Like every morning, she ate breakfast alone, at a table that was not her father’s. Every morning, that is, except Sunday, when she woke in her own bed, a thin mattress in the corner of her daddy’s kitchen. On Sunday, she would roll from her bedding and stumble onto a hard three-legged stool and eat her egg with a rusting fork.
This was not Sunday, however. It was Friday, so she sat on a yellow, velvety cushion atop an oak chair, one of eight that circled the heavy table. Each morning, she stared at the empty chairs around Mrs. Peck’s opulent dining room table. It was all handmade, rare beauty in this hilly coal country.
Her eyes focused on the shiny backs of the oak chairs. She polished them herself, studying her own dull image in the wood grain as she went; they reflected no features, only shape. Each chair was cut with deep curved lines that implied a floral pattern, though they never quite formed a flower, fine craftsmanship. It was the center of the panel that transfixed her, however. Centered in the swirly, ornate madness were flat, pointy ovals. They looked like blank eyes. She remembered the pale, glossy eyes of Ms. Rita’s dead cow, which she discovered rotting in a field beside Doll Run Road last summer. Now surrounded by this rarefied beauty, Susan silently nibbled her cheese sandwich and sipped her cup of milk, in the gaze of seven unblinking eyes peering out from the dark, hard wood.
This was not the dining room the boarders used. The men sat in plastic-covered seats near the foot of the stairs at a small, Formica table. It was easier to clean and less vulnerable to damage than Mrs. Peck’s special dining furniture. Mrs. Peck hesitated to allow Susan to eat at her table. But she was only fourteen and the last thing Mrs. Peck needed was a town scandal. No, Susan must eat away from the men, but if her cup of milk left a ring, there would be Hell to pay. Gatherings at her prized table were otherwise reserved for the relatively few people of quality in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
Susan washed her plate and cup and picked up her school things. Sometimes she stopped at the mantle and looked at the cracked, blurry photograph of Mrs. Peck’s dead husband. He had died long before she was born, and his picture was a window into a world cut off from people like her and her daddy. The Peck’s were not like them. The difference was hard to describe, but could be seen in Mr. Peck’s fine suit and confident eyes. Even so, the picture of this fine man was the only imperfect object in Mrs. Peck’s house. Inside its silver frame, the photograph was wrinkled and water spots pocked his face.
Outside, Susan stopped at the corner in front of the Peck house and let her eyes take it in. She still couldn’t believe her fortune. No, she didn’t live there, not exactly. But she stayed there six nights a week. Before she began the two-mile walk to school from Mrs. Peck’s house, she always stopped at the corner and looked at the grand house she slept in and cleaned.
She could never decide whether the shutters and the brick went together. The brick was that shade of red that teetered on orange. She would stare at it as the clouds filtered the sun’s light, bright, then shadowed, then back to full sun. She squinted, awaiting a hidden orange to reveal itself in the shifting light, but it never did. The red held firm. The shutters were green, a shade lighter than pine and they did not change. Susan always thought they would look better against an orange wall.
The Peck house was covered with large windows, blinds drawn tightly. The men working nights needed to sleep, so keeping the hot West Virginia sun at bay was necessary. It was a tall house, taller than two stories, shorter than three, with angular peaks, tighter than ninety degrees. Acute (she remembered geometry class). The house shot upward, like a rectangle stretched too far. The thin window of her room in the attic was tucked under one of those narrow peaks. The dining room she had just eaten in was the only break in the home’s squareness; it shot out to one side, a semicircle that projected quality to the rest of the city.
The small yard, full of neatly trimmed, colorless bushes, was outlined by a stone wall, lined with sharp rocks at the top. No one would have tried to sit there anyway. She knew enough to know that the house was “classy,” as Mrs. Peck put it. But Susan always thought it looked haunted as well.
She turned from the house and began her walk to school, but was interrupted by the soft, low voice of Jack Boy, who was walking out the front door.
“Have a good day, girl,” he said with the quiet drawl, unique to the region, half-Southern, half-West Pennsylvanian. “Don’t you go and spend that whole dime in one place.”
Susan looked back as Jack Boy was returning his snuff can to his rear pocket and pushing the tobacco into place behind his lip. She winced. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jack Boy. I don’t have a dime. Mrs. Peck don’t pay me until Saturday morning when I go home.”
Jack Boy’s face, always filled with wrinkles, sharpened its creases. “Didn’t you see that dime I left you on my nightstand? I put it on a note for you.”
“Why’d you leave me a dime?”
