As the shades of evening progressed and the beer continued to flow, the volume of the crowd at The Anchor gradually increased. Franklin remained drinking at the bar and tried to drown out the noise. Back home, he had prided himself in being the sort of gentleman who avoided speakeasies and gambling halls. He preferred to consume his alcohol alone.
“Where’s the missus?” Boots had just finished cleaning up after a customer who had enjoyed too much liquor and expressed it all over the floor. He noticed Franklin who sat tapping a rhythmic pattern against his empty glass.
“Upstairs. I’m afraid she’s not very comfortable here.”
“Your wife doesn’t seem like the sort of woman to embrace the wilderness life.”
Franklin snorted and said, “You picked up on that, huh?”
“A spiteful women is hard to miss,” Boots said and took the glass from Franklin. “Don’t want to interfere in your personal affairs, but if you’re so inclined, I’m sure one of the girls would be happy to take your mind off your wife for an hour or two. She wouldn’t have to know about it.”
“No. No, thanks,” Franklin said before there was time to consider the offer.
“Yeah, I figured you for one of those good men I hear about. Haven’t met one in a long time, though.”
Good man? Franklin was remembering how harsh he’d been with Harriet earlier that day and wondered if he should apologize.
“Don’t worry about your wife,” Boots was continuing. “It’ll do her good. Get her hands dirty. She’ll be alright.”
“Glad you think so,” Franklin said, holding little confidence in his wife’s ability to adapt.
“I take it Jude wasn’t much help.” Boots flung a towel over his shoulder and leaned his hands on the bar.
“Tried to hire him, but he wasn’t interested. Said I should go on my own. Take some ship called the Claire Marie. You know it?”
“Best ship on the Ghost River. Shoot, Captain Wallace has been making that trip for twenty years at least. Probably be along sometime next week.”
“Next week? But I can’t wait that long.”
“Don’t think you have a choice.”
“There’s got to be another way.”
“Look, Mr.–What was your name again?”
“Franklin. Everyone calls me Boots.” The barkeep held his hand out and gave him a firm handshake. “Listen, Frank. I can see you’re tired. Last thing your daughter needs is for you to go rushing of into the wild all spun up. She needs you to think clearly. I’ll put you up until the ship arrives. Just do me a favor and keep your wife out of the way until then.”
It was no use protesting. Franklin knew he was right. He wasn’t sure how Harriet was going to handle the prospect of staying another week. No…Take that back. He knew exactly how Harriet would handle it.
“Besides,” Boots added, “you want to be rested up. That trip down the river ain’t no pleasure cruise. You’ll be a lucky man if you make it south to The Crossroads.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Probably best you wait and find out for yourself. You’ll figure it out.” Boots held out a clean glass. “Care for another?”
“Better not. Might make myself sick,” Franklin said and patted his stomach.
“Doesn’t seem to stop anyone else around here.”
“Are they locals?”
“Most of them. A few travelers here and there. We’re pretty much the only entertainment around.”
“You’re not from here.” Franklin had detected an accent reticent of the southern United States. “Where are you from? Georgia? Louisiana?”
A cloud passed over Boots’ eyes and his friendly demeanor suddenly became stiff and removed. “Ship leaves next week. If it were my kid, I’d be on it.”
Harriet had been sitting in their guest room, shuddering at every holler, shout, and crash that traveled up from the main floor. Earlier she thought she had heard the sound of a trumpet playing but had been too nervous to open the door and see for herself.
It had been hours since Franklin had deserted her, and she was growing more anxious the longer he was gone. In the meantime she had managed to clean herself up and change into dry clothes. With great trepidation she had tested the mattress and found it completely unacceptable. She missed her plump mattress back home, her red quilt, and her soft pillows. She missed her vanity and the balcony that opens off of their bedroom where she could drink her morning tea and listen to the birds in the cherry blossom tree. Harriet ached for New York.
“Where have you been?” she snapped when Franklin finally returned. This whole thing was his fault in the first place, and to top it all off, he’d left her alone, hungry and trapped in the horrid little room.
“Why aren’t you asleep?” he asked without disguising his disappointment.
“You know I can’t sleep when I’m hungry.”
“Why didn’t you come down and get something?”
Harriet’s face wrinkled up at the notion. “Down there? With all those pigs and cheap sluts? I’d rather be hungry.”
“Suit yourself,” Franklin shrugged. He was too tired to argue. His fingers were sore as he unbuttoned his shirt. Every bit of him ached, and all he wanted was to sleep.
“What are you doing?” she asked as he sank down onto the rickety bed.
