The Boarding HousebyARTG©
The sounds from the radio lilted through the lace curtains of the open window, across the alley to Mrs. Scott's boarding house. Her boarders were seated for dinner. Mr. Grist, the day laborer and lay preacher, had just finished another monumental blessing of the meal, a rambling supplication that left the other boarders shifting in their seats. Harvey had managed to stifle his inner cursing at its length. This was only his second night in the house. He wasn't about to make a comment.
Mrs. Scott looked up from the folded hands in her lap and said, "Well, that was a fine blessing, Mr. Grist." Spoons clanked with dishes, and dishes changed hands across the table. Cordelia, Mrs. Scott's kitchen girl, stood at attention at the dining room door.
"Why don't we get us a radio?" asked George, the itinerant salesman, as he was spooning black-eyed peas onto his plate.
"The programs that would come over that thing would lead to impure thoughts," Mrs. Scott said knowingly. "And that would then lead to...." She closed her eyes and nodded her head slightly to the side. "Fornication." Her tone implied the correlation between the two would be obvious to anyone.
"Oh, I don't know," he persisted. "There's a lot of good entertainment, too. What about that preachin' show, the one on Sunday mornin's?"
Mrs.Scott didn't give him a chance to fish up its name. "Perhaps so, but if we can't separate the good from the bad, then we shouldn't listen to any of it," she said.
Clarence, the slow-witted boy from Hancock County, asked, "What's fornication?" The wheezing and snorting of stifled red-faced laughter filled the room, and Harvey had to struggle to hold on to a mouthful of cornbread. Jimbo, a young man with sweet smelling hair parted down the middle, whispered the answer into Clarence's ear. Clarence's jaw slackened in amazement.
The answer was whispered because of the presence of Mrs. Scott's twelve year old son, Bobby Lee, Jr. He always took meals with his mother and her boarders. She had taken it upon herself to shield her son from any potential wickedness since her husband, Bobby Lee Scott, Sr., had not come home. A shell had buried him alive in a trench and he had been left behind in France.
Mr. Reynolds, the veteran who had only left an arm in France, concentrated on a leg of fried chicken. He was the only boarder not to laugh at Clarence's ignorance. The shelling had taken his hearing as well.
"Maybe Sunday services would prove a pleasant diversion for you men," Mrs. Scott offered cheerfully. A silence ensued so profound the men could hear themselves chewing.
Mr. Grist spoke up. "I say 'hear, hear' to that." The silence continued, punctuated by the clank of utensil against plate.
George steered the conversation to more neutral ground. Cotton prices. The weather. And the radio from across the alley taunted them softly.
After dinner, the men gathered on the front porch to smoke and talk politics.
"Hoover's gonna ruin this country," George said as he exhaled and examined his cigarette.
"Who's Hoover?" asked Clarence.
"The president, Clarence. Hoover's the president."
They watched a model A sputter down the street and fishtail in and out of a muddy rut in the street. A girl in a round hat that covered her ears clutched the wheel tightly with gloved hands. She whooped and laughed, and a man sitting next to her steadied the wheel with his hand and laughed.
George changed the subject. "Say, Harvey, you got you a girl?"
Harvey studied his shoes for a moment. His brown hair fell in a wave across his forehead near his dark eyes and over the last drying pimple of puberty.
"Not presently," he stammered. "I gotta think about college now."
"College! What you studyin' on?"
"Accounting," Harvey replied meekly.
"Accounting! Don't say!" There was another pause. On the neighbors' radio, an announcer spoke. "Friends, do you like a good biscuit like I do? Well...."
"Mrs. Scott said she could use a man good with figures," George continued. "Help her with the books, I guess. You know for her age, she's quite a looker."
He was right. Her jet black hair was still full, though gray streaked. She insisted in wearing it in the pent-up style of the previous decade, rather than cut it short with permanent waves like the younger girls, flappers, they called them. A small dark mole dotted one side of her upper lip, and her eyes were crystal blue. In her younger days, she had had her pick of swimmy-headed suitors, but had chosen Bobby Lee, a handsome young cotton agent with a straw hat, a seersucker suit, and a Packard automobile. Within a year Bobby Lee, Jr. was born. Then Bobby Sr. had gone to France to fight the German Hun and had not come back.
