October 15, 2012

A Long Flight of Stairs


A Long Flight of Stairs
by Caleb True

It was my special gift that brought W. M. T. back once a week, for three years, before they shut him in Ludlow Street for life.

I’ll bring you right into my tale, on a wet night, where, in my room Mr. W. M. T.’s prodigious chest is heaving, lifting the blankets we share right off of me.

* * *

I am small and darker-skinned, ever so slightly brown as to be desirable by those in high society who crave a bit of race mixing when they come to the doorstep of Miss Beale’s House. The gentlemen need not make the suspicious trek to the Negro brothels in Harlem to get a dark woman. At Miss Beale’s, squarely in the rustle of downtown Manhattan, I manage that service. In fact, when Miss Beale found me, she was ecstatic. I was engaging in a bit of shopping, and Miss Beale, before I knew her by name, came right up to me outside Marshall’s. Flanked by two girls of hers, she rushed right up to me.

“You there,” she asked. “Are you white?”

The question caught me off guard, as strangers’ questions usually, while startling, aren’t quite so intrusive. I was used to people assuming I was full-on negro, or just a dark whitey, but thereafter plain minding their own business in the way of New Yorkers.

Miss Beale, this stately lady with two gossipy looking girls at her sides, with a fur round her neck and sparkling pins in her hair, wanted clarity. She was from the Florida panhandle, I learned a bit later. Her daddy was an ex-confederate cavalryman, and it boggled her senses to see a dark woman just strolling around, thinking on walking right into Marshall’s to buy a hat.

“I am one-eighth,” I said. “Do you want me to yield you passage to this store?” I chided, stepping aside as though she expected some sort of courtesy from me.

“Oh, my dear girl,” she said, “no, no, no.” She handed off the two parcels she carried to the girl behind her on her left, and hiked that purse of hers up to her shoulder. Miss Beale continued to speak, using her two free arms for gesturing.

“My dear girl, what is your name?” Miss Beale said. “Mine’s Miss Beale.”

I told her my name, and we resituated our socializing foursome over to the side, in front of the glass storefront with mannequins, away from the entranceway to Marshall’s.

“Darling,” she proposed to me after some small talk, “I am a proprietress of a house of entertainment.”

I nodded.

“We have some clients, one in particular, who has needs of a particular sort…And we have been looking,” her eyes darted to her surroundings for a moment, as though she were still looking, “for some who could meet those needs. We would prefer it,” she added, “and he would prefer it, if business remained where it is—that is, with my house.”

Slowly, with much delicate ballet around the subject, as if I were to be easily broken by an onslaught of honesty, Miss Beale got to the meat of what she had to say.

“How much do you make a week now, Miss Cassandra?”

“Two-fifteen,” I said.

“My dear girl!” she cried, and without the same sense of culture and hesitance I gathered from her before, she came right up and threw her arms around me. “My dear, dear girl!” she said again.

She stepped back. I failed to embrace her with the same enthusiasm—out of shock, mostly.

“You need me, Miss Cassandra,” she said. “How about a raise—something, quite immediately, like fifty-fold from your current rate of earning?”

I gasped, brought my hand to my breast, like I could steady my heart by doing so. I was working as a seamstress at the time I met Miss Beale. Scraping by.

I told Miss Beale that I had no skills for what she was proposing.

“Oh, but my dear, you do have skills,” Miss Beale said. “A nice color in your skin, dear lady, the sort that satisfies the fetish of the prurient while avoiding the social stigma allotted most of the Negroes in this city.”

She steered me down the street by my arm, asking if she couldn’t show me firsthand what kind of situation she proposed. The two girls who accompanied her trailed behind us, giggling, whispering comments to one another.

When we had moved three blocks, and turned the corner, Miss Beale touched, on something that seemed to concern her about me, suddenly. “I assume you have, at some point, known a man—have you?”

* * *


* * *

It had been a long time since my last encounter, two days before I had begun my job as a seamstress. It was with a boy who lived with his drunken father in the apartment next to ours, uptown. On Saturdays, my mother sent me to the vegetable market down the street. She was too old and too ill to do much of the duties a mother ought to. It was my job to do nearly everything that required leaving the apartment.

When I exited our tenement, the boy was always slouched at the end of the hallway where the staircase met the fifth floor, smoking, one leg dangling over the steps. He whittled with a pocket knife mindlessly, and never said a thing, though I had to nearly step over him to start downstairs. From the moment I closed our door, he watched me balefully, silently, and he kept his eye on me until I was out of his sight.

