Short Story by Roy Bentley: “How Sweet to Have a Home in Heaven”

Image of New Orleans red-light district historic marker

John Steinbeck’s love affair with New Orleans was brief. Guests and couple got drunk when he married his second wife in the city they call the Big Easy. The marriage wasn’t easy and didn’t last. East of Eden reflects the bitterness that did. Violent white response to civil rights for blacks when New Orleans schools finally integrated infuriated him. He wrote about that in Travels with Charley. But if he ever visited the brothels of the Big Easy and heard jazz piano in the parlor played the way he liked it, he probably felt right at home. Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday are the evidence. In this short story set in the red-light district for which New Orleans was once famous, Roy Bentley steps back into John Steinbeck’s era, a period when political correctness meant passing your poli-sci exam and the n-word was considered acceptable speech. Bentley’s language may be tough, but his short story’s center is sweet—much like John Steinbeck’s fiction, where whores with hearts of gold work and sometimes die in towns, such as Salinas and New Orleans, without pity. Civil rights inch along in America, but Hurricane Katrina showed the world that blacks were still considered second-class citizens in New Orleans, 50 years after Travels with Charley was written. Big Easy indeed. John Steinbeck would be appalled.—Ed.  

Cherry Vanover was staring out the room’s one long Victorian window, naked except for a pair of red-and-white striped six-dollar-a-pair stockings, and seated in a ladder back chair beside the high four-poster bed. Whatever it was she saw, I thought it likely had nothing to do with what she’d been doing with a sport I’d passed in the hall. Cherry’s red hair had come undone and hung down her back. A moon-coming-through-clouds shown in the window, the glass of its top half, though the room was lit by the orange flame of a pair of gas lamps on the opposite wall. That light held her like a knife, just so.

She hadn’t turned when I opened her door.

“Miss Cherry.”

“Yes?” she asked without looking in my direction.

“Countess said to get you when you were through with your last boarder,” I said, moving to where she could see me.

When she turned her face I caught sight of a look unlike the mask of tiredness most of the women in our house wore at the end of a night’s business.

“Hello, Professor.”

I was used to the name they used for all the piano player-greeters in the District, though it wasn’t my name. I’d been called Professor for sometime. The name I was given on Amelia Street, where I was born, was Antonio Jackson, Jr.

“I passed Mr. John Douglas in the hall. He seemed pleased ‘bout something.”

She nodded and crossed her breasts with her arms, rubbing the opposite shoulder with the fingers of each of her hands. Long, thin fingers. Like a piano player’s, I thought.

“What does she want with me?” Cherry asked.

“Can I sit down?”

“Something wrong?”

I sat at the foot of the bed’s white-sheeted mattress.

“Did you know the Countess had another go-round with Max James?”

I regret not having the ability to make small talk. It causes me to get to the point too quickly. In a house of pleasure you’d think getting to the point would be the stock and trade of customer and lady alike. But making it seem like what you’re about to do is an experience as rare as a voodoo charm is a skill, too. The best sporting women have it. This was one of those times when it would have been nice to have some of that talent at delaying to offer up.

“I left him in the parlor,” she said. “Along with that sailor.”

“He claims you gave him a hard time instead of what he paid his two dollars for.”

The woman in the chair by the window with the moon in it glanced at me.  She must have seen I wasn’t her problem, or that I wasn’t the source of her problem, only the bearer of bad news. Of the madams in Storyville—some of the boarders and sailors called the District that—Countess Piazza was one of the fairest, but she could flash mad. Warning came, when it came, if it did, with her fingering the diamond choker around her slim neck.

“You can figure she’ll slap you a time or two. She might kiss you, but I wouldn’t count on it.” I stopped talking and a horse whinnied up the street by Gipsy Shafer’s.

It wasn’t I didn’t like Cherry Vanover or was unconcerned about what might happen. It was just I couldn’t have much sympathy for any woman in Cherry’s situation cheating a man. She was a whore, a live one. And I figured she might want to stay that a while.

