They said she was 'just precious.' 'Just precious' could mean cute, pretty, lame, simple, or backwoods. Or it could just mean precious.
Alice knew that her husband needed the work. He was in the oil field in East Texas and Southern Arkansas, working with teams of men sinking steel and iron pipe into the ground to find the lakes of black gold under the earth. Oil Money was Big Money and Big Money was Good Money. It was dangerous work, and her husband Jimmy would come home with tales of men who had been crushed, mangled, burned. She was always grateful to see him, and glad that he was well and whole. She was happy to be filled by him, happy to feel the weight of him on top of her, happy for his scent after they were done and waiting to love again.
On the other hand, she was always a little happy when he went back to the piney woods. It gave her a chance to tend to her pride and joy, her house. She kept it spotless, floors not only mopped but waxed and shined. Blinds dusted. Rugs vacuumed. Kitchen tidy, always tidy. Laundry washed, dried and put away. It was easier when he was away and she didn't have to pick up after him.
As she pruned back the azaleas in her immaculately kept flower beds, she thought of the oilfield shantytown and wondered if at night they drank and played cards and if women were brought in. She scratched her nose with her forearm and imagined it as a Stag Party, but with a daily chance of dismemberment and death. She raked the azalea cuttings into a pile and came to the conclusion that the men were likely too tired for any of that debauchery. At the end of the day, all they wanted was a meal and a bed.
They could afford to move, she and Jimmy, but memories in the house on Hibiscus Street were beginning to pile up and anchor them there. Silent, heavy memories of their new married life, the hopes for children to come and be raised by them in that house with a screen porch and a swing. A patch for a kitchen garden in the back, and neighbors to chat with over a honeysuckle covered fence. A garage for Jimmy to putter in when he was in from the field.
She did alterations out of her home not because they needed any extra income, but because she enjoyed it and it kept her occupied. Her clients, some of the same women who frowned on her household arrangement, were her always appreciative of her work. They knew good quality when they saw it, and they felt good quality when they wore it. She knew all the tricks to eliminate the look of thirty extra pounds. How to make A cups look like C s, B cups look like D s. How to make short, stumpy legs look longer and more elegant.
And every afternoon she retreated to a secret garden within the walls of the bungalow house on Hibiscus Street. At mid-afternoon, she would turn the sign on the screen door from 'Come in!' to 'Be Back in Fifteen minutes.' The curtains would close and her clothes would come off. She would lie back on her bed or sprawl on the couch or slump in one of the steel-and-vinyl kitchen chairs and bring herself to a boil. But when she was finished she was only partially satisfied. She wanted to feel the firmness of a man's hands on her.
She was lonesome for her husband, but when her fingers circled herself, her mind danced playfully like a barefoot girl in a summer dress in the flowers, imagining the different combinations of men, and sometimes women, who would pleasure her and be pleasured by her. Sometimes she fantasized about wandering into the oil field shantytown unannounced and being taken by her husband, and then by the rest of the men right in the middle of the muddy camp, one by one and then two by two, black and white. When she was done and her chest was heaving, she felt remorse about the wicked thoughts she had entertained and the unclean things she had done to herself.
On the Sundays when the topic of the sermon was Sins of the Flesh, Alice thought she could feel the lights shine on her alone. Every pound on the lectern buffeted her core and more than once she winced as the preacher did it. When he put his hands on the lectern and leaned in to rail against the evils of 'parn-ogra-FEEE,' she felt he was looking straight at her. She had never seen any pornography, but she thought she might like to.
She fanned herself under her bonnet, not from the heat but from the thoughts that had already found her again there in church. Thoughts that were making her skin red and the silk panties wet under her floral print A line dress. After a quick white-gloved fingertip handshake and a 'fine sermon, Brother Howe' she clicked home shakily on her heels with a blank slate that was already a little less clean from a fresh batch of impure thoughts.
One afternoon she was altering a debutante dress for a girl and her mother. The mother's blue-black hair had been sculpted into a ball of sorts and then lacquered down. The girl wore a ponytail and a skirt with bobby socks and Mary Janes. She chewed gum saucily as she and her mother fought over the neckline of the dress. The line of scrimmage surged up and down.
