This is a fan fiction story based on characters from the Lonesome Dove television show, which belong to Rysher Entertainment and Hallmark. No infringement on copyrights is intended. All other characters and storylines belong to me.
Rated: NC-17, m/f, consensual
This story takes place in February 1866. Clay, Robert, and Olivia Jessup have been living in New Orleans for several months by that time, having moved there following Clay and Robert’s grief-stricken homecoming to Virginia. For those of you who haven’t read Young Robert & Clay: Brothers, Olivia is Clay’s maternal cousin, ten years his senior.
Clay succumbed to the deep depression always hovering nearby when he discovered his family had been murdered during the war, and to control Clay’s suicidal behavior, Robert enlisted the aid of Olivia and a quantity of laudanum. The move was intended to give Clay distance from the ruins of his former life in the hopes that he would recover more quickly. They chose New Orleans because a friend of Olivia’s husband, who had been killed in the war, offered them the use of his house there, and because that city seemed to offer all of them a fresh start.
During the first two months, Clay barely left the house for more than an hour at a time, and that was only to drink. Most of the time, he sat in shuttered rooms, sipping whiskey or laudanum, brooding about all he’d lost, and thinking up ways to kill himself if he ever found the courage. With Robert’s persistent encouragement, he eventually emerged from isolation and seemed to regain a measure of his old self. However, it became apparent very quickly that Clay’s newfound independence was not the sign of healing Robert and Olivia hoped it was.
Please write to me about my stories if you get the urge. I welcome any and all comments from my readers.
Colleen J. MacLennan
Seth Belden pulled up short in mid-guffaw and yanked Clay to a halt as well.
Clay almost slid into a back flip off the banquette and onto Tchapitoulas Street’s rain-drenched granite paving-stones, catching himself with an outstretched hand just a second before landing on his ass.
Neither of them stopped laughing. Everything was just so funny with opium to dilute it, and Clay thanked the gods every day for that divine gift to mankind. He knew those backwater gods he prayed to as a boy would eventually come in handy, even if they did take their time and play a few practical jokes on him along the way.
The thought of his childhood pretensions squeezed a fresh round of belly laughs from him, and at that, he did fall backward, sprawling in the gutter and getting soaked even worse than from the rain. Dragging Robert to that creek near their school to get “ideas” about their futures what a load of horse shit! He sure as hell never saw this one coming. If he had, he would’ve drowned himself straightaway in that Pond of Prophecy or whatever the hell he called it back then.
“Damn, Clay, you’re all wet,” Seth said, holding out a hand to help Clay up.
“How utterly profound,” he said, struggling to his feet. “Poetry simply flows from your lips, Belden. I hang on your every word.”
“Aw, cut the crap, Mosby.”
“If you insist.” Clay sighed, then broke into hysterical giggling once more. “Where’s the knife?” He fell against Seth, disarmed by his own lame joke, and nearly landed both of them in the gutter.
Seth began to cough and pushed Clay back. “Wait, wait, I gotta show you something.”
“I don’t want to see it.” Clay waved his hands in mock disgust.
“How can you say that? You don’t even know what it is.”
Seth sounded deeply hurt, making Clay laugh some more. “All right, show me.”
“This place.” Seth sobered and pointed at the little building they faced, over which hung a rather plain sign announcing the Chez Marquis. “You gotta see this place. You won’t believe the things they got in here. Like nothing you ever seen before, I bet.”
Clay narrowed his eyes and peered at the establishment, judging it to hold little promise given its drab exterior and shuttered windows. “What is it? A whorehouse?” He shook his head and began to walk away.
Seth grabbed Clay’s arm as if their lives depended on what he was about to say. “No, no ... well, yeah, but not like you think,” he said. “It’s all different than regular whore stuff ... there’s this room with play-acts going on and naked girls come right to your table and ... oh, hell, Clay, just come in with me. It’ll get you up like nothing else, I swear.”
Considering that nothing else could get him up, at least not much, Clay thought that sounded like quite a sight, indeed if Seth could be trusted, which was doubtful.
He shook his head again. “I am wet, as you so astutely pointed out, and I want to go home, dry off, and go to bed. I do not want to see yet another room full of whores, no matter what their state of undress.”
“Just for a little while,” Seth wheedled, like a small boy begging licorice sticks outside a candy store. “I don’t want to go in alone.”
“Why not? They gonna bite you?” Clay said, but he just groaned when Seth pulled him by the arm toward the dimly lit entrance.
Inside, it looked like any other low-rent sporting house as far as Clay could tell. In the segregated manner of such places, this one was stocked with girls of color, mostly the preferred high yellows, although a few had skin of a deeper hue for customers with earthier tastes. As far as Seth’s claims, the atmosphere was a bit darker, perhaps, and the girls in the cramped front parlor did wear less than the average soiled dove, but they were hardly naked and Clay was hardly stimulated. As usual, Seth had led him down a dead end.
“You ever been here before?” he asked, noticing Seth appeared bewildered, too.
“Heard about it at the docks from some dandy fellas off a paddleboat.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful. What am I doing following you then?”
“I don’t know. What?”
“That was a rhetorical question, Belden.”
“There you go with the crap again, Mosby. I bet you make up most of it just to rile me.”
“Yes, that’s what I live for. Can we go now?” he asked, holding back as Seth peered up the narrow, lightless stairway.
“No,” Seth told him, somehow mixing annoyance with persuasion. “You ain’t seen the best part yet.”
“You gentlemen looking for something in particular?” A woman in her forties approached them from the back hall, decked out in a gaudy silk gown and fake jewelry to match.
“Um, the, uh ... entertainment?” Seth offered.
Clay suppressed a laugh and leaned toward his ear. “You just fishing here?” he whispered.
Seth attempted to cut him a murderous glance, but only succeeded in imitating a pop-eyed carnival mask.
The madame frowned and looked them over, apparently noting the puddle Clay had brought in with him from the gutter. “Sallie, bring the gentlemen a towel, would you?” she called to one of the half-dressed girls draped on the settee.
Sallie made a show of her wares as she fetched the towel, and Clay took the thread-worn cloth with a disinterested nod of his head.
“I am Madame Lizette,” the older woman said then, “and if I’m not mistaken, you men are wanting the best we have to offer at the Chez Marquis.”
“Yeah, that’s it. The entertainment,” Seth repeated, as if it were a secret password.
Clay rolled his eyes. “You have something a little more sophisticated going on here?” he asked her, noticing he’d begun to slur his words.
“Right upstairs, gentlemen,” she said, standing back and waving them on. “I think you’ll find it to your satisfaction.”
Clay exhaled in resignation as Seth eagerly ascended the stairway. The opium pills they had eaten earlier were making him very sleepy now, and the world had begun to appear distorted to his dilated eyes. All of his five senses were thrown wide open to whatever chose to cross their thresholds, resulting in a dream-like brew of images and sensations that flooded his being.
Hoping the banister would keep him upright, he followed his partner-in-debauchery to the second floor. He just had to get this one last thing done with, satisfy Seth’s curiosity, and then he could go home and collapse. Even Robert’s incessant nagging wouldn’t keep him awake tonight.
They rounded the landing at the top of the stairs and there, in the dirty yellow light of a single lamp, a very large black man rose from a chair and greeted them. He wore an old-fashioned frockcoat with a tophat squashed upon his matted hair, the broad face below it riddled by a bad complexion. A rough-hewn door with wrought iron hinges and handle was behind him and he stood there squarely, guarding it with his impressive frame. Nevertheless, he bowed and smiled as if he’d been waiting just for them.
The whole picture struck Clay as quite ridiculous and he started to giggle again.
“Shut up, will you?” Seth hissed, shoving an elbow into Clay’s ribs. He turned then and dug in his pocket while giving the man an ingratiating grin that did nothing to douse Clay’s mirth. After counting out nine greenbacks, he whispered to Clay, “I need six more. How much you got on you?”
“Fifteen! Just to get in? You didn’t say anything about that before.”
“You gonna give me the six, or you just wanna throw one of your ten dollar words in the pot?”
Clay reached into his pocket and added his currency to Seth’s with a weary sigh. “This better be worth it,” he said, wishing he’d gone home when he had the chance.
The man took their money and stepped aside, gesturing toward the door with a tip of his hat. “Welcome to the Sade Room, masters.”
An electric needle pierced the opium cloud enveloping Clay and pricked his suspicion. He narrowed his eyes at the man. The bouncer merely flashed the same benign smile and Clay nodded, but the whole thing suddenly felt very wrong.