"Watch our fer that warsp there," Jimbo warned Harvey as he waved a plume of cigarette smoke at it. The wasp retreated into the yard. Mr. Reynolds blankly watched it go, and took a pull on his cigar.
Jimbo continued. "She comes across as cold as an icicle with them blue eyes and all, but I bet if you could get her to warm up," he glanced inside the screen door, looked back and lowered his voice. "I bet it'd be like a-humpin' a tiger."
"Hot damn! I bet you right, boy," George exclaimed. The men all chuckled, except Mr. Reynolds.
"Well, I'm turnin' in. Gotta run down to Hattiesburg tomorrow," George said as he squashed his cigarette under his heal. He stood up, snapped his suspenders and rubbed his gut. "See you boys in the mornin'." The men took turns holding the screen door for each other and filtered up to their rooms.
In the weeks that followed, Harvey would catch Mrs. Scott looking at him. Whenever George finished a story and had everyone laughing, Harvey would scan the table to enjoy the laughter in everyone's face. More than once he caught her looking back at him and absently playing with her earring. When their eyes met, she would quickly release her earlobe and transfer her gaze to the speaker.
And it seemed as if the seat at the head of the table nearest her was always open and waiting for him. Once or twice, he thought he felt the toe of her shoe brush his leg. He always dismissed it as Bobby Lee Jr. teasing him from across the table.
One night, there was a knock at Harvey's door.
"Yes?" He looked up from his books.
"Mr. Prentiss," the door said. "Can you have a look at something for me?"
He got up and opened the door. There was Mrs. Scott with a rectangular leather-bound ledger under her arm. The high collar of her blouse was opened, revealing a wide wedge of creamy skin. Her gray streaked black hair was down out of its bun, and her blue eyes seemed glassy.
"George tells me you're good with numbers. Can you help me balance the house ledger?" Harvey thought he heard her slur 'ledger' into 'lesher.'
"Yes ma'am. Be happy."
Harvey pushed away the open book he'd been studying. Mrs. Scott placed the ledger on his desk and he sat to look at it. She leaned over and her fingers, elegantly slender and pale, traced an entry in the lamplight. From across the alley and through the window, the dreamy sounds of Annette Hanshaw crooning "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" dribbled out.
He felt the weight of her breast on his shoulder blade, her breath near his ear, not quite a pant, but quickened and a little labored. Harvey thought he could smell the sour-sweetness of liquor. Her hand brushed his back, slipped around to his chest to assess its muscularity, then slipped between his suspenders and onto his shirt. The pen in his hand went slack and he closed his eyes. A dog barked out in the night somewhere.
Her hand smoothed the white cotton of his shirt, down over his youthful front and reached his crotch, just as her lips planted a kiss on the back of his neck, tasting the September evening perspiration.
"Mrs. Scott," he said in a weak protest. "Mrs. Scott," he repeated in a whisper before she drew a finger across his lips and over his chin to silence him. Their eyes met in the desk mirror.
Without breaking their gaze, she undid the remaining buttons on her high necked blouse and opened it. The wide circles of her nipples darkened the white linen of the lace trimmed camisole. She unbuttoned the sash at the waist of her black skirt and let it fall in a puddle over her shoes. She stepped out of the skirt, her button-up-the-side ankle-high shoes carefully freeing themselves.
She stood there in the mirror in beige silk stockings held up by a garter. The hint of scattered spider veins was under them, like dark blue flashes of lightning frozen in time.
"Do you know how long it's been? Since I've felt the weight of a man on top of me? Do you?" she complained in a purr. She didn't wait for a reply, not that Harvey had one. He hadn't looked away from the desktop mirror, afraid that if he broke their gaze for a split-second and looked around, no one would be there.
