She was known around the neighborhood. We called her Rusty because there was a rumor going around, probably started by one of the kids who didn’t know anyway, that the hair between her legs was the red color of rust and aren’t the neighborhood kids so funny?
I didn’t know really what she did. I asked my older brother why no one in the neighborhood would talk to her, only cars from the other side of Empire Street. He laughed and he slapped me upside the head and told me not to be an idiot.
“You know what she does,” he said.
My brother stared at me. He said, “She has sex for money. She’s a prostitute. You think she is standing outside at the end of the block for what? She waits, they come. They pay.”
As far as I knew paying for sex was something that only happened in movies and it made me feel some strange kind of way in my stomach I can’t describe. Who comes and who pays? Teachers at school maybe. Or the people I see on television.
My brother shook his head. “It’s no one we know,” he said. “Guys who come up from the sewer.”
I was 10 years old and only starting to understand how the world works. I went one Saturday afternoon after a bad rainstorm and asked her about it. I was a scrawny kid with glasses and probably not at all threatening and she looked down at me with a crooked smile and patted my head with her hand. Her nails were long, too long I thought, and painted pink bubblegum.
“I’m just out here selling newspapers,” she said.
“Nobody reads newspapers anymore.”
She gave me another smile. “Is that right.” She looked at the street. It was quiet after the storm. I wondered if I would get in trouble for talking to Rusty, or if the kids would look up to me and ask me questions the way they did when Scooby stole that gold watch from Herman Pawn Shop down the street.
She said, “Get on out of here. You should be ashamed of yourself out here talking to me. Go back home and forget about it.”
“I just want to know.”
“You don’t want to know nothing. You’re one of these neighborhood kids. I know. Kids that throw rocks. Kids that come around trying to cause trouble.”
She waved her hand. “Go on. You kids and if you only knew what your fathers were up to. Your daddies on the stoop, getting down on one knee for a date.”
This was confusing, but not as much as it should have been. “I knew it.” I said.
“They come to see you and they pay.”
She laughed. “Or in the bathroom of the bar over there and the one right by it. You really want to know this? You really want to know how many times I’ve seen your daddies drinking and drunk and ready to.”
“Ready to what?” My eyes were wide.
“You know.” She licked her lips and put her head back and laughed.
I stood frozen, my sock starting to get wet from the hole in the sole of my shoe. I didn’t see my father much except for late at night when he finally came home and then sometimes he would tell me bedtime stories but it’s true that he usually fell asleep before I did in his chair, or he smelled funny and bad, or he couldn’t quite get the words out.
She looked down at me. Her eyes were green I could finally see because she wasn’t squinting anymore with that look on her face.
“Not everyone gets one.” She said.
“Everyone has a father. You know. I don’t need to tell how babies are made because you learn that in school. But you got a dad at home and some people never got one. That’s what I’m saying. I didn’t know mine and didn’t even know till later that I was supposed to. Or that some people did.”
A car passed by and honked twice and she waved a middle finger over my head.
“Seriously kid,” she said. “Get out of here. Keep your nose clean. Go to school and all that. Stay out of trouble. Go out there and be somebody.”
I had seen that line on a poster somewhere at school.
I have to go back to school on Monday.
I gave her a small wave and she smiled but flicked her wrist at me and turned back to the street. I could feel my wet socks as I walked back down the sidewalk to my apartment where it was warm and I could put on dry clothes.
I heard the door open that night and close and my pop come in and I’m pretty sure my mom was already sleeping but I wasn’t and he came in to check on me, opening the door just enough to let the light in and he whispered, “You asleep boy?”
“Want a story?” His words weren’t as slurred as they are sometimes.
“Yeah?” The door opened wider any my father stepped inside. “I got a good one for you tonight. I ever told you about my trip to California?”
“Well listen up. You listening?
“We got lost off 95 heading toward LA. We ran out of gas so we ended up at a 24-hour diner near Santa Monica Beach. When you grow up this probably won’t be a problem, but back then cars all still ran on gasoline. You listening?”
“So we stop off at Mackey’s Due, a diner off the highway where I met your mother there working overnights as a waitress. And boy she was something special. She had been working ten hours straight, her hair tied behind her head and her nametag was all crooked, but she was the mostbeautiful woman I had ever seen in my life.”
I pulled my blanket up to my chin as he told me his story.
I tried to nod my head but I don’t think that I did. My eyes were closed. I couldn’t keep them open. For once I fell asleep before he did, dreaming about the things I would do when I finally grew up.