Who would Oval become now that her mother was dead, she wondered. She considered the sun, a ball of light and strength that no one thought of except when the world was too hot to bear or when the world was gray, and there was rain, what power that must take, and of course it would burn out and burn away and leave nothing but sky. These thoughts wrapped around Oval as dust on the walnut floor attached to the loose hairs of her thick braid, slick and dark as onyx. The night before, the log fire had found secret auburn strands amid the black of her hair, as the fire lit her face and head while she tended her feverish mother whose skin dripped sweat and felt burning hot to the touch. The fire was warm ash now as Oval lay in a ball of ache—her mother dead above her, lying like a crumpled queen in state in the birch and parcel-gilt bed with buttoned upholstered panels the color of heather. In arm’s reach of the bed was a round nightstand painted a faint green imported from France. Atop the table was a Bible, a few hardbound novels by Dickens, a journal penned by a Parisian aristocrat that Virginia, the owner of the house and Oval’s employer, had bought at auction, and a translucent amethyst vase filled with juniper berries, antique white roses, and two fistfuls of daisies, all of which Lawrence, Oval’s father, had brought with him the night before, and Oval knew from the flowers her mother would not be long for the world.
Though her mother’s work had never enabled Oval to feel the princess, the room, nonetheless, was adorned as if Oval and her mother were of nobility, which is how Virginia had wanted them to feel. She had designed the interior with her own taste in mind. Yet the house with purple satin wrapped around the oak banister was more than decadent display. How could Virginia demand highest dollar for Iris and her “sisters” if the world of the house failed to announce they were the most beautiful women money could buy? They had to exist as silken vessels who possessed what wives and mothers and fiancées and average whores did not and never could: the unique skill to take the men away from themselves, to split them down to the marrow, to make them feel like boys who could risk fragility one minute and gods who ruled from the tops of mountains the next. So lavender drapes stitched with green vines hung from the windows. Dolls imported from France and adorned with velvet dresses in shades of eggplant and mauve lined the mantel where the fireplace now cooled. Oval, who looked like a living doll with her umber skin smooth as an infant’s and her teeth the color of foamed milk, inserted the tip of her pinky finger into her mouth, then other fingers to suppress a moan. As the vicious pain of her loss sent waves of cramps into her gut, she longed for nothing more than to crawl out of her skeleton and be free of her weighty organs. “If I was a swallowtail,” she thought, as she curled her toes into the hyacinth and wine-colored rug.
Oval’s father had not flown away, but he might as well have, for his mind left him not too long after he realized her mother would soon die. While still in his right mind, he’d come to visit as Iris coughed and drifted in and out of her own sea of post-life. As he pulled the stethoscope and a bottle of rattling pills from his black leather bag, then a vial of liquid he dropped onto her mother’s tongue, Oval had thought how ill-placed he’d appeared in the room, as if God had picked him up from somewhere outdoors and dropped him inside to have a look-see at her mother. He was handsome enough with his amber complexion and eyes the color of ashen moss. Yet even the walls, Oval sensed, knew there was no place for him here. But he was alive, and his blood ran through her veins. Iris was not alive and would never be again. What was this absence and what did it mean when she had never called her mother any word that resembled what you might call the woman who has given birth to you?
“Iris” was what her daughter called her, as her mother’s mother had and her mother’s sisters, who sexed primarily for money but accepted pearls and jewels in fine, gold settings and occasionally a pistol or hand-carved blade. Once, a customer had paid with a loaded 1911 Colt and while half-dressed had shown Iris how to aim. When the customer, a war veteran, had left with a hum in his throat, Iris, alive with mystery over the new acquisition, had run to show Melvin, twin brother to one of the sisters, Talcum. Melvin, a tall, thick man nicknamed Breaker, provided security for the house from nine in the evening to six in the morning. When Iris came running and tapped him on the shoulder with the Colt, Melvin grinned. “What you got there, girl?” He instantly wanted the gun but hid his desire. He knew how Iris had earned it, and it was not his to take.
