smirk. “The Commercial Hotel? Spend ten hours a day cleaning out those rooms while the traveling salesmen try to paw you? Or maybe you want to sweep under the benches at the railway station.”
The sarcasm in her mother’s voice made Penny want to hate her. Reaching deep inside herself, she summoned up the thing that would shock her mother most, that would shut her up and knock her out of her complacency. “No. I’ve got something better than that. The Maagdenbergh woman.” She felt a cold surge of satisfaction to see her mother frown and take a faltering step sideways. “She’s looking for a hired girl.”
“If this is some kind of joke,” her mother said, “I don’t think it’s very funny.”
“I’m not joking.” Penny spoke so rapidly, she hardly knew what she was saying. “She’s desperate for a hired girl. Alone on that farm with harvest coming and a baby on the way. She’ll pay me any wages I ask.”
Her mother shook her head. “Are you crazy or just trying to be smart with me? I don’t think you’re stupid enough to think you can just go off and work for somebody like that. Come on, let’s get started on those sheets.”
“I don’t see why I shouldn’t go work for her. Isn’t her money as good as Mr. Hamilton’s?” She willed her mother’s shame to rise to the surface, longed for some word of embarrassment or regret. An attempt at an explanation, perhaps. One thing was certain—she had managed to get her mother completely flustered. For the first time in her memory, she saw her searching for words.
“You think you’re pretty smart,” her mother said, this time hesitantly. “But there’s an awful lot about this world you just don’t know.” She stepped toward Penny and rested her hand on her shoulder. “That Maagdenbergh woman is not exactly what people call decent.”
Closing her eyes, Penny allowed the hard thing inside her to soften. But before she could even accustom herself to the warmth of her mother’s hand on her shoulder, the grip toughened, her mother’s fingers digging into her flesh hard enough to bruise.
“I have heard enough of this foolishness,” her mother snapped in the same tone she had used when ordering her to go buy bleach, a tone of such cold authority that Penny wanted to scream.
She had not meant to do it, had not meant to go this far, but before she could stop herself, the words shot out of her mouth. “You know, you’re not exactly what people call decent, either.”
Her mother’s hand flew off her shoulder and smacked her hard across the face.
“Ma!” she cried, her eyes brimming with salt.
“You little shit!” She had never heard her mother shriek like that before. “If that’s what you think of me, then get out. Get out!”
She grabbed Penny’s arm and hauled her into the kitchen. As hard as Penny struggled, she could not yank her arm free. She had never guessed her mother was so much stronger than she was. As she dragged her up the back stairway, Penny tried to pretend that none of this was really happening. Then they reached the back bedroom, reeking of lily-of-the-valley toilet water and the other, ranker smell, which the toilet water could not completely mask.
“I can smell him!” Penny cried, rubbing her stung cheek. “I can smell him,” she sobbed.
Her mother grabbed a small wicker suitcase and started hurling Penny’s clothes into it. She shoved the suitcase at Penny, grabbed her by the hair, and tried to force her down the hall. Before she could march her down the stairs and out the back door, Penny broke free. The flimsy suitcase banged against her thigh as she burst out of the house. Flying into the shed, she grabbed the battered old bicycle her mother used for running errands. Fast as Houdini, she shoved the suitcase into the bicycle basket and started pedaling, her calf muscles straining as she pumped down the alleyway. The garbage pails and the boys playing marbles streaked into a blur. Before she turned onto Lilac Street, she heard her mother shouting her name, but she just pedaled faster. She told herself that Houdini would never look back.
Excerpt from The Real Minerva by Mary Sharratt.