Chapter One continued

While I absorbed the implications of Ruth Stroh's conclusion, I found myself thinking irrelevantly, "How the hell do I grade this?" My eyes scanned the last page again. I went back to the beginning and read the whole essay again, looking for anything that said explicitly, without demanding interpretation, "Here is what I am about; here is what my father has done." There was nothing. It might have been an essay on the triumph of raising a prize steer–no more, no less.

I turned to Claudine, swivelling my chair and rolling a little toward her. "Read this, would you?" The request was not unusual. She took the essay and read it slowly, carefully, while I watched her. It was approaching the hour; I could see clusters of students drifting by the windows across Claudine's back. Muscles in her mouth flexed unpredictably as she read; it was a mannerism I had noticed a few days before. Still thinking uselessly of Ruth, I studied the angles and motions in Claudine's profile. She finished.

"Whew," she said quietly.

It's real, then, I thought.

"What can I do?" I asked.

She glanced at the pages again. "Does she want you to do anything?"

I hadn't thought of that.

Claudine went on. "The implication that something is wrong is pretty indirect. It's all subtext. She certainly seems emotionless about it." She paused.

"Should I report it?"

"Report what? She doesn't say her father sexually abused her, and she doesn't say she needs help protecting her sister. If she means what we think she means–and I admit it sounds like we both took it the same way–she doesn't even seem to think there's much of a problem. She might mean that she doesn't want Doris having to do her father's laundry."

"But she doesn't."

"I know. I don't know what to tell you."

I took the essay, with a few misgivings, to Margaret Deakins, the departmental chair. I didn't know Margaret very well, but she was very active in some women's support groups, on the board of a Rape Crisis Center. I was worried that she might react with lynch-mob hysteria. With something like this, who could know? And I was sure that sort of reaction wouldn't do Ruth any good. Ruth had trusted me when she wrote this piece. A side of me felt that I was dishonoring that trust. If the essay said what I thought it said, she'd be unhappy I showed it to others, and if it didn't, she would be disgusted and humiliated that I "could think such a thing." Margaret read quietly, adjusting her glasses as they slipped down her nose. We sat silently, after, for a minute or more. She inhaled through her mouth.

"Get her to submit the essay to Solstice," she said. "Or rather, tell her that you want to submit it and that you would like me to read it."

"What will you do?"

"She has an interesting style and some proficiency as a writer. I'll call her in to discuss the essay, suggest a creative writing class for next fall. The subject matter lends itself to personal conversation. I grew up on a ranch near Montrose, you know, and I was the oldest of six brothers and sisters. We have a lot in common, Ruth and I. After some small talk, I'll ask her if she needs help getting her sister off the ranch." She looked down at the last paragraph again. She glanced at me over her glasses, not moving her head. "That's all. If she says no, Thomas, then there's not much we can do. I might be able to get her to say something more explicit than what's here. If not..." Her voice trailed off, not dismissively but helplessly.

"Then there's nothing I can do?"

"She's told you what she wants to tell you. I think she knows exactly how much she told you. I think she may even be interested in the effect it will have." She interrupted herself. "That's why I want to suggest the creative writing class. I'm serious about that. The style is immature, but it takes remarkable control to write precisely this much and no more." She looked down at the essay again. "Do you think there's a chance she's making it up?"

I thought of Ruth meeting my eyes one day in class, and my sense that the knowledge behind those eyes made me seem young, earnest, and callow; I am none of them. I have a daughter older than Ruth. Margaret was watching me think, her expression inviting my response–a clinical attentiveness. What was the source of that solidity I had seen in Ruth's face? Four years of stolen childhood or a sense of the power of unscrupulous invention? I thought of Debbie Stiller, a girl mysteriously at Red Rocks after a semester at Southern Methodist University who had confided a life of drugs and alcohol to me to explain her shortcomings as a student, drawing me deeper and deeper into a personal investment in helping her. She cried in my office; I gave her some special assignments and deadline extensions, feeling fatherly for the most part. On the day of the final exam, she didn't show up. I called her home, and I could hear her friends laughing around the phone while she tried to talk me into giving her an Incomplete. Her voice was vaguely hysterical, giddy. I had given her the temporary grade, as I would have anyway, without the wheedling and flattery, and I never saw her again.

Debbie's metallic bitter manipulations were nothing like the stolid worldliness of Ruth Stroh. Debbie could have made this story up, though she wouldn't have written it down; she would have told me, so there would be no evidence, had I acted on her claims. And she would have laced the story with a few lurid details–not too many but explicit ones, just enough to titillate, to make the horror sound real. She would not have left the worst unsaid.

"No. No, I think it would be more likely that we are making it up. I mean, even though you and Claudine and I all think we see the same thing in the story, it may be just an accident. She may be using the wrong language to describe something perfectly innocent. Like a Freudian slip."

"That's why I need to get her to say it more explicitly. Not to me necessarily, but I can let her know that there are resources available if she needs them."

