Sunday, October 14, 2018

Review of 'Viking Wolf' by Emmanuelle de Maupassant

Another ultra-steamy winner from Emmanuelle de Maupassant, rapidly establishing herself as the undisputed queen of erotic romance, Viking Wolf takes up where the first book in the series Viking Thunder (among EftBB’s Best of 2017) left off.

In my review of the first book I said: “Viking Thunder is an exquisite piece of writing by any standard, imaginative historical fiction at its finest, and one of the sexiest tales I’ve had the pleasure to read in—ever.” In this exciting, and gorgeously-written sequel, the Middle Ages’ hottest couple, Anglo-Saxon Elswyth and her Viking lover Eiric return to the norseman’s home in Svolvaen. But it’s not all hearts and flowers in spite of the erotic heat generated by these two, darker conflicts loom, and, this being erotic romance, a virtual long-boat-load of heroinic self-doubt pads a goodly percentage of the narrative. Eirik’s elder brother, Gunnolf, jarl of Svolvaen turns his lustful eye on the Northumbrian beauty, and one can almost smell the testosterone in the air. When Eirik and his sister Hekla are conveniently sent off to a neighboring community in order to establish an alliance, Elswyth is without allies, a virtual stranger in a strange land, very much at Gunnolf’s mercy. With lots of political and romantic intrigue to go along with fascinating discussions of Viking lore and legend, the story is compelling, vividly related, and seldom dull.

One criticism: the climactic set-piece is “muffled” and too abrupt where it ought to have been vivid and expansive. It is over so quickly that some readers may be left scratching their heads, wondering what actually happened—not to mention how or why. The language in this sort of passage needs to be acute and highly descriptive, showing readers everything that goes on, even as it is paced in such a way as to keep them on the edge of their seats. Here it feels rather perfunctory, as if someone were in a terrible hurry to wind up the story with its de rigueur happy ending, and used the set-piece as a convenient way to get there without putting anyone we care about in serious peril. While this is not a fatal flaw, I do hope that the planned sequel to Viking Wolf will feature a climax as powerful and memorably worthy as the story that goes before it.

This minor point aside, Viking Wolf is eminently entertaining and enthusiastically recommended!

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Review of 'Doll House' by Ashley Lister

Here’s a fun, highly atmospheric horror/mystery thriller that will keep fans happily engaged, eagerly turning pages and jonesing to find out what happens next from beginning to end. In Doll House, UK author Ashley Lister sets up a dark, creepy tale with the macabrely-sophisticated psychology of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and the terror-tinged eroticism of François Ozon’s Swimming Pool, all with a decidedly British sensibility.

Lister’s less-than-perfect protagonist is Ben Haversham, a best-selling author of fictionalized memoir, though what little life or imagination he seems to have hardly suggest that the books were very thick. For a writer, Haversham seems chronically incurious, content to know what he knows, bugger-all the rest; getting by on fading charm and the cachet of his flagging literary reputation, his guttering creative spark now fueled mostly by drugs and alcohol. Desperate for a third best-seller, Haversham’s agent proposes something of a radical intervention, depositing his dissolute client in a small, isolated village somewhere in northern England, leaving him a virtual prisoner in a  cottage-retreat with no distractions and nothing other to do than “write the damn book!” (Don’t we all wish we had so thoughtful an agent!)

Of course, weird and uncanny things start happening right away. There is something deeply unsettling about the village and its inhabitants, especially the mysterious Marian Papusa, owner of the Doll House, a creepy “Addam’s Family” mansion-cum-museum/factory just across the street from Ben’s cottage. Weirder still is the little army of dolls that populate the cottage, giving anyone who stays there a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, not to mention the grotesque oil paintings of evil clowns almost everywhere one looks. Throughout the novel, Lister draws on the macabre ambivalence many people feel toward dolls and clowns; seemingly innocent figures of childhood fun and amusement, they can also appear as dark avatars of the subconscious’ most disturbing tendencies, the stuff of very grown-up nightmares. Enter a vindictive religious fanatic from Haversham’s past, household staff who are just a little bit too accomodating, and a grisly backstory that drives everything towards a horrifyingly inevitable denouement, and the stage is well set indeed.     

I do have a couple small complaints to register. First, whether because the book was written in a great hurry or indifferently edited afterwards, there are far too many instances of repetition, the same information—usually part of a character’s inner monologue—restated, sometimes two or three times, in almost precisely the same way within the space of a few lines. This occurs repeatedly throughout the text, lending the distinct sense of an early draft: one begins to feel as if some heavy from a Guy Ritchie gangster epic were standing alongside them, shouting at the top of their lungs, “if you didn’t get the obvious point I was trying to make in the previous sentence, I will now make the same point again, but this time I will hit you in the head with a lead pipe so the point will be even more obvious…”  Second: there are a few glaring continuity errors that ought to have been caught in the editing process: the names of the two local pubs are mixed up at a couple points later in the story, and the character of a helpful local barmaid is confused with a denizen of the Doll House towards the end.

