The stock market crash in 1929 was not the only event that darkened that black Friday in Five Points, Tennessee. That was the day Pearl Wilde found her little sister moaning in the springhouse next to the butter molds. It was cool and dark, but Pearl had no doubt it was her only sibling. Along with her favorite pair of shoes, Kat was wearing Pearl’s fiancé.
Naturally, Pearl put all the blame on her sister. A man is like a water well—he has absolutely no control over who primes his pump.
“This is all your fault!” Pearl screamed, stabbing her finger at Kat’s legs sticking straight up in the air.
Slowly, Bourne Cavanagh looked back over his broad bare shoulder, his handsome face blurred with whiskey and desire. Pearl sank into those watery blue eyes like an unholy baptism and her resolve began to dissolve. Bourne knew all he had to do was say the right thing and Pearl would be begging him for forgiveness.
“Please, darlin’,” he slurred. “Give me just one more minute.”
It just shows how low a woman is willing to go that, for a full thirty seconds, Pearl considered it. But then something rose up inside her, something so deep she didn’t know she had it in her. Grabbing the empty whiskey bottle that rolled on the floor, she threw it with all she had. Bourne’s hand flew to his face as the bottle smashed against the wall, but not fast enough to stop the shard of glass from slicing him from brow to cheek. He touched his fingers to his face and stared at his blood. Then his eyes slowly rose to Pearl’s. The look that passed between them said it all. But then body language had always been their preferred form of communication.
Ripping her shoes off Kat’s dirty feet, Pearl caught the first train out of town.
The next three years of Pearl Wilde’s life are somewhat murky. Frank Merrill, the pharmacist, thought he spotted her getting into a shiny black limousine in Chicago, but the man with her roughly assured Frank he was mistaken. How Pearl ascended from Five Points into a Chicago limousine was a mystery, but everyone knew she had been born to climb.
Then halfway through Grand Hotel, Eddie McCowan jumped up and pointed at the flickering screen. “That’s Pearl Wilde!” he cried out in the dark theater. Dickie Deason, who worked the camera booth on weekends at the Roxy, rewound the projector and played the scene over and over until the film finally snagged and hung. They watched quietly as Pearl’s face melted away, but the vision of her covered in shimmering rhinestones and sipping champagne from a long-stemmed glass was forever burned into their minds.
The only other hint of Pearl’s whereabouts was the postcards that arrived every month postmarked New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Paris, Rome, Berlin, and some place in the Orient nobody at the post office had ever heard of. Regardless of the card’s origin, the message was always the same.
“Kat Wilde, I still hope you burn in Hell!”
“Pearl always did have beautiful penmanship,” Miss Mabel Hilliard said, running her finger over the exotic stamp with a touch of longing. “And she was a persistent child. Once she sank her teeth in, there was no letting go.”
Miss Mabel had been enlightening the bright and the dull alike in the one-room schoolhouse on the Ridge for over forty years. She knew every child in Five Points who had made it to adulthood, and every fall she planted chrysanthemums on the neglected graves of those who hadn’t.
“That Pearl Wilde was a looker.” The postmaster put in his two cents’ worth as he stamped an inkpad and then a stack of envelopes with a rhythmic thud.
“Her sister Kathryn is just as pretty,” Miss Mabel said resolutely.
Being a progressive teacher, Miss Mabel treated all her students equally, even when they weren’t. She’d had both Wilde girls in her class and knew what they were made of. Born less than a year apart, the sisters were as different as the sun and the moon and just as reluctant to be outshined.
The Lord dealt each Wilde girl a winning hand—looks, luck, brains, and each other. But like most gamblers they were determined to play the man, not the cards. Pearl slipped from the womb offering her hand to the doctor, while Kat shoved the old bonesetter out of the way and crawled out of her own accord.
Pearl entertained herself with her mother’s makeup and jewelry while Kat tossed her dolls aside in favor of the rusty toolbox her mother’s latest lover left outside the bedroom door. In school, Kat knew the answer before the question was given. Pearl knew anything taught in a one-room schoolhouse would be of little use to her. Kat could beat any boy at any contest with one hand tied behind her back. Boys surrendered to Pearl just as easily, but it was usually his hands that were tied. Kat was a hellcat, Pearl as pampered and sultry as a Persian with a rhinestone collar.
“Everyone always overestimated Pearl and underestimated Kathryn,” Miss Mabel said absently, as she turned the postcard over to study the painting of a winding red dragon on the front. “The serious are always taken more seriously than the lighthearted, the assumption being that happy people are too dim to know they are unhappy.”
Pearl had a diamond-shaped beauty mark at the corner of her mouth and that set her tone. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind she would make something of herself. Just as there was no doubt that Kat, being the spitting image of her mother, would fritter her life away. But Miss Mabel did not judge a book by its cover, or a child by the mother who bore her.
“Kathryn was a smart child. She could do math better than any of my boys.”
Miss Annabelle, the town telephone operator, huffed. “Kat Wilde dropped out of the womb a little smart aleck all right.”
“She was a gay child,” Miss Mabel corrected.
“Kat gets her gayness from her mother,” Annabelle declared to the postmaster, as if he didn’t already know. “Lorna Wilde would have tap-danced on the Titanic. My barn cat is a better mother than Lorna Wilde was to those girls.”