Before he could marshal his doubts on the matter, Seth opened the heavy door and dragged him forward, and they stepped into the Sade Room.
At first, the place looked no different from the parlor below. It was shabby, but strained toward genteel. Flocked red and gold wallpaper with peeling corners, fringed velvet drapes with tattered hems, brass kerosene lamps with greasy chimneys the decor was not the main attraction, nor did it draw Clay’s notice for long, because the room’s real raison d’etre quickly overshadowed any flaws in its design.
The orgiastic atmosphere was the least of it, though it permeated the air along with the swirling cigar smoke. Well-dressed men sat on high-backed, padded benches circling the perimeter, tiny tables holding their drinks in front of them as women hovered about in attendance. Aside from their thigh-high stockings, all the women wore the same two garments: corsets without the usual chemises underneath so that their breasts spilled over the top, and lace-edged drawers, the kind with the legs attached independently to a waistband.
The thoughtful arrangement allowed for quick and easy access by guests who wanted to pay the extra fee. Several had taken advantage of that service, and had girls straddling their laps or kneeling between their legs. Sounds ranged from passionate moans to casual conversation and laughter, and over it all weighed the dramatic chords of Wagner’s latest opera, “Tristan und Isolde,” issuing from a piano in the far left corner.
That unrestrained hedonism would normally have held Clay’s focus, if for no other reason than morbid fascination. However, the activity in the middle of the room had jumped to claim first priority with an insistent grip.
Only a few feet from the surrounding audience, on a foot-high dais, was one of those play-acts Seth had mentioned to entice him, except that it didn’t look like an act. A white man in working garb and riding boots, his shirtsleeves rolled up, was whipping a mulatto girl who was shackled with her hands above her head. The curvaceous girl was completely naked and her bonds were attached to a chain dangling from the ceiling beam above. The smoke and her skin color obscured some of the damage being done to her, but what was visible indicated it was real enough.
Clay stared at the scene as Seth led him to a vacant spot halfway around the room. “Told you,” Seth said with a broad smile when they sat down. “Looks like something from one of those fancy-ass plantations, don’t it? Guess that’s right. I never been to one before the war, but I figure they must of done whippings aplenty to keep all those niggers down.”
The opium had made Clay’s mouth dry, and all speech had dried up, too. He swallowed with some effort and his drug-addled mind reached for the logic in what he was seeing.
... like something from one of those fancy-ass plantations....
Yes, the overseer had whipped some of their servants, but not often and always for discipline, to keep things in order and get the work done on time. His father had brought him out to the quarters to watch as part of his education, to teach him that sentimentality had no place in business. Control had to be maintained even at the risk of crippling the occasional servant in the process, because the benefit outweighed the loss overall.
This was the same, but different, too. The whip did strike the girl, leaving red marks and undeniable pain in its wake. But despite her tears and pleas for mercy from her “master,” when she writhed in her bonds, it was a sensuous movement, as if she felt pleasure in the pain. At intervals during the slowly delivered beating, the man would stop and caress her with the care of a lover, touching between her legs until she seemed to come. Then he’d pick up the whip and start in again.
With sudden shame, Clay remembered the time he was ten and he saw a young woman beaten, her shirt torn open to her waist. He couldn’t recall the reason for the punishment now, but the image of her full breasts was still clear in his mind. He’d stared at them, quivering with each stroke the overseer laid on her back, and the sound of her cries had faded behind the roaring excitement he felt.
And later, when he was seventeen, what had he done with Rachel? Maybe he never whipped her, but he liked it when she struggled and he could hold her down. The power to do whatever he wanted was intoxicating, the same power he felt when he had the overseer put her into the tobacco fields for a few days of punishment after rejecting him.
Seth must have taken Clay’s silence for awestruck appreciation. “Don’t those nigger gals just know how to do it,” he said, leaning forward to absorb every detail. “They sure do got the moves. The officers always did rather have one of them than the white whores, but I guess that’s cause they got the taste at home, being rich gentlemen and all.” He leaned back again and shoved Clay with his shoulder, grinning. “So what do you think? Don’t it just beat all?”
Clay tried to sort his thoughts, but they only tangled up more. Seth didn’t know anything about him before they met at that cheap crib-house in the Swamp a couple months ago, and he knew almost nothing about Seth except that he’d been a corporal in an infantry regiment from Texas during the war. That’s the way they both wanted it. Clay liked the anonymity; he liked being nobody and blending in with all the other defeated Southern nobodies who milled around the city, looking to make a quick Yankee buck and then get drunk on all the amnesia it could buy.
He looked around in confusion, part of his mind calmly telling him he had started to hallucinate, because colors now dripped from the lamplight and people looked like marionettes in a box stage. He issued urgent commands to his body to move, get up, leave at once, but it wouldn’t cooperate. Instead, it seemed bent on proving Seth right by stirring with awakened arousal at the approach of an octoroon whore.
She knelt at his side and looked up at him with big, dark brown eyes, her hand sliding up the inside of his thigh. “I got some nice, thick honey here for you, young massa, give you a sweet ride all the way to heaven. Only three dollars and you be on your way through my pearly gates.”
Clay grasped her wrist just as she reached his crotch. He meant to stay her progress, but his grip was weakened by the drug in his blood, as was his physical response to her touch. Opium gave him the will, but not the way to act on it. He looked into her face and tried to swallow again before speaking. “No,” was all he managed to say, and even that one word was hard to come by.
The coquette smiled at both Clay and Seth, unconvinced by the refusal, and felt through Clay’s trouser cloth with her fingers, seducing a firmer commitment from him.
The only thing that got harder was his breathing. He moved his hand to her hair, tightening a fist around the reddish-brown ringlets, and pulled her head back. He wanted to be angry, to make her obey his command. He didn’t like having a woman manipulate him into something he’d already decided against. But his attempted use of force had the opposite effect and fed his impotent arousal.
“That’s right, massa, you take me in hand. I like a rough ride, if that be what you want,” she said, and arched her back to display her breasts better. “Two more dollars, and we can go to my room so’s you can make me do just about anything you want. I’ll even fight it if you like it that way.”
Seth grinned and slapped Clay on the back. “Hell, Clay, if that ain’t an offer! Bet you never had a girl beg you to rape her before.”
He blinked his eyes and saw Mary kneeling on the floor of their bedroom at Hatton Willows, a Yankee’s filthy hand grabbing her by the hair, pushing her down, shoving her nightdress up ... and himself with Rachel, her pleading with him as he held her wrists against the bed, preventing her from pushing him off ... and the hand in his own hair while they taunted him with pointless questions, adding more pain to Jensen’s pointed fun....
He let go of the girl and stood up, knocking over the table in the uncoordinated process. “I’ve gotta go,” he blurted.
Seth reached for his arm to hold him. “Wait.”
“No!” he said, jerking his arm free. “I’ve gotta go.” He stumbled to the door past several men busy watching the show, and almost fell down the stairs in his awkward rush to leave.
Seth followed on his heels all the way out to the street. “What the hell’s wrong with you, Mosby?” he demanded.
“Nothing. Leave me be,” Clay said, his tongue thick in his mouth as nausea welled in his belly.
“Damn you! If you didn’t want her, why didn’t you give her to me?”
Clay frowned at him. Something about money seemed germane to Seth’s question, but he couldn’t recall what. “Go in then, do what you want. Just leave me be,” he said, and started up the street on unsteady legs.
“Wait!” Seth shouted, coming after him. “You got any more greenbacks on you?”
Oh, yeah, that was it. Seth couldn’t afford to do more than look at the Sade Room’s merchandise. Wasn’t Clay’s concern. “No! Now get away from me!” he said, pushing at Seth as if he were launching a skiff from its mooring.
Clay dragged into the house on St. Charles, out of rain that had gone from mist to downpour. He glanced down the hall before mounting the stairs and hoped Olivia wouldn’t leave the game in the back parlor to greet him. He didn’t want to see the worry in her face as she looked him over, the way she always looked at him now.
Even more, he hoped Robert wouldn’t come out of his room to harangue him tonight. But when he reached the landing on the second floor, Robert’s door remained closed and no light showed at the transom above. Either he hadn’t awakened at the noise, or he just didn’t want the bother. Whatever the reason, Clay was thankful.
In his own sparsely furnished room, he stripped off his finery, now thoroughly ruined, and dropped onto the bed without lighting a lamp. He was exhausted and sick and wished he could stop thinking about what had happened. He should sleep. He should just sleep and everything would be better in the morning. He leaned over and felt for the bottle of laudanum in the bedside table drawer. Whiskey would only make him sicker, but his medicine would quell the churning in gut and mind both.