“Well my brother and me went up to Cleveland looking for work last month and we stayed a night at a motel and I seen where people left tips for the housekeepers so I been leaving you some change for fixing the sheets and dusting and all. You ain’t taking it?”
“I never seen anything in nobody’s room like that,” Susan replied.
“Well shoot.” Jack Boy looked up at the quickly rising sun and wiped his brow. “Ok well you have a good day anyways I guess.”
“You too Jack Boy.”
Susan made it to school and like most days, her mind wandered. Math facts, reading, writing letters of admiration to President Eisenhower in Social Studies. By the age of fourteen, it was already clear that the work of public schooling didn’t matter much when all the jobs were in the mines, in Mrs. Peck’s boarding house, sawing wood at the casket company, or among the machines in some factory in Cleveland. And today, there was an actual mystery, like in the shows on Mrs. Peck’s TV. What happened to Jack Boy’s missing coins?
The day of schooling eventually wound down and she descended Washington Irving High’s concrete stairs, jumping past the lowest step, straight to the sidewalk that led her back to Mrs. Peck’s. She never walked slowly back to the boarding house, but today she took even longer steps than usual. Jack Boy’s coins were gone. A thief was loose in the house. Mrs. Peck’s position among the people of quality in Clarksburg was at stake. When she reached the sidewalk in front of the house, she began to trot, past the front porch, to the back door. Mrs. Peck insisted she use the back door.
She walked into the kitchen as Mrs. Peck came from the dining room. She had a round face, but she wasn’t jolly like most people with round faces. Her iron-gray hair was cut at her shoulders and curled each day. On Wednesdays she would have her hair set at the parlor with the rest of the ladies. It was still only Friday, so its shape still held. Susan wondered how the glasses Mrs. Peck wore stayed on her face. Her nose was so tiny there was little real estate for her spectacles, so they always hung down below her eyes, covering her cheekbones. Her thin lips were always pulled out to the sides of her cheeks which meant she neither frowned nor smiled like most people.
“Hello, Mrs. Peck,” Susan said.
“We have a new guest arriving tomorrow so make sure you change the sheets in Thompson’s old room.” She would only call him Thompson, but everyone else knew he was Doobuck. Susan didn’t know that Doobuck had moved out.
“I have to go to over to Pike for a while. Another shotgun wedding and they want to rent the ballroom,” Mrs. Peck informed her. Pike was what she said when she was talking about the theater she owned, the Palace on Pike. It had been a theater once, in a “grander day,” Mrs. Peck always said, but now it held dinners and reunions for the most part.
“I’ll expect Thompson’s room to be finished when I return. Mrs. Oliver is coming over and I don’t want to have to check up on your work.”
Susan watched Mrs. Peck waddle out the front door. She rolled her eyes and decided to get straight to Doobuck’s room. If Mrs. Oliver was coming over, Mrs. Peck would be even more bossy than usual. Mrs. Oliver’s husband owned the big theater in town. It had a lighted sign with those old theater masks (one smiling, one frowning) and it still showed movies and plays for all the fancy people. Inside, the walls were covered with those chubby naked Cupids, painted shiny gold. Susan had snuck in once as she walked past.
She climbed the two flights of stairs to her attic room and she surmised that Doobuck had stolen Jack Boy’s dimes. “He must’ve skipped town,” she whispered. She’d heard about people skipping town on TV. She pushed her door open, sat her books on her bed and looked around to see if anything was missing. With just a bed, a chair and a table, there wasn’t anything to take except three outfits hanging on three nails in the corner.
Satisfied that nothing was disturbed, she looked down the steps to the second floor, then closed her door, latching both the locks her father had put in. “I know Mrs. Peck runs a tight ship, but I want your door locked at night when you’re sleeping here anyway,” he told her as he tightened the screws of the deadbolt into the door frame. She changed her clothes for work.
Back downstairs, where the men slept, she walked down the hall towards Doobuck’s room. As she passed number four, Jack Boy’s, she noticed his door was open. He wouldn’t be back until six. He got off at the casket company at five and always like to walk the long way back, and as long as he was there before seven, Mrs. Peck let him eat dinner. So Susan walked over to his table and looked for a clue about the missing coins.
Nothing but the dust she’d be wiping up later. She moved on down the hall.
Doobuck’s room felt dead.
The whole house was silent and none of the men kept many things in their rooms, but Doobuck’s room was utterly barren. It felt like a tomb, undecorated, awaiting its eternal tenant. Doobuck must have made his bed before he left, so there weren’t even wrinkled sheets to fill the room. The closet door was open, laying its emptiness bare. On the bedside table, a single piece of paper was the only sign anyone had ever been here. She walked over and picked it up, expecting a confession about Jack Boy’s dimes.