"You don't think I can do anything?"

"We could help her with Doris if we don't make Ruth sorry she told anything. You know her and I don't, but you won't help if you scare her away." Again she paused. "What do you want to do?"

"Find out the truth. But that's personal."

"And selfish. The truth is none of our business, after all; and it is, as they say, overrated."

She smiled to salve the sting. She was right. Knowing the truth would do nothing for Ruth; that desire was a self-indulgence. What did I want to do for her? She had escaped. What did I want to help with? To rescue Doris? Suddenly I thought, What about Marie? Obviously Ann was somehow safe–old enough to get out, probably, or protected by "not getting along" with her father. But Marie was apparently in no danger either.

"Margaret, why isn't she worried about the youngest girl? Marie? Maybe she does mean nothing but the burden of mothering when you should be having a childhood. There's no one for Marie to mother. Maybe she's just talking about protecting Doris from having responsibilities forced on her."

"I don't know; I wondered about Marie. Maybe she's thinking, save one at a time. Or maybe she's so naive she thinks that Marie will be OK because she's too young or because if she doesn't have to be the 'mother,' she won't have to be the 'wife.' My best guess? Her father has already started working on Doris but hasn't bothered Marie, so Ruth is thinking, one problem at a time? Or maybe... maybe she doesn't care about Marie, or she thinks she's tough enough to take care of herself, or that she's so boyish she'll never appeal to the father. Maybe she's not his type, " she added grimly. "I don't know. It's a good question to ask her."

The next silence concluded our business. I couldn't find a selfless motive for objecting to my exclusion, so I left. A few days later, Ruth agreed, flattered and flustered, to submit the essay to the literary magazine. Nothing in her demeanor suggested second thoughts about the content. I admit her reaction gave me second thoughts; if the essay was about incest, would she really consider circulating it around campus? Perhaps the essay said more than she intended, but she didn't realize that. Perhaps, from her rural background, she didn't realize that incest was stigmatized: hard to imagine. Then that next Monday, she missed her appointment with Margaret. I reminded her of it in class, and she was embarrassed: how stupid to forget. She missed another appointment that Friday. Claudine and I drove home together that night.

"Do you think Ruth lost her nerve?" I said as we rolled down Federal, moving slowly in the rush hour traffic.

Claudine watched houses go by. Finally she said, "It's possible that there's nothing to lose nerve about. Maybe there is no hidden message."

"Three people saw the same elephant. Why else would she avoid Margaret?"

"Thomas, there are people for whom publication is not a life goal."

"What? Don't they know that without publication they will be cast into outer darkness, their eyes plucked out and their toes eaten by rats? Speaking of which, how is the McCullers essay?"

"It's done. You want to read it?"


"I'll tell you what Peter said after you're done."

"Didn't he like it?"

"After. I said 'after.'"

I bent a little toward her as we stopped for a light. "Aster? Flowers? John Jacob Astor? What's he got to do with Carson McCullers?"

She sighed. "Age. First the hearing goes, then the memory."

"My memory's fine, Claudia, though it's true that I sometimes repeat myself." As we rolled into the intersection, I signaled a left, a little late, and glanced over at her. "My memory's fine, Claudia, though it's true that I sometimes repeat myself." She grinned, then crossed her arms and gave me a stern look.

"Pathetic," she muttered. As we arrived at her house, she added, "It's Claudine, Grampa. Claudine Dupré Lindheim. The essay's inside," she said then. "I could make coffee if you have time to read it." I hesitated. She added, "I have time if you do. Peter's staying at DU till nine or so. For the Merrill reading. So I don't need to worry about dinner."

"Aren't you going?"

"Nah. Yuppie poetry. Yachter's angst. It's not my cup of cappucino."

Their living room was small and neglected, personalized with Sierra Club posters of slickrock and a couple of photographs. A huge, gleaming discoloration on the wall, like a greasy Rorschach, was its most striking feature. It was an old house, with a fortune in antique wood trim that dated, I suppose, from the nineteenth century. They had been renting it, but they made an offer on it right after Claudine was hired at Red Rocks. The asking price was low because the place had been a rental for twenty years; it was superficially in pretty bad shape. The stain looked fresh.

Claudine caught the direction of my eye.

"Come out in the kitchen," she said firmly. As I stood looking around the bright tiny kitchen with its ancient refrigerator, gas stove, and chipped porcelain sink, she produced a little, cuplike silver pan for boiling Greek coffee. She gathered up honey and a red, white and green can of finely ground coffee, fine as powdered sugar. When the water was on the burner, she left me. The kitchen window looked into her backyard, small like the rooms and surrounded with a high, bristling hedge. There was a white plastic patio set toward the back of the yard. A square-sided liquor bottle lay uncapped and empty on the table. A lawnmower, manual, stood abandoned in the middle of the yard.

