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When I'd got back to the room I'd started from, sunlight was streaming in the window. Lady Sally was there, in a feathered wrapper, with her hair in curlers and her face scrubbed of all traces of makeup. She still looked regal. Since Daddy was with her, I knew I was still dreaming. He was in bathrobe and slippers, chewing on his pipe. I waved, ignoring the tugging sensation at my side. "Hi, Daddy." I was so glad he had remarried again. And to a duchess!
"Good morning," he said.
His voice was all wrong. I tried to get up on one elbow to look closer, and my side shouted at me. I wasn't dreaming after all. This hurt too much not to be real. I was awake now.
He was not my father, of course. Now that I looked, he didn't even resemble him a great deal. What he looked like was the Hollywood stereotype of the Kindly Older Man, the avuncular figure who would need only five or ten years to become the Lovable Grandfather. I must have frowned at him.
"Good morning, Maureen," Lady Sally said. "This is my very dear friend Phillip. He will not bite you, unless you specifically request it." She still sounded just the least bit tipsy, in that cheery-glow phrase.
He kept . . . not staring. Just looking at me pleasantly. Enjoying my company, in no hurry to get the conversation rolling. His grey eyes twinkled. If you had a bad acid trip in Grand Central Station you would thread your way through all the leering gibbering zombies until you found this man, and then you would be all right.
"Sorry," I said. "I was dreaming; thought you were someone I knew. Hello, Phillip. Good morning, Lady Sally. Where's the werebeagle?"
She looked politely puzzled. "I beg your pardon?"
"The one you went up that alley with. I saw him change."
"Ah." She took a closer look at me. "Charles is not here at present. He's gone home. You . . . er . . . did not find his metamorphosis upsetting?"
"To be perfectly honest, I found it terrifying. But any friend of yours is a friend of mine."
"Broad-minded of you, child. Good for you."
I realized for the first time that her British accent was bogus, an affectation. She did it well, but if you listened long enough, you could tell. "Thank you for saving my life."
"Think nothing of it, my dear girl. One cannot of course spend one's life hunting pimps; the supply is inexhaustible; but if Fate offers me a chance to assault one without going out of my way, I can only be grateful." We were going to drop the subject of Charles.
I sighed. "Well, I can't say I'll miss Travis, but he did have his uses."
"A tiger in the kitchen will keep the cockroaches away," Phillip said. His voice was soft and deep and furry.
Oh yeah? I wanted to say. I've got that tiger trained as docile as a pussy cat
but apparently that was not correct.
In truth, I was shocked at the extent of my misjudgment. It was more than the disappointment felt by an owner whose pet tiger has gone savage and had to be destroyed. Damn it, I had liked Big Travis. I had, in a way, cared about him. I had thought that beneath his necessary macho armor he cared about me. I was his special girl. The one he almost didn't want to make whore for him. All the while, deep down, he had thought me such a trivial possession that it had been simpler to kill me than to bother disciplining me. The knowledge put a deeper, sharper hole in me than the knife had.
"I'm in a lot of pain," I said. "I need another shot."
"Shot?" Lady Sally said.
"That stuff Mary gave me, Placebo."
She blinked. "I'm not sure I approve of her giving you that. Oh well, the damage is done. Let me summon your physician. Phillip?"
He rose, went to a phone on the dresser, punched a three-digit number and asked for Doctor Kate to be sent to Mary's room. I gritted my teeth for a wait. Doctors never come promptly.
She arrived almost at once, carrying a black bag. Reading from the top, she wore a doctor's reflector headband, square severe glasses, unbuttoned white doctor's jacket, stethoscope, white lace garter belt, white cobweb stockings, and white high heels. Oh yes, and a wedding ring. She was a natural redhead.
Where the hell was I?
"Patty's keeping his vital signs stable," she said to Lady Sally, and to me, "Hello, dear, how are we feeling today? You're looking much better. You had a close call, but you were lucky." She reached the bedside, took my pulse. High and strong and steady. "Are you in a lot of pain?"
Her question took precedence over her costume. "Yes. Lady Sally says I have to see you to get some more of that painkiller Mary gave me last night."
"Placebo," Lady Sally enunciated.