“Are you thinking it may be worse, Professor? Because if she’s got it in her head to make an example out of me again—”

Cherry dropped her arms and leaned forward in the chair. Her breasts hung in the shadow her head and neck made in the gaslight but with still a glow to the skin. She was the sort of woman Countess Willie V. Piazza preferred for her house at 317 North Basin Street: an octoroon. Like the Countess herself. Dark but not too dark. With hair that could be made to graze a white man’s skin—any man’s, for that matter—and make a believer of him.

Her hands were in her hair, combing. She moved to rest them at her sides, finally gripping the wood seat her naked skin was pedestaled on.

“She didn’t lay into you that bad,” I said.

“I guess I been beat worse.”

“What was it you called Mr. James?” I asked.

“A bastard,” Cherry said. “Because’a his hatin’ niggers, seeing us as cursed and little better than animals. How was I to know he didn’t know who his father was?”

I nodded and smiled. I reached over to place my hand on hers but she pulled away.

“You better get down there. And put something on.”

“Of course I’ll put something on. But she better not beat me over this. I’ll scratch out Max James’ eyes if she does. It ain’t nothing to call a man what he is, is it?”

“No, but sass and talk like that will get you sent back to the dollar cribs,” I said.

The dollar cribs—Bienville Street’s five blocks—were the lower regions of Hell.

I raised up on the bed and Cherry stood up. I could see the tangle of hair above her “womanhood”—as the books I learned to read called it, books nice people would have no part of being seen buying but read. Books they would send a house servant to buy for them.

Cherry stepped to a three-drawer bureau, reached in and took out a white drape she threw over her shoulder and cinched in the back. Her womanhood was left exposed.

She moved to the door and turned a crystal knob.

I got up to follow her from the room. I’d done my job.

It was Cherry’s room, her place of business, the place she’d slept since she’d come to Basin Street the year before, but I was the one to close the door. In the hall a line of lamps the color of grapefruit pulp guttered as she walked to face the Countess, who Jelly Roll Morton said was the only madam in the District with sense enough to keep a piano tuned.

. . . . .

Jelly Roll had a nickname by the time we met. Winding Boy—“winding” like you wind a watch, I thought. He explained it was because of the walk he sort of put on, a hip swivel for the ladies. He was a dresser, had a diamond in a front tooth, but it was his piano playing he was known for. I had my own style, but I liked it considerable whenever I heard his. Which wasn’t all that often since he mostly played Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall by that time. Lulu wasn’t likely to let no nigger hang out with the swells. Why, a dark-skinned black man in a shiny suit in New Orleans—the Port of Missing Men—or anywhere in the South, took his life in his hands just to walk down the streets. Let alone to be putting on airs by expecting to be allowed in a tenderloin parlor with white folks.  The times I caught Jelly’s act he was playing for the Countess.

First time I saw him play Jelly asked me what the word “jazz” meant. He said some magazine he picked up in the train station depot had used the word. I told him I’d never heard it. I said the word out loud. Jelly said a magazine writer had given “jazz” as a Negro word meaning “particularly good sex.” He flashed a satin smile and we both laughed.

“Just like a white man to cheat us out’a namin’ our own music,” I said.

“Yeah, but it’s a good word. A good name for the music.”

“A white name for a thing black as you and me.”

It became our joke, mine and Jelly’s. Part of a shorthand sort of talk we used till we found a piano and could communicate with one another on a whole other level.

. . . . .

Countess Piazza had a mute white cockatoo she kept in a rosewood cage. The bird hadn’t always been mute. Its first month in the house it had talked up a storm, spouting obscenities and the nicknames of sports the girls talked about in their off hours. One afternoon the bird called out Madame Beelzebub! and the Countess took a shoe to it. The bird, named Mr. Roosevelt after Teddy Roosevelt, ceased speaking from that moment on.

I knocked on the rosewood door. Then I knocked again. The Countess didn’t often answer on the first or second knock and I could hear a raised voice the other side.

The door came open. A tall woman in a low-cut black dress was standing there before me, the diamond choker at her throat. Dressed like a suffragette-starlet, the Countess reminded me of Olga Nethersole, a Broadway vamp who scandalized the New York theatre in Sappho. The Countess was, however, her own one-woman production of Sappho.

Mr. Roosevelt preened himself in his cage to one side of the gaming wheel on the wall. The gaming wheel was a walnut wood circle with black numbers on alternating red, white and blue backgrounds. The wheel rested on the number nine, as it had from the day the Countess and I had hung it.