“You know how to shoot?”
“Why you think I brought it to you?”
He took her to a field and added two layers to the lesson the war veteran had started: how to fire and how to use the handle to “beat a fool down,” if, for whatever reason, he wasn’t there to do it. “Or,” Iris added, “I just wanna do it my own self.”
“Make it up in your bed,” he’d told her. “Hide it up under a pillow.” As Iris followed Melvin’s instructions, she felt the thrill of such a powerful secret fill her petite bosom, round and robust as apples, as she tucked the pistol, which was not dainty, beneath a satin pillow. Occasion to use it came two weeks later when a customer who must’ve been crazy or on something that made him crazy thought he could climb into Iris and depart without paying. “Pay you, bitch?” he’d said. “I just paid you with this stick I put in that cheap, ol’ cunt of yours. You ain’t,” and before he could say shit, she had grabbed the pistol from beneath the pillow and hit the man in the mouth with its handle, and his warm blood had flown from his mouth as if its intention had always been the wall where it splattered. Again and again she assaulted the soft space where his mouth and its way of life was dying. “Say bitch now, muthafucka, say bitch now,” which of course the man could not and would not ever, for Iris had beaten the teeth out of him, so from then on, had he wanted to utter the word bitch, it would have eased from his mouth like saliva, as all his words from then on eased out of his mouth, and the word would not be bitch but bish. But he never said the word again or much of anything again. Virginia had decided to keep a few of the man’s teeth and leave the blood as a warning: Pay Iris. Pay my girls. So the man’s blood remained months and months later, though faintly, on the wall, above Oval’s head.
When Oval was born, her mother had thought of her own mouth shaped in a longish O the night the child was conceived, as she had lain face down on her bed of purple linens, then turned slightly to the side, so she could see the light from the fire with Lawrence behind her, opening her and deepening himself into her as if all of her was a hole to fill. She felt him in the palms of her hands and behind her ears and in her belly. She swelled around him, where he filled her most, and cried ohhhh, as if the sound was pulled from the soles of her feet. Alongside the pleasure was the disappointment of Lawrence’s formality and his stupidity and his coldness, how removed he could make himself, like an educated fool. They were in love, and yet he paid her as if he was any regular customer, to put a ripple of reality, so much like a stone, into her hopes and fantasies. Yes, he would delight in her laugh and the soft elixir of her voice and just how pretty she was, and yes, he would be good to her—better than he had ever been to any other breathing soul in the history of his days—and yes, he would swim in her and feel the ocean of his dreams rise to meet his tender manhood as he discovered the lushness of contentment again and again when Iris opened her body and her boundless, sharp love to him and his frailty, but no, she would not become Mrs. Dr. Lawrence Mitchell. He would not allow it. When he left Virginia’s house after his visits to Iris, he left love there, inside Iris, who wanted him and hated him and envied him. He could come and go as he wished, and she resented that she allowed it because he paid.
Not yet nine months later and there was the new, painful ohhhh when Iris pushed her daughter from her womb with its ring of fire haloing her daughter’s head as the baby crowned. Iris screamed. Her daughter poured from her like hot rainwater with arms and legs that moved on their own.
Iris had no desire to be a mother, but she decided to keep her daughter. Virginia had sensed from the way Iris was carrying the baby in her belly that the child was a girl. “If she looks anything like you,” she’d said, “she’ll keep the house warm for winters and winters to come. She might even help y’all get your own little place.” So Iris had agreed—aware that she wanted her own home and that she loved Lawrence enough to have his child, even though she did not want to love him, for he had become a blister as well as a balm.
Talcum, who was nearly as tall as her brother, served as midwife, while Melvin kept watch outside Iris’s bedroom door. He carved the skin from an apple while singing “Amazing Grace” as Iris screamed, “Oval! Oval, goddamnit! Call the bitch Oval!” Talcum had felt a shock in her heart that made her whisper a silent prayer for God to look after the child, to allow no harm to befall her, and to protect her from Iris. Talcum was surprised that in a flash she hated Iris, whom before now she had genuinely loved. Talcum swaddled the honey-skinned girl with eyes that looked gray as ocean water one way and in another light, green as a wildcat’s.
