When Ella Barron woke up that morning, she didn’t expect it to be a momentous day.
Her sleep hadn’t been interrupted by a subconscious premonition. There had been no change in the weather, no sudden shift in the atmosphere, no unusual sound to startle her awake.
As on most mornings, sleep released her gradually a half hour before daylight. She yawned and stretched, her feet seeking cool spots between the sheets. But catching another forty winks was out of the question. To indulge in such a luxury would never have crossed her mind. She had responsibilities, chores that couldn’t be shirked or even postponed. She lay in bed only long enough to remember what day of the week it was. Wash day.
She quickly made her bed, then checked on Solly, who was still deep in slumber.
She dressed with customary efficiency. With no time for vanity, she hastily twisted her long hair into a bun on the back of her head and secured it with pins, then left her bedroom and made her way to the kitchen, moving quietly so as not to awaken the others in the house.
This was the only time of day when the kitchen was quiet and cool. As the day progressed, heat was produced by the cookstove. Heat seeped in from outside through the screened door and the window above the sink. Even Ella’s own energy acted as a generator.
Proportionately with the thermometer, the noise level rose, so that by suppertime, the kitchen, which was the heart of the house, took on a pulsating life of its own and didn’t settle into cool repose until Ella extinguished the overhead light for the final time, most often hours after her boarders had retired.
This morning, she didn’t pause to enjoy either the relative coolness or the silence. Having put on her apron, she lit the oven, put the coffee on to brew, then mixed the biscuit dough.
Margaret arrived right on time, and after removing her hat and hanging it on the peg inside the door, and gratefully taking a tin cup of sweetened coffee from Ella, she went back outside to fill the washing machine with water for the first load of laundry. The prospect of buying an electric-powered washing machine was so remote that Ella didn’t even dream about it. For her foreseeable future she must continue using the one with the hand-crank wringer that had been her mother’s. Suds and rinse water from the tub were drained into a ditch that ran alongside the shed where the washer was housed.
On a summer day like today, the washing shed became stifling by midmorning. But wet laundry seemed heavier when one’s hands were raw and numb from cold during the winter months. In any season, laundry days were dreaded. By nightfall her back would be aching.
Solly, still in his pajamas, wandered into the kitchen while she was frying bacon.
Breakfast was served at eight.
By nine o’clock everyone had been fed, the dishes washed, dried, and put away. Ella set a pot of mustard greens on the stove to simmer all day, cooked a pan of Faultless starch, then, taking Solly with her, went outside to hang up the first basket of laundry that Margaret had washed, rinsed, and wrung out. It was almost eleven o’clock when she went inside to check on things in the kitchen. While she was adding a little more salt to the greens, someone pulled the bell at her front door. As she walked along the dim center hall, she dried her hands on her apron and glanced at herself in the wall mirror. Her face was flushed and damp from the heat, and her heavy bun had defied the pins and slipped down onto her nape, but she continued to the door without stopping to primp.
On the other side of the threshold, squinting at her through the screened door, was Dr. Kincaid. “Morning, Mrs. Barron.” His white straw hat had a natty red cloth band, striated with generations of sweat stains. He removed it and held it against his chest in a rather courtly manner.
She was surprised to see the doctor on her porch, but still nothing signaled her that this would be an extraordinary day. Dr. Kincaid’s office was in the center of town on Hill Street, but he also made house calls, usually to deliver a baby, sometimes to keep a contagious patient from spreading his infection through Gilead, their town of two thousand.
Ella herself had summoned the doctor to the house a couple of years ago when one of her boarders fell out of his bed during the middle of the night. Mr. Blackwell, an elderly gentleman who fortunately had been more embarrassed than injured, protested even as Dr. Kincaid agreed with Ella that he probably should be thoroughly examined just as a precaution. Mr. Blackwell no longer lived with her. Shortly after that incident, his family had moved him to a home for the elderly in Waco. Mr. Blackwell had futilely protested his involuntary relocation, too.
Had one of her boarders sent for the doctor today? Little in the house escaped Ella’s notice, but she’d been outside most of the morning, so it was possible that one of the sisters had used the telephone without her knowledge.
“Good morning, Dr. Kincaid. Did one of the Dunnes send for you?”
“No. I’m not here on a sick call.”
“Then what can I do for you?”
“Is this a bad time?”
She thought of the clothes piled into baskets and ready to be starched, but the starch needed a while longer to cool. “Not at all. Come in.” She reached up to unlatch the screened door and pushed it open.
