Cherished One: Book OneA Tarnished novel
Born to a spiteful prostitute in Storyville, the red-light district in New Orleans, David comes into the world as Picayune, meaning “of little value,” or, as his mother reminds him, "nothing." In the early 20th century brothels and clubs, his love of music sustains young Pic until a life-changing meeting places him on the road to respectability, and Pic reinvents himself as David Reid.
As David realizes happiness for the first time, conscription forces his friend and first love, Spencer Webb, into the Great War. While he pursues a law degree, letters from Spence connect David to his hopes for the future. After staggering news at war’s end, David must find a way to move forward. Under the tutelage of his benefactor, David’s career prospers, but specters from Storyville threaten all he’s worked so hard to achieve.
The past holds both pain and love. Will facing it head-on destroy David or give him everything he’s ever dared dream?
On January 1, 1898, New Orleans embarked on a social experiment of sorts, that of vice containment. Assemblyman Sidney Story, among others, drafted an ordinance establishing “an area within which prostitution would be permitted defacto, and thus could be regulated and controlled, without stipulating in so many words, that prostitution would be legal within this area.” (Al Rose, Storyville New Orleans)
The press of the time dubbed what locals called “the District,” or “the Tenderloin,” Storyville in Story’s honor, a moniker that proved an embarrassment to the esteemed assemblyman.
The District encompassed North Robertson and North Basin Streets, as well as Customhouse (Iberville) to St. Louis Streets. Along these roadways, madams such as Josie Arlington and Lulu White built fabulous mansions where they entertained their clientele. Politicians, judges, police, and the common man flocked by the score.
Some prostitutes struck out on their own and rented small hovels called cribs where they charged a dime for their favors and paid a dollar fifty per night to the crib owner.
A teenage Louis Armstrong delivered coal to the seedy cribs by day and played his cornet at the Funky Butt by night, accompanied by Kid Ory, King Joe Oliver, and Charlie Barker.
On April 6, 1917, the United States entered what came to be known as the Great War. In August of that year, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels banned prostitution within five miles of a United States military installation. New Orleans was caught in the crosshairs of the edict, and Storyville was ordered closed.
On September 24, Mayor Martin Behrman protested such high-handedness but was met with a firm hand. Secretary Daniels told him, “You close the red-light district or the armed forces will.”
On October 1, the federal government issued its final warning, which prompted Behrman, on October 2, to present the city council with an ordinance providing for the disestablishment of Storyville.
October 15 saw major insurance companies cancel fire insurance policies on all the houses, following rumors that the madams would attempt to burn down their establishments. A rumor that proved wholly false. Some madams closed up shop and moved on then. Others waited for something to happen, someone to change the feds’ minds.
On the morning of November 11, police flooded Storyville to quell demonstrations and protests, of which there were none. The next morning, they oversaw the slow but steady migration out of the District. Midnight marked the end of an era, and many stayed to service clients, including the police, up until the witching hour.
Mayor Martin Behrman’s argument that “you can outlaw prostitution, but you can’t make it unpopular” fell on deaf ears. As predicted, the madams scattered and set up shop all over New Orleans, and particularly in the French Quarter, the exact situation that had prompted the creation of Storyville in the first place. They paid the police well and received protection, and prostitution continued to flourish.
Beloved Unmasked is set against this backdrop. Real people, such as Tom Anderson, the unofficial mayor of Storyville, mix with my cast of characters. Anderson was a colorful sort, and though he dealt in vice, the citizens of New Orleans elected him to the state legislature in 1904, and he served for sixteen years. Mr. Anderson plays a key role in Picayune’s life.
Children of prostitutes were common and an occupational hazard. Some were most certainly loved, but my character, Picayune, or David as he comes to call himself, wasn’t. Through his rocky start in life, Pic comes to realize what is important and what isn’t. He wants more, and when given the opportunity, he leaves the seedy Tenderloin. But are the streets beyond Storyville really any different?
Storyville, New Orleans
The Gem brothel
OPAL DABBED Sapphire’s brow with a wet rag. “Ya gotta push, Sapphire. The baby’s comin’.”