She placed Oval in her mother’s arms, and Iris rubbed her bottom lip on the baby’s head, an anointing for what was ahead. When Talcum left the room, she mumbled to her brother, “That thing ain’t no type of mother.” Iris had heard her, but put Oval on her breast anyway and hummed to her as she wept onto the soft spot at the center of the baby’s head. Her daughter, she noticed, suckled like a queen, slowly but with awareness that the breast would remain just as it was until she’d had her fill.
What a beautiful baby, Iris had thought. What freedom would there be for her daughter, a beautiful girl in Virginia’s house? And yet Iris had allowed the slick woman with all her complications and maternal trappings to persuade her to have a baby she did not want but now loved with the ferocity of fields and fields aflame. As her daughter’s eyes closed and her mouth went slack around her nipple, Iris prayed a prayer of her own: that her girl would not die a whore, as she knew she would certainly die.
Oval was fourteen years old, and for every one of those years, the world of her heart had been her mother, who was consumed by fever—her mother whom men had called Pretty Girl. They had hummed and grunted that name to her, and Oval had heard. There had been man after man after man, and a few times there had been boys brought by their fathers. When Oval awakened this morning, the cool rag Virginia had placed on her mother’s forehead the night before, soaked in alcohol, wintergreen, and eucalyptus in the frail hope of breaking her mother’s fever, lay on the pillow. Iris’s mouth was open like a doll’s, in an O. Oval had spent the night watching her mother’s breath rise and fall, rise and fall, growing weaker. Her mother’s eyes never landed on her, even when she pulled the girl close and held her tight. Oval had thought, She won’t make it to daylight, which is what Lawrence had said, and the grief sent her to sleep. The women who worked with her mother had slept downstairs, wrapped in two or three shawls, sipping cider and warmed chocolate as they wept. No howl could beat Talcum’s. She’d forgiven Iris for cursing her daughter, and Iris had forgiven her for speaking so nastily about her to Melvin when Oval was born. Not too long after Lawrence’s arrival, he’d touched his daughter’s cheek and said, “Won’t be able to stay. Sorry, dear child. I tried. You are pretty, though, just like her.” Then added, “Lord knows, you didn’t get nothing beautiful from me.”
The door opened. It was Virginia, who was so occupied by the sight of beautiful Iris in the bed that she nearly dropped the hot, slightly bitter drink she’d brought upstairs. She walked to the coffee table and set down the tray. She did not see Oval on the floor, for as soon as her hands were free, her eyes returned to Iris. Virginia touched her mouth with a forefinger and tapped her teeth. She felt cinched at the waist, as if a second corset was wrapped and fastened at her middle. Pretty Girl, she thought. Pretty, pretty, pretty girl. She put the back of her hand to her forehead and choked back something threatening to boil from her gut. Her heart sank to her ankles and she thought, What a dark room, what a dark world. Virginia closed her eyes. She thought for a moment of running from the room. This is business, she told herself. What I got here with these girls is business. She straightened herself to full height. Her long, black dress, made of tulle and lace, had a train that Virginia was careful not to shut in the door as she closed it.
She looked around the room, imagining she’d see the girl slouched in the burgundy chaise or propped like a limp doll on the edge of the windowsill. Virginia’s eyes darted around the room as if searching for something of high value that she’d misplaced. Finally, she looked down. There. She shook her head.
“Get up, baby. Come on now. Your momma dead and gone, but you ain’t. Sit up here.” Virginia walked to the coffee table and poured the tea into a small mug. She walked back to Oval just as quickly. Oval raised herself up and felt a tug of grief in her stomach. Virginia knelt and brought a warm cup to Oval’s mouth. “Sip it. Sip it slow.” Oval drank the sweetened roots and the tension in her abdomen eased as Virginia sat at the edge of the bed, her behind near Iris’s feet. Virginia placed her hand on Oval’s thick head of blackish-brown hair and stroked.
