When Ella Barron woke up that morning, she didn’t expect it to be a momentous day.
Her sleep hadn’t been interrupted by a subconscious premonition. There had been no change in the weather, no sudden shift in the atmosphere, no unusual sound to startle her awake.
As on most mornings, sleep released her gradually a half hour before daylight. She yawned and stretched, her feet seeking cool spots between the sheets. But catching another forty winks was out of the question. To indulge in such a luxury would never have crossed her mind. She had responsibilities, chores that couldn’t be shirked or even postponed. She lay in bed only long enough to remember what day of the week it was. Wash day.
She quickly made her bed, then checked on Solly, who was still deep in slumber.
She dressed with customary efficiency. With no time for vanity, she hastily twisted her long hair into a bun on the back of her head and secured it with pins, then left her bedroom and made her way to the kitchen, moving quietly so as not to awaken the others in the house.
This was the only time of day when the kitchen was quiet and cool. As the day progressed, heat was produced by the cookstove. Heat seeped in from outside through the screened door and the window above the sink. Even Ella’s own energy acted as a generator.
Proportionately with the thermometer, the noise level rose, so that by suppertime, the kitchen, which was the heart of the house, took on a pulsating life of its own and didn’t settle into cool repose until Ella extinguished the overhead light for the final time, most often hours after her boarders had retired.
This morning, she didn’t pause to enjoy either the relative coolness or the silence. Having put on her apron, she lit the oven, put the coffee on to brew, then mixed the biscuit dough. Margaret arrived right on time, and after removing her hat and hanging it on the peg inside the door, and gratefully taking a tin cup of sweetened coffee from Ella, she went back outside to fill the washing machine with water for the first load of laundry.
The prospect of buying an electric-powered
washing machine was so remote that Ella didn’t even dream about it. For her foreseeable future she must continue using the one with the hand-crank wringer that had been her mother’s. Suds and rinse water from the tub were drained into a ditch that ran alongside the shed where the washer was housed.
On a summer day like today, the washing shed became stifling by midmorning. But wet laundry seemed heavier when one’s hands were raw and numb from cold during the winter months. In any season, laundry days were dreaded. By nightfall her back would be aching.
Solly, still in his pajamas, wandered into the kitchen while she was frying bacon.
Breakfast was served at eight.
By nine o’clock everyone had been fed, the dishes washed, dried, and put away. Ella set a pot of mustard greens on the stove to simmer all day, cooked a pan of Faultless starch, then, taking Solly with her, went outside to hang up the first basket of laundry that Margaret had washed, rinsed, and wrung out.
It was almost eleven o’clock when she went inside to check on things in the kitchen. While she was adding a little more salt to the greens, someone pulled the bell at her front door. As she walked along the dim center hall, she dried her hands on her apron and glanced at herself in the wall mirror. Her face was
flushed and damp from the heat, and her heavy bun had defied the pins and slipped down onto her nape, but she continued to the door without stopping to primp.
On the other side of the threshold, squinting at her through the screened door, was Dr. Kincaid. “Morning, Mrs. Barron.” His white straw hat had a natty red cloth band, striated with generations of sweat stains. He removed it and held it against his chest in a rather courtly manner.
She was surprised to see the doctor on her porch, but still nothing signaled her that this would be an extraordinary day.
Dr. Kincaid’s office was in the center of town on Hill Street, but he also made house calls, usually to deliver a baby, sometimes to keep a contagious patient from spreading his infection through Gilead, their town of two thousand.
Ella herself had summoned the doctor to the house a couple of years ago when one of her boarders fell out of his bed during the middle of the night. Mr. Blackwell, an elderly gentleman who fortunately had been more embarrassed than injured, protested even as Dr. Kincaid agreed with Ella that he probably should be thoroughly examined just as a precaution. Mr. Blackwell no longer lived with her. Shortly after that incident, his family had moved him to a home
for the elderly in Waco. Mr. Blackwell had futilely protested his involuntary relocation, too.
Had one of her boarders sent for the doctor today? Little in the house escaped Ella’s notice, but she’d been outside most of the morning, so it was possible that one of the sisters had used the telephone without her knowledge.
“Good morning, Dr. Kincaid. Did one of the Dunnes send for you?”
“No. I’m not here on a sick call.”
“Then what can I do for you?”
“Is this a bad time?”
She thought of the clothes piled into baskets and ready to be starched, but the starch needed a while longer to cool. “Not at all. Come in.” She reached up to unlatch the screened door and pushed it open.
Dr. Kincaid turned to his right and made a come-forward motion with his hat. Ella was unaware of the other man’s presence until he stepped around the large fern at the side of the front door and into her range of vision.
Her first impression of him was how tall and lean he was. One could almost say he looked underfed. He was dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and black necktie, and was holding a black felt fedora. She thought his clothes looked severe and out of season for such a hot morning, especially compared to
Dr. Kincaid’s seersucker suit and white hat with the red band.