“I don’ want no fuckin’ baby. O-oh Christ!”
The midwife wiped her brow. “Too late fo’ dat. Jus’ another push and the little bastard’ll be here.”
Opal held Sapphire’s head up, and Sapphire pushed and screamed until her body shook. At last the midwife pulled the baby free. “A boy. You gotcha a boy.”
Opal mopped Sapphire’s brow again. “Whatcha gonna name ’im? I like Walter. That’s a mighty fine name.”
Sapphire, her hair matted and wet, rolled her head to the side, her eyes closed. “Picayune. His name is Picayune.”
The midwife washed her with a bloody cloth. “Lan’ sake, chil’. You gotta give a strappin’ boy like this a good Southern name. Ain’t no name, Picayune.”
Sapphire rose up on her elbows. “Fuck ya’ll. I’ll name ’im what I want, and I want Picayune.”
The child’s cries echoed in the attic room. “Look into his li’l face, girl. Cutest li’l thing I seen in a dog’s age. A mop of brown hair like you, but he musta got dem brown eyes from his pa.”
The midwife tried to put the baby in Sapphire’s arms, but Sapphire would have none of it. “Git ’im offa me. He ain’t worth my time. I lost money while he sprouted, and I can’t fuck fa how long, Miss Lottie?”
“Coupla months, till ya heal.”
“I’ll be suckin’ cock insteada fuckin’. Ain’t right. Can’t make no money thata way.”
“There are other ways,” Opal said with a grin.
Sapphire glared. “Up the ass?”
“Yeah. You done it before.”
“Thata, girl. Think positive.”
“I’m positive I don’t want some fucker’s get.”
“Too late fo’ dat. He’s here.”
Sapphire closed her eyes. “My mama tossed me out, and I done just fine fo’ miself. He can do fo’ hisself. I don’t want ’im. He ain’t no chil’ a mine.”
July 16, 1908
ALL THE children from the Gem and other houses on the block gathered in Miss Effie’s stone-floor kitchen to help celebrate Picayune’s tenth birthday. The room teemed with noise, laughter, and the skittering feet of children at play, until Miss Effie put two fingers to her lips and loosed a piercing whistle. “Ya’ll settle on down, nah. Pic’s waited long ’nough fo’ his present.”
Pic’s face ached from smiling as Miss Effie handed him a fabric-wrapped package.
“This is special fo’ ya. Me and d’others here at da house, we all chipped in an’ bought cha a drawin’ tablet and some pencils, da fancy kind wit’ dem ’rasers on the end you been goin’ on about. Nester went all da way ta Krauss’s fo’ ’em. Ya always drawin’ on anythin’ you can fin’, so we thought ya might like this.”
His heart racing, Pic flipped through the clean white pages with more ideas for pictures he wanted to draw than he had space inside his head. “This oughta keep Miss Jewel from whappin’ my hands wit’ dat stick of hers.”
Nester tapped Pic on the shoulder. “Shouldn’t be drawin’ on her walls.”
Everyone burst into laughter. “Dat’s right, Pic,” Opal said as she ruffled his unruly hair.
“I couldn’t have asked for anythin’ better. Thank ya’ll.”
Miss Effie put her hands on her hips. “Yer welcome. Nah, come on. Ya’ll gather ’roun’. Made ya yer favorite cake, Pic. Chocolate with lotsa sugary frostin’.”
“He ain’t got no time for dis foolishness.”
A hush fell over the room. Pic’s stomach knotted at the sound of Sapphire’s shouts from the doorway. The younger children clung to each other while Pic trembled and tried to shrink so his mother might leave him be. He dragged the pad into his lap and avoided eye contact with her.
“Leave ’im be, Miz Sapphire. A boy’s got but one birt’day a yar. Let him cel’brate wit’ his friends.”
Sapphire sashayed across the uneven stone floor, her filmy robe carelessly tied at the waist. “Whatcha got here?”
He wrapped his arms around his gift. “Nuttin’.”
Sapphire clapped him upside his head. “I said, whatcha got here?”
Pic cast a pleading gaze at Miss Effie, who shrugged, her smile gone. His hands shaking, Pic hefted the prized pad toward Sapphire. “Miss Effie and everyone in the house got me a drawin’ tablet and pencils.”
