My mother's a prostitute. Not the filthy, streetwalking kind. She's actually quite pretty, fairly well spoken, and has lovely clothes. But she sleeps with men for money or gifts, and according to the dictionary, that makes her a prostitute.
She started working in 1940 when I was seven, the year we moved from Detroit to New Orleans. We took a cab from the train station straight to a fancy hotel on St. Charles Avenue. Mother met a man from Tuscaloosa in the lobby while having a drink. She introduced me as her niece and told the man she was delivering me to her sister. She winked at me constantly and whispered that she'd buy me a doll if I just played along and waited for her. I slept alone in the lobby that night, dreaming of my new doll. The next morning, Mother checked us in to our own big room with tall windows and small round soaps that smelled like lemon. She received a green velvet box with a strand of pearls from the man from Tuscaloosa.
"Josie, this town is going to treat us just fine," said Mother, standing topless in front of the mirror, admiring her new pearls.
The next day, a dark-skinned driver named Cokie arrived at the hotel. Mother had received an invitation to visit someone important in the Quarter. She made me take a bath and insisted I put on a nice dress. She even put a ribbon in my hair. I looked silly, but I didn't say anything to Mother. I just smiled and nodded.
"Now, Josie, you aren't to say a thing. I've been hoping Willie would call for me, and I don't need you messing things up with your stubbornness. Don't speak unless you're spoken to. And for gosh sakes, don't start that humming. It's spooky when you do that. If you're good, I'll buy you something real special."
"Like a doll?" I said, hoping to jog her memory.
"Sure, hon, would you like a doll?" she said, finishing her sweep of lipstick and kissing the air in front of the mirror.
Cokie and I hit it off right away. He drove an old taxicab painted a foggy gray. If you looked close, you could see the ghost of taxi lettering on the door. He gave me a couple Mary Jane candies and a wink that said, "Hang in there, kiddo." Cokie whistled through the gaps in his teeth as he drove us to Willie's in his taxicab. I hummed along, hoping the molasses from the Mary Jane might yank out a tooth. That was the second night we were in New Orleans.
We pulled to a stop on Conti Street. "What is this place?" I asked, craning my neck to look at the pale yellow building with black lattice balconies.
"It's her house," said Cokie. "Willie Woodley's."
"Her house? But Willie's a man's name," I said.
"Stop it, Josie. Willie is a woman's name. Now, keep quiet!" said Mother, smacking my thigh. She smoothed her dress and fidgeted with her hair. "I didn't think I'd be so nervous," she muttered.
"Why are you nervous?" I asked.
She grabbed me by the hand and yanked me up the walk. Cokie tipped his hat to me. I smiled and waved back. The sheers in the front window shifted, covering a shadowy figure lit by an amber glow behind the glass. The door opened before we reached it.
"And you must be Louise," a woman said to Mother.
A brunette in a velvet evening dress hung against the door. She had pretty hair, but her fingernails were chewed and frayed. Cheap women had split nails. I'd learned that in Detroit.
"She's waitin' for you in the parlor, Louise," said the brunette.
A long red carpet ran from the front door to a tall staircase, crawling up and over each step. The house was opulent, gaudy, with deep green brocades and lamps with black crystals dangling from dimly lit shades. Paintings of nude women with pink nipples hung from the foyer walls. Cigarette smoke mingled with stale Eau de Rose. We walked through a group of girls who patted my head and called me sugar and doll. I remember thinking their lips looked like someone had smeared blood all over them. We walked into the front parlor.
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