When James was younger, just after his father’s funeral, his mother’s sister, a shy and unmarried woman named Nella, stayed with the family for three months till, as she put it, Mrs. Hogan “saw that there were things still worth living for.” It was Nella’s habit to bathe in the downstairs bathroom, where the tub with the claws and the wall with the nymphs on it sat in the rear of the house. Nella always waited till everyone had gone to sleep before bathing. The family was too polite to ask why, of course, respecting their aunt as they did, even if she was “eccentric” as their mother had rather shamefully said of her one day.
    One night, when he badly needed a drink, and had found his mother in the upstairs bathroom, James had gone downstairs, thinking he’d get water from the kitchen, which the colored maid had cleaned only that afternoon. He descended the stairs in darkness, liking the way winter moonlight played silver and frosty through the front window. Then he heard the sighing from the back of the house, from the bathroom.
    At first the sound reminded him of pain. But why would Nella inflict pain on herself?
    On tiptoe, sensing he should not do what he was about to do, James went down the hall to the bathroom. The closer he got the more pronounced the moaning and the signing became.
    He was about to raise his hand and let it gently fall against the door when she said, “Oh, Donald; Donald.” And that stopped him. Was there a man in there with her?
    He did not knock. Instead he did what so many comedians in vaudeville did. He fell to one knee and peered through the key hole.
    Aunt Nella was nude. The body she had kept modestly hidden was beautiful and womanly and overwhelming to him. She leaned against the wall with the nymphs so that he could see her clearly, her eyes closed so tightly, her mouth open and gasping, her hand fallen and moving quicksilver fast at the part in her white legs. “Oh, Donald; Donald.” And he saw now that she was alone and only summoning the man as if he were a ghost who could pass through walls and visit her, touch her as she now touched herself.
    He never forgot how Aunt Nella looked that night; she would forever be the woman with whom he compared all other women, and for many years after, in stern midwestern February and in soft mid-western October, he would see her there projected on his ceiling. Oh, Nella; Nella (just as she’d called out for Donald). Nella.
    Just after his third drink, just after Uncle Septemus disappeared down the hall, just after the door closed and the girl came in and dropped her shabby dress to her wide hips, James thought of Nella, thinking the most forbidden thought of all, that he wished it were Nella he was with on this most important of nights, and not some chubby farm girl with bleached hair and the smell of too-sweet perfume.
    The whorehouse shook with the relentless happiness of player pianos (one up, one down) and the even more relentless happiness of girls determined in their somewhat sad way to show the men a good time. He could smell whiskey and cigar smoke and sweat, and could see the flickering shadows cast by the kerosene lamp on the sentimental painting of the innocent but somehow erotic young prairie girl above the brass bed. James supposed that that was how all the girls saw themselves-idealized and vulnerable in that way, not crude and harsh and defeated as they really were.
    She came over and stood by him and said, “My name’s Liz.”
    “Hi, Liz.”
    She smiled. “It’s all right if you look at them. That’s why I took my dress down. So you could see them.”
    He couldn’t stop staring at her breasts. He’d raise his eyes and look into her eyes or he’d glance up at the painting above the bed but always his eyes would drop back down to her breasts.
    She reached out and took his hand. Touched it in such a way that he could tell she was making some character judgment about him. “You’re not a farm boy, are you?”
    “No, ma’m.”
    She giggled. “I ain’t no ’ma’m,’ I bet I’m younger than you. I’m fourteen.”
    He didn’t say anything. Stood straight and still, heart hammering.
    “You want to kiss first?”
    “I guess so,” he said.
    “You don’t know what to do, do you?”
    “I guess not.”
    “You look mighty scared.”
    He said nothing.
    “If you just relax, you’ll enjoy yourself.”
    He said nothing.
    “You kinda remind me of my brother and that’s kinda sweet.” She leaned forward and kissed him gently on the lips. “That feel good?”
    “I guess so.”
    She laughed. “You sure ‘guess’ about a lot of things.”
