Dick coughed and spat a disgusting blob of greenish mucus, missing my boot by a bare inch. "This is it, pardner!"
I was stunned beyond words. My eyes searched the old, rotting house standing in front of me. Window shutters, once obviously night sky blue now faded, were hanging off as if the place itself had just been beaten by a hurricane. The sickly pale blue paint was chipping off the façade. A few steps that led up to the porch looked like they might not be able to sustain our mutual weight and would collapse in a desperate cry of breaking wood. The railing that surrounded the dusty porch was just as beaten and lacking in color as the rest of the house. I would not dare touch it, let alone lean against it. A rocking chair swayed gently, as if someone had just gotten out of it and ran inside at the sound of the approaching car. A narrow bed of dry and wilted flowers and low bushes surrounded the house, making the entire thing look pathetic and spooky. The place had not been taken care of in years if not decades.
Even the dog lying at the door seemed dusty. A skinny black lab whose face was frosted with years rested on its side and for a moment I thought it was dead. Until that is, it opened its eyes and I wished it hadn't. What was supposed to be white in them was deep red as if after a wild night of drinking, the irises, normally brown in labs were milky bluish, with yellowy puss slowly oozing out onto its face. "Shit!" I exclaimed before I was able to restrain myself.
"You've got to be kidding me!" I whispered to my companion, a sixty-something farmhand, who worked on my grandfather's estate. He was a tall with long, spidery legs and leathery, sun burnt arms and face, deeply scared by the wrinkles of his age, hard life and heavy work. He had an odd looking face with huge potato for a nose and thin, almost non-existent lips that were always sucking on a cigarette. Dick was not the smartest of men, you understand, but he was kind and usually cheerful. Despite his skinny frame one could tell that his body was strong and capable of performing hard labor. I had seen grown men wince in surprise when they shook his big hand, their fingers taking a few seconds before the color returned to them, blood almost stopped by the powerful squeeze.
"Nope, ain't foolin' ya, boy!" Dick said happily, looking at the house as if it was his pride and joy, a golden mansion rather than a shack, which looked as if it was to fall apart at the first powerful thrust of the wind.
"You're telling me this is it?" I asked incredulously, now getting nervous at the thought of what I'd gotten myself into. "The famous bordello?"
"I reckon so." Smiled Dick and pushed his cowboy hat further up his forehead, exposing a mop of surprisingly black hair, knotted from the lack of care. I could never figure out how the hat remained on his big head, despite me only noticing Dick pushing it back, never down.
"But, this... Oh my god, Dick... This looks nasty!" I managed, trying to keep my voice down in case someone was actually inside as Dick expected and might overhear me. If this is what the exterior looked like, I didn't want to see the inside of the house, I most certainly didn't want to know what kind of whores worked here.
"Yep," nodded Dick, "I reckon ya might be right 'bout that. But, trus' me!" he leaned forward in a conspiratory fashion, blowing gray cigarette smoke in my face and I caught a whiff of stale whiskey breath. I closed my eyes and tried hard not to make a face. Like I said, Dick was always kind to everyone; it wouldn't do to insult him.
"C'mon, boy." He playfully smacked me on the back, making me feel like I've just been hit by a baseball bat. "It looks much better inside, b'live me."
I waited for the old man to climb the stairs, fearful that they would collapse. For all I knew there was an endless pit underneath the house, the spookiness of it having brought out my childhood fears from years ago.
I thought of an old house at the far end of the street where we lived when I was a child. Ugly and unkempt, windows always dark, no mail or packages were ever delivered and only rarely did we see an old man Platt poke his big-nosed and pock-marked face out, usually only to yell and point a finger at the kids who were playing too close to the house for his comfort. We used to make up stories of witches and vampires gathering in his place, old Platt probably being one of them himself. We'd play dare and make each other run up the porch of the old house, knock on the rotting doors, throw stones in the windows, and hang up signs like 'I DIED ON THE CROSS NEXT TO JESUS'. That last one has gotten us neighborhood kids in a lot of trouble. It wasn't that we were reprimanded for being mean to the old man. We committed blasphemy and quite a few of us were left with stinging behinds after the carpet beaters and belts have recited their smacking tunes that evening.
