Penance: Heaven's Casting Couch
She heaved such a sigh that the fat rolls rolled. You'd think she'd try to hold it in, perhaps add another ten degrees to the arch in her back, instead of relying on that brick wall for the little bit of upright left in her. A long, narrow store that fronted on MLK and extended its tired side down Euclid's small bit of a curvy road, Dick's One Hour Martinizing Dry Cleaning was more than just an obvious whore's joke: It was hers, once all of Dick's one-hours were up and the sidewalks of the neighborhood shifted clientele.
LuAnne knew this guy, the guy provocative of the fat-rolling sigh. She knew he didn't care about the arch of her back, or whether she could still hike up a firm thigh, leaving a high-heeled foot to rest --like a feather -- upon old sooty masonry, studded with petrified wads of gum, stained with years of tobacco spit.
"Don, Don. Ron," she ran through her client list, mentally tapping each dog-eared, scribbled card with a red acrylic stiletto nail. She hadn't seen either of the two Dons in at least six or eight months, and Ron? Not since last month. The Dons -- either one of them -- would have kept her for the night. With Ron, as with most monthlies, she needed a stopwatch.
LuAnne knew her game of mental Rolodex for what it was.
The years had given her their best gift: pragmatism. She kept the heels for the virtue of what four and a half inches can do for a girl's walk -- no matter what age -- for the sass and the ass; but she also wore only strapless mules that she could toss off in a heartbeat, in case she needed to run. Her cracked black vinyl mini could hike up to her tits, but she could not run in heels.
"And who am I kidding! I can't run unless this damn skirt shimmies up to these fine boobies!" she laughed at herself, and gained a little heart.
Rhinestones on the high heels and on their shiny silver platform, too, a little something to catch the light, bring the eye down, and then slowly back up the slope of her best parts, elongated legs that sashayed now without the trouble of moving. LuAnne was a thinking girl, a curve and a cuddle from the corner, old and fat the closer a guy got, so control the guy. She'd always thought that should have been the first of Madame Galore's Rules, not that vague exhortation to "lady-like behavior."
The glitter on her feet echoed the glint and flare of her vintage beaded hair clips. Stress or something was causing her own hair to fall out in patches, so she used colored crystal combs and claws to attach black glossy real hair hairpieces to her own hennaed patches. Real hair, expensive hair, black to highlight her impeccable pale skin, make the scarlet of her lip and the flush of her crimson blush stand out. The henna had to wash out before she could dye her whole head, unless she wanted to be purple. Some days purple didn't seem like that bad an idea.
LuAnne was confident that her best, her oldest customers knew that what you saw was not all that you got. LuAnne was homegrown goodness.
"Ronnie, sweet cheeks. What's going on, darlin'?" she tossed out in a slow drawl, as she rooted around in her bag for cigs, lighter, condoms, and the reassuring heft of her blade.
The first knife she carried, a gift from a gentleman who tried to lure her from the street, was an actual eleven inch Mattie Silks Sidewalk Companion, a dainty little thing, in spite of the eleven inches of blade. She'd kept it tucked in a hand sewn leather sheath complete with a thimble for a chape, and the sheath in the boots she was never without in those high-fashion days. She'd never drawn it out and treated it more like a decorative talisman than a weapon. To be honest, back then, she did not much care about living, about her life. A very lucky whore, that's what she was -- but that luck felt more like Hell's licking flames teasing and taunting her.
Over the years, she had learned. A stiletto, because of the size -- the narrowness -- of the blade, cannot be kept very sharp. Not for years, and a blade should last years, if anything should. Most of all, she had learned that it was for thrusting and that thrusting required time, and in close quarters, time did not exist.
She'd also begrudgingly accepted her fate of a life that consisted of the coming attractions of brimstone's stink and the fevered pitch of fire.
This blade, nestled among the Trojan Magnums and tubes of lube, was a Spyderco Matriarch. She'd loved its name, even after the cop who gave it to her said it was meant for bitch elephants, made for women in South Africa. The one time she'd used it, she'd used it right, had ripped, fast, and slashed, close. LuAnne walked away, none of the blood hers, though she'd tasted it as it trickled down into the corner of her mouth, salted copper, viscous iron. She'd walked home before it was even completely dark, had strolled, imagined herself on her family's farm, walked in that slow, proprietary way along the line of oaks and elms that made a highway the length of the fields, dripping blood until it had all clotted on her like dried up jello.
A whole month she had hidden, knowing her DNA, prints, hair, clothing fibers, all that forensic stuff, all that Law and Order and CSI bounty, was everywhere in the frenzy's remains. Not her blood though, not one drop of that liquid life. But no one came to get her, so she ventured out again, like Spring, pretending that nothing had happened except the loss of fifteen pounds and a new hair color -- that's when she'd first gone red. Her girlfriends were jealous, said she'd loss the best of her self, that nobody would want to lay a skinny copperhead. The johns, though, they'd flown into her scarlet flame like moths.
