As she doused the stained shirt into the cauldron of hot, soapy water, Leah thought for the hundredth time that she had made a terrible mistake. This wasn't what she had signed on for when she left New York for Sacramento for what Clara had said would be a “great opportunity for a colored woman.” Yes, Clara had told her there would be washing as well as cooking, but she hadn't conceived that there would be so much of it. She dipped the shirt again and again. Even the bleach couldn't whiten these stains. She sighed as she conceded defeat and pulled the shirt from the cauldron. It was as white as it was going to get, which was basically a chalk gray interspersed with black smudges throughout. Well, at least the shirt no longer had that horrible smell.
Through the curtain that separated the front store from the rear area where they handled laundry, she heard Clara's voice.
“Two fried pork chops, one baked potato, and gravy with chicken fat, guaranteed to fill your stomach.”
“Smells good. Smells real good, Clara,” she heard Zeke say. He was one of their regulars, both for a hot meal and a good laundry cleaning. Most of the miners came in here for one or the other, if not both. Sometimes they just came in to look at a woman, as those were scarce in the mining town. Clara kept a shotgun handy in case someone wanted to do more than look.
The bell rang as the door closed. She heard Clara's steps, and soon the curtains opened as her partner stepped into the back room. Clara may have been a woman small in stature, but she could fill a room with the presence of her will. Her black hair was pulled haphazardly on top of her head in a bun. Even in this heat she wore her dark gray dress with a high lace collar.
“How's it going back here?” Clara asked, taking note of the half-clean shirt in Leah's hand. Leah held it up.
“Not good,” Leah said. “Can't get these stains out.”
Clara took the shirt from Leah's hand, examined it. “You try lemon juice?”
“I tried bleach,” Leah shot back, not bothering to mask her exasperation. “If bleach don't work, nothing else will.”
“No need to snap. Patience is more than a virtue; it's a necessity in this town. Now if you can't get out the stains, we'll just charge half price. It's not like anybody needs a Sunday-best shirt around here anyway.”
One could always count on Clara's practical sense. It was this quality that had drawn the two women together as friends in New York, and it was Clara's business sense that had lured Leah from her seamstress position to this godforsaken place. The gold rush that began in '49 still filled heads with dreams of riches, and the adventurous still made their way to “Californy,” declaring they would find their fortune. Clara figured where there was gold to be found, there was gold to be spent. She and Leah would provide services for the spendthrifts, save enough money to buy some land. Those who had land had insurance for the future.
“If you want, I'll take over here, and you can take the meals for the evening rush. That all right with you?”
“Okay, then. That's settled,” Clara stated with purpose. Then she walked to the shelves to retrieve the bottle of lemon juice.
Leah bit her tongue, then pushed back the curtain and made a quick left to the adjoining door leading to the kitchen. The building that housed their laundry and restaurant was nothing more than a one-story building made mostly of planks and tar. The furnishings included wooden shelves, wooden tables, and chairs in the main room, and an old sink, an icebox, and a wood-burning stove and oven in the makeshift kitchen. Everything was sparse, secondhand, and threadbare, but she and Clara kept the place clean. The smell of fried chops and potatoes hung in the air. Clara's potato medleys were the main staple around here. She had over fifty ways to pare, fry, bake, even fricassee a potato. The latest additions to their menu were potato flapjacks and white potato pies. The miners worked rough and long and needed starch just for the strength to haul their shovels and pans in temperatures that sometimes hit over a hundred. And a bit of meat took them even further. A stack of chops lay on the counter ready to be fried.
“There's some fresh chicken grease in the tin next to the flour. Use that to fry the chops,” Clara called out from the other room. Clara had “capabilities” that sometimes reached beyond the normal. On many an occasion Clara anticipated Leah's thoughts as though she were some Gypsy reader.
Leah pulled down the tin of chicken fat, spooned a wad into the skillet, and put the skillet on the burner. Sizzling, popping grease touched her hands, her blouse and her skirt. Tonight she would have to soak her own clothes to get out the oily stains.
“The door,” Clara yelled out before the bell rang.
“Woman's a witch,” Leah uttered beneath her breath as she turned down the fire and went to the main room. A young Chinaman waited just inside the door, looking around as though he weren't sure it was safe to enter. Leah walked behind the counter, signaled that he should come closer. He remained at the door, his eyes on her.
“What can I help you with?”
