The Last Helping of Roadhouse Stew

A Historical Fiction set at the Washoe House

Petaluma, California

Chapter One:  1938

Washoe House 1

He walked into the Washoe House and immediately looked up. He smiled to see that the ceiling was still covered with hundreds, maybe thousands, of old dollar bills pinned to the ceiling. Somehow those dollar bills combined with the smell of grilled meat and fried potatoes on top of a foundation of burnt tobacco and beer assured him that all was well. It was just as he recalled it.

Washoe 1

Washoe 2

“Welcome to the Washoe Roadhouse. Is this your first visit?”

He set his suitcase down at the nearest bar stool and rotated his shoulders to loosen up after his long drive. “Thank you. It was many years ago, but I stayed here once before. I’m also running late and hope you still have a room for Rollin Jensen.”

The young hostess was also the bartender and she glanced at the nearby reservation book and smiled. “Yep.  You’re our only guest this week so your room is ready for you.” She was wearing an old but clean brown cotton dress and a high neck apron. He noticed an odd ornate ring on her hand when she reached across the bar to pat his hand. “Let’s get you settled so you can get some dinner before we close the kitchen.  You’ll feel much better after a hot meal and cold beer.

As she walked past him holding his room key, he noticed the ring on her finger again this time noticing the blue yarn she’d used to make it fit her finger and thought. Defiantly not a wedding ring. I’m surprise some guy hasn’t married this gal. It’s an odd ring; more of a man’s, maybe a boy friends ring.

“Earl, can you watch the bar for me for a few minutes?  I’m showing a guest to his room. Oh and if the Hawkins boy walks in, he gets nothing until he pays his tab from last week.” She grabbed a room key and a fresh towel as she led him upstairs.

Rollin quickly changed into a fresh shirt and returned to his seat where a cold beer was waiting for him.  “Ah – you know how to treat a tired man right.” His voice sounded much better. “It was a crazy day at work and I was hoping to leave earlier for the drive up, but it didn’t work out.” He took a big sip of the beer and asked, “What’s your name young lady?”

Assuming the iconic bartender pose of wiping a glass with a small clean towel, she answered, “My name is Carolyn and it’s my pleasure.  How long ago was your first visit here and where are you from?”

1935-ford-model-48

“Well, Miss Carolyn, It was 1917 and I worked for Wells Fargo in San Francisco. West Sonoma County was a lot younger and growing like crazy. I still work for Wells Fargo, but back then I helped plan the stage coach lines but today, I help open new bank branches. Back then I had to cross San Francisco bay on a ferry and take a stage coach north but today I have a slightly used 1935 Ford Model 48 and drove myself across the new bridge. Man! It was a sight to behold! Everyone is going to want to do it. I’ve driven it five times now and it’s always breathtaking.  Have you done it yet?”

“The Goldengate Bridge? Me?” she laughed at the thought. “No, I hardly ever get further away from here than Petaluma or Santa Rosa.  I was pretty much born and raised right here. My grandmother and mom all worked here. Mom and I lived upstairs. I still live in that same room and work pretty much keeps me right here. I only get to hear about the rest of the world from guests.”

“Well, I can tell already, your mom must be someone special because you turned out so friendly and helpful. Being greeted by someone who understands customer service is a simple, but important comfort after a long trip. You make it look easy.”

“Thanks, but my mom is dead and gone. She managed to keep me alive but not much else. I don’t want to talk her down and times were hard then but she was not a good woman. My Grandma Leann, did more to raise me than my own mom did.

“But let me get your order started before Earl has to shut the kitchen down. If you’re really hungry, his beef stew is a local favorite, but his chicken breast and creamed potatoes with cheese are my favorite. Garlic bread is included and you’ll sleep like a baby if you cap it all off with some of Earl’s cherry pie.”

He ordered the stew and took another long draw on his beer while she asked, “I see you’ve reserved six nights. Is that going to be long enough to open a new bank branch?”

 “I’m only vetting some possible locations this trip but yea, that should be enough time. Depending on who is available and when, I might need a few more nights. Do you think you’ll still have room?”

“Oh, the times being what they are, that won’t be a problem.”

There were few other customers so she stayed close and got to know this stranger. Rollin and Carolyn talked and laughed as he enjoyed dinner right at the bar.

“So, how old were you when you were here before?”

“Oh my. Let me think. I was 24. I was here expanding the stage coach routes out to Cazadero.  I was here for almost 2 weeks and got to know the west county pretty well; riding to Bodega and even Cloverdale. It was very pleasant work, but it was work.” His eyes drifted away from hers as he remembered. “It was early winter and a few days were very wet.  You look pretty young so I doubt you were even born.”

“I was born in 1918 and just turned 19 so I missed you by a year.  I do remember the stage coaches though. Mom said that I once told her they looked like little bedrooms on giant wheels. I also remember mom taking me out to visit the horses so I could watch them being changed out from pulling the stage coach.”

“That’s right. We stabled 20 of them here until the lines were shut down because the automobile was taking over.”He smiled and took another bite thinking, and I recall my first visit here. I met and fell in love with Iris. She was just 18 – a beautiful waitress. We got to know each other over meals, then short dates after work. She was so full of life. I was just a traveling low-level worker without much to offer but we rented wagons or horses to visit restaurants and theaters in downtown Petaluma. On one of her days off, we rode up into the Sonoma Mountains just to picnic and enjoy the view.

Another customer came up to the bar and Carolyn excused herself to help him while Rollin finished his meal.

