The following is excerpted from Jess Walter's latest novel, The Cold Millions, a kaleidoscopic portrait of a nation grappling with the chasm between rich and poor, between harsh realities and simple dreams. Walter is the author of six novels, including the bestseller Beautiful Ruins and The Zero, a finalist title for the National Book Awards. His short fiction has appeared in Harper's, McSweeney's, and The Best American Short Stories, among others. He lives in his hometown of Spokane, Washington.
A woman owns nothing in this world but her memories—a shabby return on so steep an investment. The First Ursula taught me this. The other thing she taught me was how to climb in a cage and sing to a mountain lion.
I was the Second Ursula. I met the First in the spring of 1909. She’d been doing the act for ten years, nearly half her vaudeville life. By the time I met her, she was putting her stage makeup on with a putty knife, dying her hair every morning, and every night wrestling her rangy tits into corseted captivity like two escaped criminals. Then she would walk onstage and try not to get eaten by a cougar.
It was a bear, the first creature Ursula performed with, and the reason she was called Ursula, “Ursa being Latin for bear,” according to her fatstack manager, Joe Considine, who hired me to replace her. This was in Reno, Nevada, where I answered a simple newspaper ad for “Actress, singer, calm demeanor.”
I was from an East Coast performing family, my mother an opera singer, my father a playwright. Just two years earlier I’d wowed six hundred a night on the San Francisco stage as Fanny LeGrand in Sappho. But two years is a hundred in actress time, and I had chosen badly in romance and found myself in Reno in a limited engagement called desperation. That’s when I saw the ad.
For my audition, Joe Considine led me to the stage of an empty variety saloon, and I sang, “A Woman Is a Woman but a Good Cigar Is a Smoke.” I wasn’t even to the second puff when Joe said, “And can you dance?” and I showed him tap and a high kick and he said, “And what about your tits?” and I asked if we could keep those out of it, and he said, “Then how do you feel about animals?”
I met the First Ursula the next afternoon backstage at the theater where she’d been performing for the last month, co-billed with an Orientalist seer. She wore a flowing gown of reds and oranges, her hair wrapped in a scarf, four dollars in costume jewelry on her fingers and neck. Behind her, her costar lay in a ten-by-ten cage, asleep in a narrow slant of sunlight beneath a high window.
Ursula seemed resigned to giving up the act, and gamely showed me the tricks, although, from what I could tell, the main trick was to not get mauled.
“Why are you leaving?” I asked.
“I am not leaving,” she said. “I am being replaced. A week ago, Joe informed me that he was taking out an advertisement for a new Ursula. And look, here you are.”
I chose not to apologize. “Why would he replace you?”
“As he explained it to me, our receipts are down, the show is rarely extended beyond our two-week contracts, and he has begun to suspect my age is an issue in marketing this spectacle.”
I was from an East Coast performing family, my mother an opera singer, my father a playwright.
“So, you’re too young,” I said.
“Yes, very good.” She smiled. “No, according to Joe, a more mature Ursula reminds them of their mothers and wives, and they have begun to cheer for the cat.”
“What is the age,” I asked, “when a woman becomes more entertaining as meal than singer?”
“I am thirty-six,” she said, “or so.”
Or so. No way First Ursula had seen thirty-six this century. Not that I held any reverence for the accurate measure of one’s age. I had told Considine I was twenty-four, a number I had scrupulously maintained since turning twenty-five a few years earlier.
First Ursula was slated for three more shows while she trained me, and after that I would assume the role, meaning I had only two performances in Reno to get the act down. After that came a two-week run in Boise, followed by Butte and Missoula, then it was on to Spokane in the fall, where we had an open engagement at a theater First Ursula said was the finest house in the best city this side of San Francisco.