"But Ma-maaaaa. All the girls wear 'em this low these days."
Alice listened with a tape measure draped over her shoulders. It cascaded over her breasts and the ends dangled at her trim waist. Alice knew what the girl meant: this was how low the necklines were for the girls who wanted the boys to look and get hard and want to look again as they imagined the nipple just out of sight, like a strawberry or a raspberry, warm and ripe and firm and ready to be picked.
"What do you think?" The girl's mother's voice was distant and directed Alice's attention like a tug on her sleeve.
"She's right, ma'am. They have dropped a little in the last few years." In the corner of her eye, she could see the girl smile. Then Alice added, "Maybe we could bring it down...just a little." The girl's smile faded slightly as Alice pinned the neckline. The two left, the mother's gloves draped over the purse in her hand.
Alice had just sat down to a light lunch, wishing she had something to go with her tuna fish, something tangy and sweet like a strawberry. She looked through a folded back copy of Harper's Bazaar. A knock on the screen door caught her attention, and she put down the sandwich and the magazine. Her hands rubbed together to get the crumbs off. She swallowed hurriedly and called, "Who is it?"
"Excuse me, are you Mrs. Cotton? The man asked through the dirty gray of the screen door. He was looking up from a slip of paper in his hand. His outline was all she could see. At first Alice thought that somehow Gregory Peck was in town and had stopped to see her. Her mind could imagine things like that.
"The clerk at Jordan and Booth told me I could get these pants hemmed here." Alice made out the wide dark ribbon of something draped over his arm. His free hand shaded his eyes as he peered through the mesh. "Says you're the best."
Her voice found her and she said, "Oh, they flatter me, then. Do come in, you've come to the right place."
She opened the door for him and could not help notice how tall and trim he was. He removed his hat like a gentleman was supposed to when going indoors and she took it to hang up like a lady always did. He wore a light gray suit and a tie like a man that worked indoors.
She pulled a pencil from behind her ear. The end of her ponytail had snaked into her shirt, and she flipped it out. "Name, sir?" she asked.
"Robert Bass. Bobby."
"Allllllrightsir," she chimed as she finished writing. She snapped the manila paper ticket along the perforation and gave it to him. "Change behind the screen, if you please."
It was a free standing screen in pleated black and red with a golden scene of Japanese maidens reclining by a stream. The shape of their umbrellas echoed the dome of Mt. Fuji which loomed in the distance. Alice rarely got men clients, and was always at a loss on where to wait while they changed. She turned her back to the screen and the rustle of fabric behind it. His voice said, "There a good place to eat in this town?
"Yes ma'am. Just moved from Atlanta. Me and the wife and our daughter."
"Well, you can try Herby Ks, if you don't mind the colored part of town. It's real good," Alice said to the wall. " And there's the Carousel on Kings Highway."
He emerged from the screen with the excess pants legs puddled around his feet.
"Step up here," she said, motioning to a small platform. "Cuff?"
"Yes ma'am, please. A cuff."
She knelt down, glad that she had worn jeans today instead of a dress. The denim legs were rolled up to mid calf over the smooth skin that was dappled with light brown freckles. Her orange plaid shirt was knotted at her waist. Her hands deftly rolled up the gray flannel surplus and she took a pin from her lips and skewered the cuff in place.
"Is it true what they say about redheads?" he looked down and asked.
"What?" she muffled between the pins at her lips. She held the cuff in place and took the pins out of her mouth with her other hand. "What was that?" She looked up at him with green, orange-lashed eyes.
"Is it true what they say about redheads? Terrible tempers?"
Alice stabbed a pincushion shaped like a mouse with the pins. "Oh, I don't know." She smiled down at the hem and pulled the pants leg down and taut. "I'm more of a pussycat." She blushed at saying pussy-anything in front of him and immediately wished she had chosen a different word. She pivoted around to his front to check that side of the cuff. Her face was inches from his crotch and she thought she could smell the mustiness of his excitement. Her panties moistened, and she blushed again and moved to the back.
He turned to look over his shoulder and when he did the back of her hand grazed his buttocks. It was momentary, but she was struck by the firmness, the muscularity of it. She looked away, and he smiled but otherwise pretended not to notice. She took the pins from her mouth and pinned the rest of the cuff. The remaining pins she put in a blue and white porcelain dish.
