By Daché Rogers
Image: Lyra Walsh Fuchs ’19
Josie trilled as she walked down Iberville Street, switching her hips and switching her voice from head to chest, head to chest until she felt almost dizzy. She practiced her scales after she caught her breath again, making her way past Marais Street and towards North Liberty. It was hot, hot enough for her to walk quicker so she would get back to the House and out of the midsummer New Orleans sun. The pavements she walked smelled of something sour and were littered with garbage, and the heat only made the sights and smells worse.
Sometime in the couple of years she’d been living in Storyville, Josie had become acquainted with the streets and places of the small district. Iberville Street itself, where cars clanked by and people strolled in silence, marked the boundary between Storyville and the rest of the city. The street she walked drew a line between who she now was and the type of person she used to be, but she walked it as if the city was all the same—except it wasn’t. The New Orleans she’d grown up in was something much less interesting, much more dignified, somehow more confined, than the mere sixteen blocks that made up the place she now called home.
Storyville held a sense of magic to her. Especially because in just another night, she would be in front of a crowd again. That was what she’d left home for in the first place, what the district represented to her. She imagined the eyes of the people in the saloon looking at her, and her stomach was pricked with a wave of hot nerves and excitement. The circumstances of her performance weren’t ones that she would have chosen two years prior, but a stage was a stage, and the stage was what she really wanted.
Iberville was lined with cribs, miniscule compared to the House, some with boarded up doors and windows after a series of raids the week before. Still, women stood in front of the buildings, talking in crowds of three or four, with lipsticked mouths and pinned hair. They cursed and laughed at each other, throwing playful hands and sucking on cigarettes. Once the police showed up—which they always did when a group of black prostitutes were on the street—there would be no evidence that any of these women knew the others. They would disappear, probably between a couple of the closed brothels or through a panel house’s sliding door. Once the streets were clear of the law, the women would return and look for men to take to bed. They knew how to be always accessible and always invisible.
Josie was still practicing her song when she finally reached Basin Street. She turned the corner and saw Loretta talking to Harrison, a cigarette in her hand like all the other working women, other hand on her hip.
“Come back when you have more money,” she was telling him, puffing gray smoke in his direction. “You don’t get to fuck and fuck me without paying extra. If we’re gonna risk our business selling to you then you gotta pay what you owe.”
Josie passed them, giving Loretta a polite smile, which the woman answered with a slight nod of the head. Josie got to the door of the House, and as she closed the door behind her, she could hear the distant sound of a train.
Madam Alice’s House of Pleasures was one of many brothels in Storyville, but it was fancier than most. Standing two stories tall with brightly painted siding, the place was not to be ignored by anyone walking down Basin Street. Madam Alice, the owner and proprietor of the place, had been running it for three years. Next door was a saloon that she owned as well, a squat building where she hosted parties on the weekends and sold liquor through every other day. She wasn’t making a fortune, but she did well for herself, better than she had done before. And she wouldn’t mind making more. With the opening of the new railroad station and the word of mouth of satisfied customers, business was good.
Alice was a large woman in size and ambition. She had a large bosom and a thick pair of hips, a full pink mouth, and a head of big dark curls. She stood no higher than five feet tall, but, with her booming voice, extravagant dresses, and hats with towering feathers, she commanded attention. According to the 1908 census, she was ‘Alice White, 38 years old, coloured,’ but, in reality, she’d changed her name and age more than four times in her forty-six years. She’d done it because she could, because she knew how to both demand and divert attention. And all the attention she got, she turned it on the House. She designed her business, herself, and the women that she sold, to capture the gaze. Her girls, the soft-skinned, high-class, beautiful, wildly vile, lush, vulgar, sensual, pretty-almost-white-but-black girls were mirrors of herself. They were exactly what any man needed, and would become whatever any man wanted for a price. Men that could pay paid for a dream.
Alice stood in the front hall when Josie walked in, absently primping herself and running numbers in her head. People needed to be paid, relationships needed to be continued, there was much to do to keep the House running. The police raids from the week before hadn’t been surprising, but they had made Alice more vigilant. She wondered why the city had gone through all the trouble of pushing all the whores into one area if they would keep arresting them. So much time, so much money spent on establishing Storyville, and now that the place worked, it was being suppressed. It was as if they had sectioned them all off to make getting rid of them easier, like they were roaches or something. Well it wouldn’t be so easy to get rid of her House.