Small complaints, and mostly irrelevant once one begins to go with the flow. It’s easy—almost inevitable—to find oneself invested in the engaging story Lister so skillfully unfolds here; a good, fast, entertaining read, definitely worth a look! Recommended.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

'Salix Sepulcralis'--third of three short stories by TAS

(III) Salix Sepulcralis

Sharon would have been appalled by the sheer ordinariness of her death. It was all so badly staged.
There was no poetry in it, no melodrama or mystery. The Grim Reaper had not waited for the shattering three-hanky climax of a La Traviata or a La Bohème to step onto the stage, making his vaunted cameo with a dark flourish. Sharon had not warbled away the first two acts like Violetta or Mimi, the tragic center of attention bravely denying her piteous fate, slowly fading, if barely consumed, by consumption. No family or friends had gathered about a deathbed strewn with roses—Sharon would have adored that particular detail. No penitent lover wept upon her bosom or took her dying breath into himself with one final passionate pledge.
She had simply ‘dropped dead’ one afternoon, the way just-plain folks so often do, without fuss or fanfare. One moment she was standing in front of her kitchen sink, drying dishes, talking and laughing with one of her chums on the phone. The next she was lying lifeless on the faux-marble tile, surrounded by broken shards of heirloom china. This supernaturally youthful, magically intriguing woman with three or perhaps even four dazzling decades ahead of her had become, virtually in the blink of an eye, an unextraordinary mass of diverse necrotic tissues turning to mush on the embalming table, this soul that had so longed to sing, reduced to a voiceless assortment of cells in random, untidy decay.
No explanation had been forthcoming beyond some nebulous pronouncement of ‘natural causes,’ a verdict that satisfied no one and only inspired the sort of cruel gossip Sharon herself had thrived on in life. ‘Still,’ people said, ‘such a tragedy! She was so young! How could God be so uncaring—so capricious? Why would He do this? Especially to someone so well-liked and popular—so righteous and upstanding? The heavens, as ever, were stolidly silent, and Sharon (née Chance) Kennedy-Sweet-Street-Withers-McDonald had been buried on what would have been her 55th birthday under the lowering slate-gray sky of a snowless Iowa February.
“You were at the committal service,” her daughter said. “I saw you—”
True. I’d paid my respects from a discreet distance, standing, hat over heart, in the naked willow grove that etched the borders of the Chance family burying ground, itself a flat, dreary acre, five miles beyond town, shadeless in summer, ever open to the wind—one might as easily have planted corn there as corpses. I watched the old rock-ribbed country preacher saying his semi-literate piece over the tasteless gunmetal casket—knowing her people, it had been open full-length during the service at the poky white-frame church back in town—watched and witnessed the assembled mourners bowing their heads in solemn unison to mumble the Lord’s Prayer—words that I had given up long ago.
“It’s like I told you, honey, Sharon and I were friends once upon a time.”
“But you were there?”
“I had my reasons.”
“Which were?”
My reasons.”
“Why didn’t you come over and say something? To Dad? To me and Ash?”
“I didn’t think it would be appropriate. I’d been out of your mom’s life for so long.”
“That sounds like an excuse—”
“As opposed to what? I don’t owe you an explanation.”
“I know. But I was hoping—”
What? To hear me confess that I absolutely hate funerals? All that unfocused emotion, and everybody’s suddenly manic depressive, laughing one minute, weeping uncontrollably the next. People are impossibly raw-nerved or cataleptically numb, both at once more often than not, and everybody’s miserable. Irrationality becomes contagious, and it’s far too easy to say things one shouldn’t.
“I didn’t want to make a scene, that’s all.”
“Fair enough,” she said. “We all deal in our own way.”
Yes, my sweet, nubile nymph, and we all want our death to mean something. We want it to be a kind of eloquent summation of our life no matter how badly we may have screwed it up, our passing from it deeply dignified, poignant and powerful, with the people we love most hovering around us, straining to catch our final words, something glorious, pithy, true, and wise, a perfect aphorism that will echo down the ages, as if, somehow, we could stage manage our own legacy for all time. We want death to make us famous, even if we never had a claim to it in life, our funeral an elaborate media event, televised live around the world for all our inconsolable fans to share in real time.
“When were you friends with her?” she asked.
“Your mom was 39 when we met—”
“I would have been 5.”
“That’s right. I was nine years older than Sharon. We were... close for about three years.”
“What attracted you to each other?”
“Shared interests—fine art, music, culture—”
And sex, of course—that most common of common interests—there was a lot of that, too.
“—you knew she was something of a frustrated artist?” And, for much of her life, a frustrated mother as well. She dreamed of buying some grand old Victorian mansion in the city, filling it up with fine antiques and perfect children—a Currier and Ives Christmas card come to life. She wanted to throw lavish parties with expensive champagne and caviar and string quartet music to accompany the kind of brilliant conversations you hear in old movies.
What she ‘got’ was Rory McDonald, a man so obviously beneath her that even his few friends scratched their heads in utter disbelief. I gleefully cuckolded that hapless hayseed without ever giving much thought to anything beyond my own enjoyment of his wife’s stupendously fuckable body. And Sharon had been right there with me every pelvic thrust and earth-shattering climax of the way, my concupiscent co-conspirator, unblushing, blithely brazen, seductively cold-blooded in her spider-like embrace of infidelity, though, in the end, she could never bring herself to leave the fool, whom, for all practical purposes, she’d married as a ‘legitimate’ sperm donor.
One weekend we managed to get away together to Chicago. I’d wrangled tickets to the Lyric Opera’s production of La Bohème and Sharon was over the moon. She’d never looked so heart-stoppingly stunning as she did that evening, stepping from the cab in a long, sequined evening gown with the sort of daring décolletage that would have inspired a month’s worth of disapproving sermons in church back at home. She swept into the Civic Opera House on my arm, a vision in midnight blue, and, for one shining moment, all eyes were upon her and her alone. She herself was far more impressed by the glitter of the audience than the rather sentimental tale of impoverished artists unfolding on the stage—until that moment in the final act when Rodolfo rushes to Mimi’s side only to discover that she is past all hope.
And suddenly Sharon was weeping because it was all so beautiful and there was nothing like that kind of beauty in her ‘real’ life. She was clinging to my arm, burying her head in my chest, trying to muffle her sobs, “Oh Jim! Let’s move to the city! Let’s buy that big house and have a couple more kids of our own! I want this! I want it so badly! I’ll leave him now for sure, I promise! I’ll divorce him and marry you, and we can live happily ever after...”
Back at the hotel that night, making love, she swore through her tears that I was her true soulmate, the only one she’d ever truly loved, the only one who could make her dreams come true...
Brave words, yet I knew she would never follow through. I’d heard the same promises a hundred times before—and what is it they say? You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl. For all she longed so fiercely to deny, a part of her was still that simple farmer’s daughter from Iowa, the good girl who never disappointed. And Sharon simply could not bear the disapprobation of her people, could not tear herself away from the world she knew, that place where existence is predictable and safe and certain, a million miles from where real life actually happens. For all her dreams, her gilded hopes and starry-eyed ambitions, Sharon (née Chance) Kennedy-Sweet-Street-Withers-McDonald had simply dropped dead one afternoon, having never truly lived at all.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