It was called the Comique and it was owned, in secret, by a mining magnate named Lemuel Brand—secret, she said, because “his wife remains blissfully unaware of his fondness for actresses.” She was quite taken with this Brand, whom she described as “a cup of charm in a gallon of largesse.” Brand’s wealth came from silver-mining the Coeur d’Alenes and the rather broad range of vices his workers spent their money on—cathouses, saloons, hotels, opium dens, and theaters in Spokane’s tenderloin, positions he held behind a series of paper partners. “Lem likes to say that every dollar that goes out in payroll,” Ursula said, “comes back through bed, brothel, and booze.”
Ursula and Lem Brand had carried on for her entire two-month run in Spokane. He’d even made her a promise: that when her career was over, she could manage one of his flop hotels and turn it into a proper boardinghouse. She planned to open its doors to old variety-show actresses like herself, to teach them secretarial and operator skills so they wouldn’t be reduced to taking on loggers at four bits a throw. Of course, she said, a hotel full of former actresses also appealed to a patron of the arts like Brand.
That’s why she was staying with the show as far as Spokane, so she could dismount the stage for the next segment of her life. She had even picked out a name for her boardinghouse: the Phoenix.
That morning she’d sent a telegram to Brand saying that she would be coming to Spokane with the show, was eager to see him, and hoped to discuss taking over the management of his hotel. “I am ready,” she told me. “I have been at this for too long.”
“May I ask,” I said, “what happened to the bear?”
“Ah, the bear.” This question softened the corners of First Ursula’s eyes. “Boryenka. He fell quite in love with me, I’m afraid. Backstage, he would growl whenever Joe raised his voice. Onstage, he would sit patiently, panting like a dog, his eyes following me everywhere. He was heartsick, and he would moan for me to come into his cage, to sing to him, to stroke his jowls. He was so gentle the audience began to laugh.
“Joe found it unseemly the way the bear looked at me. I suggested we play it as a comedy, the bear my suitor, perhaps add a wedding scene, but Joe feared the ministers would be scandalized by us suggesting what happened in the wedding bed, or worse, that audiences would be disappointed not to see that. Of course, I had fallen quite far in the theater, as you apparently have, too, dear, but I was not about to become one of those acts.” She smiled gently. “In the end, Joe sold the bear to a traveling circus out of Denver, and we went with a mountain lion after that.”
Mountain lions were more reliable for snarling and baring teeth, Ursula said. But she still missed Boryenka. “I understand he is quite a star in the circus.” Her eyes drifted to the window. “The last I heard, he had learned to play the banjo while riding a bicycle. He is quite a talent.”
It was called the Comique and it was owned, in secret, by a mining magnate named Lemuel Brand.
Those first few days in Reno, First Ursula showed me the basic staging and blocking: come out, sing my first number, and dance three laps around the cage. Then open the door and go inside for the next song. She showed me how to sew raw steak strategically into the corset to enhance my profile, and how the cat would growl and wait while I ripped off the corset, and that a quick throw was the real trick, for if I hesitated and held the meaty corset in my hand—
Then, with my back to the audience, singing in full voice, I was to grab the robe hanging from the stand at the back of the cage. Depending on which city we were in and its variety-theater laws, I could either show my tits or not. She had not shown hers in a year, “but this is more for gravity’s sake than for decency’s.”
One other thing to remember: The robe stand could be used to fend off the cat should things go badly. This was the way she described being attacked by a cougar in front of a screaming throng—“should things go badly”—the loveliest bit of theater decorum I’d ever heard.
We had a fine time in Reno, First Ursula and me. I’d watch her perform and then we’d stay up late in her hotel room, sharing stories while we drank a strange plum wine that she had acquired a taste for in Spokane’s Chinatown.
In the mornings, she would go to the front desk of the hotel to see if Lem Brand had answered her telegram about the Phoenix. When, after three days, no answer came, she sent a second telegram, and then a third, but these also went unanswered, and as the week wore on, I felt an aching sympathy for her.
On the fourth night, we stood backstage together. There was no announcement that the actress playing Ursula was changing; the barker simply said, “Ursula the Great!” and I went out instead.
