Authors: Holly Bush
The Maid’s Quarters
By Holly Bush
Alice Porterman looked at Mrs.
McKinnell. “What do you mean Ma and Jimmy aren’t living here anymore? It is our
“They’re living in 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’d grown up. “I’ll just
put my bags in the house,” she said, and started down the walk that separated
the Porterman and McKinnell homes as she had just arrived from the train
station coming from Washington.
“Nay, you can’t, girl. 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 had Jimmy read me the letter she
got from you that those rich nobs are paying you without you even working for
them. La-de-dah! 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
“I would say so!” Mrs. McKinnell agreed, 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 good-byes and turned to climb the hill to
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 first started at Landonmore as an upstairs maid, her salary had
been 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. She came to a small building and saw smoke coming from the chimney.
What would it be costing in coal to heat
door opened suddenly, and her mother was screaming and dragging Jimmy out into
the cold air.
“Breathe, boy!” her ma shouted, and plopped down in the snow
beside the steps. “Breathe!”
“Ma!” Alice cried, as she dropped her purse 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 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, 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 felt him shiver.
“Come on, Ma. Let me carry him into the house,” Alice said
and 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 smiled back at her. “You’re home!”
“Quit trying to talk so soon after one of your spells,”
Alice admonished, 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 covers up
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? 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 washstand. “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.” 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 and waited until
she turned. Her mother would not meet her eye. “You have given him money,
haven’t you?” Alice whispered. “You gave that man my money!”
Maeve flushed. “It is my money to spend as I see fit once
you have given it to me.”
“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
“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 boardinghouse but was thrown out last week.”
“And somehow this is our problem, Ma? You gave him money,
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. 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 the
chair to the washstand and back. She would not look at her and it occurred to
Alice that her mother was not embarrassed, but angry. She 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
“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 Senator 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, pulling
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 handed to Alice. “Union Park near Blackstone, he said. I’ve never
gone. He always came to the house.”
“What will we 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 us 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?”
* * *
Alice stepped off the streetcar,
made her way to Union Park Street, and stopped a moment to shake out her
skirts, tuck loose strands of hair back in her bun, and check her hat ribbon
tied beneath her chin. She found the number her mother had given her and went
inside the four-story building. The door to her right was open and people were
lined up waiting. Straight ahead were numbered doors and a set of steps. She
could smell cabbage cooking and heard babies crying and women shouting. She
heard a “next” from the room with the open door and caught a glimpse inside of
a wiry-looking man, puffing on a cigar as he sat behind a desk.
Alice waited in line, stepping finally into the small
smoke-filled room, and held her gloves to her nose. The room was filled with
people, some leaning against the wall and many sitting in groups on the floor.
Children were being shushed, and some men paced the length of the room.
Finally, Alice was next.
“State your business, girl.”
“My mother and brother live at 604 Cherry Street,” Alice
said, and leaned forward. “What a dastardly thing to do, to put out a sick boy
and his mother over two dollars that she was paying within the month. Twenty
years or more she’s lived there and never missed a rent. Now what does she owe
you? I’m here to make it square.”
“That house is already rented to someone else,” he said.
“I’ve no time for deadbeats. Next!”
you mean? That is our family home!”
“Not anymore! New tenants on the first of the month. Next?”
“Now see here,” Alice began, but she stopped when two
burly-looking men came to her on either side.
“Out,” Nyturn ordered, and pointed an ink-stained finger to
the entrance. “I’ve no time for this.”
“Leave me be,” Alice shouted, as the men turned her around
and forced her through the crowd of people. She was suddenly outside and the
door closed soundly behind her. She blinked away tears of anger and
embarrassment. After all, there was no one in there she knew, but she was not
accustomed to such rough treatment, and her arms stung where they’d grabbed
her. She would get no satisfaction from Mr. Nyturn, that was for certain! But
living with and working for her last employer, Jolene Crawford Crenshaw Shelby,
had given Alice a glimpse as to how to get what one wanted done, done.
* * *
Alice woke early the next morning
from the cramped bed she shared with her mother and dressed quickly in the cold
air. She checked on her brother as her mother sat up and wrapped the wool
blanket from the bed around her shoulders.
“I am going to the grocer’s first, Ma. I will bring flour
and yeast so you can begin making us some of your delicious bread. Will sugar,
eggs, milk, and potatoes do? I can stop for a chicken at the butcher. Or would
you rather have ham? It is Jimmy’s favorite,” Alice said.