Dr. Kincaid turned to his right and made a come-forward motion with his hat. Ella was unaware of the other man’s presence until he stepped around the large fern at the side of the front door and into her range of vision.
Her first impression of him was how tall and lean he was. One could almost say he looked underfed. He was dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and black necktie, and was holding a black felt fedora. She thought his clothes looked severe and out of season for such a hot morning, especially compared to Dr. Kincaid’s seersucker suit and white hat with the red band. The doctor made the introduction. “Mrs. Barron, this is Mr. Rainwater.”
He inclined his head. “Ma’am.”
She moved aside and indicated for them to come inside. Dr. Kincaid allowed the other man to go in ahead of him. A few steps into the foyer, he stopped to let his eyes adjust to the relative darkness. Then he took in his surroundings as he idly threaded the brim of his hat through long, slender fingers. “In here, please.” Ella stepped around her two guests and motioned them into the formal parlor. “Have a seat.”
“We thought we heard the doorbell.”
The chirping voice brought Ella around. The Misses Dunne, Violet and Pearl, were standing on the bottom stair. In their pastel print dresses and old-fashioned shoes, they were virtually interchangeable. Each had a nimbus of white hair. Their veined, spotted hands clutched matching handkerchiefs, daintily hemmed and hand-embroidered by their mother, they’d told Ella.
With unabashed curiosity, the two were looking beyond Ella to catch a glimpse of the visitors. Having callers was an event.
“Is that Dr. Kincaid?” asked Pearl, the more inquisitive of the two. “Hello, Dr. Kincaid,” she called.
“Good morning, Miss Pearl.”
“Who’s that with you?”
Miss Violet frowned at her sister with reproof. “We were coming down to play gin rummy until lunch,” she whispered to Ella. “Will we disturb?”
“Not at all.”
Ella asked them to use the informal parlor and led them to it. When they were situated at the card table, she said, “Please excuse us, ladies,” and pulled together the heavy oak pocket doors that divided the large room in half. She rejoined the two men in the formal side, which overlooked the front porch. Despite her invitation for them to sit down, they had remained standing.
Dr. Kincaid was fanning himself with his hat. Ella switched on the fan on the table in the corner, directed the stream of air toward him, then motioned the men toward a pair of wingback chairs. “Please.”
They sat when she did.
This being summer, and wash day, she hadn’t put on stockings that morning. Embarrassed by her bare legs, she crossed her ankles and pulled her feet beneath the chair. “Would you like some lemonade? Or tea?”
“That sounds awfully good, Mrs. Barron, but I’m afraid I have to pass,” the doctor said. “I’ve got patients to see at the clinic.”
She looked at Mr. Rainwater.
“No thank you,” he said.
Returning to the kitchen would have given her an opportunity to remove her apron, which had a damp patch where she’d dried her hands, and to pin her bun more securely. But since her guests had declined the offer of a drink, she was stuck looking untidy for the remainder of their visit, the purpose of which hadn’t yet been stated. She wondered what Solly was up to and how long this unexpected meeting was going to take. She hoped Mr. Rainwater wasn’t a salesman. She didn’t have time to sit through his pitch, only to say no to whatever it was he was peddling.
The smell of simmering mustard greens was strong, even here in the front parlor. The doctor withdrew a large white handkerchief from his coat pocket and used it to blot sweat from his balding head. A yellow jacket flew into the window screen and continued angrily to try to go through it. The hum of the electric fan seemed as loud as a buzz saw.
She was relieved when Dr. Kincaid cleared his throat and said, “I heard you lost a boarder.”
“That’s right. Mrs. Morton went to live with an ailing sister. Somewhere in eastern Louisiana, I believe.”
“Quite a piece from here,” he remarked.
“Her nephew came to escort her on the train.”
“Nice for her, I’m sure. Have you had anyone speak for her room?”
“She only left the day before yesterday. I haven’t had time to advertise.”
“Well then, that’s good, that’s good,” the doctor said and began fanning himself enthusiastically, as though in celebration of something.
Discerning now the purpose for their call, she looked at Mr. Rainwater. He sat leaning slightly forward with both feet on the floor. His black shoes were shined, she noticed. His thick, dark hair was smoothed back off his face, but one strand, as straight and shiny as a satin ribbon, had defiantly flopped over his broad forehead. His cheekbones were pronounced, his eyebrows as sleek and black as crows’ wings. He had startling blue eyes, and they were steady on her.
“Are you interested in lodging, Mr. Rainwater?”
“Yes. I need a place to stay.”
