Annie was alone in the front room when I returned.
"Annie, what would it cost to spend an hour talking with you after you get off work?"
She frowned. "What exactly is it you want to talk about, honey?"
"The business." She waited. "Frankly, I've never thought much about prostitution. It's interesting. I'm curious about the woman's attitude. You gothow should I saypromoted from the back shop, right?" She nodded. "Well, I'd like to talk about your experiences." She cocked an eyebrow with the faintest of smiles, and I realized what she thought I meant. "Not the sex specifically. I'm not interested in sex talk per se. I just want to know what you thought about it. Whether you enjoyed it. How it compares to being married to a man you don't love."
I think it was the last idea that piqued her interest. She stared at my face, considering. After ten or fifteen seconds, she said, "OK. But on two conditions: one, you don't try to hit on me. OK? And two, we have coffee over at the Driftwood."
"Deal. How much will this cost?"
"Well, what's an hour of your time worth, honey?"
I considered, trying to estimate how she would balance the value of conversation against what I had paid for Linda and Dina. "Forty dollars?"
"You work cheap, hon." I winced; no one had called me "hon" for twenty years. Misunderstanding my discomfort, she continued apologetically, "No offense, honey. It's a deal."
"No offense. Midnight?"
"I quit at midnight, but it'll take me, oh, fifteen minutes to get out. Say twelve-thirty?"
"Fine. I'll be there."
She grinned again. "Wear a rose in your nose, so I'n recognize you."
I smiled back. "Right." I had planned to drive on to Elko. Instead I checked in at the Driftwood. I considered walking around town, looking for the other houses, but I elected to watch a western on TV instead. I went down to the coffee shop at midnight. She was there promptly. She wore denims and cowboy boots now, and a ski jacket. She said hello to the waitress, leaning over to tell her something confidentially. The waitress glanced at me. Annie greeted the busboy by name. She slid deftly onto the facing bench, flipped a coffee cup over, and poured from the carafe. Then she reached across and topped off my cup.
"I shouldn't drink this stuff at night," she said.
"It used to bother me sometimes." I almost added, I don't sleep much anymore anyway, but I realized it might come across as a play for sympathy. I didn't want her to get suspicious of my motives. I'm down to about five hours a night, and feeling no pain. The fifty-first sign of middle age.
"It's Tom Phelan, right? I remember. Well, here I am. Interview me." She hiked both eyebrows expectantly. Had she been five years younger, she would have reminded me of an earnest graduate student ready for an oral examination. The most innocent words twist in this context, I thought, like teenagers done up as whores for fun.
I asked a few inconsequential questions: how many hours do the girls work, how long do they stick with the work, typically, what sorts of backgrounds do they come from. As she answered, it seemed that we both knew I wasn't interested in this. In a silence, she said suddenly, "Ready to start?"
"Start what?" I replied, nonplussed.
"It's your nickel, but this is pretty dull stuff. You asked me if I'd rather be a hooker or married to a guy I didn't like. I've been thinking about that one."
"It's a tough call. I guess you're thinking what I'm thinking, that a bad marriage isn't much better than turning tricks for a living."
"I wondered what a woman would think who'd actually been a prostitute. I've heard women say that, but I don't think they knew what they were talking about."
Annie laughed. "Well, I sure know what I'm talking about. I've been on both sides, for sure. I was married to a realexcuse the expressionasshole for a couple of years, where I turned tricks on demand, cleaned house, did dishes, and popped beers for his buddies. I got paid three squares, a roof, and a sliding scale allowance that allowed me some pretty things." She paused. "He was an appliance repairman. Total jerk." She reflected. "On the other hand, turning tricks has its rough spots too. At first you don't know any better, and you either take what you can get or you get a rep as an uppity chick, and you're back to waitressing for three-fifty an hour. Going down on a guy who hasn't bathed in a couple of days isn't a job, it's self-abuse." She glanced at my face. "We make everybody wash. But you don't want to hear about that."
She went on. "Working at a house like this, you get some benefits. Like, the house enforces some rules to maintain the house reputation. I guess it's no worse than being a nurse."
"But it pays better."
She laughed again. "Yeah, right." She looked from one eye to the other, as if deciding whether to share a secret. "Nobody ever got rich turning tricks, Tom."
"Thomas," I corrected.
"Oops," she said. "Some people are really picky about their names, others don't care. Me, I'll answer to anything that isn't insulting."
"My father was Tom; I don't think of it as my name. I went from Tommy to Thomas."
"Well, on the average, a girl makes about a hundred dollars a night. But she rents her 'office' for five bucks an hour, regardless of how many tricks she turns, which encourages them to hustle guys through the mill as quick as they can."
"A hundred dollars? You mean a girl averages less than one guy a night?"
"Oh, that's right; you paid the whole seventy-five both times. Thomas, honey, didn't yo' momma teach you to haggle?" I must have blushed, because she added, "I shouldn't tell you this stuff, but you're a nice guy andwhat the hellI'm off duty."
"I'll know better next time."
"Most guys pay list the first couple times; they don't know better. We don't post prices, of course. Some girls jack things up for high rollers, see what they can get away with. Or they try to sell package dealsan hour in the jacuzzi, another girl and maybe a show, stuff like that. One nightI won't tell you who, but she's real sharpone of the girls got an Iranian up to four hundred dollars for a back door special. But on a slow night, sometimes you can jew a girl down to twenty bucks for a quick blow job."
"My mother used to do that. Use 'jew' as a verb."
"Oh hey, no offense. You're not?"
"No. It's an ugly verb."
"It's funny. You know where I got that? My ex-husband. And he was Jewish."
