The True Story of Boy Kaleen
Nothin' in that legendary storythe famous one about how me and a couple rips euchered the scoundrels tryin' to bulldoze that gal, Catherine, out of her inheritanceexplains things right. How it come I passed my life full as a tick, suckin' gravel, and losin' the pretty girl to some sweet-talkin' Belvidere. Neither did it say how it come my brother, Tom, a disreputable cad in that yarn, sported a silver nose. You would suspect such fantastical particulars, even slapped on willy-nilly, would make for good readin', but maybe folks only like to hear about a pretty girl and how she got hitchedlike in that story, Rose O' The Riveror somethin' foolish like that.
Me, I like a story that stops with the villain in a boot yard. And I like to fancify I put him there myself. I wrote some tales like that once upon a time. Maybe you come across one.
There is always a reason, piss poor as it might be, why men go to see the elephant most every night. I am not sayin' Tom or me would have turned out as ace-high dudes if we come from different stock, but what chance did we have of a fairy tale endin' comin' up from where we did.
It was back in '56. Ma worked in one of the hundreds of saloons that sprung up overnight after the Rush got goin'. They called the women who worked in 'em entertainers, and their lot was a hard'un.
Nine fires scorched the Hill that first year. Wasn't malice neither. Men, in a hurry, tossed up edifices no better made than need be. No sooner would fire take a fandango or a bed house down than those varmints threw one up agin. Too much money was walkin' the streets on Telegraph Hill for those cankers not to find a way to put four walls 'round it. Those buildings caught fire easysittin' there like a pile of kindlin' awaitin' a spark. Ma told us later about one bawdy house nearby where more than three hundred gals bedded eighty men in a few hundred square feet every day. That's what that Rush brought in.
Ma was good-lookin' and come west from the old states through Panama. Just sixteen that year, she believed herself to be a catalogue woman headin' to California to get hitched to some lonely man who just got the mitten from his lady friend. That's what the telegram from Mr. Plummer said anyway. When she stepped off the ship, Mr. Plummer was standin' there in his fine suit attudinizing to get the attention of the business men floodin' the dock. He hardly noticed her at all, and when he did, it was off to a saloon, lickety-split. That was how those big bugs did it back then, brought gals up the Pacific on a paddle wheel steam ship to work the saloons and bed houses. Flannel mouth saloon keepers and businessmen paid their passage, and the girls spend years workin' off their obligation.
Those Forty-niners had plenty of dimes and nothin' to do at night 'cept swill some of the oh-be-joyful, play card games, fight like Kilkenny cats, and find a woman. Ma was one of the table sitters most night, encouragin' men to lay down their silver to buy her a drink, offerin' up an encouragin' word when the idea of leavin' the table got aired. 'Course she had to let the occasional pushy scoundrel bed her otherwise Mr. Plummer would adjust her contract. He had himself a paper that could land her in the calaboose if she didn't meet her obligation. Pretty soon most of those girls were drunks, lungers, sportin' the clap or dead and few ever worked off their contract. But shiploads of new entertainers lined up to take their places every day. Same went for fresh miners and new scoundrels lookin' to make their fortune. No sooner did a bed empty than a new body settled in.
Dog-tired from panning for gold by dinnertime, those miners were addle-headed enough to lay down their silver faster than they earned their gold. And some of 'em were nothin' more than shave tails, real easy to cheat. Those was wild times, and there was few nights that didn't see some blacksmith layin' out a gal with the back of his hand. Ma was one of the best, but she still caught a black eye more weeks than not from whatever mudsill Plummer had on the payroll.
Then tragedy, in the form of me and Tom, struck. Ma swilled a variety of potions, had a doctor put a tube with some poison up inside her, tried ridin' the wildest horse in town, and took a tumble down the wooden stairs behind the saloon. But there was no way a coupla rips like Tom and me could be turned back by such simple means. Ma took to her bed when the pain got real bad and things went as quick as a laddie's first time. She had herself a Chinese woman there to help with the situation.
"Geez." Mr. Plummer said, peering nearsightedly from the doorway when Tom's butt suddenly slid out. "Ugliest nipper I ever seen." He shook his head. "I can visualize him on a wanted poster in the post office already." Plummer was a sooth-sayer or he was layin' down a curse 'cause it did come about.
"Hobble your lip, James Plummer," Ma said. "That's the babe's hind quarters you are lookin' at." And with that she gave an enormous grunt and expelled me along with the rest of Tom.
"Lordy," Mr. Plummer said, fanning his red face. "It is not only that there's two of 'em, Pearlie, though that is a surprise. It's that they come into this world kissin'. Two little Nancy boys, I reckon."
And we was all right. Kissin,' that is, 'cause we was joined at the nose. Before Ma could say a word, James Plummer took a knife from his holster and severed us with one quick swipe. Jus' cut us in two like he was slicin' nothin' more vital than apples. Tom's nose was missin' a fair-sized piece and mine sported a bit extra when it was done. Both of us were screamin' to beat the band.