“I haven’t had a chance to give the vacant room a thorough cleaning, but as soon as it’s ready, I’d be happy to show it to you.”
“I’m not particular.” He smiled, showing teeth that were very white, although slightly crooked on the top. “I’ll take the room as is.”
“Oh, I’m afraid I couldn’t let you have it now,” she said quickly. “Not until I’ve aired the bedding, scrubbed everything, polished the floor. I have very high standards.”
“For boarders or cleanliness?”
“Which is why I’ve brought him to you,” the doctor said hastily. “I told Mr. Rainwater that you keep an immaculate house and run a tight ship. To say nothing of the excellent meals your boarders enjoy. He desires a place that’s well maintained. A peaceful and quiet house.”
Just then, from the direction of the kitchen, came a terrible racket followed by a bloodcurdling scream.
Ella was out of her chair like a shot. “Excuse me.” She ran from the parlor and down the hallway, bursting into the kitchen, where Solly was standing in the middle of the floor, screeching at the top of his voice and holding his left arm away from his body as stiff as a ramrod.
Hot starch had spattered his arm from wrist to shoulder. Some had splashed onto his chest, plastering his cotton shirt to his skin. The pan which had been on the stove was now lying overturned on the floor. The sticky blue stuff was oozing out of it, forming a wide puddle.
Heedless of the mess, Ella lifted her son and hugged him to her. “Oh no, oh, God. Solly, Solly, oh, sweetheart. Oh, Lord.”
“Cold water.” Dr. Kincaid had rushed into the kitchen practically on her heels and had immediately assessed the situation. He pushed her toward the sink and turned on the cold water spout, forcing Solly’s arm beneath the stream.
“Do you have ice?”
Mr. Rainwater addressed the question to Margaret, who’d come rushing in from the backyard, calling on Jesus for help even before determining the nature of the catastrophe.
Since Margaret seemed incapable of answering him, Ella shouted above Solly’s screams. “There’s ice in the box. A whole block delivered just this morning.”
She and Dr. Kincaid continued to struggle with the boy to keep his burned arm under the gush of cold water. Ella splashed handfuls of it onto his shirt, trying to neutralize the starch that was burning him through the thin fabric.
None of this was easily done. They had to battle Solly, whose right arm was flailing about, often connecting painfully with either Ella or the doctor. The boy was also trying to butt heads with them and kicking his feet. Several pieces of crockery and china were knocked off the drainboard and onto the floor, breaking in the widening puddle of starch.
“This will help.” Mr. Rainwater moved up beside Ella with a chunk of freshly chipped ice. While she and Dr. Kincaid held Solly’s arm as still as possible, Mr. Rainwater rubbed the ice up and down her child’s arm, which now bore ugly red splotches. The ice cooled the burns, and eventually Solly stopped screaming, but he continued to bob his head rhythmically. The doctor turned off the tap. Ella noticed that the sleeves of his coat were wet to his elbows and realized that her apron and dress were drenched as well.
“Thank you.” She took what was left of the chunk of ice from Mr. Rainwater and continued to rub it up and down Solly’s arm as she carried him to a chair and sat down with him on her lap. She hugged him close and kissed the top of his head as she cradled him tightly against her chest. Even then it took several minutes before he stopped the rhythmic bobbing of his head.
From the open doorway, the two Dunne spinsters cooed commiseration and encouragement.
Margaret was holding the hem of her apron to her lips with one hand, the other pink palm was raised beseechingly toward the ceiling. She was crying loudly and praying plaintively, “Jesus, he’p this poor baby. Lord Jesus, he’p this child.”
Ella was grateful for Margaret’s prayers and hoped the Lord was listening, but the loud praying was adding to the confusion. “Margaret, please bring me one of his candy sticks,” she said. Her quiet tone cut through Margaret’s fervent litany. She ceased praying, smoothed her apron back into place, and went into the pantry, where Ella kept a jar of candy sticks hidden behind canisters of flour and sugar. If Solly spotted the candy, he demanded it by lying on the floor and kicking until he either exhausted himself or exhausted Ella to the point of giving in just to restore the peace.
The candy sticks were reserved for times of crisis. Like now. Margaret was choking back sobs. “It’s my fault. He was playin’
there in the dirt. You know how he likes to dig with that big wood spoon? I turned my back, couldn’t’ve been more’n half a minute, to throw that bedsheet over the clothesline. Next I know, he’s in the house a-screamin’. I’m sorry, Miss Ella. I---”
“It wasn’t your fault, Margaret. I know how quickly he can disappear.”