    He said nothing.
    She took his hand again. She led him over to the bed. They sat on the edge of it, the springs squeaking. She was prettier in profile than straight on. He wanted her to be pretty. On a night like this you wanted your girl to be pretty. He wondered if he’d be so scared now if he were sitting here with Marietta. Or Nella. That was a terrible thought and he tried not to think it, about sitting there with his own aunt, but he couldn’t help it.
    He said, “Do you go to school?”
    She turned and looked at him. “Do I go to school?” She smiled and patted his hand. “Honey, they wouldn’t let girls like me in school.”
    “You got folks?”
    “In South Dakota.”
    “Do they-”
    “Do they know what I do? Was that what you were gonna ask me?”
    “I guess.”
    “No. They don’t know. A year ago I run off. This was as far as I got. I wrote ’em and tole ’em I’m working for this nice woman.” She laughed. “Miss Susan is nice; that part of it ain’t a lie.”
    He sat on the edge of the bed and stared down at his hands. They were trembling. “We don’t have to do anything. I wouldn’t ask for my money back, I mean.”
    “You afraid you can’t do it?”
    He didn’t say anything.
    “A lot of men are like that. Even when they’ve been doin’ it regular all their lives. They just get kinda scared and they get worried if they’re gonna make fools of themselves but, heck, you’ll be fine.”
    “You sure?”
    “Sure. I mean, we’ll take it real slow. We’ll lay back on the bed and just kind of hold each other and take it real slow. I like it better that way anyway.”
    “You do?”
    “Sure. More like we care about each other.”
    “You want to lie back now?”
    “You talk good, don’t you?”
    “English is one of my best subjects.”
    “She laughed. “Honey, none of ’em was my best subject. I’m thick as a log.”
    “You ready?”
    “Any time you are.”
    “And I just lie back?”
    “You just lie back.”
    “I don’t take my clothes off yet?”
    “Not yet. I’ll do that for you later.”
    “And then we just… do it?”
    “That’s right. Then we just… do it. But maybe I should teach you a little trick.”
    “A trick?”
    “I ain’t a beautiful girl, honey. I know that. I got a nice set of milk jugs but that’s about it. So Miss Sue tole me about this little trick to pass on to men.”
    “What sort of trick?”
    She giggled. “You’re getting scared again, honey. It’s nothing to be scared about at all.” She leaned over and touched his chest. He liked the weight and warmth of her pressed against him. “You got a sweetheart?”
    James thought about it. Should he even mention Marietta’s name to a girl like this? “I guess.”
    “Well, then, while we’re doin’ it, you close your eyes and pretend I’m her. It’ll be a lot better for you that way.”
    “But isn’t that kind of-” He shook his head.
    “Kind of what?”
    “Won’t that kind of hurt your feelings?”
    She looked up at him in the soft flicking lampglow. How hard she seemed, and yet there was a weariness in her young gaze that made him sad for her. She was fourteen and no fourteen year old he knew looked this weary. “Nope,” she said. “It won’t hurt my feelings at all.”
    But for some reason he didn’t think she was telling him the truth. For some reason he thought she might be happy to hear what he said next.
    “I’m happy to be with you,” he said.
    “You are?”
    “Well, that’s nice of you to say.” She pointed to her mouth. “Let me finish chewin’ my gum so my breath gets good and sweet.” She finished chewing her gum, then set it with surprising delicacy on the edge of the bureau and lay back down next to him.
    “Would you like it better if I turned the lamp out?” she said.
    “Yeah, maybe that would be better.”
    So she turned the lamp out.
    He lay there in the darkness listening to both of them breathe.
    After a time she kissed him and it was awkward and he felt nervous and afraid but then she kissed him a second and a third time and it felt very nice and he began stroking her bleached hair and she took one of his hands and set it to her breast and then everything was fine, just fine, and all the whorehouse noise faded and it was just them in the soft shared prairie shadows.
Jack Dwyer #07 - What the Dead Men Say
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