Sex is a funny thing. For some men, the conquest of it drives them the way a prod prompts a steer to stampede. But unlike the steer, these charging bulls crave a woman who belongs only to them. A man must conquer many women. A woman must succumb to only one man. It doesn’t take any schooling to figure how that works out.
Many times I’ve heard a man say that women are a mystery. The mystery to me is in how those two ideas ever came to be at the same time, and I’m pretty sure women didn’t have a whole lot to do with either one of them. It’s not fair to say that all men share this mixed-up idea. But to the men who do, there are only two kinds of women. Virgins and whores.
To Abbie, there were only two kinds of men. Men who gave her money, and men who needed to give her money. Both kinds wanted the two things she was selling.
Three weeks had passed by, and the heat of summer was gradually giving way to the winds of autumn. The men were growing accustomed to me. They laughed and joked, but they never took to me enough to request my services. It hurt me that they found me undesirable. No one out and said why. It never entered my mind I might be too young to do what had already been expected of me. I felt ashamed I wasn’t a woman on account of being barren, sure that that’s why Daddy had left me behind.
By this time, Abbie had taken me shopping and fitted me with a wardrobe of fine things. We added real niceties to some dresses and lingerie she and Lilly didn’t want any longer, and she promised me more if I earned it. If I wasn’t drawing any revenue, at least I was dressed for the part. I didn’t feel it though.
A man rode into town, name of William Andruss, wasn’t from any ranch. He was dressed better than most, riding a saddle worth more than any horse in Willow Bend, said he was up from New Orleans. He happened into the Velvet Inn on an evening when Marie was out of town. Lilly and Alice were both with customers that night. Abbie never asked her girls to take another man without time between, and I could see Andruss had an argument with her.
Abbie was firm. At one point she called Leon in to fetch her something from the back room which was usually a sign she wanted to keep her control of a conversation. They kept looking my way during their negotiations and I could see he wasn’t taken with me, but after things went back and forth a while, she called me over.
“Kate Sugar,” it was the most polite I’d ever heard her sound. “Mr. Andruss here is agreed to payin for the services of a virgin. You feel like you’re ready?” She made a funny gesture with one of her eyes like it was supposed to mean something.
It was confusing Abbie asking me something and not telling me. Nothing like her usual manner. My eyes had been drawn to the curiosity of a gold pocket watch. Mr. Andruss’ vest had a pocket, but he wore the watch pinned outside it, dangling from a fancy gold chain, as if its prominence was a signature of his prestige. I glanced up at him. He was the neatest man I’d seen, all trimmed-up and waxed. I’d been three weeks without a man pushing up inside of me, grunting and sweating and calling me things. I wasn’t in any hurry for it again.
But I smiled and nodded.
“Fine!” she exclaimed, as if she’d expected some other answer. “Head on upstairs and ready yourself. I’ll escort him up in a minute, after we tend to your sum.”
I did as she asked, except I had no idea what she meant. One time, I was around ten, I was drawing water out at the well. I thought Daddy was up at the barn working Trissie. He must’ve seen something set his desires off and come looking for me. Like that, I was bent over the pump trough, him pounding on me the worst way. Seemed to me being there was about all the readying a girl needed.
I bounced up and down on the soft cushion of my bed as I waited. I wondered if it would be the same after. It was as much of a friend to me as my mirror was, holding me nights and listening to me whisper. It smelled like washing scents and like me, but it would have a new smell now that wouldn’t fade for a time.
The door pushed open, Mr. Andruss stepped in, and Abbie closed the door behind him. He stood fairly tall, hands on his hips, hat still on, and glared at me on the bed. I stopped bouncing.
“You planning on doing this dressed?” he asked. His voice was deep, course like gravel. He was probably on the short side of fifty, but not by much.
I didn’t say anything. Abbie’d had the dress I wore altered so it loosed easy. I stood up and walked to him, giving him my back. “What’s your name?” I asked.
William drew my string. I slid off my dress and hung it in the wardrobe, turning to him. His back was turned, hat off now, and I watched as he undressed in some kind of funny ritual. He unfastened his gold watch and set it aside, folding all his clothes, even his socks, and laying them out neatly on the table outside my boudoir. When he was done, he picked the watch up and placed it neatly on top.
Half our town was named William. It could have been appropriately named William Bend. Only the pianist went by Willie. Old Man Jackson went by Will. The rest of our regulars all used the nickname.
“You want I should call you Bill?” I asked.
“It’s William,” he said tersely. “It would be better if you didn’t call me anything.”
His back and rear were mostly bald, making me curious how it would feel under my hands. He turned around and I was immediately relieved to learn men come in less threatening sizes than I was accustomed. I watched it approach me. This job was going to be easier than I thought after all.
