Maria left the apothecary and followed the revelers south. They blew toy trumpets and tossed confetti at passers-by. They laughed at strangers and shouted, “Happy New Year.”
But they paid little attention to Maria in her canvas overcoat and dime-store skimmer. She didn’t mind the slight. She knew things would change once across Broadway.
A copper stopped Maria before stepping off the boards and onto the dirt boulevard. “What’s your business in the Stingaree?”
“Miss Helen Hayes-Mellon needs tobacco.” She lied.
“Be back before sunset.”
“The mayor is dining at Horton House tonight.” He pointed to the two-story hotel with a pitched roof and fancy front. “At sunset, we clear Broadway.” He rapped his nightstick against his palm, flashed a crooked grin and gazed to the heavens. “It’s going to be a grand new year.”
The copper’s whistle had little effect on Broadway at dusk. Nervous pedestrians darted left then right and back and forth to avoid the risks. Horse-drawn buggies rolled down ruts in the road with little room to swerve. Pushcarts, laden with goods, rumbled over the uneven surface.
Broadway was neutral turf in the eyes of the police. It separated saints from sinners and good from evil. It protected decent folks from the undesirables of the Stingaree.
Despite its reputation, the Stingaree district was both a curse and a blessing for San Diego. The curse was the prevalence of prostitutes, pimps, and pikers. The blessing was having them all contained in seven square city blocks.
Maria entered the Poppy through the back door and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Business was slow but things would change. Two ships had anchored that morning. Soon the streets would be lined with white caps and bell-bottom trousers.
Madame Nora waved her over and asked, “Maria, can you help me write a letter to my family?”
Maria nodded. She dictated letters for all the girls at the Poppy. The girls penned them in their own hand. Maria posted them to far-off cities like Sacramento, Seattle and Sedalia.
But they were lies.
The Miller family in Missouri thought their daughter was engaged to a fancy banker. In reality, Yellow Betty made three dollars a night coaxing men into her bed two-bits at a time. In her next letter though, Maria promised a broken engagement and a course down a new righteous path.
Maria faced the pink door on room 210 and knocked.
She entered. Pinky LaChance fanned herself in her settee beneath pink-painted walls and frilly adornments. She feigned no interest in her visitor. Instead, she admired the view of a competing brothel out her window.
Maria asked, “Sister, did you keep your promise?”
Pinky dropped her act and rose. “Maria, I’m expecting a guest.”
“Did you keep your promise?”
Pinky guided her to the yellow room. They found Betty sorting finery on her bed.
“Look at what the girls have offered,” Betty said.
Maria sifted through sumptuous and elegant fabrics. She found silk, satin, and chiffon. The long sleeved tops had high lace collars. The short sleeved tops were embellished but loose at the bodice.
These offering were pulled from suitcases shoved deep under the beds in each girl’s room. Nothing but their best for Maria and her annual taste of high society.
“What time is the dinner?” Betty asked.
Maria noticed the sun ducking below the facade of the Golden Eye saloon. “I have about thirty minutes to be on the other side of Broadway.”
She took her time walking down the steps and into the bar. Halfway down, the piano stopped. Maria felt naked and like eyes were undressing her.
Those were the same eyes that stared at sunsets on the open ocean. Those were the same eyes that tallied row-upon-row of debits and credits. The eyes she hated the most were those that sat with respectable wives over breakfast tables.
At the bar, she summoned Ruby with a polite wave. The big girl with rosy cheeks ambled over and admired the cut of Maria’s jib, “You look nice.” Then she stirred the milk into her coffee before sipping it.
Maria handed Ruby the bottle of elixir from the apothecary. Then she said, “I’m crossing Broadway tonight.”
Ruby asked, “Miss Helen’s affair?”
Maria said, “Yes. I don’t want to go, but she insists.”
“Truth told, I don’t like the lying. Or the empty promises. They are sins.”
Maria could attribute at least six sins to Ruby in the last two weeks. She nodded anyway.
Before getting fat, Ruby was a top-earner in the red room. Now her job was to soothe the men who descended those stairs with guilt on their faces and shame in their eyes. Guilt and shame were her stock in trade.
Maria said, “I need that swag back.”
Ruby asked, “Tired of the guilt?”
“Save it for the sailors, Ruby.” Maria broke eye contact and sat silent. She was a thief. She had stolen from a client at last year’s dinner party and asked Ruby to hide the swag.
“Listen, Maria,” Ruby said, “do you know there’s a religion that forgives all your sins if you just ask?”
“I do. In exchange for penance.”
Ruby laid the spoon from her coffee cup on the bar and took a loud sip. “Do you know how Judas spent his thirty pieces of silver?”
“Ruby, my guilt doesn’t run through you.”
“No, but the post does.” Ruby reached beneath the bar and then handed a letter to Maria. “It’s from New York. Maybe the lies you write in those letters are catching up to you.”
She held the overdue letter in trembling hands.
“And maybe ‘telling lies’ is my road to redemption.”
