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The Divorcées


6 Weeks Earlier

The train smells like sweat, warm and sour. Once they entered Nevada, passengers could no longer keep the windows open, the desert wind whipping in red sand that coated their eyes and throats. “The summer’s first dust storm,” the conductor said. Now no one can stay clean. The air is fetid as a marsh and makes everything swell: the wooden banisters, the liver-colored seats, the pale face of the ticket taker. Everything ripens and splits, while outside the passengers’ windows the desert is hard as glass.

When Lois first boarded the train in Chicago two days ago, everyone looked ready for church, starched and ironed. A man in a navy suit and fedora gallantly swung her luggage into her compartment. She passed women who looked just like the Onwentsia Club matrons who snubbed her mother every time she asked about joining. Only after marrying Lawrence had Lois been allowed inside. In the dining car, the conversations around her were loud and joyous and she felt giddy from the shared feeling of escape, ordering two desserts with dinner—a temporary extravagance, undoubtedly not the way her father imagined her spending his money. At night, she lay awake listening to the hoarse laughter of men smoking cigarettes in the corridor, awed by the fact that she could join them and no one would know. She’d never been this far from home.

But in the heat, she is sullen and claustrophobic like everyone else, the sugared rush flattening to a familiar restlessness. When they first closed the windows, Lois rubbed the smooth nose of her Ivory soap beneath her armpits every few hours, splashing them with sink water. Eventually she found it was no use. Everyone has given up on certain proprieties. In the dining cars, people barely speak. Children scratch at their stomachs and whine like overheated dogs. Even the women who serve meals stop making conversation, wordlessly filling water glasses and handing out limp sandwiches. Lois sees one slip an ice cube into the cup of her bra.

In her compartment, Lois dreams of the shower in her house and its cool, mint-green tile. We’ll have to rip this out, Lawrence said. It won’t ever look clean. Lois told him that didn’t make sense. Color didn’t make something dirty. In her fevered state she finds herself saying this again and again, even though he’s nowhere near.

* * *

An hour or so from the station, everyone becomes nearly manic with relief. Passengers stop by other compartments to chat, making promises to have dinner together in Reno. A man outside Lois’s compartment explains to two others how best to count cards.

“And prepare yourself for the women,” he says, his voice dropping to a loud whisper. “At the casinos, it’s all chorus girls and divorcées.”

Lois draws closed the curtains for the windows that open to the corridor, muffling the men. She blackens Betty Grable’s lips with a ballpoint pen on the cover of a Silver Screen magazine. Plucks her eyebrows until the skin puffs in irritation. Outside the window, the desert looks bleached and barren, more like a backdrop for a film set than anything else, and she imagines reaching her hand out and, with one push, tipping it to the ground. It’s nothing like the lush lawns of Lake Forest, sparrows perched in the boxwoods.

There is a rapping on the glass of the compartment, and Lois sits up, re-buttoning her blouse so her bra doesn’t show.

“Excuse me,” a girl says, opening the door.

“Yes?” Lois says.

The girl steps inside the compartment, sliding the door shut behind her. She is around Lois’s age, in her early twenties, with the sort of freshly scrubbed prettiness that will grow faint as she gets older, and has clearly just put on a clean swing dress and done her makeup. The line of her upper lip is a perfect half heart. The innocent pink of a carnation. Lois becomes conscious of her oily face and open suitcase, dirty underwear foaming at its corners.

“Are you Lois Saunders?” the girl asks. Her voice is Southern, careful and considered.

“Yes,” Lois says, narrowing her eyes. “How do you—”

“I’m so sorry to bother you,” the girl says, taking a seat at the edge of the leather bench. “I’m Mary Elizabeth Shores, I mean, Brown—Mary Elizabeth Brown from Lexington, and I’m going to the Golden Yarrow too. They told me we’d be traveling on the same train, and I finally got one of the ticket takers to tell me where your compartment was. I hope this isn’t impolite.”

Lois remembers the girl from that first day in the dining car, when she was trying to pick out who else was traveling for the same reason. A fact most would be trying to hide, knowing how it would mark them. She looked for girls who were alone. They had to look deeply sad or deeply happy, though neither described Lois’s own emptiness, the crackle of a blank frame of film. Mary Elizabeth had been seated at the other end of the car, her sadness its own aura, quietly drinking a cup of tea. Her wealth was obvious in the weight of her silk blouse and tightly stitched cotton skirt, the studied choreography with which she moved her hands. Familiar to Lois as language. She knew her, and so had no interest in knowing her.

“You’re getting divorced?” Lois asks.

“Well, yes.” The girl glances at the door, confirming it’s shut and no one can hear them. “I think everyone will be, at the ranch. I’ve honestly been looking forward to that aspect of it. Not being the one everyone’s whispering about.”

“I suppose that’s true. Why are you getting divorced?”

“Oh.” Mary Elizabeth’s brow furrows. “There were difficulties, with my husband.”