Margaret muttered on about how she was to blame as she brought the candy jar from the pantry, lifted off the metal lid, and extended it to Solly. “Margaret ain’t ever gonna forgive herself for this. No she ain’t. What flavor you want, baby doll?” Solly remained unaware of Margaret, so Ella selected for him, a white stick with orange stripes. She didn’t hand it to him directly but laid it on the table. He picked it up and began to lick. Everyone in the kitchen sighed with relief.
“Let me take a look at the burns.”
“No.” Ella held up her hand to prevent the doctor from moving any closer and setting Solly off again. “The spots aren’t blistering, and the starch had been cooling for over two hours. It wasn’t that hot. When he pulled the pan off the stove and the starch splashed on him, I think it frightened him more than anything.”
“It’s a good thing it wasn’t---”
Miss Pearl’s comment was stopped abruptly, probably when she got an elbow in the ribs from her more tactful sister. But Ella knew what Miss Pearl was thinking, what everyone including herself was thinking: It was a good thing Solly hadn’t pulled the stewing greens off the stove and onto himself.
Ella smoothed her hand over her son’s head, but he dodged the caress. The rejection pierced her heart, but she looked at the others and smiled bravely. “I think the crisis has passed.”
“I have some salve at the clinic,” the doctor said. “Even though the skin’s not blistered, it wouldn’t hurt to keep it lubricated for a day or two.”
Ella nodded and looked over at Mr. Rainwater, who was hovering near the stove, as though guarding against another accident. “The ice helped. Thank you.”
She said, “About the room---”
“See, I told you he was to be a new boarder.” Miss Pearl spoke to her sister in a whisper which everyone heard.
“We’ll excuse ourselves until lunch.” Miss Violet grasped her sister’s arm with enough pressure to make her wince and practically dragged her toward the staircase. Miss Pearl was still whispering excitedly as they made their way up. “He seems awfully nice, don’t you think, Sister? Very clean fingernails. I wonder who his people are.”
Ella eased Solly off her lap and into the chair in which she was seated. She made a futile attempt to smooth back strands of hair that had shaken loose from her bun. Responding to the humidity created by the cooking pot of greens, her hair had formed unruly spirals on both sides of her face.
“As I was saying, Mr. Rainwater, I haven’t had time to give the room a thorough cleaning. If you’re wanting to move in immediately---”
“When the room meets my standards.”
The statement seemed to amuse him, and she wondered if his quick grin was mocking her standards or her pride in them. In either case, she resented it. “In light of what the last quarter hour has been like, I’m surprised you’re still interested in securing a room in my house, especially if it’s peace and quiet you’re after. You haven’t even seen the room yet.”
“Then let’s take a look,” Dr. Kincaid said. “But I really must get back to the clinic soon.”
Mr. Rainwater said, “You don’t have to stay, Murdy.” Dr. Kincaid’s first name was Murdock, but Ella had never heard him addressed as Murdy, not even by close acquaintances.
“No, no, I want to help any way I can.” The doctor turned to her. “Mrs. Barron?”
She glanced down at Solly, who had eaten half his candy stick. Margaret, sensing her hesitation, said, “You go on with the gentlemen. I’ll keep an eagle eye on this boy. I swear I won’t take my eyes off him.”
Reluctantly Ella led the two men from the kitchen and up the stairs, then down the hallway to the room at the end of it. Opening the door, she said, “It’s got a nice southern exposure. You can catch the breeze.”
The sheer curtains now catching the breeze were ruffled. The wallpaper had a yellow cabbage rose pattern, and the iron bed looked too short for Mr. Rainwater. In fact, even though he was slender, the room looked smaller with him standing in its center, much smaller than when Mrs. Morton had occupied it.
But he seemed either not to notice or not to care about the feminine decor or the limited size of the bed, the room, or the narrow closet. He looked out the window, nodded, then turned back to her and the doctor. “This will do.”
“You would share a bathroom with Mr. Hastings.”
“Chester Hastings,” Dr. Kincaid supplied. “Extremely nice man. He’s not in town much. Notions salesman. Travels all over.”
“I don’t have a problem with sharing a bathroom,” Mr. Rainwater said.
On the way downstairs, Ella told him the cost for room and board, and by the time they reached the ground floor he had agreed to it.
“Splendid,” Dr. Kincaid said. “I’ll let the two of you work out the particulars about moving in and so forth.”
Ella hesitated and glanced toward the kitchen. Margaret was softly humming a hymn, which usually soothed Solly. Com- forting him would also help alleviate Margaret’s guilt, so Ella decided she could spare another few minutes.