Doctor Kate looked thoughtful. It was weird to see that judicious doctor-look above a pair of large seminaked breasts. Disorienting. "Yes," she decided, "I can let you have some more of that. Mary's judgment is usually sound. Did she say what dosage?"
I thought hard. "Fifty milligrams. In some solution with a long name."
She frowned. "That's a lot. You'll have to take it orally from now on. Here." She took a jar of pills from her bag, gave me one.
Damn. It wouldn't hit as fast, or as hard. Oh well, it would probably last longer. "Looks just like aspirin," I said as she fetched cold water from a bathroom to my right.
"Trust me," she said, returning. "It isn't aspirin."
I gulped it down, lay back to wait for it to work.
"It isn't addicting or habituating either," she said. "In case you were wondering."
"I'd have gotten around to it," I muttered wearily.
"I've got to change your dressing now," she said. "I call your attention to the fascinating ceiling."
I snuck a peek and it was pretty bad, but the medicine was beginning to come on and it helped. When it was over I found that Phillip had come to sit beside me and hold my hand. I half expected him to tell me a bedtime story.
"Phillip . . . ," I asked him quietly, while Doctor Kate was off washing her hands in the john. "Look, where the hell am I? I mean what kind of place is this?"
One corner of his mouth crinkled up. "I'm not sure that could be put into words. In fact, I'm not sure I'm wise enough to know."
There was nothing wrong with Lady Sally's hearing. "This is my House," she said clearly, "and you are safe here. You may stay as long as you like, or until I take a notion to throw you the hell out, whichever comes first."
A chilly sensation began just below where my ribs met. I think I kept my face straight, but my hands closed into fists under the sheet. I was a long time answering her.
Oh my God, I kept thinking, How could I have been so dumb?
"Thank you, Lady Sally," I said finally. "That's a very generous offer. I already owe you more than I could ever repay."
"Nonsense, dear child," she said. "On the day I leave a stranger to bleed to death in an alley, there'll be a brisk trade in ice skates in Hell. As the old joke goes, it has been the equivalent of a formal introduction."
Doctor Kate came back from the jake. "Will you excuse me, Maureen? Your ladyship? I have a patient waiting."
"Thank you, too, doctor," I told her. "I peeked while you were fixing my bandage, and you did a good job."
"Wait'll you see the size of my bill," she grinned, and was gone.
I thought: I'll bet you think I think you're kidding.
"I'll bet you think she's kidding," Lady Sally said.
I smiled. "I'm grateful that you didn't bring the cops into this. Like, report it or anything. Thank you." I already knew why she hadn't, but I was mildly curious to see what lie she'd use.
"I detest official formalities. Unofficial ones, though, are a different matter: you are welcome, girl. All puns intended."
I made a small sick-patient sound. Phillip frowned in concern. "What's the matter, Maureen?"
"Nothing. This painkiller is making me sleepy." I yawned.
"That's common," he agreed. "Get some rest; you need it. I have an appointment coming up, but I'll look in on you later." He and Lady Sally got up and left.
As soon as the door clicked shut behind them, I closed my eyes tight and groaned.
Now it all made sense. All of it. Oh, I should have guessed! Aw, Jesus.
Lucky Maureen. Saved from death and a fate worse than death by a kindly old auntie, a wealthy Good Samaritan who leads werebeagles around on leashes and just happens to be a trained streetfighter. I'd always said if I ever met one real Samaritan in my life, one person who gave without taking, I'd kiss my own assand for a minute there, I'd almost been ready to bend over. I'd almost forgotten what the Professor used to tell me, over and over: Always look for the other guy's angle. If it seems too good to be true, it is. What a chump. . . .
She'd said it with a capital H.
"This is my House," she'd said.
A goddam madam!
Of course she'd stopped Big Travis from wasting me. Simple conservation. Waste not, want not. Some people can't stand to see a good horse mistreated.
I was in a goddam whorehouse, and from the looks of Doctor Kate and Robin, a very kinky whorehouse, and unless I played my cards just right, I was never going to get out of it.
There are basically three kinds of prostitute: street hooker, call girl, and house whore. Each kind is convinced that the other two are the lowest of the low. I was a little more sophisticated: I had started as an independent call girl, then shifted tracks after a few unpleasant incidents persuaded me that it was good to have a protector. But I still had nothing but contempt for house girls.
