FICTION May 6, 2011

Calamity’s Child

by Kevin Ducey

Editor's Note: Richard Russo selected Calamity's Child as the winning entry in our Chapter One Contest. Here  are the first 20 pages of Ducey's novel.

The story has been told many times with variations. Sometimes the daughter is a stepchild. Sometimes the girl is a boy. Coursey claims Calamity gave birth to a son in Sydney. Senn reports the incident as follows:

‘Deadwood citizens confirm the story of her arrival in Deadwood accompanied by her husband and a bright young girl about ten years old …’

– J. Leonard Jennewein, Calamity Jane of the Western Trails

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Letters to Edison [excerpt]
8 June 1903
Electric, Montana

Dear Mr. Edison,

…I didn’t hear the train come in. There was no horse riding up either, though I didn’t, generally speaking, have a lot of time to sit around waiting for the train like some people might. Carl decided some­where along the line I needed more stuff to do to keep me out of his hair. He has been a dentist as well as a saloon owner and has taken it into his head that I should grow up to be the dentist for our town. Carl tells me that what this town needs is a young dentist. Since there aren’t any dentistry schools anywhere in this part of the world is how come I find myself most afternoons down on my knees on the bar floor filling in the tiny cracks in the planking with a spackling compound that Carl says acts most like a dentist’s oxyphosphate of copper cement as any sealant he can find. The floor of Carl’s bar is about halfway sealed in enameling like a giant tooth at this point when I look up from the floor (not because I heard the sound of a particular train or horse, but mainly I reckon because all the low murmuring of cards and drinking stopped all of a sudden) and I look up into the bright sunlight coming in through the saloon doors and a shadow falls on me where I was kneeling there with putty knife in hand.

Now Carl generally likes to keep the room dark on account of the heat and he always says people spend too much of their time out in the sun. He says that and then he’s just as liable to launch into some homesick story about Quebec as not, and the way the sun spoke to him one morning with a French accent, the same day his stake in the Black Hills finally yielded up its mineral wealth and gave him the idea to open a bar called ‘Chez Carl’ in Montana along the Milwaukee Road. Even though he swears he never talks to the sun or moon anymore, his face went pale as a full moon of whey cheese when the sun, je suis désollée, was eclipsed by the figure of a stranger standing in the open saloon doors. With the sun settled on the stranger’s left shoulder it was hard to see who it was, but I knew it wasn’t one of our townies. I’ve seen most of ’em from the knees down for years and the newcomer’s boots were worn so bad you could see the traces of glue and tar signifying several lifetimes of comfortable re-shoeing. The stranger’s jeans were chapped and filthy dark brown; the color of our street, but it was clear the raggedy ends carried the stink of horse manure from the Bitterroot to the Mogollones. The stranger’s hips were wide and belted with a simple leather belt. Slung low on one leg nestled a holster with an old revolving pistol even I could tell was old and a coughing puppy, like Carl would say: “That horse is a coughing puppy,” or, “that fire ain’t gonna catch, it’s a coughing puppy.” The stranger wore a dark shirt of unknown color. Traces of fringe still trailed from the sleeves. Saddlebags and a poncho rested across a shoulder. One heavy step, then two, into the room and I saw the stranger’s hand, gnarled and rough like old burlap. The head came slowly into the darkness showing me the ugliest face I’ve ever had the pleasure to appreciate, Mr. Edison. Cruelly scarred by the pox, the skin hung from the skull. The long hair, pulled back from the craggy, flying dutchman forehead, was brown, and streaked with white. The lips twisted in a half smile, half sneer and the eyes were deep socketed with a hunger I’ve only seen in the eyes of Indians out along the road if Carl doesn’t shoot ’em first. The eyes of the traveler fixed on Carl’s ashen face and I don’t ever know how I would react if I had someone look at me with eyes like that. Staring and angry and hopeful and other things I couldn’t name all in that look. As if the face held a secret on the rest of us, it came steadily into the room and stopped across from Carl.