Upon seeing Madam Alice in the front hall, Josie quickly walked towards the staircase leading to the second floor. She gave the older woman a nod and as genuine a smile as she could muster.
“Madam Alice,” she said quietly, the warmest greeting she was capable of.
With those words, Alice exited her thoughts. Through the mirror she could see Josie and how obviously eager she was to get away from her. Alice turned slightly with narrowed eyes.
“Josie,” she said, and the girl paused on the second step. Alice almost smiled. She liked how skittish she was around her.
Josie drew in a breath before turning and answering. “Yes, ma’am?”
“You been practicing for tomorrow night?”
She had been. Every night in front of her full-length mirror, in her nightgown, Josie sang until her voice was hoarse. Recently she’d been feeling nauseous as she practiced, and if she tried dancing for too long, she would feel so tired she thought she might collapse.
“Yes ma’am,” she answered. “Every day. More than once a day. I’m ready.”
Alice nodded. “Good. You’d better do well tomorrow; I wouldn’t want to regret letting you in here.” This she said while looking at herself in the mirror, smoothing the edges of her hair with the tips of her fingers.
“Certainly, ma’am,” Josie choked. “I’ll not disappoint you.” When the Madam gave no reply, Josie exhaled and started up the stairs again, slightly slower this time. But before she could reach the second floor landing, Alice started whistling. It was the tune of Josie’s song. She didn’t want to turn and look; she could hear the laugh coming from between the woman’s pinched lips. Indignation and humiliation rising in her throat, Josie quickly walked the rest of the way to her bedroom, let herself in, and closed the door.
Later, before the night had truly begun, Josie and Loretta were in the kitchen making dinner. Josie peeled potatoes with a knife, listening to Loretta talk, though she was slightly distracted by thoughts of Madam Alice. Loretta didn’t notice, just shelled peas and told stories, pausing every few moments to take a drag of her cigarette.
“If you hadn’t showed up this morning, I just might have sliced Harrison’s face with the knife I keep in my dress,” she said with a chuckle.
That piqued Josie’s interest. “What he done?”
“He just don’t know when to quit. He ain’t rich, but he wants to roll over and under me all damn day and night like he got the money to pay for it.” She shook her head. “These men will take everything you got and give you nothing. You remember that, Girl. Remember that.”
In the short time that she’d known her, Josie had gotten acquainted with Loretta’s stories, and her mistakes. Loretta was born to a light skinned black mother and a light skinned black father. She and her older brother Joe were raised on a farm in Alabama, where their parents lived, and died, working for white folks and giving them all they had. All she knew was poverty, racism, and farm life. Eventually she’d left, wanting no part of the land her parents had given her, though it was all they had. “I ran away,” she’d explained. “Left my brother without a word. I’ll never forgive myself for it. Too ashamed to write to him now. Too much of a coward.” When she made it to New Orleans, she started working as a domestic for a white family. Before long, however, she quit to become a hooker. “The man I worked for paid me nothing and forced me often. I figured I knew how much my body’s worth.”
Silence settled between the two women as they sat in the kitchen, and Josie stared at the unpeeled potato in her hand. She felt slightly nauseous looking at it. Loretta finally noticed the girl’s quietness.
“What is it?” she asked, getting up to put the peas on the stove.
Josie looked up, suddenly tired, and put her knife down on the table. Slowly she placed the potato next to the knife. “Ain’t nothing.”
Loretta chuckled before sitting back down across from the girl and picking up both the discarded potato and knife. She started peeling with swift movements. With all of her openness, sometimes she was amazed at how resistant to sharing Josie often was. But she could understand. “Girl, you was looking at that potato like you wanted to ask it a question. What is it?”
Josie snickered, and suddenly remembered the anger she’d allowed to fade. “Madam Alice hates me and I hate her ass right back.”
With wide eyes, Loretta laughed. “Damn. What gave you the idea she hated you?”
“I can tell, Loretta,” Josie said. “And she makes it damn obvious. She been hounding me about this performance for days, asking me all sorts of questions, making sure I’ve been practicing, as if me getting up on that stage tomorrow and forgetting all the lyrics would mean the end of everything. It’s like if I get up there and fail, she’ll put me out on the street. All the eyes in the world could be in that audience, and none would be as damn scary as hers watching me.”