He’d been postponing recalling Iris, but once started, she flooded back into his mind. The bar, the restaurant, the wagon and horseback rides all led up to the last night of my stay. We were tired after a long ride but so happy. I walked her to her room only 2 doors from my own and kissed her good night. I let that kiss take us to her bed and the next morning, I asked her to come home with me and be my wife but she waved me off playfully saying, “I think you say this to all your road girls. It’s been fun and I hope you come back, but I have a good thing here and I know nothing about San Francisco.”

I was hopelessly love sick the next day as I packed and then boarded the stagecoach for home.  I wrote to her over the next few weeks but she never answered, not even once.   Her memory haunted me and the following year when I came up again, I decided that I wasn’t going to chase her like a love-sick teenager when she doesn’t care enough to even answer a letter. I stayed in Petaluma instead, attended to business, didn’t even visit the Washoe House and finally went home desperately lonely.

I realized it was time to get on with life . . . . So I did.

Stagecoach WF

Chapter Two:  Carolyn

“Good morning Mr. Jensen.  Did you sleep well?”

The whole bar area smelled like freshly cooked bacon. “Good morning.  After that dinner last night, I’m surprised I woke up at all. We have some great restaurants in the city, but your Earl is every bit as good as any San Francisco chef I know.”

Today, she was wearing a yellow flowered dress, once again all but covered with her large apron. Today she had a matching hair ribbon that whipped around as she scrambled back and forth to service a group of local ranchers having breakfast at the bar or dashing to check others in the dining room. Rollin smiled and ordered some pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon with toast and coffee.

She noticed him considering a newspaper as she bought his meal out and, on a whim, poured two fresh mugs of coffee. “I’m ready for a break.” She said with a cute smile. “Want to share a table with me?” He really is friendly, she thought.

Rollin smiled, picked up his plate and with a grand sweep of one hand as if welcoming her to the dining room, answered, “Any table you’d like Madam.”

He really is charming. Like a successful businessman, smart, polite even refined.

They settled at a clean table and she sat so she could watch the front door for new arrivals. “So, exactly how does someone open a bank office Mr. Jensen?”

“It’s just normal stuff really. We study the demographics of different places to try and guess how many customers we might attract, try to find the best balance of costs to potential profit and such. It’s just the same as if we were opening a shoe store, grocery store or roadhouse really.  We sell bank services; savings accounts, loans, certain investments, so we have to have a nice building or office that is attractive and professional looking, just like a roadhouse absolutely has to have a good cook, dining room, bar and a strikingly effective hostess.”

“Aww, how sweet of you to sneak in such a nice comment.”

“I’m not just flattering you. I think with your people skills, you could be part of any business which depends on great customer service.”

“You really think so? Even if I have no idea what ‘demographics’ are?”

Rollin laughed. “I’m sorry, it’s just a business word that means what kind of people might be your customers. The demographics for the Washoe House would be things like, how many ranchers and farmers are nearby as compared to factory workers or merchants, families or military? Are they mainly men or women or whole families? Are they rich or poor, blue collar or white, newly married or retired?”

“Really?  You study stuff like that. It seems so obvious to me. Couldn’t you sit outside different places and take notes on who walks by.”

“It’s a bit more complicated than that, but yes, we do and this information informs us as to where it makes the most sense to open up an office. The Washoe House has been here for decades and even with prohibition and the market crash, you know who your customers are, but a new business or branch can’t know this without studies.  Also, the Washoe is only a few feet away from Stony Point Road, a major artery between Petaluma and Santa Rosa. There’s a small dead-end road just west of here. How successful would the Washoe Roadhouse have been if they’d opened up down that road?”

“I see.  If they had done that, there would have been almost no drive-by traffic and therefore a lot less business. We tried to stay open after prohibition, but without this bar, almost no one came in. But if we’d been located down that dead-end street, no one would have.”

As the conversation unfolded, Carolyn was impressed by Rollin.  Without trying, he made her feel smart, engaging her in a simple conversation, including her thoughts into how businesses were run, enjoying teaching her new things.

Many of her guests were much less refined, concerned only about ranch or farm work, smelling like animals or fertilizer and even acting like animals if they had too much to drink.   I bet no one walks into a bank and pats the ass of their bank teller like the ranch hands do our waitresses or like the Andrews of the world.

And just like that, the full memory of Andrew burst back into her thoughts. She had been twelve years old, living with her mom upstairs in the north-east room. Some evenings, during prohibition when the club members had a rare dance and pot luck, she and a couple of friends would wander around the in the upstairs large dance hall because there was nowhere else for them to be while their parents visited, ate and danced. They weren’t allowed to hang around the closed bar or the card rooms, but when they were in the dance hall, they became almost untraceable as they wandered and mingled with the guests, listening and dancing to the oil-lamp lit music.

Andrew was 15 years old and had been my friend for several years, but when he had to start working for real wages, he also started showing off by sharing his dessert with me if I stood near him at his table and talking all friendly-like while getting me used to his touch, then hugs, then rubbing my back and thighs beneath the table cloth. It felt special at first and I liked his attention, but his touches got confusing. I wrote it off to my not having a father around to teach me things. Maybe all this was normal between friends. I sure saw a lot of similar touching between our customers. He had that innocent air about him and treated me like I somehow knew more than he did and asking if he was touching me right and telling me that because his mom wasn’t around so he didn’t know how to show that he liked me. He even said he trusted me to teach him what girls liked. Looking back, what he did beneath the table cloth in the dining room when mom wasn’t looking didn’t feel really wrong but the night he asked me to meet him in the parking lot to help care for his wagon horses certainly was not me teaching him anything. That was him raping me.