For one thing, I knew who ran the whorehouses in New York. Better to work the streets! I knew a girl named Marcie who'd been in a House in L.A., once, and she said it combined the worst features of a girls' reform school and a gang rape. You had to work sixteen hours a day and take on any john who wanted you, and do a lot of the perverted kinky stuff. She showed me the scars. You weren't allowed to ask them to use a condom because you were so expensive, yet you got less of the money you made than many street hookers did. Marcie had managed to escape and come Eastshe'd even managed to kick the drugs they'd hooked her onbut she always used to say that one day they would find her. One day I stopped seeing her around.
My side was giving me hell, but I embraced the pain. I was going to have to get used to it. I was not going to let them give me any more of that Placebo shit.
Phillip did come by to check on me later, but I pretended to be asleep so I wouldn't have to talk to him. Then awhile after that, Doctor Kate came back. Her I did want to talk to.
"Look, Doctor Kate"
"Just `Kate,' dear. We're going to be friends, I hope."
"Kate, I'm not exactly a blushing virgin"
"I've treated very few debutantes for stab wounds."
"I've figured out that this place isn't a Bible Society, okay? So tell me, what's it like? How's Sally to work for?"
"This is the best place I've ever worked," she said happily. "Including some fancy-schmancy hospitals, back when medicine was my main career. And Lady Sally is a total dear."
Uh huh. I wondered whether she was brainwashed, or a tool of management, or just too scared to tell the truth. I decided it didn't much matter which: for my purposes she was useless. I'd already figured out that all the rooms would be buggedbut I'd been hoping for a wink or a grimace or some other sign.
"Really," she was saying, "this is a House of healthy reputeno sleaze, fleas or social disease. You have no idea how lucky you are."
"I'm learning. Are we in the city?"
"Brooklyn," she said. "Not far from where you were injured."
"Huh," I said. "Funny. Somehow it doesn't feel like Brooklyn."
That made her smile. "No, it doesn't, much."
I wanted to ask for a more precise location, but did not dare. I took another tack. "Kate? I don't mean to be a bother, but . . . would you bring that phone on the dresser over here by the bedside? And tell me what number to dial to reach you? I yelled for help a little while ago, and nobody heard me."
She frowned slightly. "Oh, you must have dreamed it, Maureen. These rooms are very well soundproofed, it's true. But Mary monitors every room in the House during working hours, and even a squeak for help would have brought her on the run."
Maybe that was the cue I'd been hoping for: an open admission that the rooms were bugged here.
"But we are between shifts, now, and Mary's off duty. Besides, you might have people on the outside you want to contact, let them know you're okay. Here you go"
She brought me the phone!
"What was the matter anyway?" she asked, setting it down on the bedside table. "Are you all right now?"
"Oh yeah," I said absently, dizzy with hope. "Just a twinge."
"That's good," she said. She jotted some three-digit numbers down on a pad. "If I'm not at this first number, I'll usually be at the second . . . and this third number is Main Reception downstairs. Oh, and dial six if you want an outside line, then the area code if it's outside the 212 area. Got it?"
I studied her face carefully. It was open, sincere, friendly. Could there be a hidden camera somewhere? "Got it. Thanks, Kate."
"My pleasure, Maureen. Can I do anything else for you?"
I wondered how often she said those words here. "No, I'm fine."
"I'll run along, then." She grinned suddenly. "Got to wipe down O.R. for the next shift. If you get bored, there's a few magazines in the drawer beside you."
She left, and I held a brief but intense debate with myself.
Was it or wasn't it safe to call for help? Maybe it was smarter to play dumb. This might be a test. Even if Mary really was off duty, there could be a tape rolling. Then again, if I could get off a quick enough S.O.S., maybe help would arrive before they got around to playing back the tape. . . .
Which led me right up against the brick wall. Who was there to call? The cops? My mother?
Most other working girls either bored the stockings off me, or gave me the willies. I had maybe four sort-of friends among the sisterhood, and none I would trust to take a splinter out of my butt. But who did I know in town besides hookers? I could not recall a single john giving out his phone numbernor one I would call on even if I could. Big Travis's number was permanently out of service. The cops would take their orders from the same people Lady Sally did. And I would not have called my mother if I were being roasted and tortured in Hell.