"Good lungs anyway," Plummer said. He cleared his blade of some pieces of skin and bone and stashed it away. He looked down at the screamin' twins. "Those two gonna wake the snakes."
"What did you do that for, James Plummer?" Ma said. "Don't we have surgeons for such things?"
"How could they breathe nose to nose?" Plummer said practically. "I saved your little guttersnipes, you ungrateful mauk." He looked at my brother and me speculatively. "Wonder if we can get 'em into one of those travelin' shows?" Then he got all crotchical and frowned. "Guess I shoulda let 'em be. Been more of a draw stuck togethercould have called 'em the kissin' brothers."
"You are a villain," Ma said. "Tryin' to get some actual out of my babes before Ming wipes off the blood or cuts the cord." She nodded at her helpmate, and in a few minutes, Ming had swaddled Tom and me and Ma was holding us, one at each breast.
"Don't get any ideas about keepin' 'em, Pearl."
"Quit yammerin', you ole fool. I have made my arrangements." Ma could look righteous even with her particulars on display.
"What arrangements?" He looked at her suspiciouslike.
"The Mercies gonna take 'em. Didn't know they was gonna be twins, but the Sisters' will take 'em."
"What sisters? You mean those two old whores work at the Palace? Ones with the wandering eye."
"No, you fool. Mother Russell and her Sisters. They came here on a boat just like me, but the Sisters didn't get taken in by scalawags like you. Those ladies opened a hospital and an orphanage, and they'll take my boys."
This arrangement suited Mr. Plummer, and Tom and I were taken there the next day. Ma visited us when she could and things looked headed for a happy endin.' But me and Tom, we just couldn't get along. We was all horn and rattles, day in and day out. Tom never could get past the notion I stole his nose. You can see why he thought that 'cause the tip of it was sitting on my face in plain sight. I would wake up at night and find him clawing at me. He was ugly all right, but I wasn't pretty neither.
"Just tryin' to get what's mine," he'd say before I lit into him.
The Sisters would tell him agin and agin how it was it happened. Ma would tell him too, but he never did listen. And thenwhen he was between hay and grasshe shinnied out of there, and I never saw him agin till the day in Wyoming when I plugged him. But that was long after these events.
Inside me, there was a festerin' goin' on too. No matter how good the Sisters were, no matter what Ma told me on those Sunday visits, I had myself a yearnin'same one sent my brother off. I began to wonder what hard case Ma held the blanket back for. Maybe neither Tom nor me stood a chance of leading an upright life.
After a year or two, spent mostly on my knees 'cause the Sisters were trying to wean the bad outta me, I stopped beatin' the devil around the stump and flat-out asked Ma about my Pa. I was nearly fourteen by then and Ma was livin' in a place Mother Russell opened for entertainers. A place the ladies was safe, so Ma had nothin' to fear from Plummer or his blacksmiths.
"Ma," I said. "When ya gonna tell me who my daddy is." The last years had been hard on her, and she didn't have long to live now that consumption had crept into her lungs. I was runnin' out of time to find my daddy's name.
"I reckon it hadda be that kid. He was hardly older than myself," she said. I could see she had thought on it hard.
"Do you remember his name?"
"T'was a funny name," she said, "and I do remember part of it. Told me his name was Liberty."
"Liberty what?" I asked.
She looked into the distance. "Now that's where things get a little muddled," she said, "what with all that was going on down yonder my waist. I think his name had somethin' to do with curtains."
"Curtains?" I said. "Liberty Curtain? Liberty Sash?"
"Naw, that wasn't it. But somethin' like that, Son."
"How 'bout Draper?" I said after a minute's thought.
"Maybe," she said doubtfully. "He was a real curly wolf anyway. If I never come 'cross him again, it would be a good piece of luck."
I thought it best to not ask why. She was my mother after all. "Sure is a funny name, Ma, and I won't forget it any time soon." Maybe I would run across that Draper some day.
"Never dreamed Liberty would be the one to plant a nipper in memuch less two."
She patted my head, and I wished I was worthy of her shinin' love. She would never know the man I feared I was growin' into.
Ma died six months later, and I was off my feed for a long time. The Sisters sent her off like she was one of 'em and not an entertainer. But she was like a nun those last years. Like as not, you would find her scrubbin' a floor or peelin' potatoes. Or, on her knees, the beads in her hands.
It was time for me to leave California. Maybe I could find that Liberty Draper. Or maybe my brother, Tom. I decided to call myself somethin' other than Robert, to set the past behind me, and I picked the name Boy Kaleen. People always called me boy anyway and Kaleen was the name of a man who'd been kind to me and sweet on my Ma.
San Francisco was finished for me so I packed my plunder and headed east, hoping to make my mark on the world. I had some stories to tell, I reckoned. Ma had left me a little money and I had a bit of my own, so I dickered till I owned a halfway decent horse, a saddlebag soft with its age, and a bottle of liquor for those cold Wyoming nights.
Copyright © 2012 by Patti Abbott