She would continue walking that street and with time the street would change.
She changed with it, instead of being from Oklahoma; she was a small town girl from Sterling, Colorado. Mansions now lined the streets, her rates went up. She would cruise the theatres, the bars, the gentlemen’s clubs. If she wasn’t allowed in, she’d linger outside on the wooden-planked sidewalk. The men smelled slightly better, but they still always smelled of liquor, sweating from their skin, reeking from their mouths, the smell sickened her. But just as any dutiful Christian girl would, she performed the tasks asked of her without complaint, but of course, not without payment.
A man made her pregnant once after having her behind a bar with the alley rats and the stars staring on. He had unbuckled his pants and ripped through her stockings, urgent. She tried to be safe, or as safe as you could be in those times. Prophylactics were still making their way into acceptable use. She did what she could though, asking her clients to use handkerchiefs at the end so she would not get pregnant. This man however, refused and though she actually quite enjoyed the rendezvous physically, she was angry at his stubbornness. She should have known right then but denial of pregnancy is a common side effect of any prostitute.
She noticed when she didn’t bleed monthly as she always did. The first month she pretended there was nothing to worry about, but by the time the second month rolled around, she knew what she was in for. She also knew she could not have the baby. She would have to speak with him and see if he would help her in any way. It was a long shot but she had very little money to her name and even fewer friends.
She caught up to him one spring day in 1893. He was at Jack O’Neil’s Ranch right in the center of Capitol Hill. He lived on Humboldt, in a neighborhood known for its beautiful architecture. In the recent years, however, the beautiful mansions that lined the streets were being parceled up into apartment buildings. The Silver Panic had caused a great suburban migration of the wealthy folk. They carried, or paid someone to carry for them all of their belongings outside the city and set up shop, leaving the splendid homes and the voiceless memories. He stilled lived in one of the homes, and the voices of his memories would soon roam the city by the cover of the stars.
Jack O’Neil’s had an odd reputation. It had belonged to the Arapaho Indians and thus was technically stolen land, not that most of America was any different. The vision for this cemetery had begun with a grandiose plan for a beautiful cemetery that all the well-respected Denverites would be buried. In reality, Jack O’Neil’s had become the dumpsite for the bones of outlaws, paupers, and criminals. They now called it the Denver City Cemetery. It was no matter though, for the place was still positively awful. The caretaker, if there ever was one had a very laissez-fare attitude toward upkeep and park maintenance. Weeds everywhere, crumbling gravestones, graffiti, and even bodies exhumed under the light of the moon and valuables removed from the bodies of the dead. And one hundred yards away, some of the richest families in Denver had their homes. There had no doubts been complaints, and today it seems, was the day that they were going to do something about it.
She found him staring at a most peculiar scene. Somebody in the government had decided that this would now be a park and somebody else had the unfortunate task of digging up all the bodies and putting them in fresh new boxes, at the cost of a couple bucks a pop. The smell was atrocious, hanging in the cool morning air that had until that point, been seriously considering transitioning into a warm spring day.
The site however, was even more impossible to bear than the putrid smell of decomposition; four workers were bent over a grave on the edge of the cemetery. Chunks of green grass and piles of dirt hung around their feet like garland. The crack of shovels into the frozen ground was barely audible over the whispers that surrounded the grave. A younger worker struck his shovel into the ground, the tip thudding against the wooden coffin of a man whose name had been rubbed off the gravestone. The four men crouched on their knees to prize the box from its resting place. They cracked open the box with a crowbar, pried off the lid nail by nail, until finally it was free. All four gazed for a moment into the home of the two years-dead young man.
“Are they supposed to look like that?” Asked the younger worker, handkerchief tied above in his nose in a vain attempt to block out the smell of decomposition.
“No, you can see that there, that’s a tortured soul. He’s burning in Hell and you can see it their in his body. Just look at his face. Or what’s left of his face.”
“Ah, you’re lying. There ain’t nothing like that. The guy’s just kinda gooey.”
“I wouldn’t be so disrespectful if I were you,” said the older worker to the younger one, “this here is a big job and we’ll be working late into the night most days. See how you feel with a pile of dead souls taken out of their resting places. If I that guy in that box, I’d be pretty goddamn pissed off myself is some asshole like you come disturbing my sleep.”
The younger worker gulped down an unpleasant realization that he had indeed just made a very good point. He made a mental note to pray before every grave before exhuming it.
She listened to the gravediggers’ conversation as a nauseated feeling washed over her stomach that had very little to do with the child growing there. She turned to him and asked to speak with him privately, away from the small crowd of people and newspaper reporters that this scene had attracted. He nodded in agreement and they walked in the direction of his house.
They walked for a time, silence filling the air along with the now latent scent of smell of dead bodies. He broke the ice first.
“That sure was a good time, that night we had,” he said.
“Yes, we did.”
Another minute passed. She gulped down her anxiety and opened her mouth. “Well that’s actually what I would like to speak to you about. I had a lovely time too but um, well, it’s just.”
“What is it?” He asked.
“Well, I guess I’ll just, there’s no other way to say it other than, I’m pregnant and from what I can tell, the baby is yours.”
His expression changed from politely interested to seething anger in a fraction of a second. “You little whore. How do you even know it’s mine? I see you on Colfax, walking up and down the streets with your undergarments on the outside, showing off your breasts to the highest bidder.”
“Oh, I see, you’re just looking for a handout. You picked the richest man you’ve slept with and you go and you tell him you’re pregnant. I bet you really clean up with a scheme like that.”
She said nothing. Her voice had left her.