"Looking good, LuziAnnie, girl, looking good. What'll you give me?"
Ron was one to waste time, to chat, treating her like a cheap date, when she was on the clock, working. This was business, this went in the ledger. She frowned, a violation of an abiding Rule of Conduct: Never ruin the customer's fantasy. None of the Rules were based on outmoded ideals of courtesy. No, these Rules kept you alive, but she supposed that getting in good with the ghost of Emily Post couldn't hurt, either.
"Who am I kidding? Ronnie's fantasy? Ejaculating into something besides a sock already stiff with cum. My fantasy? Making love, not fucking, with a man who looks nice, smells good, and is nice, and is good..."
LuAnne stove off impending fits of laughter, touched her knife, and once again, heaved such a sigh that the fat rolls rolled. This, of course, made her laugh.
The street's end was vacant, no competition swinging on the lamp posts, chattering in boyish Spanglish, looking better in toxic-colored spandex two sizes too small than she ever had in tastefully tight pleather. The last car to cruise by, looking, had headed down MLK a good forty minutes ago, and she was tired of holding up the sooty sides of the dry cleaning store.
LuAnne thought of a few standard quips, settled for "something's better than nothing," and nodded Ronnie in with a rise to her chin, a coy glance ending with a very small smile that once "called hither," in a grand tradition. Now, all the physical tics this half-lit whore put out were wordless invitations to a quick and dirty deal.
She had no pimp. She'd outlived most, not a rare talent, but the ones on the street these days laughed in her face as they ran her off choice real estate. She had no doubt they'd kill her for little cause, or none, and gave up her last best corner to the strangely beautiful tall, dark transvestites. Some nights, when the word was out, she got a cut for acting as look-out for cop cars, and decoys, and then her face flashed some version of a "closed" sign, and she wore jeans, cropped tees, and tennis shoes.
This was LuAnne's life, as much in short as in full: She staked her quiet claim at Dick's Dry, served nostalgia, let her belly roll, and knew what she knew. She'd had two streetlights, one on the corner of Euclid and MLK, and the other right near her vintage store home base, right at the store's rear exit and tiny parking lot, but someone had shot out the bulb a few weeks back.
She convinced herself that being side-lit made her more of a mysterious figure, and maybe required less of her, a boon on those days when she she started out dead on her feet, sore at the mere thought of touch, wincing at skin's innocent brush of skin, nauseous at each whiff of booze and rotten gums. "No kissing on the lips" was a Rule both she and Madam Galore had insisted upon, with over a century between them.
Probably predates the Magdalene.
"Oh no, giggle-jiggle. Damn it!"
Close enough now to share air, which is precisely where the preliminaries to the dance paused for several beats, Ronnie said again, "Girl, are you listening? Here I am, baby, what'll you give me? What you gonna do for RonRon?"
"What, you want a menu? I could go for a coffee and some pie, you buying?"
"Jesus, girl, give a guy a break, would you? I can go back around the corner, down a block, and buy me some concentration camp freak that I could bone and spin like a top at the same time, but no, baby, I want you, a handful, I want..." and Ronnie was off on a Ronnie trip. He did that sometimes, his brain so fried. Ronnie would light on the government, on conspiracies, and then there'd be no money from him, just frantic spittle, and rigid arm waving. She was afraid he had some kind of seizure attack disease and would lose his decency along with his drug-addled mind.
She wondered if it ever occurred to him, sober, that the only reason he could buy drugs and get his monthly screw was because of a government conspiracy that landed in his post office box at magical thirty day intervals. But then, Daddy would never have made it without the farm subsidies, either, so she kept her mouth shut.
"Ron, Ron, Ronnie, sweetie. Half-and-half for sixty, thirty minutes, but we gotta find a place, I don't got a place tonight," LuAnne confessed, because even her welcome at the hole they'd all used to use as a hotel was "too full" for her these days, despite the keys hanging behind the desk attendant's pimply bald head.
"All's I want is some love, baby, something to hold on to, baby, I gots me fifteen bucks, LuLu, I got fifteen dollars. I remember when fifteen dollars'd take me round the world and make a woman bend every which way, let me fuck her all night, and love it, too, back before Nixon pulled all that shit, made me and the economy, both, go soft..." Ronnie meandered more than mumbled, and LuAnne couldn't tell which part was pure bull and which part was pure messed up old man in the tiny hours, alone on a dark street, just like her.
