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Excerpt: 'Missy'

Chapter 1

I expect you have the consolation of religion, or the guidance of a philosophy, but when me and the girls get frazzled, or blue, or rapturous, or just awfully so-so, we shin out and buy ourselves some hats.

San Francisco we lived in Mrs. Liberty's flash-house, fourth story of an apartment building at Montgomery and Broadway, looking down toward the packed wharves. There were coal carriers and fruit schooners, feluccas and Chinese crates, there was the New York liner and freight steamers from Sydney. You could walk from vessel to vessel a half-mile out into the bay. It was a big thing. Every night we would get up a jollification like the sams were pals of ours who'd happened around, then we would take them to the rooms, peel their wads, and send them on their way. For anything I knew, we were pretty happy, till Alice Lebo went and killed herself. That's when we made up our minds to shove out for the silver mines in Nevada Territory and start fresh.

We put all our things aboard the Samuel F. Doak and rode up the river to Sacramento. There we hired two wagons, stowed our plunder in them, and headed into the mountains. It was sore on your legs if you walked, and if you lay in back of the wagon on a mattress and got boozy you couldn't get peace. That road shook you up worse than frozen mud. Three days of it stretched everyone's temper pretty far, so when we struck Placerville, the fourth morning out, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and ran across a hatter's, all hands waded in and bought out the store. It was madness but we couldn't help ourselves.

Afterward we popped into an ice cream saloon to cool off.

"Why don't we lay by a day?" I said. "We could cruise around town, take in the sights."

"We could do that in a quarter-hour," Ness said. She had finished her ice cream, but she picked up the spoon and put it in her mouth. It came out clean. "This place is all played out. Let's bang ahead."

"There's a hotel across the road."

Ness put the spoon back in its bowl, making as little noise as she could. She likes food so much it makes her blush if you notice it. "I don't have the mun to put up at hotels."

"Ness, it wouldn't surprise me if you had enough dough to buy the hotel. You're stubborn as dirt, that's all."

"I wouldn't like to be a guest if Ness was running it." Sadie Marx talks out of the side of her mouth like a bookmaker or something. "Mean? She'd be all the time shaking people awake to tell them, 'Sleep faster, we need the pillows.'"

Ness couldn't hold out against me and Sadie Marx, so we put up at the Cary House Hotel and coasted about the streets.

It so happened Ness was dead right. Five years ago there was gold hereabouts and miners swarming all over the hills, picking and drilling and heading back to Placerville to buy their tools and blasting powder. It was a bonanza. The hotel clerk told us the miners would throw liquor down their necks like they were trying to put out a fire, and blow up a saloon every once in a while. Then the gold pinched out and the miners passed on. Placerville still has some lumber operations and a dance saloon where you can have your pick of three back-number girls, but after a tour of ten minutes we concluded the town was a lemon, hired a light pleasure wagon and a town Indian by the name of Julie Ann, and drove out to the river on a frolic.

Julie Ann fixed up an old Indian sweat-house by the river and heated some stones. We stripped and crawled in, all bar Cordelia; Cordelia doesn't get naked when she has a bath. She stayed outside with a gun and kept guard.

Through the sweating mist I tried to sneak a look at Sadie Marx's deformed foot. If she caught me I would right away look at Nessie's feet as though it was feet in general I was interested in. Ness has enormous ones. She's heavy around the thighs and her breasts are too small for the width of her back, but if you could see her scrunch up her neck (she scrunches up her neck the whole time. She's tall. She's tall as a clothes pole). If you could see her scrunch up her neck to listen, you'd wish it was you she was listening to. She's the opposite of me. She is as solid and dense as fog; not stupid but slow; all around you, somehow, and watchful. Me, I'm small, quick, and a funny color. The boys say you could turn me loose in any port from Kingston to Bombay or the Cape to New Orleans, I'd fit right in. There are people who think I'm some Chinese, and I have been mistaken for white.

