Excerpt

The Lost Wife

Susanna Moore

April 5, 2023 
The following is from Susanna Moore's The Lost Wife. Moore is the author of several novels, including In the Cut, Sleeping Beauties, and The Whiteness of Bones, and four books of nonfiction. She lives in New York City.

I pretended to be asleep until Ank left the room. Florence was with Ank’s sister Viola in Kingstown, and the house was quiet. When I could hear Ank in the shop, I jumped from bed and dressed, stuffing two books, a penknife, a dress, a salami, a moth–eaten tartan cape, and Maddie’s letters into a cardboard suitcase. The letters are two years old, but I have read them so many times, I know every word by heart. She says there is work to be had in the West, not just saloon–girl work like in the penny weeklies, but work you wouldn’t be ashamed to do. I wonder if she will be surprised to see me. Surprised to see I am alone. She never believed I would do it. I counted the money I’d saved, which came to forty–two dollars. I kept thirty dollars for myself, and wrapped the rest in a piece of butcher’s paper, sealed it in an envelope, and addressed it.

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When I heard Mr. Lombardi in the alley, I invited him into the kitchen for coffee. He delivers a supply of colored glass stones to the shop on the last Monday of the month and I was expecting him. I told him I needed to get to Boston, where my sister was ill. I have no sister, but he did not know that. If he would take me to the Fox Point station when he left, I could catch the afternoon train to Boston. When he agreed, I asked him not to tell Ank. I said I had been forbidden to see my sister as she lived in sin with another woman. It was the worst lie I could devise.

My wrist is bandaged where my husband burned me with the soldering flame, and I saw Mr. Lombardi glance at it, but he said nothing. He knew Ank did it. Everyone in our street knows Ank likes to hurt me. Viola knows. My mother knew, although she never did anything to stop it. “It is only what you deserve,” she said. “Anyone with the name Aniketos cannot be a proper Christian, and has to be a foreigner, maybe even a Greek. Or worse, a Turk.” How she determined that Greeks are not Christians is a mystery, but there is a long list of mysteries where my mother is concerned. Who, for instance, is my father? She refused to tell me. Maybe he, too, is Greek, which would account for my black eyes and hair, and the faint line of hair above my lip. She believed that during conception, the partner who had the strongest orgasm determined the looks of the child, which suggests that my father is Greek, after all. Or a Turk. And that she was is as cold as ice, but I knew that.

I met Mr. Lombardi on Eddy Street as we had planned. It was raining and we didn’t talk much, perhaps because we had nothing to say, and we were soon wet through, despite the tarp he threw over us. He had a pint of whiskey in his pocket and now and then took a drink, but he did not offer me any. He dropped me at the Fox Point station and I again reminded him that he was not to tell anyone he had seen me. When he handed down my bag, he slipped a half–dollar into my hand, which caused me to wonder if he believed my story, after all. As I watched him turn the corner, I told myself that everything that happened from then on would be a sign. Even the rain was a sign. It would erase my footprints.

I mailed the envelope and ran into the station. I arrived too late to catch the train to Albany, and spent the night in the waiting room. I thought the porters who wandered in and out might not like it if I sat on one of their benches in wet clothes, so I walked in circles to keep warm, eating the salami and shaking with cold. Every time a man came through the door, I was certain it was Ank and hid my face in my sleeve, but no one bothered me, except for one man who asked if I was free for the evening.

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I read Maddie’s instructions for the hundredth time. Once I reach Boston, I am to take a train to Albany, where I will board an Erie Canal packet boat which will get me as far as Buffalo. In Buffalo, I am to board a lake steamer to Chicago. The fare in steerage will be three dollars. In Chicago, I am to find a place on a wagon traveling to a port on the Mississippi River called Galena. Then another steamboat from Galena to St. Paul, Minnesota, where I am to find a stagecoach that will carry me to the town of Shakopee, where Maddie will be waiting for me.

*

I must have fallen asleep on the train to Albany, as I don’t remember leaving Boston. I was nudged awake four hours later by the conductor, surprised to see wheat fields and cows and barns. I asked him if he knew how I might find the Erie Canal Navigation Company in Albany, which turned out to be a fifteen minute walk from the station.

I bought a ticket on what is called a line boat, departing in an hour. It is sixty feet long and ten feet wide, and used mainly for freight which, the clerk warned me, meant not as select a company as I would find on a packet boat. As it is drawn by mules rather than horses, it is slower, but it is also cheaper. I am paying one cent a mile, which comes to three dollars and ninety cents. It will take five days to reach Buffalo.

I bought some peanuts and a ham sandwich and cider with Mr. Lombardi’s half–dollar, reckoning it an unexpected treat, and ate the peanuts while I waited on the landing. Alongside me was an elderly woman holding a small gilded cage with a rabbit in it. Also a minister who asked if he might preach to us from the Bible. I didn’t know how I could refuse and said nothing, but the woman with the rabbit said, “I’d prefer not. I’m given to seizures.”

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*

It is my third day on the line boat. I sit on a three–legged stool on the roof of the main cabin, although there are two spindly chairs in the bow, occupied by the old lady and her rabbit. A row of barrels and narrow crates line the sides of the boat, beginning at the bow. I sleep below deck in a wooden frame with a sacking bottom. The others sleep in cots packed into the main cabin, the men separated from the women by a serge curtain, strung each night on a sagging wire.

I feel unaccountably pleased with myself. I haven’t felt this way in a long time, maybe never. I am on my way to Buffalo. No one has clapped his hands around my neck or burned me. Except for Mr. Lombardi, I haven’t told a lie in five days. Now and then, I am frightened by my freedom, wondering what I am meant to do with it. In the past, that is a week ago, it was a relief when things remained merely themselves.

One of the boatmen, a slight Irish boy, high-shouldered and bony with a chipped front tooth, saw that I had no dinner last night and told me that I could eat each evening in the main cabin provided I pay for it. “It will cost you twenty cents,” he said, taking a certain pride in what seemed to him an exorbitance. Tonight I sat at a long communal table with the boatmen and one other woman and ate baked beans and pork and green tomatoes. No one spoke, which was fine with me.

My penknife was stolen from my suitcase last night.

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*

The boy’s name is Dennis. He told me was an orphan with a sister in a convent in Ottawa, which did not surprise me as I learned at Dexter Asylum to spot an orphan a mile away. He has a tin whistle, a Doolin whistle, he says, and when the teasing by his fellow hands goes too far (the outline of a large crucifix is clearly visible beneath his shirt), he plays his whistle until they settle down. When he saw a book in my lap, he said he was teaching himself to read and asked if he could borrow it from me. I gave him Ivanhoe as I had finished it that morning and did not want to carry it. He returned half an hour later, having noticed it was a library book, to ask if he was breaking the law as the book was long overdue, but I assured him it would be all right. When my hat blew away, he gave me his neckerchief to wear around my head. I have no mirror, but I could see myself in the canal. I look like my mother.

Last night, I dreamed that Florence and I lived in Nova Scotia, and this morning, I almost jumped from the boat to find my way home even though I know Ank would kill me.

__________________________________

Excerpted from The Lost Wife by Susanna Moore. Copyright © 2023 by Susanna Moore. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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