Saturday, July 19, 1924
The screeching tires of Overland Express #23 woke Sarah. From the lower berth of a Pullman compartment, she looked over at the stained-glass window. Normally, she would’ve admired its emerald green pigments. But today wasn’t normal. And she doubted her life would ever be normal again. Not after receiving a telegram informing her in too few words that her sister Ada Belle had drowned in the Pacific Ocean.
The telegram from the Marshal of Carmel-by-the-Sea had been slipped under the door of her atelier in Paris where she was just about to start working on the final painting for her first exhibition—a one-woman show at the prominent Nouy Gallery.
She closed her eyes again and returned to blending the pigments she would use on the blank canvas waiting for her back in Paris.
Shame on you, little Sis. Always thinking of yourself first. Try to remember that I am the one who will never paint again. Ada might be dead but that didn’t stop her from residing inside Sarah’s head. She’d always lived there.
That’s not my fault, argued Sarah, gulping down an emotional cocktail of resentment mixed with loneliness and grief. Can’t I close my eyes for one minute and think about something else besides your sudden death that is still too horrible to believe.
Her plea was answered by a piercing train whistle. She jumped up, stretched her cramped legs and stepped down onto the cold floor.
“San Francisco. End of the line. All passengers disembark!” shouted the Pullman porter as he rapped loudly on her door.
She studied her mirrored reflection above the tiny corner washstand and splashed water on her dreary self-portrait that had aged since she left Paris. This will never do, she thought, and painted her lips ruby red.
A crimson jersey skirt and matching jacket hung in the closet. The chic outfit had given her the appearance of a House of Chanel model stepping out from behind the curtain into the limelight. Only three weeks ago she’d bought it in expectation of wearing it at her opening. But now it seemed unpleasantly cheerful when she felt so miserable. If only she had a black veil to hide behind, but it was too late to think of that now.
The porter rapped again and called out in his Southern drawl, “Ma’am, are you awake?” She asked him what time it was, wound back the hours on her deceased father’s pocket watch to nine o’clock and stood up straight and tall, feigning confidence. She took one last glance in the mirror and pulled her cloche hat down over her sad eyes.
It was hard to leave the intimate compartment. It had been her small theatre where she had projected her childhood memories like a silent movie while the train whisked her across the country: Ada cuddling her when she fell and scraped her knee. Ada teaching her how to hold a paintbrush and blend oils on a palette before she learned to read.
Sarah stepped down onto the railway station platform. After living in Manhattan and now Paris she knew her way around hectic train stations. In normal circumstances she would’ve saved a dime by making her way through the terminal on her own but not today.
A red-capped Negro, easily identifiable in a sea of white faces, piled her valise onto a handcart. “Where to, ma’am?”
“Del Monte Express,” she said, remembering the directions Ada’s good friend Miss Rosie McCann had cabled when inviting Sarah to stay at her Lodge in Carmel.
“Follow me!” The porter pushed his way into the dense crowd of suit-and-tie men and white-gloved women, indistinguishable faces shaded under fedoras and sunhats. Seconds later, she was lost in the rush of marching feet. She stood up on her toes, painfully squeezed into Parisian pumps and saw the red-cap disappear down a long corridor.
At the Del Monte Express ticket booth, he was waiting with his hand outstretched and a wide grin. She tipped him gratefully and purchased a one-way ticket to the Monterey depot where Miss McCann said she could catch an autobus.
Above the din of blasting train whistles, a newsboy held up the morning paper in his hand and yelled, “Read all about it! Inquest Verdict: Famous Artist Commits Suicide.”
Sarah gaped at her sister’s enlarged photograph filling the front page. The ground beneath her tilted and she leaned against a post to stop the train station from spinning. Her hand shook as she fumbled for her coin purse, paid the newsboy and pressed Ada’s photograph to her thumping heart.
The conductor of the Del Monte Express saw her stumble on the boarding platform and picked up her baggage and helped her onto the four-car train just as it was whistling its imminent departure.