The bottle was almost empty and he drained the last of it into his mouth. Not enough, really, but just the bitter taste relaxed him. He laid back and floated, waiting for the leaden feeling to pull him under the waters of forgetfulness.
How long had it been since he’d thought of Rachel? Years, maybe. No, not that long. She’d come into his mind that day, when Jensen was baiting him
He took a deep breath, and then another.
Rachel had skin the color of cinnamon. Her long hair showed the white half of her lineage he never was drawn to the all-black girls and her hazel-brown eyes were soft and innocent as a rabbit’s. He had wanted her from the moment his father brought her home to Hatton Willows, a present for his ailing mother. He was a horny seventeen-year-old at the time, always ready, always aching for sex, and no longer satisfied with masturbation.
He hadn’t given her a choice, as Robert was so fond of pointing out.
She resisted his advances, and after coercive sweet-talk, what was left but force. Not brutal, not like the scene he witnessed tonight. But he made it seem playful when it wasn’t. He smiled and spoke gently, but he knew what that look was in her eyes when he cornered her in his mother’s room. He knew how scared she was a week later when he circled her waist from behind and dragged her down onto his bed in the guesthouse. She made it plain with her crying when he opened her dress and pushed his fingers inside her and realized she really was a virgin like she said.
He thought he could make her see her good fortune in attracting his interest, make her feel the delights of the flesh to be had with him. But when she didn’t, he held her down under him nevertheless, and enjoyed the triumph of penetration, the challenge of extracting a genuine response from her body despite the distress, maybe even the disgust, she felt in her heart.
And when she persisted in fighting him with indifference, when she barely concealed her preference for Robert’s company, he thought he could make her change her attitude, if not her affections, with punishment. His pride wounded, he waited till his father was away to put her into the fields. He let her discover what grueling work that was in comparison to laying with him on a soft feather bed, and then he made her choose which she liked better.
Those men there, in that room, that’s what they were. Planters, or would-be planters, determined to hold onto their way of life, reliving the good old days, but with a new, perverse twist, the latest fashion direct from Parisian high society. Is that what he wanted, too? Seth was nearly right it didn’t get him up, but it did get him excited like nothing else. Would that make it feel better, make him forget Jensen and the prison camp and Mary’s death? If he beat or forced someone else into sex and got pleasure from it, wouldn’t that make him just like Jensen? Was he already like Jensen?
He shouldn’t have forced Rachel. Oh, she learned to accommodate him, even to encourage him in certain aggressive games when his attention wandered toward Mary. Ironically, that’s when she finally came around to him and their “arrangement.” Still, it made him ashamed to remember what he did to her, how he took the innocence from her, and later, the child.
He sighed and closed his eyes. That was the way of things then. No one thought of it like that. She was a servant ... he had the right ... his father had been doing the same with the wenches.
God, he was so tired. No point in trying to think about it anymore tonight. He had to get some sleep....
Clay woke up and looked around with a shock. He was in the prison barracks, Robert lying next to him, asleep on the thinly padded wood bunk. Sounds in the distance, coming up the street it was that winter night, when the guards got drunk and had a little fun with their prisoners. He sat up and breathed faster. It was going to happen again. He had to stop it before it happened again.
They rushed into Block 17, raising hell and herding everyone out into the fresh wet snow. Him, Robert, all the men, lined up for “inspection.” Searched ... taunted ... Robert’s white quartz stone thrown into cold white oblivion ... the boy Jemmie laid over a barrel ... pull your trousers down, they said, sit in the snow ... Jensen gloating ... no, No, NO ... I’ll kill him ... he won’t do it ... not this time ... I’ll kill him ... hands on throat don’t let go ... string him up, he said, by the feet ... hung from the top bunk upside down ... belt buckle cut so deep ... why oh why oh why can’t I pass out please please let me go ... under ... black ... velvet ... sleep....
...Rachel ... Rachel there ... Rachel was there, in the guesthouse, stroking him as the late morning light warmed his skin, waking him ever so gently with a soft hand searching underneath for his hardened cock. She found it and squeezed and pumped up and down until he groaned, and with eyes still closed, he rolled to his side and reached for her.
“Oh, no, Marse Clay.” She laughed lightly and slipped from his grasp. “Whole world upside down these hardscrabble days. Bottom rail on top now, and you know what your daddy say. Control must be maintained.”
He opened his eyes to look at her just as the stiffened leather whip sliced across his chest....
... and Clay woke up for real.
The first thing he noticed was the late morning light, just like in the dream. The second was the dampness at the crotch of his drawers. Panicked, he felt the moisture with a hand and looked down, expecting to see blood. For some reason, he always expected to find blood running out of himself. But this was not blood, and it wasn’t piss either, he discovered when he sniffed his fingers to be sure. That left only sweat or semen, and it was too sticky to be sweat.
He’d come in his sleep from the dream of Rachel.
Clay laid back and exhaled hard, releasing the panic with his breath. He couldn’t remember the last time this happened. Occasional morning hard-ons, yes, but the opium made even those less frequent, and he never had sexual feelings with them, not since prison, anyway. What did it mean?
He didn’t want to think about it; he’d done plenty of thinking the night before and got nowhere for the effort. Thinking did him no good.
He got up and reached for the laudanum bottle, forgetting it was empty until he raised it to his lips. New panic set in. He didn’t use the drug every day, at least not much. He wasn’t like those opium eaters he saw in prison begging it off men with legitimate need. But he liked to have it on hand for times like this, when reality threatened to intrude. He looked around and saw his coat from the previous night on the floor. The flask might have some left.
Half a mouthful. Still not enough, and no pills left in the tin, either. He’d have to see Dr. Steadwell right away, maybe even get a syringe of morphine if he could convince the doctor of his need. Meantime, whiskey would have to do.
Dr. Steadwell wouldn’t give him the morphine injection, but he did replace Clay’s laudanum and gave him an order for the druggist to renew his supply of opium pills and tincture. “As needed,” it said. Clay felt tremendous relief at that. He would make sure not to run out of it again.
He left the shop and headed down to Basin Street just above the Vieux Carre. The houses there would be closed until evening to give the girls a rest, but it was already four in the afternoon. If he smiled just right and paid her extra, Millie Kendrick would let him into the Ivory Club early to buy Annie’s time for a couple of hours.
Millie ran a house on the white side of the color line, and Annie Johnson was the girl he always saw there, even if he had to wait some nights for his turn. Annie wasn’t educated much beyond the rudiments of reading, writing, and social discourse, but she would let him drowse on her bed in an opium haze and fondle her without ever asking why he never took his pants off. Annie was good about that, very tolerant of his peculiar habits and requirements.
Millie wasn’t pleased to see him at her door, telling him his bad habits were getting worse. The maids were still cleaning out the parlors and the girls were just finishing their one big meal of the day, but Annie came out of the dining room and coaxed Millie into admitting him anyway. “I’ve ate my fill,” she told her employer, then added, “Besides, it ain’t like he’s gonna wear me out,” which embarrassed Clay enough to make him look away. He should have known nothing of a business nature was kept secret from the house’s proprietess, but it rankled nevertheless to know his impotence had been discussed.
He felt better once he was in Annie’s room with the door shut on the rest of the world, and he took another tiny sip of the laudanum to prepare for what he wanted to try.
“I never mind seeing you, Clay, no matter what Millie says about proper times and all,” she said, helping him off with his coat and hanging it carefully over a chair back the way he liked. “She’s just jealous because you’re so handsome and she ain’t had a gentleman want to see her special in a year, at least.”
He smiled a little and felt his muscles release some of the tension he’d carried around since the night before. Annie was so uncomplicated, it was easy to be with her, and if he did nothing else this afternoon, he would undress completely in her presence. The dream and its unexpected effects had spurred him toward this long overdue goal.
Annie arranged each article of his clothing neatly on the chair as he removed them, and when he’d gotten down to just his trousers, he sat on the bed to let her pull off his boots, too. After she’d finished assisting him, she hung her robe on the door hook and climbed into the freshly made bed, still clothed in her camisole, pantaloons, and thigh-high stockings with the horizontal stripes.
“Annie,” he started, as she lounged on her side, waiting for him to join her. “I want to take everything off today.” He kept his back to her, afraid that he might lose his nerve if he looked her in the face.
“Oh? That’d be nice.” She put a hand out and stroked his back. “You want me to help?”