The doorman at the Horton House winked at Maria before ushering her into the lobby. She was no stranger. Her feet barely touched the lush carpet leading to the stairs.
That letter from New York had carried her across Broadway on the wings of her favorite poet. Emily Dickinson wrote that, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”
Maria had plenty of hope. Her feathers were ready to ruffle.
She knocked on the door to Miss Helen’s apartment like she had at least twenty times before.
“Maria!” Miss Helen opened the door and reached for an embrace. She said, “Did you bring what I asked?”
Maria handed her a small pouch of tobacco and said, “From Chinatown, it’s your favorite. Happy New—”
“Not the smoke.” Miss Helen pulled the girl into her foyer. “Did you bring your envelope.”
Maria tapped the breast pocket of her stylish vest.
Maria found her name on a card seated just to the right of Miss Helen. This was not the same spot as last year.
After the ladies took their seats, the men followed. All six diners shook their napkins loose and placed them where high society demanded.
John Fairbanks leaned over and pinched Maria’s arm. “So, another year under our belts.”
Maria smiled at John. She had seen him sneaking out of all but one of the color-themed rooms at the Poppy. The girls said he was only one color short of a complete rainbow—green. It had been a good year for Fairbanks.
“Happy New Year,” Maria replied. “Perhaps things will be greener in the new century.”
A loud knock startled the diners. There was no one missing from last year.
Miss Helen rose from her chair. “And now our special guest.”
She guided the mayor to the seat to her left, then rang a bell to start the servants. And like a dusty main thoroughfare, the dining room table came to life. Servants served. Plates passed. Diners dined. Still most eyes were on the mayor who chose Miss Helen for quiet conversation.
Food traveled clockwise and started with Miss Helen. Maria had time to admire the place setting. All the knives in the right spots. All the forks were polished and ready. All the spoons were aglow in the light of the chandelier.
But her setting was missing something, a silver spoon. It was the kind that stirred milk into coffee. One sat warmly in the left pocket of Maria’s stylish vest.
Miss Helen turned her attention to Maria, leaned into her ear and said, “Sorry, dear. We’re missing a spoon from last year’s dinner. I hope you don’t mind.“
“Not at all, Miss Helen,” Maria said. “The pudding shall be just as sweet from the spoon for my soup.”
Miss Helen tapped her glass with her knife. Then she started her well-rehearsed speech. “Mr. Mayor, welcome to our table. Is there anything you would like to say before we ring in this new year?”
“Well, Miss Helen, as you know…” He stuck his thumbs into his suspenders. “City Hall is changing our little town for the better.” He crossed the room and parted the drapes over a window. “Next year, when we look out his window, there will be no more crime, no more prostitution, and no more undesirables.”
He listened for polite applause and got it.
Maria sat quietly and focused on the place setting. Her plan was to set the spoon on the table when seated. But Miss Helen had already mentioned it. Plus, her glances at Maria’s setting were frequent and telling.
The mayor said, “Next year, the Stingaree shall be shrunk to three square city blocks. But alas, with progress comes pain.” He retook his seat. “The son of President Ulysses S. Grant owns the Horton House and wants to raze it for a new hotel. His project is on my desk, waiting for approval.”
“Mr. Mayor,” Miss Helen said. “Let us set aside the politics for the evening.” The other diners nodded in agreement but could not hide their concern over losing their lodging. She added, “How about some entertainment?”
The mayor nodded and said, “Fine.”
“The same people at this table now dined with me last New Year's Eve.”
“I love an organized party,” said the mayor.
“Last year,” Helen continued. “I passed out a card to each guest and asked them to write their resolution for this year.” Miss Helen held up her card.
“That is a grand idea,” said the mayor. “What was your resolution, Miss Helen?”
“Well, Mr. Mayor, this card is not mine.” She smiled. “You see, I added a twist to our little resolution game. I had all of our guests place their resolution card into a bowl, then mixed them up.”
“Now that’s intrigue,” said the mayor.
“And then I asked each guest to pull a card from the bowl and save it for reading aloud tonight.”
“Oh my,” the mayor leaned back into his chair. “Does everybody possess the card they drew last year?”
Maria pulled the envelope from her pocket and extracted the card. She waved it high like the other five guests.
“So, what do we do now?”
Miss Helen obliged. “Starting on your left mayor, each guest will read the resolution on their card.”
“The writer of the resolution must claim it and tell the rest of the table whether they kept their promise or not.”
The mayor turned to his left and said, “Well, Mr. Conrad, let’s not waste time. Spill the beans.”
Mr. Conrad read aloud, “I resolve to paint with oil-” he glanced around the room, “a dandy rainbow over our fine city.”
Maria smiled and kicked Fairbanks beneath the table. He modestly raised his hand. He said, “That is mine.”
The mayor asked, “Can I see this painting?”
“Alas, Mr. Mayor,” Fairbanks lowered his hand. “I fell one color short. It seems the green pigment worthy of such an endeavor can only be found in the Stingaree.” He smiled. “A gentleman shouldn’t cross Broadway, should he, not even for a rainbow?”