Everyone stilled as Sapphire took the pad of paper and flipped through it. She scowled, her eyes wide and her cheeks red. “What I tol’ you ’bout presents for dis li’l bastard. He don’t deserve nuttin’, and that’s all he’ll get.” She struck Pic over the head with the pad and tossed it to the floor. Then went at him with hard slaps. “I’ve tol’ ya, ya don’t deserve no gif’s. You don’t see nobody givin’ me nuttin’ for my birt’day.” She grabbed his arm in an iron grip. “Now, come wit’ me. What I tol’ ya ’bout your tenth birt’day? Time ya earned yer keep ’round here.”
Pic rubbed his head and tugged within Sapphire’s talons. “My head. My head.”
“Sapphire, I swear. You gonna knock ’im crazy one day, you keep hittin’ on ’m like dat dere.” Miss Effie examined Pic’s head. “You’s all right, my boy. Go along afore she beats cha agin. I’ll save ya a nice big piece a cake, cher.”
“I won’t be ignored, boy. Nah, come on.” She pulled him along while he skated his feet on the uneven stones.
Tears teemed in his eyes. Embarrassed, Pic waved good-bye to his friends.
“No need to wave to the urchins.” Pic stumbled to his knees when Sapphire slapped him on the back of the head.
He wailed, and she struck him again. “Get up, you clumsy oaf. People will think yer an idiot, they see you fallin’ down like that.” Her evil cackle sent a chill down his spine as she dragged him to his feet.
He sucked in a deep breath, even as his hatred for the accursed woman blurred his vision. She had ruined his birthday each year in his memory. Only this time, he wouldn’t complain. He still had scars from the strap she’d used on him the year before.
“Ya ten nah. Remember what I tol’ ya ’bout when you turned ten?”
Pic shivered. “Yes’m.”
She struck him on the back and arms, her arms waving like the blades in the windmill book he’d read at school, while he protected his face. “Ya call me ma’am, ya no good piece of trash.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry. Yes, ma’am.”
Breathless, Sapphire stood back. “Now, what did I say would happen when ya turned ten?”
He held back the tears that gathered in his soul. “You’d turn me out.”
“Very good.” He flinched when she patted his head. “Tonight you’ll wash off pricks, but I want ya watchin’ everythin’ I do.”
He whimpered. She’d taunted him with the job since he was six, and she broke his arm because he’d told her he’d never do what she did. “No.” He shook his head.
She raised the back of her hand to him. “Do ya have something to say about that?”
“I don’t want to do that. That’s not right a boy does that.”
Her shadow covered him like a shroud. “Ya think yer a boy? Well ya ain’t. You a thing, an’ you’ll wash pricks for as long as I say. Understand?”
She slapped him so hard his eyes blurred, then grabbed his arm and dragged him into the parlor as Miss Jewel unlocked the front door and rang the bell that announced the arrival of the first customers of the evening.
Sapphire held on even as she made eyes at the men who filtered through the doors. “Ya stand in the corner and wait for me to go upstairs. Don’t ya cause no trouble, ya hear?”
She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. Then she wrinkled her nose as though she smelled something foul. “Stand over in the corner and pay attention.”
While the professor, King Oliver, played “My Wife, She’s Gone to the Country” on the piano, Sapphire plastered a flirty smile on her face, and sidled up to a handsome young man with grabby hands that had already found her ass.
Picayune shrank into the corner, against the heavy drapes, and wished the floor would open up and swallow him.
With a giggle, Sapphire plunked herself down on the man’s lap and brushed her hands across his chest. He smiled back and nuzzled her neck. “You gonna buy a girl a drink, shug? Why I’m positively parched.”
She put on what Miss Jewel called a sultry drawl and more Southern charm than she actually possessed. She sounded almost educated, not at all close to reality.
“Pay the professor, dawlin’. He’ll play us a nice tune, and we’ll have us a nice dance.”
