This spring, Fiction Advocate will publish Brothel, a novel by J. Boyett. This is Chapter One. You can pre-purchase a copy here.
by J. Boyett
They were at the Dixie Café, and Ken was sticking green beans up his nose and leafing through Hustler while Joyce talked about her troubles at home. She felt relatively confident that he was still listening. And she got a thrill from the indignation that coalesced around Ken in the family restaurant; he had a talent for getting almost, but not quite, punched in the face. This thing with the porno and the beans in the nose, this was everyday stuff.
“Go ahead and eat,” said Ken.
Joyce looked at her meatloaf and country vegetables. “No. I’m sending it back.”
“So eat off it and then send it back.”
She signaled the waitress, who scowled at the scuzzy photos Ken was poring over. Joyce gave the girl a big conventional smile as she handed her the plate and said, “I’m sorry, this isn’t what I ordered.” She saw the name tag—HANNAH—and realized that this girl was in her Health class, across town at Central Arkansas University. “I asked for the Light. This is the Regular.” Hannah took the plate without a word.
Ken removed a green bean from his nose and popped it into his mouth. Joyce sipped her iced tea. “You’re disgusting,” she said.
“I’m hot,” he countered.
“Almost,” she said. “But not quite.” Ken was small, but proportioned nicely. His brown hair and goatee were ever so slightly too neat. His big hazel eyes were fine when he wasn’t doing weird things with them.
“You know I am,” he said. “I’m perfect for a cheerleader like you.”
“I’m not a cheerleader.”
“You look like a cheerleader. You dress like an off-duty one.”
“Cheerleaders are blonde. I’m dirty-blonde.”
“Are black cheerleaders blonde?”
“Does CAU have any black cheerleaders?”
“Fuck if I know.”
“Who’s paying for dinner, anyway?”
“Well, I bought the Hustler.”
“Then you should pay, since you’re the one who’s going to get us kicked out before we have a chance to eat.”
“Fine. Who cares which mom we charge it to. Now, you were saying about your dad?”
“Step-dad,” she said sweetly, and kicked him in the shin.
“Ow!” he cried, loud enough to get attention. As he leaned over to rub the offended area, his right arm shifted down, and his left arm, which held the magazine, shifted up, so that its cover was especially prominently displayed. Joyce rubbed her thighs together and lit a cigarette. The family in the booth across from them abruptly and noisily left, the parents glaring at Joyce and Ken. “Pussies,” Ken observed. “Anyway. What were you saying about your step-dad?”
“I said he was a dick.”
“He felt you up?”
“Well, you couldn’t call it that in court.”
“What could you call it?”
“I don’t know. Being touchy-feely.”
“Dude, big hard-ass Marines are not touchy-feely. They’re red-blooded ass-snatchers.”
“Maybe he got in touch with his feminine side.”
“It sounds like he got in touch with your feminine side.”
“Yeah, well. Next Thanksgiving he can keep his baster to himself.”
“Aw. Was widdle Joyce wictimized by dat big bad man?”
She raised the back of one hand to her forehead and with the other hand clutched an imaginary string of pearls. Eyes half-closed, she cried: “Oh, save me, Kenneth!,” sat up straight again and sipped her tea. Who cared that Thanksgiving had been ruined? You could annually count on the whole weekend being ruined anyway, by virtue of the fact that Thanksgiving was in it. And where was that tight-ass bitch with her food? It wasn’t like the Dixie Café gave free refills. “Oh, and he called me a whore. See, he does take his steak raw, feminine side or not.”
“So hold up. You mean he tried to, you know, get a little some-some, you refused, and he called you a whore? Seems like the opposite. And he meant ‘whore’ as a bad thing?”
“Oh, he didn’t say anything at the time. Neither one of us said anything at the time.”
“So when did he say it?”
“A few minutes later. At the actual table. In front of everybody. He said I dressed like a whore.”
“Were you dressed like one?”
“Yeah. I mean, an expensive one. So?”
“What’d the fam say?”
“Mom laughed like she was all shocked, and went ‘Harry!,’ and then got all prim with me and told me I really should have paid more attention to my attire on today of all days.”