There was a whistle, some light applause. We’d spent most of our rehearsal time on the bits with the cougar, for obvious reasons, and while the show itself was simple, I found myself overtaken with a surprising and savage bout of stage terror.
The heat of the lights, the growl of the cat, the smell of workingmen in the front rows: It all combined to make me nauseous. I hit my notes and the cougar was professional enough, but I left the stage thinking I might not be cut out for this. There were only three things these yokels wanted to see: Two of them were my breasts and the third was a cougar attack; the singing and dancing to which I had devoted my life were very much beside the point.
I came off after that first performance feeling bereft, what she called having “fallen so far in the theater” weighing on my soul, and that is when I saw First Ursula, standing backstage, her hand over her mouth.
“Dear God,” she said. “Your voice.”
Since the rehearsals had focused on staging and safety, I hadn’t really invested in the songs and had almost forgotten the effect my voice could have at full release, its unlikely power and register, which at one time had secured parts and performances for me at the best theaters in San Francisco.
“Thank you,” I said, and she said, “No. Thank you,” and began to cry. She enveloped me in a shuddering embrace.
We separated and she looked out at the dingy Reno theater. “These dusty heathens have no idea. You could be singing in Paris for monarchs.”
“Well, I am at the Palace,” I said, and waved a hand at the bar of the Palace Theater and Gambling Club of Reno, Nevada. This, too, was rewarded with an embrace. The show was now mine. I was now Ursula.
On our last day together in Reno, First Ursula and I had breakfast at the hotel, and she checked once more for a telegram from Lem Brand; there wasn’t one.
The heat of the lights, the growl of the cat, the smell of workingmen in the front rows: It all combined to make me nauseous.
“Why don’t you have the operator ring him?” I asked.
She said the telephone was a “brutish form of communication,” and that Lem Brand not answering her telegrams was, of course, answer enough, and the one she had secretly been expecting all along. “I suspected the Phoenix was a fantasy the moment he mentioned it,” she said. “A man will say anything on the windward side of a bed. But I chose to believe it. And I don’t mind indulging in the fantasy that a wealthy lover might reward a woman with whom he has shared such intimacy. Perhaps I could have been a wife somewhere with a loyal husband and nine perfect children—but I would have to indulge that fantasy. Compared with that business, this was a harmless bit of theater.”
We stayed up all night drinking plum wine.
“What will you do now?” I asked. “Do you have family?”
She said she was from a Philadelphia stage family—her father an acrobat, mother a singer. She was the youngest of six performing siblings—tumblers and musicians. But she was a late bloomer in looks and in talent. As each of her siblings ventured off into show business, Ursula stayed behind to care for their parents. When she was in her teens, her father fell from a tightrope in Cincinnati and suffered a debilitating head injury that required nearly nonstop care. That was when she met Joe Considine, who had come east looking for showgirls willing to perform in the saloons out west. She auditioned and left with him the very same day without telling anyone.
“And you haven’t talked to your family since?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “It’s been—” Perhaps remembering that she had shorted her own age by at least a decade, she finished, “several years.”
I said it was cruel, Joe Considine whisking Ursula away from her family as a young woman and then summarily firing her once she got old. She said Joe was too simple to be cruel, and that he had offered her severance, fifty dollars and a train ticket east. She said she was going to take him up on it.
“I’m going to tell Joe I won’t perform until he gives you a hundred-dollar severance,” I said.
“You’re a dear,” she said, patting my arm. “You make a fine Ursula.”
“But not great yet,” I said.
“You are far more talented than I ever was,” she said, and her eyes welled with tears again. I began to object, but she put a finger to my mouth. “Please. It would be unseemly for you to argue. Your voice hurts, it is so lovely.”
We were quiet a moment.
“I will send you a postcard from wherever I land,” she said.
We finished the last bottle of plum wine and talked until dawn. We became loose with our stories, and at some point she began listing old lovers’ attributes. Instead of their names, she referred to them by avocation: The bullfighter was a groveler, the sea captain equipped like a horse.