“What?” she asked.

Cherry was standing by a fireplace with black andirons. The room was perfumed by the fire behind the andirons. Cherry’s head was turned to the wall and a pair of rosewood-handled Colt revolvers in a display box of wood and glass. A gift from Wyatt Earp. The smaller woman slouched as if she might be trying to crawl inside herself and disappear.

I said, “I thought I might have a word with you.”

“Come in. I’m almost finished with Miss Tease the Renowned Cleric’s Nephew.”

I stepped into the large room. It was almost half of the whole second floor of the three-story house. The oak floor glowed darkly from the light of gas lamps. The room’s furnishings reflected my employer’s affection for rosewood. I walked over to an armchair of laminated and carved rosewood. The chair, done in a pattern the Countess had once said was commonly referred to as “cornucopia,” was rumored to have been stolen from the offices of Alderman Sidney Story who authored the Story ordinance creating the District. A second chair sat near a rosewood music cabinet I knew contained an Edison phonograph.

The Countess carried herself with authority which made you quickly decide to treat her with the respect she demanded. Mr. Roosevelt fluttered his white wings as the tall figure shadowed past his cage. The Countess’s hand searched for the choker as she walked.

Cherry turned toward the Countess as she approached her.

The Countess stopped a few feet from the whore and struck her.

“Do you understand me?” she said. The madam’s light-skinned face flushed.

Cherry didn’t cry but was smart enough to keep her gaze on the floor. Her cheek had reddened. It looked like flesh under a freshly broken blister.

“Now git.

I watched the bird’s tufted head follow Cherry as she walked from the room. With Cherry gone, the door closed, the Countess stepped to the mate of the chair I was sitting in.

She seated herself. Breathed. And breathed again. Then she smiled.

“Always the deliverer, Antonio. I wouldn’t have hurt her.”

I said, “No, I didn’t s’pose you would,” and waited for her to speak again. If I had trouble with small talk with most folks I found it almost impossible with the Countess. In the firelight her seen-everything-twice eyes were their own fire. Her bun of pinned-up blue-black hair looked lacquered. She reached in the bosom of the low-cut dress and pulled out a cigar. She chewed the end and spat a piece of tobacco. She reached over to one of a pair of ebony cherry pedestals for a match, which she took from a running gold tiger. She struck the match on the tiger’s backside and brought the flame to the end of the cigar. The lit end glowed and she waved the match-flame to a line of smoke.

When she exhaled, cigar smoke rose toward the tinned ceiling of the room.

“You wanted something else?” she said. She puffed the cigar as she spoke.

I told her I’d written a new piece of piano music, a song. I said it was bawdy. I made up a story about hearing a “wild earnestness” in the rhythms of horses hooves and carriage wheels on Basin Street. It was, I guess, a good story because she seemed to like it.

In those days, women were to be enjoyed; ladies were to be married. If I’d been pressed I’d have marked the Countess a bit of both. But whatever she was, she was royalty in a kingdom that counted among its subjects two thousand harlots in a sixteen-square-block area.

She said, “You’re welcome to try it on the sports when you feel the time’s right.”

“I want you to hear it before you make up your mind, Countess,” I said. “I honestly hope you won’t take offense because’a the title— I calls it ‘Rosewood Rag.’”

The Countess coughed smoke. Then she laughed. “I’m sure I’ll love it,” she said.

I had a tune, a new one, in ragtime tempo, I thought I might could snap up some.

I lied, “It’s lively. Full of what goes on in this house, ma’am—”

“The livelier the better.”

. . . . .

Most days, whores in the District slept till late in the afternoon. New Orleans was a loud town with calliope music and steamboat sounds and the constant racket of horse-and-carriage traffic raining down ‘round the clock. But there was an hour or two of let up in the heat of the day when only the cries of deliverymen like Meatball Charley would split the air with I gots sweet potatoes! I gots onions! Sporting women need their sleep. It wasn’t unusual to see one shake her titties at Charley from an open window and hear her shout down her own strings of I-gots: I gots your squirrel nuts in my hand and I’s ‘bout to squish ‘em! Which might be followed by a basinful of dirty water hurled, from on high, at the offending vendor.