'Red Cedars'--second of three short stories by TAS

(II) Red Cedars

I follow the sound of water, the sluggish gurgle of the creek my only frame of reference in the dark, east, towards the spot where it empties into the ice-choked pond. East, where she is waiting, cursing me for my tardiness, wondering whether to circle back and give me a second chance, asking herself if it’s worth the risk.
I thought I could save time by cutting through the park this evening—thought it might be less conspicuous to double back along the tree-lined hiking trails. I had not counted on the snow. The landscape has been rearranged by the whistling December breeze. A white pall obscures the path, camouflaging the familiar terrain, turning it into an obstacle course. I’ve already lost my way once through careless haste, slipping down into a ditch and hurting my knee. I am limping frantically towards the gravel access road beyond the pond and the back entrance to the park just off the sleepy two-lane highway that connects her town with mine.
Please be there!
I stand stock still beside the road, staring fixedly into the empty west, watching for the halogen glimmer of her headlamps rising like a faint pair of stars above the distant horizon. Motionless, I root my feet to the earth, willing myself, chameleon-like, into the shadows, invisible to everyone but her. Has she given up on me? Been and gone, exasperated, damning me as she pounds the steering wheel, swearing above the radio’s static babel, the white noise of her discontent?
“Where were you?” she demands.
“Got lost—” in more ways than one.
We head east over the whining asphalt. The rear wheels make their irregular lub-dubbing noise as they pass over the old highway, beating out a rhythm like a heart in terror. I squeeze her thigh, gently conveying my impatience, pointedly reaching for the zippered fly of her soft denim jeans. She takes her right hand off the steering wheel to stop me. “Wait!”
“All we ever do is wait.”
“I know.”
“I’m tired of waiting.”
“You think it’s easy for me?” She turns left on to a narrow access road that leads to our destination. Beyond a low hill the landscape opens out into a lonely expanse of graveled flat surrounding a manmade lake. She parks near a stand of wind-gnarled cedars, the same ubiquitous red dwarves that cling to the hillsides or cower, wild and weed-like, along the ditches, their needles sharp and unforgiving.
“Missed you.” I kiss her slowly, tenderly, hoping to draw out the moment.
“Me too.”
It is too cold to undress. We slither into the back seat. She is already looking at her watch.
“You know this might be more fun if we tried taking it slow?”
“I have to get back.”
“Just sayin’—”
“You want to fight or fuck?”
“Sorry. You’re right.”
We writhe like untried adolescents on the impossibly narrow bench seat. I impale her shallowly, lacking leverage, flexing my thighs with awkward passion. I try not to read too much into her facial expressions, her pained looks of boredom and disgust. She grits her teeth, wanting it harder, berating me for my gentleness. I try to please her though it means I will climax too quickly, ejaculating with a groan of resignation, though I barely feel a thing.
Six weeks of anticipation and it has all come down to this, a frigid brush in the dark, a gray, motion-blurred memory made like a frenetic time-lapse photograph in a spoiled five-minute exposure. There is never time to do it more than once. Wham! Bam! Thanks for nothing! That is all.
I am weary of our routine. It has gotten to where all we ever seem to do when we are together is complain about not being together. Or worry. We worry more than we make love. Me about being found out. She about getting pregnant, or picking up a rash from the cat dander on my clothes—worse than being caught red-handed—or whether we might be leaving incriminating evidence in the back seat; condom wrappers, semen stains—anything ‘he’ might find to use against her.
We turn home, west towards the twinkling lights of the little farming village where everybody knows who I am and thinks that gives them the right to know my business. I have kept this secret from them for nearly two years now.
Another five minutes and she will be dropping me off at the back entrance to the park. I will watch her drive away, red taillamps a pair of beady eyes receding into the distance like a nightmare of a guilty conscience, a winter mirage hurtling inexorably towards the vanishing point. She will be gone and I will once again be aware of the cold, of the pain in my injured knee, of the hunger that anticipation cannot assuage, the yawning hollowness that all our lofty promises cannot fill.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

