Emmy Learns How to Survive
The memories come back to me like light as breaks through trees. How did I learn to survive? There was the grey river. There was the light that would break at dawn. But, always there was the sadness lapping at the shore. It was so tough to live near that river after he was gone. The wind carried messages on it. Secret messages spelt in exhaled breaths that loosened the leaves in trees. I don’t know how I learned to survive those days.
My sister wrote letters. They poured into my house. In them, she described the rocky coast. The cliffs she'd walk, the smell of the sea. I'd try and dream of this other place. I'd tried to imagine a place along that rocky coast where I could smell the sea, where I could see all the way to a flat horizon. A line that clearly divides yesterday from today. But, whenever I'd try to board a train to leave I couldn’t do it. I remained tethered to my sadness in this place. Money became sparse. I had no trade. So, I started to look around, to see what I could do. I knew the sea would keep drifting farther and farther away. No money for train fare. No way to leave the memories of my husband. So I lived in that limbo for years looking for work. The first job I took was by chance. We lived near the docks since my husband was a boatman. So, I lived by the salons that line the river banks. These are the type of salons sailors frequent. The kind where whiskey bottles are set next to the fogged glasses that look as though they haven't seen a good washing for years. One day I walked in and every head turned in my direction. It wasn’t the type of place a lady just walked into. You could see the river flowing fast and grey through the windows. I walked right up to the bar, my face hot and sat on a stool. When the bartender walked over, his eyes scanning me up and down, I said, trying to keep my voice steady, “I'm looking for work.”
“What kind of work you think you gonna find here?” He asked.
“I don't know. I just live across the street. I'd be happy to clean the place if you need it.”
“We already got a girl for that,” he said curtly.
“Well, maybe I could serve customers?”
“No need for that.” He said. “I got that covered.”
“Well, what is it you need? I need work. Tell me what I can do?”
He just laughed and said. “Well, you'd make a terrible whore but that's what we need.”
I just looked back at him hard. Normally, I would have been so disgusted I would have stood up slapped him across the face and walk out . But, it had been a few days since I'd been able to afford a good meal. Any work would at least buy me food. But, I had only been with one man in my life and now he was gone. I looked at him hard and said. “I'm not sure.”
“Take it or leave it.” He said. “We need a whore, last girl left for some Oil boom town just yesterday and the barges just rolled in from Pittsburgh. We got six or seven men who are drunk and ready to fuck something. I'd rather keep them drinking in my bar. You take them back to your house and fuck them, then bring them back, then I keep the business in my bar. You get it? So, you want the job or not?”
And that’s how it happened. Lightning fast. In that moment I learned how to survive. I learned to seal off my mind and heart like some ancient tomb. I said yes. I took one man after another into my bed. The same bed I shared with my husband just a year before. I took each man in and then took him back to the bar. I drank whiskey and beer. I ate a fine dinner for the first time in days. It was three in the morning before I left the bar. When I closed the door of my apartment behind me I slid down it's cool wooden frame to the floor before I broke into racking sobs. Until what I'd done washed over me. Until I ran to boil water to fill a tub to scrub their filth off of me. Until I sank into a pile on the floor. Until my heart and mind poured back into my body and I was drowning.
I only whored for a few weeks. It paid the bills, but I knew it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t stomach it. It would have broken me, fast. After a few weeks, I passed by a house that had a sign in the window that said – Wash your Clothes Here! When I walked in, an old woman greeted me. She was bent almost in two, her hands arthritic and clawed (likely from all of the time they’d soaked in the tubs).
“What you want?” She’d growled.
“I was wondering if you could tell me about your business.” I said. “My name is Rickets. Emeline Rickets. I lost my husband just a year ago and I’m looking for a way to make ends meet. I’ve been having to do things I can’t live with just to eat, so I’m coming to you to see if you might need someone to help you. To see if you might need an apprentice of some sort?”
She looked at me, then let out a laugh. “Why the hell would anyone in their right mind want to become a washerwoman?” I took her laugh as a good sign, so I smiled back.
“So, what do you think?” I asked cheerfully.
“Come by tomorrow, five o’clock. I could use a break from all this terrible work. You come ready to work, I show you what I know. Deal?”
“ Deal! I said. And from that day on (until just a little over a week ago) I washed whatever clothes I could take in.
So here we are now in our new day. In our new life. Three women who walked a tough path. How do I survive now? It’s so different from before. Now, I am no longer just surviving. Now, I have my wagon in a rut I believe in. I don’t mind following.
I don’t know how long I was standing in the sun, day dreaming about my dark, dark days. But when the man came running up, I was started.
“There’s been another robbery!” He said. “They took down another stage.”
“Is anyone hurt this time?” I ask?
“Yes, but no one’s dead.” He said, matter-of-fact (because in the past few weeks two people have died in similar robberies).
“Thanks for letting me know.” I say and he trots further down the street.
“Girls,” I holler into the house where the girls are taking a break. “Another stage got taken down.” They cluck from inside. Just two days ago they’d lost a friend. Another whore from Chase house that Diana knew real well. “You want to go check it out?” I ask. “I’ll stay and keep the operation going if you’d like.”
“Yeah Emmy. Jane and I will go down to the depot to see if anyone we know was hurt. While we are out you need anything from the store?”
“No, I say. You girls get along. I’ll be fine here on my own for an hour or two.” In a few moments they’ve grabbed their shawls and headed out the door to the street. I can see their small frames getting father and farther away as I stand on the porch listening to the heartbeat of oil rushing slowly from the earth. Lord, I hope no one those girls care about was hurt. I whisper under my breath. I hope we can get out of this town without forgetting how to survive.