“Ah.” It was forward of Lois to ask so quickly, and embarrassment flares in her stomach, the familiar feeling of saying the wrong thing.

“I thought we might find the driver together,” Mary Elizabeth says, delicately skipping over the beat of silence. “Charlie, if I’m remembering right. I honestly didn’t expect anyone else to be taking the train. I’m terrified of planes. I just don’t understand how they stay up there.” She laughs at her own foolishness, as if her fear could only be a joke.

“My father doesn’t trust them either, so, here I am.”

Lois would have preferred to fly. She thinks of the film Five Came Back, which her mother took her to see when she was nine years old. A chrome plane falling from the sky, the passengers awakening in the wet, seething dark of a jungle, their location untraceable. How even at that age Lois desired such an escape, no matter how violent the means. To open her eyes and find a different world.

“Well,” Mary Elizabeth says, standing and pressing her palms flat against her dress. “I’m so glad to have met someone before arriving. I’ll see you in an hour?”

Lois smiles and looks back down to her magazine, desperate to unbutton her blouse again in the still air of the compartment. But after Mary Elizabeth opens the door, she turns back to Lois, her skirt swishing.

“It’s good to start with a friend. A bit like camp, isn’t it?”

Lois nods, and Mary Elizabeth gives her a smile—as if they’re in on a secret together—before she closes the door. Lois feels a small thrill at this. She’s never been very close to any girl or woman aside from their housekeeper, Ela, and her mother, though her love burned in short, bright flares. As a child Lois was on her own too often, left to make up stories and imagine friends, like a large bulldog named Lacey, with whom she had tea every morning. Her mother always needed time to herself, their outings confined to when she would let Lois miss school so she’d have someone to go to the movies with in the afternoons, pulling Lois further away from her classmates, who were quick to sniff out any oddity. It will undoubtedly only be a matter of time until Mary Elizabeth senses this same strangeness; she’ll find other friends, and Lois will once again be alone.

Perhaps this will be for the best, she tells herself. It’s what she’s accustomed to. When she told her father she was going to Reno for the six weeks needed to establish residency and be granted a divorce, she imagined renting a room in a hotel, eating a rare steak alone at a table draped in thick white cloth, men watching her as she lit a cigarette. A new romance to her solitude. But her father refused to pay unless she went to one of the state’s famed ranches. He’d chosen a reputable institution that promised discretion and supervision for wealthy girls in her same position. You need to be watched, he said. Look what kind of a mess you get into when you’re left alone.

* * *

The ticket takers begin to walk through the corridors, telling everyone to pack up their belongings. Lois tucks a fresh shirt into her waistband. No amount of powder can salvage her sweat-streaked face, but still, she brushes on some peach blush and flattens a flyaway with a glob of spit, attempting to become presentable. Her lips are colored a self-possessed burgundy. She’s always thought she has a plain face, her skin made even paler by her black hair. Without lipstick and mascara, her features disappear, and so even when she’s home alone she puts on makeup just to assure herself that they exist. She loves the process of it, the slow recovery of her face. At school, she did makeup for all of the plays, and when her classmates would look in the mirror afterward, it was one of the rare times she experienced warmth from any of them, flushes of gratitude that would hang in the air briefly, like a breath of perfume.

When they pull into the station, the corridor is teeming with people, more than Lois ever imagined could fit on the train. After checking her reflection in the window glass one last time, she lugs her bags down the corridor, each suitcase banging against her knees. No man offers his assistance.

Outside, Reno stretches before her, low-lying brick buildings and store signs rimmed with light bulbs, dead in the daylight. Men in cowboy hats lean out of car windows and others shepherd women into backseats as if they’re lost lambs. Striped awnings billow in the desert breeze, and in the distance mountains rise. It’s nothing like Chicago or New York, the only cities she’s visited, with their austere gray skyscrapers, and its vast newness makes her heart trill.

Near the strip of idling motors, she sees Mary Elizabeth talking to a young man wrestling with her luggage. She takes a deep breath in. The red sand smells of the chalk in her old schoolroom and something else, something metallic and elemental, a note that catches in the back of her throat like blood.



The driver, Charlie, is not handsome. He’s young, with a wide face and too-full lips that are chapped and peeling. Lois feels a flicker of disappointment at this, the irritation of a cracked nail. She imagined someone rougher, older, like Robert Mitchum—the type of man who could kiss you so intensely you’d faint. Charlie does wear a cowboy hat, and after Mary Elizabeth comments on it he spends most of the car ride explaining the types of hats men wear in the West: Colorado cowboys wear ten-gallon hats, the high crown giving them insulation from the cold, whereas Nevada cowboys’ hats aren’t so exaggerated, needing a wide, flat brim to protect them from the sun. Mary Elizabeth listens politely, and Lois can’t tell if she’s actually interested or if Southern girls are simply better at feigning it.