'Salix Babylonica'--first of three short stories by TAS

(I) Salix Babylonica

“So... were you and my mom ever, like, together?” The girl strokes my wrist, tracing an invisible bull’s eye around my pulse.
“Please don’t do that if you don’t mean it.” She thinks I don’t know what she’s up to, assumes I have not noticed the humid web of sex she’s been weaving around me now for the past five minutes. And it’s true, I am unaccustomed to such closeness. The intimate proximity of her young body is bliss and terror, lulling my spirit into languor even as it wakens something warm and hungry deep within my too-long slumbering loins. I know that I will be telling her the truth sooner rather than later.
“So?” she presses.
“You have to understand, Willow,” the words fall mechanically from my mouth, “your mother loved you very much—”
“I know—”
“You and your brother were her whole world. Everything else came second.”
“Do you think I haven’t heard that before, Mr. Laclos? Two hours standing in the receiving line at Mom’s visitation and I could probably count the number of people who didn’t say those exact same words on the fingers of one hand. Please, tell me something I don’t know.”
“Call me Jim. You used to call me Jim—”
“You were around almost all the time—”
“Your mother and I were friends.”
Only friends?”
“How old are you now, honey?”
“24 in October. Why?”
“It just doesn’t seem possible—that it could have been so long ago.”
“But you do remember?”
Of course I remember. I remember everything and forget nothing—it is my gift and my burden. I remember her as a bright-eyed 8-year-old, a gawky, towheaded Disney princess-in-waiting, tearing around with her little brother, all giggles and shrieks, blissfully oblivious to the turmoil in her parents’ marriage. A fairly unremarkable little girl, I’d thought, though children seldom hold much interest for me.
But Willow is no longer a child. A dozen years and she has blossomed into a striking young beauty, uncannily grown to resemble the supplely graceful tree for which she is named. Her hair has darkened somewhat, and she has begun to look more like her mom, or, at least, what I imagine Sharon would have looked like in her early twenties, long before we ever met. The young woman before me has that same sultry social-butterfly nonchalance, the same bright blue eyes and easy sunny smile I once found so utterly disarming in the mother.
How could she do this to me? Make a copy of herself only to torment me from beyond the grave.
“What is it you want from me, Willow?”
“I want to know who my mother was.”
“I’m hardly the person to ask—”
“Please, Jim.” She touches my arm.
“Don’t, honey—”
“There are things I want—no—things I need to know—”
“Such as?”
“All the stuff she was supposed to tell me when she was older. The stories and the secrets, the life lessons, the warnings.”
“Didn’t she ever warn you about me?”
“I’m serious, Jim—and I’m seriously confused. See, I always thought I knew exactly who she was, but lately I’ve discovered things, things that make me wonder if I ever really knew her at all. It’s as if I’d found two pictures of her that don’t look anything alike, and I can’t figure out how to reconcile them. I need to know the whole truth, the good and the bad. I need to understand this weird jigsaw puzzle that was her life—”
“And you think I’m a piece of that puzzle?”
“I know you are, Jim.” She looks me in the eye for the first time. “I found some of the e-mails the two of you sent each other all those years ago—”
“She kept them?”
“She kept everything.”
“I don’t know what to say, honey. I...”
I promised never to tell and I never have. I was always true to her, at least as regards that small final request she made of me. But does this mean I’m free at last? Can I tell the daughter the truth now that she’s found out on her own? Now that she’s—
“I’m not trying to blackmail you if that’s what you’re thinking,” Willow says. “I only want to understand—”
“There was something about the passion in those e-mails, something about the way you got into her head and under her skin. She showed you a side of herself that nobody else ever got to see, and, to tell you the truth, I’m kind of jealous.”
“She had lots of friends—”
“Oh, my mom knew lots of people, but I can’t find anybody who really knew her. She was married five times, but none of those guys—not even my dad—seemed to have a clue about what was deep down inside her soul. None of them ever really owned her heart. And all those strangers at the visitation telling me what a great friend of theirs she’d always been, and how much fun she was to be around? Well, it’s true, she was friendly with hundreds and hundreds of people, but I don’t know a single person who was really and truly her friend—except maybe you, Jim.”
“We were close for a little while, I suppose.”
“Close. That’s one way of putting it.”
“Yes, for a year or so, until we weren’t.”
What is the opposite of close where the heart is concerned? Not far away. No: Forgotten, perpetually unremembered, ever out of mind—
“She always seemed happy when you were around. I remember one time when Ash was about 6, he said ‘Mommy! You should marry Jim!’ and when she asked him why he said ‘because Jim makes you sing!’”
“The darndest things from the mouths of babes.”
“You were together, weren’t you?”
“If I say that your mother and I were lovers, what difference can it possibly make now?”
“It makes a difference to me if I can begin to understand her.”
“And you think that flirting with me will help you gain insight?”
“If I can see the same things she saw in you—”
“She saw a much younger man back then.”
“—and what you saw in her.”
“Tell me, Jim, am I anything like her?”
“You’re beautiful like her, honey—”
“And you’re a good little actress—”
“Is that what you think?”
“Just like her, yes. She was extremely good at using people to get what she wanted.”
“The way I’ve been using you this afternoon?”
“Are you denying it?”
“No. But let me ask you this, Jim. Can you make me sing? Can you...” she whispers the rest in my ear.
“Willow.” I reach out to frame her lovely face in a garland of trembling fingers, staring into the infinite blue of her eyes, the calm surface sparkling now with a promise of salacious anarchy. But will I also find her mother’s madness there?
The moment unfolds slowly, though I will probably remember it only as a fevered blur, an aging agnostic’s fleeting glimpse of heaven. We undress each other, uncertainly at first, with a kind of awkward reverence, paying our final red-faced respects to the past. The details themselves are unimportant. All that matters now is that she is perfect, young, and beautiful, and willing, freely giving herself over to the tender mercies of my lust.
My mouth waters at the sight of her body—so wondrously, aptly willowy—her long lissome limbs, and the sweeping, luxurious arc of her torso. She is naked now except for the silver crucifix around her neck, like the one her mother always used to wear—or perhaps it is the same one—Jesus resting in the blooming bosom of eternal youth. We lie on the couch together. I use my tongue and fingers, drawing her into a state of moist wakefulness, though she has been ready from the beginning.
She shudders as I come into her. Wanton, she arches her platinum cunt to meet my dusky animal thrusts, over-excitedly at first, unable to control her breathing. I slow the pace long enough to reassure her, giving her the time to relax. We kiss, open-mouthed, as beneath me, she eases gradually into the rhythm I set, the intricately metered cadences of grownup lovemaking. She whimpers softly as I fill her, each forward surge eliciting a giggle of joyful surprise, each lugubrious withdrawal, a questioning sigh of forlorn despair, until, at last, the daughter comes the way the mother never dared, with a full-throated wail of primal ascent, her body tremoring in hysterical ecstasy from the blazing epicenter of its core, as she begs to be taken again—as somewhere, far away, the ghost of her mother begins to weep.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

