“Catfight in a Cathouse”

Two Whores Brawling in a Storyville Brothel, French Emma Johnson’s Circus, During the Last Week of Legalized Prostitution, New Orleans, Louisiana, April 13, 1917. 

Cora Carol, 19, A Prostitute in French Emma’s Circus.

Pap sets his lens just so and measures the light and lights the flambeaux and measures again before he duck waddles his dicty self back to the camera and whines in his high nasal voice, Stay still now, Sistuh—for the five dollars he offers I’d stretch his bellows let alone sit here naked on a clean couch—I shake, laughing, and he says, Corpse-still now, les ya ruin da print, and I wish for a flash I’d been a stillborn and not a trick baby delivered in this Tenderloin District of men, though they mean very little to me save the money they bring, like when I walked in on Ma as she dissolved the purple salts in a washrag to clean her john who stood there naked and limp, potbellied and hairy, gazing at me in my white party dress that made me even younger than my ten years allowed, and he said, Why don’t you give your mama a hand? and I shrugged and took up the cloth with no more thought than when each Monday I’d take the gals’ bed sheets out—all yellowed with sweat and spilled seed and Rolly Rye—to scrub and tug them clean, which I did to his prick and it swoll up in my palm, straining against its own fleshy self, and so I squeezed it more till its top pushed out like some purple-headed turtle, and the man moaned and tangled his fingers in my locks and tugged my head back till I saw his eyes closed and Ma guffawed, Well Hell, honey, go on ahead, and I froze till she put her warm fingers over mine and we tugged together only twice more before he spit his load on my forearm, which I yanked back as if it was snake bit, and Ma laughed hard—hair and boobies bouncing, head thrown so far back I could count her cavities—and his grip loosened in my hair and my scalp tingled good and he slumped down in the chair, fuddled his drawers midway up, and took from his pocket a five dollar tip and Ma come up with a clean rag and said, Oh my, and took me next day to Krauss’ Department Store where I bought white gloves and opera length stockings like any other whore.

Now Vivian crosses the floor—the odor of rain and roses, all legs and eyes and a sneer spread across her fine face—and under her breath she says, Bulldagger, and I’ve never felt shame for being a whore any more than for being human, but just now I feel as if she’s caught me diddling myself to a sticky picture of her split lips, my nipples stiffen and as she passes between me and the lens, touching her chippie ribbon, I leap from the couch and snatch that bitch by her long hair and I bang her against the wall.

 

Vivian LaRouche, 15, The Flying Virgin, A Featured Attraction in French Emma’s Circus

I walked in the parlor and saw Bellocq acting prissy as a queen in heat, fluffing a pillow and worrying the knot in his pale violet scarf, set to make a likeness of ugly ass Cora, the heavy degenerate—God only knows why, when not one man I’ve known has screwed her in the light of day nor lamp—when he should be making my picture again, because I’m the one here the men come to see, when in the theatre I hang from my silk ropes, swinging bare-breasted and be-winged above braying Emma, while she is mounted by her rutting Great Dane, my braids rising and falling against my pale back, my feet pointed far out as I can stretch them, admiring my own knees and thighs and thrush, and I know the men have paid dearly to watch me and touch themselves—and I can’t read a lick except that look in a man’s eyes, but Daddy wouldn’t even glance my way when he dropped me here three years ago today—Emma putting that stack of money in his left hand, the tan line precise from the wedding ring he’d buried with Mother—and I’m going to be a star on the big screen like Lillian Gish or Marguerite Clark, whose films I’ve snuck out of the District and into the Quarter to see, and though I know if I’m caught over there I’ll be arrested or beaten or raped, I will continue to cross busy Basin and Rampart Streets on down to the Louis Gala House where they show films for a nickel a piece, and as I sit in the dark watching their large eyes on screen, I say to myself, Vivian, that is going to be you someday soon, and Daddy, I swear, you will have to pay to see me again.

As I cross the wide-plank floors, I happen to pull the string of my dress and it comes undone and my chest rises against the lace and pushes it apart and I stare first at Bellocq and then at his camera’s one big eye and my lips swell and sweat and begin to itch a bit—does he touch himself when he holds the portrait of my nakedness?—and my head snaps back and I’m pinned on the wall with that dyke’s breath in my ear and I bite her forearm and twist her chin back and bury my thumb in her eye and we crash to the floor and she’s pounding my head into the wood and I wish I had my razor to undo her with, because though I am very small, I am not an easy row to hoe.

 

John Earnest Joseph “Pap” Bellocq, 43, Witness & Photographer

Cora and Vivian tuggled and tussled and upset the lit flambeaux though I caught it, screaming, Watch da flames, my voice high and shrill like the horror of a baby’s wail—Watch da flames, my Parrain yelled—him, swatting mad with a blanket in both hands trying to put out the blaze that climbed up Sister’s crib; her, squalling as fire caught her flannel gown and hair; me, having begged for him to leave the lamp light lit while I slept a bit longer and who in dream-terror of wild worms and rutting rats in my brain had kicked it over and burnt my baby sister to damn death—and gone now is my father and mother and my sweet big sister too, my only brother off in the ministry, and I alone am left to stand against Death like Madame Josie, the grand demimondaine, whose portrait I made to hang on her crypt door beneath the statues of the little girl and the twin pillars of flame, and though I set her likeness a mere seven years ago, the sun has bleached it back to a silver-slabbed mirror and now when you visit her memorial you stand agawk greeting your own gape-mouthed visage on the bronze door of her tomb, which reminds me of my own burial plot—I can see it from my bedroom window and there too I can hear the pistol fire from Marcet’s shooting gallery and see the government eviction posts on every building in the District and the paint peeling off Willie Piazza’s mansion in great white swaths long as funeral tunics—all this after I’ve returned from my pleasure at Anderson’s Annex where the boys belly to the hand-carved bar and snook schooner after schooner of beer under the one hundred electric bulbs blasting the dark back in a blaze of white light, but up in my room it is quiet and dim and I wash my face in the basin and remove my clothes and put on my nightshirt that smells clean from powder and climb into bed to sleep with the lamp lit beside me.

Cora and Vivian continue to wrestle, both now nude, and they spill onto the sofa like champagne outflowing its flute and in a flash I uncover the lens and shoot their picture even though I know full well the glass will not contain their image any more than our bodies can hold our lives and the portrait will be a blur, a pale smear like smoke rising dark against a darker wall or like cotton sheers billowing in an open window, because nothing here will ever last.

Michael Garriga

About Michael Garriga

Michael Garriga's work has been published extensively in magazines and journals, including New Letters, the Black Warrior Review, storySouth, and the Southern Review. He has worked as a sound man in a blues bar, a shrimp picker, and a bartender, but currently teaches creative writing in the English department at Baldwin Wallace University. Garriga currently lives with his family outside of Cleveland, Ohio.