Meta pretends she’s a prostitute

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His lips mashed together into a thin line. “Hey, wait just a confounded minute. Did you say…? They didn’t hire you to, you know…”

Retaliation. “Yes! I got a job there, and I know I will love it. The clients can be quite challenging. Last night, when I had to explain that I wasn’t warmed up yet—”

“I don’t want to hear more. Hell, I might be street-smart, but I haven’t even turned fifteen yet. Porca miseria!

“Porca what?”

“Just practicing on not saying ‘shit’ all the time. Ma doesn’t like it, and my little sister thumps me between the eyes when I say it. It’s a little Italian cuss word that means pig misery. Like saying ‘damn.’ Where you off to, anyhow?”

“My Aunt Amelia’s. Would you care to accompany me, Mr. Scallywag? I found a job because of you, did I not?”

He tore the cap off his head and rubbed his greasy black curls of hair. “Stop saying that. I had nothing to do with you getting that job!” He pointed his finger eastward and accelerated his pace.

“Oh, but you did,” I said, hurrying to catch up. “If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t be tingling with avidity for this evening to arrive. That’s why I’m going to visit Aunt Amelia, to tell her the good news.”

“What’s avidity mean? Wait, you’re going to tell your great-aunt about your new job? At Fannie Porter’s?”

“Of course. She’ll be thrilled for me. Besides, she knows I’m good at it. I’ve been doing it for years now.” I muzzled the smile aching to form.

His eyes widened into a dumbfounded glare.

“And avidity means eager, like being Avid about something.”

“I gotta go,” he said, turning away.

One more chance at deception. “Giovanni? You said you were fourteen?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Well, you are too young to be entertained at Miss Fannie’s. However, I’ll ask her if you can watch me perform sometime.”

His jaw dropped, his dander standing taller than his five-foot-five stature. “You want me to…watch?”

“Ah, we’re here. Thanks for the company.” I trotted off with the last laugh.

From The Last Bordello, historical fiction set in 1901

 

 

 

Emma June remembers something

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“Shut up, Betty. You’re drunk.”

“Not enough. I thought this would be easier. I would never have told you except, except, well, now we need your help. The money’s dried up. You’re my only friend.”

“Friend? You’re not my friend. You’re a liar, a traitor. How could you?!’

Mama’s crying now and I think I have to upchuck again.

“But Bernie, I’m all he’s got. And if I don’t have help, I’ll be forced to, to tell everyone. Everyone!”

My head hits the back of Beauty’s seat. Mama has screeched the Model T to a halt.

“You’re threatening me now?” Mama’s words are Spikey like cactus needles. She never yells like this. “Is this why you befriended me in the first place?” Mama sobs. “For money? For …”

It still doesn’t make sense. The only thing that does is being home with Daddy.

I stumble through my front door trying to breathe.

“Emma?” Daddy says. He rushes to me with arms wide enough to hug all of Holly Gap. Choppers licks muck from my face.

“Oh, Daddy, Daddy.” I let him hold me.

He lifts my chin and stares at my dirty, scratched face. “What happened, Emma June? Tell me.”

His voice is worried. But there’s no truth I can tell him. Not now.

 

Excerpt from The Moonshine Thicket, 1928

 

 

Shining Bosoms

 

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Mama liked Miss Helen’s moonshine, but only when she drank with Beauty. Once, when the summer was too hot for anything else, Mama, Scooter and me, took Beauty to the swimming hole. Mama spread out a red blanket and plopped a picnic basket on top. Scoot and me ate cheese and tomato sandwiches and crunched apples while Mama and Beauty drank Miss Helen’s hooch out of paper cups. Beauty got so ossified, she stripped naked and jumped in the creek. It Jolted me a bit, but Scooter didn’t care on iota.

“Betty Bedford, get out of the creek before you drown,” Mama said, laughing.

Then Beauty stood up in water only waist deep, her bosoms shining with moisture. She’d laughed and said, “Hard to do unless something pulls me under.”

No matter where we went, Mama and Beauty always had fun together. Except when everything went wrong.

