Ms. Cora’s Tale … Chapter 7

On Tuesday morning Juanita woke Cora about eight and said Mrs. Lil wanted to see her.

“Okay.” Cora said sleepily. “I’ll be down dreckly.”

Five minutes later she was tapping on Lil’s door.

“Come in.” Lil called. Cora stepped inside. “Sit down, Cora. How was last night?” she asked, just to see what Cora would say about Elmo’s visit.

Cora burst into tears. “Oh, Lil, nothin in my life, not even what my daddy done to me all them years, shamed me as much as when I saw Pops staring at me. And he turned and walked off as soon as our eyes met. I was so embarrassed I ran as fast as I could up to my room. And that was when I knowed for shore I cain’t be no whore. I’ll do anything else you want me to do to earn my keep but I cain’t be no whore and I ain’t haul’n no more slops. If them’s the only two jobs you got, I’ll have to go som’ers else.”

Lil smiled. “Actually, you’re getting a reprieve. For now.”

“A ree..-huh?”

Lil’s smile widened. “You don’t have to empty slops or be a prostitute in order to stay here. Elmo’s going to take care of your room and board. For now, that is. Neither of us, Elmo or me, know how long the arrangement will last. But for now, #12 is yours and you are free to come and go as you please. You’ll be eating in the dining room with the other girls. Bye, now.” she said, dismissing her.

As Cora turned toward the stairs, Lil stepped to the kitchen door, summoning Juanita to come to her room. When she came in and closed the door, she simply said Cora would continue to stay in #12 and would be eating in the dining room like the rest of the girls. Providing no additional details, she told Juanita to let Cooky know and dismissed her.

Cora ran back up to #12 as soon as she left Lil’s. She needed some time to think. It was nice she had a place to stay, and it was nice of Elmo. Should she go and see him? Her thoughts were interrupted by the rumbling of her stomach, realizing it had not seen food since about 4:30 the afternoon before. She went down to the kitchen.

Cooky sat at the table peeling potatoes. She looked up at Cora disdainfully “What’re you doin in here, girl? Ain’t been told I has to feed ya no more.”

Just at that moment Juanita stepped through the door. “Lil wants you to know that Cora is now a paying tenant and can eat at the regular serving times just like the other girls.”

Cooky snorted and then said, “Breakfast is available in the dining room from 10:30 to 11:30. Come back then.” and she turned back to her task.

Juanita just looked at Cora. Cora crossed to her and whispered, “What’s up with her?” using her head to motion towards Cooky.

“Huh! Don’t nobody like no freeloader.” Juanita said haughtily.

Half-an-hour later, Cora sat on the floor gazing out the the window in her underthings thinking about Jonny. She sobbed quietly.

After some time, her hunger again got the best of her, and after her earlier treatment by Cooky, she didn’t want to miss the breakfast time, so she quickly slipped her dress back on and went down to the dining room. In the middle of the table was a tureen of lukewarm porridge of some kind, a pitcher of milk, and several bowls. Esmeralda was the only one sitting at the table. She was dressed or, rather, not-dressed, in her usual duster. She kept her head down over her bowl of gruel and didn’t acknowledge Cora.

Cora looked at her and said, “Hello, Esmeralda.”

“Lo.” Esmeralda murmured without raising her head. She spooned in another mouthful of porridge.

At this exact instant, Juanita opened the door from the kitchen and saw and heard Esmeralda’s attitude. When she saw what happened, she said, “Come with me, Cora.” and Cora followed her into the kitchen.

Cooky was still peeling potatoes. Juanita told Cora to sit down as she dished up a bowl of hot porridge and handed it to her. “Milk in the icebox, yonder.”

“Stuff in the dining room should be good enough for the likes of her.” mumbled Cooky.

Jaunita just looked at her and said, “Oh, you be quiet.” She turned back to Cora. “You have to understand, girl. Big Foot Lil is the madam here and she makes all the rules so if she says you can stay here free you stay free but nobody’s got to like you. Right or wrong, the girls will resent you for that.”

“That’s not fair. I’m here because Elmo’s payin Lil for my room and board. I ain’t stayin here free.” Cora replied.

“Ummm!” Juanita said. “That’ll likely change things. The attitude of the girls will change once word gets round that you’re bein kept by Elmo.”

“I ain’t bein kept by Elmo. He’s just payin my room and board til I can find Jonny.”

“And what is that if it’s not keepin you, honey?” Cooky said.

Cora just stared at Juanita, recognizing the truth of the situation. And then she said, still staring at Juanita, “What time’s dinner?”

