I usually drag myself upstairs, bone-tired, after a double shift. Not tonight. That is, I AM bone-tired, but tonight I take the stairs two at a time. I haven’t done that for years!
Not since before…
Not for years.
The newspaper’s tucked under my arm; I’ve been itching to get it back to my own room for hours. I didn’t wanna check out what I thought I’d seen in front of Mrs. Cuddy, or any of them.
I light the oil lamp; sit on the narrow bed. The springs under the thin mattress squeak in protest. As I unfold the newspaper, my hands fumble. Partly excitement – though, ‘excitement’ is the wrong word. ‘Excited’ tends to suggest ‘happy’ and that ain’t it. Maybe ‘agitated’ would be better. I dunno. Anyhow, my hands are shaking partly with ‘it’ and, partly, ‘cos they’re cold. I do what I do most evenings. I stare at the grate, wonder if it’s worth making a fire before I get into bed. Then, I make the decision I always – nearly always – make. No! It’s a waste. I don’t have money to burn. Literally. Sometimes, I cannot bear to make the sensible choice one more time. Then, I make a fire and curl up to watch the flames and go to bed without having to shiver. Tonight I wrap an old scarf round my head, pull on my shabby outdoor coat, wriggle under the blankets and get back to my paper.
Did I really see it?
WAS it him?
He hasn’t been caught, has he? That was my first thought. He’s been caught. Or killed. And…despite the fact he’s nothing to me now…despite the fact that NOTHING really matters much now…my heart pounded like crazy. Don’t let him be dead. Please, please, don’t let him be dead. Please.
You don’t hafta be a genius to work out the lie back there, huh? He AIN’T nothing to me. He oughta be – but he ain’t.
When Mrs. Cuddy turned the page, ‘he’s been caught!’ raced through my mind. I kept my face blank, tried not to show what’d caught my eye. I calmed down. Somehow, I didn’t think that WAS it.
If it WAS him…
I only got a glance, I could be wrong. Though, it did look like him. Looked like both of them.
IF it was him – he was all gussied up in a suit – posed – smiling.
That don’t feel like ‘caught’ or ‘killed’, does it?
Unless it was an old photograph.
Scanning the pages. No. No. No.
I remind myself what I’m staring at is only paper. A grainy grey image, four inches by four, already a week out-of-date, creased, stained where someone’s put down a coffee mug. That’s all it is.
What is it they say in books sometimes?
It takes my breath away.
How long do I stare at him? Dunno. I guess it’s one of those moments when – quote – ‘time stands still’.
In case you haven’t worked it out, I used to read dumb romances. I don’t now. Reckon I learnt my lesson where romance gets you.
I don’t quite mean that. Though, if I’m gonna spit out bitter things, up here in my room talking to myself is the best place. But, I don’t quite mean that. All the same, I don’t read romances no more.
I drag my gaze from the picture, read the words.
He – both of them – have been granted amnesty. It says…
My eyes race along the close print.
He – they’ve been going straight, hoping for amnesty ever since…
I blink. That’s less than six months after the last time I saw him. He’d gone straight before – before Patrick was born.
I picked – Patrick – because it’s Irish. ‘Jedediah’ wasn’t the right choice, but I wanted something…
There’s more. Lots about them being ‘the most successful outlaws in the history of the West’. Sentimental stuff about their hard childhoods. Jed won’t like that. Not one bit.
He told me about it once. I mean, about his folks and the Home. Not playing for sympathy, nothing like that. Just told me. It was before he told me he loved me. But, that’s when I knew, knew for sure, he did. I was stroking his hair, his head was all nuzzled between my breasts and I said something like, “D’ya reckon that’s why you did it? Became an outlaw.” He went real quiet for the longest time. I wondered if he’d fallen asleep. ‘Cos we’d not long finished – and men do fall asleep. Then he said, “If our folks’d lived – I don’t see how we coulda gone this way. But, that’s not the same as it bein’ any kinda excuse. We weren’t the only boys who lost everyone in that War. Sheesh, some fellas lost everyone AND an arm or a leg. They still kept straight, made better choices than us, made some’n of themselves!”
He wouldn’t have opened up like that if he didn’t love me, would he? If he didn’t love me, he’d have stuck to the bravado – the ‘It’s a good life and not too hard on the back’ stuff.
I stop remembering, concentrate on the newspaper.
Next is ‘Your Reporter in Cheyenne’ interviewing them. They talk about regretting all the crimes, say how it’s never too late to change, never too late to turn over a new leaf.