I tried talking to Mom, but she was too focused on getting more men to spend the night with her to make extra money. All the men on her bed sounded like Andrew in that wagon and I realized what mom was doing all those years when I was trying to sleep on my old baby mattress behind the dresser.

When I told Grandma Leann, she told me the world does not protect women from men like Andrew. But she said she has an answer for me and dug out an old cookbook for me. She turned to where she’d added a page for her own recipe, “Oh-Leann’s Stew,” she said, “I created this recipe for situations just like your Andrew. Don’t ever eat or even taste it yourself. All you need to do is make it up and give him a bowl and he’ll never bother you again.”

oleander

All the ingredients were normal except for the oleander leaves from her hedge. She told me that if anyone asked, I was to tell them that they were bay leaves because they look so similar.  She even told me I could also use the flowers if I wanted to dress it up. I realized how easy it would be to just add some minced leaves to Earl’s stew and served it to Andrew the following week.  He made it home okay but was dead in his bunk the next morning.

“Carolyn? Are you okay?” His voice snapped her back to their breakfast table.  “Did I say something, because whatever you were thinking about looked . . . ?”

“I’m sorry,” she interrupted. She shook Andrew out of her mind and found her smile again. “I just recalled something painful from long ago. Life at the Washoe wasn’t always easy. Sometimes business got pretty slow and money was tight. Sometimes, we had to do things we didn’t like with people we didn’t like. I was too young to remember much of it, but when prohibition closed our bar, we tried to stay open but had to close the business until we quietly opened up for a private friends and family club and some one-off parties. Even with all that, they were hard years at the Washoe, hard on my mom and hard on me.  Mom and I kept our room upstairs, but only as caretakers for the building to earn our room and board.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. This is such a pretty place to live, but work is rarely easy or pleasant. Those days were hard in San Francisco too. A lot of businesses went bust trying to stay afloat.

 “But tell me more about you and growing up around all this. Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

Carolyn relaxed some, trying to get to a different frame of mind, but his question was just another door into the same room of damaged baggage she wished she could forget. “No,” she answered, dropping her gaze to the table. “Remarkably, it was just mom and me and the Washoe. There weren’t many kids around to play with, but my grandma was nearby and watched me while mom worked. She had a room up at the Jacobsen ranch. Before I was born, she ran the Washoe Post Office until Cotati opened one closer to downtown. When I was old enough to do chores, I was expected to do them to help the doors open as part of our room and board. For a while I was the youngest waitress around but figured out quickly that a girl is actually safer behind the bar where she’s mostly out of reach of creepy customers.”

Rollin made a shocked face. “You’re not kidding are you?” He looked around. “I’m not that blind am I? I’ve not noticed this was going on, and am appalled to know it. I recall that there were a few rowdy nights when I was here before, but I was young and focused on my own concerns but now, things seem more, I don’t know, more civilized.” He turned back to face her with a look that made his words seem more like a question than a statement.

“It is better now. I’ve learned some ways to deal with such treatment and, well, let’s just say that some people just don’t come around anymore.”

“Still, that must have been a hard way to grow up. I should have guessed – knew it was possible I suppose, but sometimes I can be naive about such things. I was raised to respect everyone around me or I would be answering to my parents about it. I learned early on to never treat someone like you describe. I’m sorry I brought it up.”

“It’s okay.  Like I said, I learned how to deal with it and here I am – alive and still employed.” Carolyn took another sip of her coffee and leaned back to just think about how things had change, her difficult life with her mom and her men customers, the changes of Washoe House, our business over the years and how I moved from waitress to barmaid and hostess, housekeeper, gardener and all the other jobs I’d done to earn my room and board, the scary characters who had walked in the door and the families and now Rollin.  I wish we had a lot more customers like him.

“Let me try once more for a non-painful topic. How did the Washoe manage to stay open during the prohibition years?”

“I think it really boiled down to two things. Mr. Wilson’s private club that didn’t use the bar in case we were ever visited by the federal inspectors and Wine Bricks.

“Mr. Wilson was the owner and still is. He got some friends and families together to share dinner resources. They all lived close enough to be here most nights for dinner and everyone contributed produce or meat, shared cooking and cleanup and paid him a small membership fee which still saved everyone money for the quality of food we got. Sometimes we had lamb or venison, sometimes turkey or pheasant but mostly we had beef or pork. One family came in from Bodega and they always brought fish or shellfish from the ocean. We always had fresh produce from the family gardens, eggs, milk and butter but sometimes we had to get creative when we missed ingredients. Mom and I always served because we couldn’t contribute food but everyone was friendly about it.”

“That sounds wonderful actually, very communal, but I didn’t recognize his second idea. What’s a wine brick?”

“You’re not much of a drinker are you, Mr. Jensen?”

“It is that obvious?”

She just smiled at him and continued. “Did you know that the California wine industry survived prohibition despite not making any wine? — No?  Well, they did and they did it by changing from wine to wine bricks so they could use their existing vines and factories and be ready if the 18th amendment was quickly repealed.  It wasn’t, but that didn’t matter much because they found a great market for their condensed grape juice wine bricks which were completely legal. Each brick was even clearly labeled, with directions to mix the concentrate with a gallon of water, but NOT TO leave the jug in a cool cabinet for 21 days because that would allow it to turn into wine. So anyone who wanted wine could easily make it themselves as long as they stayed below the limit of 200 gallons and none of it ever left their home. The Washoe house had several cabinets used for storing grape juice from these bricks and for a while we were local distributors of the bricks so we made some income selling them.”