And what of the mining magnate, Mr. Brand? I asked.
I should not have brought him up, for the very mention of his name brought sadness to her eyes and she simply shook her head.
I told her about my own weakness in that area: my penchant for a certain kind of younger man I referred to as “meat,” an actor here, a stagehand there, culminating in the dashing young playwright I fell for, who turned out to be more swindler than scribe, and who went to the bathroom at a restaurant in Sparks and never returned, sticking me with the check, a week’s hotel bill, and a wrecked heart. And because he had stolen from my old theater and I’d stood by him when I had thought him wrongly accused, I could never go back to San Francisco.
We finished the last bottle of plum wine and talked until dawn. We became loose with our stories.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and she put her hand on the side of my face.
It was almost dawn when First Ursula asked if she might kiss me. Before I could answer, she leaned in and did it. Then she lay down in front of me and faced away. I held her from behind. She was frailer than I’d imagined. In a beam of streetlight through the hotel window, I could see age spots on her shoulder, little fissures around her eye, the gray seams in her clownish red hair. When she began shaking, I whispered, “It’s okay.”
I woke alone midmorning, Joe Considine rapping on my door. “Ursula?”
He did not seem alarmed or surprised that I was in her room. “Train leaves for Boise in two hours,” he said. “They’re loading the cat now.”
I asked about First Ursula.
“Gone,” he said. She had come down early to breakfast, dressed and packed, and accepted his offer of fifty dollars and a ticket out of town. Then she caught the Union Pacific headed east toward Denver. “She left two hours ago.”
We did two weeks in Boise, then two in Butte, and after that, Missoula. In each city we headlined with two or three local opening acts—musicians, comedians, the occasional freak and animal trick.
We started slowly but were extended in Montana, the notices hinting at just enough scandal that we filled the seats without riling the ministers. Meanwhile, the cat and I were developing a real rapport—sometimes when I sang, she seemed to growl on key.
In each city, I checked for a postcard from First Ursula, but none arrived.
Finally, we moved to Spokane, our passenger car emerging from mountain forest into a river valley laced with bridges and railroad tracks, a lovely train station on an island in the center of a rocky channel. First Ursula was right: Spokane had a thrumming vibrancy those other cities lacked, and the Comique seemed a fine theater, URSULA THE GREAT across the whole of the marquee, in letters thrice the size of the next act, a blind accordion player named Rico Roma.
Lem Brand was waiting to greet us onstage at the Comique, hat held over his chest. He gave a bow like he was meeting royalty. I cannot say what I expected after so many weeks imagining him, only that he was less of it. He was perhaps fifty, although he was the kind of man who would have looked fifty at thirty, bald and lumpish, soft in the manner of one used to hiring other men to do his work.
“My goodness, Ursula,” Brand said, “you are more beautiful than even Mr. Considine’s rather vivid description.”
Behind me, Joe laughed and said, “Isn’t she something, Mr. Brand?”
“Welcome to the Comique,” Brand said, and he gestured to what looked like three-hundred-some-odd seats. “I hope you will consider dining with me this evening,” he said. “It’s a tradition that, as the theater’s benefactor, I show new performers a bit of good old-fashioned Spokane hospitality.”
Spokane had a thrumming vibrancy those other cities lacked, and the Comique seemed a fine theater.
“So the blind accordion player will be joining us, too?” I asked.
Joe cleared his throat behind me.
“No,” Brand said, taken aback.
“That’s too bad. And what about your wife?”
That limp-rump Joe Considine hissed at me: “Margaret!”
I turned and gave Joe the sharp eye. “Ursula, you mean,” I said, reminding him of his own rule that I stay in character even when not onstage. “Please, Joe, Mr. Brand and I are having a conversation. Perhaps go check on the cat.”
Joe slunk away. When I turned back, Lem Brand’s face was flushed and wore a stern expression I imagined he gave the miners and valets and maids and countless others in his employ. And me, too, his eyes said, I shouldn’t forget I was on the payroll as well. “My wife is away,” he said. “In Boston, visiting our son at boarding school.”