At that, Miss Mabel was silenced. She could not defend Lorna Wilde’s mothering or lack thereof. Lorna Wilde had always been a wing walker. She didn’t let go of one man until she had a firm grip on the next. It was a preoccupation that didn’t leave much time for motherhood. The sisters reared each other and did their best to raise Lorna up, as well. Despite their efforts, nothing elevated Lorna’s mind much higher than a mattress.
“Lorna Wilde.” Mayor Hardin Wallace sighed the name as he tacked a city council meeting notice onto the post office bulletin board. “Now there was the real looker in the family. Had legs from here to eternity.”
Hardin was immediately sorry that he’d said it. It was not something a politician should say in mixed company, especially when his wife is standing in the mix.
June Wallace sucked in a quick ragged breath and a stricken look came over her perpetually furled face. Hardin braced himself for the scene that was sure to follow. The only thing worse than being married to a jealous woman was being married to a crazy jealous woman. Crazy June Bug Wallace was well established on both counts. Not the best situation for a man with one eye on the governor’s mansion and the other eye on the legs of every woman in town.
Clutching her pocketbook to her breast, June ran out of the post office, Hardin right behind her.
“Now, June Bug,” he pleaded on his way out the door, “you know you are the love of my life.”
Everyone in the post office watched through the front window without much interest. The Wallaces’ marital strife was, after all, old news. Then Miss Mabel passed the postcard to Annabelle and the two old maids continued their debate about the Wilde women. Since the government had yet to start taxing gossip, it still traded freely in Five Points. By the end of the day everyone in town had examined the latest postcard and presented it as evidence to support their preexisting position. The optimists insisted Pearl had married a rich man, maybe some kind of royalty, and was living a life of leisure. The pessimists, whose standing in life was only improved by the failure of others, insisted no woman except a missionary’s wife would dirty the soles of her shoes in the heathen Orient. If there was one thing everyone did agree on, it was that while Pearl Wilde was no doubt spreading something, it sure as hell wasn’t the word of God. Needless to say, by the time Kat picked up her mail, the picture of the exotic red dragon had been all but rubbed away.
In December of 1932, no postcard came. That and the Depression caused a gray gloom to settle over the already depressed little town. There were no jobs, no money, and no hope. To add to their despair, an ice storm moved in on Christmas Eve. The temperature dropped so fast the mercury could not keep up. Every surface glazed with sooty ice and the town square seemed made of black glass. Along with the economy, Mother Nature had also turned against them.
While the women stuffed old newspapers into the whistling cracks around the windows to keep out the biting cold, the men sat slumped at the kitchen table. They stared into their coffee cups trying to build up the courage to leave home and travel north to the steel mills. Of course, no man wanted to live like a red-eyed rat in a mill town, sweltering six days a week on swing shift, sucking soot, and having holes branded into his skin from the molten metal spitting out of the giant crucibles. He might as well skip life and go straight to hell. But it paid thirty-six cents an hour. So the question became, at what price was he willing to sell his soul?
Outside, electric lines bowed and ice-glazed trees snapped like swizzle sticks. The wine at St. Jerome’s Church turned to a blood-red slush in the Communion cup and icicles hung from the slated eaves like crystal cat teeth. When the buzzards roosting in the tangled old oak tree in the church cemetery tried to take flight, their frozen wings were so heavy with ice they flopped to the ground and froze there.
A cold, gray silence fell over Five Points. Layers of ice frosted the wooden nativity scene until the features blurred and Midnight Mass was canceled. Those who didn’t want to waste precious money on lighting, and those who didn’t have any money to waste, crawled into bed at dusk.
And so, the town was asleep when Pearl Wilde stepped off the train at the Five Points depot.
“Pearl Wilde?” Pewitt the porter asked, as though seeing a ghost. “Is that really you?”
She had always been a fast girl. Now, from the looks of her, she traveled at the speed of light—blue-black hair bobbed, lips bloodred, eyes smudged in charcoal liner. She wore a white cashmere dress under a full-length white chinchilla coat. Even Pewitt knew a woman wasn’t supposed to wear white after Labor Day. From the looks of her, Pearl Wilde shouldn’t wear white at all.
“Folks have been wondering about you,” he said, as though it were an accusation.
The decisions a woman makes make the woman, which at least partially explains why when a man looked at Pearl with eyes half drawn like bedroom shades and an attitude cool as cotton sheets, his thoughts immediately turned to an unmade bed. Pewitt did the math and figured she must be around twenty-seven now. Twenty-seven was getting up there for a woman by Five Points’ standards. But while Pearl had hardened during her absence, she had not aged. The ice in her veins had preserved her.
She was still as aloof as a cat. Pewitt always thought she had a big head, the way she stood back and watched the world without expression. He’d never found the courage to talk to her when they were young. But he was a man now, married, two kids, and an employee for the L&N Railroad. And it was just the two of them standing on that platform in the dark.
“Lord,” he said in a husky voice his wife would not have recognized, “you sure are looking good.”
While he stomped his feet and beat his gloved hands together to keep from freezing, Pearl seemed oblivious to the cold. Her coat hung open and the slit up her dress flapped in the wind. Pewitt’s eyes fixed on her leg, praying for a glimpse of more.
Taking a long slow draw off her cigarette, Pearl took a detached look around. As a rule, Pewitt never got involved, not even in his own life. But that night he followed her stare to the crumpled newspapers blowing on the street, the faded paint peeling off the train station, and the boarded-up storefront windows grimy with soot and apathy. Then her eyes landed on him. Pewitt pulled his arms up in his coat sleeves to hide his ragged cuffs.