Rollin beamed. “That’s brilliant. I wondered how some folks in San Francisco always seemed to have access to wine and now I know.  This is wonderful Carolyn.

“Well, look out the window. It’s going to be warm and wonderful day. I’m looking forward to getting out and meeting several people this morning who might be part of our new Petaluma branch. There’s a lot of details to work out but we’ll see if we can get everyone to agree. Might be a long day though. Will I see you tonight?”

They talked about her schedule and he said, “I need to be on my way. Thank you for your very pleasant company to start my day.”

Washoe 3

 

 Chapter Three:  Rollin

Five days later, Rollin walked in the door in the middle of the dinner hours, and set his briefcase down on the floor in front of his bar seat.  “Hello Mr. Jenson,” Carolyn said, welcoming him back. “You look ready for your normal beer.”

“Nope, not tonight Carolyn. I need two shots of whiskey and some civil company.”

“Ooo – this sounds like a hard day happened. Let me grab them for you.”  She laid two shot glasses on the bar and expertly filled them to the brim.  You know; I’m pretty sure that this is the first hard booze I’ve poured for you.”

“Today, we almost walked away from the idea of opening the new branch because some dim-witted, government bureaucrat is thinking up any odd thing he can to reject our permit.”

Rollin carefully picked up one of the shot glasses and slowly sipped the top down to where he could safely down the rest in one swallow. Carolyn resisted the urge to laugh as she could tell that he was not used to gulping whiskey shots. His eyes and shoulder screamed distress and she could imagine the alcohol burning a path down his throat.  He tried to make light of it, but his voice turned raspy and he wheezed, “I swear sometimes — I think these people – they just don’t like businesses or growth no matter how badly the city needs it. This idiot had all the partners around the table so angry that I thought things might get violent.

“And, man! Carolyn — that’s powerful whiskey.”

She smiled and glanced at the large clock, “If you can nurse that second shot for a about an hour, my shift will be over and we can have dinner together again.“

“Now that is easily the best offer I’ve heard all day. This has been one of those days when I think a doughnut shop would be much easier. A man and his wife could make enough money to lead long and happy lives. The only business problem you might have is someone not happy with their doughnut. I’d give them a new one for free and, poof! Like magic, everyone’s happy again – except for the tax man who would be trying to figure out how to tax that free doughnut.”

She laughed and said, “Just sip that second shot slowly so you’re sober for dinner. I’d like to hear more about your day.”

He pushed the empty glass across the bar to her and answered, “Agreed. I think that first shot already cured my mood or maybe distracted me from thinking about the day.” He moved to pick up the second shot and then said, “Perhaps I will hold off starting this shot for just a few minutes – or maybe not.”

“Here. You left so early this morning that I don’t think you had time to read the newspaper. Give that throat a chance to recover and I’ll be back in a bit.”

Rollin nodded but sipped his way through the second shot faster than he intended and asked for a third as he felt the soothing liquor unwind the tension of his day. He glanced at the news, but struggled to focus until he reached an article about how slowly progress has been with the paving Old Redwood Highway from Petaluma through Penngrove and Cotati to Santa Rosa. When finished, it would improve travel between Petaluma and Santa Rosa and be great for business, but it’s too bad it’s bypassing Stoney Point Road and the Washoe House, he thought. They could use a break after the decade of prohibition. 

Nothing else caught his interest and he was just letting the clock run out on Carolyn’s shift so he could enjoy her company with dinner.

He really felt the whiskey as he tried to stand and move to claim a table for them. He felt awkward walking into the dining room, but thought he did pretty good job of hiding it. His head rushed again as he stood to greet her when she finally joined him.

“So do you want to tell me about your day?  You could teach me what a ‘burrow craft’ is.”

Rollin snorted a quick laugh. “Oh let’s not waste too much time on them. The word is ‘bureau-crat’ and for those of us who work for a living, being called a bureaucrat would not a compliment. In short, they are unelected, government employees who push needless paper, write needless rules and control businesses or people who do work for a living.”  Then he leaned in towards her and whispered for no reason she could see, “And get this.  They are hardly ever fired for doing a bad job.”

Carolyn was not sure what all this meant, but could see that Rollin had little respect for government workers. At first she thought she understood but then she thought. Why do I so easily accept his opinions? I know a couple of people who work for a city or county office and they don’t seem like bad people. Maybe this is the whiskey talking or I just don’t understand. Maybe it’s time to change topics.

“Mr. Jensen, can you tell. . .”

“Carolyn,” he held a hand up and interrupted, “I think we know each other well enough now for you to call me by my first name — like my other friends?” His face was redder than normal and she knew that those whiskey shots of had done more than softened his mood.

She smiled, complimented again that this accomplished business man want to be her friend.

Most customer’s want me to remember my place as their servant. I wonder if he’s just being nice or not holding his liquor well or – is he just being smooth so he can manipulate me later?  She immediately regretted thinking ill of him but she’d been surprised by smooth talkers before.  But Rollin Jensen seems so authentic. I hope I can trust him.

“I’d like to be your friend, Rollin.” Then thinking it would be a safer topic for them to talk about said, “In fact, I’d love to hear what you recall of the Washoe House during your first visit.”

She expected him to smile at her suggestion but instead he made an unexpected uncomfortable face as he recalled, what? Something painful or regretted?  What’s he thinking?