Picayune mouthed the words as she spoke. He’d heard them every night for years. While the young man hung on Sapphire, she pretended to hang on his every word. When the song ended, as though on cue, Pic said under his breath, “Come on upstairs, honey. I got something real special fa ya,” as Sapphire said the words.
Pic raced up the stairs, careful not to stomp on the broken sixth step. In the room he’d shared with Sapphire since he stopped waking up in the night, he prepared the blue-purple disinfectant Miss Jewel insisted they wash the customers with before they got down to business.
Many of the girls all over the District got gonorrhea and went to the Isolation Hospital over on Rampart Street. The doctors cleaned up some and others died from it. Sapphire often said she didn’t care if she got it, but when Amber died a few months back, Sapphire took to washing every prick that graced her door.
As Sapphire’s voice sounded from the hallway, he dashed to the bed and kicked the corner of his pallet underneath to save himself a beating.
As was her way, she lingered outside, let the man get in a few gropes before she opened the door in a feigned swoon and pulled him into the room.
Pic tucked into a corner, partially behind the window curtain, and prayed that Sapphire forgot about him.
Matter-of-factly, she tugged the man’s tie off and unbuttoned his shirt before she searched the room. “What are ya doin’ over there? Get yer worthless ass here and do what I tol’ ya.”
“Who’s this?” The man tossed his hat onto the chair.
Sapphire waved a dismissive hand. “Pay him no mind. He’s one of the urchins Miss Jewel hires to help us out. Now let me get ya outta these clothes ’fore I explode with want of ya.”
Pic, his limbs heavy, trudged from the corner and dipped the rag into the bluish water.
Sapphire unbuttoned the man’s pants. “Let’s drop these, and ya get on the bed and spread your legs. He’s gonna wash ya off wit’ disinfectant.”
The man plucked Sapphire’s hands away from his buttons. “I’m not paying the boy to do that. That’s indecent.”
Sapphire glared at Pic but turned to the man with a smile on her face. “He needs a little pocket money. That’s the way we do things around here.”
He shook his head. “Not with me, you don’t. He’s a boy, for Christ sake. You should be outside playing stickball, kid.”
Sapphire’s eyes narrowed as she raised her hand to Pic. He covered his aching head, but the strike never came.
“Let go of me!”
“You lay a hand on that child, and I’ll do more than hold you back.” The man let go, and Sapphire rubbed her wrists.
“Say, son, what’s your name? Mine’s Will.”
Pic cast Sapphire a wary glance. She tugged on his ear. “Go ahead. Cat got your tongue? The nice man asked you a question.”
Pic rubbed his ear. “Picayune.”
“Louder. The man can’t hear your whispers.”
“Picayune. My name is Picayune.”
Will laughed. “Now what kinda name is that?”
Pic bowed his head and repeated the line Sapphire had drilled into his head his whole life. “My mama says I’m nothin’ and don’t deserve a name like everyone else.”
“What kinda mama would tell you that? She’s dead wrong. Why, everybody deserves a good, strong name. You tell her that, now won’t cha?”
Pic didn’t answer but looked up at Sapphire through eyelids at half-mast.
Sapphire shoved Pic’s shoulder and handed him Mr. Will’s suit coat. “Here, go hang dis up.” She turned to Mr. Will. “Let’s get down to business, honey.” She grabbed his crotch and squeezed. “Get these pants off.”
Mr. Will swatted her hand away. “You can stop hurting the merchandise.”
She rubbed her hand, then hauled off and slapped Mr. Will. “You don’t manhandle me.”
Mr. Will’s eyes widened as he rubbed his reddened face. “You might get away with beating a child, lady, but the same doesn’t go for me.” He returned her slap, and while she clawed and scratched, he got a couple good licks in. When Mr. Will backed away, Sapphire lay on the floor, her lip cut and her vengeful eye blackening.
Sapphire licked the blood off her lip. “You had no call to do that.”
“You have no call hurting the boy. He ain’t even yours. Or is he?”
“You pay extra for the rough stuff.” Sapphire clutched her face and grinned.
Mr. Will rifled through his pockets until he came up with money. “Here.” He flung a fistful of bills at her. “Does this cover your busted lip and bruised eye?”
Pic’s eyes widened. He’d never seen so much money.