“Times have been hard here since you left,” he said as if to apologize for the state of affairs.
An apology is not an admission of guilt. Pewitt was, after all, just a porter at the train station. What can one man do? There was no expression on Pearl’s face one way or the other.
“Are you home for good,” he asked to fill the silence, “or just passing through?”
Taking one last drag off her cigarette, she dropped the spent butt onto the gritty platform and ground it into memory with the toe of her high-heeled shoe. A wisp of white smoke lingered at her parted lips as she gazed past him. The look on her face was so cold, Porter felt sure a man’s mouth would freeze to her lips if he tried to kiss her.
“I’ve decided to open a whorehouse.”
Most budding Madams start out small, a cracker box house with a couple of girls whose only marketable skill is the ability to chew gum and moan at the same time. But there was nothing small in Pearl’s way of thinking. No one knew where she got all that money, but they had a good time guessing.
The house on Dog Leg Hill was exactly the sort of place Pearl was looking for, a seven-bedroom Victorian on the wrong side of the tracks with a scandalous reputation. Close enough to town to walk, but far enough away for discretion.
The old place had been built by Mr. C.W. McCauley, a railroad man who divided his time between Louisville, Kentucky, and the switching station at Five Points. C.W. was a hard-driving man. He kept a watch in each pocket, a house in each town, and a wife in each house. Life is short for a man who burns his butt at both ends. C.W. died in his own bed—at least one of them—if not peacefully, then fully spent. The Lord took him quick, but not quick enough to keep
C.W. from calling out his Tennessee wife’s name as his choo choo made its last trip into the Louisville tunnel.
“LuLa, I’m coming!” he cried, right before his engine sputtered to a stall.
Being the first woman down the aisle, the Louisville wife had dibs on his estate. And so, as the barbershop quartet sang “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” and the pallbearers carried C.W. to the end of his line, the first Mrs. McCauley was having her husband’s “affair” put in order. The second Mrs. McCauley and her six children arrived home from the funeral to find the doors padlocked, a FOR SALE sign in the yard, and their personal belongings in a pile outside the front gate.
The house sat empty for two years. When prospective buyers heard the story, the husband always seemed a little too interested in the details. “Two wives,” he’d muse. “How on earth does a man manage to pull that off?” To which his wife would bristle, “This is not the sort of place a decent woman would rear her children!” Neither financial reasoning nor a rock-solid foundation could change her mind.
The old Victorian’s reputation was ruined and no amount of Old English furniture polish could bring back the virgin shine. Pearl felt immediately at home there. She made an insultingly low offer and the Realtor indignantly balked. “Tell the owner I’m opening a whorehouse,” Pearl ordered. And to the Realtor’s surprise, the first Mrs. McCauley from Louisville sold her the place for a song.
It’s hard enough to get a husband to keep one house up, much less two. After sitting empty for years, the house on Dog Leg Hill had gone from looking neglected, when C.W. owned it, to looking abandoned. The dusty rose paint had weathered to gray, the tongue-and-groove slats on the wraparound porch had rotted and fallen through, and the swing dangled by one rusty chain. Cooing pigeons had taken over the cupola, flying in and out of a missing pane, plastering the floor with down feathers and bird droppings. Wild cats, subsisting on mice and pigeon eggs, occupied the bedrooms, while garter snakes slithered in and out of the cool cellar through gaps in the stone foundation mortar. Ivy crept through broken windows into the living room and grew up the peeling wallpaper as if part of the garden gate pattern. Outside, gray slate shingles littered the lawn like fallen tombstones.
One hand on her hip while the other twirled her new keys, Pearl stood in front of the wreck of a house, sizing up the place. The old Victorian’s windows, dark and hooded, seemed to look away, ashamed of what had become of her.
“Don’t worry, old girl,” Pearl said quietly, “we’ll have you roaring again in no time.”
Along with being the town telephone operator, Annabelle Boyd was the town crier. If a woman didn’t have a telephone, Annabelle was more than happy to deliver the news in person—whether the news was any of their business or not. By week’s end, the only person in Five Points Annabelle hadn’t told that Pearl Wilde was opening a whorehouse was Pearl Wilde.
There was a lot to be done to the old place before Pearl could open for business. A go-getter would have knocked on Pearl’s front door and asked for work. Since all the go-getters in Five Points had long ago got up and gone, Pearl had to go hunting for handymen.
A man without work to occupy his time tends to gravitate toward his natural state, which in Five Points was a state of lethargy. In summer, the boys could be found lounging lazily on the front porch of the Widow Green’s general store, whittling a stick of hickory and watching the grass grow. At first frost, they migrated into Bud Mangrum’s hardware store, where they hibernated cozily in front of the potbelly stove until spring.
Bud Mangrum hated summer. In summer, he spent most of his days digging wax out of his ears with a Phillips screwdriver and watching cockroaches scamper across the dirty wood floor. When his daddy ran the store, there were six full-time employees. Bud and the economy had managed to whittle that down a bit. Other than selling a box of nails and a couple of two-by-fours every now and then, his only real business came from Colonel Cavanagh’s illegal distillery. As most of those transactions were conducted after hours, Bud spent most days alone in his store, lonely as an old maid. If he needed help loading lumber, he yelled across the street and one of the boys rocking on the porch of the general store would meander over to help him. The paycheck he offered for work rendered usually consisted of his tearing up a few IOUs. Since Bud had no other way of collecting the money they owed him, from the boys’ point of view, this wasn’t much incentive.