“So, not just buttloads of support on the Mom front. What about aunts, uncles, cousins? Rugrats?”
“Oh, they’re not my family. They’re not Mom’s family. They’re his family.”
“Now, Joyce. Y’all’re all each other’s family now. Here’s the story, of a man named Harry. . . . That’d be a good name for a show, wouldn’t it? The Harry Bunch.”
“Help! I Married A Troglodyte!”
“Who married, you or your mom?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Damn, stepchild. You want me to kick his jarhead ass?”
“All right. I’ll have my people call his people, and get them to mail me his ass.”
“I wish I could get him somehow.” As soon as the words left her mouth, Joyce brayed nervous laughter to cover the gaffe, not wanting Ken to hear the real and contemptible need in her voice.
“Why don’t you really turn into a whore?” Ken timed his suggestion so that it was made just as Hannah was placing the Light in front of Joyce. The waitress made a noise in her throat and huffed away. “No tip,” quipped Ken.
“Why don’t I turn into a whore? Why, whatever do you mean, Ken?”
“Just what I said. How pissed off would he be if you were a hooker? That’d piss off any red-blooded American dad.”
“Close enough. Don’t kick me again. Anyway, how about it?”
“What if he showed up as a customer?”
Ken made a face and waved his hand like she’d farted. “Don’t be nasty.”
“All right. I’ll think about it.”
They turned to their food. Joyce was hungry, and Ken must have been too, since he stoped playing with his food and ate it. The talk drifted toward gossip about Joyce’s roommate at the dorm, Mal-short-for-Malinda, and the ditzy suitemate they shared a bathroom with, Sherry. Ken occasionally held up the magazine for Joyce’s perusal and demanded a critique of boob or bush or both. After a while he said, “Listen, I’m serious. Why don’t you? Become a whore?”
“Yeah. I could rifle the Drama department for old Cabaret costumes and go hail pick-ups with Confederate flag bumper stickers down at the end of Burger Row.”
“That’s, uh, cool, I would videotape that if you had the balls to really do it, but I had in mind something more realistic.”
“Fuck off, Ken.”
“Joyce. I am really serious. Look at my eyes. I am really, truly serious.”
“I can’t tell shit from looking at your eyes.”
“All right, all right. . . . Hear me out. Just because it’s funny doesn’t mean I’m joking. Now, you know, and I know, that this town is full of guys who are no more dickheaded than average, who aren’t too fat or deformed, and yet are virgins. And both of us furthermore know that most of these guys would give anything—anything!—for one shot at blowing their wad with a real live girl in the room.”
“What makes you think I’d want to just fuck a bunch of losers and jerk-offs who couldn’t get laid any other way?”
“Joyce. In the eyes, now. That’s where I want you looking, because it’s honesty time. Joyce, would you or would you not say that every guy you’ve ever fucked has been a loser jerk-off, anyway?”
She rolled her eyes. “You are such an asshole.” This was a different, more intimate version of the thrill she got from watching him push the surrounding diners. She loved proving that she was tough enough to take it when he pushed her.
“The asshole is always right. Don’t you fools understand?! . . . And would you or would you not furthermore—that’s one of my favorite words, ‘furthermore’—would you or would you not furthermore say that you have not ever been very selective about which loser jerk-off you’ve fucked? I mean, it’s always seemed to me like you just fucked anyone who turned up, anyway. So what’s the big deal about getting paid for it? I tell you, when I think about all the pimply, totally amazed retards that you’ve deflowered for free, I just feel sick.”
“Well, I would never fuck you.”
“Yeah, but that’s, like, because we’re twin Gods of the Universe, and all of Creation would explode if we copulated.”
“Listen. I’m being. Fucking. Serious. A hundred dollars a pop minimum. That’s minimum. A fuck a day could get you three thousand a month. That’s, like, thirty-six thousand dollars a year, man.”
“That’s also screwing some geek every day!” She refused to speak more softly than Ken, and took fluttering pride in the heads that turned at her remarks.
“All right. Fine. One asshole a week. You do that now. That would still be four hundred a month, which is more than you’d make at Waffle House. Where you’ve been talking about working. And this is money for doing something you already do for free. I mean, Jesus, Joyce.”