Sapphire rolled to her hands and knees and scrabbled around until she picked up every last dollar and clutched them to her naked bosom.
Will poured himself a drink. “Son, you want one?”
Admiration for Mr. Will swelled up inside Pic. No one had ever handled Sapphire as Will did. She sat meekly on the floor, petting her bounty. “No thank you, sir.”
The man drank deeply from the filmy glass. “Come here.”
Pic steered clear of Sapphire to stand in front of the stranger.
“She makes you do anything else but wash off her customers?”
“I never had him wash off before. He just turned ten.”
“Ten, huh?” He turned to Pic. “You know it isn’t right that she should have you in here like this, no matter how old you are?”
Pic bowed his head. “When we turn ten, they turn us out.”
“Shut up, you worthless little piece of shit!”
Mr. Will pointed to Sapphire. “You shut the fuck up. Now tell me, boy. You know children shouldn’t be a part of what goes on here?”
Pic’s mouth went dry at the dark seriousness in Mr. Will’s eyes. “No, sir.”
“She’s your mother, isn’t she?”
Pic avoided Sapphire’s eyes. “Yes, sir.”
Sapphire came up on her knees. “You shut up, you little whelp. I’ll kill you one of these days, I swear it!”
Mr. Will grabbed her around the throat and pulled her up to full height. “You don’t deserve a child.” He pushed her to the floor. “You deserve better, son. Get out of here when you can.” He pulled a card from his pocket. “If she beats you again, get in touch with me. My address is there.”
Sapphire picked herself up off the floor and put her hands on her hips. “He’s my son, and you can’t do a thing about what I do to him.”
Mr. Will shook his fist at her. “You touch him again, and you’d better worry about what I’ll do to you.”
He grabbed the money clutched in Sapphire’s hand and stuffed it into his pocket. “I’ll put this money away for you, kid. When you’re ready for it, come see me.”
Pic read the card. “You’re a copper?”
“That I am.”
“Do you have a badge and everything?”
“Sure do.” Mr. Will pulled his badge from the inside pocket of his coat and handed it to Pic.
“You gonna stand here jawin’ all night? Cuz if we ain’t gonna fuck, get out so I can get to work.”
Mr. Will glared at Sapphire and somehow infused cause in Pic to do the same. “Here you are, Mister.” Pic handed the badge back.
“If she so much as lays a hand on you, you let me know. And find yourself a name.” Mr. Will riffled Pic’s hair and cast Sapphire a toothy grin.
Sapphire raised her chin. “He’s mine, and I’ll do as I please.”
With the quickest movement Pic had ever seen, Mr. Will spun around and backhanded Sapphire again. She stumbled across the room and landed against the far wall.
“She’s gonna be madder than a wet hen. Find a place to hide and don’t let her hurt you.”
Pic glanced at a narrow-eyed Sapphire. “I’ll try.”
AFTER A sound beating on the night of his tenth birthday, Sapphire banished Pic to the attic room reserved for the older children. “I don’ wanna see yer ugly face ever again. If I had my way, I’d put ya in the street.”
Miss Effie washed his bruises and held him afterward. He wept into her breast, not for the blows he’d taken, but for how unworthy he was to have anyone love him.
When he calmed, Miss Effie plunked him into a chair at the table, next to Nester.
“Mr. Will smacked Sapphire good.”
Effie plopped a huge piece of chocolate cake on a plate and poured Pic a cold glass of milk. “I’da liked to hold her while he done it. Dat woman has a black soul. She infected wit’ the devil.”
Nester grunted. “You gotta have a soul to have it turn ugly. She da mos’ soulless bitch I ever come across.”
Pic stuffed a forkful of cake into his mouth. “Mr. Will says I should tell ’im if she hits me again.”
Effie pushed his perennially unruly hair out of his face. “Ya oughta. She shouldn’t treat ya like she does. Now, eat yer cake, cher. Does my heart good seein’ ya enjoy it so.”
“Does she have a shiner?” Nester chuckled.
With the taste of victory, and cake, on his tongue, Pic nodded. “Yeah. He took care of her good.”
