'Cribdeath: Bellocq's Girl'

Second-place winner

"'cribs' – single rooms, with private entrance onto the street, just wide and deep enough to accommodate a bed and a washstand – perhaps a chair ... crib girls could command as much as a dollar a 'trick.' In less desirable locations, further down Iberville, for example, the prices could drop to a dime." – Rose's Storyville, New Orleans

Is that all you want?

Price is the same. No matter what, take up my time. Ya gotta pay.

You sure that's all you want? Sure 'bout that?

Well, ok. Alright. C'mon in, then.

Time's money. I need it up front. Mornings are kinda slow, so, let's say a dollar for a half hour. Fair enough? Just set it on the table, next to the basin. That's what the bowl's for. Sorry there's no chair, never needed one before. Nobody's wanted to just sit. We'll have to be on the bed, but sitting up. Now, that's a change.

Just talk? You sure? Nothing else?

Sorry the bed's not made up. I don't think it ever came with a bedspread or comforter, leastways I never saw one. Never a comforter since I've been here, I can tell you that. Landlord was supposed to change the sheets last week. But hasn't changed 'em this month. Sorry, again.

If ya don't mind, do your talking sorta on the soft side. I just now got the baby over there asleep. Naw, we don't gotta whisper or nothing like that, he's learned to sleep through almost anything. Yeah, a good little kid. But getting too big for that crib. Let's see, eighteen-months-old, day after tomorrow.

Not as a rule, but the landlord lets me sleep here, too. Live right here with the baby. I don't know why he lets me. He's usually a mean son-of-a-bitch. Wants the week's rent in advance, always complaining that he's losing money on this crib, saying if this room opened onto the street (more easy bucks) he'd have thrown me out a long time ago. Out, baby or not. But letting me stay here shows maybe he's getting soft in his old age. Maybe I'm the daughter he never had. Maybe he thinks the kid's his. I don't know.

No. It ain't his.

But it doesn't open out onto Marias. Opens 'bout into nowhere. These quarters are part of that house across the way, across the courtyard. The landlord split it into these eight cribs when Anderson County first came into being. These same quarters – used to be slave quarters. Nothing ever changes. Not even in a whole hundred years.

My home sweet crib ... nothing but the finest.

The lady in the crib next door watches the baby for me when I have to get out on the street to advertise. Draw the johns back to this hideaway crib. Sometimes I hand out cards, you know, business-type cards to let them know where I am, all the way back here. Or sometimes sneak in a café without money to buy a drink, blend in with the other barflies and hope they don't see me hustling their scores. Those I do manage to hoodwink and drag to this bed are usually skunk-drunk or can't afford nobody else or it's them young boys pretending they're old enough to act like fathers. Once in a while – a boozy teenager with only fifty cents left of his allowance.

I'm not proud of what I do. On the other hand, I ain't ashamed neither.

Life is simple, in that way, 'round here.

Yeah, the other six women in this old slavehouse are in the same way. Nobody to take care of them. Some near starving. Lots of loving, but nobody that cares. Mostly staying in these little rooms, sleeping as much as it's possible to sleep, then sitting up in bed and dreaming still, dark in the daytime with the jalousie shut, dreaming of better times in the past or times that never ever happened or dreams that slipped between their fingers, time and time again. For them, the wages of sin ain't death – it's staying alive.

No, I don't exactly fit in with them. Or belong here. Here before my time.

Well, one reason is the baby. Easier to tend to back here with no quotas. That's one reason I'm whoring in this rundown crib full of rundown whores. One reason.

How old do you think I am? Go ahead. Guess. C'mon, try to guess.

–damn. Damn! That old? Do I really look that old? really? already?