'Jewel'--a story by TAS


Needin’s easy most of the time. Wantin’s lyin’ awake at night and worryin’ yourself sick for no good reason. That’s what Daddy Bob told me once. You can have your needs all figured out and still not know what it is you really want. And that’s where you get into trouble, moonin’ after things you can’t have, confusin’ ‘em with what you need.
Guess all I ever wanted was to be loved. That’s what I thought back when I was real little, anyway. They said I was a pretty girl, all them men who kept coming and going in and out of Mama’s place. She never could hang on to any one of ‘em for very long, but they always seemed to like me well enough, even if things didn’t work out with her. S’pose that’s why she started getting jealous about the time I turned 12. Threw me out for good when I was 16. Said I was trying to steal her boyfriend even though I swore to her that nothing ever happened.
See, I’ve always been a curvy girl. Mean folks say I’m fat. But I ain’t. Not really. I’m more what you’d call ‘full-figured’—like one of them BBWs you see in the magazines—and there’s plenty of nice guys think that’s more’n sexy enough. I figure there ain’t no harm in being nice back, even if I know for sure they ain’t never gonna put their money where their mouths is at. Let’s face it, men’ve all got that one same thing on their minds no matter what comes out of their mouth. Like my boyfriend back in school. Always thought he was nice enough when he was sweet talkin’ me, trying to get me to put out. Yeah, real nice. Right up until he run out on me for some skinny blond bitch looked like she’d been put together with coat hangers and safety pins. At least the mean guys are honest.
“I like me a gal with some paddin’,” Daddy Bob’d say when things was good between us. “It’s like fuckin’ on a fancy sofa.” That was about as romantic as D.B. ever got. Old coot was all wiry and tough like some bantam rooster don’t know when to quit. Always smelled like he’d been working outside in the sun, kinda sweaty and stale. Never could look me in the face when we was doin’ it. Never would kiss me. Daddy wasn’t exactly what I’d call ‘nice,’ but most of the time he was OK for a river rat. Didn’t throw me out of bed for bein’ poor white trailer trash. Give me a job at the bar and a room upstairs after Mama’d put me out. Figured letting him have a poke every once in a while was only fair.
The fellows who come into the bar called me Jewel—I always liked that lots better than Julie Mae. They’d say ‘what’s a looker like you doin’ in a shithole like DB’s?’ and I’d just kinda shrug my shoulders. Truth is, I didn’t know myself. It got to be kind of a joke around the place ‘cause every time I’d shrug like that the top of my shirt’d pull open a ways and the mens ’d get ‘emselves a good solid peek at my nice big pillows. I knew when they was lookin’ at my chest ‘cause they’d tell me how pretty my eyes was. ‘Cept they never seemed to notice that the two are actually different colors: one’s blue and one’s green and the green one’s got some little gold freckle-sorta things in it. Mama said that was the sign of the devil in me, but the menfolk never seemed to mind.
The bar wasn’t much, just a rickety old shack with a even ricketier upstairs stacked on top of it and Daddy Bob’s trailer off to one side. Wonder the place didn’t slide off the levee and fall right into the river or burn down or come crashing in on top of people’s heads or get itself blown away in a twister. Floors were all warped up from every time the river come over the top of the levee. There wasn’t no ‘lectricity and no fancy air conditioning, just a noisy old gas genny in the back and some creaky ceiling fans hadn’t been oiled in an age. At night the fog’d roll in off the river like steam out of a kettle. It was always way too hot and stuffy and just plain miserable muggy and it was even worse when the May flies come out. You had to put blankets over the windows and sweep these great big ol’ piles of nasty brownish-green bugs that looked like sick-people shit out the front door every fifteen minutes, but you could still never stay ahead of ‘em.
Nobody ever asked too many questions about stuff that happened on Finn’s Levee. I guess the place was just too out of the way. If the law did come snoopin’ around once in a blue moon, it’d only be the sheriff lookin’ to get in on the card game Daddy Bob run in the back room after hours. And long as Daddy played it smart and stayed sober enough to let that fat old bastard win a hand every once in a while, things’d keep running smooth.
Some nights Daddy had me sit on his lap while he played. He liked showing me off to the other guys, like he was rubbing their noses in it and saying ‘Lookee here what I got, fellas! Bet you ain’t got nothin’ half this young and fresh waitin’ for your sorry asses back at home.’ Most of them men tried real hard not to look, but a few of ‘em’d stare straight at me like I was a big juicy piece of steak. Didn’t matter. I could tell they all had the same thing on their mind. Wasn’t long before Daddy Bob’d figured it out, too. I was good luck for him. All I had to do was unfasten a button or three to show off the top of my pillows and the pot’d be a couple hundred bucks before any of them fellas knew what’d hit ‘em. They’d start folding all over the place, Daddy’d rake in the pile and nobody ever said a word about it.