“Want me to be your momma now, sugar?”
“No ma’am. That’s all right.”
“We could see after each other,” Virginia said. She looked away from her hand moving over the girl’s hair and set her eyes on the fireplace. By now, the ashes inched toward coldness, but Virginia gazed into it and imagined orange flame like the fire in the shack where her own mother had died screaming and coughing up the bloody, soft tissue of her lungs. Virginia had only been a few years older than this girl whose hair she touched when her own mother died. She had not been quite as pretty, but she had looks enough to earn a living the way she was now coaxing Oval to make a living, by making men scream, as her mother had done and as Virginia’s mother had done. All those years on her back, or up against a wall, with some man wailing his wounds into her mother, and she had died with so little to show for it, but what she had, she gave to Virginia, her only daughter, and that was $53 and a hair comb studded with sapphires blue as the skin of the Atlantic and creamy-white pearls, the color of Virginia’s face, for her father was a white man who abused her mother, threw what he owed her on the ground, and never returned. So her mother had not died in a fine house such as this one but on a dirt floor atop cornhusks. A day before she died, her mother had warned, “Make yourself some money. Don’t let a man get you too quick with child. Matter fact,” her mother had said, “don’t marry. You and your brothers made life harder for me than I woulda had it alone. Mighty sorry I had to tell you, but who else would break you with the truth but me?” To defy her mother’s prophesy of a life of whoredom, Virginia imagined her neck held high by a husband’s love.
She had been merciful to her mother, who she now believed did not deserve her mercy. But hadn’t mercy been due her nonetheless? She was, after all, her mother. Her blood had been warm as it spilled from the cloth Virginia had held to her mouth. When she died, Virginia released a wail beyond the Earth, the blood on her hand dried and stuck to her like skin. That night, she had looked up into the ceiling of the shack she shared with her mother as if she could see straight to the sky. She would abide her mother and not take a husband. But she would not die on a bed of cornhusks, her own blood the last taste of life she would ever know. No, Virginia decided then, she would be loved. And now she was sure this girl without a mother would love her. So, there, behind the shrub of Virginia’s compassion, as she nearly put the grieving girl to sleep with her touch, was the arrogance of her success. Oval and her mother owed her. Iris was dead, yes, but hadn’t she gone to her grave pampered as a doll, amid her suffering? And wouldn’t this girl, as long as she could keep the men inspired, have a purple, velvet pillow on which to lay her head? And wouldn’t she feast on not just sweetened porridge for breakfast, but ham, croissants, and only the freshest bananas and tangerines? The women in this house lived not as white people but better. And that is because, Virginia thought, I survived. I survived it all.
“You ain’t gotta be my momma to see after me,” Oval said. “I saw how she did. I can do it.”
“You wanna be Pretty Girl now? Be a new name for you.”
“Iris used to call me that when I was tired. It ain’t nothing new. Me and her was Pretty Girl at the same time.”
“The men won’t like your smart mouth full of sass, but I like a smart girl.”
“I like your house. I think I’ll stay here all the time. I think I might like to die here.”
“You can stay as long as you can work.” Then, “You wanna die here because your momma died here?”
“No, ma’am. I wanna die here because of the rooms. Each one is special. Iris thought I loved this room the most because of the lavender drapes and the vases she filled with daisies. She needed me to like it the most because we shared it. But my favorite room is the great room downstairs.” Oval had sat up to drink the root tea but had not risen from the floor. Without realizing it, she’d relaxed her neck so her head was now against the older woman’s knee. Though they both felt Iris’s absence, they were no longer actively thinking about her, despite her cold body nearby.
“Did you know,” Oval began again, “that before you moved in here, a little girl died in this house? I know because she told me. Her name was Sarah Anne Carpenter. She had a fever like my mother. But that’s not what killed her. She’s nice. Sad. She loves to talk, talk, talk. Her daddy was a white man, just like yours. But her momma only looked white. Sarah didn’t find out until after she died that her momma was a colored lady like you and me. She was running after her daddy and fell down the stairs. That’s how she died. She fell and got up flying.”
