By Milton Lyles
Warmed by the promise of the almost rising sun, the morning air of the desert began to give up the coolness of night and take on a hot oppressive edge. Harry Bass, road weary and red eyed with lack of sleep, switched off the headlights and guided his little white car off the freeway. The morning sun had just begun to project spikes of light above the distant ridge line as Harry rolled down his window and smoothly glided the Porsche into the empty parking lot of a small roadside café. Without giving the idea conscious thought, he pushed the play button on the CD player. The voice of Maria Callas began the first words of the aria from Madama Butterfly which filled the car with the beautiful sweet sadness that never failed to make him feel very close to God.
Harry sat listening to the swelling intensity of the music as a woman and a child moved across the parking lot. The woman stopped to light a cigarette and studied Harry with hard, dark, questioning, eyes as the child tugged at her left hand and turned in anxious circles at her feet in a movement reminiscent of all the young puppies of the world. When the two of them reached the front of Harrys’ car, the woman honored him with a half smile, unwrapped two sticks of Juicy Fruit gum taking great care to fold the wrapping papers and put them back into the black purse that hung from her left shoulder. She folded the two pieces of gum in half in a single thickness and placed them carefully on top of the slick wetness of her pink tongue with her right hand which still held the cigarette. She began to give the gum a vigorous chewing even before she opened the café door and the little boy, as three year olds are prone to do, burst into the café like a tiny whirl wind.
Harry watched the two of them through the not too clean window of the restaurant which was adorned with homemade signs advertising such delicacies as Rudy’s Big Beef Burgers with Heeps of Farm Fresh Fries. Harry laughed to himself at the spelling error and wondered how big a heap a heep was. He was reaching for the ignition switch and was about to give into sound judgment and drive on down toward the bright lights that marked the location of eateries renowned for their sanitary sameness and the absolute tasteless uniformity of their plastic food when he noticed how differently she and the boy were dressed.
Harry was making a pilgrimage to Texas to explain to his son why he had divorced his wife of thirty-five years. Pilgrimages he said to himself should not be corrupted by visits to falseness in restaurants, rest stops, or pilgrims met along the road. And even though Harry Bass had seen the falseness in the way the woman was dressed he had seen with equal clarity that there was no falseness in the smile of the dark eyed woman when she had spoken to the little boy whom she called Ernesto. He had spent too many wasted years feeding on the empty dreams of false vanity and pretended happiness, and as he watched the woman he envied the unconditional love she had for the child and the way she displayed her love with such casual honesty. He had never shown his love for his children in that fashion. He had only given them his love as a reward for some victory won or some laurel obtained as though love too was a prize to be earned. He suspected that is why they all chose to live apart from him and his endless need to earn and reward love. When the woman in Rudy’s smiled at the little boy at her side, there was no pretense. Her eyes, her smile, her very touch asked nothing of the boy other than he know that he was loved. Harry longed for someone-anyone to tell him he was loved without condition. But he had lived just long enough to know that life is not lived without conditions. The value of every gift is measured in the eyes of the giver by the smile of the receiver. He still recalled what Father John DeVecky had told him so long ago at catechism. “You pay in life for what you get pleasure bought with pain for every hour in the sun an hour in the rain.”
The early morning staff at Rudy’s consisted of a waitress cashier who had seen better days and lots of them, and a Mexican cook with bloodshot eyes and the thin, quick, harried, look of a speed freak. The waitress, whose red and white name tag announced to all the world that she was Faye, took down with one of those small stubby golf course scoring pencils without enthusiasm the woman’s order on an order pad marked with grease spots from her almost white apron. The boy busied himself with child fantasies involving building structures with the knife, fork, and spoon that lay on the table directly in front of him, but the dark eyes of the woman watched Harry incessantly in the way that cats half-in-play and half-in-hunger watch birds. Faye, the uninspired waitress with empty watery eyes, who probably went home to a used to be rodeo cowboy of a husband and complained about the corns on her swollen feet and her lack of tips at the end of each lonely night shift motioned with her head for Harry to take a table at the far end of the restaurant. He settled in and for lack of anything better to do began to sketch with his ink pen the angelic face of the dark eyed woman’s child on the blank back side of the badly used paper menu that graced his table.