That's what the 'famous bordello' reminded me of, a place of horrors and pain, desperation and hopelessness. I didn't want to enter it; my mind screamed out, telling me to leave. Leave now and never come back.
"Boy?" Dick's raspy voice jerked me back into reality and I sighed heavily. My feet felt like they were made of led and my steps were heavy with dread as I followed.
"Oh, come on, now. It's different inside, you'll see." Laughed the old man with ash on his cigarette dangerously long, threatening to break off and fall on his shirt at any given moment. He lifted his hand in order to smack my back again. "I bet you'll like it." He said after I waved at him, ducking the blow.
"I bet I won't." I said under the breath, but Dick obviously heard me as he turned around and for the first time since I had known him his face had a somber, almost intelligent appearance.
"One more thing, boy." He said, his hand knotted into a fist, hanging in the air as if ready to knock on the door. "No talk about god, like you do."
"What?" I was appalled. "You have never heard me..."
Dick nodded impatiently. "Well," his eyes nervously flickered between the old dog on the porch and me. "What I mean is don't even say 'Oh God'. Ya tend to say that a lot."
Sure I say that, but doesn't everyone?
"I reckon that wouldn't be appreciated in here. After all, this is a whorehouse." He smiled and good old Dick face full of mischief was back. Finally remembering his almost smoked out cigarette, he pulled it out of his mouth, tossing it over the railing into the dust. Another mucus spit followed, expertly avoiding the dog and me, landing somewhere close to the cigarette butt.
My brows shot up in surprise and amazement. If this bizarre thing became any more bizarre, I would be out of there in a second flat. Offending Dick or not, I began not caring.
His big, leathery fist gently rapped on the doorframe and before the knuckles met the old wood for the third time, a figure appeared behind the mosquito net, which I had only just realized was in place of glass. The woman looked old and dried out. A wild mess of fire red hair sat on top of her head, pressed together by invisible pins, barely holding it in place. She looked so old I was afraid she wouldn't be able to speak. Even if I couldn't see her face clearly because of the dusty old net, her eyes were visible in almost every detail. Big and black as charcoal stones they shone as if belonging to a young girl. I took a step back, when quick as a snake, Dick's arm shot out behind him and he grabbed onto my shirt, preventing me to move, let alone think about the escape.
"Dicky!" she croaked like a crow and pushed the door open, finally revealing herself to us.
I sighed in relief and my heart slowed down a bit. The dust and muckiness of the net must have made her appear completely different than what she really was. She was certainly no spring chicken, by a quick glance I estimated her to be in her fifties. A bizarre electric blue painted around her eyes made them look even bigger and blacker than they really were. Her hips were wide and her breasts heavy, but the waist was tiny as if she was a girl of sixteen. Despite the cruel makeup it was evident that she had been a true beauty once.
"Come in." She said and stepped aside.
"Ma'am." Said Dick and again pushed his hat even further up his forehead.
I nodded shyly and followed. I felt like a schoolboy who was just about to lose his virginity, not a man of twenty-five, experienced in sex if not love.
"And who do we have here?" She caught my arm and spun me towards her. I looked after Dick who had already turned the corner. I was surprised to see a beautiful Persian rug covering the neatly cared for wooden floor, which poked out on the edges of the hall. A gigantic plant pot held an explosion of huge green leaves, between which peeked tiny delicate buds and opened flowers of hot red, almost pink. The walls were covered with beige, clean wallpaper, decorated with small picture frames containing old, yellowed photographs of nineteenth century cowboys holding guns and pistols. Nice touch, went through my mind.
A playful piano tune surged through the air from the room into which Dick had disappeared moments ago. I looked at the woman and was surprised to see that her hair was neatly gathered at the top of her head, not a strand out of place. She wore a low cut olive green velvet dress, which tightly enveloped her bosom, waist and hips, only to fall down her legs in wide rich waves, its hem brushing against the carpet. A black choker studded with what looked like diamonds encircled her long and delicate neck, a big emerald-colored tear hanging off in the middle almost touching her collarbones.
She was dressed like an extra in the movies about the old west. Well, talking about satisfying somebody's fetish! Old farts like Dick were probably all crazy for it.