"My mother's not Jewish. They were on her list. A long one. That's funny: her best friend was, and an absolute cartoon. Great big canteloupe-breasted loudmouth; I think that's why my mother hung out with her. She certainly didn't like her, from the way she talked about her. She ruined Harvey Korman for me. Mrs. what? Feinman."
"Well, I didn't mean anything." She sipped her coffee. "You know the girl doesn't get the whole fee? There are expenses to coverthe house, security, my salary, and so on. It's kind of like a beauty shop; renting a chair? You pay the shop and we pay the girl. If you tip her, she keeps most of thatall of it, if she's dishonest."
"Tip? Do men tip?"
"No. Usually not. They figure they paid up front. Some girls come up with little gimmicks to drop hints, or offer 'extras.' Most guys pay up, take what they want, and split."
I was doing some quick calculations. "So a girl is taking home about sixty dollars per night."
I laughed. "Less withholding. And working six days a week? Seven?"
"That's up to them. We work them for three weeks on, one week off. They pay for the room, whether they use it or not."
"Say six. She makes $360 a week, about $18,000 a year. Not too bad."
"Not that much. But when you consider that most of them didn't finish high school, it's pretty good."
"How do you find them? Advertise?"
"Sure. Help wanted," she added ironically. "Actually, some places do. Mostly you go by word of mouth. A girl comes to me, asks what it pays, gives it a whirl. A lot of them don't like it; they only last a month or two. They think they're going to get rich. If they don't like to screw, it's no life."
"So you think the girls who stay on, do it because they like sex?"
"They don't dislike sex. I mean, it's like saying a nurse stays on because she likes bedpans, isn't it? You may get a sicko who likes to empty bedpans, but most of them just don't mind doing it."
"Comparing screwing to bedpans doesn't suggest a very positive attitude toward sex," I said ruefully.
"It's a job, Thomas. Making love with your honey is not the same as screwing the next john, any more than cooking in a restaurant is the same as a romantic dinner for two."
"Getting back to your question. Being a live-in housekeeper with no underpants isn't my idea of a career opportunity."
"What if the man just wants sex and companionship? Sure, you share the household, but you don't have to do anything you didn't contract to do?"
"You mean, spend eight hours a day in bed and ready?"
"No. That's silly. I mean, a man pays you to live with him and sleep in his bed. The two of you have a detailed contract about your sexual duties, and you have a written agreement that you also socialize together and share household duties like cooking, cleaning, et cetera."
"Share? Come on. I had a boyfriend once who wanted to 'share household duties.' He did the dishes a few times."
"All right. He gets a housekeeper. He puts the housekeeper in the contract, and the woman only does what she wants to do. Maybe she likes to cook. So she cooks. Maybe he does."
She looked speculatively at me across her coffee cup, held in both hands at chin level. "You like to cook, honey?"
"How would you find such a woman?"
She laughed again. She had a good laugh, nothing harsh in it.
"You would be looking for someone twenty-one to twenty-five?"
"I wasn't thinking specifically," I said; too quickly, I realized.
"Oh, you mean, how would you find her, theoretically speaking?" She was smiling still.
I sipped my coffee. It was getting cold; the carafe was nearly empty. I caught the waitress' eye; she brought more. She took my cup away and brought me a new one, filling it from the carafe and offering a top to Annie, who put a hand over her cup. When that business was done with, I realized that Annie had never taken her eyes off my face. Nor the smile off hers.
I laughed nervously. She took a long drink of her coffee. "It's an interesting idea," I said as the waitress returned to the counter.
"It would have more honesty in it than most marriages." She picked up the carafe and poured coffee for herself. "You ever been married?"
"Twice. Ten years the first time."
"Not too shabby. Eddie only lasted four."
"The applicance repairman?"
"Yeah. That was a long time ago. Jeez, it's been twenty years."
"You were divorced twenty years ago?"
She laughed loudly. A trucker nursing coffee behind her, five booths away, watched the back of her head, met my eyes, and tried to stare me down. After a few seconds, I looked back at Annie's face and he, still expressionless, scanned the room as if looking for something more interesting.
"I got married when I was three," she said. Then she added, "How old do you think I am, anyway?"
"Well, my guess is safe, because you'd have been eleven when you got married."
"I did say, 'about twenty years'." She glanced over at the waitress, met her eye and they smiled at each other. "Anyway, thanks; you made my evening."
"Kids? Not mine. I got some nieces," she explained vaguely. She picked up her coffee, looking again at the waitress. "Millie, how's the pie?"
"Good as you deserve," the waitress replied from behind the counter. The trucker looked at Millie, then at Annie. Aside from him, we had the place to ourselves. I glanced at my watch. It was 2 a.m. Annie noticed my look.
"I'm gonna stay and have some pie. You got what you wanted?"
"I enjoyed talking with you. I owe you for an hour and a half; how do you want me to handle that? I could just leave sixty-five on the table, to cover the coffee, and you take care of the tab and keep the rest."
Her smile was friendly rather than businesslike. "It isn't necessary. You pick up the tab, and we're even. I just wanted to make sure you were serious," she explained, "and cover my ass in case talking to you turned out to be a pain, or you tried to pull something."
"OK." I took out a ten. "That'll get your pie, with a wad left for Millie."
"That's nice." I got up. "See ya," she added.
"I'd like that, if we get a chance. This was a real pleasure. I don't suppose you travel much, but if you're ever in Denver..."
"You're in the phone book," she concluded for me.
"Actually, I'm not."
"I don't travel much. Like you said." Her tone was a little wary.
"Well, I know where to find you. And I teach at Red Rocks College."
"Yeah. It's Ellen. My name. Ellen Ardechea. It's Basque. I'm not in the phone book either."
She didn't get up. I said goodbye and left for my room.