“I’ll see you out.” She led the way to the front door, but when she got there, she discovered that only Dr. Kincaid had followed her. Behind them the hallway was empty. Presumably Mr. Rainwater had ducked into the parlor, waiting there to discuss the details of his occupancy.
“Can I have a word, Mrs. Barron?” the doctor asked. Only moments ago, he had seemed in such a hurry to leave that she looked at him curiously as he pushed open the screened door and ushered her out onto the porch.
The overhang formed by the second story of the house had trapped the heat as well as the heady fragrance of gardenia. The shrub, laden with creamy white blossoms, grew in a pot she kept at the end of the porch.
Two summers ago she’d had a boarder who complained of the fragrance being cloying and giving him headaches. Ella attributed his headaches less to the aromatic blossoms and more to the corn liquor he sipped from a silver flask when he thought no one was looking. When she reminded him that she didn’t allow spirits in the house, he’d been affronted.
“Are you referring to my cough remedy, Mrs. Barron?” Short of calling him a liar, she couldn’t challenge him further, but he also never again complained about the gardenias.
She’d been relieved when he’d moved out and the more genial Mr. Hastings had moved in.
Again the doctor dabbed his bald head with his handkerchief.
“I wanted to speak to you in private.”
“Well, that, yes.”
They’d had this discussion many times before. Bracing for an argument, she clasped her hands at her waist. “I refuse to place him in an institution, Dr. Kincaid.”
“I haven’t suggested---”
“I also refuse to keep him medicated.”
“So you’ve told me. Many times.”
“Then please stop trying to persuade me otherwise.”
“What happened just now---”
“Could have happened to any child,” she said. “Remember when the Hinnegar boy turned that kerosene lamp over on himself last winter?”
“That boy is two years old, Mrs. Barron. Solly is ten.”
“His birthday is still months away.”
“Close enough.” Softening his tone, the doctor continued.
“I’m well aware of the perils inherent to childhood. Based on what I’ve seen during my years of general practice, it’s amazing to me that any of us reaches adulthood.”
He paused, took a breath, then looked at her kindly. “But your boy is particularly susceptible to mishaps. Even at his age, Solly can’t understand the dangers associated with something like pulling a pan of hot starch off the stove. And then when there is an accident, his reaction is a violent outburst. As it was today.”
“He was burned, he was screaming in pain. Anyone would
“By my speaking to you plainly, please don’t think I’m being insensitive or unnecessarily cruel. It’s your situation that’s cruel. The fact is, without medication to suppress your son’s... impulses, he could harm himself and others, especially when he’s in the throes of one of his fits.”
“I keep careful watch over him to prevent that.”
“I don’t question how dutiful---”
“It’s not my duty, it’s my privilege. Only the running of this house prevents me from devoting every waking moment to Solly. This morning was an exception, not the rule. I was unexpectedly called away.”
That was a subtle reminder that he was responsible for her distraction, but the doctor ignored the rebuke.
“You bring me to the next point, Mrs. Barron. This constant vigilance is also detrimental to your health. How long can you keep it up?”
“For as long as Solly needs supervision.”
“Which in all likelihood will be for the rest of his life. What happens when he outgrows you and you can no longer physically restrain him?”
She forced herself to unclench her hands. In a slow and deliberate voice she said, “The medications you’re suggesting to suppress his impulses would also inhibit his ability to learn.”
Her saying that caused the doctor’s eyes to become even kinder, sadder, more pitying.
She took umbrage. “I know you doubt Solly’s capacity to learn, Dr. Kincaid. I do not. I won’t rob him of the opportunity just because it would make my life easier. I won’t have him drugged into a stupor, where he would be breathing but little else. What kind of life would he have?”
“What kind of life do you have?” he asked gently. She drew herself up to her full height. Her face was hot with indignation. “I appreciate your professional opinion, Dr. Kincaid. But that’s all it is, an opinion. No one really knows what Solly is or isn’t capable of understanding and retaining. But as his mother, I have a better perception of his abilities than anyone. So I must do what I think is best for him.”
Yielding the battle if not the war, the doctor glanced away from her toward the clump of larkspur growing at the edge of her yard. Their blue spikes were wilting in the noon heat. “Send Margaret ’round for that salve,” he finally said.
The street was deserted except for a spotted brown and white dog that was trotting alongside a wagon driven by an elderly black man and pulled by a pair of plodding mules. The man tipped his hat to them as the wagon rolled past. They waved back at him. Ella didn’t know him, but the doctor addressed him by name and called out a greeting.