One day Daddy come back from a trip he took up to Keokuk. I was turning 18 and he brung me a present; this sparkly pair of danglies looked like they’d come from a fancy store.
“But... these ain’t earrings is they?” I wasn’t sure what they was at first.
“Course not!” He laughed like he was about to tell a dirty joke. “That’s not where they’s s’posed to go.” He told me to take off my shirt so’s he could put ‘em on me himself. They looked like little diamond waterfalls hanging off my teats.
“Damn girlie!” Daddy give my ass a swat. “You’re gonna make me rich!” Then he told me to get down on my knees so I could thank him good and proper for my present.
After that I’d be sitting there in one of them broad Stetson hats with my hair all the way down round my shoulders and my shirt a little more’n halfways open right when the game got started. Undo another button every once in a while, real slow and secret-like so nobody’d notice I was doing it. Then Daddy Bob’d whisper in my ear and tell me to ‘bring out the big guns,’ and I’d unbutton the last couple of buttons. Guys’d look up from their cards and I’d be right there all of a sudden with my pillows hanging all the ways out like it was nothing special. DB’d lean over and kiss ‘em for luck and you shoulda seen them mens’ jaws drop when he did. Nobody ever said nothin’ about it. Didn’t matter that it threw ‘em off their game. They was enjoyin’ the show too much to complain.
Daddy figured he needed something like that to give him an edge. Thing the old man hated more’n anything was losing at cards. Always got mean when he lost. Mean and dumb—and that was if he hadn’t been drinkin’. Throw in a bottle o’ Jack and he’d start making these wild bets that everybody knew he wasn’t good for, burn through his stake and start into betting anything that wasn’t tied down—pretty much anything come into his head—whatever it took to stay in the game. Poor son of a bitch’d go crazy like some cornered animal, all the while talking his mean-drunk trash about the other guys at the table, bragging about what a sweet piece of ass I was and how he could make me squeal when he was givin’ it to me.
Anyway, this one night there’s a fella I’d never seen before, sitting across the table, anteing up and taking his five from the dealer. Don’t know how he’d gotten in on the game, but there he was. Guess he knew one of the regulars, or maybe he just come in off the river road, waved some cash around and fast-talked his way into the back room. Called himself Jake. Smooth, good-looking fella. Might’ve been part Mexican or maybe a Indian. Had these deep dark poker-player’s eyes that took everything in and never gave nothin’ back. The way he looked at me was different—not like them horny older guys—Jake didn’t exactly stare, but he didn’t pretend not to either. I could feel his eyes lightin’ on me every time he swept ‘em ‘cross the table, sussing out the other players’ tells.
I kept wishing he’d hold still and take a good long look at me. Lost track of time just thinking about how much I wanted him to. It was like he had me hypnotized or something. I forgot everything else. Next thing I know Daddy Bob’s swatting me on the behind, telling me to get my fat ass off his lap and go fetch ‘im a bottle of Jack from out of his trailer. He was losing pretty bad. I figured it wouldn’t be long before he told me to bring out my not-so-secret weapons.
And when I finally did? Jake’s face never changed. Not one little bit. Didn’t twitch a muscle or raise an eyebrow. Nothin’. He just looked straight into my eyes and said “I’ll see you and raise another fifty.”
“Gotta be bluffin’!” Daddy Bob laughed, but it wasn’t because anything was funny. It was a ornery, low down, half-drunk kind of laugh, like the kind he’d come out with if he was getting ready to squash a bug. “I’ll see your fifty and raise you the same again. What you say to that, boy?”
Anybody with any sense had already folded a long time ago. I could see Daddy’s hand and it was a pretty good one. I just wasn’t sure he had that kind of cash to be playin’ with.
“Call it,” Jake said. “Let’s see what you got.”
They laid ‘em down and it was like somebody’d let the air out of a tire. I could practically feel Daddy Bob losing what was left of his control.
“Tough luck, old man.” Jake raked in the pile. “Wanna try again?”
“Hell yeah!” Daddy was looking around the room, real desperate-like. “I’ll bet you... these here sparklies hangin’ off my gal’s tits.”
“What’re you doin’?” I said. “You give them to me—”
“Shut up, and lay ‘em on the table. Do it now, girl.”
I took ‘em off, but I sure as hell wasn’t happy about it.
“I’d say they’re worth a good hundred a piece.” Jake tossed his money into the middle. Most of the other guys was sittin’ out the hand. Ante was too rich for a lot of ‘em and nobody liked playing when D.B. started betting the moon.
