Can virtue be found in a turn-of-the-century bordello? Can a frontier teacher stand idly by as the Shoshone culture is subsumed by Anglo missionaries? Can a suburban lawyer justify that his casual dalliances don't amount to infidelity? From the opulent parlor of an 1898 Seattle bordello to a Portland law firm in 1989, each heroine, hero, and villain in this memorable collection of short stories is captured at a crossroads in life. They are ordinary people: brave, timid, foolhardy, modest, brazen, and often self-sacrificing...
In the morning at the breakfast table, Fannie was surprised to find she was the first one to be seated. Minutes later, the Madam glided in with the massive grace of an ocean liner and took her place at the head of the table. Fannie had never seen so much food offered in one breakfast service before. There was a glazed ham with mustard sauce, poached salmon, pancakes, sausages, pastries, boiled eggs, buttermilk biscuits and stewed apples. What a feast! What must supper be like?
At the head of the table, her hostess Mamie grinned and with a deft snap unfurled her napkin as soon as her skirts crumpled under her. “Good morning, Fannie. How’d you sleep?”
“Quite well, thank you.”
Mamie was dressed in a dove-gray, leno bodice with a burgundy skirt sporting bold, Chinese embroidery at the hem. On her generous bosom was a diamond and ruby brooch the size of a robin’s egg. She wore diamond studs in her ears, and the fingers of both hands were circled in precious gems and gold. Her round cheeks were generously rouged, the full lips inflamed with a saucy shade that matched the strawberry preserves on her plate.
Fannie was struck by Mamie’s flamboyant style which seemed much too garish and vulgar for daytime. Mamie seemed to Fannie like some exotic bird from the jungles of South America.
The door swung open suddenly, and four ladies swarmed into the room, noisily pulling out their chairs and chattering with one another all at once in a cacophony of spirited voices. When they were seated, they noticed Fannie’s presence, glanced at Mamie and then quieted for an expected introduction.
“Ladies, I’d like you to meet our house guest,” Mamie began. Two more young women rushed in giggling, sat down and invited a scowl from the madam at the head of the table. “Hush up for one minute, Ladies. This is Miss Fannie Alice Monroe – Frank Plum’s intended.”
“How do you do,” Fannie said eliciting a round of curious stares. “I’m pleased to meet you all.”
The assembly was incredibly casual with their hair hanging down, still clad in their nightclothes and flimsy silk wrappers and slippers.
Fannie had spent almost two hours unpacking and struggling with her hair and toilet before dressing in an ecru, pongee shirtwaist and navy blue skirt. All her fastidious efforts seemed foolish now. “Have I overdressed?”
Mamie smiled and passed the ham. “Not at all, Honey. It’s nice to see a little class at the breakfast table for once. You look pretty as a pigeon. Dig in. Don’t be shy. Try the ham.”
The houseman Long Johnny brought in another platter of food.
“Seems like everybody’s here so we can all get acquainted, Miss Monroe.” Mamie waved her hand. “Now on your right, this is Lil. She’s still a virgin.” Everybody laughed except Fannie who felt her cheeks warming.
“A virgin every night. For the greenhorns, that is. Hi, Fannie. Pleased to meet ya.”
“And beside her is Florence,” Mamie went on. “And then there’s Minnie. Now Minnie is the one who gives me the most trouble. Always gettin’ herself knocked up. Instead of payin’ Doc Richards to deliver her babies, I pay him to keep any seeds from sproutin’. It’s cheaper that way.”
Fannie grimaced. Was this going to get any worse?
“Hello, I’m Rosalie Beaulieu, and I’m the best damn whore west of the Mississippi. If I do say so myself – and I do.” She threw her head back and laughed. “Nice to know ya, Fannie.”
“Say, Fannie,” Lil asked with a mouthful of sausage, “where you from?”
“Oh, I had a rich johnny from there. He was plush, said he owned a factory that made axles. Can you imagine that? Trolley cars right here in Seattle might be ridin’ on one of his wheels.”
“We do have a good deal of manufacturing in Pittsburgh. It’s an industrial capital of the country.”
“Well, truth be told, Fannie girl, I could be riding on some of his work while the next day he was ridin’ on mine.” Another round of laughter around the table reddened Fannie’s cheeks.
This was a terrible mistaking bringing me here, Fannie tortured herself with the realization that this house and these wayward women were as foreign to her as an opium den. Why had she ever agreed to her fiance’s ridiculous, outrageous plan to store her here with these women in this house of iniquity while he worked his gold claim in Alaska? If she could fly out the window and wing herself back home, she would do it this instant. Pushing her chair back, she blotted her lips with a napkin and tried to imagine how she could ever escape this gilded cage?