It all sounds a bit flowery. Don’t sound much like them. Well, maybe it sounds like Heyes, if’n he’d his tongue in one cheek and was pulling this fella’s leg. But…
Even if ‘Our Reporter in Cheyenne’ is gussying up the words, it don’t mean there ain’t a grain of truth in there. Does it? To go straight for over three years, they musta changed. THAT bit hasta be true. Don’t it?
‘Course, I want that bit to be true. But, me WANTING it to be true don’t mean it ain’t true. You see, though I never had any regrets about leaving so Jed couldn’t find me …
You didn’t fall for that, did you?
It’s the lie I tell myself often enough – no regrets – but you’re too smart to fall for it, huh?
I haven’t fallen asleep a single night without regretting the choice I made.
I don’t mean, if I had it to make again I’d do different; but, every night, I go through ‘what ifs’ and ‘yes, buts’ convincing myself I did the right thing.
Once a man starts hitting you, don’t matter how much he swears it’ll never happen again – it will. Certain sure. I learnt that watching my mother and…him.
“He’ll change. He really means it this time. He can’t help it. He loves me. I can’t leave – I love him. I need him. He needs me. It’s my fault; if only I hadn’t… This time – it’ll be different. I KNOW he can change.”
I’ll leave you to sort out lies from truth in there for yourselves.
Don’t matter what they say. Next time never is different. Never.
With Jed, it was only the once. Don’t everyone deserve a second chance? AND, I don’t believe folk can NEVER change. That’d be… That leaves you nowhere. Folk CAN change.
This is the kinda stuff I lay awake thinking.
‘Cos, though I did make the right choice — I DID – figuring out the right choice is not black and white, huh?
The right choice meant I’d never see Jed again.
And, I loved him. Loved him, loved him, loved him, loved him.
And, he loved me. I believed that. Still do.
It was only the once.
And, it wasn’t like him. Jed’s a good, kind, gentle man… If only I hadn’t…
And, I love him.
Did you spot the lie? It’s a lie I told myself during the happiest few months of my life when I spent my all time thinking about Jed. Lying awake hoping I might hear the signal. Hoping this was one of the nights he’d appear. One of the nights he’d climb into my bed and…
I fell in love with Jed Curry because he was the most exciting, exhilarating thing that’d ever happened in my life.
I fell in love with Jed Curry because him choosing me, wanting me, loving me, made me feel the most desirable woman in the world. Made me feel alive in a way I’d never felt before.
I did NOT fall in love with him because he was good, or kind, or gentle.
A man who hustles frightened mothers and crying children out of a train at gunpoint so he can have money to gamble and drink and buy women – is he gentle?
A man who levers up a track, knowing full well if the driver is too slow to react, it risks a crash, risks mangling the bodies of innocent people – is he kind?
A man who steals a payroll headed for a mining town full of men who sweat underground daily to feed their wives and families, families who need that money on time for rent and provisions and doctors’ bills – a man who laughs at the idea of their honest job as ‘too hard on the back’ – is he good?
I tried to shut my eyes to all that. Tried? When he was with me, I DID shut my eyes.
I think, when he let down his guard with me, lost the bravado, I think then I saw he was trying and failing to shut his eyes to all that too.
He wanted things to be different. He wanted to change.
And… I couldn’t have been so deep in love with him if I hadn’t seen that.
‘Course, WANTING to change and doing nothing about it; feeling bad and carrying on the same way anyhow… That don’t exactly deserve much sympathy, huh? Though, we’ve all been there. I sure have. Sure was then. I knew what I was doing with Jed was just plain wrong. I knew what might happen, too. I don’t blame him for that. Well…
That’s a lie too. There were nights I lay awake cussing Jed for leaving me with a bellyful of trouble. I shouldn’t have. The rules are – if a man turns on the sweet-talk, the woman says ‘No!’
He never pushed me, not one little bit.
All my fault.
Well, nearly all my fault.
Besides, how could I BLAME anyone for giving me Patrick?
I think about what I’m gonna do for a long time. It’s something I’ve thought about a hundred times. This time’s different.
First, I’m not thinking, ‘Jed could change, I should give him a second chance’. I’m thinking, ‘This is hard evidence, in black and white, that Jed HAS changed, struggled real hard to change. I should give him a second chance’.
Second, all the other times I’ve thought, ‘At the very least, maybe I should tell him about Patrick’…even got as far as starting a letter…not that I ever REALLY meant to send it… I’ve hadta face the fact a letter addressed to ‘Jedediah (Alias ‘Kid’) Curry, Devil’s Hole, Wyoming’ isn’t an option.