“Gimme two cards,” Daddy said.
“You sure you wanna do this?” Jake’s mouth hardly moved when he talked. “Them pretties look mighty fine on your girl there. Why you wanna go breakin’ her heart?”
“Mind your own damn business,” Daddy Bob practically spit across the table. “I call.”
“Have it your way, mister.” Jake put down his cards and I put my hand over my mouth so’s not to come out with a string o’ cuss words. Daddy come out with more’n enough for both of us.
“Like hell I’m lettin’ you walk outta here with them things. They’s worth a helluva lot more’n two hundred dollars. You and me’s gonna play till I win ‘em back. Set up another goddamned hand.”
“And what you got left to bet with, old timer?”
Daddy was breathing hard and sweating even harder. For a minute I thought he was gonna have himself a heart attack or something. “OK,” he said, “how ‘bout I bet you a good time with this little bitch right here? She goes with them sparklies anyhow. What you say?”
I was holding my breath. Couldn’t hardly believe what Daddy just done. It was bad enough that he gambled away my birthday present. Now he was gambling with my pussy—and I wanted the old coot to lose.
“Not sure that’s your bet to make,” Jake said. “What does the lady have to say about it?”
“She ain’t no lady and she’ll damn well do what she’s told.” Daddy Bob was almost shouting. “You playin’ or not?”
Jake didn’t say nothin’. Didn’t move a muscle. Just nodded ever so slightly.
“And what you bettin’, boy?” Daddy leaned towards him, real threat’nin’-like, “What you got’s worth this fine piece of ass? What’re you gonna—”
“All of it,” Jake said. “Bet you everything—and another thousand dollars on top of that.”
Daddy let out a long breath sounded like he’d just took a chill. He leaned over and I thought he was gonna kiss my pillows for luck like he usually done, but this time he kind of buried his head between ‘em till I thought he was gonna smother himself in there. Don’t know but what I might’ve thrown a wink in Jake’s direction, maybe run my tongue round the outside of my lips a couple times, just so he’d know whose side I was on.
Finally, Daddy Bob sat up and told the dealer to cut a new deck.
I held my breath, but I didn’t have to hold it very long. It was all over pretty quick once they turned them cards over.
“Aw hell no!” Daddy Bob cussed and banged on the table with his fist. “We ain’t done here!”
“Give it up, mister,” Jake said, real quiet-like. “Just admit you’re beat.”
“I’ll... I’ll bet you the bar!” Ain’t sure Daddy knew what he was saying, but there it was.
“And what’d I do with this worthless pile o’ kindling?” Jake said. “Hell! ‘Nother couple years the Corps of Engineers is gonna be up here fixin’ to bulldoze this old firetrap right off the top of the levee just like they’ve been doin’ places down the lower part of the river. No thanks. And besides,” (he looked me in the eye again) “already got everything I want.”
I liked this guy a lot. Kinda felt like I should’ve been sitting on his lap right about then seeing as how we was gonna be spending the night together.
“Tell you what,” Jake says to Daddy Bob, “I’ll give you a chance to win most of it back. One more hand, all in ‘cept for the girl and that pair o’ lavaliers. Everything else is on the table. What do you say?”
Course there was no way Daddy was gonna say no to that. Old coot nearly shit himself when he actually won the hand. But I was off his lap by then, coming round the table to start getting acquainted with Jake, and the two of us was out the door and halfway up the stairs together before anybody could say a word about it.
“You’re a Kentucky girl, aren’t you?” Jake stood in front of me, real close, just inside the door to my room.
“Uh huh. We come up from Paducah after my pa run out on us.”
“Figured,” Jake said. “Prettiest girls I ever seen was from Kentucky.” He helped me take off my shirt, and I helped take off his. “Ever think about goin’ back there?”
“Not really,” I said. “A place is a place.”
“Mm.” He kissed me. I mean a real kiss, slow and gentle and sweet. Nobody’d ever kissed me like that before. Didn’t take long before we was both using our tongues, and the deeper we went the tighter we hugged each other. I liked the feel of his bare skin against mine. I liked the way he smelled, all clean and spicy like a breeze through an orange grove down south, and kinda warm, too, like he was maybe just a little excited. I couldn’t get close enough to that.
Jake’s hands was cool and steady. Nothing like the other guys I’d been with, all nervous and weak-like. When he moved ‘em across my chest, I could practically feel a fireball shooting straight up from my coochie, burning up everything in between. My sexy places was starting to sing like a church choir got a extra helpin’ of the Holy Spirit on a Sunday mornin’.
“You ready, honey?” He laid me down on the bed. I was gonna turn over and give him my back side like I always done for D.B. but Jake said “No, baby. I want to look at you while we’re makin’ love. I want to see them pretty eyes of yours go all wide and sparkly, maybe see if the blue one starts glowin’as bright as the green one.”