Instead, she found his goodbye. “Off to Cleveland, Doobuck.”
It wasn’t evidence of anything. People came and went from Clarksburg all the time. She tossed Doobuck’s parting words away and got to work.
Later, the light against the windows started turning orange, which meant that the men would be trickling in or trickling out, depending on their shifts. Mrs. Peck and her guest would also be home soon. Susan pulled the day’s final sheets tightly into place. Mrs. Peck required “hospital corners” so, even though none of the men cared, she tucked the sheets under and brushed out a small ridge that blemished the bed’s surface. She stood back, inspected her own work, closed the door and headed downstairs. There were no dimes anywhere.
As she reached the top step, she heard the formless murmur of ladies’ voices outside. She stopped. She heard the front door open and the melodic tones hardened into words.
“And that is why you have to watch everything, Mrs Peck.” Susan recognized the nasal baritone of Mrs. Oliver. A lifetime of running the town’s cultural hub had given her a confidence that poured over the vocal chords in her thick neck.
“You are so right, Mrs. Oliver.”
Susan started down the steps, slapping her hands together so Mrs. Peck would know she’d finished her work. Both women watched her descend.
Mrs. Oliver shifted her gaze from Susan to the rest of the parlor, nodded, and said, “You seem to be managing your fiefdom well, Mrs. Oliver. Everything seems tidy.”
Mrs. Peck sighed and nodded, adding, “The work never ends, Mrs. Oliver.”
“Yes. Too few people have any dignity today,” Mrs. Oliver said. “Thirty years ago, everything was cleaner, you know? I look at my theater and see the decay. Not in my facility, mind you. You know, everyone knows, that’s still a jewel for the city. It’s the people who’ve changed. There were always low-class types, sure. But now there’s no respect for culture anywhere, really. So few people of quality.”
“We live in an uncivilized time,” Mrs. Peck agreed. “No wonder everyone is heading north.” Susan listened to their conversation, but did so in perpetual motion. She straightened doilies on end tables. She gave a tug to the curtain in the front window to ward off disrespectful wrinkles. As long as she appeared busy, she could linger among the ladies without drawing attention to herself.
Mrs. Oliver took Mrs. Peck’s gloved left hand and pressed it between her own. “This is why the work you do here at this house, this house of refinement, is so important. These men…” she shook her head and left her thought unfinished.
As if summoned, Jack Boy pushed the heavy door open and walked in. When he saw the ladies, he stopped and his brow crinkled. He wiped his mouth with the top of his wrist. This was a precaution that Susan had witnessed before. Mrs. Peck had a strict rule against chew in her house, so he always made sure to spit the last of it out in the street, not the sidewalk, certainly not the yard or porch. If he was going to speak to her, he was sure enough going to make sure his mouth was tobacco-free. Especially in Mrs. Oliver’s presence. Jack Boy called her, privately, “The Queen of France.”
Mrs. Peck turned to him, leaned forward slightly, and greeted him. “Mr. Jackson. I trust you had a pleasant day.”
Jack Boy smiled and gave a single, extravagant nod. “Why yes, ma’am. Thank you. Company took in a big order today. Work’ll be real steady the next few months.”
Mrs. Peck nodded, while Mrs. Oliver glanced toward the ceiling. Susan traced the direction of her glance but saw nothing of interest.
As Mrs. Peck’s attention was returning to Mrs. Oliver, he interrupted. “Excuse me, Mrs. Peck, I have a question.”
This was unusual and Susan, who was straightening teacups and saucers on the table, paused her busy work.
“I been leaving little Suzie over there some dimes for doing my picking up. Like a tip, you know.”
Mrs. Peck remained expressionless, except for a tightening in her lips. Her eyes darted to Mrs. Oliver, then quickly back to Jack Boy. It was a fast glance and Mrs. Oliver didn’t notice.
Jack Boy continued, cautiously. “Well she says she ain’t seen ‘em and I was just wondering if you seen anybody going in there and maybe grabbing ‘em?”
Mrs. Peck took in a deep breath and her eyes widened. She looked away to an empty corner of the room and said, “Mr. Jackson. I took that money and used it to buy groceries for you, the other men in this house, and for Susan. She works for me, not you, and I pay her four dollars a week already.”
Mrs. Peck nodded at Mrs. Oliver, who smiled and nodded back.
