1893 . . . Alice Porterman comes home, free to care for her sickly brother and help her mother with the monies given to her from Senator Max and Mrs. Jolene Shelby in thanks for the care she gave their daughter and others during the Influenza outbreak in Texas the previous year. But her mother and brother are not in their house when Alice arrives and she learns they’ve been thrown out by the landlord and are living in an out-building behind a local church. Alice goes in search of the landlord, Albert Donahue, and is surprised at what she finds. Coming July 2015!
Alice Porterman looked at Mrs. McKinnell. “What do you mean Ma and Jimmy aren’t living here anymore. It is our house!”
“They’re living in the two rooms at the back of the Church, Alice. I would have taken them in here but I have no room, none at all,” Alice’s mother’s closest neighbor said to her. “You better get them, girl. Jimmy wasn’t doing well the last time I stopped by. Your Mam can hardly leave him to get victuals or go to work. I’ve been shopping for her when I can.”
“Thank you Mrs. McKinnell. I’ll go right away.” Alice turned and looked at the narrow two-story home where she had grown up. “I’ll just put my bags in the house,” she said and started down the walk that separated the Porterman and the McKinnell homes as she had just arrived from the train station from Washington D.C.
“Nay, you can’t, girl,” Mrs. McKinnell said. “They’ve changed the locks. Your Mam couldn’t even get back in to get your brother’s medicine. Leave your cases on my porch. I’ll have one of the boys carry them in and we’ll keep them here until you’re settled somewhere.”
“Thank you, Mrs. McKinnell,” Alice said red-faced. “I will get them as soon as I get this straightened out.”
“Don’t worry, Alice. Just get your mother and brother back home where they belong.”
Alice nodded and kissed the plump red-headed woman’s cheek. “Thank the Lord you were here to help Ma.”
“It’s nothing. Neighbors do for neighbors. Your Mam would do the same for me, she would. So, your mother read me the letter she got from you that those rich nobs are paying you without you even working for them. La de! And look at them skirts of yours! That is fine wool, is it not, with them lacy petticoats sticking out? And a pretty little hat to boot!”
“Senator and Mrs. Shelby knew that Jimmy was ill and were very grateful for the help I gave them and their daughter when their ranch was struck with the influenza. They wanted to lighten my worry about Jimmy and Ma and offered me my full salary indefinitely. I will always be eternally grateful.”
“I would say so!” Mrs. McKinnell said and belted out a laugh. She peered through the open door of her house and screamed. “Devon McKinnell! Stop your teasing! I’ll have Mr. McKinnell whoop your hide when he gets home from the mill, I will!” She turned back to Alice. “Go on, now. Get your mother and get poor Jimmy back in his bed.”
Alice waved her goodbyes and turned to climb the hill to the Saint Peter and Paul Catholic Church. How very angry she was! How could her mother have let this happen? Alice sent her the full amount of the rent on their small house every month from her pay as long as she had been employed. Even when she’d just started at Landonmore as an upstairs maid, her salary had been just enough to cover her mother’s rent and pay for some food, although it left only a few pennies for herself. With her help, Alice’s mother had been able to work mornings only at the dressmakers and still scrape by.
Alice let herself in the church gates and circled to the back of the building. She came to the small building and saw smoke coming from the chimney. What would it be costing in coal to heat this shack she wondered? The door opened suddenly and her mother was screaming and dragging Jimmy out into the cold air.
“Breathe, boy!” her mother shouted and plopped down in the dirt beside the steps. “Breathe!”
“Ma!” Alice said as she dropped her purse in the snow and hurried to where her mother was struggling to turn Jimmy onto his stomach.
“Help me, Alice! He’s not breathing!”
Maeve Porterman thumped the back of the thin limp boy lying across her legs as she sat in the mud just outside the door of the building. She hit his back hard with a closed fist and Jimmy’s shoulders began to shake. He sputtered and struggled to breathe and coughed until his eyes watered. Maeve continued to tap his back until he spit and cleared his throat enough to breathe calmly. Alice was kneeling in the mud holding him in place across his mother’s knees lest he roll onto the ground. She chafed his arm through the thin cotton of his shirt and she felt him shiver.
“Come on, Ma. Let me carry him into the house,” she said as she bent to pick him up.
Her mother struggled to stand and then wiped the tears from her face on her apron. “I am so glad you’re here, Alice. So glad.”
“Get in the house, Ma. We’re letting the heat out,” she said as she turned sideways at the doorway to carry Jimmy inside.
Alice lay her brother down in the bed near the stove. She propped his pillows up, kissed his cheek, and smiled. “You gave us a fright, Jimmy! Are you warm enough?”
“Alice!” Jimmy said and smiled back at her. “You are home.”
“Quit trying to talk so soon after one of your spells,” Alice said and pushed the hair out of his eyes. “You will start a coughing fit again.”
Jimmy held her hand and leaned back on his pillows. Alice knew he was exhausted and soon his eyes drifted shut. She pulled the thin covers up and over his shoulders and turned to her mother.