I thought of someone I could call. It galled me to have to ask him for help. There was no question that he could help me, and I had absolutely no other choice: those were the two most galling things. But this chance, if it was one, might never come again; I was dialing his private number even as I cursed.
I had worked with him once. And been his lover, in a friendly sort of way. And I'd been a fool to quit him for whoring.
"I wasn't anywhere near there nine months ago," he answered on the third ring.
"Professor" I began, and shut up. I was furious with myself for the relief I felt at the sound of his voice.
"What's wrong, Maureen?" he asked at once.
I began to cry softly. "Prof, it's a clem. I'm in big troubleyou gotta get me out of here!"
"I will. Tell me about it."
"It's all so crazy! This guy turned into a dog, and my old man cut me, and then I got shanghaied into a House. I don't know whether they're listening now or not, how long I can talkplease, Professor, come get me the hell out of here!"
"Where are you? Address and specific location inside, if you can."
"I don't know, exactly! In Brooklyn somewhere, a place run by an old auntie named Lady Sally, but I don't even know what floor I'm on"
He burst out laughing.
I held the phone away as if it had bitten me. It chirped with distant laughter.
"What the hell is so goddam funny?" I shouted into it finally.
"I'm sorry, Mo," he said, still chuckling. "I'm not laughing at you; I'm laughing at the universe. Far be it from me to spoil a joke as good as this. Just listen to me, and believe this: God has sent you what you deserve." He hung up.
I stared at the phone. I was shattered. And totally confused. And almost angry enough to scream. To be forced to yell "Hey, Rube"to him of all people!and then to have him laugh at my tears of fright and hang up on me . . .
I was going to get out of this place if I had to chew my way out. And then hunt him down and neuter him.
Getting out of bed didn't kill me. The carpet was soft, and I only fell twice. I couldn't find my bloody clothes, but the closet was full of all sorts of outfits and one of them fit well enough. Four or five pounds of costume jewelry twisted up in a stocking made a serviceable blackjack. When Lady Sally came in fifteen minutes later I was behind the door, ready.
I remembered the sound of Big Travis hitting cement, and swung harder than my side wanted me to.
"Wake up, Maureen dear," she said. "You came all over queer for a moment."
I tried to sit up in bed, but my side hurt too much. I lay back and glared at her. "Listen to me," I said weakly. "You can kill me, but you can't break me. Big Travis couldn't make me work if I didn't want to, and you can't either!" I was bluffing, of course. Right then Robin the male maid could have broken me. "I'm an independent, you got that, Your Ladyship? and if you can't deal with that, then you might as well finish me right now." I tried to look tough as nails, and looked to see if I had pushed it too far.
A smile and a frown were wrestling on her face. The frown won.
"You think that you have been shanghaied into my House," she stated. "That I've appointed myself your new owner. Now I begin to understand that goat dance we just did by the door."
"Did you think I was too dumb to figure it out?" I snapped.
Her face became expressionless. "Maureen, there's probably no point in my telling you thisyou won't believe me, and soon enough you'll find out for yourself. But I'll say it just the same. You are free to stay here for a week or two while you recuperate . . . or you may get up and leave now if you feel up to it. I do not recall offering you a position as one of my artists. And I do not plan to."
I said nothing.
"Please do not interpret this as criticism. I'm sure you are talented and skilled. But this is not an ordinary House, and you do not meet my standards. I'll send Kate up, in case our little gavotte has undone her good work." And she left before I could say a word.
I could not decide whether to be relieved, or suspicious . . . or insulted.
I settled on suspicious. She was trying reverse psychologyand it was not going to work.
I refused my next dose of painkiller, told Kate I wouldn't be needing it anymore. Just after noon the next day a delegation consisting of Phillip and Robin (in mufti, this time) came to tell me I was well enough to get up and walk around a little, and to offer me a Grand Tour. A robe and some very comfortable slippers were found for me, and we set off at a pace suitable for a convalescent. I concentrated on mapping the place in my head. Out my door, turn right, a short stretch of hallway leads to a corridor. Look right: an elevator. Look left: a doorway marked "Exit"! Look away . . .