I was always up before the whores. Part of my job as a greeter was to deal with deliveries—laundresses, apothecaries, coal men—and to see to payoffs, which I handled in daylight by answering the summoning of bagmen who collected on schedules as regular as clockwork. On any given day I would referee a squabble the madam didn’t need to be no part of and make sure the Trick Babies were cared for. Trick Babies are the result of Nature playing a surprise on a sporting woman and her getting pregnant. There were half a dozen of various ages living at the Countess’s around that time, all feisty little packages.

I might get in four hours of sleep and a couple of hours to practice my playing, but whatever I was doing at the moment was subject to constant interruption. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the knock at the door preceded the Renowned Cleric’s Nephew, Max James, blowing in the Basin Street front door like a hurricane. He was loud as the French Quarter at Mardi Gras and pushing his way past me. I slipped a cane from a rack by the parlor door.

Max James was very thin. So much so that his eyes looked sunken into a core-skull rather than a face. His clothes had the look of having been slept in. After taking in his appearance I thought the man had likely not been to bed from the night before. Drunk or ablaze with anger, as Mr. James clearly was, even an afterthought of a man can be a handful.

And I’d have hit him, a white man, was about to, but the Countess came swooping down from nowhere and took to slapping his chalky face. A couple whacks and it was clear, even at four in the afternoon, he was doped to the gills. I slipped her the horse head cane.

The Countess put his lights out with the ferocity of a plantation foreman.

I dragged him to the parlor and laid him out.  Then I sent someone for a cop.

The District was carnivorous and the One Who Fills the Room with the Promise of Sex was its steak. The Countess was, by that time, over forty.  But she still had looks could siphon the world away. Men stammered in her presence night in and night out. The policeman who came to collect Max James was by no means immune to the patchouli-wake followed her or the stirring red dress she filled out or the way the gaslights caught in the diamonds of her choker. He walked, dazed and compliant, behind her as if he too had been struck. He was her conquest by virtue of the fact their eyes had met. I was her statue, ready to croak out the whole story of how she had felled a man, a white man, with the down stroke of a cane. I trailed her and the policeman into the parlor.

Max James was attempting to sit up on a striped silk sofa.

“This is Mr. James,” she said as if he had become a curiosity and little more.

The policeman looked from her to Max James and back again. “On your feet, you.”

It was that simple: One minute Max James was a threat to the peace of 317 North Basin Street and the next he was being shown the front door. I know because I was the doorman slipped the constable a One Visit Free lilac-scented card he accepted and glanced at (and pocketed) without changing the rough, theatrical pace of his handling of Mr. James.

. . . . .

It was around four in the morning and I was at the piano picking out blues and ragtime tunes. Cherry came into the room. She was a whore for reasons known only to her and I was a piano player in a whorehouse because I had, at thirteen, fashioned a crude sort of harpsichord on which I played a hymn that a neighbor on Amelia Street, a saloon keeper, heard and liked enough to let me wash dishes for the privilege of practicing on a real piano, mornings before the saloon opened for business. I had banged out the notes of “How Sweet to Have a Home in Heaven” as if visits to and from Paradise were a daily occurrence on Amelia Street. Cherry smiled and said good night to a boarder with a black hat in his hand. She then walked over to the piano and stood, naked as the day she was born, beside the piano stool. Before I finished playing she leaned over my shoulder and whispered my name—Tony—and “I’d like it if you came up to my room.” I nodded like she had asked me for a match to light a cigarette. I knew not to follow her. Not in front of a handful of drunk white gents would take offense at the idea of a nigger getting him some under the same roof they got them some. I started in playing a song while she left the room, making out like Cherry had requested it. My hands weren’t tired and I spanked out a lively cadenced “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” snapping it up, though it was late and the few left in the room wouldn’t have known the difference if I’d played it as a dirge.

After the song, I picked up my pearl gray derby and excused myself.

I got to the door to Cherry’s room and tapped on the wood. She answered and held the door open for me. I stepped inside. Her room smelled of cigars and sweat and other things you come to expect in a whorehouse. All the lilac water and jasmine incense in the world can’t cover up the stink of men. The Countess once called it the smell of money.

