Monday, March 16, 2015

A Battered Dove

Lily knelt on the floor, scrubbing muddy tracks from the rough boards with a stiff brush, and counted the different doves who'd shopped during the week. A knock on the window made her drop the brush and fumble in the folds of fabric at her hip. She found the smooth grip of the gun and lifted her gaze.

Jessie’s face peered in the window between cupped hands, looking toward the back of the store.

Lily let out a gust of air and released the small pistol. She pushed herself up, wincing at her  stiff back and aching knees.

She unlocked the door and smiled, but the girl’s face brought a grimace. “Good morning, Jessie.”

The battered dove gave a small smile. “Mornin’, Miss Wright.”

Dark yellows, browns, and a tinge of maroon tainted half of Jessie’s face. The swelling had abated, but puffy skin still distended the left side, and the eyelid sagged without muscle control.

Lily tried not to stare at the drooping eye and opened the door wider. “Come in, come in. I’m glad you came.”

Jessie limped in. Her body bent to one side in a swaying shuffle, like a wilted flower.

“Do you want to come in back and sit? I’ll make some coffee ….”

“No, ma’am. Don’t want to put you out. I just came by to thank you for helpin’ me the other night.”

She waved a hand. “It was nothing. I only put some salve on it. Please, sit down. Really, it’s no bother at all.” She walked toward the back.

Jessie followed after a moment. In the back room, she let out a soft grunt as she eased into the chair at the table.

“How is everything? You look better.” Lily set the kettle on the stove before pulling two tin cups from a shelf over the washbasin. She left them on the table and sat on a second chair she’d found discarded in the alley.

“I’m still kickin’. My side still hurts quite a lot, but I can get around.”

Lily pointed her chin at the place where Jessie held her hand against her ribs. “I expect they may be broken. Did you see a doctor?”

Jessie snorted. “That chiseler stole my stash. I ain’t got no money to pay a doc. Them parlor girls get their doc paid for, but I ain’t no parlor girl.”

“I see. Well, I imagine it will heal too, if you take it easy.”

She shrugged and tucked a strand of drab hair behind her ear. “Ain’t much work layin’ on my back.”

Heat crept into Lily’s cheeks, and she jumped up to check the kettle. “Have you looked around recently? For a parlor, I mean.” She focused on the coffee to hide her discomfort. “They’re opening a new one every other day, it seems. Maybe you could find a spot in one. They’re … safer. From what I hear, at least.”

“They don’t want a beat up girl like me. You think the fellas get it up lookin’ at this?” She swept her hand around her face. “Ain’t had but one job since I got worked over, and he took it from the backside.”

Lily’s eyes flew open, and her hands froze in the middle of pouring the coarse ground beans into the pot. No one had ever spoken of sex so openly or crudely to her. Her mouth worked to form a response, but embarrassment left her speechless. The silence grew heavy as she finished the coffee.

She turned to the table and caught Jessie smoothing a smirk from her face. Lily frowned and lowered her head, annoyed—and a touch hurt. The girl had nerve laughing at her after she’d taken her in and fixed her up, even if it was only a quick bit of salve. Lily poured the coffee and sat, still silent.

Jessie chuckled. “I’m sorry. Just wondered what you’d say. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.” She tilted her head and caught Lily’s eye. “You don’t make much sense, you know. Only ladies I’ve ever heard bein’ nice to us girls for no reason are the nuns down mountain at the charity hospital. You ain’t a nun. So I can’t figure ….” She leaned forward to cradle the warm cup in her hands and watched Lily with a question in her eyes.

Lily chewed her lip, unsure how to respond without giving too much away. “I just don’t see any reason you girls should be treated so poorly. I’ve learned you girls are mostly just doing what you have to do to get along. It’s not my place to judge you or anyone else. I’ve … made my share of mistakes, I suppose. It hurt when I was judged for them.” She met Jessie’s gaze, and let one corner of her mouth pull back with mild amusement. “And honestly, it’s not entirely without reason. There are a lot of you, and I need the business. If I can help a little along the way, even better.”

Jessie lifted a brow. “I guess I could see that.” She took a sip of coffee from the side of her mouth, avoiding the scab on her cut lip. “I’d gamble there’s more to it, but I’ll take that.”

Lily averted her eyes and wiped the table. Was she that transparent? She gave Jessie a strained smile and shrugged. “That’s really all there is. I’m just trying to get the store going.”

An uneasy silence fell between them.

Lily took a drink and studied Jessie over the rim of the cup. She wanted to ask what she wondered about all of the doves. “What are your plans? For the future? What do you really want?”

Jessie licked the cracked skin of her lip and gazed at the floor. Her face held no spark of hope or joy. Her voice went flat. “Used to think I could find a fella and have a farm, a family, a place of our own. Don’t guess that’ll happen now. I guess I ain’t got no plan. I expect I’ll just keep on.”

Lily thought she knew what Jessie left unspoken; she didn’t expect to live long enough to need plans.

“Maybe that will still happen,” Lily said, giving Jessie’s hand a tentative squeeze.

Jessie offered a weary smile, but it seemed an automatic response, like a puppeteer pulling on strings. “I better get goin’. Thanks for the coffee.”

-- Excerpt from my manuscript, When Doves Fly.

*Dove, short for soiled dove, was a euphemism for prostitute.