1 Minerva, 1923
The day before the heat wave began, Penny Niebeck cleaned Irene Hamilton’s room. Stooping to her knees, she picked the strewn stockings and underwear off the floor, and the dress that had been worn only once since its last washing and was now crumpled and stained. She was stuffing it all into the laundry bag when Irene marched in, pale and plump, white-gloved hands clenched. Penny struggled to her feet and steeled herself, sweat beading under her armpits as she met Irene’s colorless eyes. Irene’s hot breath, smelling of breakfast bacon, fanned Penny’s cheeks. Both girls were fifteen, their birthdays five days apart. For the past eight years, Penny’s mother had worked as the Hamiltons’ cleaning woman. For almost as long as she could remember, Penny had clothed herself in whatever Irene had worn out and cast away.
“You want to know something?” Irene let out a swift exhalation that lifted the hairs on the back of Penny’s neck. “Your mother named you Penny because she’s cheap, and so are you.” Penny took a step backward, nearly stumbling over the laundry bag. “You have to go catch your train,” she said. Irene and her sisters were leaving for summer camp that day.
“Doesn’t it leave at noon?” A glance at the porcelain-faced clock on the dresser told her that it was nearly half past eleven.
“I forgot something.” Irene turned to snatch her mother’s photograph from the lace-topped vanity and clutched it to her chest, her arms carefully folded around it. The photograph had been taken before Mrs. Hamilton fell ill from the sleeping sickness. For the past four years, Mrs. H. had been an invalid in the Sandborn Nursing Home. Her face was frozen up like a statue’s. She didn’t talk anymore, didn’t do anything but sleep and let the nurses feed and change her like a baby. The doctors couldn’t say how long she would live or if she would ever get better.
“You know why Daddy’s sending us away.” Irene spoke accusingly.
Penny breathed hard. “No, I don’t.” But her voice faltered and blood began to pound at her temples.
“You know.” Irene spoke so vehemently that her spit landed on Penny’s face. “Even someone as dumb as you could figure it out.” “I’m not dumb.” “Oh, yeah? Then why aren’t you going to high school this fall?” Penny looked down at her cracked old shoes, the color of potatoes left to rot in the cellar. When she had finished ninth grade that spring, her mother had told her it was time to leave school and earn her own keep. High school was for people from well-off families or children whose parents cared about education and that sort of thing. At fifteen, Penny had hands already as swollen and red from all the cleaning as her mother’s were.
“Your mother’s too cheap to keep you in school,” Irene said, sticking her face into Penny’s so that she couldn’t look away. “She’s as cheap as they come.” “Is that so?” Penny shot back. “Well, your father seems to think she’s just fine.” She watched Irene’s face go from flour white to chicken-blood red. “You better hurry,” she said, “or you’ll miss your train.” Downstairs Mr. H. was calling for his daughter. “Your mother’s a whore,” Irene whispered, something glinting in her eyes, which had suddenly gone pink. She hugged her mother’s photograph tighter. “You don’t even know who your father is,” she said, her voice breaking as she dashed out the door.
After the Hamilton girls left for horse camp in Wyoming, the hot sticky weather moved in — the kind Penny hated most. Those nights the back bedroom she shared with her mother seemed far too cramped, the sloping ceiling about to collapse on them. At least winter, for all its bleakness, was pristine, the glittering snow covering everything, even the manure on the road, making the world look immaculate. But in the heat of late June, everything stank and decayed — the garbage pail near the back door with the trail of ants marching up its side, the reek of her sweating body as she scrubbed floors and heated the iron on the stove.
With the windows wide open, she heard every noise at night — the raccoons knocking over the garbage pail, the laughter of lovey-dovey couples walking up the street. The sound of Mr. H. pacing in the master bedroom while her mother rolled in her narrow bed, the springs creaking beneath her.
Penny and her mother were hanging laundry on the clothesline when Mr. H. appeared without warning, home from the pop factory at eleven in the morning. Without more than a hastily mumbled hello, he ducked past them and disappeared inside the back door.. A furious pounding filled Penny’s head like someone hammering away on scrap metal. Her mother, her beautiful mother, turned, chicory-blue eyes narrowing against the sun’s glare.
“I s’pose he forgot something.” Clothespins clamped between her lips, Penny graaaaabbed a wet bedsheet from the laundry basket and was about to pin it up on the line when her mother yanked it out of her hands and threw it back into the basket. Penny stared at her, too furious to speak.
“We need bleach,” Barbara Niebeck told her daughter, forcefully but quietly. “Go get some bleach.” She pulled two dimes out of her apron pocket.
Spitting the clothespins out of her mouth, Penny fisted the coins her mother thrust at her.
“Go on,” she said, squaring her shoulders and using the tone Penny knew better than to argue with.
Her mouth trembling, Penny shot out of the yard. She hid behind the lilac bush in the alley and watched her mother head toward the house, watched her skirt swing from her slender hips like a bell. There was nothing hesitant in her mother’s gait.
As Penny stumbled off in the direction of the store, she didn’t hear the dogs barking or the whistle of the train pulling into the depot four blocks away.
She heard only her mother’s voice, as hateful as a stranger’s. Go get some bleach. Afterward her mother would try to disguise the odor by dribbling lily-of- the-valley toilet water all over her bed. The smell was enough to make Penny gag. With Mr. H. of all people. Mr. H.
with his wife in the nursing home. How could her mother possibly find him attractive, with his sissified New England accent and his high balding forehead?
Penny understood without wanting to what he saw in her mother’s firm body, in her thick, lustrous hair that wasn’t dark brown like Penny’s but blue-black — exotic coloring in Minerva, where most people’s hair was blond or mousy brown. Once Penny had overheard Mr. Wysock from church telling someone that her mother looked like Mata Hari. If people said unkind things about Barbara Niebeck, they all agreed she was a stunner.
Penny had been very fond of Mrs.
Hamilton, who in the days before her illness had been kind to her.
Mrs. H. had baked shortbread, which she cut into delicately pointed triangles called petticoat tails. When it was fresh from the oven, she had invited Penny to join her daughters at the table for shortbread and sweet milky tea. Mrs.
H. had made her daughters be nice to her, had told them to let her join their games. Penny remembered going to bed praying that Hazel Hamilton was her real mother, but that was four years ago, before Mrs. Hamilton’s illness.
Penny told herself she was too old for such games of make-believe. Her