He leaned back, fussed some with his drink. “Well, I could do that, but would like to do something else first. With all the meals we’ve shared, I’ve not once offered to buy you a drink. I have presumed on your working here and realized that I’ve not seen you drink any of the fine beverages that you serve to your customers. Would it be polite of me to buy you one of these whiskey shots to go with my next one?

Carolyn was charmed, yet again. Her customers often offered to buy her drinks but only because they were so drunk as to leave her thinking their offers were little more than lubricate for a sleazy pickup line. Several times she’d let them buy her a drink, but filled her glass with something non-alcoholic of the same color so they thought she was drinking with them. 

But she wanted to trust Rollin so she accepted.  He got up, carefully walked back into the bar, purchased two new shots of whiskey and returned to set one down before her.

They toasted and in just a few minutes they both put down empty shot glasses as their dinner arrived.

Rollin began telling her about his visit 20 years ago. “The building hasn’t changed much at all. There’s some fresh paint but you would recognize it and would have to look hard for any differences. When I first pulled up, I missed the stage coaches that would be parked in the lot while their riders got a meal or waited for a fresh team of horses to be hooked up.

“The inside has some changes.  More fresh paint, but the same mounted deer and elk heads and large mirrors everywhere. The bottles behind the bar have changed, but the bar itself – it looked just as it does now except there are more dollars pinned to the ceiling. There are more families in the dining room and fewer ranchers. I’ve not heard one bar fight the whole time I’ve been here this week.

“Both times, I’ve met wonderful ladies; you this time of course and . . .” he paused as if wrestling with a memory. “. . . and, Iris, during my first visit.”

Carolyn almost choked on hearing her mother’s name. The whiskey had left her unprepared for this shock, but she recovered when he looked up, concerned that she was okay.

“I’m sorry.” She coughed and said,” I just swallowed wrong,” as she reached for her glass of water.

She barely tracked the rest of his words, unable to get past her realization that given how he reacted to recalling her mom. She didn’t have male friends, only customers, so he must have been one of her men, maybe even her first — paying her for sex, turning her into the whore she became. 

“Carolyn, did you know a waitress named, Iris? She might have still be here when you were a child. She had brown hair and . . .”

“She died! I knew her, but she died several years ago.”

Rollin’s face and shoulders dropped and he looked suddenly sad, very sad.

Carolyn worked at keeping a neutral expression on her face, thankful that Rollin was a bit drunk and distracted by whatever memories he had about Iris.  He barely spoke after this and picked his way through the rest of the meal.

Carolyn watched for the earliest chance to suggest that they call it a night. She bused the table as he climbed the stairs for his room before she left for her own.  Sleep proved difficult as she wrestled with the thoughts of the younger version of this man, buying sex from her mom, plunging her deeper into a life that Carolyn had found impossible to live with. Soon her anger was mixed with tears which somehow only fed more angry thoughts. Lying on her mom’s old mattress, starring out her window at the moon light on the hill side just north of the Washoe, she thought, maybe I need to do this just one more time. . .

Washoe 5

Chapter Four:  The Final Helping of Oh-Leann’s Stew

The next day was Carolyn’s day off. With her realization of last night, she just wanted to think so she stayed out of sight until Rollin left for his Petaluma meetings then used the morning to take care laundry, thinking as she worked.

He sounded so nice, but now I know he’s just another smooth talking man, too good with his words, ready to take advantage of a girl working to stay alive in some obscure road house. I thought I could pick them out better, but he sure bamboozled me. He said all those nice things and acted so friendly to get me to trust him. Now I know better.

After her grandma died, when she was little, Carolyn recalled lying on her baby mattress behind her mom’s dresser, trying not to move or make a sound whenever her mom tried to sneak in with one of her men for a quick roll on her mattress. She knew where her mom kept the money she was paid and learned about regret early because she knew mom’s job barely kept them clothed and they never had money for anything extra or special. She’d recognized several of the men as frequent guests to the Washoe but the worst were the strangers who knew her mom only from having served them dinner or drinks earlier that evening. They cared only for the quick sex and some were outright mean. More than once, Carolyn thought they were going to hurt her mom.

And now I know that Mr. Rollin Jensen was one of those men before I was even born. He admitted as much and may have started her down this path.

And her temper grew hotter as the morning fog burned off and turned into a warm noon day.

She stayed in her room mostly fussing with things. The Washoe House was too far from either Petaluma or Santa Rosa to just leave for a walk. There were some ranch hillsides she was welcome to hike, but she just wasn’t in the mood. She still had Sadie, the old horse passed down from Grandma Leann, but the ride to either town was getting too long for the older horse and she’d have to walk out to the ranch where she was boarded anyway and she finally decided that her mood was too dark to be outside where she might have to deal with people.

Then she saw her mom’s small wooden hope-box. Her mom had joked that she’d never have a real, full sized hope-chest and everything that life was going to give her would fit into this small box.  She pulled it off of the shelf and sat down on the single chair at the small table.  It contained all of what was left of her mom and after she died. Carolyn opened box to revisit the simple treasures it contained.

She always wore the old ring her mom had left her, sometimes on a chain, but all of mom’s other bits of jewelry were cheap pieces that she occasionally found while cleaning downstairs. She set them all on the table and next saw the three silver dollars mom had left in the box from her late night business. Sill not knowing what she should do with them, she set them aside also. Finally she reached her mom’s ancient notebook.  She held it and tried to recall the last time she read through it. Must have been over a year now.

