Listen, Read, or Listen and Read!
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Cora was laying on the bed when the yelling began and the shot came through the ceiling just a few feet from her head. She ran as quickly as she could to the far end of the room, toward the back of the building, and crouched down in the shadows. Before she could get down all the way her bladder practically exploded, wetting the tail of her dress before she could get it pulled up enough to prevent it. Stepping gingerly across the puddle, she went to the other side, still well hidden behind piles of junk, and crouched down. It seemed like an eternity before she heard Elmo’s voice coming from the bottom of the stairs.
“Cora, he called. It’s me, Elmo, and I’m coming up. Don’t be afraid. Everything’s okay now.” He continued to climb the stairs as he talked so that by the time he finished the speech, his head was above the level of the floor. He could see that the bed was empty and was in the process of scanning the room when Cora emerged from the shadows at the back. He exclaimed, “Cora, I’m so glad to see you. You okay?”
“I … I … guess. Just scared, I … guess.”
“You’ve nothing to worry about now, Cora. He’s dead.”
“Faulkner. You did say he raped you, didn’t you?”
“Well, yeah. But it was only because you made me. I guess you could call it rape. But only because I wasn’t sure. I’d never done it before, and I was scared and it was happening so fast, but he did say he was going to marry me. And I thought …”
“I didn’t make you do shit! You’re the one coming in screaming that he was right behind you and was going to kill you. So don’t say I made you do it.”
Cora was sitting on the bed with her back to Elmo, who sat on the broken stool on the opposite side. Cora sobbed loudly. “I … I … didn’t mean to. I mean, he was chasing me because I screamed when he started to do it and before he could actually touch me with that thing I jumped up and ran out of the house…
“Wait!” Elmo shouted. “Wait! Yesterday afternoon right after I brought you up here you said he raped you.”
“I did.” she said, sheepishly. “I guess it was just in the heat of the moment, right after he came in looking for me and I was so scared and then you roughed him up and threw him out and I was scared and I guess that’s why I nodded yes when you asked if he raped me. It sort of felt that way. And now, after I’ve had a chance to lay up here for hours and think about it, I’ve decided that he wouldn’t really kill me and we could get married but you killed him! You … killed … him! What am I going to do?” She lowered her head into her cradled hands and sobbed again, more loudly.
The way in which she spoke that last sentence caused Elmo to realize she was much more concerned with what she was going to do than the fact that Faulkner was no more. He sat there dumbfounded. This young girl might be the most gullible, impressionable person he’d ever met. After being brutally attacked and almost raped she still thought the young man … no more than a boy really, just like Cora was no more than a girl … would marry her … would do anything with her but make her his private slave if she had let him complete the act he started.
Elmo began to pity her, to feel sorry for her. What could he do to help her? Should he do anything to help her? She was none of his responsibility. But she was really pitiful.
After an interval of about five minutes during which neither spoke, she asked, “What happened down there, anyway? Who fired the shot through the ceiling? There’s where it came through the floor, right over there.” She pointed.
“Faulkner fired the shot. He was about to shoot me when Jonny stepped in and … that’s enough … he’s dead … no-one could tell the sheriff what happened … it’ll officially go in the books as ‘Killed in a bar brawl. Killer unknown.’
“But, Mr. Elmo, I truly don’t know what I’m gonna do. I don’t have no money to get back to Arkansas and even if I did, I couldn’t because my daddy told me if I left not to never come back because he wouldn’t know me no more. I would be dead to him. And I know’d then and I know now that he meant it and still means it.” She began the loud sobbing again.
Elmo handed her his handkerchief and paused for a moment before saying, “You can stay here for as long as you need to until you find something else to do. It’s going on two now, so there’s not much night left. But you can sleep up here for as long as you want. Won’t nobody harm you. There’s a chamberpot over there in the corner.”
“But I would be afraid to stay up here by myself. It’s spooky enough up here even when there are people in the bar, but I’d be scared outta my wits to stay up here by myself.”
“Shit.” Elmo thought. “What else do I have to do to please this little wench?” But what he said was:
“You won’t be by yourself. I’ll set down in that corner there at the top of the stairs and stay there all night. Ain’t no other way up here but them stairs. I have to go down and make sure everything’s secure for the night, but I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.”