She snapped the pants leg tight. "That should do it. Ready three to five days." She was sure her face was still red.
"Change?" he asked. His voice sounded like it was in the next room or the next house or across town or on the other side of the world.
"Excuse me? What was that?"
"Can I change now? Into the pants I wore here?"
"Oh. Oh, behind the screen there. I'll...I'll leave you to it." He disappeared behind Mt. Fuji. The Japanese ladies smiled like they knew a secret. She went into the parlor and sat on the couch.
He emerged changed and she saw him to the door, giving him his hat and jacket. She watched him make the steps and then turn at the sidewalk. When he had made the corner, she opened a crack in the screen door and flipped the sign. Back in Fifteen Minutes.
That night she dreamed about him. She dreamed that she was on her knees to pin the cuff of his pants, which were ridiculously long. Then his cock was out of his pants through the fly and she took it and he got hard there inside of her mouth. Her hands squeezed his flannel covered ass, firm and nothing but muscle. He was hard in her mouth and she went up and down his length. She awoke from her dream and could not summon it back again.
It wasn't even a week when he returned. She was putting gussets in a skirt for a lady and listening to the radio. The Guiding Light muttered, "Richard, is there someone else?" and two notes from a French horn highlighted the drama. A Diet Rite wrapped in a paper towel sweated on the side table. The sewing machine whirred in short bursts as Alice fed the fabric into it. The screen door strained the breeze and gave it a metallic fragrance.
"Afternoon, Mrs. Cotton."
She looked up and jumped.
"Oh, you scared me," she said, putting her hand to her chest.
"I'm sorry," he said sincerely. "I knocked twice and I guess you didn't hear me. So I was worried. "
"Oh, that was sweet of you."
"I didn't mean to scare you."
"No really, that's alright." She chuckled. "What can I do for you today, Mr. Bass?"
"Please, Bobby. I'd like the buttons let out on this jacket." He pulled the lapels together in the front.
"Your wife must be a good cook."
"Oh, she doesn't cook much. Busy with the baby."
Alice's green eyes were on the blue-and-white seersucker sleeves. Bobby's eyes were on hers.
"How 'bout you?" He asked.
"How about what?" She motioned for him to lift his arms.
"You're married, right? I can see the ring."
She looked at her wedding ring like it had just appeared there. A block over, a heavy truck accelerated down Greenwood Road. Its deep-throated rumble sent a tiny tremor through the window panes of the house.
"Oh. Oh, yes. Yes, I'm married. He's gone a lot. The oil patch."
"Oh," he nodded. "I see." A woman and a man spoke of serious matters on the radio in the next room.
She moved to the front of him and snapped the jacket down. The back of her hand brushed the bulge in his trousers. It was an accident, really it was.
"Pardon," she murmured.
"That's ok." He said quietly. Their eyes locked for a moment and she looked down. He lightly lifted her chin and their eyes were locked again.
Their hands cradled each others' faces, palms pressing into cheeks, fingers at the nape of their necks. Their lips rubbed wet on each other. They were locked in a moment that would never, ever, end.
He broke the kiss.
"No, we can't," he exhaled
"You're right, we can't," she agreed. But it was a lie. They could and they did.
They kissed again like two people drinking the last ounce of water from a canteen in the desert. Without breaking their kiss, they undressed each other. Buttons were jerked out of their buttonholes. Clasps were undone with shaky hands. Shirttails were uprooted. A dress fell to the floor. One hand wandered over the point of her beige silk bra while the other wedged in the front of her panties. She kissed his neck. His undershirt came up and she kissed his nipples. Inside her panties, his hand rested in the soft nest of hair as his finger went further south in search of moisture. She sighed when he found it.
She reached behind herself and unhooked her bra and threw it aside like it was an annoyance. He kissed down her chest and beheld her small breasts, nipples pert and aching. They were firm in his mouth. He moved from one to the other as if he were comparing the taste and firmness of them. Her thumbs hooked inside the waistband of her panties and she shimmied them down to the shining hardwood floor.