Excerpt from The Moonshine Thicket

 

 

A cranky prostitute

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Sadie threw her arms around me and buried her face in my shoulder. “I’m so grateful you’re here. Maybe it’s time for me to go out. I think Miss Fannie won’t mind as long as I’m with you. I could take you to Brackenridge Park. It’s supposed to be beautiful. It’s named after one of our citizens, George Brackenridge. You know, the waterworks magnate?”

George Brackenridge, Mary Eleanor’s brother.

“I can’t today, Sadie. I’m going to visit Aunt Amelia. Another time, perhaps?”

Sadie withdrew her hug and narrowed her eyes. “I thought you just saw her. Truly, Meta? A visit every day?”

Her sarcastic wrath unwarranted, I clenched my hands into fists. “She is the reason I came here, Sadie. Did you forget?”

Sadie took a step back and glared at me. “I’ve changed my mind about going downstairs. You don’t like me because I’m a prostitute. I know that now. You’re only here so you can play your precious piano.”

“Sadie—”

“Please, do go down without me.”

Veins pulsed in my neck. “And you are only using me to ameliorate your guilt. Your insouciance for others is heartless.”

“You realize, don’t you, that you rely on your big words to puff yourself up. It’s unbecoming.”

Thoughts of Uncle Dirk reappeared. Why? Because Sadie had spoken to me with arrogance and superiority? Because she questioned my intelligence? My stomach churned.

“Let me know if I should move into Etta’s room.” Bitterness dripped from my tongue. I felt happy to descend the stairs alone.

Excerpt from The Last Bordello

Cranky

Crazy Olvie wants things timely

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Before Olvie gets a chance to say anything, I stare at this boys black and white railroad pants and the oversized sports coat that covers part of his white t-shirt. His black hair is cut short, but it’s curly. Not straightened like some Negros I’ve seen downtown around Congress Avenue. He gets closer. His expression sits somewhere between shame and anger.

Tanner’s not a grown-up. Maybe somewhere around my age, but it’s hard to tell since he’s not much taller than me.

Mr. Ford clears his throat. “Mrs. Monroe, this here’s my nephew, Tanner Ford. My sister’s son. Came here from Alabama for a visit.”

“So? Why would I care?” she says, rude like always.

“Miss Monroe,” Tanner says, his eyes downcast. “I threw that rock. I plan to get a job here while I’m visiting. I’ll pay for it.”

The only part of Olvie that moves is her mouth when it drops to her chin.

While we wait for Olvie’s voice to return, I say, “I’m Grace Cooper. I’m staying here until my folks get back from—”

“Overseas,” Olvie says. “And you will address me as Mrs. Monroe. You hear? ”

Tanner looks at his uncle and squints like I did when Mom told me about Olvie. Although she’d never been married, she pretends to everyone that she had.

“And before you ask, I’m not kin to Marilyn Monroe,” she say. “She’s been dead a year now and I’m still here.” Olvie finger-poke-poke-pokes his chest. “And you’re damn right about paying me back. I don’t like having my little house look like a shanty with cardboard windows. Next thing you know, some people will think it’s okay to throw appliances on my front lawn. And, you gave this girl quite a shock. I was afraid I’d have to sit up with Chicken Coop last night so she wouldn’t have nightmares. Such a shock for this poor girl. That’s right.” She turns to me. “Might still have to sit in your room till you go to sleep, right Chicken Coop?”

I shrug at her foolishness. She knows better than anyone how we have our windows broken all the time. A lot of pissed off folks don’t like my parent’s beliefs on Civil Rights.

I look at Tanner. He’s got the brightest green eyes I’ve ever since on a human being.

And all that glass I had to pick out of Gladys’ wig, poor thing.”

When Tanner looks puzzled, Mr. Ford whispers something in his ear. Probably reassuring him that Gladys isn’t human.

Come to think on it,” Olvie continues. “You can start tomorrow. My utility closet needs sorting. You’ll do it for free, of course.”

“Okay,” Tanner says.

Mr. Ford gives Tanner a soft thump to his arm.

“Yes, ma’am,” Tanner says.

“First thing in the morning. And I get up at seven.” Olvie looks up. “Oh, wait just a gosh darn minute. You’re not in some kinda trouble are you?”

From my work in progress set in 1963.