Her voice was encouraging and held curiosity without condescension.
“No,” he said, taking a breath. “I can do it.” He looked down at his fly and slowly unfastened the buttons, but still didn’t lower the pants.
Annie got up again and drew the drapes across the single window, darkening the room. She returned to the bed then and knelt behind him, putting her arms around him to caress down his chest. “Honey, you ain’t got nothing to be ashamed of,” she murmured into his ear. “Whatever scars you got down there from the war ain’t gonna bother me.”
Clay breathed deeply again, feeling the warmth of the laudanum spread through his veins. He could do this. There was nothing to it. Just take the pants off, and the drawers, too. One simple woman was no threat.
“You want me to get you your medicine?” Annie asked.
He shook his head and fumbled with the buttons on the drawers.
Annie moved back and straightened the bedclothes. “I won’t look,” she said. “You skin those things off and get under the sheets to start with. It’ll be just fine, you’ll see. I been with men who got hardly any privates left at all and I still showed them a good time. They was right surprised to see how much they could get from it, so don’t you worry a bit.”
Clay lifted up enough to slide the trousers and drawers down to his thighs, then leaned forward and pushed them all the way off. He laid down quickly and grasped the sheet and quilt to throw over himself as Annie suggested.
She stayed sitting against the wall, but smiled more encouragement at him. “You want me to strip down, too?” she asked.
Clay appraised her few garments. He’d seen her without them before. She was slightly younger than him maybe just over twenty and she wasn’t a great beauty, but she had a pretty figure, with smallish, upturned breasts, a waist that rarely felt the pinch of a corset, and pleasingly wide hips and bottom padded just enough for a comfortable ride, should he ever want one.
“No need. You’re fine the way you are,” he said. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes as she tucked herself under the covers with him. His prone position and the sensual atmosphere recalled the dream of Rachel once more as she snuggled up to him.
“There, ain’t this nice?” she said. She rubbed her hand over his chest and lingered at his nipples, playing with them until they hardened.
“Mm-hm,” he murmured, cupping one of her breasts through the camisole and pulling her against his body to kiss her mouth, her neck, her shoulder. The opium suffused his muscles, relaxing them enough to make it feel nice, like she said. Almost too nice, because all the rigidity left him, even that which might be appropriate to the occasion.
Annie worked her hand down to his belly, then paused. “You got any pains I should know about?”
Clay sighed and shook his head.
She kissed his shoulder in acknowledgment and began moving her hand again very slowly, following the line of hair from his navel to his groin. His touch-deprived skin absorbed the warmth of her palm and magnified it almost beyond what he could bear. He held his breath and tried to lay still despite the urge to leap from the bed. As she worked her fingers into the wiry tangle of pubic hair, however, Clay tensed reflexively and grabbed her wrist.
She lifted her head from his chest to look into his face. “You want me to stop?”
She didn’t try to break his hold, but he gripped her tighter anyway and hesitated before answering. There was no judgment in her eyes or voice; she would not think less of him if he ended this experiment and went back to simple cuddling. But he would think less of himself. He had to get over this pointless fear and prove himself a man. It was either that or give it up altogether and end the pretense of his existence once and for all.
“No,” he finally told her. “No, don’t stop.” He let go of her wrist and focused on a water stain on the ceiling, bracing for her touch again.
“It’ll be all right, Clay. I’ll go real easy,” she whispered.
He breathed through the anxiety breaching the laudanum’s line of battle, while ever so carefully, Annie explored the contours of his private parts with her fingers. She might have been rough around the social edges, but she was good to her word and handled him gently, and gradually, he got used to it. He could tell she was almost as curious about what parts he still possessed as she was intent on arousing him, but once assured that all necessary equipment was present and accounted for, she curried his interest to the best of her manual abilities.
“Can I take a look?” she eventually asked when little response was forthcoming.
He swallowed and nodded his permission, tension still overriding the drug’s influence.
She eased the covers down until he was exposed to her scrutiny.
“Well, honey, there ain’t nothing wrong with you,” she said with some surprise. “You got a right pretty cock.” She took it in her right hand and kneaded the soft flesh while raising up to straddle his thighs. “You just lay back and let little ol’ Annie do all the work. I’ll make your rooster stand up and crow like it was the second coming of the Lord.” She smiled at Clay, pleased to share her cleverness, before drawing back the foreskin and bending her head to lick the vulnerable glans with an inquisitive tongue.
The sensation of Annie’s mouth, hot and amply wet as she twirled her tongue around his flaccid penis, sharpened Clay’s focus on what was happening and what he wanted to happen. He hadn’t lost the ability to feel something with a woman after all. He groaned and wrapped his fingers in her long, auburn hair. Maybe it would be all right. Annie cared about him, and she overflowed with enough optimism for both of them. If anyone could help him get past his fears, she’d be the one.
Relaxing tentatively, his mind traveled back to other times a woman had done this for him. It was something he avoided with Mary despite her willingness she was too much a lady in his estimation. But whores were another story, and Rachel ... by the end, Rachel had learned to tease and prolong the act to the limits of his endurance, until coming seemed to be the only thing in the world that mattered.
Annie continued to apply herself diligently, but the stimulation wasn’t strong enough now. He pressed her head down harder. He needed more; he wanted her to suck with more intensity, to bite a little, to hurt him....
She struggled out of his urgent, smothering hold and grasped his hands to keep them at bay. “Now, honey, you gotta let me take care of things here,” she said, her scolding only half playful. “We ain’t in no hurry. I got all kinds of tricks to try out yet, straight from them Paris boudoirs.”
She scooted back and wedged her knees between his legs, pushing them apart. Something about what she had said, what she was doing, alarmed him, and when she ran her hands up the inside of his thighs, he was unable to lay still. He sat up and grasped her upper arms. “Annie, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Clay, honey, you do too much thinking. That’s why you got this problem,” she said, showing the first hint of frustration. “Now, you ain’t never had no complaints about me before. Don’t you think I know what I’m doing?”
Clay exhaled and looked down at the tiny pearl buttons on her camisole. “I suppose you do. It’s just ... I haven’t had a woman in a while, and, well....”
“But you ain’t new at this, are ya?” she asked, tilting her head and smiling impishly.
He looked up at her again. “No, of course not.”
“And you like me, don’t ya?”
“Yes, I like you very much,” he said, relenting and letting her move into his embrace.
“So we’re just kinda reacquainting you with how it goes is all,” she said as she caressed him and kissed his neck. “Ain’t nothing to it, honey. You just gotta lay back and let your cock do what it wants.”
Annie brushed her hand over his beard and kissed him lightly on the lips, then with more involvement until he reciprocated, their tongues touching. And when she pushed him to lie down once again, Clay made himself cooperate.
She trailed kisses down his torso and returned her attention to his crotch. Trying a new tack, she licked and mouthed his testicles and finally took them one, then the other, then both into her mouth, all the while stroking and squeezing his cock with increasing firmness.
Clay squirmed and breathed faster, first from the remains of his anxiety, and then from the hint of arousal that began to mix with it in the manner of forbidden even dangerous pleasures. Annie did know what she was doing, and her efforts would have yielded definite results in better times. His cock stirred with signs of life, but he still wasn’t anywhere near a useful erection.
She withdrew her mouth and went to kissing his thighs and up around his groin and belly while combing her fingers through the black pubic hair. Before settling back to nurse his cock, Annie put one finger in her mouth to wet it, and as she began sucking him again, she slid the moistened finger below his genitals to probe for the orifice there.
Clay gasped and stiffened. Terror and rage ignited in every cell of his body as the memories flooded him, blotting out thought of anything but self-protection. All in one motion, without conscious awareness, he curled himself up, rolled to his left side, and backhanded Annie across the face, knocking her off the bed.
She hit the floor hard and cried out in shock and pain, covering her cheek and closed right eye with both hands.
Clay blinked and stared at her, confused for a moment. When he recognized her again, he was so horrified to realize what he’d done, he temporarily forgot the why of it. “Oh my God, I’m sorry,” he said as he leaned down toward her, hoping he hadn’t hurt her as badly as it seemed.
She evaded his reach and scuttled backward until she was against the wardrobe by the door. “I thought you liked me,” she said, sounding like a child who’d been punished without explanation. She sniffled and rubbed her eye.
“I didn’t mean it, Annie. I do like you. I just didn’t know what I was doing. I’m so sorry.” Clay felt sick at his stomach from what they had both done.