Loretta made a gruff sound. “Alice ain’t a person to cower in front of, believe me.”
It had been Loretta’s word that convinced Madam Alice to let Josie into the House. One night she went out and saw the girl singing at a vaudeville show. She was a hit. And then the group disbanded, the shows ended, and Josie didn’t have a place to go. Loretta saw her again later, working in a crib, some one room shack on Villere Street and offered to help get her a job somewhere better. Josie reminded Loretta of herself when she’d first started turning tricks, soon after she ran away from home. She liked the girl, and so tried to help her by looking after her and teaching her things she’d been forced to learn on her own. She didn’t always like to hear her advice, though.
“I just don’t like being made to feel like I owe her something,” Josie replied. “I ain’t never disobeyed her, never refused a thing she told me to do or a man she sent to me. I’ve been here for long enough. I’ve earned my keep. She’ll be making even more money off me now.”
Loretta finished off her cigarette, taking a final drag before stubbing it on the table. She blew smoke to the side before replying. “You’re right. And she knows it. She should be thanking you, but she won’t because then you won’t respect her. You’ll start complaining, bitching about what she tells you to do and who she tells you to do and how much she pays you to do it. She’d rather have you afraid of her. A little hate doesn’t hurt either.”
In Loretta’s mind, Alice wasn’t too different from the johns. She could detect someone’s worth just by looking at them. All she saw, all she thought about, all she cared about was money. When she saw someone she could profit off of, she would convince them that they needed her, that they should be on her side, and then she would use them until they had nothing left. She didn’t like the woman much, but she had to respect her. She was a clever old bitch.
“What a bitch,” Josie hissed.
Loretta smirked. “Call her that to her face and maybe she’ll let you alone.”
“Next time I see her, I will.”
Just then, Madam Alice walked into the room with her hands on her hips. “You two doing a lot more talking than cooking. Where’s dinner?”
An embarrassed blush crept up Josie’s cheeks, and she looked away in embarrassment. Noticing, Loretta stood up and turned to Alice.
“Peas are on. We’re finishing the potatoes now. It’ll be done soon.”
Alice looked over at Josie, who still wouldn’t meet her eyes, before nodding at Loretta and leaving the room. When she was gone, Josie audibly exhaled. Loretta turned and looked at her with one lifted brow.
They stared at each other in silence for a moment before lapsing into laughter.
The night had really begun when Madam Alice opened the door of the House to five white men. Outside the House, the streets of Storyville were filled with people looking for good music, good drinks, and good sex. The five men in the front hall staggered in, tipsy, laughing, and loud. As they watched, Josie and the other women emerged from their rooms and stood in a line up the stairs. Josie was first, and Loretta last, with Mollie, Belle, and Jenny between them. They all wore bright dresses in assorted colors and flat lines for mouths.
Madam Alice stood near the men with a bright smile. “Well gentlemen,” she said, and waved her arm towards the staircase. “Take your pick.”
The first to speak was a usual customer. “Loretta,” he said. He had been looking up at his choice whore since he walked in with glossy eyes and wet lips. From what Loretta said, fucking him was like going to the toilet or watching paint dry. He walked over to Alice and paid though, so Loretta stepped out of place on the staircase, walked down, took his hand and led him upstairs to her room. As she passed Josie, she rolled her eyes. The girl smiled.
The next selection came from another usual customer, a police officer. In order to keep the House away from punishment from the law, Madam Alice cultivated relationships with the police force. He was in no danger of losing his job if his superiors found out that he visited black women for sex; the consequences would fall only on Madam Alice and the House. Still, Alice needed him.
Tonight, he wanted Jenny. He placed a wad of bills in Alice’s hand, and she nodded up at Jenny. But before she could get down to him, he ducked his head to Alice’s ear.
“Your luck with the police is running out, Alice.”
Her eyes steeled. “What more do you want?”
The officer’s face did not change. “We know you’ve been selling to a nigger.” A ghost of surprise passed over Alice’s face, and he continued. “I can protect your place, but not when you’ve been lying to me. There’s nothing I can do for you anymore.”
He let Jenny lead him up the stairs, and Alice watched, silently hurling curses at his back. And then he was gone. She had to think, had to figure something out, but not now. She had customers.
“Is that one new?” another man asked, pointing at Josie.
“Yes,” Alice answered. “Octoroon. Beautiful, no? Almost as light as you.”