“Jane?” Carl said.

The stranger swung her saddlebags onto the bar and stood straighter. The ceiling came swooping down on her as she drew herself up another five feet into the air and ducked as the rafters went past. Or so it looked to me from where I was still down on my knees. I was watching her, but I kept glancing over at Carl. Something in his eyes had gone shiny and he says again:

“Jane Canary?”

Almost like it’s a question that he knew the answer to, but didn’t want to hear it spoken out loud where his ears would have to listen to it; like it was a question he didn’t ever expect to hear spoken where the world would grab ahold of it. But if the newcomer heard anything in Carl’s voice she didn’t pay it any mind. She took off her old hat and threw it on top of her saddlebags.

“Hello, Carl. How about a drink?”

“By God, it’s been a long time, Jane,” Carl says.

“Not so long, Carl. I had a bottle coming outa Billings.”

Before Carl could answer she turned quick-like to me, because I moved, or something that caused her to look at me like I was some kind of ghost sneaking up on her with a club of bad memories. She looked scared of me almost and I stood up slowly, thinking maybe she was afraid of short people. She narrowed her eyes at me and took a step or two closer.

“Sweet Jesus, boy,” she says to me, “what’re you doing crawling around Carl’s floor?”

Carl spoke up and explained about the lack of dental schools and the spackling compound oxyphosphate of copper and this Jane character looked from Carl to me and then at the carefully enameled half of the barroom floor that I’d spent my last several months making shiny and smooth and then she did it all again; she looked from Carl to me to the floor all over again like she hadn’t heard right.

“I’ll have that drink now,” she whispered. And Carl went about setting up the glasses one for himself and one for her. Although he usually only drank beer, this time he poured a whiskey for himself as well as a tall glass for her.

“Thank you, Carl,” she said and I got up my nerve and cleared my throat. I could tell by the way Carl was leaning over the bar that he was settling in to chew her ear off. I said:

“Ma’am? Excuse me, but ma’am, I’m not a boy. I’m a girl.” But I didn’t say it loud enough and they went on talking, so I said it again louder and this time Jane and Carl stopped and looked at me like they’d forgotten I was alive. Some of the regulars in the bar who’d been watching this all go on started to laugh and I felt the heat in my face.

She looked down at me and then around at the room where the other folks were laughing and they shut up and she looked back at me. “Course you are, I see that now. My eyes is just getting used to the light. Why ain’t you wearing a dress, girl? Shoot, you gave me a fright a moment ago you look so much like someone I used to know. What’s your name, child?”

“Jane,” Carl said, “I figured you’d know my kid Andy – I mean, Andrea.”

I put out my hand to shake hers – like I shook the cowboys’ hands. They were always shaking hands with me and each other. She turned to me and took my hand in both of hers. Then before I could grab it back, she bent from the waist over my hand and pressed her lips to the skin. Her lips felt light and dry, like a grasshopper or butterfly lighting on my skin. Nobody had ever kissed my hand before. I’d read about gentlemen kissing hands attached to the arms of French ladies, but I wasn’t a French lady and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next and while all this was going on she straightened up, looking me in the eye all the while, and said: “I’m so happy to meet you, Andrea.”

By way of reply I ran out of there as fast as I could.

*     *     *

Forgive me for writing so much, Mr. Edison. Carl told me I was only supposed to write and say thank you for the photo of yourself that you were kind enough to send us. If you don’t mind my saying so, sir, I must say you look tired out. Doubtless you are still working night and day on your new problems.

I will send Carl’s diagrams for a new light bulb when I find the old receipt that has his design sketched out on the back. I also wanted to tell you that I have taken your advice and have given away my Buntline novels.

Editor’s Note: Richard Russo selected Calamity’s Child as the winning entry in our Chapter One Contest. Here  are the first 20 pages of Ducey’s novel.