All day Bud leaned against his counter, watching the boys play checkers and spit tobacco. Bud knew they were discussing something he would never know because he wasn’t there to hear it. A story can never be told the same way twice. Details are forgotten, enthusiasm lost. Once a tale is told, it’s gone forever. Bud stared out the window of his father’s hardware store, watching the boys shoot the shit, and his heart ached.
He tried every way in the world to lure the boys into the hardware store in the summer. He turned the radio up real loud and hung calendars on the back wall with pictures of women with hourglass figures wearing shorts, hips cocked, shirts tied above the waist, and kissing an open-end wrench. He bought cushions for the ladder-back chairs, and left empty nail barrels around for them to kick their feet up on. He put in a ceiling fan, stocked up on Royal Crown colas and mounted a snack rack of salted peanuts and Moon Pies on the wall. But Bud could never lure them in during the summer for any other reason than to use his john and pick up supplies.
“So what you boys talking about today?” Bud would ask, eager and hasty.
“Same old shit,” Woody would say as he sauntered out of the bathroom, zipping his zipper and shaking his leg to get his boys back in line.
“Farmer’s Almanac is calling for an early frost this year.” Bud always tried to get the conversation going without sounding too desperate.
“You don’t say,” Woody would say as he pulled six Royal Crowns out of the wash tub of ice.
Taking Moon Pies and peanuts off the shelf, Woody stuffed them into his pockets. Then he’d drop an IOU in the can and stroll back over to the general store.
The harder Bud tried to woo them during the summer, the more the boys blew him off.
But come first frost, when Bud fired up his woodstove, he could see their heads turn his way. There was a coal furnace in the basement that heated the hardware store just fine, but nothing draws a man like a crackling fire. The day the thermometer hung at forty, the boys began to meander into the store. Bud held himself in until they were settled into their chairs and fixated on the fire. Then he let loose. After six months of solitary confinement, Bud had a lot to say.
“Had to raise the snack rack off the floor,” he said, exuberant as a puppy, “mice was getting the saltine crackers on the bottom rack. Used concrete nails to drive it into the brick. ’Course, that old brick around the furnace flue is soft as a biscuit. But if I’d put her there it woulda dried up the crackers. Here,” he said, sliding a barrel under Roy Lester’s boots, “put your feet up.”
The more Bud rattled on, the quieter the boys got. The quieter they got, the harder Bud tried.
“Been thinking about gittin’ a Frigidaire and keepin’ baloney and cheese. But we’re talking real money there. Maybe get a jar of pickled franks. How d’yu boys feel ’bout pickled eggs—”
“Je-sus Christ!” Roy Lester finally bellowed. “If I wanted this kind of racket, I’d sit in my own living room and listen to my wife prattle!”
Of course, everyone knew Roy Lester couldn’t sit in his own living room even if he wanted to. His wife, Joy, who was anything but, never let anyone set foot in her living room except for Christmas and funerals. But they caught Roy’s meaning.
Bud would pout for a while, stick his lip out, and pretend to be busy at the cash register. But when the boys were in his store nothing could keep him down for long.
“You boys in the mood for beans and cornbread?” he said after a while. “Thought I’d put a pot a pintos on the stove for dinner. Got some hot pepper chowchow and I could slice up an onion . . .”
Bud had to restock the snack rack and Royal Crowns twice as often in winter, and every so often one of the boys borrowed a screwdriver or a pair of pliers on a permanent basis. But it was a small price to pay for companionship. From the boys’ point of view, who else would put up with Bud for peanuts?
The boys knew Pearl Wilde would come looking for them and for two weeks they waited. They were just starting to get insulted when Bud finally spotted Pearl walking down the sidewalk.
“Here she comes!” he called, hurrying to take his chair in front of the potbellied stove with the others.
Word was Pearl Wilde was still as hot as a firecracker. But since their opinion was pretty much the only thing they hadn’t hocked at Mendelson’s pawnshop, the boys would make up their own minds.
When more time passed than should have, Bud turned in his chair and stretched up off the seat to see what the holdup was. Pearl was standing in front of his store window. With the sun behind her, all he could make out was her silhouette, but he still would have known her anywhere. It was the way she held herself—hand on her hip, weight shifted to one side. She’d had that air about her since they were in school together, as if she were unaware that the world was watching her. Or maybe she just didn’t give a shit. All Pearl Wilde ever had to do to get a man’s undivided attention was show up.
As Bud strained to make out Pearl’s face, he suddenly grew light-headed and a wave of nausea moved over him like seasickness. He’d never actually seen the ocean, but he was pretty sure this was what it felt like. The room rolled, his stomach turned, and he flushed with fever. At first he thought it was the flu coming on. But as he watched Pearl study his dusty storefront window, with the two pairs of faded Levi’s overalls draped limply on the stand, he realized what was wrong with him. He was ashamed.
Bud’s eyes moved slowly around the hardware store and his stomach turned. He saw his father’s business as Pearl would see it, piles of half-empty cardboard boxes burst open, merchandise spilled on the floor, a rusty bucket of stagnant rainwater catching a drip in the roof, a layer of grit on every surface, the countertop stacked with unrecorded receipts so old they were starting to curl and yellow.