Virginia shivered. She believed in ghosts but none had spoken to her. Fear of Oval rose in her like a quick flood. She could not allow the raised hairs on her arms and legs to dictate how she would deal with the girl, who was too beautiful to give up, even though she scared her. Sitting in this room with the girl and her dead mother, Virginia felt love.
“When she bothers me by talking too much, I just tell her, ‘Go on now, Sarah Anne, go on,’ and she abides me. I like when people listen to me, just like I like the world quiet. The great room is the quietest room in the house even though it’s in the middle of everything. And purple is sure enough my favorite color. You put some kind of purple all over the house. The tablecloth in the dining room. The goblets in the china cabinet. This house makes the sky look purple. I don’t think there’s another place in the world with this much purple, do you? You been more places than me. Tell me why you love purple so much. The only ring you wear every day is purple.”
She could not say whether she hated this half-crazed girl whose mother, like hers, had died when she was just a girl, or if it was her own mother who had left her alone and half-crazed whom she hated. Or do I hate myself, Virginia thought, for the cruelty of what I did? She had not thought of the purple patches in the quilt that had covered her mother since the night her mother had died and she’d fitfully ripped the patches from the quilt. Her fingers were possessed by anger and the awareness that her mother was now only flesh that would soon be put in a pine box and lowered into a ground that would not distinguish her from an elk, or a bird, or any other dead thing. But as she pulled the stitches free, she noticed for the first time in her life how white her mother’s teeth were. Her mother had died with her voice trailing off from a moan, as if in quiet shock, with her mouth half open. Other than the fire, where a soup of greens and neck bones grew thick, her mother’s teeth were the only brightness in the room. And Virginia, for a moment, stopped the frenzied work of her hands to inspect her mother’s mouth and smiled, her fingertips slightly moist with her mother’s saliva. Would the hard ground, where her mother would soon be buried, remember her mother’s beautiful, beautiful teeth? No ground deserved such gleam. To do it, she’d need the right tool. Where to get the right tool? Some man somewhere would have it. Something to pull. She knew how to set a fire.
After she’d removed the purple patches from the quilt, Virginia had used what remained of it to cover her mother’s face and most of her body. Virginia kissed the quilt where her mother’s mouth was and walked out of the shack. There was the house beyond a small pond where Mr. Harris lived. He had never come to visit her mother in the way other men had, though he lived so near and was alone after his wife died. He would stop by now and then to repair things, and sometimes he’d bring lemons or a whole dead chicken. All he’d say was, “Much obliged,” and be on his way.
Virginia ran to the house as if attempting to outrun enemies. When she arrived at his door, she beat on it. Mr. Harris opened the door, shotgun in hand. “Aw, girl, I didn’t know that was you.” He put the gun down.
“My momma dead,” Virginia said. “And it’s something I need. You got some pliers, Mr. Harris?” She was speaking too quickly, and Mr. Harris needed a moment to think on the girl’s mother as dead. He’d never gotten around to ask if her mother might like to go fishing, or get an ice cream cone on a humid day, or just go someplace and sit together and not talk too much, just sit and enjoy each other’s company and maybe slip up and hold hands. When folks started talking after his wife died, he withdrew all the fantasies and locked them down, then locked them out. At the grocery store, at the church, down at the banquet hall. This sweet girl’s mother was “that ho.” In so naming her, they cursed her and stoned her and damned her. And here was her daughter before him asking for what? Pliers?
“What you need with pliers, sugar?”
“I need ’em for my momma. I’ll bring ’em back.”
“Let me come walk over there with you. We gotta get her to the funeral home.”
“Naw,” Virginia said. “Ain’t no use in a funeral. I’ll bury her myself.”
“Bury her yourself?”
Virginia began to undo her buttons right there, under the light, her fingers in a frenzy. “I know you want me like you wanted my momma, but you was too scared because folks talked about her. You think I don’t know? What it’ll take to get them pliers? This,” she asked, “this?”