“You’re probably feeling fortunate to be with a man of my standing,” he said regarding my smile. “I can’t blame you. There’s a lot of riffraff out there.”
“It don’t look to be standin,” I said, a little off guard.
“I meant social standing,” he said plainly, pushing it into my face.
It smelled strange, like a mixture of wet leather and cheese. Experience told me it wasn’t good to let that on. I slipped off my panties and camisole, letting them fall to the rug, and took him up in my hands.
William regarded my body, and for the first time I was afraid. Not of him, but of what he was thinking of me. After my first hot bath, Abbie had sent Alice in to teach me the ways of a straight razor. She shaved me the first couple of times without saying a word and after that I was instructed to keep it clean. I had no idea what a man would think of that. I probably looked scrawny to him and I certainly couldn’t offer the same kind of comfort Marie would have. Whatever his thoughts were, a few squeezes made it evident he was satisfied with me, and I started to feel good inside.
He pushed me backwards on the bed and knelt above me, while I held him. “This might hurt a little, but it won’t last,” he warned.
“Oh it won’t hurt,” I smiled. “My Daddy was a lot bigger than this.”
There was a quiet moment when I swear I felt it melt in my hands, and everything went black. My cheek was stinging, the same one Daddy had broken. I instinctively held my hands up to protect my head. I knew better than to cry. He hit me quite a few times, hollering that I was a bitch and demanding to know what kind of trick this was.
I heard Abbie’s voice in the room calling Leon’s name, and finally, William Andruss flew across the room like a sack of beans and bounced of the wall landing sprawled on the floor. Abbie ran to put herself between us, checking to see I was alright and Leon stood over him.
“You God damned cheatin filthy whore,” he yelled at Abbie, getting up. “You get my money.”
“I owe you nothin,” she spat. “You bust up one a my girls, I owe you nothin. You best get your clothes on, you’ll be out on that street nekkid.”
He put his clothes back on in no particular hurry staring back and forth among the three of us.
“See the man out, Leon,” Abbie said.
“You touch me again and you’ll swing from a rope,” he barked at Leon. I realized that word Abbie had used didn’t mean Roy at all when Mr. Andruss used it again. It meant Leon. After his angry footsteps stomped the length of the hall and down the stairs, she turned to me and stood.
“What the hell did you do?” she hissed.
Her venom surprised me. I didn’t think I’d done anything. I told her what happened best I could recollect.
“God damn it, Kate!” she screamed. “You tell them what they want to hear!” She stalked to the door. “You think they’re comin back cause you’re pretty? No wonder your daddy wanted rid of you!” Leon had returned now and she pushed past him at the door.
I started shaking. My hands and wrists felt bruised to busted. I looked up at Leon in my doorway. “I don’t know what I done,” I said.
He watched Abbie down the hall and turned to look at me. I couldn’t stop the tears. Abbie’s words stung far worse than the nest of bees growing on my cheek.
Leon studied my naked body. Like a man facing a gallows, he walked to me and pulled me from the bed into his arms. To feel a man hug me when I cried was more than I could stand. Nine years of tears washed in a river down Leon’s chest.
“You never her mind, Miss Kate,” he told me. “You’re as pretty as they come. I know you done no wrong.”
Leon smelled good, as clean as any of us girls, even though he wasn’t allowed to share our facilities. The smell of his body healed me from the inside. The honesty in his voice was just too kind for me not to believe him. As pretty as they come, he said. I remembered Abbie’s introduction before I went upstairs.
“What’s a virgin?” I asked.
“That’s a girl still has her flower,” he answered almost in a whisper.
I didn’t understand. I pulled my face away and looked up at him. He winced in visible pain at the sight of the knot forming where I’d been hit. The compassion in his eyes made them more beautiful than ever.
“It means she ain’t been with a man yet.”
“But Abbie knows I…”
“Leon!” Abbie was standing back in my door.
He dropped me back on my bed like a hot potato.
“You get downstairs!”
“I’s sorry, Miss Abbie,” he said quietly. ”I never touch her wrong. Jes makin sure she alright.”
She slapped his arm as he passed her by, staring in horror at my face.
“Why would you tell Mr. Andruss I never laid with a man before?” I asked after he left.
“You never mind,” she said. “Put some clothes on and come see me in the kitchen.”
I picked up the matching panties and camisole of light blue lace from my rug, and walked over to my boudoir mirror. I held them up to admire them as I had when I first tried them on. I lowered them down again to reveal my pure reflection.
“As pretty as they come,” I said quietly.
It was easier to believe when Leon said it.
© 2012 Anne Schilde