“If that’s all, Dr. Kincaid, I need to set out lunch.”
He turned back to her. “Actually, there is something else, Mrs. Barron. About Mr. Rainwater.”
Other than his name, and his willingness to pay her fee for room and board, she knew nothing about the man. She was taking him in as a boarder based solely upon Dr. Kincaid’s implied recommendation. “Is he a man of good character?” “Impeccable character.”
“You’ve known him for a long time?”
“He’s my wife’s late cousin’s boy. I guess that makes him some sort of a second or third cousin by marriage.”
“I guessed he might be an old friend or family member. He called you Murdy.”
Absently he nodded. “Family nickname.”
“Is he in the medical profession, too?”
“No. He was a cotton broker.”
“Was?” Was Mr. Rainwater a victim of the Depression, one of the thousands of men in the nation who were out of work? “If he’s unemployed, how does he plan to pay his rent? I can’t afford---”
“He’s not without funds. He’s...” The doctor looked toward the retreating wagon and continued watching it as it rounded the corner. Coming back to her, he said, “The fact is, he won’t be needing the room in your house for long.”
She stared at him, waiting.
Softly he said, “He’s dying.”
“Please, Mr. Rainwater. Leave that.”
He was crouched, picking pieces of broken china off the kitchen linoleum. He glanced up at her but continued what he was doing. “I’m afraid the boy will hurt himself again.”
“Margaret and I will tend to the mess, and to Solly.”
Margaret was at the stove drizzling bacon grease from that morning’s breakfast into the greens. Solly was sitting in his customary chair at the kitchen table, rocking back and forth, fiddling with a yo-yo that Margaret must have given him from his box of toys. He wound the string around his index finger, unwound it. His concentration was fixed on the winding and rewinding.
The crisis had passed, and he didn’t appear to be suffering any lasting effects, but would she know if he were? She had to take his passivity as a good sign. Looking at his blond head bowed over the yo-yo, she felt the familiar pinching sensation deep within her heart, a mix of unqualified love and the fear that even that might not be sufficient to protect him.
Mr. Rainwater came to his feet and held out his hands. Ella took the dustpan off the nail from which it hung on the wall and extended it to him. He carefully placed the chips of broken dishware in it. “Those are the larger pieces. There are some slivers I couldn’t pick out of the starch.”
“We’ll watch for them when we clean up.”
He turned to the sink and washed the starch off his hands, then dried them on a dish towel. She would have felt awkward making herself so at home in someone else’s kitchen, especially a stranger’s. He seemed to suffer no such self-consciousness.
She set the dustpan on the floor in the corner. “Margaret, could you get out the lunch things while I speak with Mr. Rainwater?”
“Yes, ma’am. You want me to get this baby’s lunch, too?”
“Please. Peel an orange and section it. A butter and grape jelly sandwich, cut in half. Put them on the blue plate he likes.”
“Yes, ma’am. You tend to the gentleman here.” She smiled at Mr. Rainwater, obviously pleased that he was about to join the household. His willingness to help during an emergency situation had earned her hard-won approval. “Them sheets need hanging, but they can keep till after lunch.”
“Thank you, Margaret.” Ella turned and gestured the man toward the hallway. “Mr. Rainwater?”
“We can talk here.”
Ella preferred not to discuss business in the kitchen, where, as anticipated, the temperature had climbed. She was also worried about the sheets in the washtub that needed to be wrung through the wringer, probably twice, before being hung on the clothesline to dry. She was afraid that Margaret would get heavy-handed with the bacon grease, which she was prone to do. Margaret was also a gossip. On several occasions Ella had been forced to chide her for sharing personal information about their boarders and about Ella herself.
Her major concern, however, was Solly, although the red marks on his skin had faded so they were barely visible now, and the burns didn’t seem to be hurting him. For the moment he was pacified.
She wasn’t. The accident with the starch had left her frazzled and distracted. She’d been further shaken by what Dr. Kincaid had told her about Mr. Rainwater. Although her livelihood depended on keeping her house filled to capacity, to take in a dying man was an unappealing prospect on numerous levels, not the least of which was that she already had her hands full, what with keeping her other boarders happy and dealing with Solly.
However, Mr. Rainwater’s unfortunate circumstance was the only hindrance to his being a suitable boarder. On that basis alone, how could she live with her conscience if she refused to rent the room to him?
Dr. Kincaid should have informed her of his condition first, before she’d agreed to let him the room. Mr. Rainwater should have told her himself. The omission had left her at a distinct disadvantage, and he was placing her at one now by discussing business in the presence of her talkative maid.