Without further thought, she opened it and began reading. It was mostly dates and notes about special occasions or things her mom did not want to forget like her parent’s birthdays and wedding, the date of grandpa’s illness and death and the date she started working at the Washoe House. She also recorded a few lines about several memories that made her happy. This always made her frown because;  mom didn’t even list my birthday among her happy memories. With no father around, I was most likely not planned for, maybe not wanted so my arrival made her miserable. She did have simple birthday celebrations for me but . . .

She wiped away a tear and went on to recall that her mom never wrote anything about her dating anyone or being in love.  This seemed to be a huge, conspicuous hole in her mom’s history. Maybe she just didn’t write any of this down.

There was a section of her teenage years and boys who she’d dated. She recognized Walt and Marian, Jasper and Grace from nearby ranches who were still around from the private club. but few of the boys mom mentioned at all got any kind of description of why they were listed and of the names listed, she only recognized Zeke and Marshal who still came in from time to time. There was a short list of names that Carolyn knew nothing about, Richard, Bart, Lester, Kent, Aaron and Arjay. Arjay’s name was last and had no date, just a short note that read, ‘a real nice guy who didn’t stay around long enough’.  Carolyn wondered about this guy with the odd foreign name. Must have been a stage coach traveler. For mom, ‘a real nice guy’ was high praise.

Her mom also had a separate list of boys who had abused her somehow. Now older, Carolyn understood, that by abuse, mom meant taken advantage of sexually. Those comments were hard to read and she fought back her tears with her own disgust and anger despite the fact that she had given two of them a helping of O’ Leann’s Stew to halt their abuse.

Reading her notebook always softened Carolyn’s attitude towards her mom, but she knew she could not allow too much sympathy to dull her memory of what it was like living with her.  You could have made better choices mom!  You SHOULD have made better choices. Did you ever think how your rolling with those men on one side of the room would impact your daughter trying to sleep on the other side? I hate what you became and I hate all who led you to such a disgusting life.

The memory of her mom suffering the night she died came back and Carolyn could not push it away. Her mom was her only parent, her loving tormentor, and the fifth person to taste her Oh-Leann’s Stew because some things were unbearable and could not be forgiven.

Carolyn slammed the notebook shut.  Then, then with a new thought, she reopened it and did a quick search to make sure she’d not missed some mention of Rollin Jensen.  Nothing, she concluded.  Not a word. He really must have been just another one-night kind of guy. I’d bet that he was the guy who took mom’s virginity and she was anxious to just forget him.

She tried to not think about what it had been like, them together right here in this room – on her mattress. Having witnessed so many of her mom’s later customers, it was easy for her to assemble what it was like; him talking smoothly, gaining her trust, maybe promising marriage or some lesser involvement that would have made her a kept-woman, then ravishing her with no witnesses, not even a very young daughter to overhear them as they concluded business. I know what it would have sounded like. Mom gave me plenty of memories of that. But then he left her alone which must have been a painful blessing in disguise. At least he was gone.

Finally, she could not bear her own thoughts any longer and decided to walk the mile and a half out to the Jacobson ranch where the family who housed her grandmother now let her board her horse. I won’t ride Sadie today, but just give her a good brushing and walk back for some quiet sun and exercise.

But her thoughts were not this easy to control as she walked. Mom would have been younger than I am now. I don’t know how old Rollin is, but he was likely older, knew more about the world from all his fancy travels with the stage coach company. He almost gained my trust and could easily have gained hers only to crushed it like Andrew crushed mine. Damn! Does this ever stop for women?

Her mind circled around the non-memory she was constructing from bits and pieces of actual memories as she fed Sadie some old carrots Earl decided were too old for customer meals. She was holding and starring at the last carrot and thinking when Sadie got tired of waiting and tried to take it from her. It brought her back to real life.   “Aw, I’m sorry old girl. Didn’t mean to tease you like that.”  She patted Sadie’s neck and put the brush away. 

As she walked the short path from the barn back to the road, an idea reoccurred. As she passed the Jacobson’s oleander hedge she broke off a small branch tip with about 8 leaves and dropped it into her shoulder bag. While walking back, the sun passed behind a dark cloud and her thoughts darkened with the sky. Approaching the Washoe House, these thoughts reinforced her resolve. My whole life has trapped in that building and it never was going to be any different. A traveling father who made me before running off with no care about who he left behind and a mother who, once started the life of prostitution, never looked back. With all the good people who work at or visit the Washoe, I somehow got stuck with table-waste for parents and friends like Andrew. Well, I’ve dealt with Andrew and a few of his ilk. I’ve dealt with mom.  Perhaps it’s time for one last use of Oh-Leann’s Stew. Maybe then I’ll be free to carve out a different life for myself.

= = = = =

Rollin walked into the dining room and saw Carolyn holding a table for them as promised. He noted she was wearing her brown dress again, but with no apron he could now see that it was a front-button up with just a hint of cleavage showing. She really is a pretty little gal, he thought. As she saw him, she smiled and he noticed her simple fern- frond brooch and the simple chain with her odd ring hanging against her collar bone.  She may not have many options to dress up, but she still looks very nice.

“So, Carolyn. What’s this special dinner you have coming?” Rollin asked as he sat down in the dining room.

She smiled and answered, “It’s just an old family recipe that we can’t always serve because the bay trees are not nearby enough to get them regularly. It’s like a secret menu item that not many, or even most our kitchen staff know about. But I’ve been here my whole life and I do know about it. I thought that since you’re leaving tomorrow, you should have a special treat.