“No, he shouldn’t.” The mayor rubbed his hands together. “Who’s next?”
To the left of Conrad, Miss Janie cleared her throat. “I resolve to publish a story in Scribner’s Magazine in the year of our Lord 1899.”
Miss Helen raised her hand and said, “Guilty as charged.” She withdrew a letter from her smock and opened it. “This is a letter from an editor at Scribner declaring my first three chapters worthy of their publication.” She beamed.
“What is the story about?” Miss Janie asked the question as if it had been scripted for her.
“It’s a story about a thief in search of forgiveness.” Miss Helen rested her gaze on Maria. “The idea came to me after last year’s dinner when my butler informed me that a spoon was missing.”
“Does she gain this redemption she seeks?” The mayor asked.
“Well, Mr. Mayor,” Miss Helen said, “we’ll have to wait and see.”
The mayor said, “What a tease?” He laughed. “Is this your way of selling more magazines?”
The diners laughed. But Maria did not. The pudding was served.
Miss Helen tapped her glass to draw attention. Then she pointed to the next guest, Brother Justus from the mission.
He read from the card. “I resolve to sin less and greet the new century with a clean slate.” The clergyman covered his chest with the card. “This one is close to my heart.”
The mayor said, “The new century starts in about four hours. There’s still time to sin. Who owns this resolution?”
Maria reached into both pockets of her vest.
Which item should she reveal first?
Then she remembered Ruby’s question at the bar earlier in the evening.
Maria took the silver spoon from her pocket and waved it in the air.
“I knew it.” Miss Helen stood from her chair. “I knew it was you, Maria.”
“It was me, Helen.” Maria stood. “My resolution was but a minute old when I broke it.”
Mr Conrad asked, “Why did you steal the spoon, young lady?”
“Because Miss Helen would not pay me.” Maria punctuated the air with the spoon.
“Pay you for what, Miss Maria?” The mayor took his turn at the puzzle.
“I was a typist at the Burns Agency.” Maria said. “Mr. Burns sent me to Horton House to type Miss Helen’s manuscript. But I was terminated after three chapters.”
Fairbanks turned to Miss Helen, “Is this true?”
Miss Helen huffed, then said, “It is true. But Maria did not type the words I spoke. That is why I—”
Maria interrupted, “Whose words did I type?”
Fairbanks turned his head for the retort.
Miss Helen answered, “It doesn’t matter. The new typist is better. Look at my letter from Scribner.”
Maria pleaded, “But I was fired.”
The mayor asked, “Why is a typist sitting at this dinner?”
Miss Helen smiled, “Well Mr. Mayor, when you cancelled last minute last year, I invited Maria to make the table an even number for the resolutions. She had just finished a page of typing for the day. I saw no harm.”
Maria took her chance. “Mr. Mayor, had you not missed last year’s dinner, you would not have to dine with a typist.”
The mayor answered, “I had city business last new year.”
Maria said, “I have a friend at the Poppy who said you were with her last New Year’s Eve.”
She paused, then added, “Oui?”
“Miss Helen,” the mayor shouted. “Is this your idea? Using a thief to sling innuendo and lies. I am the mayor!”
Miss Helen stared at Maria, “Mr. Mayor, I can assure you—”
The mayor stopped her by raising his hand. He crossed the room and said, “I’m of the mind right now to give Mr. Grant his permits.”
Then the door slammed shut.
Maria watched Miss Helen grow smaller in her chair.
It was time for redemption.
She asked, “Does anybody know how Judas spent his thirty pounds of silver?”
Brother Justus said, “He returned the money and killed himself.”
“And why suicide, Brother Justus?”
“He wanted to cast blame on those who paid him for his betrayal.”
“Was he redeemed?” Maria reached into her pocket.
“We don’t know. Scripture ends there. Redemption is seldom seen and mostly felt.”
“Not tonight, Brother Justus.”
Maria opened the letter from New York. “This is also a letter from Scribner’s Magazine.” She waved it in the same manner as Miss Helen. “My full story is to be published next month.”
Miss Helen sighed out loud.
“And just like I wrote on my card a year ago. I resolve to enter the new century free of sin. But the first mark I make on my clean slate tomorrow will be the number one-that’s how many more stories I have published than Miss Helen.”
Fairbanks could neither hide his smile nor allow the discussion to end. “Miss Maria, what is your story about?”
“It’s about a girl who climbs from the dregs of the Stingaree into the dregs of Horton House. In the end, she must decide between the two.”
“And how does her story end?”
Maria took a deep breath.
“The girl returns to her roots—to the common clay that binds desperate women together—to her tiny room behind a green door at a two-bit brothel—to a closet she shares with soiled rags, sweaty garments and the stained linen of the undesirable—to women that care more about the feelings of their families than the flesh and currency of their business—she returns to a life of telling lies--not for redemption-- but as penance.”
That was how her story ends.