"Oh no. I ain't
from around here. I'm from St Louis, where my Daddy was a… well he was a
wealthy man, honey. He allus got me pretty, pretty things. Once he bought
me a gown, pale green tussore it was, with the hem all caught up with silk
roses… why don’t you buy me another drink, honey, and we can go upstairs and
I'll show you where those roses looped…"
She wasn't one to worry herself with thoughts about the future.
What was a girl like her to do with thinking like that, pretending that one day there would be something other than this? There wouldn't be a future of a man and family; not for the likes of her. She didn't have a future, not one she could see and tie to, and the only possibility she could see, the one that she saw in front of her every day in Melia's stooped body and lank hair, wasn't one she wanted to dwell on.
Melia's was the fate of every working girl, she reckoned; too old for the game now but not too old to clean the rooms and mend the pretty satin clothes and watch over the girls in the dancehall for a few dimes a night. Melia's faded blue eyes could size up the customers in one glance, and she knew straight off which of 'em would treat the girls all right and which would be trouble that she'd have to warn Jim about so he'd be ready to come out from behind the bar if need be. Oh, he'd not bother if it was just a man was rough, but Melia could always tell if it was likely to shape up to worse than just rough, because the Lord knew, Melia'd had many a troublesome man between her legs and she was old, not stupid, and didn't let all that knowledge and experience go to waste.
She thought that Melia must have been young and pretty once, and her body must have moved free and easy with the sway at the hips that brought a man's eyes to where they belonged and brought a man's wallet to where it could do the most good. And now Melia was a maid to girls all young enough to be her daughters; too old to turn the tricks herself, and too young to die.
No, it didn't pay to think about the future. A girl like her didn't have no future.
Come to think on it—and she did a lot of thinking while smiling winsomely at the customers and getting them to buy the high-priced rotgut, and she did a lot of thinking while dancing the polka with them to the tinny piano music, and even more thinking while they rutted and grunted on top of her—the present didn't have much to be said for it, neither.
Her life was just day after day of sleeping late and eating breakfast in the early afternoon, sitting at the table with the other girls, all of them in calico wrappers, frowsty and dirty and yawning. And then, just night after night of cinching the corsets tight around her to push up her breasts and make her waist tiny, of pulling on the thin black stockings that showed beneath the short satin dress, of pinning feathers into her hair and putting the paint on her face. The first couple of men, and she wouldn't even bother getting out of the corsets; the Lord knew they could get at what they wanted when she let them pull off her lacy black silk drawers, and the corset was cut low enough at the front for them to get their hands in and pinch and pull, which was all those darn cowhands knew how to do to a girl. She only got naked for the last man of the night, the one that'd be there until morning.
The least a girl could do, supposing she was in for the long haul like that, was get comfortable.
And that left only the past.
She had never been one to dwell on the past, any more'n the future. Not the real past, anyway. She didn't waste her time repining over lost opportunities and missed chances, or how things might have been, or mistakes she shouldn't have made. She didn't even think much anymore on the woman who she thought was her mother, the one who'd put her out to work, the one she'd called Ma even if there wasn't much between them other than the name. Time to start earning yer keep, Ma had said, more'n time, a great big girl like you. You been at school long enough and I got somethin' in mind.
Thinking back, she supposed she'd been half-way to fifteen. She'd been so small and tight, her breasts hardly swelling up enough for the man to rub his hands over as he forced her legs apart with his knee and pushed up into her, pushing and pounding while she shook and cried underneath him. He'd bought her for a week, and by the end of it she'd learned not to cry and shake, but how to move under him while he pounded her, how not to mind while he sucked on her sore little nipples, how to touch him and make him groan.
Ma had just nodded when she came back. Ma already had another one waiting and ready for her and then the one after that, and after that. Ma taught her all she knew: how to give a man the good time he was payin' for and how to get rid of all the mistakes using the herbs and things that Ma said the first settlers had got from the Indians, who know what to do to keep their squaws from bearing all the time. Don't know why I didn't get rid of you, Ma said once. She never knew if Ma had been sorry or not. Ma had just looked real thoughtful.
That was a past that wasn't worth remembering. But her pretend past, now! That was much more the thing.
She liked best the past where she was the lost daughter of a respectable man from some sophisticated city back East, usually St Louis because she liked the sound of the place. She'd never been there, except when she pretended. Sometimes her St Louis father was a rich banker or a businessman, sometimes a minister from an old, fine family. But whatever the history, one part was always the same.
"I was Daddy's favourite," she said, leaning back in a chair, languid and lady-like and smiling at the customer she was beguiling. "I went to school, a real Ladies Seminary where they taught us good manners and a little fancy sewin'. And my clothes were the finest, with ruffles right around the hem and every single dress I had there was a parasol to match. Daddy gave me such pretty, pretty things! Real fine, they was, all lace and silk, and every parasol had lace around the edge and the handle was ivory." She sighed and fluttered her hand at her breast then touching the corner of her eye as if to take away the tears. "I had this pale green tussore gown, come all the way from New York, with the skirt caught up all around with silk roses near the hem and lots of trailing roses, just here."