"We're in the Discreet Wing," Phillip said, steering us toward the elevator. "It's just barely connected to the rest of the House, and not at all on this floor. There are doors to the Women's and Men's Lounges, but except for emergencies they stay locked during working hours."
"Separate lounges for men and women? And a `Discreet Wing'?"
The elevator door slid shut and we rose gently. "Well, actually there are three Lounges. You see, some people who come to a bordello feel easier in their minds if they know that the only people of the opposite sex they're going to see are employees. So there are segregated Lounges. But sooner or later most people figure out that the best party is in the Parlor. The Parlor is co-educationalin several senses. And the Discreet Wing is for those few of either gender who must have absolute discretion and privacy. Public officials, celebrities, evangelists, and so forth. If you come on anyone wearing a mask in this section, pay no attention. And if you see anyone you recognize, try to hide it."
This place must be huge. And I'd never heard of a house that catered to as many women as menI'd never heard of one that catered to women at all. Lady Sally was no ordinary madam.
The elevator door slid open and we exited into another hallway, wide and well carpeted. The paintings I saw on the wall were realistic and quite explicitly erotic. Also quite beautiful. "Function rooms straight ahead," Phillip said, "women's wing to the right, men's to the left. Any of the three will lead to the coed wing."
"Let's see the function rooms," I said.
Through a doorway, down a corridor. Doors on either side, impressively far apart. Big rooms, lavish operation. Some of the doors had small red lights glowing. Phillip opened one which did not. "I don't know if you'll remember," he said, "but this is where Kate fixed you up."
It looked and smelled like a doctor's consulting room . . . except that the stirrups on an examination table do not customarily include ankle restraints. It was sparkling clean and seemed well-equipped. I opened a closet. It contained some of those open-backed gowns for patients, some surgeon's gowns and masks, and assorted medical apparatus. Plus a collection of "marital aids" . . .
The next function room we inspected was a Teenager's Bedroom. Football pennants and pictures of pop stars and horses on the walls, white comforter with embroidered kittens on the bed, cheap desk stacked with school books, letter-sweater draped over the chair, dresser-top piled a foot deep with makeup and perfume and stuffed animals. The closet bulged with clothes; a cheerleader's outfit hung from a hook on the door.
"There's a boy's version across the hall," Phillip said.
Next in line was an Executive's Office, suitable for a captain of industry, authentic in every detail. Phillip, grinning, activated the intercom and said, in a fake Dutch accent, "Missus-a Wiggins, hold-a alla my calls, yew got-a dat?"
I recognized Mary, even though she was using a flat, nasal joke voice. "Yes, Mr. Tudball."
I noted that there was a great deal of room in the well under the desk; that everything on the desk could be swept off onto the floor hastily without breaking or damaging the carpet; that the carpet was extremely soft and washable; and that the couch across the room was designed as a multipurpose utensil.
"Your function rooms are very . . . functional," I said. Privately I was astonished at their quality. My mental estimate of the sheer financial scope of this operation rose sharply with every passing minute. I was no longer surprised that women patronized this brothel. There was nothing remotely sleazy about it. I had fallen into something truly extraordinary. This had to be where the very very rich came.
The prospect of working here began, for the first time, to seem a little less like a fate worse than death.
Suppose you only got to keep . . . say, ten percent of what you made. That could still amount to a tidy sum. And the kind of people you'd meet . . .
But what did the very very rich want?
Straight hooking was such a simple, trivial skill: any fool could learn to do it. Hell, it had taken Big Travis about a day and a half to teach me the ropes, back when I got started. Whenever I'd heard or read of those five-hundred-dollar-a-night girls, I always used to wonder what could possibly make it worth that much. I didn't know, and my guesses unnerved me.
"You're looking very pale, Miss Maureen, I'm sorry but you are, are you sure you're up to this?" Robin asked solicitously. I had not been able to get him to call me "Maureen," but I drew the line at "Mistress Maureen."
"I'm fine, Robin. Let's go on."
As we approached the next room, the discreet ruby light beside its door went off. I hesitated, curious to see one of the fabulously wealthy johns that frequented this place. This wasn't the Discreet Wing; it should be all right. I wished I had fixed my face before starting this tour. At least my hair was brushed.