“So, if I came back and asked for it, they might not recognize it? How intriguing.”

“It’s not very different from our regular stew really.  Mostly it adds some basil and bay leaves.  Now that you’re here, I better go see if it’s ready.”

He stayed standing as she stood up and disappeared off towards the kitchen where she grabbed two bowls and plates, ladled some normal stew into each, leaving one with almost no gravy. She then reached under the stove with a mitt to grab an out-of-sight, large coffee mug of gravy she’d prepare earlier with thin slices of the oleander leaves from where they had been quietly stewing and staying warm. She poured it over his bowl and stirred it in. She marked the bowls only with a teaspoon for hers and a larger tablespoon for his. She added garlic bread slices and set them with the bowls onto both plates.

“Here we go Rollin. I sure hope you like it. Not everyone likes the taste of bay leaves.”

“I’m keen on finding out,” he answered. “But before we dig in, can I ask about that ring you’re wearing? It keeps catching my eye. Something about it is odd.”

class ringShe sniffed a small laugh. “This old thing?  Sure.” She lifted the chain from around her hair and handed it to him. “It belonged to my mother. I don’t know where she got it because it doesn’t look like anything else she had. I like it because of the blue stone.”

Rollin looked at it, seemed to be suddenly surprised and looked even closer. Then he turned so the light from the lamp behind him could shine directly on the ring for an even better look. He turned it so he could look inside the inner edge and said, “Well, I’ll be damned. Carolyn, you’re not going to believe this. I’m not sure that I do, but it’s – it’s undeniable.  This ring;  was once mine.  I must have lost it here during my previous visit, 20 years . . . Oh, no! And now I recall how I lost it. It wasn’t in my luggage when I got home and thought that maybe it had been stolen or, I don’t know. But I searched for it but – I did not recall, taking it off when it caught in the hair of the only girl I ever really fell in love with. She worked here as a waitress and we spent the better part of my visit getting to know each other and on the last night, after dinner, I walked her to her room, we kissed at her door and that kiss became, um, much more passionate and anyway, I took it off and left it on her window sill. For the whole ride home, she was the only thing I thought about. I struggled to think of anything or anyone else for years afterwards. I was a mess and barely missed that ring.”

I had it for less than a year. I had just moved to San Francisco and began traveling for work before losing it. I never expected to see it again.”

He handed it back to her, as tears formed in his eyes.  He dropped his head to avoid meeting her gaze. “But I lost it a long time ago and your mom must have found it the next morning after I was gone. It’s not mine any more.  Of the two things I lost on that trip, the ring just didn’t matter, but I never really got over losing Iris. She had my heart and soul after that trip.”

Carolyn was suddenly surprised. I knew he was likely one of mom’s customers, but did he actually love mom?

Rollin suddenly realized something and raised his eyes to her. “But — you said this was your — mother’s . . . ? And, you said that you’re 19 now . . . ?  Oh my!  Carolyn, is this really possible?  It must be, I can’t imagine but – Carolyn, who was your father?”

Carolyn, struggled. He can’t be my father. Mom didn’t even mention him in her journal. He’s just twisting the truth, but why? He sounds sincere. Could I wrong? 

She lifted her chin and answered stiffly, “I don’t know anything about my father. I only know that my mother – she wasn’t a moral woman. She kept a journal with some notes and the only man she liked was some foreigner named, Arjay, who didn’t stay around very long. I’ve thought that he might be my father, but mom never said.

“And Rollin, there must be hundreds of rings like that around. How could you know that it’s yours after 2 years?”

He leaned back and shook his head in amazement. “You’re right. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of this ring around, but this one has an inscription.  My parents gave it to me when I graduated college. When I was young, I wasn’t fond of my first name so I went by my initials and that’s what everyone called me. Look inside the ring and you’ll read what my parents had inscribed inside.”

She turned the ring to look inside and read, “So proud of you R-J”. She looked up. “Your initials are R – J, but did mom know they were initials? In her journal, she spelled out the name, A – r – j – a – y. Can that be you?”

Rollin paused to think for a moment. “I don’t know about her journal, but my full name is, Rollin James Jensen, and I only told her my name was RJ Jensen. I had a stronger Danish accent when I first arrived here because my parents were born in Denmark. I lived with them until college so I picked up their accent. Maybe Iris thought I was some kind of exotic foreigner with an odd name.  That seems possible, which means — you must be. . . ” His eyes wandered left and right, searching for alternative possibilities. “Wait, Carolyn, what is your birthdate?”

“July 3rd, 1918, why?”

He leaned over to pull out his wallet. “I recall when my sister was pregnant that her pregnancy lasted right at 40 weeks. She was counting down the days near the end.” He pulled a pocket calendar from his wallet and counted the weeks backwards. “. . . 37 – 38 – 39 and 40. That would be — the first week in October of 1917,” he raised his eyes to meet hers, “which is precisely when I was here.  The ring, my name in your mom’s journal and your birthday; Carolyn, the odds are overwhelming. Carolyn, you – you most certainly are — my daughter!”

“But you cared for her and she for you. Mom never dated; not when I was alive, the only men in her life were her sex customers.”

Rollin shook his head. “I never knew the woman you describe, but only an amazing personality. We made each other laugh and she was always such a fine lady with me. She was only a waitress, hadn’t been to college and wasn’t wealthy, but I knew after only a few days that I loved her and wanted to marry her. I never lost that and never even dated again.