“She’s skinny as hell.”
He considered that for a moment but wasn’t convinced. “The one at the top. How much?”
After getting Alice’s signal, Belle stepped out of line and took the man upstairs. The last two men whispered amongst themselves, and then one, the youngest of the group, paid for Josie. The other paid for Mollie and gave Alice a few extra bills to see Loretta after she was done with her first john. The girls went down the stairs, took the men’s hands and led them upstairs, Josie first and Mollie following behind.
After closing the bedroom door, Josie began unbuttoning her dress. The man watched her with a neutral expression. He reacted once, breathing deeply as she slid the fabric off her body and put her dress over the chair by her bed. Then she was laying down, legs spread, looking at him over her stomach and small breasts. Only then did he start taking off his pants.
And then she was being fucked. Josie stared up at the ceiling and listened to the steady, rhythmic creaking of the bed. In her inactivity, she thought about what it had been like to be a good Christian girl years prior, to know nothing about sex, to think it was something that was sacred and confined to marriage and only for making babies. Sometimes she was amazed to notice that she could barely recall those days. It had been easier than she thought it would be—too easy—to start turning tricks. She wasn’t sure what that meant, if her days singing in her church’s choir and praying in the pews had meant nothing to her. She liked to think that she’d just adapted well to her new situation. But a part of her wasn’t quite convinced.
Josie had been born and raised in New Orleans by two God-fearing parents. She was taught to be respectful to adults, mind her manners, and never speak without having been spoken to. Her parents did everything in their power to keep their only child away from sin and vice, but New Orleans was full of it. What eventually drew Josie away from their teaching was jazz.
She was nine when Storyville was established. By the time she was sixteen, Josie loved jazz so much that she wanted to move. She wanted to sing, not the hymns she knew, but the new genre that was growing out of the small area of New Orleans’s vice district. At eighteen, she ran away from home and joined a vaudeville troupe doing shows in Storyville. She knew no one, but she was in no danger of being found; her parents would never step foot near a place so blatantly immoral. Nothing could make Josie go back, even after she was broke and without a place to stay. She’d rather turn tricks than live in silence. Her mother and father would never know that their daughter had become one of the same whores they scorned.
Josie wondered for a moment if while she’d easily convinced herself that turning tricks was necessary, her body disagreed. And then another thought gave way as she continued to be rummaged inside of: if her pussy felt that she had betrayed it. The truth was—and this she had learned early—that it all came back to the pussy. For years it had been locked to her, a dormant section of her budding body. And then it started to leak, then bleed, and it had to be well-kept and protected. And now, at Josie’s command, it had to be of better use, expanding to hold the egos and things of man after man. It provided pleasure, was prodded and thrust into without care, and simply cleaned itself out afterwards and did the same thing the next night. Josie wondered if the flaps of skin and muscles of her pussy hated her for what she’d done to them.
Her musings were interrupted by the sounds the man inside her was making. He was moaning loudly, lips slightly parted and eyes closed. His movements were slower now; he was almost shaking as he slid out of her and back in again. Without expecting it, Josie felt pleasure starting between her legs. She inhaled sharply, grabbing at the edges of her mattress and biting down on the sounds that were bubbling on her tongue. But before she could feel anything more, he exited her and finished, groaning low in his throat. He collapsed beside her, and for a moment they lay together, john and whore, one coming down from pleasure in a steady descent, the other’s enjoyment so small and temporary it was to be forgotten. Josie sighed in silence as she got up to clean his semen off her legs. He watched her for a moment and then got up to collect his clothes. She was relieved when she closed her bedroom door behind him. The moment was over, and she had lost her train of thought.
After the house was emptied of men and had gone quiet, Madam Alice counted the money from the night in her room. She wet the tip of her thumb with her tongue before placing bill after bill down on her bed. It was her third count; nothing was missing. When she had finished, she paused. She couldn’t stop thinking about what the police officer had said. How had they found out? Damn that Harrison. It had been a mistake for her to let him start fucking Loretta. He’d seen her before, in the district, but he knew a woman like her would never sleep with him unless he paid for it. And so he did, with Alice’s permission, as long as he promised to keep his mouth shut. Now he was attached to the whore and he had probably let himself get seen entering or leaving the House.