When something fell off a shelf, Bud left it there. When something was stocked in the wrong place, he left it there. His daddy had spent his life building the business and Bud had worked there since he was big enough to push a broom. He looked around and wondered when he had stopped trying.
The bell on the front door finally jangled and a bolt of electricity ran through the boys. Pearl strolled in and lingered at the counter for a minute, taking a casual look around. She always hesitated when she entered a room, like a stripper taking a brief pause as she slipped off her glove, as though she hadn’t quite made up her mind whether she would—or she wouldn’t. Most women have no sense of timing. They are either all stop or all go. For Pearl, every breath was an invitation and every movement a tease. She was not unaware of her allure, she was just so damn good, she didn’t have to think about it.
Finally, they heard her walking down the dark aisle between the bins of washers and screws. You can tell a lot about a woman by the way she walks. Some women’s heels hit the floor as if they’re hammering nails. Some skitter like apologetic mice. Pearl’s walk was smooth and easy. The boys got the impression she had all the time in the world, but that her time did not come cheap.
All the boys except Eddie McCowan, who was the baby of the bunch in more ways than the obvious, had known Pearl all their lives. But there’s knowing a woman, and then there is knowing a woman. While they’d all gone to Miss Mabel’s one-room schoolhouse with Pearl, and devoted far more time at St. Jerome’s Church worshiping her profile instead of the cross hanging in front of them, Pearl was as mysterious as the moon. And just as impossible to land on. Bourne Cavanagh had staked his claim on Pearl shortly after she hit puberty. And everyone knew better than to trespass on Cavanagh property.
Halfway across the store, the sound of Pearl’s high heels tapping on the dirty floor stopped. The boys grew impatient. Cautiously lifting their heads, they squinted toward the front to see what on earth was causing her delay. Pearl stood with her back to them in front of the fancy brass door knocker display. Naturally, they stole a free look. Most women in town drew a black ink line up the back of their calves to make it look as if they were wearing silk stockings. Pearl was wearing the real thing. Eyes lingering on her ankle, the boys traced the seam from her heel to the hem of her white chinchilla coat. From there, their imaginations took over. They pictured the silk stocking hooking to her lace garter and that soft bit of pale perfumed skin in-between. Roy Lester blew a silent whistle. And the room suddenly grew very warm.
Turning from the display, Pearl started toward them again. They immediately fell back in their chairs. By the time she reached the stove, the boys were wearing their best “I-don’t-give-a-shit” attitude, their arms crossed, legs stretched out in front of them, and wads of chew stuffed in their cheeks.
Standing in front of the stove, Pearl held her hands out to warm them, but mostly to give the boys a chance to warm to her. Half the lightbulbs in the back of the store were burned out. Bud was too cheap and too lazy to replace them. Between the quick glimpses and the squinting, the boys figured they were missing a lot of the details. Roy Lester shot a look up at the dead light above Pearl’s head, then glared at Bud. Bud hung his head. He knew he’d let them down.
Pearl had a smoky Southern whisper that a man didn’t so much hear as inhale. Her voice hung at the belt buckle, causing a man to lean forward, holding his breath for fear of missing a word or an opportunity.
“I don’t know if you all heard or not, but I bought the old McCauley place up on Dog Leg Hill.”
Of course, she knew they knew, and they knew she knew. But a man never likes to be told what he does or does not know. And if there was one thing Pearl knew, it was men.
“She’s in real sad shape.” Pearl sighed sadly.
Slumped in their chairs, the boys stared at their worn-out work boots. Inky Mott rolled a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other and Dickie Deason pretended to read a week-old newspaper.
“Buck Darnell,” Pearl said, as though the thought had just come to her, “your daddy used to build the finest cabinets I’ve ever seen. You know, I’ll be needing a lot of cabinets and closets. And I’m going to need a space cleared in the back for parking. Roy Lester, I hope you still know how to plumb. I’m going to need a slew of indoor bathrooms.”
Roy Lester spit a long brown stream of tobacco into the rusty coffee can next to his chair.
Sensing she’d given them enough foreplay, Pearl got down to it. Turning to face them, she looked at each in turn, holding their eyes just long enough to spark their dead wood. Hope rose in the room, or perhaps it was testosterone. For most men, they’re one and the same. A crooked smile formed on Dickie’s face and Inky Mott twirled the toothpick in his grinning mouth like a baton. They felt cocky and sure, as if they were back in school and the world was ahead of them. For the first time in a long time, they felt like men. But the muscles were weak from disuse. Almost immediately their confidence began to go soft. Their eyes dropped and their shoulders slumped. Pearl’s heart would have ached for them if she wasn’t so disgusted. They had given up on life so easily. There wasn’t enough starch left in the boys to hold up her stare.
“I pay fifty cents an hour, plus noon dinner and all the coffee you can drink,” she said flatly.
Well, that put them in the mood. Fifty cents an hour was more money than they were paying in Nashville to build the new post office. The boys still stared at their shoes, but they were breathing hard.
When no one spoke up, Pearl’s patience began to wear thin. But no one knew better than Pearl that if you rush a man you can destroy the mood all together.
“Well,” she said after a while, “if you hear of anyone looking for work . . .”
Glancing from side to side, Eddie McCowan slowly pushed himself up from the chair. The Great War had taken the brave, and the Depression had taken the ambitious. The men left in Five Points were the kind of men who get left behind. But of all the discards, Eddie McCowan was the last man Pearl would have chosen to come work for her. Eddie was a beautiful young man, bright eyes and a head of golden curls. Put a little bow and arrow in his hand and he could pass for Cupid. Many a girl had tried to steer him down the aisle. But it is virtually impossible to maneuver a man when he’s curled in the fetal position. Eddie was a mama’s boy, nineteen years old with the umbilical cord still attached.