“Well, you just get your clothes on and leave now, Clay Mosby,” she insisted, anger starting to replace the shock. She scrambled to her feet and snatched the flimsy robe off its hook to wrap herself in it. “No man treats me like that, I don’t care how much he pays.”
“Oh, God, Annie, really. I swear I didn’t mean to do it.”
“I don’t care what you meant. You get out now!”
“Annie ... Annie, please let me stay. I won’t do it again, I promise,” he pleaded, suddenly scared that he might lose her, too. Even if she was a whore paid for her kindness, Annie was the only real link to humanity he had fostered in this city, his only link to whatever humanity was left in himself.
“I mean it, Clay. Don’t make me call for Hawkins,” she said, referring to the house bouncer. She put one hand on the doorknob for emphasis while testing the soreness around her eye with the other.
“Annie, please,” he said again as he grabbed his drawers and trousers off the floor and jammed his legs into them. “Please?” He pulled his pants up and sat on the bed’s edge, looking at her with desperation he couldn’t suppress. “I won’t hurt you anymore, I swear it.”
“You all right, Miss Annie?” a deep voice called through the door.
She stared at Clay with her good eye, and after an agonizing silence, said, “Just a minute, Hawkins.” Clutching her robe closed, she bit her lower lip, but still she didn’t say yes or no.
Clay took that as his chance and stretched a hand out to her in added supplication. “Please, Annie, let me stay.” God, what he had come to, that he’d be begging a whore for favors and forgiveness.
She sighed, but tried to maintain a stern expression. “If I do, you gotta know, I don’t take to that kind of thing, and Millie don’t allow it, neither.”
“I understand. I promise it won’t happen again.”
Annie dropped her hand from the door. “I’m fine, Hawkins. You can go now,” she said loudly to the bouncer outside.
Clay stood, rocking a little on unsteady legs, and went to her. “I really am sorry, Annie.” He stroked her face and kissed her forehead, awkwardly trying to convey his regret. “I didn’t mean to hit you.”
“Ain’t nothing you can do about it now,” she responded, shrugging him away and going to sit on the bed. “But just so you know, you ever do it again and Millie’ll have Hawkins work you over good.”
He sighed in relief and sat next to her. “If I ever hit you again, you can shoot me with that little Derringer I got in my coat pocket over there.”
“What’d I do to make you so mad, anyway?” she asked.
Her question brought back the cause in a sudden flash and he looked down at the gold patterned rug. “Doesn’t matter,” he mumbled.
“Well, you better tell me, because I sure as hell don’t wanna do it again!”
“Wasn’t you that made me angry. It was something you did ... I just couldn’t take....”
She turned to peer at him, as if she’d be able to see into his thoughts that way, and suddenly seemed to understand. “Oh. That. Well, you know, some men like that, specially if they got your sort of trouble rising up for a woman. Makes the feelings real strong.”
Clay clenched his teeth and tightened his fists around the bed sheets as he stared at the floor.
“I guess it makes the wrong feelings strong for you.”
“I guess.” He breathed out and looked at her again, gingerly fingering the bruise coming up on her cheek and under her eye. “Christ, I gave you a black eye. Millie will never let me back in again.”
“You let me take care of Millie. I’ll tell her I fell on the dresser. Hell, I’m always tripping over my own feet anyway, so she oughta believe it.”
Clay kissed the bruised spot. “Does it hurt much? I can give you some of my medicine if it does.”
Annie shook her head, then grimaced from the ache that obviously stirred up. “Hurts some, but I don’t want none of that laudanum stuff. Slows me down too much. Probably what’s slowing you down, too, you know. Don’t know why you drink it if you ain’t got no pains.”
“It helps me in other ways,” he said.
“Yeah? Well, if you don’t mind me saying, it ain’t helping your prick get hard.” Her hand flew up to cover her mouth this time. “Oh, my Lord, I shouldn’t of said that. Millie would tell you to hit me again for being so rude.”
He laughed without humor. “No, don’t apologize. I suppose you’re right.”
“Well, still, I shouldn’t of said it.” She turned and brushed his hair back. “You know, I still got some time left with you. What do you wanna do now?”
Clay looked at her and sighed. “I can’t ask you to do anything else, not with what I did to you. I should just admit that I’m a sorry excuse for a man and be done with it.”
“Don’t say that. I like being with you, most of the time,” she said. “Maybe we should just go back to doing what we used to, laying together and petting some. That was good.”
The image of Rachel came into his head, mixed with the Sade Room’s tableau, and a strange thought occurred to him. “Annie,” he began, then hesitated. “What would you say ... what if I ... what if you could hit me back?” Saying it out loud embarrassed him, but a tingling excitement accompanied the idea as well.
“What do you mean, hit you back? I don’t wanna hit you.”
“But it’d be sort of like getting back at me for hurting you before. You could ... you could use that belt you got hanging over the mirror.”
“Why would I wanna do that?” She shook her head. “You are plum crazy, Clay. Ain’t you been beat enough?”
“What?” Her straightforward question threw him off balance.
“I seen them stripes on your back,” she said. “I just figured you got them in the war. I heard the army done it to some men, if they tried to go home before their time was up.”
Clay’s jaw tightened. “I didn’t desert.”
“I didn’t say you did.” Annie kissed his shoulder and stroked his arm to soothe him. “Clay, it don’t matter to me how you got them scars. I’m just saying what you’re asking for don’t make no sense.” She caressed his chest and kept kissing him. “Come lay down with me now and let me pet you nice.”
Annie was right. It didn’t make any sense. He looked at her and nodded, but as he pulled her into his arms and laid back with her on the rumpled bed, he couldn’t help but wonder why he felt so little interest and so much disappointment.
Clay whistled softly to himself on the way to the Ivory Club three days later. He’d more or less kept away from laudanum, opium pills, and Seth’s wayward influence since his last visit with Annie, and this time he was certain he could respond to her like a real man. He was putting all that nonsense about whippings aside, and he’d even bought her a gift to make up for hitting her a little pair of earrings he’d found in a pawn shop, amethysts set in silver. They weren’t the best quality, but he couldn’t afford anything more expensive, and besides, Annie wasn’t a connoisseur of fine jewelry. She’d be happy with them, and with him, he was sure.
Almost as soon as he entered the elaborately decorated establishment, however, Millie Kendrick rose from the green velvet sofa in the parlor to address him.
“Mr. Mosby? I’d like to speak with you in private, if I may. My office is this way.” She directed him toward a door to the rear of the parlor.
Clay flushed and his stomach twisted into a knot as he followed her, weaving his way through the other customers and the girls attending them.
“Have a seat, please, Mr. Mosby,” she said, gesturing to a chair opposite her desk as she closed the door behind them. Her words remained cordial, but her voice held more of an edge now that no one else could hear.
“Madame Kendrick, I think I know what you want to discuss, and I just want to assure you”
“I’m sure you do,” she interrupted him, “but please forgive me if I would like to speak of the matter anyway.”
“Of course. Go ahead,” he said, trying to appear calm and congenial.
“Thank you.” She turned to seat herself in the chair behind the desk, then leaned over it as she continued. “After you left last time, it came to my attention that Annie was sporting a black eye. She told me she got it from a fall, tripping over a turn in the rug.” Millie paused, letting him stew a little before going on. “Annie is a sweet-natured girl, Mr. Mosby, and I know she’s very fond of you. She tries to keep all her customers’ secrets, even when she shouldn’t. But you and I both know how she really came by that shiner.”
“I swear to you, Madame Kendrick, it was an accident. I did not mean to do it,” he hurried to explain.
“No, of course not. No man ever means to do it after it’s been done.”
Clay looked down and fumbled with the hem of his coat. “I truly offer my deepest apologies.”
Millie sat back in the chair and breathed out, barely concealing her disdain. “I run a clean house, sir, and I take care of my girls. I do not countenance such games at their expense, because in the end, it also costs me. A girl with a damaged face does not attract the gentlemen who visit here.”
At her pointed emphasis of the word “gentlemen,” Clay felt his anger rise. “Madame Kendrick,” he said, sitting straighter. “I must say I resent your implications. I would never purposely hit a woman, for enjoyment or otherwise. I am not that sort of man.”
“But you did hit a woman, Mr. Mosby, for whatever reasons you might have had, and in my establishment, too.”
He was trapped, caught at something he was ashamed of. The only way to salvage the situation was to go on the attack. “If you want compensation, I will get it for you,” he said, matching her tone. “Just tell me how much. It will take a little time, but you will get your money.”
“That won’t be necessary,” she said, waving a hand. “You won’t be seeing Annie anymore.”
