Funny thing about an ugly whore. They keep you furthest back where the shadows are darkest, because powder and rouge can only do so much. You don’t get chosen so often, and you’re always worried when you do, because it’s usually the mean ones that’ll choose ya. Miss Kitty won’t let a man hit her pretty girls, but she figures with the ugly ones, a few bruises don’t make no difference.
So I was real surprised when the man pointed at me. I don’t know, just something about him didn’t strike me as mean. If Miss Kitty seemed surprised, too, she didn’t show it, although Miss Alice had to stifle a gasp. Miss Kitty beckoned me, and I led the way upstairs, swaying my hips real nice for the fellow, and meaning it this time.
With the door closed behind us, I stripped down to my petticoat and corset, and arranged myself alluringly on the bed. He took off his gun belt and set it on the dressing table, but that was all. He sat on the edge of the bed, hardly looking at me.
“Do you ever get…people… who just want to talk?” he asked.
Well, yeah, that was something that happened to ugly whores, too. I felt a little deflated.
“It’s all right, ya think?”
Something in the way he said it made me feel a little sorry for him, like he was carrying a great sadness. I patted his arm.
“Why, sure, it’s all right.”
He let out a big sigh and slowly, haltingly, began his story.
“My pa was a horrible, mean man. Made his own corn whiskey and finished off a whole jug every day and every night. Had a terrible temper. He only took it out on us boys, though, never raised a hand to my ma or my sister.
“He spent a lotta time in the saloons, loved to play cards but wasn’t very good at it. He lost an awful lot of money, and sometimes we went hungry because he’d stopped at One-Eyed Jacks instead of the general store. Ma never said anything, though. I didn’t know why.
“One day he came home and told my sister to pack her bags. He’d gotten himself into a world of trouble at the saloon and owed the owner more money than he could ever hope to earn in a lifetime. ‘It’s either you or the house,’ he told her.
“She cried and cried while she packed up, but Ma kept reassuring her. ‘You’re a petty girl,’ she said, ‘you’re gonna do just fine. You’ll get to wear pretty things, and least it ain’t gonna be your pa anymore.’
“I didn’t understand,” he said with a helpless shrug. “By the time I did, I came to town, looking for her, but she was gone. The bartender at the saloon said she just up and left one day, making everyone real mad, but they didn’t come after pa because she’d done a real good job while she was there.
“I’m still looking for her.” He stared at his hands for the longest time.
“I chose you because you have pretty eyes,” he said, turning to look at me for the first time. “They look real kind, ma’am.”
“I just thought, maybe, if you ever see her? If she comes by looking for work, you know? You can tell her that pa’s dead now, and her brother, Jasper, that’s me, is looking for her. Her name is Annabelle.”
I nodded my head, knowing I’d never see that girl, and if I did, she wouldn’t be Annabelle anymore. No one goes by their real name, their Christian name, their pig tails and freckles and crown-of-daisies name.
He took my hand and held it for awhile, then he stood up and put his gun belt back on.
He tipped his hat, gave me one last, hopeful smile, and left a couple of bills on the dressing table.
by Shelli Proffitt Howells