Trying to keep the resentment from her voice, she said, “You’ll find envelopes in your nightstand drawer. There’s a collection box for your rent on a table under the stairs. I collect the rent each Monday, but you’ll pay me the first week in advance before you move in. Is that satisfactory?”
“To avoid confusion, don’t forget to write your name on the envelope before leaving it in the box.”
Knowing what she now did, she found his steady gaze even more unsettling. She was relieved when Margaret drew his attention. “Here, sweet pea. Here’s your lunch fixed just the way you like it.” She set the blue plate on the table in front of Solly.
Solly didn’t respond either to Margaret or to the food. He continued to rock, continued to wind the yo-yo string around his finger.
“About meals,” Ella said, drawing Mr. Rainwater’s attention back to her. “A full breakfast is served each morning at eight o’clock, but you can get coffee here in the kitchen before that. Dinner is at six-thirty. So as not to waste food, I would appreciate being notified if you plan to have a meal out.”
“I doubt I’ll have any meals out.”
If he hadn’t been there, she would have pulled the pins from her bun and shaken it loose. It had slipped farther down onto her neck, where it felt hot and heavy. “For lunch, I put out cold cuts, cheese, fruit. Sometimes leftovers.” She motioned toward Margaret, who was unwrapping slices of ham from waxed butcher paper. “It’s on the dining table between noon and one, and it’s first come, first served.” She glanced at the wall clock. “I’m running a bit late today, but the Dunnes rarely eat more than a piece of fruit anyway, and Mr. Hastings is out of town.”
“Are they your only boarders, besides myself?”
She nodded. “The sisters share the largest room, at the opposite end of the hall from yours. Mr. Hastings has the room at the top of the stairs.”
“And you and Solly?”
“Here on the ground floor. On Sunday,” she said briskly, “I serve the main meal at two o’clock. That gives me time to return from church. Everyone is on their own for Sunday night supper, but the kitchen is open for your use. I only ask that you clean up after yourself.”
“Is there anything you shouldn’t eat?” She asked that of all her new boarders, although it might appear to him that she had singled him out because of his illness.
As though following her thoughts, he gave a faint smile. “I can eat anything, and I’m not a picky eater.”
“Any questions so far?”
“When may I move in?”
Dodging that for the moment, she pressed on. “Bed linens are changed once a week. I ask that you use only three towels between wash days. Keep the bathroom tidy as a courtesy to Mr. Hastings. He’s expected to do the same for you. If you have any complaints, bring them to me.
“I don’t allow liquor in the house. I expect basic, common courtesy and sensitivity to the other tenants’ privacy and comfort. If you have visitors, you can receive them in the formal parlor, but please give me notice. Arrangements can be made for refreshments to be served to guests. For a nominal charge you can have a guest for dinner, but only if I’m informed ahead of time.”
“I won’t have any visitors, no guests for dinner.”
His eyes burned as intensely, as blue, as the pilot light on her stove. They arrested her for a moment, then she looked away. “I’ll give you the post office box number so you can pass it along to your family and friends.”
“I’ll be very surprised if I receive any mail.”
“Well, in case you do, only I have the key to the box. I’ll leave your mail in your room. You can rely on my discretion.”
“I’m certain of that.”
“Does all of this sound acceptable, Mr. Rainwater?”
Having waited patiently for her to go over the rules of the house, he repeated, “When may I move in?”
That was the third time he’d asked. Understandably. Time would be an issue to a man for whom, according to Dr. Kincaid, time was short.
“This is Thursday.”
“As I explained, the room needs to be cleaned. Can you continue to stay with Dr. and Mrs. Kincaid until the room is ready?”
“I’ve been with them for two nights already. They’ve been very hospitable and have given me the use of their boys’ bedroom. But the boys are having to sleep on pallets in the living room, inconveniencing everyone. I’d like to move in tomorrow at the latest.”
“The room won’t be ready by then. This is wash day. Margaret and I can’t postpone doing the laundry in order to prepare the room for you. The furniture must be removed so the floor can be scrubbed. The mattress and pillows need to be taken out and aired.” With irritation, she brushed back a lock of hair that was clinging to her cheek. “I can’t possibly get everything done by tomorrow.”
“My new preacher’s looking for work.”
Ella looked toward Margaret. “What?”