The door opened, and a short slender man emerged. He had a face like a hundred-year-old monkey which had been shaved the previous week. He wore a cabbie's cap, a disreputable denim jacket, black corduroys, and the kind of high-heeled pointy-toed boots which in New York are called P.F.C.'s. Big Travis wore the same kind.
He paused in the doorway, through which I could see that this room was a Victorian Boudoir. "Hi dere," he said to us. Then he turned and called back to the room's occupant, "So long Rachelyer de greatest!"
"So are you, Eddie," a soft voice replied. "How you got your nickname I'll never know. Say hello to the gang for me."
He grinned, an astonishing sight. "Sure ting." He closed the door, nodded pleasantly to me, said, "Miss. Gents," and walked off down the hall.
"Uh . . . ," I said to Phillip.
"Is there anything wrong?" he asked.
"I guess I don't understand the . . . uh . . . the fee structure around here."
"Neither do we. Fortunately it's not our concern."
"That's Lady Sally's worry. All we have to do is concentrate on our performance. An artist really needs a manager, don't you think?"
Performance? Artist? "Phillip . . . do you work here? I mean, work here?"
He smiled. "I have that honor."
He was certainly the most mature and pleasant male hooker I had ever met. "And you don't collect the money yourself? How do you know Sally's honest on the split?"
He smiled again. "Even assuming I didn't know her, the issue doesn't arise. We're all on straight salary. Plus tips . . . which, to anticipate your next question, we keep."
I blinked. "Do you mind if I ask . . ."
"Not at all." He named a figure. "That's after withholding. And room and board and medical care are thrown in.""
I managed to unpop my eyes. "You can't be serious." As a colonel in the Army, my father had made less than half as much. "She must whack the johns for a fortune."
"Each time somebody new comes here, Lady Sally sees him or her in private first. She looks them over, talks with them a little, and then quotes them two prices: one for by-the-evening, and the other for full-time membership. Logic tells me that she must peg the prices to what the individual can affordyou saw the fellow who just left; he's an old regular. But we don't ask, and clients don't talk about it among themselves. All I know is, you don't have to be rich to come herebut if you are, no one will hold it against you."
"How many johns do you have to see a day? Or is it `janes'?" My subtle way of learning his sexual orientation. And his professional prowess
No dice. "There's no quota. It varies."
"Huh? You're telling me Lady Sally's whores have no quota?"
"We don't call ourselves whores. And we don't call them `johns' or `janes.' They're clients, and we're artists."
He frowned. "Maureen, every time I hear someone put the word `mere' in front of the word `semantics,' I bite my tongue hard and remind myself that I too am greatly ignorant. If you were Jewish would you call yourself a `kike'?"
"Black people call each other `nigger,' " I argued.
"Not the ones in this House," he said firmly. "Lady Sally does not permit any kind of contempt here. Not even self-contempt. Maybe especially not self-contempt. Art with contempt in it is always sour. To answer your question, no, there's no quota system. There've been days I didn't see a single client. And days when I took my pants off at noon and didn't put them back on until closing. Art happens when it happens."
"No time limit or anything? You could take a whole shift with one . . . uh, client?"
"Art takes as long as it takes. But that doesn't happen often."
"You can pick and choose your clients?"
"Of course. And vice versa. As a rule, I'll gamble an hour on anyone Lady Sally has admitted to the Parlor, and I've had very few bad experiences. I have some regulars, of course. We all do."
I said nothing.
He grinned. "There just is no polite way to ask what you want to ask, and it's killing you. So I'll take you off the hook. I see both men and women. My clientele happens to break down to about eighty percent female, lately, and that suits me okay. But bisexuality isn't required. Lady Sally tolerates monosexuals; she just doesn't understand them."
I was probably as confused and disoriented as I'd been in that alley a few nights ago. And I was blushing! "Let's resume the tour."
He agreed at once. We left the function room area, passed through a swinging door and down a hallway lined with doorways.
"These are the personal studios," Phillip said. "One per artist. Here, I'll show you my own"
It looked like a small studio apartment with bath. Thick carpet. Burgundy walls. King-size bed, neatly made up and very comfortable-looking; many pillows. Stereo and a small TV. Beer fridge in the corner. Large closet. Armchair. Hassock. Mahogany dresser with huge mirror which could be pivoted strategically. The only thing that surprised me a little was the bookcase. It was full of books. Real books: I saw old friends. Stuart Little. The Princess Bride. It looked like a very pleasant room in which to make love. I spotted the bug, but most people wouldn't have.
