We called her Rusty, She was known around the neighborhood. We called her Rusty because she had red hair. The neighborhood boys who were a little older than I was said the hair between her legs was the same color and haha weren’t they so funny?
I was 10 years old and only just starting to understand how the world works. I didn’t know yet what she did for a living. 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. “She’s a prostitute,” he said. “She has sex for money. You think she is standing outside at the end of the block for nothing? For what? She waits, they come, they pay.”
As far as I knew paying for sex was something that only happened in movies. 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 news 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 went one Saturday afternoon after a bad rainstorm to ask her about it. I was scrawny. I wore glasses and probably not at all threatening. She looked down at me with a crooked smile and patted my head with her hand. Her nails were long and painted bubblegum pink.
“I’m just out here selling newspapers,” she said.
“Nobody reads newspapers anymore.”
She gave me another smile. “Is that so.” She looked at the street. “Then what are they giving me money for?”
It was quiet after the storm. I wondered if I would get in trouble for talking to her, 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.
“Go on, get out of here,” she said. “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 anything. You’re one of these neighborhood kids I see, I know, the kids that throw rocks, trying to cause trouble when I’m just trying to make a living.”
I shook my head. “Not me.”
“Go on.” She waved her hand. “You kids. And if you only knew what your fathers were up to. Your daddies on the stoop, getting down on one knee.”
This was confusing. But not as much as it should have been. “I knew it.” I said.
“What did you know?”
“They come to see you and they pay.”
“Or in the bathroom of the bar over there and the one right by it.” She said. “You really want to know this? You really want to know how many times I’ve seen your daddies drinking, drunk and ready to…”
“Ready to what?” My eyes were wide.
“You know.” She kissed the air twice. She put her head back and laughed.
I stood there frozen on the side of the street. My socks were starting to get wet from the holes in the soles of my shoes. 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 if he smelled funny and bad he couldn’t quite get the words out.
Rusty 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, 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. She waved two middle fingers in the air over my head.
“Seriously kid,” she said to me then. “Get out of here. Keep your nose clean. Go to school and all that. Stay out of trouble.”
“I don’t usually get in trouble.”
“Go out there and be somebody. As they say.”
I had seen that line on a poster somewhere at school. I have to go back to school on Monday. I thought. It seemed so far away.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“What do you want to know that for?”
“Because we call you Rusty and it’s not the name they gave you.”
She laughed again. “Who gave me?”
“Rusty. I like it. Better than the name my parents gave me. Cecilia. I haven’t used it since I was a little girl. You call me Rusty, I don’t mind.”
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?”
“Want a story?” His words weren’t as slurred as they sometimes are.
“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 the beach at Santa Monica. 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 Karen’s, 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 name tag was all crooked, but she was the most-beautiful-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 grew up.