Her hand wafted in the air to show him where 'just here' was, somewhere near her ankles. She had pretty ankles and his eyes showed his appreciation when she drew his attention to them. 'Course, her skirt barely reached her knees and she had pretty knees, too. He paid some attention to those, too. She smiled secretly, knowing that he was already thinking about her knees parting for him and those pretty ankles up on his shoulders. She watched his Adam's apple jump as he swallowed, and he licked his lips.
"Tussore," said the man, laughing. He took out his notebook and a stub of a pencil, and wrote it all down. "Pale green with roses."
She smiled, delighted. "Are you writing stuff about me?"
He was a writer, he'd said when he came into the Silver Lady, and he was looking for local colour—whatever that meant. He'd said that he was from New York and that might be for real, 'cause he sounded strange, chopping his words into short pieces until they were as sharp as he was.
"You're a natural at this," he said. "Tell me more."
"Well, I was…" She hesitated, looked down, letting her hands fall into her lap. "I was betrayed."
"I thought that was probably the case. Was he a brute?"
"No—" she said, doubtfully, because she'd never worked him bein' rough into her pretending.
"A cad, then. Who was he? The brother of a friend? Your art master?"
She touched her fingers to the corners of her eyes again, delicately. "The Ladies Seminary decided to employ a dancing master."
"A dancing master. Of course," said the writer, and laughed again, looking around the Silver Lady's dancehall. In the background, Pete was pounding out Possum Up A Gum Tree while two of the other girls stamped and whirled around with a couple of half-drunk cowhands pawing at them.
"He was Eye-tal-ian," she said, drawling out every syllable. "Alfonso, he was called. And he was so tall and strong and handsome and he moved so gracefully—"
"And you were weak and in love," the writer said, and she didn't like his tone or the way his mouth smirked.
She took a sip of her whiskey.
Peter changed to a slower tune, to Far From Home. She turned her head to watch for a moment. Sadie was in her cowhand's arms, her skirt rucked up around her waist while Carrie laughed and twirled and Lizzie and Jenny sat quiet in the corner, watching and waiting for a man to come and pick one of them to join the dance. She wondered why all their names ended the same, like they was all still little girls, not grown women who worked for a livin'. Even her own name ended the same way.
"Mmn," she said, tiring of the game.
"Well," said the writer, maybe sensing her mood. "Why don't we go upstairs and you can show me some of the fancy steps your Alfonso taught you?"
The writer paid for the whole night.
She didn't mind. She was pretty glad to get those stays off, and he was a good-lookin' man, and clean. He might be from the East after all. He didn't smell of cow or horse or if he hadn't had a bath for a month. The hands he rubbed over her nipples as she undressed for him were clean and his nails were trimmed. She gave him a real good time in gratitude.
"What is it you're writin'?" she asked when he was lying sleepy and content, his head on her breast.
He perked up again in more ways than one. Ma had always said it didn't take much to keep a man content, just get him thinking you thought he was the entire world and that he was interesting.
"I write novels," he said. "You read much?"
She shrugged. "Some. There's always a few yella-backed novels around the place. Carrie, now, she likes romances and she's always reading about how the Earl Vere De Vere marries some simple farm girl, or somethin', and the farm girl, she's always pretty and good and put upon a lot, and everyone thinks she stole the jewels or somethin' but it all comes out all right in the end and she's really a Duke's daughter in disguise. I read them sometimes."
"I thought you might," said the writer, chuckling. "I write about the West."
She smiled right back. "Dime novels! You write dime novels! I read some of those. They're excitin'. Mind you, I've never seen anything happen like they do in those books."
"It's just until I can publish my real book," protested the writer, and the tips of his ears were red. He looked discontented, and she was sorry for a moment, forgetting herself like that and poking fun at him just because he'd poked fun at her. She should save that for breakfast, to share with the girls, and not forget how to do her job right.
"You will, I'm sure," she said, and made her voice warm and treacly, imagining golden molasses dripping slowly from a silver spoon and making her voice just like it, all slow and gold and smooth to soothe him. "What're you writing right now?"
He rolled over in bed and picked up his notebook to wave it at her. "It's all here," he said.
"What's it about? Lade Vere de Vere and her lost jewels?"
He laughed but didn't sound comfortable. "No, this one's about a gunfighter. A famous gunfighter."
"Then if you’re writin' about round here, it'll be all Indians and cowhands and pretty saloon girls and I won't read it."
"Oh yes you will. There's going to be a pretty saloon girl like you, in it. I'll make her you. Would you like that?"
"I guess," she
said, and laughed a little to think that she'd be in a book. "Will you make
me a Duke's daughter in disguise?"
"I'll make you just you," he promised. He looked down at the notebook. "Go and sit over by the window where I can see you, and let me write a moment. I want to get this down while I can."
She didn’t mind. She got up and stretched her back, before slipping into a robe that didn’t look so frowsty in the warm lamplight. She always had her comfortable chair set by the window where she could watch the town go past, but at this time of night there weren't many people about. An old drunk staggering down the shadowy street, that was all. He moved out of the light from the downstairs windows that spilled out into the street, golden against the dark town, and vanished.