This time, I pull a sheet of notepaper – and the newspaper – towards myself and write: ‘Jedediah Curry, c/o Sheriff Lom Trevors, Porterville…’
I read about you and Heyes getting amnesty…”
I try and say how pleased I am. Not just pleased they have amnesty, but pleased they wanted it – worked for it – stuck with it. I try and say ‘part of me always believed in you’… try and say it so it’s true, try and say what I really mean.
It’s hard, real hard, to write what I DO mean. I guess I’d hafta know what it is before I could write it and, even then, I’d hafta find the right words.
“I cannot say I’m sorry I left Denver leaving no way for you to find me, because, I thought I was doing the right thing. But, I can say – I hope you understood and have been able to forgive me. What I can also say, hand on heart, is that I’ve forgiven you…”
Will he care? Will he even remember me? I know he came looking for me at least once in Denver, I had word. But, that was so long ago.
Now the hard bit. Another fresh sheet – ‘cos, I am fairly happy with what I wrote so far and I don’t wanna hafta redo the lot if this part goes wrong.
“It’s time to finally tell you what I meant to say on that last day. You and me, we had a son, Patrick. I hope that name’s okay by you. This is him – in the photograph. He’s the dead spit of you here, Jed…”
It’s a copy of a studio portrait taken on Patrick’s second birthday. Mine’s over there, in the frame by my bed. I guess it was a waste of money when I was saving up so hard…
Sheesh! You can’t put off any kinda pleasure or treat forever and ever! Scrimping and saving and waiting for this ‘tomorrow’ that never seems to come.
Anyhow, the photographer asked, did I want copies to send to Patrick’s grandparents or anyone? I was about to say, ‘no, thank you’, when he added the first coupla copies were free. So, I said, ‘yes’. I mean, just ‘yes’ I wanted copies. I didn’t tell any extra lies about Patrick having grandparents. When I rechecked his price list, he’d been lying; the first two copies WEREN’T free. I guess, after watching me count out all those nickels and dimes, he was just being nice.
I look plain as pie, the usual stiff ‘photograph’ face. Patrick, kinda half turning to grin up at me, looks so adorable it makes me wanna…
Sorry. Sorry about that. I try not to, in case folk hear.
I have a good blow, mop myself up. I had the sense to push the letter away so all the blubbing didn’t blot it. I pull it back towards me.
“When I first left Denver, I got me a good job in Twin Forks. Then, I moved on here and had the baby. It was hard at first to make ends meet, but having Patrick, holding him, loving him, made everything worth it…”
It is not lies. Half-truths are not lies. And…what else is there to say? If Jed cares, he’ll hear it all first-hand when he finds me. If he don’t care – what do details matter?
I did get me a reasonable job in Twin Forks. Saved real hard, ‘cos I knew I couldn’t stay. The timing was wrong; I couldn’t claim to be a widow there. Well, I’d hafta have come up with a story about losing my husband only a few weeks ago, and…
Anyhow. That’s the choice I made.
When I couldn’t hide it no longer, I bought me a cheap ring, a cheap black widow’s dress and an expensive train ticket. Real expensive, to get far away from where Jed Curry might come looking. I came here. I married myself off on the journey, arrived as Mrs. Brown. I didn’t make up any fancy story. I let the ring and the mourning do most of the lying. If asked, ‘I lost my man and I don’t like to talk about it.’
The job here wasn’t so reasonable. Who wants to hire a girl six months gone? Still, it coulda been worse. Room and board included, so I didn’t hafta worry about rent. Be honest, how many jobs for women, I mean uneducated women like me, stretch to ‘rent’?
The birth wasn’t easy. Sheesh! The month AFTER the birth wasn’t easy! I ran up one long doctor’s bill! Mrs. Cuddy was… She was okay. Didn’t turn me out. Paid the doc on my behalf.
She knew. Caught me out in a lie. She never said nothing and neither did I, but she knew. The only thing she did tell me, once I healed up, was she’s got a reputation to keep. Any hint of anything with the male guests – I’m out. She wasn’t mean, just straight. She’s okay. Treated me the same afterwards. Hasn’t told anyone else. I reckon she believes in second chances.
All those months of saving – all gone. Worse than gone. I was working nearly half a year of double shifts before I got back to ‘zero’. And, I didn’t work all the double shifts I could, ‘cos – that would’ve meant seeing even less of Patrick.
I stare at the half-truths in the letter for a long time. ‘Having Patrick, holding him, loving him…’ ‘Loving him’ is true enough. But, ‘having him, holding him’? Written that way, it makes it sound as if…
You know I said back there I used to read dumb romances? Sometimes the girl ended up on her own, struggling to support a baby. Not the same way as me! No! The virtuous heroine would be separated from her husband through some machination of the villain. Nothing so simple (or should that be nothing so dumb?) as letting a man you know perfectly well can’t marry you even if he wants to, climb into your bed.