“Perhaps she could join us next time,” I said.
“Perhaps,” he said, the word nearly choking him.
His anger roiling, I saw the moment to turn things. “In that case, a private dinner sounds divine. Just the two of us. Perhaps you’re thinking we might even become friends and dine regularly. Is that what you had in mind, Mr. Brand?”
He was clearly confused by my change in tone. “Yes,” he said. “I . . . Yes.”
“Good,” I said, and smiled softly. “Then, as your friend, I hope you don’t mind if I ask for the smallest favor before we meet again.”
“Yes,” I said. I reached out and took his arm. “After which I will be all yours.”
Then I brought up the telegrams First Ursula had sent from Reno and how there must have been some mix-up at the Western Union office, because surely if her cables had been properly delivered, he would have answered them.
“Yes, a mix-up,” he said.
“I thought so,” I said. “You must be so eager to find her.”
“To fulfill your agreement! It must be disheartening to know a friend is out there with the misconception that you have cast her aside. You must be so eager to remedy it by making good on your promise.”
“Yes,” he said, his eyes on my pale hand on his hairy wrist.
“Then it is decided! Once you’ve tracked down Ursula, you and I will have the most splendid dinner, Mr. Brand.”
“Lem,” he said.
“Lem,” I said, “indeed.” I nodded. “I greatly look forward to it.” And with that, I bowed, turned, and began walking to my dressing room.
“Wait,” he said, “do you know where she is?”
I looked back over my shoulder. “I don’t. I believe her family is from Philadelphia. But I should think a man of your stature would have a private detective you could engage on this question, perhaps even one on staff?”
“Yes,” he said. “How about a name, at least. A name would help.”
Christ. He didn’t even know her name.
“Her name is Ursula the Great,” I said.
We killed in Spokane. The cat roared. The house roared. I belted. The lights, the opening acts—from the first performance we were a hit. And when one of the city’s five newspapers called me “a spectacle of indecency,” Joe raised ticket prices thirty percent.
Lem Brand’s face was flushed and wore a stern expression I imagined he gave the miners and valets and maids and countless others in his employ.
Of course, there is always a catch, and the one in Spokane was called Gregory. I found him wandering the theater one day, delivering boards to a carpenter, and I played at mistaking him for an actor and we bantered and I asked if he might bring a bit of that lumber to my dressing room.
He turned out to be a union man, a budding socialist, an adventurer, or, by clearer light, a day laborer and train vagrant. If memories are an unwise investment, this was burning money.
But what can I say? He was beautiful. And I have always been weak for physical beauty in men. My sister always said I was born with a man’s lecherous eye and made stupid by my base attractions. She said it would lead to my ruin. “Well,” I told her, “then let’s get on with it.”
He was a man of broad marbled shoulders, deep-set blue eyes, thick black hair, roping arms, and a full chest that tapered to a waist nearly as slender as mine. His skin was cooked a golden crisp beneath the shirt I coaxed from him and tossed on my dressing room chair. At times I have found the beguiling ones to be less energetic at play, perhaps too used to getting their way. But this Gregory was my equal in hands and hunger, and my goodness, the carnal afternoons we shared, the first I’d had since the grifting playwright left me.
He was a conversationalist after, which I also liked. Our legs tangled in my hotel bedding, he presented himself an avid reader, a socialist and intellectual, although I suspected he was somewhat vagrant in that department, too, limited by the six or seven books he’d happened upon while tramping.
But it was his talking about his brother that really got to me. He was raising the boy since their parents had died, and when he described the house he wanted to build them someday, it was all I could do not to have another go at him. I could imagine First Ursula shaking her head at my sentimentality. To be made stupid by a man’s beauty was foolish enough.
One night I told Gregory to bring his little brother by the show. I was a nervous schoolgirl all that day, but afterward, I returned to my dressing room to find a different man waiting there for me—that overripe squash Lem Brand, thin hair slicked across pale forehead, a rich bouquet of fresh flowers in his hand.