“What?” Clay felt as though the floor had liquified beneath his feet. All his aggression dissolved into fear. “You can’t be serious.”
“Yes, Mr. Mosby, I am quite serious.”
“But ... it was just an accident. I didn’t do it deliberately. I swear, it would never happen again.”
“It’s been my experience, sir, that such ‘accidents’ do tend to happen again, and get worse if left unchecked. I cannot afford to take that risk here.”
“You don’t understand. I’ve been seeing Annie for three months. She knows me. I have come to depend on that.” It was ridiculous to argue with this woman and humiliating to reveal his distress, but he couldn’t stop the words from pouring out.
“Please, sir, I do understand your attachment to the dear girl, but this is, after all, a business,” Millie told him. “You must realize she was never your lover.”
“What do you want from me? What will it take to change your mind?”
She looked at him and her demeanor softened. “It’s not in my hands, Mr. Mosby. One of my benefactors is also partial to Annie, and he was insistent on this remedy.”
“But I have never caused trouble for you before. Perhaps you could reason with him,” Clay persisted.
Millie seemed to consider his suggestion and then sighed. “I can do one thing for you,” she said as she reached for the pen on her desk and a small piece of stationery. “Annie was discreet, but she did let some things out of the bag, so I’m making a recommendation. I would suggest you see this woman if you would like further attention to your interests.” She scribbled out a name and address. “I think she could satisfy your tastes far better than any of my girls.”
She stood up and handed the slip of paper to him.
Clay looked at it blindly. He wanted to be with Annie, laying in her bed, letting her cuddle up to him and whisper compliments and accept him without judgment.
“You may leave by the door through the back hall, if you wish, Mr. Mosby. Hawkins is waiting to show you the way.”
Outside the Ivory Club, Clay stuffed the unread paper into his coat pocket next to the box containing the earrings, and wandered up Basin Street toward Congo Square. It was dusk on a Sunday evening, but a couple of tam-tam musicians were still there, thumping out their monotonous rhythm as a small group of dancers made a go of it. The women swayed, the men leaped, and all sang unintelligible verses, but Clay hardly noticed the outer noise for the inner chaos threatening his tenuous stability.
Beneath one of the sycamore trees bordering the public grounds, he found a log that had served as bench to many previous spectators and sank down onto it, absently rubbing a hand over his mouth.
What was he going to do now, without Annie? Where would he go when the world closed in on him, who would give him comfort when he needed it? So what if Annie was a whore. She was the only person who enjoyed his company anymore, and he didn’t believe it was just an act. Annie really cared about him, even more than Olivia, whose worried looks stabbed him to the heart until the guilt gushed. And certainly more than Robert, who probably wished him dead and the burden of him buried by this time.
Unconscious of the action, Clay withdrew the flask of opium tincture and took a small slug, just enough to wet his tongue.
Robert hated him outright anymore. He shook his head and let out a cynical breath. Robert, who’d been his “right-hand man” in childhood. Robert, who came to live at Hatton Willows as his adopted brother, who followed him faithfully to V.M.I. and to the war and eventually to prison. Robert, who dragged his empty carcass all the way from that Northern hell-hole to this Southern purgatory, saving his life more than once, whether Clay wanted to be saved or not.
Robert, who introduced him to Annie.
He’d forgotten that.
Robert had taken him to the Ivory Club the first time. He’d been there before, he said. “Here, meet Annie,” he said, and then sat back and waited patiently while Annie took Clay by the hand and led him to a private corner for a private conversation.
Annie seemed to know he was scared, that he hadn’t been with a woman in a long time, that he couldn’t take too much closeness or touching. Robert must have told her. Robert must have picked Annie for him. That would be just like Robert to do.
Clay frowned and took one more tiny sip from the flask before returning it to his inside pocket. He didn’t know whether to be angry or grateful. Maybe he was both, and sad as well. Not just for losing Annie, but somewhere along the way, he’d lost Robert, too. How had it come to this? They lived in the same house, but they never really spoke to each other anymore. Instead, they seemed to go out of their way to goad and torment each other with the things they knew could hurt the most.
“Why so blue, monsieur? Is it really that bad?”
The lilting voice came from above and he turned to the right to see a light-skinned Negro woman in a yellow tignon looking down at him, a knowing expression on her face. For a startled moment, he thought it was Rachel, then remembered that was impossible. Jesus, why was she so much on his mind?
The woman took hold of her red calico skirt and swung it forward gracefully as she sat next to him on the log. “The Bamboula,” she said, pointing to the dancers in the square, “it’s not what it was in the old days, is it?”
Clay focused on the dancers for a few seconds, then shrugged. “I never saw it before,” he said, dismissing the topic and the woman both.
“No? Ah, such a sight you missed. Every Sunday afternoon, the whole square filled with the Bamboula, and the Calinda, too. And all the nice folk in their church clothes, come with their children to watch.” She smiled at him. “With such a joyful noise, God could hear us all the way to heaven.”
Clay snorted. “God is deaf.”
“Oh, no, monsieur. Not at all. He heard your prayers today.”
This was getting too personal, too eerie. Clay fidgeted and considered getting up, but stopped himself. The woman should be the one to go. She was the intruder. He ignored her and went back to his rumination, expecting from long habit that she’d know her place in this social scheme and respect his unspoken command.
She showed no inclination to leave, however. “The real dance, it is still done, but in other places now,” she said, chatting him up as if they were fast friends. “There is a place by Lake Pontchartrain, and also one on Dumaine Street where the old rituals are made.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Clay sighed in exasperation. “I don’t care about your old dances.”
“You should come sometime. You need help, monsieur. The saints tell me this. You have bad luck, no? An enemy who brings evil on you, perhaps. A lover who left you. A loss at the cards.”
He looked at her with distaste. “Whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested. Find someone else to bother.”
The woman was immovable. “You know Marie Laveau?” she asked.
“The Voodoo queen? Of course, I’ve heard of her. The angel of mercy to the condemned at Parish Prison,” he said, gesturing sarcastically in its direction eastward. “She's the talk of the town.”
“She lives only a little way from here, down St. Anne Street,” she said. “You should go see her. She has great power. She can make a gris-gris to protect you.”
“Get away from me,” he said, finally conceding defeat and rising himself to leave. She was a capper for the old witch, a lure sent out to hook gullible, desperate men willing to gamble away even their souls for a dram of false hope. Enough troubled him already without her superstitious sales pitch adding to the list.
“Monsieur,” she called to him as he stalked away. “The paper in your pocket, you should throw it in the river. It will bring you to evil.”
Clay turned to look at her for a second with narrowed eyes, and a chill shook him, but he shook it off again as quickly. She was guessing, that’s all. Many well-dressed white men carried papers in their pockets letters, legal contracts, social invitations, theater tickets. It didn’t mean anything.
He turned back toward home. Maybe Robert would be there. He should set things right with Robert. After all they’d been through together, surely there was some friendship left to salvage.
It was dark by the time Clay got to the house, and dark inside, too. Usually, he’d feel pleased to be left alone, but this evening, disappointment filled him at the thought.
He stood in the foyer, wondering what he should do. With his original idea derailed, Annie permanently unavailable, and Seth shunned, he had no plan to fall back on. He just about turned to leave again when a door opened upstairs and Olivia rushed to the landing rail in her stocking feet, her shoes in her hands.
“Clay? Is that you?” she called down. Before he could answer, she started to descend. “I’m sorry it’s so dark. I didn’t light the lamps to conserve the gas, but I’ll do it now, with you here.” Upon reaching the ground floor, she dropped her shoes with an abrupt thud and embraced him tightly. “I’m so glad you came home early tonight. I hardly ever see you anymore, and I do miss your company.”
Clay fought the urge to push her away and instead returned the hug, smothering though it felt. “I was ... I was looking for Robert,” he blurted. Realizing that was not the most courteous thing to say, he added quickly, “I’ve missed your company, too, Cousin.”
She finally let go of him and bent to retrieve her footwear. “Oh, well, he should be here soon,” she said as she wriggled her feet into the confining leather shoes. “He usually comes home after work to clean up and eat some supper before going out again.”
“He’s working at the wharves on a Sunday?”
“Um ... no, he’s doing an extra job for Mr. LaPierre in his grog shop over on Royal Street. Unloading, stocking, something like that.” She finished tying her laces and stood up straight, smoothing her dress down over her hoops. “Have you had any supper yet? I’ll make you something if you want. Cook is off today, but there’s cold chicken from yesterday, and a bit of ham, too.”