Cherry closed the door and asked me if I wanted a drink of whiskey. I said “Sure,” and she went to a bureau and opened it and took out glasses and a bottle. She was still mostly naked but she had a sheer black drape over her shoulders. Cherry didn’t have a beautiful face. It would have been plain except for a glow she had when she turned it on you. It was a great asset for a whore. I knew the Countess was pleased with the sort of earner Cherry was. As it was she probably had her pick of the sports down in the parlor waiting. I tried not to think about Cherry’s power over men. It wasn’t like the control the Countess had, where she could handle a man like a horse, beat him whip-blind before he knew what hit him. Cherry’s power was a younger, softer version of the sheer force of personhood the Countess had. It occurred to me humiliation, the threat of it, had to fit in somewhere. Along with chasing the Almighty Dollar like a rag in a windstorm.

Cherry poured a drink. Another. Then she stoppered the bottle and picked up both glasses. She stepped toward me, giving me a face I hadn’t seen before.

“I wanted to thank you for what you did for me. With the Countess.”

I took the drink and watched her step to the bed and sit. She patted the sheet beside her, motioning for me to sit. I took a drink of whiskey then hung my hat on the bed and sat.

She took a swallow from her glass.

“And for what you did with Max James—handing her the cane. One of the others said she saw you.”

“What else was I going to do?” I took a drink, letting the whiskey do its work.

“Almost anything,” she said. “Nothing.”

I hadn’t had a woman in sometime and it was clear if I thought too hard about what was happening then it might not happen. I took another drink.

Cherry drained her glass then kissed me. I had watched this whore work a room of high rollers. I’d seen her with other men but suddenly I was in her company. I’d been invited in and offered a drink and gifted with a look said she was mine if I wanted her.

After she broke off the kiss I said, “You don’t have to thank me like this, you know. I get paid to watch out for you.”

“You get paid to play piano. Everything else is a kindness, or didn’t you know that? The others know it. The Countess knows it.”

“If you think that, maybe then that’s what it is,” I said.

I downed the last of the whiskey Cherry had poured for me.

Then I bent down and sat the empty glass on the floor. When I raised up, I kissed her. The kiss was hard, lacking in the small talk of most kisses I’d observed, and with it I had begun to deliver myself to that other falling down set in motion by a gesture of gratitude.

. . . . .

The next afternoon I was at the piano, mapping out a rhythm without a song to go with it. I wasn’t alone. One of the younger of the Trick Babies was clapping his hands. He was probably three. Cherry was watching him, though she wasn’t his mother. They sat side by side on the sofa where we had deposited the unconscious Max James the previous day. The child had on a smock-type garment appeared to have been a feed sack laundered until a portion of the roughness of the cloth had been taken out. His curly black hair was cut in bangs, stringing an archway around a face filling out its own dimensions with an out pour of smile. The Countess called him Randy, referring to his deceased mother’s excessive appetite for sex. I played one-handed, gliding the fingering, a thing I was known for, which made Randy clap his hands as soon as I was finished. He squealed, Do again, do again, Tony!

It being late autumn, the air as comfortable as it gets in the Delta, windows were open in the parlor.  Sweet jasmine and open sewers scented the breeze. I was starting in on another song, had played the first notes, when I heard a loud sound so close at hand that I couldn’t place at first. It might have been a whore, pissed off about something, in the entrance to the parlor slamming one of two heavy walnut doors. But it wasn’t that.  No one was near the doors. Then there were two more sounds—crack! crack!—and Cherry stood up on nearly steady feet and turned her back on me as if to attend to the child who sat, still, on the sofa. Before I could get to her Cherry fell in a heap at the feet of the boy. When I took hold of her and turned her over her eyes were open and big and looking at whatever she saw before the light went out of them for good.

The Countess found me, the chocolate skin of my hands covered in blood. She had hold of me, was lifting. I knew her other strengths but I remember thinking, She’s not strong enough to lift a grown man. Then I started to cry. I could feel I’d been expecting something.

. . . . .

I couldn’t bring myself to play at the funeral. Jelly Roll Morton, my friend, stood in for me. Everyone in the District had heard. They showed up to pay respects to one of their own and to a body in a smaller casket whose only offense was being born in a whorehouse.