Anyhow, in books, even though the heroine’s poverty-stricken and ‘battling gamely against adversity’, somehow she has a place for her and her baby to live. Night after night, she comforts herself with the clutch of tiny fingers and the sight of an innocent smile.
How she pays rent, how she keeps the place warm and puts food on the table is left kinda sketchy. We’re sometimes shown brief scenes of ‘honest toil’, but no way are we given a weekly budget, that’s for sure!
I don’t live in a cheap novel, so I hadta do what any single mother with nowhere to live does (if, that is, she cannot bear to give up her child). I paid half my wages to a foster mother. I lived for my afternoons off and every other weekend. After a late shift, I’d walk round just to gaze up for a while at the window where he slept. I scrimped and scraped and hoarded every dime towards that ‘tomorrow’ when I’d be able to afford somewhere to be together. I reckoned up how many years away that ‘tomorrow’ would be…
‘Course what I shoulda done is count my blessings. Mrs. Lennox, Patrick’s foster Ma, was – well, I guess she was everything you could ask for. Kind, calm, competent. Loved babies. Loved Patrick. Treated him just like her one of her own. He was happy, I could tell.
When he started to talk he called her ‘Mama’. Not her fault; she called herself ‘Aunt Beth’ to him. He was just copying her own kids. ‘Love you, Mama! Love you BEST, Mama!’
He called me ‘Mama’ too.
Oh! Spelling and punctuation mistake. I told you I wasn’t educated. He called me ‘Mama Two’.
Sorry. Sorry. Maybe I AM a heroine after all, huh?! Crying again!
All over. Another fresh sheet. In case the letter goes wrong.
“There’s been no one else, Jed. I could never feel how I felt about you for any other man…”
I tear that page up. I’m NOT saying THAT! I may as well write ‘I’m so lonely! I need you! I’m begging you, please come find me! Please!’ It may be what part of me is screaming inside, but I ain’t saying it! I’ll keep this letter simple and…and leave us both a little dignity.
Not that I care about dignity. Not that I care about much now. But, I should. So, I will.
Now I think of it, one of those two sentences I tore up is a lie.
Which one? You KNOW which one. Because, you know which one is true. “I could never feel how I felt about you for any other man…” is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
There WAS someone else.
Not THAT way. Sheesh! Even if I hadn’t learnt my lesson, I wasn’t interested in any other man in THAT way. If’n you don’t count rerunning every conversation I ever had – or didn’t have – with Jed Curry and every possible ‘what if’, the only thing I was interested in was: ‘how soon do I get to be with Patrick?’ So, for me to be interested in a man he needed a home (with a room for Patrick), a steady income (enough to keep me and Patrick) and to be definitely looking for a wife (with a son thrown in). Not romance. Not flirtation. Not making friends. Not ‘let’s get to know each other, see where it goes’.
Scrub the ‘in order to be interested in a man’ start. I had zero interest in any man, ever. I was only interested in: Marriage, home, income. Now.
That sounds real mercenary. That IS real mercenary. I’m trying to be truthful there. I’m rationing myself to only so many lies a minute.
Besides, I didn’t spend time thinking ‘maybe I’ll meet someone’, ‘cos it wasn’t gonna happen. I spent the days working and saving and reckoning and ticking off the hours to ‘Patrick time’. If I occasionally varied my night time ‘what if’ fretting’ to a ‘suppose I had a home?’ fantasy, so what? It wasn’t gonna happen.
Then, it happened! A man took an interest in me. A respectful, serious interest. He – he started to court me.
It was the photographer. I reckon he saw me at my best. I don’t mean all gussied up for the portrait, though I was. I mean, laughing with Patrick. Happy in the moment.
When I went back the following week to pick up my prints he asked if we – me and Patrick – would like to go to the Ladies’ Committee picnic next Sunday? It was my Sunday off. Patrick would LOVE to go to a picnic. I would love to see Patrick go to a picnic. Entrance cost twenty-five cents a head – all proceeds to charity. That’s before laying out any nickels on the stalls or raffles. That meant, we weren’t going. Period. I was gonna say ‘no thank you’ when…
Patrick had taken a fancy to him. Maybe ‘cos of the ‘watch the birdie’ moment – I dunno. He was tugging at this man’s sleeve; I was trying to unwrap his fingers from the cloth, shushing him. Then the photographer…his name was Tom…he squatted down and gave Patrick his full attention. He did that dumb ‘Dicky Bird, Dicky Bird’ rhyme. Patrick loved it. Tom did it again. When he straightened up, I said ‘yes’. It was only a picnic.