“Okay.” she squeaked.
A moment later Elmo reappeared at the top of the stairs, walked over to where she lay on the bed and looked down at her staring up at him with wide, trusting eyes.
“Go to sleep now.” he said, gently. “Nothin or nobody’s gonna harm you. Okay?”
She nodded, sleepily. By the time Elmo had gotten settled in his corner her breathing had become regular and he knew she was falling asleep. He upturned the pint of whiskey that he had just topped off, the chief reason for his quick trip downstairs.
Throughout much of the night he was awakened every little while by Cora’s restlessness. She kept mumbling something that sounded like, “Leave me alone, Daddy, or I’ll kill you. You cain’t touch me no more like you used to. Now leave me alone…
Sometime around daylight she seemed to drift into a more peaceful sleep. Elmo continued dozing in his corner until he heard her get up and watched her walk over to the chamberpot in the far corner. Without hesitation or seeming embarrassment, she lifted her skirts and squatted over the pot, her eyes on Elmo as she did so. He averted his eyes. This was not a good situation. He would have to figure out something out.
Before she had finished her pee, Elmo quietly started down the stairs, squelching a groan with every step, as his creaky old bones and the muscles clinging to them didn’t want to move after sitting propped in a corner all night. And he, who was used to sleeping til eleven, really hadn’t gotten his nap out.
Downstairs, he searched around under the bar for some coffee beans and a grinder. Finally finding them, he dropped a handful into the box and ground it, dumping the ground coffee into an old coffeepot and filling it with water. He placed it on the small gas stove.
Presently Cora came down the stairs and into the bar.
“I’m hungry.” she said. “Can you get me something to eat.”
Elmo thought a minute. The only things there were to eat in the bar were pickled eggs and pickled sausages. The Brewery Avenue Diner was just across the street, however, and it was just breakfast time.
“We can go across the street and get some breakfast in a bit, but I’ve got coffee boilin that should be about ready. Let’s have a cup and talk about a few things before we go.”
“Talk about what?”
“Well. For starters, I couldn’t help but notice how you pulled up your skirt and squatted on the pot right in front of me a few minutes ago. If you expect me to do anything at all for you, the first thing is to show me you have at least a modicum of modesty.”
“A … A what? Of modesty?”
“Even just a little. Like you could have at least turned your back to me to pee.”
“I’m sorry. Didn’t think nothin about it. Daddy never complained. He liked it like that.”
Elmo remembered back to her mumblings during the night.
Elmo had a revelation. Revelations are not enlightenments.
“Know how I just now mentioned I’m old enough to be your granddaddy?
“Well, as long as you’re in Bisbee, that’s what I’m gonna be. You’re gonna call me Pops.”
“But why? Why do I have to say I’m yore grand-girl? Why can’t I just be yore friend?
“Because seventy-year-old men don’t have … How old are you, anyway.
“Don’t have eighteen year old girls as friends… Them that know any eighteen year olds leave two dollars on the dresser when they leave their beds… So I’m Pops. We’ll talk more after breakfast. You had a suitcase with you when you got here yesterday, didn’t you? Where is it?”
“In Faulkner’s room, I reckon, less’n somebody got it.”
“Awright, let’s get some breakfast. I’m gettin hungry. C’mon.” They stepped across the street to the diner where they were served a breakfast of runny eggs, sausage and burnt toast. But it was plentiful and Cora asked for seconds.
As soon as she had finished, Elmo stood and said, “Let’s go see if we can find that suitcase now.” He dropped a dollar on the table and started walking towards the door. Cora had to move quickly to catch up with him before he got across the street. He was headed for the Broadway steps.
She worked to keep up with him as he climbed. When he reached Opera Drive he paused and waited for Cora to catch up.“You know how to get to Faulkner’s room from here, right?”
“Yeah. I think so. I went several places the other mornin before somebody tole me where to go.”
“Then lead the way.” Elmo said, waiting for her to take the lead. They walked up Opera to the foot of Temby where she stopped and looked up a long flight of steps. Houses stacked seemingly one on top of the other could be seen on either side. After a few seconds she shook her head and turned to walk a little further up Opera. The previous scene was repeated but this time she said, “I think these are the right stairs. If they are, his room is in that house yonder, the third one up thattaway.” She motioned toward the right as she said this.