Leah often saw Chinamen in the town. They came to get supplies, sometimes food. Most of the time, though, they stayed in their camps on the outskirts of town, where they were putting down rails and building tunnels for the railroad. She frequently heard the thunder of their explosives as they blew their way through the mountains. Her first day here the blasts had nearly stopped her heart. Nowadays she barely paid them any mind. They had become part of the pattern of this place where shots often rang out even in the middle of the day. Other times she heard men screaming from the pain of bullets and knife wounds or yelping their joy as they came running into town searching for the surveyor after finding gold, which was a rarity these days. Most of the mines were dormant after years of excavations.
Many of the railroad workers didn't fully understand English but had learned enough words to ask for what they needed. She hoped that was the case with this one.
“English?” she tried again.
Again the man didn't answer. Just stood stock-still like some store-display mannequin. At least he could try to pantomime or do something. She didn't have time enough in the day to just stand here. Those pork chops and potatoes weren't going to cook themselves. Plus there was gravy to be made.
She looked him over. He was taller than most of the Chinamen she had seen. His shoulder-length hair was pulled back and tied in a ponytail. And his features were more than pleasant to look at, despite the smudges of dirt along his sharp jawline. One of the things she noticed about the Chinese workers was that they rarely smelled. They managed to bathe their bodies and clothes regularly in a place where water and soap were considered luxuries.
“Look, if you want something, you have to tell me. I can't read your mind.”
Maybe it was the tone in her voice, but finally he walked to the counter where she stood. He pulled at his shirt. It seemed too small by a couple of sizes and stretched across a chest that was not wide, but with hard musculature that was visible through the taut material. The shirt was smudged as well, but she detected no really rank odor. Just a slight musk. Usually workers waited until their clothes were rank before they sought out laundry services.
“You need your shirt washed?” she offered, pointing to his shirt, then making motions of washing by hand. “Shirt, shirt?”
Unexpectedly he smiled. And then he chuckled. A slight sound, but she heard it well enough.
“Sh-i-rr...” he repeated, again pulling at his clothing. And then he mimicked the washing motions she had pantomimed moments before.
“Okay, then.” Despite her earlier frustration, she found herself smiling. “At least we're getting somewhere now.”
Before she realized what he was doing, he had unbuttoned his shirt and had it half off his shoulders. The sight of his naked flesh startled her, and she yelled out for him to stop, waving her hands for effect. He paused, looking confused.
Clara burst through the curtains. “What's going on here?” She held a large wooden stick upright in her right hand, her other weapon of choice when the gun was out of reach. She stared at the man and his bare shoulders.
“Okay, Mister! You just keep your clothes on there!” Clara said sternly. “We don't provide that kind of service here!”
Of course he couldn't understand what Clara was saying. But he knew a weapon when he saw one. And an angry woman about to use that weapon on him.
“It's all right, Clara.” Leah held up a hand to stave off her friend. “Just a little miscommunication with a customer; that's all. The gentleman needs his shirt washed.” Clara still advanced on the man, looking unappeased. Leah was sorry she had yelled out, because once Clara got her dander up, it took a spell to calm her again.
Clara stood in front of the man now, who had by this time pulled his shirt back up on his shoulders, although it was still unbuttoned. Even though he towered over Clara by a foot, he resembled some small animal about to be devoured by a much larger predator. His height didn't daunt Clara any, and she finally lowered the stick just a fraction--but only a fraction--as she determined that they weren't in any immediate danger.
“Well, does he expect you to wash his clothes in here? You know, I'll never understand these Chinamen,” she said, bewildered, lowering the stick all the way.
“I suspect he probably doesn't understand you either, Clara. It can't be easy being in a strange land and not knowing the language. They must do things a lot different in China.”
“Well, if public nudeness is something they do over there, he's come to the wrong country. I guess I'll get back to the washing since there's nothing nefarious going on up here. I'll leave this to you to work out. If you need me”--she gave the Chinaman another stern look--“just holler out.” And with that Clara strode back to the laundry room, trusty stick dangling in her hand.
If the man had understood any of the transaction between the two women, he gave no indication. He looked at Leah expectantly and more than a little confused. Leah felt bad for the fellow. All he wanted was laundry service, and he had nearly gotten his head clipped by a very large stick. She realized his quandary now. He needed his shirt washed--obviously his only shirt. How to do this? Then she thought of something.