“Well I can see exactly why you came to me today and it’s not going to work. I could never disgrace my family by bringing home a common whore as my wife. Now if you would excuse me.”
She watched the back of his shoes strike up and down on the gravel as he walked up his street to a fairly respectable mansion across the street from the soon to be park. She returned to her boarding house, took a pair of knitting needles and a bottle of hard alcohol. She stood in the bathtub removing her drawers. Taking a large swig of the amber-colored liquid and pulling up the hem of her skirt, she grasped one needle with her right hand and put it between her legs.
She’d never bled so much in her whole life. She stayed in the tub, shaking, bleeding and crying for three days. On the fourth day, she climbed out of the tub and glanced in the mirror. The mirror can be a startling place sometimes, she thought. So blunt. She was almost transparent, had it not been for some residual rouge on her brittle lips. She put herself together, sewing back the contents of her face, trying to remember all the places she’d left it. Half-satisfied and hungry, she hobbled over to the grocer, and bought a modest amount of food. The baby came hours later, a bloody mass that could fit easily in the palm of her hand. She took it over to the Denver Cemetery and buried it in an inconspicuous spot. It had no marker so it wouldn’t be exhumed. In ten days, she was on the streets again.
He never spoke to her again, and she never again lifted her eyes to meet his face in the street. Their child talked for both them, crying in their ears whenever they walked the streets at night.
Overhead, it looked like a brown snake that trailed through the prairie, making its way into the foothills of Colorado. In some areas, clusters of buildings lined the sides of the snake. On some of the buildings, people scattered around like tumbleweeds in the streets, some on horses, some in wagons, some on foot in cowboy boots. One particular pair, a very feminine pair at that, seemed to be less covered in grime than the others.
She had been walking this street for a long time. She was a working girl.
The street stunk of horse manure and outhouses. Human waste lay among the avenue, mixed with yesterday’s garbage. Her boots would be caked in dust and mud and other things she’d rather not describe at the end of the day but she would clean them off every night so they looked shinier than usual in the morning. She moved to Denver with the frenzy of the gold strikes. Miners came by train, horse, or foot from all over the country with a crazy look in their eyes. They passed through Denver on their way to the Rockies, trading, eatin, spittin and generally makin a mess of things. And they all had one driving motivation in their mind, gold, silver or whatever else you could scrounge out of the ground and exchange for a buck. It was their ticket to happiness, to an easy life.
This thought kept them trudging through Denver in the high altitude, all the way up to Central City, and that was just the starting point. Striking it rich, this thought consumed the recent out-of-state imports. Well, actually, there was perhaps another thought in their minds as well. One that involved taking car of a man’s “basic needs.” This one revolved around the intersection of a lady’s legs and the beautiful mysteries it held.
And so she walked among them. In camps and forts, in rest stops and saloons. “Looking for a good time?” she would ask, rouge painted on her cheeks, decked out in a black corset, splashy over-garments that showed off her bosom. Some would deny the temptation she carried with her like a last minute accessory. She was sexy without fully intending or noticing that she was sexy. She walked like a woman when women were still supposed to walk like little ladies.
The faithful men remembered the less flashy comforts of being next to their wives back home in small towns and country homes. Many of them had kids, little kids they hadn’t seen for months and years, biding their time until one of their claims struck it rich. They carried letters from their wives and smelled them at night to remember. They didn’t want her to help them forget.
Others of the men deeply wanted to forget; they left thoughts of their wives and families wherever it was they left them to come chase this pipe dream in the first place. This was the West and it had some unexplainable power to make men feel freer than they had ever been. The air, the mountains, the godlessness of the land, it was like the Garden of Eden to them. She was their Eve, enlightenment, forgiveness; it was only a couple bucks a way. They would take her up on her offer, in dark corners behind buildings, in wagons, in sparsely populated bedrooms. She would give them what they needed and she would take her payment upon delivery.
In her opinion, she didn’t much fancy their looks or their skills with women…sexually that is. But just as any dutiful Christian daughter would, she earned her money without complaint and mailed most of it home to her family.
She imagined her parents back home opening envelope after envelope full of cash. Her father would be tinkering around outside with whatever decided it should be broken, her mother sewing or rolling out a piecrust. “That girl sure is earning a lot there in Denver,” her father would say. “There must be lots of fancy people there that need seamstresses.”
“Yes dear, I’m quite happy that she’s settling in nicely in Denver.” Her mother would reply eyes down on her rolling pin, “Oh! But a single woman in that uncivilized place!”
“She’s a big girl, been doing a grown man’s work on the farm ever since she was eight. And look at her now. She’s a working girl.”
[m1] That’s exactly what her mother was worried about. She was worried women in these places resorted to in order to earn a buck. She wondered what her daughter was doing with these men; the ones that wanted to forget their wives and become wild just like the mountains. Or she wondered if she really was just a seamstress, sewing and mending the things or rich people. Her husband noticed the worry lining her face and furrowing her brow.[m2]
“Don’t fret sweetheart, she is doing just fine out there. Just think, our little country girl, all grown up and working in the city. If only her grandma had gotten to see her, she’d be melting with pride.”
Her mother would keep her eyes fixed on her piecrust, and thought that his mother would very much not like to see her grandbaby in the profession she was almost certain that she was in. But just as any dutiful Christian wife would, she allowed her husband to believe that their daughter was simply a tailor.
What her father didn’t know was all the tailoring that she was doing was tailoring her body to the needs of her paying clients. Whether that be on her side or in her bottom, kissing men who’s breath stunk of whiskey, tobacco and rotting taste buds, sucking lips cracked with the dust of the mines, and handling the big, the small, the thin and the thick… men to their utmost satisfaction.