For a few minutes the writer scribbled away at his notebook, and she turned away from the quiet street and watched him, instead. She wondered if he'd leave her a tip, or whether he thought that just being in his book would be enough.
He looked up and caught her watching and grinned. "Come here," he said, holding out his hand.
"That was quick."
"I was just writing the beginning. Here, listen. What do you think?" And he read it to her, the parts where she was going to be in his book.
Nettie, she was called. She was a pretty piece and a slender one, with long legs in thin black silk stockings revealed by short satin skirts that barely reached her knees. A portion of her golden hair had escaped the confinement of the feathered combs that had held it piled high on her head, to tumble in rich profusion over bare white shoulders; and in its low-cut, red satin bodice trimmed with black lace, her bosom heaved with quickened, excited breathing when the stranger's eyes met hers. Her face showed already signs of dissipation and sin, though she could have been barely seventeen, but Nettie was still a very pretty girl, the prettiest in the Silver Dollar. She and the stranger exchanged glances, and an unspoken promise leapt from passionate eye to passionate eye before his chilled again and resumed their cold assessment of the rest of the room, and hers sparkled in demure acceptance. Nettie dropped her hands to smooth the red satin over her hips and smiled, but he didn't look at her again. His fierce, concentrated gaze was on the gamblers and drinkers watching him in strained silence.
Slowly, knowing that he was the master here, he walked up to the bar, his spurs jangling, and leaned gracefully against it, every man's eye surreptitiously following him. His dark, handsome face was again expressionless. He turned away from them. 'Whiskey,' he said to the quivering bartender. He downed the whiskey in one. 'I'm looking for Black Jake Denny,' he said. 'Tell him I'm here.'
The bartender had to try two or three times to find his voice, and he was hoarse with fear. 'Who shall I say's askin', stranger?'
The stranger smiled, his teeth white against his tanned skin. It was a cold smile, a dangerous one, and the bartender flinched away. 'The name's Madrid,' he said, his voice a soft drawl, but every man heard it and trembled. 'Johnny Madrid.'
Her heart thumped
once, twice; great big thumps that made her chest ache. She had to force
the smile, wondering if she should protest. It was all wrong, all wrong,
and its wrongness cut at her like a blade. It hurt. She hesitated. But
he was waiting for her to say what she thought, so she had to do it, making
her mouth into a round O of wonder and finding the words of fulsome praise
she thought he looked for.
He nodded, satisfied. "Johnny Madrid, the Border Hawk," he said, proclaiming it like the two-bit actor she'd seen once, and laughed and tossed the notebook aside. He reached for her, rolling her on to her back and pulling aside the robe to lick and kiss her throat and breast while she spread her legs for him and clutched him close while he thrust and thrust again and pounded the wrongness out of her until she really was Nettie writhing under Johnny Madrid and meeting his passionate eyes to see herself reflected there, and nothing else mattered.
Later the writer slept.
She went back to her chair at the window and stared out at the night and thought about all the wrong things the writer had written.
She closed her eyes to banish the foolish writer and instead against her eyelids she saw him again; dark and dangerous and laughing. She caught her lower lip between her teeth, worrying at it, when she realised that the details were fading, but she had a strong memory of one thing. He'd had a good deal of untidy black hair brushed carelessly back from his brow, constantly falling into astonishingly bright blue eyes and constantly being pushed back by strong, brown fingers; fingers as talented at caressing her as they were with the gun tied low on his right hip.
She smiled at that, keeping the memory close. She wouldn't share that, she wouldn't tell the writer that. She thought about how she wasn't called Nettie, and although her hair was a good rich golden-red brown, it wasn't gold; and most of all she thought how the man she'd known, even so briefly, wasn't cold and fierce like the writer made him. She thought that he could be cold and fierce if he'd wanted to, but he hadn't been like that with her for the four nights she could call herself Johnny Madrid's girl.
But she knew she wouldn't say anything. She wouldn’t tell the writer that he had her name wrong, her hair wrong, that he had Johnny Madrid wrong.
In the end, it wouldn't matter. It wasn't real. She'd never see either of them again. It wouldn't matter at all.
"My Daddy spoiled me, you know. He bought me the prettiest, prettiest things. Why, I had the prettiest dress at the entire Ladies Seminary. The hem was all caught up with silk roses, here." She waved at hand at her ankles to make sure this young man saw them and admired them. She wondered who and what he was; not a writer, that was certain, nor a cowhand. But he was generous and young and good-looking. He offered her some of the champagne that Jim kept locked behind the bar, and he paid in cash. "What's your name, honey?"
Later, much later, she realised that she had been looking her future right in the face when she asked and when she did look back, she almost envied Melia.
The young man licked his lips and slicked back his dark hair with one hand, eyes wide with lust and drink. He really was a good-lookin' boy.
"Frank," he said. "Frank Foley."
Polly laughed and smiled at him over the rim of her glass. "Welcome to the Silver Lady, Frank Foley."
It was green tussore, with roses.