Opening her silver cigarette case, Pearl slipped a cigarette out and tapped it thoughtfully on top of her engraved initials. She stared at Eddie so intensely a normal man would have withered. Having spent his life being stared at, Eddie didn’t blink.
Flipping her silver lighter open, Pearl lit her cigarette. “How’s your mama doing, Eddie?” she asked, taking a long drag.
“Doing real well, ma’am. Appreciate your asking.”
Judging by the way Pearl forced smoke from the corner of her mouth, this was not the answer she’d been hoping for.
“Eddie, do you know how to plumb a bathroom?”
“Miss Pearl, my mama says I can do anything I set my mind to,” Eddie assured her.
The boys had their eyes on Pearl now like dogs watching to see which way the rabbit was going to run. Pearl might be brazen enough to open a whorehouse in her own hometown, but it took a death wish to contradict a boy’s mother. They knew Pearl knew Eddie was a mama’s boy, and she knew they knew. And Eddie didn’t have just any mama. Maysie McCowan was a brutal force of Mother Nature.
If Pearl hired Eddie, Maysie would nail her to the cross for corrupting her boy. If Pearl didn’t hire him, Maysie would take it as an insult and make sure no other mother’s son in Five Points worked for her, either.
Pearl was caught between a son of a bitch and a hard place. And everyone in the room knew it. Taking a drag off her cigarette that left an inch of ash, Pearl stared at Eddie so hard the boys held their breath.
“Miss Pearl,” Eddie said, “I swear, I’ll shovel shit if that’s what you need done.”
He said it with more sincerity than any man should ever admit. Sighing white smoke, Pearl turned on her heels.
“Do your job right,” she said dryly, “and hopefully we won’t have to.”
Eddie went to work that day, if you call work sitting at Pearl’s kitchen table drinking coffee and telling her all the gossip in town. Pearl sat across from Eddie, smoking cigarettes and watching him eat his pie.
“Tell me about my sister,” Pearl finally said.
Eddie looked up at her, still chewing.
“Kat? What about her?”
Pearl took a long draw and held it.
“Everything,” she said on the exhale.
At five o’clock, Pearl sent Eddie home with four hours’ pay and a handwritten note on white linen stationery with a fancy W embossed at the top. While Eddie took a nap on the couch to rest up from his hard half-day of coffee drinking, Maysie McCowan stood at her kitchen sink and read Pearl’s note twice.
Dear Maysie McCowan, Enclosed you will find Eddie’s pay for the excellent work he did today. You must be proud beyond words of your Eddie. You have reared a fine son with a fine work ethic.
Maysie looked up from the letter and grunted. Her “fine” son had never had a real job in his life. Eddie didn’t climb out of bed before breakfast was on the table and, if he didn’t get his afternoon nap, he’d fall asleep standing up. The only chore she’d ever made him do around the house was rinse his water glass and turn it upside down on the sink next to hers. Maysie had ruined Eddie and she knew it. But she couldn’t help herself. He was the most beautiful baby she or anyone else in town had ever seen. Maysie had rocked him for hours just to stare at him. Kicking his little feet and waving his arms, he’d laugh and smile and coo at her until her heart melted. But then, he did the same for every woman who held him.
Wolves are less ferocious guarding their young than Maysie Mc-Cowan had been with Eddie. She babied and sheltered him right into manhood, fussing over him and protecting him with teeth bared. No boy dared pick a fight with Eddie. No adult dared correct him at church. And no girl held his attention for long. Eddie had spent his life hermetically sealed in mother’s love. Now he was as useless as wet toilet paper.
Maysie stared out her kitchen window. A blue-black crow perched on her clothesline, iridescent feathers ruffled, head drawn low and bead black eyes glaring at her. Maysie tapped the pane with her chapped knuckle, but the crow continued to stare at her. It was a sign. Death or change was in the air. For some, they are one and the same.
Maysie knew Eddie couldn’t find a hammer in a toolbox, and she knew Pearl Wilde knew it. She sincerely doubted the boy knew what a toolbox looked like. But working for Pearl Wilde was the first thing Eddie had ever shown any enthusiasm for in his life. Maysie Mc-Cowan was torn. On the one hand, if she put her foot down and told Eddie he couldn’t work for Pearl Wilde, who knows if he’d ever get off his dead ass again. On the other hand, if Eddie made a mess of things, it would reflect badly on her mothering. Maysie was caught between a hussy and a hard place. Opening the envelope, she recounted the crisp dollar bills. Then, of course, there was the money.
Slipping her dead husband’s jacket off the hanger in the hall closet, Maysie pulled it on over her overalls. Opening the door just a crack, she peeked in on Eddie in the living room. He was curled on the couch, hands folded under his beautiful face and smiling in his sleep. Since the day Eddie could walk, Maysie had prayed for one thing—a wealthy woman who would take him off her hands. She should have been more specific. Working at a cathouse was not what she had in mind for her only son, but you have to work with what God gives you.