“I’s glad to hear dat! Dat woman is pure evil, da way she takes afta ya wit’ da switch or da broomstick. What gets inta ’er, I can’t imagine.”
Pic sat back and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “She hates everything, ’specially me.”
Effie smiled down on him. “Keep doing good in school, my Pic. You’ll get smarter ’n all us one day.”
“I like learnin’.”
“Well, ya go on up to da attic. Here, take yer drawin’ things and hide ’em good. Make me some pretty pitchures.”
“Thank you for my present. I’ll never forget it.”
“Ya deserve it, dawlin’. Ya go along nah. I gotta clean up out chere.”
He trudged up the creaky attic stairs, thankful his nights under Sapphire’s bed were over. Some of the kids groaned when he stepped over the numerous pallets, his trek aided by the slivers of light that snuck through the gaps in the roof. At last he reached his new domain beneath the eaves. He didn’t mind that he had to duck down, because the space was bigger than any two elsewhere, giving him room to store his drawing supplies. He also got more light through a mouse hole, so he could draw long after the others had gone to sleep.
After he unrolled a thin mattress filled with Spanish moss and covered it with clean mattress ticking, he sat down, his drawing tablet on his lap. He wanted to remember his birthday, because a stranger had shown him kindness.
He drew a representation of Mr. Will, his dark hair mussed, some hanging over his forehead. With short strokes, Pic filled in a thick patch of hair on Will’s chest, dark and full. He erased several times before he satisfied himself with the nip in Mr. Will’s waist and added lanky legs, also covered in ample dark hair.
He grinned at his sketch of Mr. Will’s balled fist and the one of his open hand the moment after he’d struck Sapphire.
WITH MARDI Gras on the seventh, the household staff at the Gem, as well as the children, worked to spruce up the place. “Everything has to shine,” Miss Jewel said. “Carnival’s when we make big money.”
With his mind on a drawing he’d started, Picayune kept his head down and polished the mahogany spindles on the stairway under Nester’s watchful eye. “The doors open in an hour,” Nester said, his arms akimbo. “Ya’ll finish up chere an’ den git to the kitchen fo’ yer dinna.”
“The sixth stair is loose again. Needs a nail or two.”
Nester nodded. “I’ll get to it, Pic. Too much ta do ’roun’ chere.”
Pic’s arms ached from hours of sweeping and scrubbing floors and finally helping Charlotte with the deeply carved wood. “You ’bout done, Charley?”
The six-year-old’s blonde curls bounced as she nodded, her eyes dark. “Almost finished the bann’ster, but I’m so hungry.”
Pic grinned at the little one’s pat excuse to escape work. “Go on, then. I’ll finish up here.”
A tear slid down the girl’s pale cheek. “I’m sorry, Pic. I don’ wanna be hungry, cuz I don’ wanna finish too soon. After dinner, I’ll have to get under Mama’s bed.”
With a gentle touch, Pic tugged one of the curls. “I know, shug. I slept under Sapphire’s bed until I was ten, and I hated every minute.”
She put her hands over her ears. “I hate the squeakin’ and the groanin’. And the washin’.”
Picayune knelt before Charley. “Your mama makes you wash the men?”
Pic’s stomach roiled. He hugged the little girl. “What if I talk to Miss Jewel?”
“You’d tell ’er I wanna go to the attic?”
“Is that what you want?”
She nodded again.
“Then that’s what I’ll do. There isn’t a lot of room up there, but you’re just a little one.” He tapped her nose. “We can find room for you, if Miss Jewel gives the okay.”
Charley wrapped her arms around Pic’s neck and wept into his shoulder. “You’s the only one dat lubs me, Pic.”
He held her tight, giving her the hug he’d so craved growing up. “I do love you, bigger than the whole wide world.”
She giggled. “You say that all the time.”
“I love you all the time. Now go along and get your dinner.”
She jumped off Pic’s lap. “Miss Effie has gumbo today.”
“Mm, sounds good. Save me some. I’ll be along after I wrap things up here.”
Pic perched on a step as Charley trudged away, her step maybe a little lighter, but still her shoulders slumped. He held his head in his hands. Anger and disillusionment rented too much space in his head. All too soon, Pearl’d turn Charley out, and the little girl’d spend her nights on the bed or on her knees.