Cooky laughed. “Ain’t no ‘dinner’ girl, if you mean grub served at mid-day. Breakfast ain’t over til 11:30. Supper’s served 4:30 to 5:30, as ya know, since you ate at table last night.” Now git on out my kitchen. I may gotta feed ya, but I don’t gotta babysit ya. Go.” she said waving her paring knife at Cora. Cora stepped back into the dining room where Esmeralda had been replaced with Carmen and Minnie. They didn’t look up and she continued on over into the parlor and on out the front door. She felt alienated from everyone and everything in that house.

She stood on the porch and examined herself. The dress she was wearing didn’t exactly say ‘I’m a whore.’ but it came close. It was cut low in the front so that her breasts were prominately displayed. The back was split down almost to her waist with a single button near the top keeping it together. The dress she had on when she got to Lil’s had been burned when Lil gave her the new clothes. She would have to go to Gertrude’s and get her suitcase. She remembered the street Jonny had taken down around the Cemetery from Opera to the gulch and went back up that way. She had just gotten around the cemetery where she could see the foot of Clawson when a dapper man in a derby that she instantly recognized as Elmo came into view walking towards her. She jumped behind a wall as quickly as she could, hoping he wouldn’t come down towards her.

Fortunately he turned towards the old school and descended the steps down to the alley.

As soon as he disappeared, Cora bolted across into Clawson and began searching for the stairs she and Elmo had taken down from Gertrude’s on Sunday morning. When she got to Gertrude’s she told her she had spoken to Elmo and he said it was okay for her to go up to his room and put on the dress that was in her suitcase under his bed. Although a lie, Gertrude didn’t care, so she simply said, “First door at the top of the stairs, dearie.” This last was spoken in a very sarcastic manner. In Elmo’s room, she retrieved her suitcase from under the bed and opened it. She quickly shed Lil’s dress and replaced it with her own, but keeping the panties and chemise on. She put Lil’s dress in the suitcase and left it there.

Gertrude didn’t see Cora as she came down the stairs and passed through the entryway to the front door. She made her way as quickly as possible down to Broadway and on down to the bar.

When she got there the door was locked and the shade was down. She pressed her face to the glass at the edge of a bay window where there was a gap in the curtain. She saw Elmo coming out of the back room carrying several bottles in each hand. She kept her face pressed to the glass as he walked forward and then began tapping rapidly on the glass just as he was stepping through the gap to go behind the bar. He looked up, caught a glimpse of her face and almost dropped his cargo.

Quickly ridding himself of the bottles, he walked to the front and unlocked the door.

“Whatta you want’ girlie. Thought I was through with you.” he growled, stepping aside to let her in before re-locking the door and starting toward the back.

Cora followed saying, “I’m sorry, Pops, but I couldn’t go sleep with that stinky woman and I didn’t have nowhere’s else to go except where Jonny took me to #41 but I swear it wadn’t Jonny’s fault. They wadn’t no way I was goin to sleep with that Gertrude woman like you said I had to so even if he had taken me there I wouldn’t have stayed. And …

Elmo had no way to know how long she would have continued her begging so he said, “Enough! Okay. Stop.” She was quiet, standing there in the shadows. “That’s exactly what Lil told me. I wanted not to care if you stayed in Lil’s house. I wanted not to care if you became a whore. But then I saw you sittin there in the parlor last night all dolled up. It must have triggered somethin in me

“Lil told me you and her had worked it out for me to stay there for awhile and you was payin. I just wanted to say thanks, Pops.”

Elmo noticed she was calling him Pops but didn’t comment. “Yep. I’m payin for ya. For now.” He hesitated a moment and gave her brain time to process what he’d said. Then he added, “For now means just that. I could change my mind at any time. Do you understand?”

Cora hung her head. “Uh-huh.” she muttered.

“Now if that’s all you came for, I need to get ready to open so get out of here.”

“Pops.” Cora said. “Do you know where Jonny is?”

“Nope. Ain’t seen him.”

“He hasn’t come back?”

“Not in here, he ain’t. The old man wasn’t here yesterday, either. Why do you want to find Jonny?”

She couldn’t tell him the real reason, but said, “Oh. I just mostly wanted to make sure he ain’t in trouble with you for not taking me up to stinky Gertrude’s.”

“I guess it wouldn’t be fair to him if I blamed him since both you, yourself, as well as Lil, insist it wasn’t his fault. If you happen to find him tell him he can come back to work if he wants to.”

As Elmo said this he walked to the front door, unlocking it and saying, “Bye, Cora.” as he gently pushed her through.

“Bye, Pops.” she said. He stood in the doorway and watched her walk away down the sidewalk towards the mouth of the gulch and Main Street. He smiled as he thought about her calling him Pops. Damned if he wasn’t becoming fond of that girl. She showed a lot of spunk.