"Well?" she said as if becoming impatient waiting for an answer, her eyebrows high on the forehead, her face studious.
"Stan's boy." Said Dick as he poked his head back into the hall, a newly lit cigarette hanging off his lips. "He's okay, Martha." He waved his arm through the air in an invitation for us to follow.
"Aw," whined the woman and as if losing interest in me obediently listened to Dick. I remained standing in the hall alone, not certain what to do next. I felt so young and inexperienced, downright embarrassed. I have never been to a whorehouse or a brothel before. Never had the need to do so with all the available pussy in high school, college and now working as an apprentice in the Dallas law office. Sure I paid for sex a couple of times when after the party my friends and I wanted quick blowjobs because the girls we were eyeing on the dance floor played hard to get. We'd normally stop at the prostitutes' hang out just off Connor Street. I wasn't proud of it, but I guess that's an inevitable part of growing up for many young men.
"Boy!" yelled Dick's deep voice and as if hypnotized I followed it into what I supposed would have been called a parlor. It took a moment for my eyes to take in the riches and splendor of the room, my jaw nearly hitting the floor.
The entire room was decorated in heavy antique furniture with rich velvets for curtains, pillows and throws on the divans and massive chairs, the color of dark wine. Illuminated by gas lamps and candles, the corners were dotted by plant pots similar to the one in the hall, all displaying vibrant greenery of big leaves such as I had never seen before. In the corner that lacked a plant stood a huge black piano with its lid lifted halfway, supported by a thin brass stick. Behind it, on a stool also covered in rich velvet sat a black man dressed in the attire of the same period as the woman. He wore black pants and black vest over the bone-white shirt, complete with black bands around his forearms, giving him an appearance of a clerk. He was clutching a thick cigar between the teeth, his face happy and shiny with a smile. On top of his cleanly shaven head sat a black bowler hat with deep red border strip. He swayed in the rhythm of the music that evaporated from his fingers, looking at the piano keys for a moment, then turning around and smiling at Martha and Dick, winking at me and then closing his eyes, losing himself in the melody.
"Come, sit down." The woman pointed towards the chair opposite the divan that she shared with Dick. I followed her command obediently and sat down, almost afraid to lean against the beautiful throw cover.
I had never seen Dick so relaxed and satisfied as he was this particular afternoon in the whorehouse. He laughed out loud a lot as he always did, but his voice was more boyish than ever and his eyes sparkled as if he was completely free of any worries. He sat back against the support of the divan and threw one booted leg over the knee of the other, his arms spread wide, one brushing against an armrest, the other one tightly holding the hand of our hostess.
"How is old Stan these days?" asked Martha with concern in her voice and I felt ashamed to know that my grandfather had obviously also been a visitor to this place.
"Ah," sighed Dick heavily and for the first time since we entered his face shadowed with sadness. "He's hangin' in there, ya know Stan. A tough son of a bitch."
The woman nodded seriously as if they were discussing world politics and not the fate of my dying relative.
"This is his grandson." Dick nodded towards me and without taking the cigarette out of his mouth blowing a rich cloud of smoke, which enveloped his entire head. "The boy came to be with him over the summer, which just might be his last one, I reckon. Poor soul."
The woman looked at me now, measuring me from top to bottom and back up again. I squirmed under her firm gaze. Something felt wrong here, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it.
"He's a good young man," smiled Dick at me and I was grateful for the compliment even though my heart was breaking at the thought of the suffering my loved one had been going through. "He's been with his grandfather day and night. Whenever Stan is sleepin', the boy helps me around the farm. He fell asleep at the dinning table twice this week, he's so worn out."
I wanted to protest, but couldn't get farther than a shake of the head. The woman's studious eyes prevented me from uttering a word.
"So, I reckoned he needed some fun, ya know. A pressure cooker has to have its release or it'll explode." They both giggled and I wasn't certain whether to ignore it or be insulted. "We don't want that." Dick said and the woman nodded.
All of a sudden she clapped her hands and the door which I had failed to notice behind one of the big plants opened, a tiny woman stepping through, carrying a huge silver tray full of clean glasses and a bottle of golden liquid.
"The best whiskey in the old west, boy." Martha winked at me and I felt a stab of annoyance over being called a boy. After all, I was a man; maybe not as old and close to death as Dick and my grandpa, nevertheless I was far from a youngster.