"Give it to me, then, fifteen -- and whatever you've got in your shoe, too, and I'll suck your dick like I half way mean it, you old fart," she announced, business being business, and feeling the need to invite some reality back to the tea party. "And I mean now, Ronnie."
She didn't even laugh when he pulled three fives out of his socks, just pretended disgust at the sweaty fives and ones she was already unrolling and carefully, precisely folding in her signature swift style. She snatched the additional Abes out of his hand as if she'd known they were there all along, and added it to her green, grey, white, and black origami styling. That was another thing LuAnne was known for -- her origami catfish, birds, everything from pelicans to the overdone crane. She'd learned it from one of the fieldhands as a kid, did it now like some men whittle, like old women tat. But she'd settled on money as the best paper, and when short on cash, would grab one of her origami creatures, each about a fifty buck lay, and undo the magic as ably as she'd created the illusion in the first place.
"What are you on, Ronnie?" she asked, as if needing the time and temperature report.
"Crack, mostly, all's I can swing. Don't like it none, it wrecks my lungs, my teeth. And it's sweet but you know, LuBelle, you always end up right back here, and hungry."
"You need to get off that mess. Smoke a little bit of weed, drink a little bit of beer, mellow it out, get you a room."
She didn't often give out free advice but there was still nothing doing down the street, and she was tired. Do Ronnie, go home, go to bed. Maybe she should start a newspaper column, or one of them computer online things. Type out all her whoring wisdom. Everything she'd ever learned on her back, on her knees, in jail, in half-way houses, and at obligatory holy-roller revivals, waving her hands, shouting bona fide nonsense like a fool so that she could eat grits and corn bread, and take her turn at screwing the right reverend.
Heaven's casting couch. It got you a hand-delivered bag of groceries every Saturday morning, courtesy of the church Food Pantry.
"C'mon, we'll go up to my room. Twenty minutes. I mean it, Ron. I'll suck your dick and then you can suck my tits for the other 19 minutes, old man, and then you are out of there. And you never, ever tell anyone where my room is. Remember Lorena Bobbitt? We're kindred spirits, we are."
"You and your goddamn knives, LuAnne, whacking at the whole freaking world. Oh, just do me, LuLu, c'mon, just do me right..." and Ronnie began to break again, telling her he wished all the street lights'd get shot out, they were all full of watching eyes, and only crazy people believed tin foil hats could protect them from the rays that were Phase Two. She was half-way curious about Phase One, she'd missed that part, but shook off his addictive nuttiness, grabbed his elbow, and squeezed. That got his attention, or at least his eyes facing forward, and they set out in what she considered a sexy stroll of a pace, but that seemed to be a bit beyond Ronald's top speed. LuAnne couldn't help but chuckle and felt her stomach flopping again, and cursed, meaning it. It's not that she regretted letting herself go, it's that the going went so dang fast.
They walked toward the main drag. She thought about looking back to see if Dick's One Hour Martinizing Dry Cleaning had collapsed from her sudden abandonment, but not hearing walls tumble, she figured that part of her world would still be there tomorrow night, her bit of prime real estate, her plot of arable land.
"Hey, Ronnie, when did Orange Julius become Dairy Queen?" Ronnie stumbled. She pinched his elbow harder, compressing the ulnar nerve, which made it not at all a funny bone. He yelped and glared at her, but was alert, and seemed to get that they were passing from yesteryear's shadows into today's fog, rife with danger. He tried to reclaim his arm from her, but she just hugged it closer, and pressed the back of his hand to her soft breast. He sighed, and relented.
They made a smooth enough left at tranny corner and began the final pilgrimage of the two blocks to her boarding house. Several outspoken "sex workers" had petitioned to have it declared a historic monument. It was originally a famous brothel -- huge, spacious, and genteel -- that housed a group of prostitutes educated, mentored, and worked by the city's first Madam, the famous Smooches Galore. A finishing school, of sorts. Under the watchful eye of Galore who controlled not only the behavior and services of her girls, but the premises, the alcohol (watered-down and primly poured, but always paid for in advance), and the money, or other means of compensatory accommodation. Without being Main Street, Smooches' Place was Town Hall, and many a political career began there. A few were carried out the back rolled up in worn out carpet, too.
The old-fashioned wrought iron black fence, with an offset gated entrance, led to a meandering brick walk, giving the illusion one was covering more real estate than there actually was. But even the least bit of a meander was giving Ronnie trouble, so LuAnne hiked up her right hip and half-carried the old man to the steps leading up to the wrap around porch. She plopped him half on one step, half on the one above, and he promptly nodded off. Many nights she wished she could just plop down, herself -- but in one of the swings -- and let the shadows shield her from the world, and sleep, sleep right outside.