Even after years of sleeping in the attic, the squeal of the bedsprings haunted Pic’s dreams. With business good at the house, narrow beds had replaced the pallets of the ten older boys and girls, and every one of them, save him, clung to their pillows when one of the whores or Miss Jewel called for them to come entertain the nice men.
With the strength William Cherbonnier had left with him on his tenth birthday, Pic had staunchly refused to let anyone drag him into the depravity. In exchange, he slaved around the place, cleaning the rooms after use, running errands, taking care of chamber pots, anything he had to do to stay away from the sex part of the Gem.
Sapphire visited her broomstick on him often, hating him for finding a way out of debasing himself the way she had at his age. He had scars, but he also had his pride. One day she’d have no one left to beat.
“You gon’ sit chere all evenin’?”
Nester, the self-appointed supervisor of everyone but Miss Jewel herself, stood over him, his arms folded across his chest. “Best get your clothes changed, son. Missa Tom’ll be lookin’ fa ya.”
“Yessir. All done here. Say, can you speak to Miss Jewel again about Charley? That little girl is petrified of what goes on in Pearl’s room. I’ll fix her a pallet next to my bed if I have to, but she’s got no business under that bed or washing men off.”
“I’ll speak to her again, but ya knows what she said afore.”
“I know, but tell her Charley is having nightmares.”
“Go on. Getcha self outta here.”
Pic jumped up and ran upstairs to the attic to change and grab his drawing book. The brightest part of his day was when he slipped through the back door and skirted past Lulu’s Mahogany Hall and Josie Arlington’s palace on his way to the corner of North Basin and Iberville. He worked as the money taker at Arlington’s Annex, Tom Anderson’s saloon. The unofficial mayor of the District had hired him the year before to take money from customers and pass out the brothel tokens. Anderson also kept Pic’s pay in safekeeping, out of Sapphire’s grubby paws.
He stopped in front of Madame Rotie’s place and cast his gaze to the upper balcony. “Hey, Spence.”
A staple in the District, Spencer Webb sat in the window, his pants hiked up to his knees, naked legs pale against the blue clapboards. “Pass back after your shift. Might have somethin’ special for ya.”
Pic shivered. “What is it?”
Spence held on to the sash and leaned out farther. “Tall, handsome, just your type. I expect him about one.”
“Will you shut up?” Pic glanced around for anyone paying attention to Spence’s blather. “What do you know about my type?”
Spence flicked his hand. “Oh, honey. I might not have a type, but you do, and I think I’ve found him.”
Everyone around went about their business as though Spence hadn’t said a word. “I’m not sure.”
Spence brushed the weak protest aside. “I say it’s time. You’re nearly seventeen, aren’t ya? What are you holding on to it for?”
Pic shrugged. “I’ll be eighteen in July. We’ll talk later. About two. I’ll be here. Gotta go. Don’t want to be late.”
He took off at a run but glanced back at the sound of Spence’s voice. “Hey, Daddy. Come on in. I got somethin’ real special for ya.”
The District’s pat come on. Pic chuckled and shook his head. Spence was already onto fresh meat.
While he and Spence had played around and sucked each other off plenty of times, that was the extent of Pic’s sexual experience. He often watched Spence with guys, even sketched some of the more incredible-looking, but no matter how much Spence offered, Pic hadn’t succumbed to his body’s sexual taunt.
He skidded to a stop before the multicolumned headquarters of the District’s mayor, Tom Anderson. Sweaty and out of breath but with a grin on his face, he stumbled through the open door of Arlington’s Annex.
“Hey, Pic. Place is jumpin’ tonight.”
“Hey, Homer.” He cased the packed bar area. “Looks like it.”
He cooled off beneath the whirring fan above before he took his place behind the block-long bar.
“Here, you look like you could use this.” Homer handed him an ice-cold drink, which Pic downed in one swallow.
“Keep ’em coming.”
Pic took the customers’ money according to the services they wished and gave them tokens. Many wanted all night, while others satisfied themselves with a bath and a screw, getting them home before the wife missed them.