Alice cursed under her breath. What could she do? She wouldn’t let her House go under. She’d built it herself, after years in dirty pictures and then in the highest-class bordellos in New Orleans. She’d earned the place, and she’d been running it for three hard years. Whatever needed to be done to save it, she would do.
She had decided. Harrison had to go. But as she put her money away and settled down to sleep, a part of her wondered if the damage had already been done.
The next afternoon, as Josie stood in front of the front hall mirror wiping her vomit-smelling mouth and practicing her song for that night, Harrison burst through the House door. As Josie turned in surprise, he closed his hands around her shoulders. Her eyes widened in cold fear.
“Where is Loretta?” he yelled in her face, eyes ablaze. Spittle flew from his lip onto her cheek.
Josie shrunk in his gaze and in his squeezing hands. She opened her mouth to speak but could find no words.
“Answer me, girl!” Harrison said. He shook her. “Where is that bitch Loretta?”
Josie found her voice. “She’s upstairs!”
Harrison threw her backwards, towards the staircase. “Well go get her then!” Josie stumbled and fell back against the banister. She held onto it, trembling in fear.
“Does Madam Alice know you’re back so soon—”
“I ain’t here for a screw!” he yelled, taking a step closer to her. Josie flinched, her ankles pressing against the first step. “Loretta owes me what’s mine and I ain’t leaving until I get it!”
Just then, Madam Alice entered the room, hands on her hips, dress sliding against the floorboards. Josie looked to her in relief. Bitch or not, Josie knew that she could depend on Madam Alice to handle Harrison. She handled everything.
“Harrison,” Alice said sweetly, calmly. “What is the matter?”
He turned to her, face still twisted in rage. “That bitch Loretta stole from me. I paid what she was due earlier, screwed her and when I gone home I ain’t have a cent left. And I tell you, woman, I ain’t leaving until I get it all back.”
“I haven’t stolen anything.”
Madam Alice and Josie turned to see Loretta standing at the top of the stairs, hands firmly on the banister. She stared at Harrison, eyes narrow.
“You lying bitch,” Harrison said, pointing a finger at her. “I know you took all I had out my pants pocket while I was sleeping. Don’t you tell me I’m a liar. I want my money!”
“You drunk nigger,” she hissed before turning to Alice. “I didn’t steal from him!”
“If you don’t give me back my money,” Harrison said, “I’m going straight to the police.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Alice said, sweet voice gone cold. She waited until Harrison pulled his venomous eyes from Loretta towards her before continuing. “You go to the police about this and you’ll be on a chain gang by morning.” That made his eyes soften. “You see, me and the police have us an understanding. They know me. We both know Negroes ain’t allowed to buy whores. You go to them, only one in trouble is you. Now you came into my House, threatened my girls, and caused quite a ruckus. I want you to apologize to Loretta, and to Josie, and then get out of here and never come back.”
The silence was thick. Josie and Loretta looked at each other in surprise. Harrison watched Alice with a frown. He had recovered from the shock of her threat and was fuming again.
“Apologize!” she commanded.
He didn’t apologize, just chuckled once with a long look back at Loretta, spat on the floor, turned and left. When he had gone, everyone silently released their breath. Loretta looked over at Alice.
“I didn’t take anything from him.”
She didn’t. Just last month Ginger had been kicked out for stealing from Madam Alice. Everyone in the House watched as she cried and pled and was pushed out the House door. It had scared them all.
Alice felt tired. She’d figured if she would get rid of Harrison, she shouldn’t miss out on the chance to take him for all he had first. But she’d underestimated his anger. “I know,” she sighed, still looking at the closed front door. “I did.” And without another word, she disappeared into her room and closed the door behind her.
Josie vomited again before the night began, but when Loretta questioned her she blamed it on the ordeal with Harrison and the coming show. When it was almost time for her to get on stage, Josie slipped into her dress, a white one with puffed sleeves and a low-cut top, and stood in the front hall humming and fixing her updo. After her hair was relatively to her liking, she reached behind her and tried to button the dress. With every move of her hands, however, the buttons slipped from her fingers.
Loretta came downstairs, already dressed, and saw Josie struggling in front of the mirror. She chuckled and walked up behind her.
“You should’ve called me,” she said, and started buttoning the dress quickly. “Would’ve saved you some time standing in front of the mirror and breaking your arms.”