Claudine came back in a few minutes with a small manuscript. She thrust it at me abruptly, as if getting rid of it. I sat down at the kitchen table, facing the stove. Softly the roil of the water in the little pan came to me. She was standing with her back to me, a stirring spoon tinkling in the coffee. I watched her back. Her blouse left the triangular base of her neck bare below the precise scallop of her hair, cut boyishly, fashionably short. Her skin was a pale olive, the color of a neglected tan, and her hair was spit-polish black, darker and shorter than mine, in fact, with little more substance than a swimming cap. In the bare-bulb light of the kitchen, the highlights of her hair were the rich red of mahogany. Or dried blood. Looking at it, I thought of my father wiping flame-melted polish on his combat boots while Ricky and I ate breakfast. She spooned more sugar into the coffee, then lifted the little pan swiftly as the mixture boiled up. "Boil three times," she murmured, as if to herself. I looked at the first page of her essay.

"Peter hates 'dolled up' food. I baked pork chops last night in an herb mixture I thought would be an exception. It wasn't." The rhythmic tap of the spoon continued.

It wasn't clear if I should ask. Then I did. "What happened?"

The coffee was ready. She took down two small Japanese cups. They were tall and narrow and thick walled, like saké cups made for American tastes. As she poured she said, in a flat tone, "He threw his plate at the wall." She came to the table and placed the cup in front of me, dutiful hostess. The cup was grey, its lines vaguely, nonchalantly random. Two bamboo leaves were sketched in blue on the surface. The foamy brown of the coffee clashed with the grey and blue a little. "Broke the plate," she concluded. "Would you rather read without me watching? I've got some housework to take care of." Her self-consciousness seemed focused on the essay, not on the explanation of the stain.

"I'm comfortable. Go ahead if you want."

She left me in the kitchen. As I turned my attention to the essay, I realized that she'd left her own coffee steaming across from me.

The essay was, as I'd have guessed, quite good. After a few paragraphs, I found myself more concerned about fixing typos than with improving the content. I was half through when she returned to the kitchen wearing beat-up work clothes, including a superfluous bandana around her close-cropped hair, gathered some things from under the sink, and marched into the living room, calling over her shoulder, "Passing through."

She was back before I finished, and after returning a brush to the cabinet under the sink and dumping a bucket of grey water into the drain, she sat down in front of her cold coffee with practiced indifference. As I read the last page, she drew herself up a bit, but rather than speaking she just inhaled and waited.

"I like it. The analysis of the language in Sad Cafe strikes me as right on, but it's a reading I've never thought of before. It makes me want to read the play again."

She grinned. "Yeah?" She stood up abruptly. "Let's go into the living room." It was more command than offer. I rose.

We sat on the couch; the wall was wet where the grease stain had been. It wasn't much of an improvement. Dorothy would have known what to do, I thought irrelevantly; my ex-wife.

The living room was dark, oppressive blue. The walls in the kitchen were a green as overpowering: rental colors, whatever was on sale the day the landlord hit K-2RMMart. My eye was caught by the suite of photos framed on the wall. Claudine explained, "Pictures from high school and college. Peter's mother put it together as a Christmas present."

Over the mantel to our left were two framed portrait photographs. "Peter's parents?"


We talked about the second section of the essay, where I'd penciled some organizational notes. As we huddled over the page, her shoulder against me, firmly against me for a moment, I was aware that she smelled of something childish. Baby powder? No, Ivory Soap. It seemed to be in her hair. I put the Greek coffee to my lips and inhaled deeply of the hot aroma.

"I like how you brought in Faulkner–good ideas about 'The Bear.' But if you have time before you finish the paper–it's due in three weeks, right?–you should read 'The Bear' again. And maybe all of Go Down, Moses before you do the presentation in December. This is your first presentation at MLA, isn't it?" I added.

"I gave a paper in the Women's Lit section of RMLA last year."

"RM-M-LA," I corrected absent-mindedly.

"Oh, yes; excuse me: The Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association."

I ignored her sarcasm. "OK. So you know how fast you read. MLA's not much different. There may be ten thousand English professors there, and another ten thousand assorted professors of other languages, plus another ten thousand English graduate students, but you'll be doing well to have an audience of twenty or thirty people. Most of them will be hungry graduate students, so be braced for smart-ass questions intended to show that the questioner knows more than you do."

"Yes, Papa," she said, leaning away and folding her hands politely in her lap.

I laughed. "Sorry. Last year, you were one of the smart-asses, right?"

"Of course." She bobbed on the sofa like a mischievous teenager.

"I remember wishing someone had told me some of the practical stuff–how you will read faster if you're nervous, and faster is harder for the audience to grasp. That you should have something, anything, available to wet your throat if you panic. I felt like an idiot after my first scholarly reading."

"What's wrong with my discussion of 'The Bear'?"

"Nothing's 'wrong' with it. Read the story if you have time, and watch Boon and Sam. Ike McCaslin tells the story. What if Sam told it? Who does Sam adopt, really?"