Still hidden behind the plant the woman looked weary, her face wrinkled and she appeared to be too old to be undertaking chores such as carrying heavy trays and serving guests. As she stepped out in the open, I realized that once again I had been wrong. She couldn't have been older than me. She was a girl with dark brown hair, and small, beady black eyes. She would have been quite pretty but for the ugly scar that ran from the corner of her mouth all the way to her ear. She too, was dressed in the period dress, pure white with lace decorating the hem of the skirt and sleeves. Her hair was hiked up just as high as the other woman's was yet her face lacked the makeup, so elaborately displayed on Martha's.
"I..." I shook my head. "Eh... I don't think I should be drinking today..."
"Nonsense! One drink won't hurt you, my dear." Said the sitting woman sweetly. "Whiskey is more of a remedy than anything else if you drink it right." She concluded and reached for the tray that was now sitting on the low table between us.
I could have sworn that I smelled the sweet scent of honey as she poured the glasses and then handed me one. "Go on, boy." She said. "It'll relax you."
Heck, why not? I was as strung up as I could be. Dick said I was ready to explode and that was just about right. Worry and sorrow over my grandfather's illness and suffering had made me miserable and depressed. I haven't gotten laid in two months and most of the time I was too tired to jerk off in the shower or bed.
I lifted the glass and in a gesture of toasting waved it towards Dick and his companion, then without a second thought put it to my lips, threw my head back and downed its contents in one clean gulp. The sweetness of the drink caressed my tongue, its potency scraped against my throat and I coughed hard, trying not to spit it all out. I could feel the warmth of the liquor slowly spreading inside my stomach.
"What is that?" I asked. "Southern Comfort?" Of course no Southern Comfort had ever tasted like that before. It was similar, but the sweetness of it was a bit acidy, and definitely many times more potent.
"Well," smiled the woman, "it's comforting and we are in the South, so I guess you could call it that." Dick slapped his thighs with a heavy bark of laughter. This time I would have snapped, or so I like to make myself believe had I not noticed a black lab turning the corner and entering the room. I shuddered with dread, only to realize that it must not have been the same dog as the one I had encountered outside. This was obviously a young animal, no frost on its face, its eyes clear and dark, and the tale wagging in greeting.
"Major!" exclaimed the woman, bending forward and patting her calf as if to command the dog to come and join her, which it obediently did.
"I saw ya still have that old scoundrel." Said Dick and for the life of me I couldn't recall seeing the second dog save from the half-dead one on the porch.
"Oh yes," nodded the woman. "He's not going anywhere, yet." She patted the dog's big head and downed her own drink. I was pleased to see that she too almost coughed when it hit her throat.
"Now," she gasped. "Let's get to business." My heart sank. Dick had told me where he was taking me but for some reason I didn't believe that he was serious and that if he were, I doubted he would have really gone through with it. After all, how many old-fashioned bordellos, as he referred to it, have you seen? I for one haven't ever heard of any. I thought it simply one of his silly jokes, which he was full of. Now, having called his bluff I felt like a fool, trapped in a net from which I could not escape and keep a face.
The woman got up and took a glass full of what she called whiskey to the piano player, who gave her a smile even wider than the one that lingered on his face at any given time, never breaking the song, letting the glass sit on top of the piano.
"Any preferences?" the woman cocked her head and gave me an inquisitive look. I took a deep breath, too embarrassed to respond, afraid not to.
"Just bring a few down here, Martha. The boy can pick for hisself, I reckon. He ain't no dummy." Dick saved me.
Another clap of the woman's hands caused the door somewhere on the upper floor to open and I heard a shuffle of feet, slowly descending the stairway, which was behind the chair I sat on.
I saw booted feet slowly hitting the stairs, approaching us. The closer they got, the fiercer the panic inside my chest. I couldn't breathe, feeling the first sweat beads form on my forehead. My back felt cold and sweaty, too, I just hoped I wouldn't stain the shirt and thus betray my nervousness.
I could see the women up to their waists now. There were three of them, all dressed in similar dresses as Martha's of varying lavenders, one holding onto the railing with the hand which was gloved to just above her elbow.