He smiled. “I must say, you surprised me the other day.”
“I’m not used to such wit in a woman, nor such impertinence.”
“Thank you,” I said, as if this were a compliment.
He looked around my dressing room, then back at me. “You said that when I found her, you would have dinner with me.”
I felt a tug. “You found Ursula?”
“Will you give me a moment to change?”
“Of course,” he said. “Meet me in front of the theater.”
After he was gone, I hurried down the hall to the stage door to get rid of poor Gregory and his brother. A man like Brand could cause terrible trouble for them, so I intended to chase him off mercilessly, like a stray, for his own good. But in his eyes I lost my nerve, and the shadow of his little brother at the end of the alley—it affected me greatly, and I apologized and gave what promises I could. Empty as they were, I wanted them to be true. I ached watching Gregory slink down that alley, hands deep in his trouser pockets.
I returned to my dressing room and changed, a cold iron taste in my mouth.
There are things a woman must do, my sister used to say.
A woman owns nothing in this world, Ursula used to say.
Roar, the mountain lion used to say.
Brand was waiting outside, beneath my name on the theater marquee, near a large touring automobile. He held the door, I climbed in, and he drove us all of three blocks. The auto was the point, obviously, for it was an unseasonably warm night and we could have walked as easily. “That’s quite a machine,” I said.
“Thank you,” he said, as if he’d invented it.
It was a fine restaurant with stucco walls and white tablecloths. The dinner service was ending and chairs were being put up for the evening. I followed Brand through the main dining hall to a small private room with formal settings for two. All around were marbled pillars and red curtains.
A woman owns nothing in this world, Ursula used to say.
Waiting for us in the room was a side of security beef who introduced himself as Willard. He was holding a folder.
“Willard’s a retired Pinkerton,” said Brand, “and the head of my security. I told him you were the kind of woman who would want documentation, so he prepared this dossier.”
Willard wouldn’t meet my eyes and, with a nod, backed out of the room.
“I was hoping we could eat first,” Brand said. “I have just come from a meeting about some pending labor trouble that upset my stomach, and if you don’t mind, I should at least like to pretend that you are eager to dine with me.”
“Oh, but I am,” I said, and sat next to him, the two of us on one side of a long table, like a king and queen receiving official visitors.
For the next hour, waiters swarmed us. We were served a French red wine, a fine local beefsteak, scallops from Seattle, and gnocchi that might have been pinched from the ass of an Italian angel. Brand told me about the theater scene in Spokane, about the battles he was having with a union organizing the men he would prefer remain unorganized, about the ministers who wanted to tame the city he would prefer stay untamed, and about a spineless mayor who seemed to think a modern city could be constructed only of parks and churches.
He was surprisingly good company, and I told him so, though not the surprising bit. I said how nice it was to be in a city that employed actual chefs and not the blind syphilitic camp cooks who had tried to poison me in Montana.
Our plates were being taken away when Lem Brand asked the headwaiter to hold our desserts a moment. “You’ve been kind,” he said to me, “and you have waited long enough.” Then he reached over and opened the file on First Ursula.
Her real name was Edith Hardisson, he said. She was forty-six years old. She was not the youngest child of an East Coast stage family but the oldest of six, daughter of a clerk and his wife from Independence, Missouri. Her parents were members in frightful good standing of a devout chapter of Reorganized Latter Day Saints, and they betrothed her at fifteen to a widower and pig farmer from their church, but Edith ran away before the wedding.
Mr. Willard could find no trace of her for the next six years, until a twenty-two-year-old Edie Hart was arrested at a labor camp brothel in Minnesota. There were also arrest records in Virginia City, and Cripple Creek, Colorado, which was where she met Joe Considine, who first put her onstage as a saloon singer and, later, turned her into Ursula the Great.
“She told me she was from Philadelphia,” I said, “that her father was an acrobat who cracked his skull falling off a tightrope.”