I handed the essay back to her, and she left the room with it. I watched her go. She had the firm, trim body of a gymnast. When she was gone, I got up and studied the grim face of Peter Lindheim's father, the troubled eyes of the woman in the companion portrait. The man was white-haired; the nordic look of his features suggested that the white was not a sign of age. His eyes were pale blue, like a Siberian Husky's, and as unfriendly. The woman had black hair and skin as light as her husband's. Welsh, I thought. Her eyes were a more gemlike blue; opal. Peter had his mother's coloring.

I read their bookshelves: O'Connor, Welty, Garrett, Leslie Silko. These must be her books, I mused. Peter read Cheever and Updike, Mailer and Vonnegut when he wasn't boning up on eighteenth-century England for his dissertation. The only Southerner he likes, he'd told me one night, was Harry Crews, whoever the hell that was. The world divides into Hemingway people and Faulkner people, and they make strange bedfellows.

There were two snapshots in drugstore frames on top of the bookcase. I was looking at a solemn old man in an ethnic costume, photographed in front of a ramshackle cabin, when I heard Claudine behind me.

"Grapère," she said. "That's his Midéwiwin costume."

"Midéwiwin?" I said. I could hear her breath, a gentle, subtle sound.

"Chippewa Medicine Society."

"Yeah. You're part Chippewa?"

"Skin deep," she said. She was looking at the other picture.

I looked at the group snapshot next to the picture of the old man. It was a family scattered on a porch. The light was bad for a photograph, slant and too far forward of the camera plane; angular shadows hid and distorted the faces. It was a Midwestern farm, a picture from the thirties, perhaps, to judge by the clothing styles. An old wringer washing machine stood in the garage door. There was a handful of children, and an old man stared at the camera, his eyes wary and fierce. It could be the same old man, five or ten years before the other was taken. One little girl stood directly in front of him, and his hands were on her shoulders as if she would float away like a balloon without them. Her face seemed almost a perfect circle. The girl was eight or nine, and hauntingly familiar. I put an impossible gestalt together.

"That can't be you."

"My mother," she said, smiling at the little girl. They had the same almost unnaturally round face and melancholy, wide-set eyes and something unique, a fleshy thickness in the nose, that made one face of Claudine's and the child's. The little girl had a wild shag of bangs like a black halo. Claudine went to the drawer of a desk across the room and brought back a cigar box heaped with snapshots, postcards, and tattered keepsakes. A beaded earring slipped to clatter on the wood when she extracted a half-dozen pictures from under it. I looked through the pictures.

"This is my brother Wilbur."

"No resemblance."

"Sure there is." Crowded against me, she analyzed his eyes and ears, proving the relationship. I glanced again and again at her mother's face captured in one of the pictures. She had an arm around her daughter, squeezing her uncomfortably cheek-to-cheek, both of them mugging for the camera. Most of these pictures were in color, unlike the two on the bookcase; the whole family had the raven hair, but skin color varied tremendously. A younger sister was fair, paler than Claudine. Wilbur was dark as old leather. His nose was spongy with pockmarks. I shuffled through the pictures again.

"Where's your father?"

"Who knows?" Her tone embarrassed me. Then she added, "He took the pictures, of course!" She began to rummage through the box again.

I hadn't realized that Claudine was Chippewa. She didn't have the characteristic 'French' look, the Lollabrigida bones of the Michif girls I had taught at North Dakota. She was tall, long in the leg, and the Chippewa girls from Turtle Mountain, North Dakota, tended to be petite. The Minnesota Chippewa were quite different from the Chippewa/Cree of Turtle Mountain, of course. The roundness of her face, I supposed, was more typically Eastern, Red Lake Woodland. It was a characteristic I'd found quite unattractive at first, almost a jowly look. Now I thought of it as feline and appealing.

Her complexion should have been a giveaway, and might have been if Claudine had had an accent; four years at Chapel Hill must have erased it, plus the three at Denver. Her passage through college had been meteoric. A succession of full-ride scholarships financed her. I had seen her teach and discussed her work; I was reading her dissertation. An impressive mind was hidden quietly behind vivacity and girlish bounciness that encouraged one to underestimate her.

"Look at this!" she said, handing me a scrap of paper she'd found, unfolded, and read. "I wrote that in junior high!"

It was a poem, sonnet-sized, about adolescent unhappiness. It was striking. Claudine's handwriting had not changed in–What?–ten years. Her handwriting had a broad, extroverted quality with open upstrokes, elaborate capitals, Bezier cross-strokes on the 'T's. And she affected that abomination of high school girls, the circle to dot her 'I's. I had razzed her on it after she left an entire blackboard of notes on Kate Chopin in a room she had vacated for me, every chalked 'I' meticulously decorated with its little happy face. The poem was about blood and death and how terrible it is to get old–the things we feel we understand best when we are children.

"Pretty bad, huh?"

She said it as if it had been written by someone else, someone neither of us liked much.