We gassed about the people we'd left behind in San Francisco, then fell silent. It's hard to talk in a sweat-house but when you don't say anything at all it gets to be gloomy, so it was a relief when Julie Ann poked in. On the buggy trip she had told us that she'd spent the winter in Virginia City, Nevada. That's where we were headed, so I said:

"Virginia City, hey? Is it crazy like they say it is?"

"Big silver excitement. They got thirty mines, about." She had a loud, monotonous voice. You couldn't tell if she was excited or annoyed or what. "They got the Mexican. Ophir. Gould and Curry. Mines go two hundred feet underground. Hot like this sweat-house. Thousands of miners down them." She splashed water on the stones. When she could talk again, she said, "They got mines right below the streets. Road caves, stores drop right down."

The steam was tough. It ironed your throat. I said, "Don't that make people nervous?"

She shrugged. "Saloonkeeper name of Billy Best, own Gotham Saloon, C Street. Been lushing it pretty good, morning till night, who know how long. He took a header out a third-story hotel window one Sunday. They ask him why he done it. He say 'cause I was feeling tiptop."

"I know the feeling," I said. "When you lush it every minute of every day there's no telling what you might do, but you certainly see things whiz."

Ness was holding her ankle. "You just do if you jump out a third-story window."

Virginia City seemed to promise us everything we could wish for. After Julie Ann left us in darkness again, I wanted to talk about our hopes for the future and the life we had had together back in Mrs. Liberty's flash-house.

"I'm trying to remember what I thought about you both when I first met you," I began. Ness peered at me from behind her hair. "I was too busy worrying what you made of me, I suppose. What did you make of me?"

"You won't admire to hear it," Sadie said.

"I was very green, I suppose. I thought you knew everything."

"We could see you were pretty smart," Ness said, keeping something back.

"Did you think so?"

"You had a tongue so sharp it could cut a lie out a politician's heart," Sadie said.

It was a mistake to laugh in that steam. Ness said, "Dol, honey, are you all right?"

"Say," Sadie Marx said, "I heard a saw just like that," and she made like a saw cutting through wood.

It hurt so much I had to stop myself. "You can be pretty lippy yourself," I said to Sadie Marx.

That's when Cordelia crawled into the sweat-house. She had on a gorgeous purple dress and wide-brim lavender hat with feathers à la musketeer. It was a lot of fashion in the circumstances; the feathers wilted right down. She waved the steam away with one hand and clutched her neck with the other and said she didn't know how we could stand it. Finally she ordered us all to go outside. She said there was something important she wanted we should discuss. I'm telling you; if you ever happen to run across Cordelia, look out. That gal can no more scare up fun than die, and how she came to live with us, three months back, is a cautionary tale.

She got married at fifteen, only to quarrel with her husband on their wedding night; Ness found her up an alley one night, picking food off of a garbage heap, and brought her back to Mrs. Liberty's. Next morning she took her to an asylum the nuns run for deserted women and naïve young girls, but before the day was out Cordelia came back in tears, saying the nuns had beat her. We explained the business of the flash-house and told her she was too young to hang around but she had nowhere else to go and we could not get shut of her. When Ness called the cops, she locked herself in one of our rooms; so then we had to pay the cops to haul her away and mess her up a little. That didn't work either; she just came back and sat in the stairwell. She boo-hoo'd all night long. It was hard to explain the situation to the sams and look pretty at the same time; you can't help feeling hard-hearted when you have an abandoned fifteen-year-old outside your door, if she is an annoying one. She was still there in the morning; we got no peace until Sadie Marx sent her to Gabriela Higuera's stand for some cigars and gave her a half-dollar for going. The quiet was wonderful but it came at a terrible price, for there would be no peace from that moment on except we paid for it.

Sadie Marx paid the most. Cordelia was too young to enter the profession and anyway had objections to it on the grounds that it made girls lazy, so Sadie forked out for her board and sometimes bought her little treats. All Cordelia would do to earn her keep was run errands, and she crabbed from morning till night. Sometimes Sadie would say she had a nervous headache and go to bed to hide from her. Then when you thought her patience was at an end, she'd shell out for something extravagant like that gorgeous purple dress. Sometimes she would ask the other girls to chip in but Ness never would; she was saving for her retirement.