The doves pulled well-dressed tricks to their feet for a sway and a rub while King Oliver beat out a heart-stopping rendition of “Frog Legs Rag” on the piano. Part of the girls’ job was to keep the customers feeding the professor. He’d play, the men and their whores danced, and then the girls begged for drinks. The Bar Girls made out—they got paid for sex and a skim of every drink sold. They didn’t call ’em B-Girls for nothin’.
In a slow moment, Pic clapped the professor on the shoulder. “How’s it goin’, King?”
“Ain’t half bad, Pic. Say, you remember this one?”
Pic grinned as Oliver skittered his fingers across the keys. “‘The Maple Leaf Rag.’ That’s one of the first songs you taught me.”
“Come on, then, help me out.”
Oliver slid over on the bench, and Pic took a seat. Before long, the room filled, everyone on their feet, either clapping or dancing. As the money filled Oliver’s overturned hat, he and Pic played the song again. Bent over the keys, Pic crossed over Oliver’s hands, and King did the same to him. They laughed and sweated, and finished with a flourish.
Embarrassment heated Pic’s face as the parlor erupted in applause. He stood and extended his hand to his musical mentor. “Isn’t he great?”
Another round of applause gave Pic time to get back to the bar and accept the iced Coca-Cola Homer had waiting.
Things calmed enough for him to sketch King Oliver, his back hunched as he thumped the keys. A big man, Oliver sweated through the layers of his shirt and suit, no matter the weather.
Pic leaned against the bar, fascinated by the special dance the girls put their customers through. They drank, danced, and chatted, until the doves had them primed with drinks and tips for the professor. They’d climb off the guys’ laps and sashay upstairs, their diaphanous peignoirs fluttering beneath the whirring fans. “Never let them walk out with what they came in with.” Every sporting palace’s cardinal rule.
Judges, lawyers, councilmen, doctors, and the occasional state senator held court with a whore on each knee and a tit in each hand. Singers and actors gave the whore who bagged them bragging rights for weeks on end.
Card games—euchre and poker—grew loud in a smaller parlor. Gambling helped pad the pockets of the house and the B-Girls worked their asses off to stoke the players’ fires.
A thick cloud of smoke hung over the well-heeled heads, seeped into their clothes, stung their eyes. Accusations of cheating were commonplace, but the overperfumed girls kept their men buying the booze, with promises of paradise upstairs.
The hours passed quickly, with two fistfights that broke out over a particularly handsome john, along with a hair pulling that one girl took care of herself with a straight razor. With the extra activity, Pic hadn’t given Spence or his something special much thought since nine o’clock, but as two rolled around, his imagination ran wild.
When he checked the downstairs rooms, only six whores lounged on the laps of drunks, with the rooms upstairs teeming. “You can handle any latecomers, huh, Homer?”
“Sure, Pic. You go on along. I’ll put down your eight hours.”
Pic saluted Homer and stepped out onto Basin. Music from the honky-tonks, speakeasies, and saloons mixed in little more than melodious thunder. A singer belted out garbled lyrics somewhere along the street, and drunks staggered and puked in the last gasp of the night.
I love novels about the early 1900's if they are done right, and boy is this one done right! Brita Addams has done her homework in preparation for this book, and series for that matter, and boy does it show!
We meet sweet Picayune when he is a child and living with his mother (if you can call her that), he gets saved from a beating, one of many, and we hope there is more to life for Picayune!
It turns out with good fortune and hard work, there is much more in life than beatings and brothels for David, as he now calls himself. He makes a name for himself as a lawyer, and rises from nothing to be what his mother never said he would.
We follow David's journey and see him go through many trails, not the least is worry for his friend and first love Spencer who was called up to war. We feel every emotion David does the writing is that good!
When David finally gets his life on track and is happy, someone from his past emerges and tries to take it all away, will they succeed, or will David fight for the happiness he so richly deserves?
I don't do spoilers, but I will tell you that you have got to read this book friends! It is amazing, and you will be wanting the next book right when you finish this one! I can't wait! Thanks Brita, for a novel about a time that is brought to life again in a big way through this story!
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