"Sylvia Plath's status is in no danger," I said.

"I thought of myself as more of a young Keats. I smoked, so I'd cough a lot." She was grinning. I gave it back to her.

"I better go," I said when we fell silent. "Gotta let the dog out."

She walked me to the door. Holding it open, she said, "So you think the essay's good?"

I looked skeptical of her modesty. "Of course it's good. It's the best thing I've read on Flannery O'Connor in years."

"Carson McCullers," she corrected. "Ease up on the aluminum cans, OK?"

"So what did Peter say?"

"He said the reading was a little naive, and that it was too bad to waste energy on a writer no one takes seriously any more."

"Thank you very much," I muttered as I turned to go. Prick.


Sam was grateful that I had decided, once again, to return home. We shared a tuna sandwich for dinner. Afterward, I wrote for two hours, Sam restless in the room behind me. I lay wakeful in the dark for half an hour. Late in the night, I woke abruptly; Sam had crawled onto the bed and was curled against my hip.

Sam and I went to Castle Rock Saturday, on a whim. It's not a major Colorado recreation site, but I lived a happy year there as a kid, before we moved to Twin Falls when my dad retired, and I wanted to show Sam the ancestral home. Sam is half Weimaraner, half something else. She grins at my jokes and doesn't ask me to fix the plumbing. I don't ask her to catch rabbits. We drove by the surprisingly small stone house still standing across from Castle Rock Elementary. I pulled over and told her about the first time I saw snow, late in our first Colorado summer. We drove up to the rock, set like a layer cake or a huge pillbox hat on its dirt pile. We sat against the rock on the east side, looking down on the little town. My father was in Camp Hale for a month, that year in Castle Rock, and I shared my mother's bed. I was twelve; old enough to know that people made babies by "sleeping together." Sam was surprised at my lack of biological sophistication. My youngest brother was born less than a year after that summer, and I was terrified. Now I supposed, looking back from my perch above the little town, that my father planted the child while he and my mother were getting reacquainted some weekend. Certainly I had done nothing. I could remember doing nothing. It was only two years later that I learned what must happen, and I did not think, when Bobbie Theiz explained it, "That's what that was." Hard as it was to imagine my mother open to my father's penetration, it was more difficult still to imagine her hungry enough, perverse enough. An old friend, a writer I admired, asked me once if I secretly wished to sleep with my mother. "I already have," I answered, to his confusion.

I was scheduled to read at the University of Nevada, in Reno, on Thursday. I had decided to drive over, see the country. To cover my classes, I had set up both Freshman English sections with library tours and in-class editing. Claudine had agreed to proctor the in-class day. Since my fiction class meets on Monday night, that covered everything.

Ever since Amos Burns, whose office was across the hall from mine, had learned that I proposed to drive rather than fly to Reno, by way of Salt Lake and I-80, he had been suggesting that I should stop at the whorehouses in Elko and Winnemucca on my way.

"Get your plumbing flushed, Thomas," was how he put the attraction. The suggestion had resurfaced daily for the entire month of September. At first politely ignoring him, then less politely I explained that my plumbing was just fine. At last–with hardly any politeness at all–I pointed out that the state of my plumbing seemed to interest him even more than it did me, and I asked him, pretending it was a joke, if other men's plumbing held some particular interest for him. He was more embarrassed than angry.

That Saturday, Sam and I agreed that she'd go to kennel on Monday, so I could cut a little off the Tuesday portion of the trip by leaving Monday night after class. I took her in at five, threw my luggage in the car, and was on my way to Grand Junction at ten. Next morning I was up with the sun; I topped my tank and headed for Salt Lake, stopping for lunch at the little Greek restaurant in Price, then on to Wendover and into the desert. When I hit Elko, just after sunset, I was ready for dinner, so I pulled in at the Lamplighter Motel. Over a steak at the coffee shop, I noticed a pumping neon heart above the door of a side-street establishment visible through the window–Valentine's Inn, according to the neon text. The heart was pierced with a brilliant blue arrow. The arrow pointed up, though. I watched the heart pulse, stirring my coffee. I had known that the Nevada brothels really existed, but I had never fleshed out the concept with a reality.

Except for the garish sign, Valentine's Inn could have been an upscale boutique, with its understated lighting and fairly modest storefront. I smiled to myself as I spooned potato from a rocksalt-pebbled skin. I wondered how many other establishments there were in this little town barely on the map. I looked around. Of the six other people at tables, two were a pair of young women, interesting but not pretty, engaged in a serious conversation over salads and coffee. One caught my eye, smiled politely, then glanced at me again a few minutes later. When they left, I watched; they walked toward Valentine's Inn.