"Funny," Phillip was saying. "New clients usually want to come here the first time . . . but they ask a lot of casual questions about the various function rooms. Then the second through seventh visits, they either try half a dozen different rooms, or one of them half a dozen times. And from then on, they'll want a plain studio session nine times out of ten. Oh, everybody's differentbut you'd be surprised how often it works out that way. You can't eat spicy food all the time."
"So this is where you live."
"No, no! This is where I work, most of the time. My studio. My apartment is up on the third floor with everybody else's."
Jesus Christ. "Along with a twenty-four-hour kitchen, no doubt."
"No, that's in the basement. Clients are permitted there during working hours as long as they behave themselves. Generally that means letting us win the food fights. Are you feeling strong enough to continue?"
As we left I noticed that the door would not lock in either direction. He led me back out into the hall, and through a series of carpeted, softly lit corridors. He did not chateven Robin was silentand I was grateful. I was distracted by my own thoughts.
What the hell did she mean, I didn't meet her goddam standards?
We came to the upper terminus of a spiral staircase so grand and beautiful that it jolted me out of my self-absorption. It was iron and might have been the lifework of a whole family of artisans. I could not guess its age.
I realized that I had been hearing music for the last while without noticing: this was the source. Solo piano downstairs. Excellent piano. Honky-tonk, barrelhouse piano, exactly the sort I'd always imagined they must play in whorehouses. You know how you listen to Tatum or Peterson and think, this guy can play any damn thing he can imagine, and he's got a better imagination than me? That good. Listeners were laughing and clapping along. That had to be the Parlor down thereand the afternoon shift was in progress.
"Terrific," Phillip said. "Somebody talked Eddie into sticking around for a while. Let's go."
"There is a damn party going on down there. And I am in a bathrobe and slippers with no makeup."
He looked thoughtful. "Oh. There is a dress code in the Parlor. But it only applies to employees. I'm sure no one will mind."
I'll never understand men. "It's not their feelings I'm worried about!"
Robin understood at least. "You look lovely, Miss Maureen," he said, so earnestly I almost smiled. "And you haven't really seen Lady Sally's House until you've seen the Parlor. Why, some of the clients spend all their time there, never come upstairs at all. Just a few minutes?"
You could not descend that splendid staircase without feeling that you were making a grand entrance into the Imperial Ballroom. Doing so in a bathrobe and mules made me feel unutterably silly. Halfway down I relaxed. As advertised, no one was looking at meand what I was looking at was more interesting than my own embarrassment.
Have you ever seen, in the movies maybe, one of those very elegant and exclusive men's clubs in London, where the rich and powerful hang out? They have them in New York, too, but it couldn't be the same. Picture one of those, three hundred years old, richly furnished and decorated with exquisite taste. Islands of furniture groupings afloat in lots of open carpet. Chandeliers equal to the staircase in magnificence. Two bars.
Now I understood how I fell short of Lady Sally's standards. It wasn't any of the things I'd been thinking. I didn't have enough class.
Then I took a closer look at the couple of dozen people in that splendid Parlor, and was confused again. The membership committee of the exclusive men's club had apparently been infiltrated by proletarian radicals. Or perhaps just galloping eccentrics.
Roughly half the people were women, of course, and they were dressed more conservatively than I had expected. No lingerie, no negligees. Some dressed elegant, some casual. Most of them looked like they were going to a reception at an upscale art gallery.
But there was a girl in genuine hippie drag, long dress and gypsy scarf and all, and a redhead in Navy uniform, and what appeared to be an authentic bag lady. And a nun
And the men were a much more mixed group.
Oh, there were banker types and diplomat types and lawyer types. I recognized the Police Commissioner from his pictures. But there was also a guy in a bus driver's uniform, some Japanese in Bermuda shorts and flowered shirts, two honest to God native Indians with braided hair and patched jeans, a big balding redhead who looked like a bartender, three coal-black Africans in robes, and a lighter-skinned black man who sat legless on a small wheeled platform. And there was a priest sitting with the nun.
The only other place I'd ever seen this broad a spectrum of people together was the lobby of a modern dance concert the Professor took me to once.