Jack Boy looked down at his shuffling feet and said, “Well I was up North and seen ‘em leaving tips for the help and…”
“And?” Mrs. Peck asked.
“Well I just thought I could use being a little more civilized is all,” he admitted.
“Leave civilization to me, if you will, please?” Mrs. Peck and Mrs. Oliver were walking away before she finished her sentence.
When they’d cleared the room, Susan walked to the steps and looked over at Jack Boy, who was looking around his home, hands tucked firmly into the front pockets of his jeans.
“Thanks anyway, Jack Boy,” she said with a turned-down grin. He only shrugged.
Susan ascended the two flights of richly carpeted stairs to her room, locked both her father’s locks and went to bed early.
The next day was Saturday and she was preparing for her night home. In her two months of working for Mrs. Peck and her men, this was going to be the eighth night she slept on her own bedding in the corner of her father’s kitchen.
She came down the steps with her things at two o’clock and looked for Mrs. Peck to say goodnight and have a nice weekend and all. Mrs. Peck emerged, rushed, which was unusual, from the kitchen. She handed Susan her four faded dollar bills.
“Susan. I’m glad I caught you,” Mrs. Peck said, a little out of breath. “I need you to stay tonight and help me.”
“But it’s my night home,” Susan replied, looking down at the wrinkled money in her dried out hands.
“Normally yes, but Mrs. Oliver is throwing a big party tonight at her home and one of her girls had to be let go and Mrs. Oliver has a great deal of preparation left. She’s just beside herself, poor thing. I promised her you would step in and pick up the slack. It’s really a great honor for you.”
Susan was furious. Part of it was selfish, yes. She did not want to work another night, especially not for Mrs. Oliver. But most of her anger was aimed at her need. Her daddy needed as much help as she could give. Work at Jack Boy’s casket company might have been steady, but it wasn’t for limping old janitors like her dad.
“How much is she going to pay me?” Susan finally asked through gritted teeth, still staring at her dimeless four dollars.
“Why nothing! My word.” Mrs. Peck’s face turned red. “Mrs. Oliver is a personal friend of mine; one I am proud to count. It would be an insult to ask her for money. She’s in need and I promised to help her. Selfish girl. I already pay you four dollars a week. Look in your hands.”
Susan saw Jack Boy’s boots coming down the steps slowly, finally stopping, three steps from the top of the staircase. In that instant, her own face filled with the same angry crimson in Mrs. Peck’s.
In a seething, slow hiss, Suzie answered, “You don’t pay me enough as it is and now you want me to work for one of your rich friends for nothing? You don’t own me, you know.”
“You mind yourself, little miss! I will not be spoken to like that. I cannot. Not from you.” She inhaled loudly, then exhaled slowly and powerfully. Suzie felt the breeze.
Her words were loud, much louder than usual, but Mrs. Peck had no power anymore. A light behind Mrs. Peck’s eyes had been switched on. Suzie saw the fear. And the way her voice squeaked was desperate. She’d seen her daddy taken like that once. The night her momma never came home from the hospital, he looked and sounded just like Mrs. Peck did now. That night broke him for good and now he could only sleep, drink, and shuffle that broom around the courthouse at night. When Mrs. Peck came calling, she jumped at the chance to live a fine life in a fine house.
The wild in Mrs. Peck’s changed everything. Now Suzie remembered the picture on the mantle, faded, creased and stained. She looked across the room at it. It sat dead in its honored place, on the mantle above an ice cold fireplace. Mr. Peck was a ghost and his absence haunted this house. He was gone forever and Mrs. Peck had filled this house of refinement with men, but failed to replace the man. Suzie’s anger fled and she remembered how Jesus looked at people and “loved them.”
Suzie took Mrs. Peck’s hand between her own, as she’d seen Mrs. Oliver do the night before. She looked deeply into her wide and glassy eyes.
“I’m going home Mrs. Peck. I won’t be back next week. Tell Jack Boy and the other men I said goodbye.”
Mrs. Peck’s tight lips finally loosened as her mouth fell slack. She trembled and said nothing.
Susan walked to the front door and looked back, up the steps to where Jack Boy had stood, listening. He was not there. Out on the porch, she pulled the door closed, gently, behind her.
Danny Anderson frequently writes about movies, music, and books for publications like PopMatters, Film Inquiry, the Mantle, and Sound the Sirens, among others. He also interviews people for the Sectarian Review Podcast. He lives in the Laurel Highlands region of Pennsylvania with his family. Find him @dannypanderson on Twitter.