Timely

Unraveling the meaning of “an eye for an eye”

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Young Cono Dennis

Mr. Pall thinks he’s tougher than a pair of old leather boots, probably because he used to be some kinda wrestler or something. He isn’t nearly as tough as Dad, who last week had beaten a man unconscious on Main Street just because the man spouted off to him. I walk into his office, where’s he’s sitting behind his desk looking puffed up with importance.

“Cono, were you smoking in the schoolyard?”

“No sir, I wadn’t.”

“Were the Allridge boys smoking?”

I think, Why didn’t ye just call them in here like you’ve done me?, but I don’t say that. Maybe it was Mr. Pall’s brother-in-law, who Dad had beaten up last week.

“I have no idee, sir,” I say. “I reckon you ought’a ask them.”

His right eye stares a hole in my left eyeball. His left one kinda wanders around on its own, like it’s been punched one too many times. Maybe he grunts with Mrs. Berry on occasion.

He opens up his desk drawer and pulls out a rubber hose. He thumps it on the desk a few times and says, “Well, I need to whip you with this hose.”

I stare back into his bad eye with both of my good ones and say, “Go ahead, sir. But I jes’t half to tell ye that my daddy said if you ever laid a hand on me, he’d have to come up here and whup you.” I say it real nice though.

He sits real quiet in his principal’s chair, like he’s picturing himself drawing a crowd on Main Street while my dad beats the tar outta his one good eye. While he’s chewing on that idea like a piece of gum, I’m busy staring at him, thinking that his front teeth stick out so far he could eat an apple through a keyhole. After that picture in my mind, I’m not scared one little bit.

Finally, he says, “Git on outta here, Cono.”

“Yes, sir,” I say, ’cause there’s no sense in not being polite.

At lunchtime I’m eating my sandwich, minding my own business, when Tommy scopes me out and says, “Cono, what’cha got fer lunch?”

Even though he’s five times bigger than me I say, “It don’t make no difference ’cause ye ain’t getting none of it.”

“Cono, you shouldn’t a’ stuck that knife in me that time.”

I look up at him with a face as serious as Dad’s and say, “Tommy, if ye mess with me in any way, shape’r form, I’ll cut yer head plumb off with the same pocketknife I used before.”

And just as I’m picturing his dead body without a head like Wort Reynolds, Tommy Burns walks away.

School’s out for the day, and it was another discouraging one. I grab Delma’s hand and start walking back home, now having a little time to think about what happened.

The Allridge boys had been smoking like a bunch a chimney stacks, but I ain’t one to rat on somebody else when it’s none of my business. And, I like to think that Dad would beat the tar outta Mr. Pall if he laid a hand on me. But Dad never said that. If Dad ever finds out that I lied, I might as well curl up in a ball and prepare myself—or maybe just grab my axe.

Lying isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, we have to lie in order protect ourselves and the people we care about.

An “eye for an eye” is what I did today. Maybe that part of the Bible makes sense after all.

From No Hill for a Stepper, the story of my father growing up in poverty during the Great Depression.

Unravel

Never give up

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Ike, my great-grandfather, and Cono Dennis, my dad

Even though I didn’t get a donkey or a new guitar, I knew Aunt Nolie was in my corner, wiping off my brow between rounds and telling me to “Get up!” at the same time. I’ve since learned how to “get up” from many of the folks around West Texas. In that rugged terrain, if you don’t stand your ground, you’ll be bitten into hard, chewed on for a long time, and finally spit out just like Granny Dennis’s snuff. You don’t give up in West Texas, you get up.

It’s strange the ways people stick up for others and how they don’t. Sometimes they do it with yelling words, soft words, or even no words at all. Sometimes they do it by fighting, like Punk Squares did. But most of the time, the people in your corner just tell you to suck it up and go back at it. That’s what I’ve learned to do.

On that no-account day I did get a good reminder of what Ike taught me later on. Never trust anybody but your own self. I’d decided that from then on, I was going to protect my hard-earned money, hold on to it real tight in one hand and clutch the handle of my axe even tighter in the other. An honest day’s pay should be just that and nobody—nobody—should ever take that away from you.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper, my father’s story.

Be Tenacious!