Quietly pulling the front door closed behind her, Maysie stood for a moment on her front porch. Dark came early in winter in Five Points. The gas streetlights cast a hazy amber halo over the other houses on the street. She could see her neighbors going about their lives through their windows, like actors on a stage. Buck Darnell, red-faced and mad because dinner was so poor, his wife, Luella, yelling at him and the three boys about one thing or another. Pewitt the porter and his wife, Addie, sitting silently in their living room like two strangers on a train. Annabelle, the town telephone operator, bent over her Bible, fingers underlining the words as she read. The curtains were always closed at Roy and Joy Lester’s house, but that did not conceal their discontent. Life turns out, one way or the other.
Pulling her cap low on her head, Maysie turned the coat collar up and stuffed her hands deep into the worn pockets. Then she set her jaw and started walking toward Dog Leg Hill.
Eddie was back at the hardware store the next day, same as usual. But when he stepped inside the door, he stopped short. For a second, he thought he was in the wrong place. Inky Mott was pushing a broom, Woody was standing on top of a ladder screwing in new light-bulbs, Dickie Deason was knocking cobwebs down in the front window, and Buck was hammering on a busted shelf.
“What’s up?” Eddie asked.
“Same ol’ shit,” Bud said, not looking up as he polished the counter.
Sunlight poured into the store like glory. The front window was so clean it was as if someone had kicked the glass out. No boxes piled in the corners, no dusty cobwebs spanned the shelves, no grit on the floor. The room smelled like Borax and furniture oil. There was a brand-new brass spittoon by the boys’ chairs where the rusty Maxwell House coffee can used to sit, and the old bent fireplace poker usually leaning by the stove had been replaced with a brass fireplace set.
Normally, Roy Lester would have been bursting with questions for Eddie about Pearl and the whorehouse. Instead, he stared at the stove, drinking coffee out of a brand-new enamel mug in dazed silence. Some men are like catfish. Sudden changes to their environment send them into shock.
Being on Pearl’s clock, Eddie got down to business.
“I’m going to need to order a few things,” he said, pulling a piece of Pearl’s fancy white stationery out of his shirt pocket, unfolding it, and smoothing it on the counter.
It’d been so long since Bud wrote down an order he had to dig through his cigar box for a pencil. “Okay,” he finally said, touching the pencil lead to the tip of his tongue, “what ya need?”
“Eight sinks, eight bathtubs, and eight toilets,” Eddie read from the list.
Bud’s hand hovered above the invoice as though he’d forgotten how to work a pencil.
“Eight?” he finally said.
“Eight,” Eddie said firmly. “And Miss Pearl wants the tubs with claw feet.”
Roy Lester’s head popped up. “Claw feet? That’s a mighty old-fashioned way to take a bath.”
“That’s what I told her,” Eddie agreed. “But Miss Pearl said a man who thinks a tub is just for bathing has never explored the bath’s full potential.”
All progress paused while the boys considered this. Inky leaned against his broom, Bud’s pencil rested on the paper, and Buck’s hammer hung in midair. Nothing gets in the way of a man’s performance like thinking.
“Filled the bathtub with ice one time,” Buck finally said from the front window. “Pulled so many catfish off my trot line, worried they’d go bad ’fore Luella got home to clean ’um.”
This turned their thoughts to fishing. And life as they knew it went on.
“What color she want?” Bud asked.
“White,” Eddie said. “Miss Pearl’s mighty fond of white.”
Roy Lester huffed from his chair at this bit of information, more out of habit than anything else. Having no original opinions of his own, he always huffed at the opinions of others.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Eddie demanded.
Truthfully, it hadn’t meant all that much. But once Eddie challenged him, Roy had no choice but to defend his position.
“Just think white’s a funny favorite color for a woman like Pearl Wilde.” Roy shrugged.
Eddie McCowan, who’d never shown a bit of aggression in his life, clinched his soft young fists.
“What exactly are you trying to imply, Roy?”
Roy rolled his eyes toward the boys. He naturally assumed they’d jump on his side of the argument. But the boys were lost in deep deliberation. They did not take sides lightly. Buck stroked the stubble on his chin with his thumb, Dickie sent a stream of tobacco into the spittoon, and Inky rolled his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. While technically Roy was right, Pearl favoring white did strike them as a fashion blunder, defending a woman’s honor was the obvious side of valor. And if a man doesn’t have chivalry, what the hell has he got?
“Pearl Wilde is one classy lady,” Inky Mott decided.
“From that head to that toe,” Buck said and nodded in agreement.
Mouth gaping at their betrayal, Roy turned to Bud. Bud always jumped on Roy’s side in things. But in this instance, Bud took time to reflect. He thought about the eight bathtubs, then he glanced at the rest of the items on the long list in Eddie’s hand. He also gave a passing thought to the fact that this was the first time the word “imply” had ever passed through Eddie’s lips. Pearl Wilde’s worldly ways were already rubbing off.
“White never goes out of style,” Bud said firmly, casting the deciding vote, “hard to keep clean, but always fashionable.”
Roy pouted and Eddie’s fists unclenched.
“Miss Pearl is the finest lady I ever met,” Eddie said, leaving no doubt as to exactly where he stood.
If any other man had said it, the boys would have assumed he was milking that cow. Of course, that wasn’t the case with Eddie. Roy suspected Eddie still hadn’t been weaned from his mama’s tit. Still, there was something more in his feelings for Pearl that they couldn’t quite put their finger on. And that made them doubly curious.
Woody helped fill the rest of Eddie’s order, packing a box with the small stuff and calling out the items while Bud rang them up at the register. Meanwhile, the boys put in their two cents’ worth for free.