Sadie would say, "You got no pity for a girl a fifteen that sucks her thumb when she sleeps?"

"She can go wash dishes, can't she?" Ness would say. "Some of us don't have money to throw around."

Sadie Marx buys things for herself she doesn't want even when she buys them.

Anyway, Cordelia ordered us outside the Indian sweat-lodge, where we dried ourselves and clambered into our skirts.

"What's this all about anyhow?" I said.

"It's about Alice Lebo," Cordelia announced.

"Well, don't keep us in suspense. What about her?"

"She must be awful lonely on the other side, don't you think? Nobody knows she's dead barring us; her family don't. Whyn't we go to a spiritual circle and keep her company this evening?"

The girls are great on spiritualism. When any of their friends die they generally visit a spirit medium to find out if she's all right. When Pauline Healy handed in her checks, about six of us sat around a table that had a dial like the face of a clock with the letters of the alphabet written on it, whereupon a spirit crossed over from the other world and tipped the table, and the hand of the clock pointed at the letters and spelled out communications. We said, "Who are you?"-and the spirit spelled out P-a-u-l-i-n-e H-e-a-l-y. Pauline said she was dead, and told how she was killed when a runaway team bowled into her as she was crossing the street to Rijksskjaar's to buy some buns.

Well, to begin with, if the spirit was the real thing, when did she learn to read and write, I should like to know? In her earthly life she couldn't write her own name, so spelling Rijksskjaar's was coming it rather strong, you ask me. I ain't saying I'm a skeptic; I'm wondering what we learned from Pauline that we didn't already know. I mean, we knew she was dead, that's why we were there; and the runaway team was a fact; the only fresh news was Rijksskjaar's. Sadie Marx said that was Pauline all over; after a week's sojourn with the philosophers and scientists and dreamers in the spirit world, all she could talk about was buns.

"It'd certainly cheer her up," Cordelia said.

I said, "Tonight? I don't know about tonight."

Cordelia looked at the other girls in a meaning way, as if I'd pretty much given myself away. She said, "We have nothing else to do. Do we?"

"I suppose."

"Well then; don't you want to?"

I didn't want to communicate with Alice Lebo when she was alive. "Sure I do," I said. "But you know how solitary she was." I oftentimes found her in the bedroom crying; I would ask her what was up and she wouldn't say a thing, sit there with a face like Sunday. "I mean, you suppose she'll be more sociable now she's dead?"

Cordelia folded her arms and rolled her eyes in disgust. "She was living in circumstances that were beneath her, that's why she kept to herself. She was melancholy as a poet."

"She didn't look too poetical after she'd taken that overdose," I said. "We had to stay up all night, remember? Hitting her with hot towels to keep her from falling insensible, pitching into her with our fists and feet. We kicked the holy Christ out of her. By the time we were through I felt like we'd kicked her to death."

Her body was black as a stove next day. The doctor we called had said it was too late to use a stomach pump. Turned out he only said that because he didn't happen to have one.

Ness was buttoning up the back of my dress. "I don't think we should argue over it, Dol."

"I don't think we should argue over it either," I said. "Why don't we leave her in peace?"

"What's up?" Cordelia said. "Scared she'll tell everyone why she done it?"

Two days before Alice Lebo finished herself, I borrowed her firefly hairpin. I was in a hurry and didn't ask her for it, I hooked it from the top of her dresser. We bunked in the same room, me and Alice, so I didn't think anything of it. But I lost it and she squealed on me to the other girls. She also said I made her life a misery and she couldn't stand my company another night. When she ate her dose, nobody said anything. I mean nobody blamed me out loud.

"If you three suppose she took her life all along of a hairpin you're dumber than you look," I said.

Their faces fastened over and suddenly they were all looking at me the same way, like a three-headed monster.

"Jesus," I said. "I'll come back when you're human again."

And I put on my shoes and set off into the wilderness.

Excerpted from Missy by Chris Hannan. Copyright © 2008 by Chris Hannan. Published in June 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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