Sitting on the edge of the bed in the front room, Blanche stoops to rip at the laces of her gaiters. “ ‘Dors, min p’tit quinquin — ’ ” Her husky voice frays to a thread on the second high note. She clears her throat, rasping away the heat.
A train hurtles north from San Jose. The light from the loco- motive’s headlamp jabs through the long gap between the peel- ing window frame and the green blind, illuminating the room for Blanche: the shabby bureau, the bedstead, and Jenny, lolling against the scarred headboard. The Eight Mile House shakes like cardboard as the freight cars rattle by. Here at San Miguel Sta- tion, they’re right at the southern boundary — the last gasp — of San Francisco.
Two days Blanche and Jenny have been boarding with the McNamaras, auld acquaintance to Jenny but still virtually strangers to Blanche. How much longer will Blanche be stuck in this four-room shack, she wonders, on the parched outskirts of the outskirts of the City? And how will she decide when it’s even halfway safe to go back?
Blanche has got the left gaiter off now, and the boot below it, but the laces on the other one have snagged, and in the light of the single candle stub she can’t find the knot; her long nails pick at the laces.
Dors, min p’tit quinquin, Min p’tit pouchin,
Min gros rojin . . .
Sleep, my little child, my little chick, my fat grape. The old tune comes more sweetly now, the notes like pinpricks. A silly Picard rhyme her grandmother used to sing to Blanche in the tiny attic in Paris.
“ ‘Dors, min p’tit quinquin, min p’tit pouchin . . . ’ ” Jenny slides the refrain back at her like a lazy leaf in a river.
It still amazes Blanche how fast this young woman can pick up a song on first hearing.
“How does the rest of it go?” Jenny asks, up on one elbow, brown cheeks sparkling with sweat. Her flesh from nose to brows is puffy, darkening. She’ll have a pair of black eyes by morning.
But Blanche doesn’t want to think about that. Jenny never harps on what’s past, does she? She wears her bruises like parade gear, and they fade fast.
Blanche sits up straighter on the edge of the bed and sings on.
Te m’f’ras du chagrin
Si te n’dors point qu’à d’main.
“ ‘Shut your trap, little baby, before I shut it for you,’ ” Jenny translates very loosely, nodding. “Guess most lullabies boil down to that.”
And Blanche is suddenly winded by an image of P’tit, wherever he is. A stern hand coming down to shut his trap. If only she knew the baby was all right: just that much. Has Jenny ever in her life stopped to think before opening her own goddamn trap?
But her friend’s eyes are half sealed already, feline as she settles back on the limp pillows. Above the nightshirt borrowed from McNamara, Jenny’s battered face is flattening toward sleep.
Blanche hauls up her skirt and sets her right ankle on her left knee to get a better look at the tangled lace. The gritty canvas of the gaiter clings to her calf like skin that won’t be sloughed. Mud flecking the floorboards, the dingy sheets; the whole shack is probably crawling with fleas and lice. Blanche bends closer to make out the knot. Another few seconds and she’ll have it un- done. Her lungs fill, stretching rib cage, skin, corset, bodice, as she croons again: “ ‘Te m’f’ras du chagrin — ’ ”
The cracks come so hard Blanche takes them for thunder. The hot sky must have finally exploded, forking its blades into the eaves of the Eight Mile House. Oh, she shouldn’t have been singing, she thinks with a superstitious shiver; she’s brought on a storm.
“Qu’est-ce — ” Is that the start of a question from Jenny, or just a gasp?
The candle’s out, and it’s so dark here in the hinterlands. “Wait,” Blanche tells Jenny, lurching to her feet with her right boot still on. A sulfurous tang on the air — she’s never known a thunderstorm to smell like that. Fireworks? But what is there to celebrate on the fourteenth of September? Outside, the dogs of San Miguel Station bark in furious chorus. What can blow out a candle? Knock it over, spatter its burning wax — is that what’s running down her jaw?
“John!” That’s Ellen McNamara in the back room, bawling for her husband.
A thump, something falling near Blanche. Has the little wash- stand toppled off the bureau?
Blanche’s right cheek is dripping as if with scalding tears, but she’s not crying. She swabs it and something bites — some mon- strous skeeter? No, not an insect, something sharp. “Merde, I’ve been cut,” she cries through the stifling dark.
No answer from Jenny. Behind the thin bedroom wall, in the saloon, a door bangs. McNamara, only half audible, and his wife, and the children, shrieking too high for Blanche to make out the words.
She’s staggering now. The boards crunch under her bare sole. Glass: that must be what’s cut her cheek. The lightning’s shattered the window and made a hole in the blind, so a murky moonlight is leaking in. Blanche pants in outrage. Will those dogs ever shut up so she can hear herself think? She squints across the bed- room. “Jenny?” Kicking shards off her foot, Blanche clambers onto the bed, but Jenny’s no longer there. She couldn’t have got past Blanche without opening the door, could she?
The sheets are sodden to the touch. What can have wet them? Blanche’s eyes adjust to the faint radiance. Something on the
floor between bed and wall, puddled in the corner, moving, but not the way a person moves. Arms bent wrong, nightshirt rucked obscenely, skinny legs daubed with blood, and wearing a carnival version of a familiar face.
Blanche recoils. A second. Another.
She forces her hand down toward — to feel, to know for sure, at least — but the geyser spurt against her fingers sends her howling back to the other side of the bed. She clings to the foul sheets.
Light smashes in the doorway from the saloon: McNamara with a lamp. “Miss Blanche, are you shot or what?”
She blinks down at herself, scarlet all over.