When the lights of Winnemucca appeared in the late-night dark of the Nevada desert a few hours later, I was ready to stop. Tomorrow's drive would be a couple hundred miles; I'd have time to go up into the mountains and still spend the evening with Shiera and Dan Fussell. I pulled in at the Driftwood Motel. After unloading my suitcase, I lit a cigar and walked down the street. On a side street toward the end of the block I saw what I was looking for: a prim Victorian house sporting a bright red sign like misplaced costume jewelry on a proper lady–Apple Annie's. I strolled over; at the door I thought, "Why not?" and stepped in. I was feeling daring, and a little lonely. Inside, a century fell away.

Driving on to Reno the next morning, it seemed, even after a shower, as if I could smell the intimate odor of the woman's body on me. Her name was Dina, the woman whose time I had purchased. She was a dark-haired, with skin the color of milked coffee and green eyes, small and solidly built, with the subtle lines of a Knidian Venus. In the front room, at once Victorian and western, there had been four candidates available. Dina had not seemed the most curvaceous, certainly not the youngest, and by no objective standard the prettiest. But there had been something, a kind of certainty in her face, that appealled to me. It suggested professionallism, and I had realized, once inside, that I wanted what I was doing to be as purely the experience of the brothel as I could have it be: simple, primitive, unencumbered with emotional connection–as matter-of-fact as purchasing a bouquet of flowers or a well-fitted suit.

"What kind of party are you looking for, honey?" she said when the door to her room was closed. I was standing just inside, looking around the room. The room was furnished with a dresser, a bed, and a recliner. A floor lamp stood next to the recliner.

"Nothing complicated," I said rather hesitantly. I wasn't sure what to say, exactly. "I would like to see you naked," I added. There were two other doors–a closet and a bathroom I correctly assumed. The single window was fully opaqued by drapes.

"My pleasure, darling, once we take care of the menu and so on."

"I guess I can't just pay you for an hour and wing it?"

"Honey, you can have anything you want. For the right price, of course."

"OK. What price is right?"

She proposed a fee that astonished me. My expression must have given me away, because she said, "If you don't specify, I have to charge you for the most expensive stuff." She took a moment to evaluate the situation and then added, "Look, honey, you just want to fuck me, or maybe a blowjob, just say so. It's easier for both of us." Then her tone changed to something a little more seductive. "That's what I want, honey; and if that's all you want, and an hour to do it, it's only seventy-five bucks."

"That's what I want."

She smiled and took a lacquered box from her dresser, removed the lid and offered the box. The inside was carmine; it was empty. I put the money in the box: three twenties, a ten, and a five. She put the box back on the dresser and turned to face me.

"Fast or slow?" she said, fingering the lapels of her robe.

"Just take everything off," I said.

There wasn't much. A red damask robe that highlighted her skin nicely, and under it a black negligee, knee-length and wonderfully sheer. As the layers fell away, the subtlety of her curves became easier to appreciate. She was one of those women that clothes hide; she looked better naked. Her body was firm-looking but not hard, sleek as a seal's. A fold of muscle defined her waist, and her breasts curved roundly off the swelling curves of her pectorals. She twirled slowly as she stepped out of the dropped negligee, and I watched the play of muscle in her legs, the dimpling clutch of buttock as she turned away. The cleavage of her backside was as round and inviting as the contours of her chest.

"Walk to the door and back," I said. She did, and I watched the shadows move on her naked back as she departed, then the clench and release rippling across her abdomen, half hidden by a light sheath of fat, as she returned. Her pubic triangle was plump and fleshy and lightly haired. Wet, it would look as if someone had painted hair on her with a fine oil brush.

"You like it?" she said. She put a hand under one breast, cupping the half-globe and hefting it a little without hiding the aureole. Her breast moved like a balloon filled with some thick liquid–warm honey. Her nipple was small and soft; she slid a finger over it, irritating the nub until the circumference shrank and softness gave way to goosebumps.

"Let's get you undressed," she said.

I took my clothes off and gave them to her; she folded my things and lay them carefully on the dresser. When I was naked, she took me to her bathroom and washed me and then herself carefully. "We don't want to be worrying, darling," she said. She took a condom from the cabinet and knelt to roll it onto me. Then she stood and offered me mouthwash. We rinsed out our mouths standing naked together in her bathroom. The lavatory cabinet was open; I could not see us in the mirror. It occurred to me later that this was deliberate, so that I wouldn't see this mundane domestic scene. The mouthwash was strong and minty. When I bent over the sink to spit it out, she descended as I did, almost like a dance move, and passed a glancing brush of suction along the shaft of my penis, then supported herself on her knees and straightened up sufficiently to take the glands like a plum in her mouth, bending me forward and lingering on the tip, then sliding slowly along pale pastel of the latex. I could feel her tongue working on me, not so much urgently or roughly as purposefully.