“What has happened, Ma? I went home today, only to find out the locks have been changed. I send the rent money faithfully every month. Why are you not living at home?” Alice asked. “Mrs. McKinnell said Jimmy hasn’t been doing well.”
Maeve Porterman turned from her daughter and busied herself folding clothes and stacking them on the shelf above the wash stand. “The rent went up a dollar and Jimmy’s new medicine is twice as much as the old. But he’s only having a coughing fit once every few days instead of once every few hours. He’s even been eating better.”
“But still I send you twenty dollars every month which should cover the rent and the price of the new medicine. What has happened?” Alice asked. But it occurred to her what had happened and it was all Alice could do to not shout. “Please tell me you have not given that man money.”
Maeve said nothing and Alice went to her mother and waited until she turned. Her mother would not meet her eye. “You have given him money, haven’t you?” Alice whispered. “You have given that man my money!”
Maeve flushed. “It is my money to spend as I see fit once you have given it to me.”
“But why? The four dollars and a half from the shop that you earn and what I send you have always been enough. That man came crawling around, didn’t he?”
“Watch your tongue! That is your father you’re speaking so ill of. He brung you into this world!”
“And then left me and my brother to starve. Left you too, to chase his whiskey. What has he done now?”
Maeve crumbled onto the chair beside the bed she slept in. She stared grimly ahead and pulled a worn hanky from her skirt pocket. “He hadn’t eaten in days, Alice. What would you have me do? He looked like a skeleton, I say. He came to say hello to Jimmy, he did, and I heated some soup for him. He was nearly starving, but he ate very slowly. He told me it had been four days since he’d eaten anything other than a crust of bread.”
“And whose fault is that? Maybe if he didn’t drink away every penny he earned, he’d be able to buy himself something to eat.”
“Your father lost his job six months ago. He has been doing odd jobs to keep his room at the boarding house but was thrown out last week.”
“And somehow this is our problem, Ma? You gave him money, didn’t you?”
Maeve nodded. “Yes, I did. I’m still a Christian, Alice. A poor homeless one but I still understand the suffering of others.”
“As long as the suffering is done by women? Men do nothing but abuse us and no one worse than my Da and you still give him money even if it puts you and your sick son out on the street.”
“It was only two dollars. But enough to get him room and board for another week until he gets some work.”
“And where will he go when he can’t get work next week and the week after? And if he does get work, he’ll just drink it away,” Alice shouted.
“Shhh,” her mother scolded. “You’ll wake your brother. Your father hasn’t taken a drink for upwards of a year.”
Alice shook her head. “And you believe him?”
“Yes, I do. He’s not well, Alice. The liquor has rotted his innards the doctor said. He isn’t long for this world and I won’t let him die in the gutter.”
Alice stared at her mother as the woman scurried from her bed behind a drawn curtain to the washstand and back. Her mother would not look at her and it occurred to Alice that her mother was not embarrassed, but angry. Alice and her mother rarely, if ever, spoke about Gerald Porterman, as they were both content to not argue. The last ten minutes was the most they’d spoken about the man in a decade. Maeve stopped her hurrying then, faced the wall and Alice watched her shoulders shake.
“I loved him, I did,” she said then. “He was such a handsome, fun fellow. He tried to stay away from the drink so many times but he always went back and finally, finally, I’d had enough of the excuses and the lost paychecks and the other women showing up at our door looking for him. I told him to go and not come back. It broke my heart to say the words.”
Alice wrapped her arms around her mother and rested her chin on her shoulder. “Of course it did, Ma.”
“I’ll always love him though, Alice. You can’t stop how a heart beats and who it beats for, girl.”
“I’m home now, Ma. I have a good salary coming in and a lump sum Mr. Shelby put in the bank for me. He told me it was my nest egg. Let me get us home and then talk about what we’re going to do about everything else. How far behind are you on the rent?”
“I paid him thirteen dollars instead of fifteen this month. I told him I’d pay him the two dollars one at a time as I got paid from the shop but . . .”
Alice turned her mother to face her and held her shoulders. “What about the other months? Were you behind on the other months?”
Maeve shook her head. “Just this month. Just two dollars.”
“He threw you out of the house you’ve been renting for twenty years because one time you were late two dollars?”
She nodded. “But it isn’t old Mr. Jenkins. He’s in his grave a year now. His son sold the house to a real estate man, Albert Donahue.”
“Where do I find this Albert Donahue?” Alice asked as she pulled her coat on.
“I don’t know. I pay his agent that comes calling on the last of the month, Mr. Nyturn.”
“Where do I find him?”
Maeve dug through a wooden box until she found a torn piece of paper she examined. “Union Park near Blackstone. I’ve never gone. He always came to the house.”
“What will you be eating tonight, Ma?”
Maeve shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve got some broth for Jimmy. It’s all he can hold down after one of his fits.”
“I’ll stop by Mrs. McKinnell’s and have one of her boys bring you some supper.”
“Oh, I hate to put her out like that, Alice. She’s got her own family to feed.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll pay her for the meals and she can send it over with one of the boys. It won’t be charity, then, will it?”