My age gets kinda confusing, but try to follow:

I remember the day I first used make-up. Some lipstick. Some rouge. At sixteen, trying to look older. Lying about my age to get into places. Drinking and smoking cigarettes and feeling excited when a man saw me as a woman, not as a childish girl. Then, just four years later, I started trying to dress like a little girl – 'cause I heard they like that – my auburn hair in pigtails. Giggling at their sex jokes and acting shylike. Exchanging my Gibson outfits for skimpy pinafores. And now, now four years after that, you say I look ten years older than I really am. And nothing left to make me look younger.

Damn, never thought I'd ever settle for my real age!

You're, say, twenty-five or so. Right? Right on the nose. Well, I won't be that for a couple more months. Yet, I guess, I do seem like an old lady. And you – why – you're just a kid.

I'm sorry. I didn't mean that the way it sounded. Sorry about that. It's just, you're where you should be. And I ... I just don't know anymore.

Besides Fast Back Fanny next door, there's Ruby Raw Lips next to her. Rosie Knockers and Sweet Cheeks Susie both keep shop upstairs. I don't know the other three, they come and go, move on or die off. You say those are funny names? Are they? The menfolk seem attracted to them. Suppose I've heard so many names for so long that I don't catch the humor in 'em anymore.

Mind if I smoke? I gotta smoke. No, I better not. Trying to quit. That's why I bite my fingernails.

Adele. I go by the name of Adele. Adele, this week.

Now, I've gone and done it. Serves me right. Woke up the baby and he's already been fed and bathed and diapered. He'll be up for hours now. Wanting to play. Hand him to me, will ya? He can get around real good by crawling and pulls himself up to take some steps before always falling down and has bruises from head to toe from banging into things but keeps on going – yet, still hasn't figured how to get outta that crib. Just like his momma.

Just haul him up. He won't bite, it's the other end ya gotta worry about!

You ain't been around kids much, have ya. Well, no need to handle them so gingerly. They won't break. Kids, even young ones, are tough. In fact, I think it's the other way around – it's as we turn older – the more fragile we get in other people's arms. But Jude is one hearty little tyke! And strong. Always smiling and cooing and babbling. Smart for his age, real smart, mothers can tell that, I can anyway. He'll make it. By God, I'll see to that. He will make it.

Yeah, named him Jude. Probably one of the few honest, true names hereabouts. I named him – after his father.

No, I've never been married. Thought I'd save you the trouble of asking since you're crammed so full of questions. No tying the knot for me, had enough problems in my life without that one.

But, my Jude's gonna make it. 'Cause I'm a damn damn good mother. If nothing else, if I fail at everything else I ever try (and I mostly have), I'm gonna be a good mother! When I first found out I was pregnant – why the hell do folks gotta call it getting in "trouble"? – I started taking better care of myself. Funny how that is. So I quit working 'cause it can get kinda rough. Quit working the streets when my bloody show stopped and I started showing.

I got lucky. Damn damn lucky for the first or maybe second time in my life. You see, someone took me in. Let me do a bit of light housekeeping to pay my way. And, watched after me, then, helped out when my time came.

Josie Arlington. Yes, it was Josie acting like an angel.

To some, Josie pretends to be hard on the outside. To others, she puts on a fake front of culture and gentry. But to me, she put on all heart. And, believe me, that's something that stands out as peculiar in Anderson County. Heart. She took me in at The Arlington, let me clean the rooms and parlors to earn my keep. (Rooms I'd usually seen from a different point of view, if ya know what I mean.) Josie made sure I ate proper. Took latenight walks with me so my legs wouldn't swell. Watched that I didn't get fat from more than the baby fat. Gave me back rubs right in the small of my back where it hurts so bad when you're carrying someone else around. And, she warned me I'd better be "clean." 'Cause, in the District, some babies come out with whatever sex sickness the mom had. Imagine being welcomed into this world with a disease caught while causing you into being, infected with the worst of life before you've taken a single breath outside, before finally crying the first of so many cries.

Josie, who herself had a damn damn hard walk in this life and seen me follow in some of her footsteps, helped to see that my baby had an even chance. An even chance. A dead even chance. That's all anybody can ask.