The doctor made the introduction. “Mrs. Barron, this is Mr. Rainwater.”
He inclined his head. “Ma’am.”
She moved aside and indicated for them to come inside. Dr. Kincaid allowed the other man to go in ahead of him. A few steps into the foyer, he stopped to let his eyes adjust to the relative darkness. Then he took in his surroundings as he idly threaded the brim of his hat through long, slender fingers.
“In here, please.” Ella stepped around her two guests and motioned them into the formal parlor. “Have a seat.”
“We thought we heard the doorbell.”
The chirping voice brought Ella around. The Misses Dunne, Violet and Pearl, were standing on the bottom stair. In their pastel print dresses and old-fashioned shoes, they were virtually interchangeable. Each had a nimbus of white hair. Their veined, spotted hands clutched matching handkerchiefs, daintily hemmed and hand-embroidered by their mother, they’d told Ella.
With unabashed curiosity, the two were looking beyond Ella to catch a glimpse of the visitors. Having callers was an event.
“Is that Dr. Kincaid?” asked Pearl, the more inquisitive of the two. “Hello, Dr. Kincaid,” she called.
“Good morning, Miss Pearl.”
“Who’s that with you?”
Miss Violet frowned at her sister with reproof. “We were coming down to play gin rummy until lunch,” she whispered to Ella. “Will we disturb?”
“Not at all.”
Ella asked them to use the informal parlor and led them to it. When they were situated at the card table, she said, “Please excuse us, ladies,” and pulled together the heavy oak pocket doors that divided the large room in half. She rejoined the two men in the formal side, which overlooked the front porch. Despite her invitation for them to sit down, they had remained standing.
Dr. Kincaid was fanning himself with his hat. Ella switched on the fan on the table in the corner, directed the stream of air toward him, then motioned the men toward a pair of wingback chairs. “Please.”
They sat when she did.
This being summer, and wash day, she hadn’t put on stockings that morning. Embarrassed by her bare legs, she crossed her ankles and pulled her feet beneath the chair. “Would you like some lemonade? Or tea?”
“That sounds awfully good, Mrs. Barron, but I’m
afraid I have to pass,” the doctor said. “I’ve got patients to see at the clinic.”
She looked at Mr. Rainwater.
“No thank you,” he said.
Returning to the kitchen would have given her an opportunity to remove her apron, which had a damp patch where she’d dried her hands, and to pin her bun more securely. But since her guests had declined the offer of a drink, she was stuck looking untidy for the remainder of their visit, the purpose of which hadn’t yet been stated. She wondered what Solly was up to and how long this unexpected meeting was going to take. She hoped Mr. Rainwater wasn’t a salesman. She didn’t have time to sit through his pitch, only to say no to whatever it was he was peddling.
The smell of simmering mustard greens was strong, even here in the front parlor. The doctor withdrew a large white handkerchief from his coat pocket and used it to blot sweat from his balding head. A yellow jacket flew into the window screen and continued angrily to try to go through it. The hum of the electric fan seemed as loud as a buzz saw.
She was relieved when Dr. Kincaid cleared his throat and said, “I heard you lost a boarder.”
“That’s right. Mrs. Morton went to live with an ailing sister. Somewhere in eastern Louisiana, I believe.”
“Quite a piece from here,” he remarked.
“Her nephew came to escort her on the train.”
“Nice for her, I’m sure. Have you had anyone speak for her room?”
“She only left the day before yesterday. I haven’t had time to advertise.”
“Well then, that’s good, that’s good,” the doctor said and began fanning himself enthusiastically, as though in celebration of something.
Discerning now the purpose for their call, she looked at Mr. Rainwater. He sat leaning slightly forward with both feet on the floor. His black shoes were shined, she noticed. His thick, dark hair was smoothed back off his face, but one strand, as straight and shiny as a satin ribbon, had defiantly flopped over his broad forehead. His cheekbones were pronounced, his eyebrows as sleek and black as crows’ wings. He had startling blue eyes, and they were steady on her.
“Are you interested in lodging, Mr. Rainwater?”
“Yes. I need a place to stay.”
“I haven’t had a chance to give the vacant room a thorough cleaning, but as soon as it’s ready, I’d be happy to show it to you.”
“I’m not particular.” He smiled, showing teeth that were very white, although slightly crooked on the top. “I’ll take the room as is.”
“Oh, I’m afraid I couldn’t let you have it now,”
she said quickly. “Not until I’ve aired the bedding, scrubbed everything, polished the floor. I have very high standards.”
“For boarders or cleanliness?”
“Which is why I’ve brought him to you,” the doctor said hastily. “I told Mr. Rainwater that you keep an immaculate house and run a tight ship. To say nothing of the excellent meals your boarders enjoy. He desires a place that’s well maintained. A peaceful and quiet house.”
Just then, from the direction of the kitchen, came a terrible racket followed by a bloodcurdling scream.