I was on my way home, one Saturday afternoon, and the boy wasn’t in his customary slouch at the top of the steps. He had stood up among the wood shavings, which were the only indication he had been there a period of time, and was barring my way up the final flight of steps to the fifth floor. He had one hand on the wall, one on the banister. I had my cloth sacks full from the market, and he looked me up and down as I hesitated at the bottom of the last flight of steps. “A lady like yourself,” he murmured, “need not heave such heavy things up flights of steps.”

At the time I thought it was a decent offer, as he came down to help me with the bags, even though I was already flushed from the first four and a half flights of carrying. I was perspiring and hot, and the closer he came, the more I wished he had not gotten up, not put down his pocket knife, had instead just sat there whittling, as was his usual role. As he took the sacks of vegetables from my grasp to carry the rest of the way, I was wholly embarrassed that my exerted demeanor might be offensive to him.

He did not seem to notice this, until he had brought the sacks into the apartment, and set them down, then did not leave. He came up and grabbed me by the wrists, and while I struggled for a second, I soon yielded, as he was a great deal stronger than me. My mother was still in the bedroom, door shut. I will never know if she had heard, had even woken up at all.

The next day I left my mother early on, before she woke, and found seamstress work fifteen blocks away. I never saw her, or the boy, thank God, again.

* * *

Miss Beale’s House was a gorgeous three story brick structure a few blocks south and east of Central Park. Right through the great oak front door, with colorful stained glass panes in it, was a warm hallway decorated with handmade furniture and molded woodwork. Upon entry, a dignified old gentleman in a tuxedo took all of Miss Beale’s shopping acquisitions, her purse, my small bag, and the two tailing girls’ things. He bowed smartly with each thing he took, and when he disappeared into the adjoining cloakroom with all of their articles, Miss Beale called after him, “thank you, Mr. Dryer.”

A small door at the very end of the hallway had a sign on it with the word ‘ABBESS’ in a gothic script. Miss Beale steered me towards that doorway, and sat me down in an armchair. She lit a cigarette, placed it in a long ivory holder and sat down on a long sofa next to the chair I was in.

After a short conversation, Miss Beale had indeed sold herself to me. She placed me in a room on the third floor, and the two giggling girls who had followed Miss Beale around had their own rooms on either side of mine.

Miss Beale told me to start calling her “Bee,” a diminutive she preferred from her girls.

She also informed me that my client would be coming by the following evening.
“To see what Miss Beale has rustled up,” she said.

* * *

Having tucked one entire edge of the blanket under my body, I manage to stay warm enough for long enough to nearly fall asleep. Then, as my eyes drift closed, Mr. W. M. T. starts, mutters something suddenly, snorts, and rolls over, yanking the blanket out from under me. I will never get used to him the way I got used to most of the rest of life, over the nearly three years I worked at Miss Bee’s.

In the warmer seasons, there was no blanket issue, but W. M. T. sweat like a hog when it was quite hot outside. He would soak up the sheets in his vigor and in the morning I would have a rash all down my side from sleeping on the salty moisture. Such a rash marred my form and I was quite incapable of taking clients, should I get any, during the days between W. M. T.’s weekly visit. Miss Bee took pity on me after three rashy weeks turning her one ‘colored’ girl into blemished goods.

She took me out to her personal pharmacist, a man who treated Miss Bee’s girls personally in his home, and he inspected the rash. He prescribed a tube of salve, and Miss Bee made me pay for it out of W. M. T.’s gratuities. The salve helped some, but two solid days were still required to calm the rash before I could meet the other girls down in the parlor to be available to clients.

* * *

Supposedly I was just light enough to avoid the regulation of the law on mixed-race brothels. Miss Bee’s secret weapon to keep her in good standing with the Commissioner of Police included free servicing to men in uniform on occasion; while my complexion stood out quite obviously if I were lined up next to the other girls, I was handily ignored when the men chose to make their ‘raids’ every other month. And my client found my flesh so satisfactory that he too was in on the game to keep me where I was, at Miss Bee’s.

While it mattered little, Miss Bee had lectured me briefly about city politics, about who exactly my regular client was. She emphasized the importance that I learn what he wants, know how to please him, and keep his money flowing into the house through me.

“He is a repulsive beast, though, isn’t he?” Miss Bee said. “At least you have not yet had the displeasure of dining with him, Miss Cassandra.”

* * *

The day I was back in the parlor, after treating my rash for the third time that summer, the other girls were not too pleased to see me. I usually did not require to find extra work via the parlor; Miss Bee had a list of clients who had expressed in the past a fetish for a darker girl, should she acquire one in the future. With me, she kept a steady flow of work clomping up the steps to my room. I came down only during weeks with very little work. While money was no concern, Miss Bee also alluded that I could not maintain a room in her house servicing just one client a week.