Clay felt awash in Olivia’s torrent of words and wished now he hadn’t come home. She was pulling at him like she always did, trying to pin him down, keep him within sight, make him happy. It gave him a stomach ache to be near her, so food was last on his list of desires. Once again, however, she didn’t wait for him to answer.
“Here, let me help you off with your coat,” she said, tugging it over his shoulders. “I’ll go to the kitchen and fix some sandwiches for you and Robert. You just make yourself comfortable in the front parlor while you wait for him. I think there’s a newspaper in there to occupy you in the meantime. I know how you men like to keep up with all the political news, with so much happening lately.”
She hung his coat on the hall tree and then twined both her arms around one of his. Holding on as if to prevent his escape, she led him into the parlor only a few steps away. When she extricated herself, she rummaged in the drawer of a small etagere and withdrew a tin of matches to use in lighting the lamps.
“I’ll do that,” he said, taking the matches from her. Anything to get her to leave, even if for just a few minutes.
After she’d gone, Clay could finally breathe. He went around the little parlor turning on the gas jets and lighting each lamp until the shabby room glowed with a cozy yellow tint. While using a final match to light a cigar, he found the New Orleans Picayune on the low table in front of the sofa and sat down with it.
February 11, 1866. Clay skimmed the headlines. Almost all announced various party opinions on state affairs and the city elections to be held in March stories about Reconstruction and Southern Rights and Negro suffrage and the legality of the Louisiana state constitution. There were so many new parties now, too four different versions of Democrats alone. Four more than Clay had any interest in.
Despite Olivia’s assertion about men and politics, he hadn’t bothered to look at a newspaper in months. There didn’t seem much point. It wasn’t like he had any say in these political matters, being disenfranchised, and even if he did have the vote, he doubted he’d exercise the privilege. Not in a country that wasn’t his anymore. He would take no oaths if it meant swearing loyalty to the government of the so-called “united” states. The only allegiance he professed now was to himself and his own never-ending lost cause.
He tossed the unread paper onto the table and after taking another drag off the cigar, laid his head back against the worn satin sofa. The ceiling needed repairs to the plaster where the center medallion had been pried away. He blew smoke at the gouges and snorted in disgust. Hard to believe the occupying Federals had stolen even that, or had they simply destroyed it to further punish the Southern sympathizer whose home it had been?
The front door opened and Clay lifted his head expectantly.
Robert showed his surprise at seeing him. “Why aren’t you out with Seth tonight?” he said as he took off his coat and hung it next to Clay’s. “I figured you’d be over in the Quarter by now, losing all your money.” He came into the parlor and looked down at Clay, but at a slight distance, as if he wasn’t sure how close he could get and remain safe.
Clay sat up straighter. “I’m ... rethinking my association with him,” he said, suddenly uncertain how to go about this plan to reconcile.
“Oh?” Robert sounded wary, but he came farther into the room and sat on a chair opposite the sofa.
“I was hoping ... maybe we could talk a little. It’s been a long time since you and I had a conversation.”
Robert leaned back and looked around the room. “That’s not my fault,” he said, his tone still maintaining a distance between them.
Clay heard irritation creep into his own voice. “I didn’t say it was.”
“And what about that little girl at Millie’s place. You rethinking your association with her, too?”
It was Clay’s turn to feel wary. “Why do you ask that?”
Robert fixed his gaze on Clay again. “Isn’t that where you go when you’re feeling all maudlin like this?”
Clay exhaled in growing anger. “I take that to mean you’ve been following me,” he said, unable to suppress the sarcasm.
Robert laughed. “Don’t flatter yourself.”
“Oh, that’s right. You took me there yourself, didn’t you? Tell me something, Robert. Did you fuck Annie too, before you introduced me to her?”
Robert’s expression hardened. “Yes,” he said. “And she was very accommodating.”
Clay looked away and pulled more smoke into his mouth from the cigar, suddenly disoriented by the hurt he felt.
Robert sighed and shook his head. “I wanted to make sure she wouldn’t put you off. You were so ... skittish at the time.”
“So you procured a kind-hearted whore to take pity on me. I suppose you’d like me to thank you now.”
“I wouldn’t survive the shock.” Robert shifted in the chair to get more comfortable and as a flag of truce, gave Clay a tiny smile. “So, does she make you happy?”
Olivia’s footsteps up the hall interrupted them. “Hello, Robert,” she said, greeting him with warmth as he jumped up to take the heavily laden tray she carried. “I found some buttermilk in the ice box, too. I thought you both might like some. I remember how you’d drink it by the gallon when you were schoolboys.” She fussed with the napkins and utensils after Robert set the tray on top of the discarded newspaper.
“Thank you, Cousin,” Clay said, taking the plate she handed to him and hoping he could eat at least some of the food she’d heaped on it.
Robert dug in his trouser pocket and pulled out a roll of dollars. “Here, Olivia. This should cover the gas this month.”
Clay observed the exchange with embarrassment, as Robert no doubt intended, and some consternation. “Are you having trouble paying the bills, Cousin?” he asked.
“Oh, no, of course not,” she assured him with a nervous smile. “Between the three of us, we have all we need.”
Clay looked at Robert, but he just sat down again and focused on his meal.
“Well, I suppose you two have a lot to catch up on,” she said, obviously pleased to see them together. “The last thing you want is a woman to get in the way. I’ll go clean up the kitchen and let you men talk in peace.”
Clay watched her go and in a fickle change of heart, regretted her departure. He no longer relished facing Robert alone.
Robert didn’t bring up the money, however. Instead, he revived their earlier discussion in an unexpectedly pleasant tone.
“You didn’t say, Clay. Does Annie make you happy?” He bit a huge section off his sandwich.
Clay nibbled at his, which contained both the chicken and the ham Olivia had mentioned. “What makes you think I’m still seeing her?” he hedged.
Robert chuckled. “You’re a creature of habit, Clay,” he said around his full mouth.
Clay blinked and looked away. “Well, change is ... good on occasion.”
“What do you mean, change is good?” Robert swallowed and looked up at him with suspicion. “You aren’t seeing her anymore, are you?”
Clay tried to avoid the subject. “I’ve moved on is all. You see, I’m not such a creature of habit.”
“What happened with Annie?”
He sighed in resignation and settled for avoiding eye contact. “I was asked not to return.”
Robert was like a sledgehammer pounding at a rock pile. “Why? What did you do to her?”
“Why do you always assume I did something?”
“Because you always do, Clay. You are very good at hurting everyone you care about.”
Clay cringed under the verbal blow. “That is not fair,” he insisted, though even he didn’t believe that.
“Did you hurt her?” Robert threw his napkin down and stood, his voice rising as well. “By God, if you hurt her, I’ll beat the shit out of you myself.”
“I knew this was a mistake. There’s no talking to you anymore.” Clay set his plate on the table and strode out to the hall.
Robert followed on his heels and blocked the front door. “Did you hurt her?” he growled.
Clay’s face tensed, but he said nothing as he grabbed his coat and jammed his arms into it.
“You did, didn’t you?” Robert shook his head. “I thought you’d treat a white girl better. But I guess it doesn’t matter to you what color they are, so long as you bought and paid for them.”
Jesus Christ, it was like she was haunting him. But why not? She was just one more in the crowd of ghosts recalling his past sins. Clay glared at him. “I never hurt Rachel,” he said through clenched teeth.
Robert’s eyes darkened with contempt. “How do you live with all those lies you tell yourself, Clay?” He stepped back and gestured to the door. “By all means, run away again. Far be it for me to stop you.”
Clay pushed past without another glance and slammed the door shut behind him as he fled into the city’s demi-monde.
Robert stared at the door and listened until silence replaced its reverberations in the nearly empty hallway. Anger vied with despair inside him, or perhaps the anger was merely an echo of his hopelessness.
Clay had left with the usual fanfare of late a childish display of temper but in so many ways, he’d gone long ago. Something felt strangled between them, choking for air and going unconscious. Death was only a heartbeat away, and then it would be done. Robert would be free to stop tending this sickbed of a friendship and get on with his own life.
So what was he waiting for? Did he really need to hear the last gasp to know it was over? Did he need to see Clay truly dead before he could believe it?
“Robert, was that Clay leaving?” Olivia called, hurrying down the hall.
He hadn’t heard her come in from the courtyard in the back, where the kitchen building was. Had she been in the house already? Wordlessly, he turned toward her as she swept up to him at the foot of the stairs. She came to a sudden halt and her hoops swayed from the interrupted momentum.