Josie chuckled once, watching Loretta in the mirror. She thought of meeting her months ago, how she’d offered to help her get out of the crib she was stuck working in, and the many stories and lessons she’d shared with her, even when she chose not to listen. The twenty-five year old woman had been more of a friend to her than anyone else. It had been a hard two years for Josie, but at least she hadn’t been alone through all of it. Loretta had been there.
As Josie stared at her friend in the mirror, Loretta finished with the buttons and put her hands on Josie’s shoulders. “You look good, Girl. Except for your hair.” She undid the updo and released Josie’s curls. “That’s much better. This ain’t you singing for church choir anymore.”
Before she could think better of it, Josie turned around and threw herself into Loretta’s arms. Loretta caught her, shocked for a moment, and then hugged back. After a few moments, the women detached themselves from one another.
Josie could see the question in Loretta’s face. She spoke with a smile. “You done so much for me, Loretta. I don’t know where I would be without you. Thank you.”
Loretta nodded once. She was touched. “You go up there and sing, Girl.”
The saloon was full of people when Josie stood on the stage. Men and women sat at tables talking, drinking illegal liquor and talking loudly. Madam Alice stood at the front door, looking out at the black and white patrons, holding her breath. She hoped for a little more luck with the police, just until she could figure something else out. But this she thought in silence.
Loretta stood behind the bar, pouring drinks and collecting money. She swatted at grabby hands and yelled at those who tried to cheat her. Mollie helped, taking the money and storing it in a metal case that Alice had bought.
Josie’s heart was leaping in her throat when it was time for her to sing. Belle and Jenny stood behind her, wearing short dresses that they would lift as they danced to the tune of her song. The professor Alice had hired to play the piano waited for her signal to start. When she gave it, he played the first keys and Josie closed her eyes.
And then she was singing. Loretta looked up from the bar and watched, a proud smile on her lips. The music was there: bluesy and beautiful, and Josie was in it, voice as dark as the words she was singing. She walked the stage, winding her negligible hips and running her hands over her tiny chest. Madam Alice watched from the back with a small grin. She was impressed.
When the first song was over, Josie was sweaty and elated. The applause rang in her ears, and she laughed and bowed and shook with glee. As she sang song after song, Josie’s muscle memory was activated and all she could hear was the music and all she could feel was an unimaginable happiness. When her performance was over, she bowed again, blinking away tears and looking over at Loretta who was whooping.
As she took a step off the stage, there was a loud noise and the sound of voices. Through the front door burst a group of police, yelling with batons and guns and telling everyone to get down. Suddenly, someone screamed and then everyone scrambled. Josie’s eyes darted around the room once, where she could see Belle and Jenny pushing through the crowd, Loretta and Mollie jumping out from behind the bar, and someone that looked like Madam Alice being thrown to the ground. She sprang into action, following the crowd out the back door and into the rainy night. Beside her for a moment was Loretta, and then they were separated and Josie didn’t have time to think.
She ran to the corner of Basin and Iberville and kept running until she passed North Liberty, until the sounds of yelling and the popping of guns were drowned out by the roar of thunder. She paused between two cribs, huffing and shivering in the rain. Her dress was soaked through, but she was too afraid to move. Minutes ticked by, and when her heart was finally stilled she allowed herself to take a tentative step out of her hiding place. She could hear no one nearby.
Josie took another step, then another, and began making her way further down Iberville towards Marais. She wrapped her arms around herself in relief. Just then, a voice rang out behind her.
Her heart dropped. She turned to see a police officer holding a gun up to her. Fear invaded every inch of her body, and she slowly lifted her hands. He holstered his gun and approached her, pulling out his handcuffs and grabbing one of her wrists in a hard grip.
In a panic, Josie pulled the arm he held and threw her other hand in a fist across his face. Her hit landed, but his grip did not falter. His head went back, and then he looked at her with a twisted face and took out his baton. Josie’s eyes widened as he slammed it into her stomach.
The wind was knocked out of her and she fell to the ground, writhing with her legs locked together. She gasped for breath as he pulled her arms behind her back and cuffed her, all the while mumbling “whore” and “bitch.” He hauled her up roughly and dragged her back towards the House as she struggled to get her feet back under her.
Loretta ran down Bienville Street, looking behind her every few moments and still seeing people running and police chasing. She ducked into a panel house door and apologized to the ladies who screamed upon her entry. She waited there for a few minutes before slipping back out and walking down the alley to a dark and quiet spot. There, she pressed her back against the wall of the house to shield herself somewhat from the pouring rain. She tried to light a cigarette and failed.