Now she felt confused. It was hard to remember why the whole thing had been inconceivable thirty seconds ago. “But. . . .” The Light meatloaf congealed in its own grease on her plate. “But it’s illegal, right? I mean, even beer’s illegal in Conway.”
“Beer’s not illegal. It’s only illegal to sell it.”
“Yeah, well, same thing.”
“Oh, hey, that’s right! . . . Anyway, who cares? And who’ll find out?”
“As if people at CAU wouldn’t talk about a hooker on campus.”
“Not on campus. My apartment is a five-minute walk away.”
“Okay, you just hold that weird thought. Now, seriously. People would talk, and I’d wind up in jail for prostitution.”
“No you wouldn’t.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“Because . . . okay, listen. People will talk, sure, but that’ll be no big deal. We can cut the talk by. . . well, twenty percent, maybe, if we tell our clients they’ll be blacklisted if we ever catch them blabbing. Even so, word’ll spread like wildfire. Like wildfire. I’ll have to beat people off with a stick to keep you down to only one fuck a day.”
“You’re so poetic.”
“Don’t worry about the law, though. What’re people going to say when they call the cops to complain? ‘Officer, there’s a fucking bordello on Baridon Street’? The cops’ll laugh it off. At worst, we’ll have to give them a discount. And if it comes to that, we’ll take it out of my cut.”
“What if they do come and try to bust us?”
“What will they find then? I’ll be in the living room watching The Simpsons. You’ll be in the back doing some guy. What could be more natural in a sleepy churchy little college town? I mean, I won’t be wearing a pimp hat with a big green ostrich feather in the headband. There won’t be a red light over the screen door. ‘What, Officer? Someone called in a brothel? . . . That’s the darnedest. . . . Why, no, sir, that just bewilders the daisies out of me. . . . Well, yes, sir, I guess I do have a few enemies, a few thousand, that is. . . . Oh, you know, sir, the usual, just a lot of ex-girlfriends and their ex-boyfriends, ha ha ha. . . . These two, sir? Oh, this is just a buddy of mine and his date. . . . Well, sir, no, they’re not married, as a matter of fact. . . . I know, I know, but what can one Christian do? . . . All right, well, see you, Officer, and thanks for your concern!’”
There was a long silence between them then. Neither moved. Ken leaned forward, kid-stuff Hustler forgotten, elbows on the table, hands stretched toward her in the closest thing she’d ever seen on him to supplication. She folded her arms over her chest, chewing the inside of her cheek; “Understand: me talking about this hypothetically is not me agreeing. Cool?”
“I would never—even if this weren’t totally nuts—I would never do this alone. If I’m going to be, like, a total outcast from decent female society, I would need at least one person to be out there with me. At least one.”
“Okay. I got to say, I think more than two would be a security risk, but okay, two’s cool.”
He was being weird; he was never this pliable. Joyce realized that he had never before wanted so badly for her to do something. He was totally serious about this brothel thing. She felt herself teetering closer than ever before to that edge, and dared herself to look over the rail. “And if the cops come by once, that’s it. Party’s over. I buy your spiel about being able to get out of it once with smooth talking. But twice? In a town like this? No fucking way.”
“All right, I think you’re pussying out there, but I can deal with it.”
“And another thing. What’s all this about the brothel being at your apartment and you being my pimp?”
“Yeah, yours and whoever else’s. What about it?”
“Bitch, I don’t need a pimp, bitch, is what’s about it.”
“Oh. Oh, Jesus. Oh, okay, I see.” Ken thrust himself back in his seat with feigned indignation. “So where do you want to put the brothel? At your dad’s house? Step-dad’s, I mean.”
“What’s wrong with my dorm room?”
“Um, nothing, unless being the stupidest idea of all time counts. The least thing wrong with it is that Mal would probably have to be in on it, but that’s probably fine. But everything else . . . I mean, you’re nervous about the pigs being nosey, but you don’t think the RAs in the girls’ wing of Short-Denny Hall are going to be a problem? They’re like the nosiest, most self-righteous people of all time. As soon as they smell a whiff of whorehouse they’re going to be pounding on your door and telling you to pack your bags. They’ll harass every guy you sign in. I mean, the cops have to follow the law, at least in theory. But the RAs only have to follow dorm regulations.”