“Since Pearl’s pockets are so deep, I’d go with cedar under the tubs,” Buck said.
“Scrimp on the brass faucets and you’ll be paying for it ever after,” Dickie Deason threw in.
By the time Eddie got to the end of Pearl’s list, it was more business than Bud had done in six months. When he hit total on the cash register, it caught his breath. For a second, the boys thought he was going to cry. They watched in humble silence as Eddie counted out the money. It had been a long time since they’d seen that much cold cash.
“How about a Royal Crown,” Bud said, feeling generous as he tucked the money in the register. “On the house.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Eddie said, leaning back against the counter.
Inky pulled an RC out of the ice, knocked the top off on the counter, and handed it to Eddie. “Moon Pie?” Bud asked. “Moon Pie sounds pretty good.” “The man’s going to need some peanuts in that bottle,” Bud ordered, and Buck tossed Eddie a bag of salted nuts. “So,” Bud said after Eddie was contentedly chewing, “Pearl happy to be home?” “Seems happy enough.” “She ever get lonely up there in that big house?” Eddie shook his head. “She likes her own company.” “There’s a quality you don’t find in many women,” Bud said, and the boys nodded. “She ever ask about Bourne?” Eddie turned the bottle up. They could tell he was dying to talk about it.
“Can’t think of anything worse on a woman than catching her fiancé with her sister,” Bud said, laying on the sympathy to grease the way.
“She asked if Bourne had settled down,” Eddie admitted.
“You don’t say.”
“I told her Bourne was still running through women like a hound through high grass.” “And how’d she take that?” “She said, ‘Let him run. He’ll never catch the tail he’s really after.’” Bud raised his eyebrows at the boys. This struck them as a fascinating bit of news. “She was real interested in her sister Kat, too,” Eddie went on. “What’d you tell her?” “Warned her about that dog of Kat’s. You know, in case she decides to go visit.” At the mention of Kat’s dog, Inky Mott rubbed his leg.
Things still pretty raw between the sisters, then?”
Glancing behind him, Eddie leaned close and the boys met him halfway.
“If you ask me,” he said quietly, “Miss Pearl’s gonna skin Kat alive and nail her pretty hide to the wall.”
After Eddie finished making arrangements for Inky to deliver the rest of Pearl’s order, he hurried back to Dog Leg Hill. It was almost time for his morning coffee and pie.
All that work inspired the boys to take a break. They were just getting settled at the stove when the door jangled open again.
On a good day, Maysie McCowan looked like something you’d kill with a hoe. Hair slicked back so tight in a knot, it drew the corners of her eyes to a slant and skin dry as parchment. She was a hair over five foot, a hundred pounds soaking wet, and had the disposition of a hornet. Her attire never varied, be it for church or a funeral: a pair of Eddie’s hand-me-down Duckhead overalls, scuffed work boots, and a green John Deere tractor cap pulled low over her jaded eyes. Rumor was she had a fine figure once. To look at her now, a man would never believe it. Any evidence of Maysie McCowan’s womanhood was kept hidden like a lie.
Stomping to the stove, she swung around to face the boys. Maysie was like a .22 pistol, not much caliber but still commanding respect. Without a word, she had their immediate attention. The boys sat quiet as rabbits and Maysie cut straight to the chase.
“Roy Lester, you forget how to plumb?”
Roy huffed. “Shoot, I could plumb in my sleep.”
“Roy here is a surgeon with solder.” Bud jumped to Roy’s defense and the others nodded in agreement.
“Then why in God’s name are you sitting here when there’s plumbing work to be had?”
Roy splattered a stream of spit into the new spittoon.
“Well?” Maysie demanded impatiently.
“If I help build that whorehouse,” Roy finally admitted, “the little missus will see to it I have to squat to pee.”
Maysie straightened herself to her full five feet.
“There isn’t any sin in an honest day’s work. Now, you get yourself over to Dog Leg Hill and do something other than sit on your hands for a change.”
Roy rubbed his knees as if to suggest he had any say in the matter, then pushed himself to a stand. Truth was he was itching to see inside Pearl’s house, as was every other man in town. Then, of course, there was the money.
“I’ll go,” he finally said, “but Joy cain’t know.”
A shine came into Maysie’s black eyes and the corners of her thin chapped lips turned up into a haunting smile. The boys shivered as if a ghost had stepped on their grave.
“You let me handle Joy Meachum,” she said, so cold you could see her breath.
The boys cut sideways glances at each other. The feud between Maysie McCowan and Joy Lester was well known. They would pay to see that catfight, if they could put it on credit.
At the front door, Roy lifted his hat off the coatrack. He could see the hangdog look on the boys’ faces that he was getting to go to Pearl’s and they weren’t.
“I’m guessin’,” Roy said, resting his hat lightly on his head with a slight tilt, “Miss Pearl will be wanting some walls around them toilets. I don’t know the first thing about carpentry.”
“Well?” Maysie’s voice pricked them like a pin. “The rest of you going to wallow here like hogs at the trough waiting for the president’s New Deal to throw you some slop? Or you gonna go do an honest day’s work?”
One by one, they trudged behind Roy out the door and down the sidewalk. As soon as they passed the hardware store window, they ran all the way up Dog Leg Hill.
Excerpted from THE WILDE WOMEN © Copyright 2011 by Paula Wall. Reprinted with permission by Atria. All rights reserved.