As she stood cursing the rain and trying again and again to light her cigarette, a shadow approached her, one that she noticed a moment too late. She turned to it, and a cold hand pressed against her mouth. A body slammed her back into the wall so hard that she gasped. She dropped her cigarette and match and tried to scream, pushing back. She could smell liquor and male odor, and felt something stiffen against her leg. As she resisted, the shadow pushed harder, until she thought her chest might collapse.
“I’ll teach you to steal from me,” the shadow said. It was Harrison’s voice.
Loretta tried again to move, tried to push him off of her, but he was much too large and much too determined. He ran his free hand over her body, whispering her name amidst curses, grabbing roughly at her breasts and her butt and between her legs through the fabric of her dress. She winced, tears stinging her eyes. When he started pulling her skirt up, she remembered the knife.
As his hand travelled up between her legs, Loretta slipped her arm out from under him, reached into the seam in her dress and pulled out her pocketknife. Once she could feel his fingers grazing her inner thigh, with sickness rising in her throat, she stuck the knife into his abdomen. He paused, looking at her with wide eyes and shock. She pulled the knife out and stabbed him again, harder. He gasped, and she swiftly stabbed again with a grunt and a cry. He stared, then took an unsteady step back.
She watched, frozen, as he swayed slightly, his lips parting with a gurgling sigh. He leaned forward, and Loretta jumped back into the wall as he fell against her and slid down into a heap at her feet.
For a moment she stood there, unblinking. Then her eyes travelled slowly downward. When she saw the body, she gasped, the air stopping in the middle of her throat. Then her voice broke and she sobbed once. Her hand flew over her mouth and she screamed into her palm.
Tentatively, she touched the heap with the edge of her foot. When he made no move, no sound, Loretta turned and fell to the ground, retching. When her stomach was empty she stayed there, watching the rain run over the soiled pavement and wash pieces of food over her knees and feet. After she had stopped shaking she slowly stood, placing her hand on the wall to the side of her to keep steady. When she was upright, she looked back once at the pile of Harrison’s body. Just seeing it sent a cold chill down her spine.
She knew what she had to do. She took one shaky step, then another, and then another. One step at a time, she made her way down the alley to the street. And then she kept walking.
Josie woke up in handcuffs. She was laying against something cold and hard, and as she tried to lift her head, pain shot through every part of her body. Groaning, she trembled, her stomach tied in knots and every breath feeling like she was being set on fire. Her face was stained with dried tears and between her legs she could feel a sticky wetness. With effort, she looked down at her dress, which was stained with dirt and something pink. The fatigue. The vomiting. It had been what she’d feared. But now it wasn’t. She took a tentative breath, and then a ball rose in her throat and she was sobbing.
Josie left the police station after giving them almost all her money. Paying a fine was better than going to jail, but still she felt that she had paid much more for her freedom than she could afford. Like Loretta, she figured that she knew what her body was worth.
It was a slow, painful walk back to Basin Street. When she got to the House, all of the windows were closed and the door was boarded up. It was the same for the saloon next door. In confusion and shock, Josie sat on the ground. She had nowhere else to go.
It was Mollie that eventually found her later, when she had been sitting on the sidewalk so long that she lost track of time. She helped her up and brought her to a bordello that her friend worked in. There she ate, washed, got a change of clothes and some rest. When she woke, Mollie told her about Harrison. The look on her face was enough to know that Loretta was gone. Silent tears poured down Josie’s face.
She was in no shape to work, so for a few days she rested and tried to understand all that had happened. For hours she lay wide awake in bed, the pain in her lower abdomen a dull throbbing, and thinking about Loretta and Madam Alice and the House and the child she could have had. She yearned to have Loretta back, but she fervently prayed that she got away. A part of her wished that Madam Alice would be alright, if only because, despite everything, the woman had taken her off the street. The baby was a point of confusion. She didn’t know whether or not to mourn for it.
But before she could decide how to feel about her womb, she remembered that she couldn’t survive off the charity of others. With Mollie’s friend’s help, she got set up at another brothel.
She entered Vina Day’s place with no money to her name. Days before, she’d wanted to be a jazz singer. Now she just wanted to leave Storyville.
The next night, she turned another trick.