The Countess had services in the parlor. A maid had scrubbed at the bloodstains and gotten up what she could. Whores from the dollar cribs on the lake side of Marais, between Conti and St. Louis streets, filed in. Lulu White was there. I don’t recall a lot about the day. The Countess served booze and I hit the bottle. Numb was what I was shooting for and it was what I got. But I broke down if someone so much as touched my shoulder.

Music had been my shield from monotony and loneliness but it couldn’t shield me from the ache. I knew Randy was in a better place. His life would have been hell: son of a whore and just enough dark blood to make him one of us forever.  But Cherry I saw as someone robbed. She likely wouldn’t have been lucky enough to wind up as well situated as the Countess or Lulu White but that was her dream. She had confessed as much the night before. And I knew she was saved from the slow death at least half the whores in the District knew they would someday see from disease, one of the costs of doing business.

After a time we loaded the bodies into the hearse for the short ride to St. Louis Cemetery No 1. I rode beside the Creole driver, a courtesy for a Negro man in those days. The Countess had made the arrangements and walked, with the others, beside the horses.

Balconies along Basin and Conti streets were packed with the women of the District. Some had their titties out. A few were naked and waved scarlet handkerchiefs.

. . . . .

The Countess called me in to see her a few days after Cherry and Randy were in the ground. She was smoking a cigar and offered me a drink. I told her I thought I’d pass on the drink. She then offered me a cigar, which was unusual for her. Mr. Roosevelt was showing off in his cage like he was glad to see me but I was feeling about the same hollow feeling I knew I’d have for a while, maybe a long while. I stood by the fireplace where I remembered Cherry had stood. A pitiful fire in the hearth had nearly burned itself out.

The Countess said she knew who had done the killings. She said it like she had discovered the secrets of powered flight or Edison’s phonograph.

“I was thinking I might have Max James killed,” she said.

“What for?” I said and looked down.

I kept looking down.

“Isn’t that what you want?  It’s what I want.  Someone should shoot the bastard.”

Then, plain as day, I thought I heard: Do again, Tony!

The voice had a low quality like the notes of a trumpet played with a mute cup.

I’m sure I expected to hear it again, but the room was quiet.

I looked in the direction of the Countess. Her face was a map I couldn’t read.

She said, “Jelly Roll would look you dead straight in the eye like that.”

I stared at the floor the way a sporting woman does when she’s been slapped and knows there’s not a thing she can do about it. Another man would have said a bird had made him consider that we might be more than wayfaring strangers. Bags of sadness and plantation-white bones spawned by a big-enough God. I had chills running up my spine. I wasn’t crying but I was sure I would be any minute. I wanted to get back to being able to hold back such shows. I knew that to be a day some ways off. I had always taken a great pleasure in being a man who could control a few things—notes to a song, the traffic of swells in and out of a room, my reaction to being called boy or shine or worse. I needed that about the way a dope fiend needs fixed. Everyone is hoping to feel safe somewhere. And if you can’t feel safe in the world you move about in—say, the streets of a city in the South—then your world has to shrink a little. Maybe to the size of a house or a room in that house.

Cherry or no Cherry, this was the world I’d grown accustomed to, had lived in, and I knew I’d live in it a while longer. I looked up. I said, “Will that be all, ma’am?”

The Countess looked at Mr. Roosevelt then at me as cigar smoke rose toward the tinned ceiling in a cloud that winged upward until it might as well have been ceiling. She didn’t have anything else to say, not at that moment and neither did I. What else was there to say? I left her and went to the piano to pick out a few tunes before traffic started up again.

“How Sweet to Have a Home in Heaven” first appeared in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. Used with permission of the author.

Roy Bentley About Roy Bentley

Roy Bentley is the author of Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama Press), Any One Man (Bottom Dog Books), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine Press), and Starlight Taxi (Lynx House Press). A new book, Walking with Eve in the Loved City, has been selected by Billy Collins as a finalist for the 2018 Miller Williams Poetry Prize and will be publlshed in the spring of 2018 by the University of Arkansas Press. Work from that collection has appeared in Shenandoah, Pleiades, Rattle, Blackbird, The Southern Review, and elsewhere.

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