The two of them started up. When they got to the house, she pointed out the room she thought was Faulkner’s. Elmo tentatively knocked, waited a respectable interval and then tried the door. It opened onto a room with a bed, one chair and a small table. That was all the furniture. Piles of garbage were scattered about the room.
“Do you know where you left the suitcase?” Elmo said.
“I put it under the bed.” She pointed although it was unnecessary
Elmo took the few steps to the bed and knelt down to look under it. He pulled out the small suitcase and turned to leave.
“Follow me.” he said as he stepped outside and down off the porch. Rather than turning to go down the steps to Opera, he turned the other way, going all the way to the top. There were two more houses stacked above the one they had been in.
At the top, Elmo turned left on a narrow trail that ran along the side of the hill somewhat below the top. They were walking above houses on the low side and more were visible higher up.
They walked along the trail for about five minutes when they came to another set of steps that went both directions, up and down. Elmo turned downward, passing one house and then entering the next one.
“Gertrude!” he shouted as he walked through the door.
A large woman came from the back of the house, wiping her hands on her apron. She was something past middle age but how much past was something of conjecture. Her late husband had been killed in the mine ten or twelve years before. Gertrude managed to survive by taking in boarders. Elmo was one of these boarders.
“Land o’ goshen! Elmo.” she fished a large pocket-watch from somewhere down between her bosoms which hung down loosely inside her dress clear to her waist. “It is only nine o’clock. What have you been doink out this morning so early.”
“I’m just now getting back up here from last night. He turned to find Cora cowering behind him and urged her to step up as he continued, “This is Cora. My granddaughter. Her mama, my daughter who lived in El Paso, died just a few days ago and Cora don’t have no other kin. You think she can stay here for awhile?”
“In your room? That wouldn’t be proper.”
“No. I was hopin you had a spare room that’s not rented.”
“Nope. Don’t. Reckon she could sleep with me, though, if she’s a mind to. Might be a room come available pretty soon. Come over here closer, darlink”
It took a little prod from Elmo to get Cora started over to where the large woman stood. Cora had not taken two steps when the odors emanating from the woman almost overwhelmed her. The smell of frying onions predominated but there were other pungent food odors that she couldn’t identify and these were mixed with a hefty dose of sweat and other body odors.
The woman stretched out her arms and put both her hands on Cora’s shoulders. She looked from Cora’s face to Elmos’.
“You never said nothink about havink a no dotter much less a grand-dotter. But this-un does favor you some, I reckon.” she paused, resting her hands on Cora’s shoulders, and then she proceeded. “It will be okay if you sleep with me, girl, but you will stay clean and come to bed when I do. Yah?”
Cora turned to look at Elmo as if asking him to rescue her from this foul smelling woman. Instead he said, “Okay, Gertrude. That’ll work. At least for now. Take her up and show her my room. She can wash up up there and stay til dinner time. I’ll send Jonny up sometime after dinner to make sure everything’s okay.” and he turned to leave.
Cora stood frozen for the few seconds it took Elmo to step outside the front door. He was about to step off the porch and down onto the steps to the street which was below two more houses, when she came running out behind him. “Mr. Elmo, wait!” she called. Elmo turned and grabbed her by the arm. He said in a quiet, urgent voice, “I’m Pops. Got-it? Pops. People must think I’m your grandfather as long as you’re here.”
“Okay, Pops.” she said almost in a whisper. “But please take me with you. Don’t leave me here with that woman. She stinks! There’s no way I’m sleeping with her.”
Elmo thought for a minute and stepped back inside. “Gertrude,” he said, “Cora’s decided she wants to go with me so we’ll do that, Jonny can walk her back up here when it’s time for me to open. Even if I was inclined to let her stay, which I’m not, it’s the law. No women in an open saloon except in the tenderloin. And we both know what that is.”
“Make’s no never-mind to me.” Gertrude replied as Elmo turned back and strode towards the steps.
Elmo continued his long strides down toward Broadway. Cora struggled to keep up with him. When she finally caught him she yelled, “Pops. Will you listen to me?!”
Elmo turned and said, “Yes, I will. Just keep your voice down.”