“Did he have to go so soon?” she asked, looking into the parlor, searching for evidence to the contrary.
Robert released a heavy sigh. “We had an argument,” he said. No point in trying to hide it; most likely, Olivia had heard the whole thing from the back parlor. She often eavesdropped on them, he knew, in her desperate attempt to keep watch on Clay.
“Why didn’t you stop him?” she demanded, grasping his open vest and shaking him to the best of her ability. “Go after him. He couldn’t have gotten far. Go after him, Robert, please. You know he’ll end up in jail one of these nights and that will surely kill him. How would you feel if you let that happen? You’re his friend. You can’t let him be locked in a cage after all you went through in prison together.”
Prison Olivia’s trump card. But she’d played it too many times now to have any effect on him. “No, Olivia,” he said, covering her hands with his own. “Clay does what he wants. I can’t stop him.” He pulled her grip from his vest and started up the stairs.
She stamped her foot and pounded the banister. “You cannot turn your back on him, Robert. Are you not your brother’s keeper?” she said, misquoting the Bible in a righteous tone.
He paused and looked down at the ridiculous scene she was making. It would have been laughable if it didn’t remind him of Clay’s tantrums. “No. I am not,” he said, and then continued up to his room, strangely unmoved by her ensuing tears.
Clay stuffed his hands in his coat pockets and headed up St. Charles, toward Canal Street, the southernmost border of the Vieux Carré. It was fortunate the house they’d rented was so close to the Old Quarter, considering how much time he spent in that vicinity. Fortunate, also, this evening, because the little bit he’d eaten of Olivia’s victuals wasn’t enough to stave off his suddenly realized hunger. He thought about going into the St. Charles Hotel for a meal as he approached it, but decided he could wait till he got to the coffeehouse on the corner of Bourbon and Bienville. He could get a meal free there with his drinks, and he’d bet both on the likelihood he’d find Seth Belden at its bar as well.
Sure enough, Seth was perched at the bar when Clay entered, playing with “la Feé Verte” the Green Fairy as the French Creoles called the potent absinthe liqueur. Clay wrinkled his nose at the cloying anise smell even before he’d sat down on the next stool.
“Thought I’d find you here, Belden,” he said. He leaned on one elbow and watched as Seth let the cold water from the fountain drip into the chartreuse liqueur, dissolving on its way the sugar cube suspended above the glass by a slotted spoon. With each drop of water, the absinthe grew more milky, until it was an opalescent sage color.
Seth waited till he’d taken the first sip to reply. “Thought you’d be other places, Mosby,” he said, focusing on the frappé glass in his hand. “What was it you said to me? I had all the breeding of a prize hog at a county fair?”
“Perhaps I was a little hasty in overlooking your finer qualities.” Clay waved to the bartender. “Scotch whiskey, straight,” he told the man, and reached in his trouser pocket for the payment.
Seth moved his attention from his green drink to Clay’s greenback currency as Clay sorted through his bills. “Now, you see there, I got the strong feeling you didn’t think I had any qualities,” he said, though his tone carried a friendlier note this time.
Clay stuffed the remaining currency back into his pocket and gave Seth an apologetic grin. “What can I tell you? I wasn’t myself that day.”
“Yeah? So, what are my ‘finer qualities’?” Seth asked in petulant challenge.
Clay threw the shot of whiskey to the back of his mouth and felt the burning liquid soothe his throat as he swallowed. He put the glass down, motioning for a refill, and turned to Seth with an appraising look. “Well, now, you like to drink those absinthe frappés,” he said, pointing to it. “If that isn’t a sign of good taste, I don’t know what is. I mean, everyone knows that’s what all the gentlemen are drinking these days.”
Seth squinted at him. “You don’t.”
“Obviously, I’m not a gentleman,” Clay said, flashing another quick grin.
Seth seemed suspicious of Clay’s assertions, but finally grinned, too. “I guess you got that right, Mosby,” he said, finishing off the absinthe in his glass. He looked at Clay with a hopeful expression. “You think you could buy me some more of this high-falutin’ liquor? I figure you kinda owe me and all. You know, for being such a sonofabitch and hurting my feelings.”
Clay stared at him a moment. From the dizzy look in Seth’s eyes, it appeared he’d danced with the Green Fairy three or four times already in the past hour. He sighed and dug out his money again, handing Seth a five dollar note. “I’d say that makes us even,” he said, and clapped Seth on the back. “Now, why don’t you go get us some of that gumbo at the end of the counter, and after we eat, we’ll find a nice game of poker somewhere with some really unlucky Yankees.”
Seth nodded as he fondled the V spot. “I met up with a couple of carpetbaggers last night over at the St. Louis Hotel. They don’t know shit about cards, but they sure are game to play.”
“Good. That’s just the sort of game I was hoping to hunt tonight.”
Seth leaned in close, his growing euphoria clouding him in sentimentality. “You see, Clay?” he said, blowing licorice breath in Clay’s face. “You need me to scout for you like that. Just like in the army, you know? You and me, we make our own two-man regiment. Never surrender! That should be our motto.”
Clay pushed him back to get some air. “All right, Seth,” he said. “Gumbo first, though.”
“Right.” Seth nodded solemnly. “This regiment ain’t gonna go hungry, no sir.”
He started to salute, but Clay grabbed his arm and cautioned in a whisper, “Might be enemy around.”
“Oh, right.” Seth wobbled backward and attempted a casual stance. “I’m gonna go forage now.”
“You do that.”
Clay exhaled in relief after Seth had gone to rustle up the gumbo. He looked down at the dwindling roll of greenbacks in his hand and prayed his intoxicated companion was right about those carpetbaggers. With so little to use as a stake, there’d be no more drinking for himself until after the game. Besides, he needed a clear mind to earn on his investment, and he needed to win enough to give Olivia a cut toward their expenses. He’d be damned if he’d let Robert carry his share of the load Robert played martyr too well as it was.
Clay frowned. Why couldn’t Robert simply talk to him anymore? Why did he have to be so damned officious all the time, like he was some goddamn savior doing Clay a big favor by sticking around. That little display tonight with the money, then harping about Annie and Rachel hell, didn’t he think Clay carried enough guilt already? Did he really have to reopen the wounds every chance he got? Too bad he didn’t mention Mary, too. Wouldn’t that have been the icing on his cake to see Clay squirm under the weight of that failure.
No, Mary shouldn’t be brought into this. Her memory was too pure; it should be kept free of the filth his life had become. He had forfeited the right to remember her image, even to punish himself, when he had let his honor be taken from him.
“Here’s your gumbo, Clay,” Seth said, sliding the steaming bowl toward him.
Clay glanced at it, but didn’t pick up the spoon.
“Ain’t you gonna eat it?”
“When it cools.”
Seth shrugged and turned back to order another absinthe, happy as a child to dabble with the fountain again.
Clay leaned over the black marble counter and ran a hand across his mouth. He would miss Annie, more than he should, but Robert was right about that part anyway he was a creature of habit. He slipped a hand inside his coat and pulled out the box of earrings he’d intended to give her. A folded piece of paper came out with it and dropped onto the bar.
Clay opened the box and set it down, a thumb to his bottom lip as he stared at the silver filigree and purple stones. But the paper drew his focus away. It confused him he couldn’t recall what he’d saved it for until he unfolded it and read the brief message it contained.
Mme. Lila Tuliere, 2100 Esplanade at Bayou Rd., by appointment
Millie Kendrick’s consolation gift. But this address was on the way out toward the lake not an area known for brothels. What was it Millie said ... “she can satisfy your tastes”? What did that mean? Just what kind of house did this Madame Tuliere run?
The words of the colored woman at Congo Square came back to him then, too. “The paper in your pocket ... it will bring you to evil.”
Clay shook his head at the absurdity. He dipped the spoon into his gumbo and took a bite of the spicy Cajun stew. Closing the jewelry box with his left hand while he ate, he tucked it back into his coat pocket, and then crumpled the scrap of paper in his fist. He was just about to toss it away when something stopped him.
“... she can satisfy your tastes....”
Clay rested the spoon in the half-empty gumbo bowl and pushed it aside. Smoothing the paper flat again, he studied it for a minute.
“Whatcha got there, Clay?” Seth asked, craning to see.
Clay covered it with his hand. “Nothing that would interest you, Belden,” he said, palming it as neatly as an ace in a deck of cards. “Now, where do you think we’ll find those Yankees you were talking about?”
[Continued in DARKLY BOUND: Sade & Gomorrah, Part 2]
Colleen J. MacLennan