She sucked my cock for a minute, moving her head with the insistent firmness of a hand polishing leather or wood. I felt strangely disconnected from the experience. It was partially the intervention of the condom, I think; but it was more than that. I had wanted to know what sex felt like devoid of emotional content, and this, I thought as I watched my penis disappear into her mouth and then emerge slick and gleaming in its artificial sheath, was as close as I could hope to get. Even the least pleasurable encounters with a lover, when sex was nothing except the concession of one or the other of us to the need of the other, was tempered with negative emotion. This almost nameless mouth groping for the tactile triggers of sexual release was pure sensation, not closed in on itself like the sad feedback of one's own hand pretending to be someone else but at once open, shared, and isolated. Pure and strangely ineffective. I could feel my cock getting harder, and my hips moved, half-unconsciously, to thrust into her throat. But even aware of the response of my own body, I was an observer. I watched her head move, the play of light on her hair and wet glitter on the pale surface of the condom.

She raised her head to release the downward tension of my cock, and the tip rose a little away from her mouth. She coasted her lips down the shaft, glancing quickly up at me as her face descended sideways. She gathered a testicle in her mouth and nursed it gently, then lay the whole pad of her tongue against my groin and sponged me with her saliva, moving slowly at first and then picking up speed and pressure and moaning with feigned pleasure. The liquid sounds of her movement and suction were more pleasurable for me than the pretense that I was somehow pleasing her.

Her hand came between my legs from behind, sliding up the back of my thigh, cupping a buttock, and then slipping between my legs and coming to rest with her fingertips against my balls, her fingers pressing against the base of flesh from scrotal sac to anus. She turned a knuckle slightly and the pressure focussed on my prostate and suddenly I was infinitely less objective. I put a hand on her head, not guiding, just adding the delicate gauzy texture of her hair to the stew of stimulus. She pushed up and forward with the back of her hand and took my cock into her mouth again, sucking urgently and holding me tight to her mouth with her left hand on my rump. I pumped forward into her, mindlessly focussed on the bolus of orgasm winding up under her knuckle.

A lucid moment reminded me that, no, I did not want to come in her mouth, and I took her wrist in my hand, pulling her away. She released my penis and looked up at me sloe-eyed, murmuring, "Let me taste it, honey. Give it to me."

"I want to fuck you," I said.

"OK," she said, and she stood up, all business again. I laughed out loud. "What's funny?" she said, polite but unsure if she should be offended.

"You are wonderful," I said at once. "That was wonderful. It made me feel great!"

She smiled, mollified. "You ain't seen nothing, kid," she said, and she took my hand and put it against her damp vulva; then she ushered me to the bed.

There was a huge mirror on one wall. I have always thought, admittedly with only myself as living model, that nothing could look much sillier than a naked man with an erection. The condom is no help there. I have read that women, looking at their lovers, see something as beautiful as what a man sees when a nipple inches from his face changes from soft full sac to a flat nubbly surface encircling a hard raspberry of excited gland. I give them the benefit of a doubt. I looked in the mirror; the slack skin of my own breasts, sagging away from flat pectorals, repulsed me. I'm not a bad-looking man. In vainer moments, I think my face has an engaging Robert Mitchum petulance without the menace. My chin could be heavier, given three wishes, my chest and shoulder more a kite and less a shapeless rectangle, my hairline higher and better defined. I stopped and looked in the mirror, at her lovely peasant simplicity and the meaningless angles and shelves of my own body. My face would be best carved with a chainsaw in some soft wood–pine maybe. Or sculpted in that crude clay technique which suggests that every lump of clay has been not quite completely integrated with the rest.

I had said to my mother one day, "I have a nose like a potato." "You have your grandfather's nose," she had said. I'd known that she meant her father; she never referred to my father's family except pejoratively. "Can I give it back?" I had said. I was fourteen and full of myself; she smacked me.

I took Dina's shoulder in one hand, turned her and leaned into her to suck her left nipple, running my fingers down her spine and relishing each lump of vertebra.

"Turn out the light," I said as I stood up. She did.

We made love in the dark. No, that's wrong. There was no love in it, but that wasn't bad. There was in it pleasure, some mutual respect, efficiency without haste. The muscles of her cunt were wonderfully strong–not tight exactly, but strong and flexible; she squeezed my instroke, subtly at first and then hard once I had the rhythm set. She moaned theatrically and pressed up to meet me; she was a better athlete than actress. "Shh. Don't pretend; just move for me," I said. Then for some reason I added, "Take what you want. That's what I want."

She rode onto me like a dancer leading. I put a hand on her spine to enjoy the intricacies of muscle and bone as she twisted and rocked beneath me. I felt again the inevitable building avalanche churning in my own spine, low in my back, moving down with the force of an electric charge, gathering behind my balls and finally, as I pounded urgently into her, bursting from balls to glans–hot, liquid, hard as a pulse, over.

My hour was not up. She must have thought I was crazy; I spent the last ten minutes passing my hands over her clean, inelegant body, relishing the contour, textures, and pliancy of her. I touched, at least glancingly, every square inch of her, mostly with my hands, but with lips here and there. Once, moved by an inexplicable tenderness, I hovered to kiss her mouth and she interposed a finger quickly, shaking her head.

"House rules," she murmured, not ungently.