“Okay. But you just gotta understand. I can’t stand that old fat smelly witch of a woman and I can’t stay with her. I’ll stay above the bar until it closes and then you can sneak me into the house. I’ll sleep on the floor in your room. I’ll cook for ya and I’ll clean for ya I’ll wash your clothes and, starting today you can show me things to do to help out around the bar and I’ll do anything, absolutely anything, to earn my keep but you just simply can’t make me go sleep with that woman. I won’t do it!”
By the time she had finished this speech, they were almost to the bottom of Broadway. Elmo said nothing but continued striding towards the door to the bar. When Cora started to talk again he shushed her, saying, “Wait until we’re inside.” He unlocked the door and they went in. He turned to lock the door and Cora started.
“So what do you think, Pops? Wouldn’t you like to keep me around awhile? I’ll …”
Elmo cut her off, saying in a very terse voice, “Now. You’re gonna listen to me. You come waltzing into my bar just day before yesterday completely lost and I helped you to get to where you wanted to go. And then yesterday you burst in and said the man Faulkner was right behind you and was going to kill you and I protected you. And then you told me he raped you and I had him killed! … And now you want me to take care of you? I somehow felt sorry for you but now that you’ve given me an ultimatum about not staying at Gertrude’s … and that doesn’t include in my room … on the floor or in my bed! So I’m going to make it real simple for you, either you are back at Gertrude’s before she goes to bed tonight and you get in the bed with her and you sleep there or you walk out that door right now and don’t come back. And I mean that. If you walk out now, I never want to see you again.”
She looked at him, tears welling up in her eyes. “How about if I stay upstairs. I’ll go up there as soon as the bar opens and you won’t hear anything out of me until morning. I swear. I won’t be afraid up there overnight by myself. I promise I won’t.” she sobbed.
“Did you not hear me say that I was giving you two choices. Did either one of them sound like you staying in the attic?”
She just sobbed.
“Then choose. Agree to going back up to Gertrude’s or hit that street out there.”
“Do I have to go right now? Can’t I at least stay here til opening time.”
“Listen, girl. I have to get a little sleep in before time to open. It’s almost noon so Jonny and the old man will be here soon. I’m gonna start gettin this place ready to open except for what Jonny can do and then as soon as he gets here I’m goin up there …(he pointed)… and take a nap until opening time.
“Okay. That’ll be okay, I … guess.” she said and walked slowly to the back table out of the way and sat down.
Elmo busied himself with restocking the beer cases … installing new kegs … leaving the icing to Jonny after the iceman came … Jonny would also take care of raking out all the trash and sweeping the floor.
A little after twelve, just as expected, Jonny and the old man came in. Jonny led the old man to his back stool, noticing the young girl who had come in yesterday screaming murder. But he knew all about her now. It was he who killed the man Faulkner who she came here to marry.
When Jonny turned back around and reached for his broom, Elmo locked the front door and took the key. He started towards the back, saying over his shoulder to Jonny “I’m goin up to take a nap. Wake me when the iceman comes.”
Elmo had barely had time to reach the top of the stairs when Cora walked up to the front where Jonny was sweeping.
“Hi, I’m Cora. What’s your name.” As she said this, Cora stepped past Jonny so that she was standing betweem him and the bright window behind her. Her flour-sack dress became almost transparent.
And Jonny could see that she was wearing nothing underneath the flour-sack except her own skin. Sixteen year old Jonny saw before him a goddess, a grown woman, even though she was only two years older than he. And the word heard among the murmurings around the bar last night was that the man Faulkner had raped her just that morning before Jonny killed her intended husband. And now he was standing here with her right there in front of him and he was speechless.
Cora twirled around in the sunlight and said, “Are you gonna tell me your name or just stand there gawking at me all afternoon?”
Jonny started and hung his head. “Jonny,” he said.
“Well, Jonny, what do you think about my dress.” This time, as she twirled around she raised the dress above her knee.”
“Yore dress is right nice I reckon.”
“Thank you, sir.” she said and then lowered her voice. “I need you to help me.”
“Not sure what I can do but I know I have to get this sweepin done fore Mr. Elmo has my ass.” and he put his broom, upon which he had been leaning as he gazed at Cora, back to work, saying, “Just stay next to me and tell me what you think I can do to help.”