This evening, a man none of the girls had seen before sat in one of the armchairs in the parlor, smoking. He did not attempt to solicit any of the girls, but just sat there and watched as other girls and men worked on each other. The man watched the girls, studied their faces, but then dismissed them, dragged on his cigarette and obscured himself in a puff of smoke.

When I came in, he turned his head and noted my presence, but then upon second glance, seemed to lock on me. I knew his type, I thought at first—his imagination taking off my dress, rolling down my stockings, wondering if the color was the same under the clothes as it was on my arms and neck. “He’s sat there all evening,” one girl told me, in a tone filled with skepticism, as if she thought I would not be likely to budge him.

On the contrary, he put his cigarette out, came right up to me and was very frank about what he wanted. When I led him up to my room and closed the door, however, his wants changed. “I would just like a bit of conversation with you, Miss Cassandra,” he said.

He lit up another cigarette, pulled out a small leather-bound notepad, and a pencil. I was quite nervous about this, and so asked him if I might have one of his cigarettes.

“Certainly, Miss Cassandra,” he said.

“Look,” he said, “my name is Mr. Aarons. I just want to ask you some questions about your regular Wednesday night engagement.”

“You—” I began.

“That’s right, Miss Cassandra, just a few questions,” he said, and pulled out a stack of dollar bills. “No trouble, and this seventy five dollars is all yours for the night. You won’t have to remove one garter belt.”

He spent time with me until just past midnight, having filled half a dozen leafs of his notepad. I can’t imagine exactly what he filled them with, he did all of the talking; my answers were short—in total perhaps about twenty-five “Yes’s” and fifteen “No’s.” Then he left.

* * *

In the morning, Miss Bee rapped on my door three times, then opened it right up, marched in. “Where is he?” she asked.


“Oh come now, Miss Cassandra, that oddball in the bowler from last night.” Miss Bee glanced around my room. She put her hands on her hips and looked down at me, under the sheets. “Don’t tell me he left last night?”

“He did, he—Mr. Aarons just wanted to talk.”

Miss Bee cringed. “Damn it all, Cassandra!” she said. “It’s never good when they wanna just talk!” She stormed out of my room, and I could hear her agitated stomp all the way down the flights of stairs and into her office, which got its door slammed violently.

When I snuck down for lunch later that day, Miss Bee’s office door was open just a hair, and smoke seeped out of the crack at the top. I could hear her talking sternly to someone in the room. “I want you to go down there and find out if he works for Harper’s,” she said. “A Mr. Aarons… Fishy sort of name, probably a fake.”

* * *


* * *

Upon W. M. T.’s next visit, a few days later, everything had seemed to calm down. His appearance at the house had in some ways transformed and calmed Miss Bee, who had been on edge most of the week since the appearance of the strange Mr. Aarons. When W. M. T. came in, I was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs like Miss Bee had insisted I do this week, but she immediately came out of her office and engaged W. M. T. in conversation. Mr. Dryer took his cane and hat, and Miss Bee effectively steered him back towards her office, with a sharp jerk of her head to me to get back up the stairs to await W. M. T. in my room. On my way up I heard Bee cooing coquettishly about “a stately courthouse, such refinement and progress,” to which W. M. T. guffawed, then replied with details.

I shut myself in my room, collapsed on the bed, and only just started to relax when I heard Miss Bee calling my name from downstairs. “Miss Cassandra, evening wear please!” she called.

I quickly put on my evening gown, a more formal, high society dress for appearing proper in. I went down the stairs and found Miss Bee and my Mr. Weekly waiting for me.

“Miss Cassandra, Mister T— would like to dine with you before retiring this evening,” Miss Bee said, with just a hint of malice in her voice. “Mr. Dryer has prepared a meal for you both.”

The meal was exquisite, but my admiration of its display, and my appetite, left me soon after W. M. T. started in on his first plate. Peculiarly, he situated himself away from the table, his paunch a finger length from the wood’s edge. He tucked his handkerchief into his collar as a bib. He ate fast, and I was just partway through my cut of meat, when he was reaching over to load a third plateful of cutlets for himself. Mr. Dryer, standing at attention in the corner, should anyone need anything, seemed not to notice W. M. T.’s frightful abuse of the second deadly sin.

When I had nearly finished my first course, and was feeling quite full, my distinguished guest’s ponderous belly was nearly tickling the edge of the table. He had put away five plates, and had started to slow his progress, when he announced, “Dessert!” and Mr. Dryer leapt to his side to provide him options.