“Okay, okay. Dorm’s a dud. But what’s so great about your place? And what makes you think you could be my pimp?”
“My place is easy to find. It’s got two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen, all of which you can fuck in—believe me, I know—and I’d be an awesome pimp.”
Joyce’s arms came uncrossed and she picked at her food. “Well, why would I need you for a pimp? You don’t think I could get guys on my own?”
Ken held his face utterly blank and earnest:. “You’d really feel comfortable walking up to guys and saying, ‘Hey, I’ll bang you for a hundred bucks?’ I mean, I’d feel awesome saying it for you. But how would you really feel?”
“I’d probably only have to do it once or twice, then word of mouth would get around.”
“Whatever. Anyway, you’re forgetting that you’ll need me for the same reason hookers always need pimps, for protection.”
“Protection? What’s he going to do, rape me? He already knows I’m going to fuck him.” She reminded herself that they were only joking.
Ken threw up his hands. “Jesus, don’t you ever watch those cop movies with those whore-killers in them? What if he gets kicks out of beating up girls? What if he’s like a religious fanatic and brings a snake with him? What if he’s a twenty-four-incher who’s going to rip you in half? What if he’s determined to scoop your poop, or money-shot in your face? Gross! Barf out! What if he gets belligerent and refuses to wear a condom? That’s where I come in. I’ll be sitting in the next room the whole time. All you’ve got to do is let out a yell, and I’ll come running in and wallop him with my spiked bat.”
“My spiked bat.”
“Your what? Your what did you say? Your spiked what?”
“My spiked bat.”
“What is that?”
“Duh. It’s like a bat, except with a big old rusty nail sticking out of it.”
“Do you have one of those?”
“Naw, Joyce. I’m going to make it. I always wanted one, I just never had an excuse before.”
They fell silent for a while. Ken played with his green beans and Joyce scrutinized her plate.
“Well?” demanded Ken.
“You’re going to ask Mal, aren’t you? That’d make the most sense. Anyway, if you were actually considering doing it in y’all’s dorm room, you must be planning to invite her.”
“I wasn’t ‘actually considering’ anything, Ken, because we were just fooling around.”
“Bullshit. You’re in.”
“Not necessarily. Anyway, we haven’t talked about your cut. I won’t put up with a bunch of exorbitant nonsense.”
“I’ll be ecstatic with a very low cut. But you’re so in.”
“Fuck off. You don’t know me.”
“Again, bullshit. I triple-dare you.”
“Ken. . . .”
“I triple-dog-dare you.”
“Ah, shut up.”
They weren’t making any effort not to be heard by the nearby booths, and a stern bald dry-faced man of late middle age, a real pillar of the community, some kind of farmer-cum-deacon, appeared at Joyce’s shoulder and glowered down at her: “Now listen here, if you’re going to come and eat around decent people I wish you’d shut your filthy—”
“Fuck off, sour grapes,” she said, and flicked her hand scornfully at him. Ken burst into jeering, exaggerated laughter, pointing his right index finger at the man. “Busted!” he cried. The old guy could not hit a girl. He might have hit Ken, had Ken not been gripping a steak knife, pointed up, in his left hand. The man stalked off. Ken leaned across the table to slap Joyce a high five: “You are so in.”
“Not yet I’m not.”
“You’re so in and you don’t even know it.”
“I don’t know. Probably not. God, this is crazy.”
Now a blushing manager appeared, also trying—albeit less successfully—to be stern. He explained that there had been several complaints and that he was sorry to have to ask them to leave. Joyce and Ken commiserated, meanwhile shoveling food into their mouths as the increasingly flustered manager kept explaining that, no, they really did have to leave right away. Once their plates were clean they got up and the manager followed them to the register, where Joyce had trouble counting out the money. The trained and stabilized part of herself blithely knew that this couldn’t happen, but from her soul’s crow’s nest she saw better; she’d already dared herself.
- From Brothel by J. Boyett