“Well, Elmo is trying to make me go back to where he stays and sleep with an old fat woman who stinks and I can’t do that but I don’t know nobody in this town and I don’t have no money. I was hopin’ you might know somebody that could help me out for just a couple days until I can find somethin to to do. I’ll do pert near anythin. Pert near anythin at all.”
Jonny swept for a minute or two and waited. When she added nothing further he said, “I might know someplace where a lady will be willin to help you out. Go up thattaway …(he pointed up the Gulch toward the tenderloin)… to house number forty-one. Ask for Jolene when you get there. Tell her what happened to you and she’ll find something for you to do.”
“ Well. Since we’re locked in and I cain’t leave, can I do somethin to help you so you don’t have to work so hard. What do you have to do, anyway?” Cora asked.
“First I gotta get all this crap on the floor raked back to the back where I’ll pick it up and bring it back out front. And then after the iceman comes and drops off our ice I gotta break it up with a pick and put it down in the beer cases to keep all the beer cold and then, if I’m lucky, I’ll have time to sneak a cigarette out of the old man’s pack and have a smoke before the iceman comes.”
“What can I do to help make sure you get thru with yore sweepin before the iceman comes. And maybe we could share that cigarette yore goin to steal or you could steal two.”
“Reckon that ain’t no problem but they’s really nothin for me to do but sweep this floor until the iceman comes. Just stay here with me and keep me company whilst I sweep.”
“That’ll be fun.” said Cora as she began to dance wildly, suggestively, in front of and around Jonny, leaping across his pile of trash as he continued his slow progress toward the back. As soon as he had gotten the trash picked up into a can and lugged it back up to the front door he stole those two cigarettes Cora had mentioned and the two of them stood huddled by the small exhaust fan that pulled the smoke to the outside. They had almost finished them when a racket started up at the front of the bar.
Jonny said, “Put yore butt out quick and fan the smoke away. Mr. Elmo gets pissed when he catches me smokin.” and without another word he began to pound on the door to the attic. “Mr. Elmo, the iceman is here.” he shouted up the stairs before turning back to Cora who was still standing there beside him. In a whisper he said, “C’mon” and practically dragged her back to the small back table.
The iceman continued his pounding on the front door as Elmo came creakingly down the stairs and toward it.
“Hold your horses, Sam, I’m comin.”
When he got to the front door he unlocked it and Sam came in with a fifty pound block of ice suspended from tongs. It had been dripping on his feet since he got to the door.
“Damn, Elmo. Whur was ye?”
“Asleep. Had a rough night.”
“Uh-huh.” Sam said just as he got to the big sink behind the bar where he dropped the ice, spying Cora sitting at the back table. As he went back toward the front he slapped Elmo on the back and said, “Bet ye did.” glancing back over his shoulder at Cora.
“She’s my grand-daughter, asshole. Now git.”
Elmo shoved him towards the door and helped him through before locking it behind him.
Meanwhile, Jonny was wielding an icepick to break the ice into manageable chunks that he could transfer to the beer cases. As Elmo passed by he looked at his watch. One-fifteen, forty-five minutes to opening time. “You got everything under control, boy?” he asked Jonny.
“Think so, boss.” Jonny replied as he continued breaking up the ice.
Elmo continued to the back of the bar and disappeared into the toilet.
Cora came over to where Jonny was. “What’s goin to happen now?” She pointed toward the toilet, knowing Elmo would be back out in a minute or two.
“Don’t know. I know if he don’t get enough sleep, he can be a bear.”
When Elmo came back out, Jonny had almost gotten the ice transferred to the iceboxes. Elmo said, “Walk this girl back up to Gertrude’s and then come back here. I expect you to be back before openin time.”
“Yes, sir.” Jonny said curtly but with a big smile on his face. He would be more than happy to walk Cora anywhere she wanted to go. Somehow he just knew that it wasn’t going to be Gertrudes.
“C’mon, girl.” Jonny said playfully to Cora who looked over at Elmo, realizing he had not even acknowledged her presence since he came down to unlock the door. His expression did not change.
Elmo watched from the door as Jonny and Cora turned up Broadway.