“Going to bed.” Wasn’t it obvious? What did she think he was doing?
“But what about food?”
“I’m not your servant, Harriet. I’ve eaten, if you want food, go down and get it yourself. Otherwise, stop talking about it.”
Harriet wasn’t used to this side of Franklin, but seeing that she had lost the food battle, she moved on to the next item on her list of complaints. “Why were you gone so long?” She secretly wondered if he had engaged with any of the women working downstairs.
“Trying to find our daughter,” Franklin said bitingly.
“What did you find out?” Harriet resumed brushing her hair in the cracked mirror and wished Zelda was here to prepare her a hot bath.
“She passed through here a few months ago. The ship she took downriver will be here next week.”
“You mean we have to stay here until then?”
She huffed at him and brushed her hair more aggressively. “Can you believe this place? No trains, no cars, no telephones. It’s completely primitive.”
“I think we’ll survive.” Franklin slipped under the covers and decided that it was premature to be apologizing to her for his behavior on the dock. He closed his eyes and was asleep before Harriet could say goodnight.
Lying there with his shirt off, Harriet was reminded of when they were first married. It didn’t seem that Franklin really hadn’t changed that much. Sure, there were hints of silver through his hair and lines around his eyes, but if anything, time had only improved Franklin.
Harriet had never told her husband this. These were not the kind of discussions that existed between the two of them. A long time ago, perhaps, but none of that seemed to matter anymore.
For some time Harriet had considered the possibility of occupying a separate bedroom from her husband. True, it was becoming less fashionable, but with a home as large as theirs, it wouldn’t be an unreasonable arrangement. Over the years she had entertained the notion but could never quite bring herself to make the change.
Watching him now, she really was glad to have him with her. His presence was the reason she had never suggested separate bedrooms. In spite of all her bravado, Harriet was afraid of the dark. And even more so, Harriet was terrified of being alone.
“Here’s my wash. And be very careful with the intimate items. They’re from Paris, you know.”
The next morning Harriet ventured downstairs and recognized Rose from the previous day. She plopped a pile of clothing in the girl’s arms and began a stream of explicit instructions.
Back in New York, the Charles’ servants were well acquainted with Harriet’s demands. Whether it was folding laundry or washing dishes or setting the table, Harriet had not done a bit of work since 1903.
“I beg your pardon?” Rose said as several items fell to the floor.
“Paris. Paris, France. I assume you’ve heard of it.”
It was still early and the public house that had been swarming the night before was quiet and empty. Rose had not yet applied her makeup or fashioned her long hair. She had worked late into the night and was not ready to converse with anyone, especially Harriet Charles.
“Now look here, lady–” Rose began.
“Charles. Mrs. Charles,” Harriet interrupted and lifted her chin.
“Mrs. Charles, is it? Well, Mrs. Charles, I don’t know what things are like where you come from, but here, folks do their own washing. I suggest you take your intimates out back. There’s a bucket and a washboard that will do just fine.” Rose released the remainder of the clothing, allowing them to join the others on the floor.
“I will not have a woman like you speak to me with that tone of voice.”
“A woman like me? Lady, you can stand there and judge me all you like, but you don’t know a thing about me. I may be a whore, but I am not your maid. I am a business woman. If you can’t show me a little respect, you can spend the night outside.”
“The man who owns the place let us the room.” Harriet challenged Rose by crossing her arms and striking a firm pose.
“Boots? You’ve known him what? Less than twenty-four hours? Who do you think he’ll side with? Me or you?”
Rose stepped closer now, hands on her hips. Harriet could see the other woman’s striking features that had been plastered over with makeup the night before. She was actually much prettier this way.
“What are you staring at?” Rose was used to men ogling her but she wasn’t accustomed to female scrutiny.
“Nothing. It just that we’re stuck here until the ship arrives next week. Until then, I trust you’ll have the decency to keep your distance from my husband.”
“Honey, it’s no fault of mine if you can’t satisfy your man,” Rose said, pleased when Harriet lacked a comeback.
“So what you’re telling me is there’s no one to do my laundry?” Harriet said coolly.
“Talk to Boots. Maybe you can pay one of the other girls to do your dirty work.” Rose motioned to the office before a smirk crept across her face. “The only thing you could pay me for would be to keep your husband company.” She concluded by spitting on one of the Parisian items of clothing. It was only then that Rose felt the harsh slap of Harriet’s hand across her cheek.
To be continued…
Written by Heidi Sadler, © 2016, Heidi Sadler, All Rights Reserved
Embracing life’s wilderness through music & community