“I’m gonna have to bill you an extra quarter for defacing that menu,” Faye the uninspired said in her best attempt at a joke all week. Harry gave her one of his weaker smiles and ordered coffee. Faye lowered her voice and leaned in so close to Harry that the smell of her Marlboro scented bad teeth breath enveloped him in unpleasantness. “I apologize for her being here. The boss says I can’t refuse her service. She’s nothing but a cheap whore. I feel so sorry for that little boy of hers.”
That was it. Faye the uninspired spilled out her poison with just enough volume and sidewise glances to insure the woman with the dark eyes would understand and experience some well deserved shame and discomfort without actually hearing the message. She took Harry’s order of steak, eggs over easy, hash browns, orange juice and coffee, gave him one of those you know that’s not a healthy breakfast looks that his wife used to give him, and moved quickly off towards the kitchen having sized him up as a big tipper.
When she returned with his coffee, Harry spent less than a minute looking out at yet another nondescript California desert town that sprawled across the empty landscape of sand and rock in total defiance of reason and beauty. Harry drank of the black bitter coffee that Faye sat before him, and the all night brewing bitter taste of it renewed the endless anger in him. He slipped the silver flask out of his jacket pocket and poured the cup full to the lip with brandy knowing the dark eyes of the whore were watching him. The words of his slick little doctor, Maxwell Mosby Crim, whom Harry always referred to as ‘Mostly Grim,’ because the good doctor found the bad side of every situation, drifted back into Harry’s mind with the unannounced intrusion that is the chief calling card of bad news. Maxwell Crim, with the soft hands and sanctimonious, smug, little rule abiding life, a man whom Harry had lost all trust in and so recently come to despise. A sad looking little man who had sat across his big doctor’s desk behind a scattering of charts and files and lab reports that marked the beginnings or ends of happiness. Maxwell Grim who had without fanfare told Harry that he had prostrate cancer just five days after filing a police report on Harry for being in a small scuffle in a bar, a totally needless betrayal of friendship in the face of some bureaucratic response to injuries resulting from violence. Doctor Mostly Grim defended his action as one which addressed the law. “I’m sorry Harry,” he had said from behind his insincere smile, “but I must report to the police all injuries that are the result of violence,” Harry attributed Mostly Grim’s new found vigilance to Harry having recently left his wife, Ethel, the best friend of Mostly Grim’s wife. Harry’s eccentricity had drifted into the dark uncharted waters of sin and little men like Grim would always despise him for it.
He did not see the whore as she approached his table. She snatched the menu up and looked at it with hard analyzing eyes. “Who said you could draw pictures of Ernesto?
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I was just passing the time. If you like, tear it up.”
“No, it’s good. It’s a very good likeness. You do this for a living don’t you?” Her voice was softer now friendly. Faye the waitress had started to move toward Harry’s table, but he looked her back behind her counter like an old baseball catcher holding a rookie runner on base with just the anger in his eyes. Faye repaid him with a look of cold contempt, and for just a minute Harry felt sorry for the old rodeo cowboy with the arthritis in his roping hand waiting in the out of date trailer house for her endless contempt and anger served up with every TV dinner.
The little boy, Ernesto, played on the table the whore had vacated with two match box cars engaged in little boy pursuits and crashes. His mouth forming unspoken sounds. The whore walked back to the boy and said to him, “Ernesto sit still because this man is an artist man he is drawing your picture for your father.” The boy as good little boys do sat quietly. The whore turned to Harry. “When you have finished the picture if I like it I shall give you two dollars for it. I would give you more, but all I have to spend on the picture is two dollars.”
“When it is done, it’s yours for free,” Harry said playing the gallant caviller.
“No.” the whore said, “If a thing is to have value it must have a price. Two dollars is a good price for such a picture.”
“It can’t be had for such a price,” Harry said, but she heard the playfulness in his voice and saw the tenderness in his eyes.
“What price then?”
“You must let me buy you and the boy breakfast.”
The woman laughed, and showed Harry the smile she had earlier bestowed on the boy. “But of course” she said, ”and then I shall pay you the two dollars.”