When the pains starting coming, those that get worse when ya try to walk them off, Josie sent word to Dago Annie. Every sporting girl who's with child and wants it delivered ('stead of getting rid of it) takes a waddling stroll to the attic of Gertrude Dix's mansion. 'Cause that's where the midwife Dago Annie practices, catching all the District's babies. Swishing out and catching – if all goes right. Now, even though Gertude Dix and Josie have never seen eye to eye, factually hadn't been talking to each other in quite a while, Josie herself took me the four doors down Basin Street and up the long stairs to the upper room that smelled the blood of life. And blood of death.

But, nothing went as planned. Does it ever?

After a whole hour in the attic, with things getting thin down there and Josie rubbing olive oil on me so I wouldn't tear, Dago Annie still hadn't shown up. She lived not far off on St. Ann and Rampart, right next to the torn down and spooky Laveau house, so it should've only taken her a few minutes to get herself to Gertrude's Place and her birthing business. After two more hours, with pains getting closer and stronger and closer, I knew it was acoming between my legs, Dago Annie or not. Josie knew it was up to her. She called out to Gertrude for towels and water and scissors and twine. All the while Josie kept making fun of ordering Gertrude around for a change, to keep things from getting too serious when it looked like pretty serious stuff. Not letting on how pale I looked or how much blood I'd lost. How my pulse kept fading. How the baby seemed to be stuck. How with all that pushing work nothing was happening.

Then, something did happen.

Without warning, there up in the attic, was Beulah Ripley the Voodoo Queen. Almost floating right next to me beside the mattress on the floor! Everyone in Anderson County, me included, knew of the horrible feud between Beulah's ripped-up face and Josie's pulled-out hair. But they just glanced at one another, then back at what was between my legs, not saying a word and went about their separate business. It mighta been the first time they'd seen each other since that brawl so many years ago that scarred them each in such different ways.

Queen Beulah knelt next to the pillow under my head and chanting some mumbo-jumbo about her mother helping this mother, and making me sip some herb tea she'd brought with her. Me screaming and bearing down and screaming. Madam Josie knelt next to the pillows under my knees and using a crochet needle to break my water to speed things up even more. Miss Gertrude knelt to hold one of my knucklewhite hands and whispered to Beulah that the baby's head was too big, but not so loud for me to hear but I heard anyway.

Strange.

Queen Beulah who hated Josie Arlington who hated Gertrude Dix were all there with me in the middle. All that woman-hatred left outside the attic in order to do womanly things. Instead of hate, it's the most love I ever felt in the District called Anderson County – and, that's including love by men.

Strange, though.

Screaming what I thought were just screams became two names echoing in the birthing attic. My father: who didn't know I was even pregnant. And Jude's father: who didn't even know he was a father. Neither ever knew. Neither know to this very day.

Being saved by women, but yelling about men. Life doesn't make sense. Or, maybe it does.

Josie, this time, kept saying something about the head, too. And Beulah's chants and secret prayers sounded louder in my ears, forehead to forehead. Now Gertrude held both my hands to help me push, me almost breaking her fingers. Just when I felt like a human wishbone (with no winner), a hot swish of liquid streamed outta my insides. And with that swish came a baby.

Simple as that.

Jude.

The only all-good thing I ever got from the District.

That's been almost a year and a half ago. Since then, I haven't seen Madam Gertrude again at all. Even though only blocks away. Matter of fact, I've been avoiding that flashy Basin Street Line altogether.

I do, however, still visit Josie quite often. Though not at The Arlington. We sit together on the gallery swing at her house on Esplanade. Her sipping that White Seal champagne. Me nibbling on prawlines. Through the years, seems I've been nothing but trouble to that woman. Why, I'm surprised she even talks to me at all. But her hard times were so much like my hard times that we're like sisters, though she's old enough to be my mother.

Other people call it Storyville.

But, we are all sisters of Anderson County.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest, 'Cribdeath: Bellocq's Girl', F.J. Schaack

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