He smiled. “She told me that her father was a cowboy in Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling Wild West show and that he impregnated her French mother, and when she turned sixteen, she came to America to find him.”
I could see on his lumpish face that he was as disappointed in this banal report as I was, and I reminded myself that even if he had been shabby in not returning her telegrams, Ursula had once thought enough of the man to share his bed.
I paged through the report myself: After she left Reno, First Ursula took the train to Denver, where she apparently went to the offices of one “Putnam and Gold Traveling Circus.” The circus was performing that week in Iowa, so she inquired of the circus booking agent about purchasing an animal she’d once worked with, a performing bear named Boryenka. The booking agent explained that Boryenka had been dead for a year, put down by his trainer when he began to go blind. The booking agent didn’t recall Ursula being overly upset by the news of Boryenka’s demise, but they spent some time reminiscing about the bear and agreed that he was a rare talent, the booking agent saying the animal had grown so adept at the banjo in his last years that his facility rivaled that of a human player.
Edith spent another week in Denver, Willard wrote, eating and drinking until her money ran out.
I kept flipping pages, Brand narrating as I read.
“Finally, when she had nowhere else to go, she went back to Independence,” he said. “It was not a pleasant homecoming, and she stayed only two days. Her father is deceased, and her mother and sisters rejected her. Now she is in Des Moines, Iowa, at an SRO hotel, working as a waitress and”—here Brand cleared his throat—“augmenting her income in ways I asked Willard not to include in this report.”
The report fell to my lap. How far you have fallen. Your ruin. For a moment I could barely breathe. I looked down at the floor.
“You had to know I wasn’t going to bring her back here,” he said.
I looked back up at Brand.
“So I began thinking,” he said, “there must be some other reason you brought up my agreement with Ursula. And I realized that if I were in your position, I would do the same.” Brand reached into a valise next to his chair and produced another document. He handed it to me. There was a wax seal on it. It read Spokane County and Official Deed and Bill of Sale. The building was listed as the Bailey Hotel, Spokane, Washington.
“This is the hotel we talked about her running,” he said. “Fifty-two single-occupancy rooms that rent for five dollars a month. But that’s just on paper. We get three dollars a day from the thirty or so women who ply their trade in cribs on the alley side. That’s where the real money comes from. From that, I pay the police to look the other way.
Edith spent another week in Denver, Willard wrote, eating and drinking until her money ran out.
“The legal owner is a man named Burke. I pay the taxes, and the upkeep, and I give Burke ten dollars a month to serve as a front for my interests.”
I looked over the document. It was two pages long. At the bottom of the second page were two lines transferring ownership from Burke, who had signed below his name, to my legal name, Margaret Anne Burns. The contract was dated that day. Brand held out a fountain pen.
“Of course, you’ll get a better deal than Mr. Burke had,” he said. Then he pointed to a paragraph in the contract. “This deed transfers twenty percent of real ownership of the building to you, as well as that percentage of monthly income from the property. You’ll be responsible for twenty percent of upkeep, improvements, and taxes. This stake requires no cash investment on your part but will be in exchange for agreeing to assume management of the property and being its public face. You have the right to sell your stake at any time, but I retain first right of refusal to match any offer.”
It was quiet in the private dining room. My investment in the hotel was clear. His eyes sought out my chest and I felt my rib cage tighten, like I was still wearing the meat-filled corset.
I looked up into his eyes. Whatever First Ursula had seen there, she was right: A woman owns nothing of this world.
“Thirty percent,” I said.
He smiled, crossed out 20 on the contract and wrote 25, then initialed it. “And you will pay Burke five dollars a month for two years,” he said.
“I will pay Burke two and you will pay him three,” I said.
He held out the pen. I took it. He pointed. “Here,” he said, “and here. And here.”
When we were done, I set the pen down. It weighed forty pounds.
Then dessert came. Bread pudding.
Excerpted from The Cold Millions by Jess Walter. Excerpted with the permission of Harper. Copyright © 2020 by Jess Walter.