Her fingers gathered his face and turned it to hers, mashing his astonished expression up into his wide eyes. They kissed, then broke the kiss to get a breath, a long inspiration with eyes closed, and then kissed again. She slipped his suspenders off his shoulders, pushed him onto the bed and murmured, "I need to feel a man inside me, a hard man inside me."
She pulled handfuls of his shirttail out of his trousers and kissed his stomach. He felt her exhale in pleasure at the taste of salty skin, her breath moving the soft hairs on his stomach. She kissed down to where his hair thickened as she unbuttoned his trousers, freed him and took him into her mouth. Her tongue traced him, her hand pulling down his foreskin. She felt him begin to tense, and took him out of her mouth.
Her hand roughly cradled his jaw with her thumb and forefinger. "I need you to fuck me, boy. Give it to me." She unclipped her stockings so that she could pull down her loose fitting linen panties.
And then she was above him and his face was swimming in her pubic hair, black curls with random gray. Her salty wetness emerged from the thick hair, and his tongue felt her harden. She shuddered suddenly, and her hands seemed like they would crush his head.
She kissed his wet face and then backed down to place him inside her. As he gained entry, she moaned but moved herself slowly, trying to conserve her young lover. After a few strokes she let him slip out. He reached for her momentarily, but she rolled onto her back and beckoned him to mount her. He paused and peeled his shirt over his head. His hair was rumpled and wet with perspiration, but he didn't pause to smooth it down.
He mounted her and slid back inside of her. Her hands were quickly on his cheeks, her fingernails digging into the soft, white flesh of his ass. "That's it, fill me up, boy. Give it to me. It's been so long," she whispered in a hiss.
The pain of her fingernails in his ass kept him from coming. That, and his fears that one of the other boarders would hear her moaning and whimpering and think it was an attack, and come running to her aid. Only after she had come and relaxed her grasp did he finally release. He collapsed on her, breathing in the smell of the sweet Woolworth's perfume at her neck.
She stroked the back of his neck lightly in the aftermath, and Harvey marveled how nails that could be so vicious could now be so tender. They lay a while like that, until the sweat on their bodies had dried in the night breeze. As she dressed, she said in a low voice, "Get something on, I'll have Cordelia come up and change your sheets. They're soaked."
It was twice a week after that. A glance across the dinner table, and later a quiet knock on the door. Undressing in the moonlight. Hands roaming, searching skin for something, everything. Lips pulling lips, pulling skin, pulling nipples. Her heels on his back as her shaggy triangle caressed his face and his tongue probed her wetness. Her full breasts hanging tubular as she rode him. His hands in her graying black hair, all gray in the moonlight, studying her face, her eyes still blue, the only true color in the monochrome light. The pain-mask of her pleasure as she came, the way her sex squeezed him rhythmically.
Harvey began to fear that the other boarders were suspicious. To him, glances exchanged between the other men became silent indictments. They seemed to linger in their doorways to see if she would return to his room. They never discussed it, but Mrs. Scott must have felt their suspicions as well. But neither of them could stop it or wanted to.
One morning Harvey found a note, slipped under his door during the night. "Dixie Theater," it read, "Two o'clock showing, Very back row. Meet me there. Wear a hat." He recognized the handwriting from the ledger. Neat, orderly, controlled.
He entered the darkness of the theater and saw her there under a wide brimmed bonnet. Her hair was down onto her shoulders and partially obscuring her face. He had removed his hat on entering the building, but as he sat down next to her, she whispered, "Keep your hat on." He replaced it, and she reached over to tilt the brim down over his face.
The picture show, "West of Zanzibar," starring Lon Chaney, was already in progress. A piano at the front of the theater plunked out music to accompany the action as big fans hummed to circulate the thick air. They slumped in their seats in the back row under the rectangular mat of light that pierced the dusty air. The rattle and snap and tick-tick-tick of the projector was just behind their heads.
She leaned over and palmed him through his trousers, feeling him swell. He exhaled forcefully. With her other hand she drew a finger over his lips to silence him, and then drew his hand to her lap. She guided his hand through an opened button on the side of her long skirt. Opening her legs, she settled his hand into her nest. There was no linen, no fabric at all, over her sex. There was just the tangle and, within it, the trough of her slickness.