Her left breast was exposed, and her hand crept below her belly. Mr. Harris ran into the house, returned with the pliers, shoved them into her hand, and slammed the door. Virginia flashed a wicked grin at the closed door then screamed as if she meant the noise to knock the door down. Back at the shack, she yanked the quilt from her mother’s face. This had to be done quick, quick before she could lose heart. She fit the pliers around a back tooth and pulled. “Come on, damnit,” she screamed. “Come out!” But it was not just teeth. It was nerves, too, and roots. So she pulled harder. Six times she entered her mother’s mouth to extract just as many teeth. By the time it was all done, her hands were newly bloodied, and she was wet with sweat. She cleaned each tooth then wrapped them in their own patch of purple quilt, set the shed aflame with her mother’s body in it, and returned the pliers to Mr. Harris. She had intended to leave them there on the doorstep, but he’d opened the door, drunk now, and let her in.
“I ain’t staying but one night,” she’d said.
“The fire. You burned your momma up in there?”
“What the hell you think? What you care?”
“Gotta get that fire down.”
“No, we don’t either. We way out here in the country. Nobody care about that little shack. I’m tired. Time to sleep.”
Virginia led Mr. Harris into his own bedroom to break him and let him break her. She had fought hard to remove herself from that night and its brutality and its sadness and what it did to her, how it undid her and made her something she could not name and after that night could no longer recognize.
The elegance of her home now and all the things she could afford were part of the medication she used to force forgetfulness down her throat. Four times a week she brushed Chanel at her wrists and behind her ears and bathed in rich oils and bubbles that smelled of ginger. If she wanted duck for dinner, she’d have it, and if she wanted shrimp or crawfish for gumbo, she would have that, too. She was no longer that dirty, poor, grief-stricken girl, and who was this poor, grief-stricken girl to remind her that she was ever anyone other than Virginia Divine? Now, sitting next to Oval, stroking Oval’s hair, she could smell the smoke from the burning shack all those years ago. She could smell Mr. Harris as he tunneled into her and remembered the wondrous feeling of not being alone on the same night she had lost her mother. She could feel the fire she’d set to the shack that had turned her mother into ash; she felt it in her bones, and yes, all of the purple this beautiful, slightly off girl had noted in the house was in honor of her mother. Even in death, she had wanted to make her mother, who had loved her with half her heart, proud. This home was for her mother; it was a monument to her memory. Goddamn, she thought. I can’t have shit to myself. She twisted the amethyst stone with its jagged ring of white sapphires set in silver on her finger. A fellow by the name of Berch had paid her with it early one morning. He’d told her it had once belonged to an heiress.
“Folks can stay long as they can lay down and get paid. Time men don’t want you, you got to move on.”
“I tend to earn my keep, Virginia,” Oval said. And then, “You gone need somebody to take care of you when you old so you don’t die in here by yourself and dry up or get ate up by dogs.”
Virginia thought about this and twisted off the ring and gave it to the girl, perhaps because her eyes had cast a spell, but really because she did fear dying in the house alone, and had feared it since her fiftieth birthday. So, yes, this girl with at least twenty good years of work left in her, maybe even thirty if she ate right and tried like hell to keep herself up, she could stay. Virginia was something like a mother to the sisters, but this girl would be hers, as if she had given birth to her herself.
“You gotta keep the men company. Know what I mean?”
Something in the house fell like glass and then a whisper fell over the house as Virginia asked again in a voice soft as syrup, “Pretty Girl, you know what I mean by that? When I say company?”