“You caught that?”
“First thing I noticed about you,” he said, “and, gotta tell you the truth here, honey, just a little secret ‘tween you and me; I could see the old man’s cards reflected in them eyes of yours. That’s how I could beat him every single time.”
“But you lost that last hand—”
“Sure I did. But it’s like I said, already had everything I come for.”
Jake leaned down and kissed me, real long and serious till I thought I was gonna explode from wanting him so much. Then he started sucking on my neck, good and hard the way I like. He give my pillows a squeeze and run his hand down to my cooch, stroking and pressing, getting me all nice and wet. He kept whispering to me, real low and rumbly, telling me how sexy I was and how he’d wanted me right from the minute he saw me in the back room. The way he talked made me melt like ice in the summer sun. And then...
Oh sure, a fella or two might’ve fucked me before—and I’d include Daddy Bob in that number just to be polite—but nobody’d ever made love to me. Not the way Jake done. He come into me all strong and quiet, taking it easy and slow till I was begging him for it. I wanted him in me as deep as he could get. He took my legs and propped ‘em straight up against his shoulders and when he started up again I nearly fainted because it felt so fine. I let it all out, bellerin’ and screamin’ and breathin’ all fast and heavy. Didn’t care who heard, I was loving it so much. Jake just looked into my eyes and smiled. And when he finally got there and started into firin’ off his load, I lost it for real and fainted dead away.
Must’ve been a few minutes later. I woke up, and Jake was lying beside me, running his hands up and down my arms and sides, kissing me all over. Finally, he got to my pillows. “That reminds me,” he said, “jewels for a Jewel.” He handed back my danglies and we made love again while I was wearing ‘em. The way they went flying back and forth every time he gave me a good hard shove fired the both of us up something fierce.
He was gone before the sun come up. I lay in bed for a long time, kinda dreamy and breathless, thinking about him and how he’d made me feel. The sheets still smelled like him, and I wanted to remember that smell for as long as I could. I wasn’t ready for things to go back the way they’d been. I wasn’t looking forward to going downstairs and facing Daddy Bob.
The old man slapped me a good one across the face when I tried to give him back the danglies. “What’s this?” he said. “I don’t take charity from no damned whore!” Didn’t matter that them pretties had never really belonged to me. Didn’t matter that it was his idea to bet ‘em in the first place. Didn’t matter that he’d come out of the game a lot better than he’d gone in what with that extra thousand dollars Jake let him win. I finally saw Daddy for what he was, a ornery old bottom feeder who only cared about money and never did nothin’ less it’d help him get ahead, to hell with everybody else.
Guess you can figure out what happened after that.
Couple nights later I was sitting by the side of a cornfield ‘long the highway, hoping somebody’d come driving along and maybe gimme a ride. It was all fogged up and spittin’ rain. Couldn’t hardly see twenty feet ahead of my nose. I smelled the river in front of me and I heard a barge going through a lock over on the Missouri side. Train was blowin’ its whistle, coming over a bridge into Illinois. Figured I must’ve walked about five, six miles from Mama’s place that morning. I’d tried going there first, but she wouldn’t take me back in. Called me a whore just like Daddy Bob had. Spit at me and slammed the door in my face. I wasn’t sure where I was going or what I was gonna do once I got there, but I was too tired to care one way or the other.
“Well, hey, pretty girl. Fancy meetin’ you out here in the middle of nowhere.” I must’ve fallen asleep sitting there on my suitcase. Never heard the car pull up. The driver asked me again, “Where you headed to, honey?”
“Don’t much matter,” I said. “Ain’t got no place to come from. Ain’t nobody care where I go.”
“Well maybe I’m askin’.”
“Where you goin’, mister?”
“Could be just about anyplace,” he said. “Heard about a game in East Dubuque might be worth a card player’s time.”
“Are people nice up there?”
“Some of ‘em,” he said. “Some of ‘em not so much—it’s like anyplace you go, I reckon.”
“Can I come with you, mister?” I was almost bawlin’. “Will you take me with you, please?”
“That I think I will, darlin’.” He held the door open for me. “C’mon. Get in. Put your grip in the back.”
“Jake?” I recognized that good smell soon as I got in the car, before I even seen his face.
“Hey there, Jewel.” He smiled at me and I threw myself into his arms. Couldn’t help it. I was crying like a baby now. But Jake just held me, strong and steady, kissing away my tears. “It’s alright, honey,” he said. “I come back lookin’ for you. Everything’s gonna be OK from now on.”

And you know what? It was.