Harry worked the picture quickly but carefully. The whores eyes seldom left his hands. He did the boy’s eyes wonderfully well creating with deft pen strokes depth through splashes of light and shadow, and then carefully shaping the upper and lower lips. It was Harry knew the eyes which gave life to a portrait, but it was the equally important mouth which gave it realism. Harry remembered having been told that fact long ago by a drawing instructor named George Kessler James. “A portrait,” James said, “is always one of two things. A wonderfully mysterious picture of the other side of someone’s soul, or a really bad joke of a picture with a poorly drawn mouth.”
The woman sat beside him and smoked. She sat so close he felt the heat of her. The boy sat with a little boys figits and twists. He ate a breakfast which consisted of fountain coke, French fried potatoes, and bacon which he ate with his fingers, but he did well for such a small boy. Harry finished the picture, and the whore sat beside him carefully studying his work and turning something over in her mind. She reached a decision as Harry began to eat his steak and eggs which floated on a small sea of grease.
The whore let him fill her coffee cup with his brandy, and the whole time he ate her left thigh pressed against his right thigh. She laughed like a girl when she cleaned a spot of egg yoke from the point where his mustache joined his beard at the left corner of his mouth, and she traced little circles on the back of his hand when he laid his fork down. It was when she nuzzled his ear like a school girl on a first date that finally, Faye the waitress could take no more of it. She stormed Harry’s table her green eyes flashing with anger. “Oh no, Mister man not in here you don’t! If the two of you want to make a public disgrace of yourself that’s your business, but it won’t be here. This is a decent place. There’ll be no whores doing their dirty business in any place run by a decent man like Rudy Roth. Now, the two of you pay your bill and get your asses out of here, or I’ll call the sheriff. I swear to God I will.” The Mexican cook came out from the kitchen to see what the ruckus was all about. He stood watching Faye with his hooded eyes, his mouth twisted in a thin shadow of a smile, and his nervous hands wiping at the dirty white of the apron tied tightly to his waist. The little boy began to cry. Harry paid the breakfast bill. He did not leave a tip. He did not pay for the menu with the boy’s picture on it which the whore took with her as the three of them walked toward the door. The whore was carrying the boy who did not understand what rule had been broken, but rather sensed the anguish in his mother. She walked to Harry’s car and stood by the door her face a study in anticipation.
The whore took him to her house, and brewed him strong coffee. She told him no man she had met since her husband had gone to prison had ever been there. She put the boy down for a nap in his child’s room adorned with a child’s pictures and cluttered with a little boys dreams. She stood before Harry at the sink in the kitchen and without shame bared her breast to him and washed her hair while she talked of the old men of the retirement community on the other side of the ridge. She called it Sin City, but she did not speak with cruelty of the old men who bought her favors.
“When Paco went to prison for life for killing his other woman,” she said from behind her drying towel, “I needed money. They got him in the big prison up by Sacramento. He’s gonna be there for the rest of his life. ‘No parole.’ That’s what the judge said, ‘No Parole.’ So what am I gonna do? I can’t get by on welfare, and then I met the first old man almost by accident. He told the second old man, and the second told the third. They need love these old men. Hell, everybody needs love. You know, they call me the gypsy. I think they do that to make it special. They say to one another have you ever met the pretty young gypsy across the ridge. She’s very good that gypsy woman. She’ll make you feel like a man again. They all want the same thing. They want me to suck them off and to moan like I enjoy it. You know what I hate Harry. I hate the taste of the condoms, but I’m careful for the little boy’s sake. I ain’t bringing no AIDS home to him. He’s gonna have the chance his daddy never had. It ain’t my money it’s his. I’m buying his future with the dreams of dried up old men who pissed their lives away making the women, who will bury them but no longer want to fuck them, happy.”
He did not know why she took him to her bed, and ministered to him, and kissed him, and made him want to be a man one more time. He smelled the freshness of her hair, and drank her like a life giving stream, and she moaned for him in the false coolness of the air conditioned shadows of a tacky stucco house on the California desert. He left her sleeping in her bed. Before he drifted away, he opened his wallet and carefully placed the two dollars she had given him for the drawing inside it. He was tempted to lay his last five hundred dollar bills in single file across the dresser top, but he did not. It would have been an insult to both of them. “You are,” he said softly to her as she slept, “a wise woman, you know the value of a thing is in what you pay for it, or in what is freely given because it is too precious to sell and too dear to keep.”