The next night, in the Fussell's house in Reno, Shiera and I fought about the brothel. I've known her a few years longer than I have Dan. We have always been good friends, since we were undergraduates, but I was caught off guard by her disapproval.

"I can't believe you went into one of those places!"

"Why not?"

"They're so exploitive!"

"So's McDonald's."

"That's beneath you, Thomas. McDonald's doesn't make girls give blow jobs to dirty old men."

"As far as I know, nobody was being held there against their will. I'm serious about McDonald's, by the way. You want it to be a difference of kind because the women in brothels are selling sex rather than hamburgers. I think an "assistant manager" at a fast food chain is getting ripped off as much as a prostitute in a brothel, and she–or he–is getting just as ugly a picture of American values and business practices."

"The whorehouses in Nevada are all Mafia," Dan interjected.

"In Nevada? What isn't? Hell, who funds the U?"

Dan sucked his pipe.

"Shiera, I'm not pretending that brothels are a workers' paradise, for Heaven's sake. Sure they're exploitive, and they sell hypocrisy. But it's degree, not kind–the difference from a dozen other businesses. How many businesses require their employees to smile and talk nice to every asshole and jerk who steps through the door, to try to sell him the most expensive thing he can afford, and get him out as quickly as possible? Restaurants? Stereo shops? Jewelry stores and fur salons? All whores."

"What about diseases?"

"I thought about that," I said defensively. "They take precautions."

"Oh, so you worried that your dick might fall off?" she sneered.

"Shiera," Dan murmured. I wasn't sure if he was taking exception to her tone or the word.

"Not much," I answered. "Maybe this place is more fastidious than most, but they required condoms. I suppose you could buy your way around that rule, but maybe not. They don't cater to SM in this place, either. There was a needlepoint sampler on the wall that showed a woman with a black eye and the words, 'Bruises will cost you more than money. Rough trade not welcome.'"

"I didn't mean you, Thomas. What about the girls? Exposed to any filthy disease that comes through the door. What about them?"

"I didn't think of that," I said. "But I–." I hesitated, thought it through. "I still don't think it's that different. Dental hygienists are nearly as intimate with their customers as these girls."

"So what did you do with your little fuck slave?"

I studied Shiera's angry face. Sometimes people surprise me so much that I feel like an alien being. I wasn't prepared for her furious disapproval. I'd expected at most a dismissive joke at my expense if she found the subject distasteful. Dan was carefully smoking his pipe, watching the bowl and avoiding looking at either of us. I contemplated a reply that might end our friendship. I was glad I hadn't taken their offer to stay with them.

"We spent a pleasant hour together that cost me seventy-five dollars and change. Better her than some note-scribbling shrink. She earned her seventy-five dollars."

"More likely ten."

"More likely thirty, to be fair. Not bad for no college education. Anyway, she earned it. I don't know who you're angry at, Shiera–me for going there, the woman for being there, or the power structure that supports the place."

"All of the above."

"Look, I went out of curiosity. OK, and loneliness, I guess. I'm sorry that you find that disgusting. We have all sorts of myths and misconceptions about brothels. You've never been in one, or met a prostitute, right?"

Shiera looked down at her drink. She knew where I was headed, and her "fairmindedness" was fighting with her anger. "No, but I've never been in prison either. Or a slaughterhouse."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

She glared with exasperation. "Just that I don't need to go to a prison to know how awful they are, and I don't need to see a slaughterhouse to know it's disgusting."

"Well, I liked the steak." I watched her grimace. "I've never been to a slaughterhouse, but I taught in the Federal Prison for a semester last year, and I recommend the experience. There is something energizing about an experience that makes an imagined place real."

"That's a really intellectual way to describe buying a piece of ass."

I decided I'd had enough. "You know, Shiera, of the two of us, I'm not the one who is dehumanizing the woman, reducing her to nothing but a receptacle for a male excretion."

"Oh, are you in love?"

"I spent an evening with a pleasant young woman who wanted my company. Not because she loved me, but because she knew she would gain from it. There's a kind of honesty about that which I find refreshing. She was no more–or less–to me than one of my students. After all, that act of sexual intercourse is merely one of the things two people may do together. A woman whose real reason for going out with me is that the restaurant is expensive and I'm paying is no more–or less–a whore."

"You have a shitty-eye-view of the world."

"Why? Because I respect whores? Christ, Shiera, listen to yourself!"

"We don't need to discuss it," she said, standing up. "I have a nine o'clock class." She stood in front of her chair, waiting for me to take the hint. I took it. Dan came to the door to see me off; Shiera didn't.

"Shall I meet you at your office? Nine?" I said. I was supposed to come to his American literature class to discuss my novel.

"Yeah," he said. Then, as he closed the door, he added, "Hope that new asshole isn't going to be a problem."

I didn't get it for a second. Then I grinned. "She missed, Danny." I almost added, "Watch your'n," but thought better of it.

Top Chapter One More...