Oval shook her head up toward heaven, then down toward hell. Of course she knew. But the up-and-down motion of her head was not merely an answer to Virginia’s question. She was saying yes to something greater, which was that she would own this house one day, not just lay up and lay down in it or dream of possessing its things that had been gifted to Virginia by white and black lovers who paid her to love them or make love to them like she loved them or just lay there and take it like a cow or mule or like the customer who only wanted to weep into Virginia’s skirt while she stroked his hair or like Jed, who had made her watch him undress then touch himself until he was only water and put his trousers back on. Virginia had joked at dinner, over fried pork, sweet peas, and candied yams, that she didn’t care about Jed’s hairy ass tugging on himself like something wounded as long as he paid. But Oval had spied on her as she screamed in the shed a few hours later about how she was sick of this place and its whores and the men who paid the whores, and there was dignified, beautiful Virginia just screaming at nothing like the nothing was ghosts, before she sank onto her hands and knees and used her lovely fingernails to dig in the dirt and dig and dig in the dirt until she unearthed a jar. Oval’s eyes opened wide at the sight of the jar and what gleamed dirtily and mysteriously inside it. The jar in Virginia’s hands held shavings that looked like bones. But Oval had peered more closely. Not bone but teeth.
It was then that Oval had decided she would transform the house into a respectable place for respectable people, like her husband and their children, and the children of her children. Oval remembered the dirt and Virginia’s nails and how she had reburied the glass jar and dusted her skirts like it was all nothing, nothing, and the buttery smile she had spread on her face before exiting the shed. She remembered that day as she stood between her dead mother and the woman she would take this house from. She would never kick Virginia out or send her away, no, that would be cruel, but the house would be hers, and Virginia would live comfortably in it, not as owner but tenant, a kind of memory of what the house once was.
Within the next hour, the undertaker, who had also been one of Iris’s customers, came to collect her. He had wept into a white handkerchief, “No, no, Jesus, not my Pretty Girl,” as he imagined the shimmery dusting powder he would use on the bridge of her nose and just beneath her eyes to make the dark spots of death disappear. Melvin carried Iris to the hearse like a heavy bag of sugar, and though he did not weep, he said again and again, “Be strong, now, be strong,” as if to the air.
Lawrence returned just in time to see Melvin place Iris in the hearse. He thought of entering the house to console his daughter but believed himself to be unworthy of any comfort he might experience in return. So he turned his car around. After he’d driven several miles, he felt his chest constrict, and he was short of breath. He realized Iris had been more than a beautiful whore who had turned him over and over again like he was a rusty coin graced by light. Under her love and tenderness, he had emerged not just satisfied but cleansed. When she put his weary fingers in her mouth, he’d felt not just alive but seen, not just a man, but a human being full of possibility. It was her love that made me, he said aloud, it was her love. He pulled over his Chevrolet, which had been his pride and joy, as a Black man who could own such a car in 1922, just a year after a mob of white men in Tulsa had set fire to the property of people who looked like him, and had killed them for being wealthy. He parked the car, walked over to the ditch, and vomited. He looked toward the car, black and shimmering with red leather interior. He wanted to climb back in, to drive to the home he shared with his parents who urged him to marry, almost daily, although he resisted. “Mother. Father,” he’d say, “I am simply not ready. There is more to life than wives and babies.” He had lied to them as certainly as he had lied to himself. He had fallen in love with Iris, who was unsuitable, and yet, he could not betray her by marrying another. Dr. Lawrence’s throat burned as if he had swallowed a live piece of coal. What kind of doctor was he if he could not save the woman he loved? What kind of man was he if he could not choose to marry the woman his heart had chosen? Lord, a mercy, he thought, as he broke into sobs. He left the car where it was and walked home. The following morning he took a trolley down St. Charles and moved to a dimly lit room that was half clean and smelled not sour but pungent with something he could not name.
He preached on stoops and corners in formal clothes that soon grew tattered. And when his hair matted into naps, he let it. All up and down the French Quarter he preached about the wages of sin as death. Sometimes, there’d be a song and passersby who tried to ignore him could not un-hear the pretty sound when he sang, “Iris, Iris there, Iris, Iris there, Iris, Iris, Iris prettiest girl in heaven.”
Iris was buried three days after she died. That night, her daughter welcomed her first customer into her mother’s bed—the pistol beneath a pillow in the center that smelled of lavender and her mother’s hair.