“But I was so young, impulsive, even stupid for hoping I could just whoosh her away to San Francisco. She must have realized that my work would take me away for weeks at a time, leaving her home alone; at a place she’d never been, a place with more people on the street outside our home than she’s ever seen crammed into the Washoe.

“She’d even told me that she never wanted to travel — was afraid of it and said she’d heard many stories from stage coach traveler about being robbed at gun point. I recall her once saying that she could not imagine traveling as I did for my job. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now I think she was serious. I shouldn’t have just told her I wanted to take her away from everything she knew, travel as she’d never experienced and live, sometimes alone, in a place as different as San Francisco.

“Years later, I realized I could have just changed my office from San Francisco to work from the main yard in Petaluma or Santa Rosa for a while so we, as husband and wife, could have lived nearby and dated like normal adults. I completely misunderstood her fear of the world beyond the Washoe, and would have moved here to be with her.”

Rollin looked authentically sad as he dropped his head again and said, “I even wrote her, trying to find a way to convince her to marry me, but now I think I only scared her more. If only I’d thought things through better, but she never answered and I finally decided that she just didn’t want me.”

Carolyn, almost beside herself with conflicting views of both her mom and Rollin, now wondered what really happened that changed the woman Rollin knew and loved into the mother she grew up with. At the same time, how could Rollin be both the man before her and the man who slept with her mom out of wedlock?

Rolling picked up the cloth napkin and dabbed his eyes. “Well, that was all unexpected and I feel so stupid, but it seems my daughter – that — I actually have a daughter – and she has brought me a special dinner which is getting cold.” 

He picked up his spoon which triggered Carolyn to suddenly decide that she was wrong and she could not let him take even one first bite. Oh no! No – no – no! She thought in panic. “Wait!”

She jumped out of her seat and ran around the table, took the spoon from his hand and returned it to the bowl, then squirmed into his lap and wrapped her arms around the neck of an older man who had never even touched her, but who she now believed to be both her father and good man. “I want a hug — a first hug from my father.”

Rollin, surprised but happy and awkward, hesitated but returned her hug, then as she leaned back to look him in the face, he reached up with both hands to grasp her face and said, “I never thought anything like this would happen to me, but I’m so profoundly thrilled by what we just discovered,” then he gently pulled her forehead into a light kiss.

“Daughter, I think I need you to check the reservation book. I’m going to need several more days to finish up some unexpected conversations. You and I have much more to talk about.”

She smiled meekly and nodded yes; released her hug and, with careful aim, turned to put her hand toward the table to stand up but caught the edge of his bowl, flipping it so it spilled the last helping of Oh-Leanne’s Stew across her lap and fell to the floor with a loud crash that silenced the other diners and caused them to turn and look.

“Oh no, I’m so sorry.  Did I get any on you? That was so clumsy of me.”

“No – no. I think I’m fine. But your dress and the floor; let me help clean this up.”

“No, no. I’ll do it. It’s my mess. Just give me a few minutes and I’ll see to it. It won’t take long, then I need to change, check the reservation book but, Rollin — um, I mean, Father. That was the last of the bay leaves – there is no more.  I’m sorry but I’ve ruined your dinner.”

“Oh Carolyn, you’ve already made me happier than I expected was possible. I have no capacity to worry about a stew.”

“I’ll get you a fresh bowl of regular stew and when I come back, can we talk about this travel that mom was so afraid of because . . . um,” she paused with a meek smile.  “I’m not afraid of travel and would like to know how long would it take my dad to drive down and show me that new Golden Gate Bridge?”

golden-gate-bridge

 


Thanks so much for reading my story. I hope you enjoyed a quick visit to the Washoe as it might have been back when it was much younger.  I’ve tried to be a true to the known history of this well known roadhouse but what we know did leave some big gaps for this story teller to work within.  For those of you who care, below is my working time line for the story.  I wanted births ages, and Washoe status’ to be credible, even possible, so here is the cheat-sheet I built for myself.  You’ll note the times that relate to the story.

Bold fonts depict hard historical facts that I could not change.

Non-bold fonts are creations of my own imagination.

Hopefully combining the two resulted in a compelling story of what life was like and how life can sometimes throw people together for surprising results.

References
Washoe Timeline

 


GW bio card 4

5 thoughts on “The Last Helping of Roadhouse Stew

  1. Feedback captured from Facebook by Patrick McDowell, an editor for Bloomberg News and a peer graduate of Petaluma High School (although we didn’t know each other and I think he was a couple of years behind me). His feedback was:

    I think it’s brilliant. It’s well-structured, the historical details taught me something, and I never really took in that much history of the Washoe House before. It’s well-foreshadowed that she’s his daughter; that doesn’t seem off at the end. The ring is an excellent touch. And the oleander. It reminded me of biology class and a neighborhood walk led by Miss Taylor, who stopped at an oleander bush and told us about its properties. It made a big impression. I sense a personal regret on the breaking up of the young RJ-Iris couple, of her fear of leaving the area and his realization years later it would have been possible to stick around a while. Paths not taken… I am glad he didn’t end up dead on the floor.

    Thanks Patrick. The next time we’re both in town, the first couple buffalo burgers, orders of rings and rounds of Racer-5 at the Washoe are on me.

    Like

  2. Wonderful story Gary! It’s always more interesting when you are familiar with the places. Your photos from the roadhouse and the Golden Gate bridge also added a lot to the value. Keep on writing my friend. Maybe you’ve found your niche? This one, along with the one about the tree where you learned how to ride your bike is by far my favourite of your essays.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s