“Brother Calvin,” she said. “He just come to town to take over the pulpit. But our congregation can’t pay him nothing. He’s sleeping on a member’s porch, and they’s feeding him, but he’s wanting to earn some money so he can get a place of his own and move his wife here. She’s down in South Texas with her folks, and he’s missing her something awful. For a little bit of nothing he’d do them chores for you, Miz Barron. You ought not to be doing all that heavy lifting anyhow, and my back’s hurting just thinking about hauling that mattress down them stairs and back up again. Why’n’t you let me fetch Brother Calvin?”
Ella glanced at Mr. Rainwater, who was following this conversation with interest. He said, “I’d be willing to pay Brother Calvin’s fee.”
Margaret smiled as though the matter had been settled. She headed toward the hallway, where the telephone was. “I’ll call over to the store right now.” To Mr. Rainwater she said, “Randall’s Dry Goods and Grocery is where my boy, Jimmy, works. While he’s on a delivery, he can run right over to where the preacher’s stayin’ and tell him to get hisself over here.”
When Margaret was out of earshot, Mr. Rainwater said to Ella, “I hope that’s all right with you.”
It wasn’t. This was her house. All decisions regarding it were hers to make. But it seemed that nothing was normal this morning. Everything was out of whack. She was being swept along by an unusual series of events. In fact she felt overtaken by them, and that sense of floundering alarmed her. Routine wasn’t just a preference, it was a necessity.
But in the grand scheme of things, retaining the services of Brother Calvin was a small matter, and she would look peevish to object to so workable a plan, especially since Mr. Rainwater had offered to pay for the man’s services.
However, she wasn’t quite ready to concede. “I would prefer to do the work myself, Mr. Rainwater.”
“Because your standards are so high.”
“I’m not afraid of hard work.”
“No one would doubt that.”
“But since time is a factor...”
She hadn’t intended to mention his limited time. She let the sentence dwindle without finishing it. Embarrassment made her face feel even hotter than it already did.
He said, “This is a good plan. It will save you a lot of labor. It will spare Margaret’s back. And it will hasten Brother Calvin’s reunion with his wife.”
Again, she noticed the gleam of amusement in his eyes, and she thought that, if she smiled, he would also. But she didn’t, so neither did he. “And it accommodates you,” she pointed out. “It does, yes.”
She sighed defeat. “All right. But if you would give me through tomorrow morning, I would appreciate it.”
“How about four o’clock tomorrow afternoon?”
“Four? Yes, good. By then I’ll have the room ready.”
“I’ll be sure to come with cash in hand. To cover Brother Calvin’s charges and the first week’s rent.”
He grinned, but she didn’t return it. Instead, she motioned him toward the hall, indicating that their business was concluded. “I can go out the back way.”
Nodding, she walked him to the screened back door. As he went down the steps, he put on his hat. At the bottom of the steps, he turned back and doffed the brim. “Mrs. Barron.”
“Mr. Rainwater. I hope you’ll be comfortable here.”
She had other duties to attend to, the first of which was to see that Solly ate his lunch. But for some reason, she didn’t turn away. She maintained eye contact with the man who would share her address for the last weeks of his life. Did her pity show? she wondered. It must have.
He said, “He told you, didn’t he? Murdy told you about me.” Being coy wasn’t in Ella’s nature. Besides, she wouldn’t insult the man by lying. “He thought I should know.”
He nodded, not only in confirmation of what he suspected but also in what seemed to be approval of her straightforwardness. “I’d thank you not to tell the others. Knowing makes people uncomfortable, they start watching what they say. In any case, I don’t want a fuss made over it. I don’t want to be treated differently from anyone else.”
“I won’t say anything to anyone.”
“There’s no need to thank me, Mr. Rainwater.”
“See what I mean?” he said, grinning. “You’re already making concessions for me.”
She had the grace to look abashed.
His grin held for several moments, then he turned serious again. “Does he talk?”
He motioned with his head. She turned. Behind her, Solly was still at the table. His lunch remained untouched. He was winding the yo-yo string around his finger, unwinding it, winding it again as he rocked forward and back to a beat that only he could hear.
She came around to Mr. Rainwater again and shook her head. “No. He doesn’t talk.”
“Well,” he said pleasantly, “I find that most people who do often have nothing worthwhile to say.”
His easy dismissal of Solly’s limitations was almost more difficult to withstand than the rude, curious stares of strangers, and she reacted with a totally unexpected rush of tears. Perhaps he saw them and wanted to spare her embarrassment, because he said no more, only touched the brim of his hat again, turned, and walked away.
Excerpted from RAINWATER © Copyright 2011 by Sandra Brown. Reprinted with permission by Pocket Books. All rights reserved.