It didn't seem to make sense. Most of this crowd just could not afford the kind of rates that must be necessary to maintain an operation this lavish. Maybe the evening trade was more upscale.
Everybody gave me a glance and a nod; nobody gave me more. Their attention was on the piano playing of the partly shaved monkey I had seen upstairs. I couldn't blame them; he was really good. Eddie, that was the name. Weird to hear barrelhouse coming from a concert grand . . .
I looked more closely at the women, looked beyond their dress and hairstyles. From what I'd learned of Lady Sally's House, I expected them all to be stunning, in face and body. And some were . . . and some were merely pretty . . . and some were homely even by street standards. I decided those must be clientsfor what other kind of woman would need to come to a brothel? (God, I had a lot to unlearn!) Some looked sophisticated, some funky. Some looked bright and educated; at least one looked dumb as a bag of hammers. I saw a saintly grandmother, and a 400-pound native Indian woman who looked mean as a snake.
What the hell standards did I fall short of?
The piano wizard got himself into trouble, noodled his way out onto the end of a long fragile limbthen recovered so adroitly that you realized he'd been teasing you, and thundered his way to a conclusion. Loud applause, in which I joined; shouts and whistles. "Hey, Silas," one of the Indians yelled, "let's kidnap this white man and take him back to Hobbema with us!"
Eddie got up, wrinkled his face up into a remarkable imitation of a dried apricot, took a quick bow, and left with the big redheaded guy. They made an odd pair. The party became general again. Earnest conversation here, raucous laughter there; some drifted to the bars. Over by the fireplace, the bag lady lectured to a small circle of attentive listeners. The police chief and the big Indian began playing chess. A sound system began playing upbeat bebop sax, Dexter Gordon or someone who loved him, in the background.
It came to me that this was the party I had always wanted to be invited to. I began to cry, almost noiselessly. Phillip stared at me, thunderstruck, and Robin began to panic, but I couldn't help it.
Lady Sally was suddenly there beside me, although I hadn't seen her come in. (I was to learn that this was typical.) "Are you all right, Maureen? Do you want Kate?"
I shook my head no, and somehow she knew I was answering both questions. "Thank you, boys," she said cheerfully, "I'll take over now."
She led me out of the parlor; I followed blindly. We ended up at what had to be her office, and sat down together on a sofa. She held me while I cried it out, and after I was through.
When I moved away she let go at once. We sat side by side in silence for a time.
"What it is," I said finally, looking at the floor, "I never had a home. Just places to live for a while. I was an Army brat until my Dad died. I've wanted a home so bad for such a long time. Out there: those folks are home. Maybe some of them have other homes outside of here, maybe not, but this is a home for them. Right?"
"Could you maybe just skip being polite for a minute, and tell me what standard it is I don't meet? Is it anything I could fix?"
She sighed and turned away. "I'll give you a straight answer. There are three basic problems. First, your age. I do not employ artists under eighteen. You are sixteen at most, and doubtless can pass for twelve. That is not an asset in this House.
"Second your training. I've had very bad luck with street girls. Most of what you think you know about The Art is wrong, and unlearning takes more discipline than I think you've got.
"Third and most important, your attitude. You don't much like yourself, and you don't much like your clients, and you don't much like what you and they do together. That, more than anything, makes you no use to me."
I remembered Phillip saying, "Art with contempt in it is always sour." I could understand that. The difficult part was to grasp the concept that inducing a genital sneeze could qualify as art. . . .
She frowned. "The first problem is self-correcting; the second is correctable with a lot of hard work. I don't know whether there's anything you could do about the third. I place a high value on acceptance and tolerance. I'm inclined to give you points for the way you accept and tolerate my friend Charles, and his . . . peculiarity. But not enough points. I'm sorry."
I closed my eyes. After a long silence, I opened them and said, "Thank you for your honesty."
She frowned again. "You're right to thank me; honesty is hard work." She turned back to look at me, and started. "Dear God, child, you're exhausted. You look, in the words of a horseman of my acquaintance, like you've been rode hard and put away wet. Sit there and I'll fetch a wheelchair to take you back to your room"
I started to protest, and realized that I really was wiped out. My side hurt. My pride hurt. "All right."
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