“Hold on. I think I have a solution.”
No answer. Because, of course, he didn't understand. She held up her hand again. It seemed they were going to have to communicate solely through signals.
She strode quickly to the back room, where Clara was now washing an entirely different shirt. The shirt from earlier was hanging on a line--totally white, totally smudge free. Leah didn't have the time to curse her own ineptitude and Clara's constant rightness. Instead she asked, “Where're Ruben's clothes?”
“Ruben?” Clara asked impatiently. “Now why do you need Ruben's clothes? He's not coming back for them.”
That was all too true, as Ruben had been killed in a gunfight last week before he had had a chance to pick up his cleaned clothes. He had been buried in the clothes he wore during the fight, and no one had sought to claim the pair of dungarees and the black shirt.
“He may not need them, but I do. Now where are they?”
“They're in that trunk over there. You're lucky you asked for them today. I'd planned to throw them out tomorrow first thing. We can't be holding on to old clothes. No room.”
Leah walked over to the iron trunk where they kept their miscellany. She pulled open the lid, and right on top of a pile of empty bottles and empty boxes were Ruben's shirt and dungarees.
She grabbed the clothes and left a curious Clara in the back room. When she reentered the front room, she saw the man staring at a shelf of chewing-tobacco tins lined up on the shelf behind the counter. Besides laundry and food services, she and Clara sold items that were particularly popular around here. Chewing tobacco sold very well. They were forever stepping over expelled wads littering the sidewalk planks outside.
His shirt was buttoned now. She thrust the castoff clothes into his hands.
“Take these. Then bring back your dirty clothes.”
She thought she was going to have to pantomime again, but he seemed to understand.
He nodded and smiled. Whereas his earlier smile had been shy, this one was full, bright with very nice teeth. The smile transformed his face, smoothed out lines that shouldn't be on one so young. She estimated that he was somewhere in his twenties, a little younger than herself. But she imagined he had seen harder times than she could fathom. He pulled a small bag from his pants pocket. The pants were like those the other Chinamen wore, black, flared at the bottom. Not as sturdy looking as the jeans the prospectors wore.
He reached into the bag and pulled out several American dollars, more than was needed for laundry services. She wondered if he knew about denomination. If not, he was in a lot of trouble around here, where con men ruled. He tried to hand her the bills, but she shook her head.
“No, that's too much.”
He pointed to the clothes in the crook of his arm. He thought she was selling him the clothes.
“No, those are free. Free. You only have to pay for cleaning. Cleaning.”
That confused look again. Frustrated, she grabbed the shirt he had on. She pulled at it.
“Bring this back, and I'll clean it. Then you pay.”
He spoke, and now it was her turn to be confused. The voice was smooth, even if the words were not. They were foreign, harsh sounding.
He touched her hand, pulled it off his shirt. At first she thought he was angry. But he settled things once and for all. He took off the shirt he wore, not caring whether she yelled out or not. His naked torso was not a shocking sight, but it disturbed her nonetheless. She'd seen half-naked men before, men she had sewn clothes for. Working men who had taken off shirts in the heat of a brutal sun. She never had the response she was feeling now.
A network of thin scars crisscrossed the front of his torso, ran down to his waist. On someone else they would have been disfiguring. Strangely they only accentuated the muscles that defined his chest. His arms weren't overly large, but there was a strength there, honed no doubt by hauling rocks and hammering rails into the earth.
She didn't realize she'd been staring until he was totally covered with his newly gained shirt. The black cloth brought out the sunburned gold of his skin. When she caught his glance, she knew that he'd seen her staring. And she was embarrassed to have been caught watching him, when any decent woman would have turned away. If he was also embarrassed, she couldn't discern. His expression was guarded, his eyes careful not to give her any trace that he'd thought she'd lost her decorum.
“I'm sorry,” she said, even though the words wouldn't mean anything to him. She hoped that he could hear the regret in her voice. She'd not meant to make him feel uncomfortable.
He handed her his soiled shirt, his eyes never leaving her face. She realized that he was deliberately trying to catch her eye, and she was determined that he wouldn't. She took the shirt and only hoped that he wasn't going to try to hand her his pants.
He didn't. Instead he turned and opened the door. It was only after the bell had stopped its clanking that she felt it was safe enough to raise her eyes again.
Her heart stopped its double beating sometime later.