Tom was dull. He told the same jokes over and over and laughed at them himself, though they weren’t funny. He was half an inch shorter than me, plump and thinning on top. Not that THAT really matters. You can marry the love of your life and ten years on he’ll be plumper, balder and you’ll have heard all his stories, huh?
He lived in a real nice set of rooms above his studio. Aside from portraits he’d a regular contract with the local newspaper. A safe, steady income. If Tom married me I’d never hafta worry about new boots for Patrick, or a warm winter coat for Patrick, or schoolbooks for Patrick, or – or maybe someday – college fees for Patrick, ever again. If Tom married me – it’d be ME giving Patrick his breakfast every morning, ME tucking him up every night. I’d be with him every day. EVERY single day!
I don’t think – I’m trying to be honest here – I’d have carried on seeing him JUST ‘cos he was ‘settled’.
You see, Patrick liked Tom. Little kids don’t mind ‘repetitive’ do they? They like the same stuff over and over! At first I reckon Tom tried his hardest with Patrick to please me. Hardly a crime, huh? Later… Well, I’m biased, but Patrick was adorable – and he wound Tom round his finger.
The day I knew, KNEW for sure, I’d say ‘yes’ was when I watched Tom stop Patrick howling after a tumble and then hoist him onto his shoulders.
Say ‘yes’? Sheesh! That day, I knew I’d crawl naked across broken glass to this dull, plain, little man – this gentle, kind, good man. I’d kiss his feet if he’d give Patrick and me a home. I’d cook his meals, wash his clothes, iron his shirts, laugh at his jokes, hang on his every dreary word! I’d…I’d fall on my back, open my legs and do any dang thing he wanted, if he’d only marry me first so I knew I could always be with my son.
If he’d only ask.
When he did ask – I made a big mistake.
No. I did the right thing. I’d do it again. Maybe…
I said, before I accepted, there was something he’d a right to know.
I told him the truth. Not ‘who’. Only, I wasn’t Mrs. Brown; wasn’t a widow.
He deserved at least that. I couldn’t just keep lying.
Besides, if I’d married under a false name – would it count? Suppose it all came out later?
I told him.
I guess he musta read novels too. He sure was a romantic about women.
I simply wasn’t what he’d thought.
Whether it was my – my lack of chastity, or, the ‘lies of omission’, I dunno…
He was too nice to say.
He – he admired my honesty.
Maybe, it was ‘cos he asked if I still loved Patrick’s father.
The silence went on and on. I didn’t know what to say.
I still don’t.
Anyhow, that was that.
Do I have any regrets?
What do you think?
None of that need go in a letter. It can wait for if I ever see Jed face to face. Maybe?
Another fresh sheet.
“I told you it was hard to make ends meet…”
Where am I going with that? Does it sound as if I’m asking for money from him? I’m not.
It’s not what I meant to write. I kinda know what I hafta write, but…it won’t come.
I read it again. At least it’s true. It was hard to make ends meet. It still is! The ends don’t meet. The ‘ends’ are twenty-two dollars and fifty-four cents of debt apart. No one’s pressing me for it. I know Mrs. Cuddy will give me all the time I need. Mrs. Lennox told me to stop fretting and forget all about the money I still owe her. But…
I hafta pay it back. They work hard too. They have families. I don’t want Patrick having a thief for a mother as well as for a…
I didn’t mean that. Sorry, Jed.
It’s just – staying straight and trying to do the right thing is about all I have left.
You see, when Patrick caught scarlet fever a few months back, I ran up another long, long doctor’s bill. And, I wasn’t even working, ‘cos I needed to…
No, no more lies. I WANTED to nurse him myself. I didn’t NEED to. No way am I a better nurse than Beth Lennox. I couldn’t fault a thing she did. I was so grateful to have her…
So, there were all the weeks I didn’t pay her. And, the doctor’s bill – which Mrs. Cuddy settled for me. And the red flannel and the clean linen and the ice and…
“Jed, there’s something I have to tell you…”
And, the undertaker’s bill.
I stare at those two words, all lonely on the page with empty white space all around them. I think real hard about what I might find to say to Jed Curry if I ever saw him again. I think real hard about second chances. It takes a long, long time to decide what to write next. Very carefully, very neatly, I add a period.
Then, I do what I guess I always knew I’d do, even before I took my pen from the drawer. I tear up all the sheets, hold them over the oil lamp until they catch fire and throw them into the cold grate to burn.