Nine women or How to get the whorehouse back together one more time
First, dial Everest-6840 on your mother’s old yellow phone, the one she used to beat a burglar bloody once without even putting her cigarette down. Move the phone back when Ruby answers in her Brooklyn-come-south accent:
‘Where the fuck a you been, I don’t do that shit no more, ain’t you heard? I’m working hosiery and intimates eight years now at the Kress.’
‘Come on Ruby. Just one more night,’ you say.
‘And stop calling me Ruby, I go by Mary Evelyn now. I been Mary Evelyn since—Jesus—it’s ten years now.’
‘Look I really need the money,’ you say and try to sound desperate. Think about all the middle of the nights you’ve woken up dreaming about Ruby and the rest of them.
‘Don’t forget you’re the one left us, when was that, in ’52? God bless America I was still in my three-ohs. And you still owe me five bucks.’
‘See you tonight then?’ you say. ‘My mother’s house.’
‘You’re a pain in my ass.’ Click goes the dial.
Afterwards, let yourself look around the old house. Flip through last week’s mail, pour out the sour milk on the back porch, stuff your funeral dress in the garbage pail. Go upstairs and pull out the white one with black polka dots—it’s all still here. Her things and your things just like in the dream. And don’t forget the long-distance call: ‘I’m staying one more night.’ Hang up before you have to hear it.
Finally, go to the old garden out back, pick your mother’s last tomato. It’s still green but heavy as a baby’s head in your hand. Don’t bother washing the last eleven years of Memphis off. Just eat it, standing there, like an apple. Then wonder if anybody’ll come.
Pinky and Rhonda are the first to walk in. Say, ‘Jesus you look the same, Pink,’ because she does to you except she’s shaking a little.
‘Now that’s some horseshit if I ever heard it,’ Pinky says. ‘I ain’t seen you in Lord—I don’t know how many years.’ Don’t tell her it’s been eleven or she’ll know you’ve been counting.
‘I swear we just looked up one day and you was gone,’ Pinky says.
‘Yeah, after you left, the whole thing just fell apart. I’m telling ya, things got bad, I don’t know why,’ Rhonda says and scratches the needle marks on her arm.
Next in is Jenny—her blonde wig crooked. The syph took her hair back in ’51. Mary’s next, still wearing the same false teeth. Her trick was to pop them out before she got down on her knees.
‘Was it a fella why you left?’ Mary says, ‘or did you get the clap? It was the clap wasn’t it?’ Just shrug and say nothing. It wasn’t, but don’t ever deny the clap to another whore, it sounds uppity, especially if she happens to have it.
‘Where’s Ruby? She coming?’ Jenny says. But Ruby’s not here yet. She was always the leader, but Ruby’s not here.
Roxy’s got tattoos chattering up and down her arm now: I love Mitch. Ten in the Pen-Shelby County Jail. Patsy claps you on the back and says, ‘I thought you was dead, you old hooker you.’ Patsy, who couldn’t shake the crabs, so she just shaved it off and got a merkin instead. There was this one she trimmed up to look like a man’s mustache—she’d glue it on and make it look like it was talking. God it was funny.
‘Goddamn, the parties we used have over here,’ Linda says, her voice sugary with cigarette cancer. ‘Where’s your mama? She still here?’
You tell the truth when you say, ‘Yeah.’
Milky’s already teetering on her high heels but when you pass her the vodka, she shakes her head no. ‘I can’t do it no more. Gives me the heartburn something awful.’ She pops a pill instead, smearing her orange lipstick. ‘Heart medicine,’ she says to Roxie. Then she looks at the door and smiles. ‘There the old whore is! Get over here Ruby!’
‘You’re here,’ you say to Ruby.
‘And you’re a pain in my ass,’ she says back, but smiles.
‘You even wore the old red dress,’ —the one you stole together on Chelsea Avenue. She was the slickest shoplifter you’d ever seen. You’d stuffed yours in a grocery bag like everybody else but she just wore hers right out the door.
She looks hard at you. ‘I got this at Goldsmith’s just last week.’
‘Oh.’ Somehow it looks the same.
She reaches over and presses a wad in your hand. ‘I don’t need that,’ you say because you forgot the lie you told her on the phone. She looks at you hard again, but then she laughs—loud with her head thrown back, her teased hair catching in the zipper of her new dress. She frowns and snatches her hair out, and then snatches the wad of money out of your hand.
‘You’re a dirty sentimental whore, you know that. Jesus Christ, look at all these pathetic people.’
At best count, the group’s missing one head of hair, one muff, two uteruses, and a row of top teeth. ‘It’s amazing not a one a us is dead yet,’ Rhonda says.
‘Pix is dead,’ Milky says. ‘Member, she got chopped up in a thousand and two pieces.’
‘Oh yeah,’ Roxie says. ‘And Bertha’s gone too. It was her old pimp, I think, or was it the cancer?’
‘You know what it was?’ Ruby says. ‘It was our variety made us so popular. You seen the girls in the nudie magazines today? Like looking at a row a milk cartons—every girl looks the same! Where’s the personality? Where’s the gags? That’s what the men wanted.’
‘Come on, let’s all line up outside like we used to,’ Pinky says. It takes some shuffling and pushing, but eventually everybody makes it out on the porch facing the street. The rusty yellow glider’s still under the window.
Pinky says, ‘I’d say this was right beautiful if we didn’t look so damn awful.’
Maybe you do. But tonight you’re all here. Like the year before you lost it, the year Ruby stole the dress—you ran holding hands, laughing your asses off when the cop tripped on that cat. What a party you had that night in those new dresses.
‘Member the days when you made more than you spent.’
‘Remember the days when you tested negative for ever thing.’
‘Think us old broads could still make some cash?’ Milky laughs.
‘You think anybody’d pay for that, you’re dreaming,’ Ruby says.
Still, every one of you is smiling. For kicks somebody whistles at a fella on the street.