He worked her. Now he knew how, stroking her erect bud like he would stroke himself, up and down its length. She leaned her head back, and he saw her eyes closed in ecstasy. He quickened his pace and her hand stopped caressing him through his trousers. He pressed firmer. Her hips quivered and she gasped, then a few seconds later, a series of staccato jerks of her hips and another gasp. He began to withdraw his hand, and she stopped him. She slumped further down in her seat and held his hand in place, her hand pressing on his through the fabric of her skirt. He stroked her again, and then another quiver and a jerk and a gasp. A man toward the front of the theater turned his head and shushed over his shoulder into the darkness.
She languidly began rubbing him again, tracing him with her fingertips through the flannel of his trousers. Her palm formed around him, and their eyes met in the penumbra of the projector. Her eyes implored him to cum, so she could see his face contort in the dim light and feel him spasm under her hand.
He felt himself jet into his cotton drawers. He didn't hear his own quiet exclamation, only the man shush the darkness again. She put a finger in Harvey's mouth to quiet him. When he was spent, she stroked his inner thigh and put her head on his shoulder.
They left as they had entered, from different aisles, and at different times. One and then a moment later the other.
In October, a letter arrived for Harvey. "Please come home for picking," and then a citation of a bible verse, "The harvest is great but the workers are few." And a promise to return him to school in town as soon as possible after the work was done. Harvey could not say no.
He came down the stairs with his worn brown valise at his side. It was dinner time. Mrs. Scott was concentrating on the platters that randomly orbited the table between hands. "Mr. Prentiss, we started without you," she said. "I hope you don't..." She stopped in mid-sentence when she saw him dressed to go. Her eyes never left Harvey as Jimbo took the platter of pork chops from her and stabbed one with his fork.
"Daddy and them need me for a while," Harvey explained. "Be back in one week, two weeks, tops. Keep my room for me, will you, ma'am?"
Mrs. Scott mouthed a word that did not come out. Her facade fought hard to conceal her disappointment and her shock.
"Surely," she finally drawled. "We'll await your return." She placed her napkin on the table and rose to see him to the door. He passed across the threshold to a chorus of "See ya, Harvey," "See ya boy," and "Take care, now."
At the door, her blue eyes fixed on him and she whispered, "Do be careful, you hear?" Her finger tips caressed his cheek.
"Yes ma'am." He turned and his shoes sounded hollowly on the wooden steps. When he got to the street, he looked back. The ferns hanging in planters on the porch twirled slowly in what could almost pass as an evening breeze. She was still at the door, leaning against the door frame, her elegant hands holding the edge.
If the county paper had been a daily and not a weekly, he would have known. He would have known of the great excitement, almost as big as the arrival of the circus. He would have known that both teams of the city fire department were called. He would have seen the boldfaced headlines, "Great Loss of Life." "Boarding House Goes Up, One Survivor." And he would have been spared arriving on the scene unprepared.
He stood there by the street, his valise on the ground by his feet. He stood there for a while, waiting to wake up. He stood there and then stooped down to snare the handle of his valise. Looking down, he saw a pair of white patent leather shoes, ankle socks and brown legs. It was Cordelia beside him. Her white gloved hands cradled a Bible at her side. Her hair was slicked in waves under a white bonnet with a pink ribbon around the crown.
"Did anyone," he began, "Did anyone?" was all he could manage.
"Jes' one, Mr. Harvey. Mr. Clarence. Mr. Clarence, he be behind a tree, jes' a pullin' on hisself."
Harvey surveyed the charred frame left in the gap in the row of houses. Only a small section of porch remained, the section where the men would gather to smoke. Glass from the blown out front windows covered the blackened steps. One fern remained, a spray of brown leafless stems in a planter still hanging from the one remaining eave.
From behind the lace curtains of an upstairs window next door, the radio delivered an obscure harangue. The Sunday morning preaching.