I was distressed by W. M. T.’s ravenous appetite, though perhaps I had no reason to think he was naturally a large man. If he worked half so industriously at his politicking as he did at his meal, I thought, the City of New York certainly had a great man on its side. He inhaled his dessert in just the same fashion he inhaled his entrée. I abstained from dessert, citing some girlish excuse about my figure when W. M. T. questioned my abstention.

When the ordeal of dinner was over, Miss Bee came in, smiling. I guessed that to W. M. T. her smile shone perfectly benevolently, warmly, but when she flashed it in my direction, I saw a splash of evil in her pupils and at the corners of her mouth. I did not know if I would ever be able to fix the glaring mistake I had made by engaging Mr. Aaron. Perhaps the other girls had sensed something about Mr. Aaron’s motives to which I was ignorant—perhaps I had misread their looks upon entering the parlor, and they had been trying to project warnings to me without words. It seemed so clear now, with Miss Bee scorching me at every turn with her evil eye.

Up in my room with W. M. T., it did not take long for him to tire. He was asleep within a half hour of dinner’s conclusion, and I was left to lie there and ponder what was to happen next.

* * *

What I considered could happen, lying awake next to W. M. T. on that final night he spent at Miss Beale’s House, did not come close to what transpired.

He never came back to subject his paunch to my entertainments, never even came back to say why. Miss Beale found the answers in The New York Times that following week, and while not a peep about her house or me was uttered in the big article on W. M. T., she waved the paper in one hand and screamed at me that it was my fault. My date with Mr. Aaron had contributed to the loss of her most lucrative client.

“But Miss Bee, there’s not one mention in there of you or I,” I protested.

“Girl,” she barked, “that is exactly the point. I called up my men at the Times and paid a full fifteen hundred dollars to avoid their printing the name of this house, or me, or you, Miss Cassandra. Fifteen hundred dollars,” she continued, the devil in her voice, “that you will pay me, right now, before I kick you right out of this house of entertainment.”

This hot exchange took place, to my disgrace, in front of an audience of all the girls in Miss Beale’s employ. She chose lunchtime to present me her fury, and had timed her intrusion, paper in hand, exactly so that we had all sat down, but hadn’t the time to take one bite of food.

When she was done scolding me, and I had given her all the cash I had at the house—a sum approaching $1,500—she escorted me out of the kitchen, to the front entrance hall. Mr. Dryer was waiting at the foot of the stairs with a large suitcase. Miss Beale told me my room was cleared out. She opened the front door for Mr Dryer, who carried the suitcase down the front steps to the street. I followed him outside. Miss Beale gave me one last stern observation, then as soon as Mr. Dryer reentered the building, she slammed the oak door, rattling the stained-glass in its frame.

At the foot of the steps leading up to Miss Beale’s House, I collapsed on the suitcase, face in my hands.

* * *

Caleb True wrote his very first story in the womb. He's out now--he lives in Western Massachusetts and holds a Masters degree in history. He wrote "A Long Flight of Stairs" in college as a final class project. His stories can be found in The Portland Review, Moon City Review, Yemassee, Trachodon, Sein Und Werden: The Unnatural World (U.K.) and elsewhere. He exists online at calebtrue.tumblr.com.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
I find that a story becomes truly possible only once I have two of those "that'd make a good story" ideas floating around in my head. The best stories would take two seemingly impossible "ideas for a story" and mash them together. The task, in writing, would be to combine the two seemingly disparate "ideas" into one helluva(n) interesting story. Oh, I didn't answer the question up there. Mostly I get my ideas from history and stuff that really happened. Then I lie for pages and pages.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?
Ridiculously good, brilliant writing and writers and other forms of entertainment out there, e.g. Roberto Bolano, Sabina Murray, Roddy Doyle, Breaking Bad, Big Love. You know. Good stuff.

What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story?
Historical fiction is really a highly-imaginative form of speculative history. While regular fiction, if there is such a thing, may not have "historical" elements, historical fiction ought to paint a picture of life in the past that is quasi-educational, or quasi-real. It should be entertainment, as all literature should be (see Isaac Bashevis Singer on the purpose of literature: "to entertain, and to instruct"), and it should fill in a historical blank spot.

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?
History is exotic and fascinating and there aren't a bunch of donks running around on their iPhones texting each other. Back in the day, people had no phones; they had to run around yelling at each other to get things done.

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?
Read history, haha. Don't just watch The Tudors, Rome, The Borgias, and all those other pimping showtime/HBO historical dramas. And even pick up theory, maybe. Yes, philosophers can't write worth shit, but some theory can really paint history in an unforeseen way.