Lois looks out the window as the buildings disappear behind them, giving way to ribbons of meadow and desert dirt, and she feels a sadness at leaving the city so quickly. The ranch is farther out in the country, twenty miles from the center of Reno—a selling point for her father, who told her she should learn to milk a cow. He’d purchased a meatpacking plant in Chicago just before she was born, always bringing home tripe and liver tightly wrapped in wax paper, pieces of meat that Ela would sigh over. He can bring you a porterhouse, and he brings you entrails, she would say to Lois’s mother as they drank bitter coffee by the stove. They’d let Lois sit with them, and she would entertain with exaggerated tales of her school days. The more she made them laugh or gasp, the longer she was allowed to stay. Stories as currency.

They pass a pasture, two blond horses dipping their heads into a trough. Charlie waves at a man leaning against a fence post, his hat tipped back from his forehead.

“Either of you ridden before?” Charlie asks.

“We grew up with horses, and I’ve actually competed. Though in English style,” Mary Elizabeth says.

“No kidding!” Charlie says.

“I never really placed or anything,” Mary Elizabeth says demurely, looking down at her knees. She turns to Lois. “Do they have stables in Chicago?”

“Outside of the city they do. I live in a town farther north, along the lake.”

Lois’s parents never thought to take her riding. In the Polish neighborhood where her mother and father grew up, horses pulled carts of firewood and dirt-caked potatoes. They were bred for bulk. The words Lois’s classmates used—Appaloosa, Friesian, Saddlebred—were incomprehensible, and when she asked to go to the stables, her father laughed as if it were a joke.

“Well, we have to go out on the trail together, then.”

Lois smiles. It is so simple, not to correct Mary Elizabeth’s assumption that she would have visited these stables. Lies have always come naturally to her, flowering from her hours alone, from watching too many films and reading too many of her mother’s books. Only Ela and the occasional teacher would catch her in one, though she suspects her mother sensed every falsehood and was simply too amused to consider punishment.

“We’ve got very gentle horses,” Charlie says. “Samson especially is one of the kindest horses I’ve ever come across in my life, stops when you so much as twitch at the reins. Though on the trails the heat can start to get brutal the closer we get to July.”

“Will we be able to make calls when we get to the ranch? I’ll need to tell my mother I’ve arrived safe and sound. I’m sure Lois will need to do the same,” Mary Elizabeth says.

“Of course.”

Grief shudders through Lois, and she rolls down the window, letting her fingertips fall over the blunted glass edge. It’s been nearly seven years since her mother passed, during the last gasp of the war. When her father told Lois what was going to happen—the months remaining, the waves of radiation that would burn through her mother’s body—Lois didn’t fully absorb it, the words hitting some barrier an inch beneath her skin. She had understood that her mother would die, but she hadn’t been able to imagine the complete absence that immediately followed, like a dark, dense shard of obsidian, absorbing all other light. This grief returns when she least expects it, sudden and surprising.

She knows this isn’t how she’ll miss Lawrence, though it’s been just under two weeks since she last saw him. She’s slept better without him lying next to her, even during the nights when she wakes in a tremor, restless with dreams she can’t recall.

* * *

“Well, there she is,” Charlie says, pointing over the steering wheel.

In the distance, a large white house rests beneath two maples, their branches shading the roof and long balcony that runs the length of the second story. Two cars gleam in the parking lot. It’s plainer than Lois imagined, given what her father said about its well-established reputation—all simple lines, each window edged in forest-green. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal for well-off girls used to much finer accommodations; the ranch offers them a novel existence—a reprieve or a punishment.

As they get closer, Lois sees the rope of a tire swing falling from a tree branch and the figures of two small girls. One is hugging the body of the tire, her legs dangling above the ground, and the other is slowly pulling the tire up and back. Soon the second girl drops her arms, and the tire swings like a pendulum. Lois didn’t expect to see children at the ranch. It doesn’t feel like a place where children should be, and for a moment she wonders if she’s imagining them. When she was little, sometimes she felt she really could see the girls and dogs she’d conjure to play with her, the desire for companionship so potent that a silhouette would singe the air.

When they finally pull into the lot, the girls have retreated into the house. Charlie tells them he will bring their suitcases up to their rooms and that they should meet the owner, Rita, in the living room to sign the register. Lois is desperate for a shower, but before she can ask Charlie if she can go directly to her room, the front door opens. Out steps a tall, handsome woman, her hair brushed back into short curls threaded with gray. She wears jeans and a button-up whose sleeves are rolled to reveal tanned, freckled arms. A kerchief is knotted at her neck, and three small dachshunds trot at her heels.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome,” the woman says, walking down the front steps, the dogs hopping alongside her, “to the Golden Yarrow.”

Copyright © 2024 by Rowan Beaird

The Divorcées
by by Rowan Beaird

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250896584
  • ISBN-13: 9781250896582