Cora wandered up Main street, past the mine offices and the hospital and mercantile store, past the Post Office and Library and on up as far as Castle Rock. This was her first foray up Main Street. It sure was different from the gulch. By the time she got up as far as Castle Rock she realized she was getting hungry so she turned and walked back down Main and up the gulch to #41.

When she got there she ducked her head into the parlor and discovered from the large mantle clock that it was four o’clock. Half an hour til dinner. Perhaps Lil was in her room. She went straight to the door and knocked. Lil said, “Who is it?”

“Cora, can I come in?”

“I suppose.” said Lil, sounding a bit exasperated. Cora stepped inside. “Why are you bothering me again, girl?”

“I just wanted to know if you knew where Jonny was?

Lil saw that Cora was wearing a plain cotton dress just like the one Juanita had been told to burn Sunday afternoon but with a different printed design. And there was no stain on the back. It took Lil a moment to remember that Cora had said she had another one in a suitcase up at Gertrude’s. “What else had she done today?” thought Lil.

“No, girl. I don’t know where Jonny is. Never have tried to keep up with him. Somebody’s gonna find him dead in the gulch one of these mornings, mark my words.”

“You can’t wish him dead, Mrs Lil. His own mother!? How can you say that?”

It slipped out before Cora could stop herself.

“What!” Lil exclaimed, taken aback. “When did he tell you that?”

“Last night. He come through the winda to see me in my room. I was already asleep when he snuck in and woke me up. He said you was his mama but you didn’t want nobody to know it so I won’t tell nobody. Surely you cain’t wish him dead, though.”

Suddenly she stopped. Lil stood up and glared down at her. When Cora saw her eyes, she said, “Guess I done said too much, huh?”

“Exactly what did he tell you?” Lil hissed through clenched teeth.

“Just about how he know’d to come to the window of #12 because he knew everythin about this house because you was his mama and you let him eat in the kitchen.”

“The little shit. I’m gonna kill him when I find him.” She sat back down, never taking her eyes off Cora. “Have you mentioned this to anyone? Any of the girls in the house? I can’t have them believing this!”

“No’m, I ain’t even tole nobody that Jonny came to my room.”

“Don’t!”

“So is it true, ma’am?” Cora asked again.

“I won’t answer that question. Just never repeat it to anyone. Do you hear?”

“Yes’m”

“If you do, you’ll be out on the street in five minutes. You understand?”

“Yes’m”

“Okay, before you go, I assume the dress you have on is the one you had in your suitcase that was up at Gertrude’s?”

“Yes’m”

“When did you go up to Gertrude’s?”

“This mornin. Right after I left here.”

“She just let you get your suitcase? Didn’t ask any questions? Where was it?

“Yes’m. It was in Pops’ room and I sorta told her a little white lie that Pops had said I could go up there and change. The dress you got me is still in the suitcase under Pops’ bed.”

“Didn’t you like the dress I got for you?”

“It’s fine for when I’m here in this house but as soon as I stepped outside, it made me uncomfortable. I ain’t never had nothin but these old flour-sack dresses and that’other un you give me made me uncomfortable, so I went up to get this’n.”

“Did you leave the panties and chemise with the dress too?”

“No’m. I got them on. They make me feel good inside.”

“Make you feel good inside? Why”

Cora reddened, “I don’t wanna say, ma’am.”

Suddenly, Lil knew what must have happened night-before-last. Of course! It made perfect sense. Cora had admitted to her on Sunday that Jonny had shot his wad between her legs and spewed his stuff all over the back of her dress. “Cora. When Jonny came to visit you last night, did you … “ she hesitated. She started to use a euphemism and then remembered that when she tried to do that on Sunday Cora had interjected something to the effect of “Oh, you mean, did we fuck?” so she said, “Cora, did Jonny fuck you this time.”

Cora turned beet red now and hung her head. “Yes’m” She was afraid Lil would hit her but instead Lil did a most surprising thing. She put her hands on Cora’s shoulders and smiled, “This is our secret, Cora. Just the two of us. Good-bye” she said

Cora turned and went out the door, closing it behind her.

Lil sat back down in her chair and smiled. She had never wanted Jonny. He came along just when she was in her prime, entertaining several tricks a night. When she found out she was pregnant she went to see the old doc at the Copper Queen Hospital but he wouldn’t take care of it for her so she bore her preganancy as best she could and left the baby in the kitchen with Cooky as soon as he was born. It was Cooky who took care of him and gave him what little raising he got. As Jonny got older, Lil had nothing to do with him but continued to let Cooky feed him anytime he showed up at the kitchen door.

Proceed to Chapter 8

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