Yeah, draped in thin layers of diaphanous gauze over swimming, slimming satins, her hair one color and sweet-smelling, curls softly blowing in the city breeze, her mouth a dimpled pink heart, her breathing gentle, her breathing easy...
She got the giggles again. She jiggled again, and swore. Sat down next to Gone Ron and pulled out a cigarette. Remembered to keep her knees pressed together, still thinking of the long dead Madam, and her Rules. How had they managed? Their Rules were so few, so broad. LuAnne needed specificity, subsets of subsets, definitions. Too much had changed, too much, too fast. Madame Galore need only refer to "lady-like demeanor." LuAnne needed a separate: "Don't let your business hang out for everyone to gawk at, Girly Girl! Glue those knees together, or charge for the view!"
She doubted, too, that Smooches ever used exclamation points.
A few friends passing by, also giving up for the night, called out to her, most in greeting, some in warning, shaking their heads at the Pile of Ron, but no one stopping, whatever their message.
Ronnie stirred, smiling, then groaning, trying to figure out where he was, and why he felt so safe.
"Well, I'll be doggone double-damned, it's you, LuLu! I was just dreaming about you, and here you are. Gimme a drag, would ya?"
She handed him the cigarette, told him to finish it. Took a good look at him. Laughed. Jiggled. Swore.
"Get up from there, old man, let's go on up, get you feeling like King of the World, and then let me sleep like its Queen, what do you say?"
After hiking to the third floor, quietly walking the path of the worn oriental carpet runner down the wood floor hallway to her door, LuAnne let them in, and silently pressed the door closed. She leaned against it, as so many do, when safely home after a day in the world.
But now she had brought the world home, hadn't she? She watched as Ron wandered about her room, touching her things, staring in awe at the hanging origami that she'd linked together with colored crystals and strands of beads to make a lacy covering for the yellowed window blinds. Just his walking by set them stirring, and calling to one another, a greeny moving moss of money.
She set her purse atop her bureau, pulling out the knife, placing it with a distinct clunk on her bedside table. Ron was immune to the noise, to her assertive gesture, lost in the murmur of the waving origami ones, fives, tens, twenties, folded and altered into a menagerie of tiny animals, all green, grey, white, and black, strung on fine fishing filament.
She watched him pick up her silver-framed photos, her mother and father, gone now, with herself at five. It had been Easter, so they were extra fine. She watched Ron set her family down, and pick up the next, much simpler frame. She was seventeen, a newlywed, leaning her body into the lean strength of Robert Lee, who held in his arms their baby boy, a small, slightly smushed origami frog in Andrew's grubby, chubby hands.
"All gone now," she said to herself, again, and laughed at herself, again, "so maudlin." Robert Lee had turned into a drunken farmer, she a stupid drunk farmer's wife. The baby boy was their crime. Who gets into a cotton harvester drunk? With a baby? Fallowed, hallowed land that she still owned and rented out. Meticulously, season by season, she inventoried the details of increasingly awesome harvests in her fine handwriting, and knew the source of their luck.
After contracting with the lease management company for her room, and a few confidential amenities, "in perpetuity," she steadily and methodically gave it all away, that blood money. Her philanthropy was anonymous and precise.
She'd funded some of the sex-change operations that changed the lives of the trannies that spit at her from the comfort of her old haunts, that got them out of there for good, making room for new terrified boy-girls, getting by on natural beauty, fear, hormones, and tape, lots of tape.
LuAnne never put the money to work for addicts, never for children's charities. She had an investment adviser who made the blood bucks grow tall, like corn, like wheat, and she endowed places for their good work in the margins. Those jots on the edge of the text, the shorthand, the notation never reread. But no, never on hopeless causes, never on babies, never on drunks, never on bloody whores.
She gave Ronnie good head, let him rest a while in her bed. She had clothes he could have changed into, a sink where he could've washed up, but she didn't offer what a crackhead wouldn't think of. Then, she made him go, holding the Matriarch loose in her hand, for emphasis, and watched out the window to be sure he left. She thought he stepped out with more intention, looked like a man on his way to buy a rock, having forgotten his socks no longer held his wealth, that his money was part of a school of whiskered fish.
LuAnne changed the sheets, polished the silver frames, smoked a cigarette, indulged in an orange soda, deliciously naked under her terrycloth bathrobe, breasts, belly, and butt unrestrained, relaxed. She flip-flopped her way down the hall to shower and stood in the cold water, baring herself to its punishing, purifying barrage.
Done, she retreated to her room, cracked the windows for a cross breeze, slipped into her purple gown and under the sheets. She listened to the talk of cicadas and just waking birds, watching them sway until her eyes closed. She dreamed of straight tilled rows and fledgling cotton plants.
Author note: Dedicated to Seamus and to GA, with thanks and love.
© 2013 L. Ryan