She took his hand and they walked naked to the bedroom. After a kiss more, he was over her and the kiss after that, inside her. He huffed and grunted with each stroke. Her small hands pressed into his chest. From time to time she looked into his face to see the ecstasy there. His mouth slack, his eyes closed. She surged ahead and reached the summit just before he did, wrapping her arms and legs around him. He gave one final push and spent himself inside her.
Afterward he sat on the side of the bed facing away from her with his face in his hands. She looked at the wall and tried to listen for all the afternoon noises in the neighborhood. Finally, she turned to him and stroked his back.
"What have we done?" He mumbled into his hands.
She rubbed his back with her fingertips and stared into the ceiling.
"I don't know," she murmured. "But I liked it."
"I did too," he admitted. He turned to her and smiled, a whisper of a smile, a grudging smile and he turned and lifted the covers and their bodies pressed together again. They pecked a kiss and she nestled her head under his chin. Her hand pressed into his stout, hair covered chest and trailed down to the other patch of hair, which was matted wet with their passion. She rose and straddled him, and they were off again. Her breasts hung pointed at him as if he were the center of all gravity.
Almost every day, he fell into the habit of bringing in the same pair of pants. If she had another customer, he would wait on the front porch. When the lady left, he would tip his hat to her. He and Alice would stand looking at each other's dark image through the screen door and he would say for the benefit of the person leaving, "I still don't think the length is right. Can you take it up a little?"
And when the engine in the drive way rumbled to life, Alice would move to the door. As the customer's car cleared the corner, she ushered him in quickly and reached a hand through the screen door to flip the sign. Back in Fifteen Minutes. The door lock snapped and the curtains closed.
Then they would rush together, exhaling hot breath on each other's necks as hands fumbled with belts, bras and trousers. Sometimes they would stumble hand in hand to the bedroom, their feet pounding on the hardwood floors, their hearts pounding in their chests. Sometimes they wouldn't make it past the couch. Sometimes not past the floor.
Often they would find themselves naked on the bed, she sitting on his lap with her legs around him. She clutched him like a shipwreck survivor would clutch a buoy, a buoy that was bobbing frenetically in a choppy sea. He put his hands under her buttocks so he could feel their hair mingle and his cock pull her delicate pink lips back and forth. Her nails dug into his back as she came hard, shouting through clenched teeth and bucking her hips into him. He respired hurriedly, blowing like a steam engine, and then a muted primal moan signaled his release.
Afterward, she would rub his back as he complained of tight muscles there. A thought would barge into her mind like an intruder about her poor husband in the oilfield dodging swaying pipe in the mud and dust and heat and cold, and she would contrast it to Bobby who only lifted a pencil or a briefcase. But then those kinds of thoughts were swept away like dry leaves by a whirlwind of passion and desire.
Only once did they spend the night together. Bobby parked around the corner in the A & P parking lot on Greenwood Road and walked down Hibiscus Street, with a pair of slacks over his arm. He had told his wife that he would be in Alexandria for the night on business.
Alice had planned everything, a romantic dinner, slow dancing to the radio in the living room, a nearly see-through ivory negligee. But she had forgotten to get more condoms.
The thought had crossed her mind when she and Jimmy had used the last one, when he had come in from the oilfield the last time. She was mindful of them now, careful not to have too many or too few in the drawer of the nightstand, worried that Jimmy would be suspicious of any change in the inventory.
When the crucial moment came calling for one, she was kissing Bobby and blindly searching the drawer for one. His length was poised at her opening, feeling the magnetic force of her wet pinkness. She broke their kiss and leaned over to look in the bedside drawer. In her exasperation she rifled through the drawer, tossing out slips of paper and dog-eared paperback books.
"No more rubbers," she said. She released their embrace and collapsed back on the bed, looking up at the ceiling. He was braced on his hands, arms straightened above her. "What do we do now?" she asked.
"I'll pull out," he said. The yellow lamplight fell on just one side of his face.
She thought about it. She didn't trust his willpower for that. Or her own, for that matter. She slid under him, kissing his chest and then kissing further down. He rolled on his back and she moved to his side. Leaning over him, she took him in her mouth. After a few head bobs like a bird in a mating ritual, she released him, stroked him with her hand and said, "How is it? Am I doing it right?" She had never done it before, with Jimmy or with anyone, though she had imagined it.