Notorious in the West

By: Lisa Plumley

Chapter One

 March 1872, Boston, Massachusetts

 Even at the age of fourteen, Griffin Turner always knew when one of his mother’s “bad times” was coming on. First she’d quit cleaning the meager four rooms they shared. Dust would pile up. Dirty pans and plates would accumulate. Rats would saunter across the gritty floors, as bold as you please—as bold as they tended to be in the tenement building Griffin and his mother had moved into After Their Circumstances Changed—and chew their way into the few remaining foodstuffs in the kitchen. A good swat with a broom got rid of them, Griffin had learned, but he hated the way that smacking their furry bodies made his skin crawl.

 He also hated how weak it made him feel to admit that. After their circumstances changed, Griffin had become the man of the house. The man of the house could not be weak. He knew that.

 When he failed to remember it, his mother reminded him.

 A day or so after she stopped cleaning up, his mother would pull all the tatty draperies tightly shut, so that not even the tiniest sliver of wintertime sunlight could penetrate their home’s dank interior. Then she would abandon whatever piecework job she’d grudgingly taken on. Finally, she would take to her bed.

 Griffin wasn’t sure how that was supposed to help anything. After all, nothing happened in bed except dreaming. Dreaming didn’t exactly put food on the table and kindling in the fireplace. But he knew better than to say so.

 At least he knew better than to say so twice.

 Most of the time, Griffin managed his mother’s bad times without too much hardship. He learned how to dust and sweep. He figured out how to light the stove and how to inveigle a few grocery items from their careworn neighbors when things got desperate. He learned to leave crackers by his mother’s bedside while she was asleep, but never to mention having done so the next day. He learned the precise time to bring a bracing cup of coffee into his mother’s room. He learned that doing so made her smile at him...but only if he got the timing right. So he learned well.

 During the bad times, Griffin tiptoed a lot.

 Overall, he didn’t think about his mother’s moody spells much. They came like the weather; they went for reasons that were as inexplicable and as evergreen as springtime in the city. They were a fact of life—like his growing body, his work tending the fiery furnaces at the glass factory and his knowledge that the only way to get by was to toil until sweet oblivion took him at the end of the day. Sleep was good, even if he didn’t remember having any dreams of his own. Work was good. He earned money to support his mother and himself. He kept busy. He had every Sunday off to do as he pleased—which wasn’t, by the age of fourteen, to attend Sunday church services alone, as his mother believed he did. It was to revisit their old town house, which still stood in the neighborhood where they’d lived before their circumstances changed, and try to figure out how to get it back.

 Generally, life was shambolic but manageable. As long as you didn’t count on anything, Griffin knew, you would be fine.

 Sometimes, though, enough time passed between bouts of tidying and tiptoeing—and treating his mother with the same care that the glassblowers at the factory handled their bottles and pitchers and glasshouse whimsies—that Griffin forgot about the bad times. That was dangerous. That was when he was blindsided.

 He came home on one such day, full of verve and vinegar, puffed up on the thrill of having spent his Sunday with a girl he liked—a girl who worked at the glass factory as a sweeper. He’d met her after church. They’d spent all day roaming around the city, going to Griffin’s old neighborhood and sharing a single precious gooseberry tonic at the soda fountain. The girl—Mary was her name—had taken Griffin home to meet her parents. They’d invited him in for some Irish stew and brown bread. They’d sent him home high, with a freshly barbered head of hair—courtesy of Mary’s mama—and a care package of leftover stew.

 He hadn’t wanted to think why they’d given it to him. He knew he was thin, on account of the meals he missed or gave to his mother, but he was also tall and broad shouldered. He didn’t look sickly enough to warrant a gift of potato-filled stew.

 But they gave it to him kindly, so Griffin didn’t refuse. He was carrying it when he breezed into the tenement building and clomped up the rickety staircase—daydreaming about Mary’s winsome face, mentally placing her in the fancy town house he meant to own someday, dressing her in finery fit for a carriage ride—and came inside to find all the draperies drawn.

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