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All photos copyright 2003 by Eddie Vela unless otherwise noted.
1958 - 2007
Natchez stands on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Strong old oak and pecan trees shade antebellum, three-story mansions and spread leafy canopy over all else. Natchez was the soul of the South before the Civil War, a character it retained in keeping with the times. Peacefully coexisting downtown were the KKK storefront, the Sheriff's office, the "Bi-Racial Lounge," and Miss Nellie Jackson's whorehouse.
Nellie's was a tidy, ordinary-looking home, white with red awnings, perched on an elevated corner lot. The wood-frame house was spacious with five bedrooms, the kitchen and back door at the left rear corner of the house. A few steps out the back door brought you to a cement courtyard almost wide enough for turning your car around.
Most mornings, lingerie hung on the clothesline strung across a corner of the courtyard. Behind the courtyard was a two-story building, formerly servants' quarters and nearly as large as the house itself. It contained a two-car garage and a bedroom downstairs. Upstairs were two more rooms, one over the garage, another one above the ground-floor room and overlooking the courtyard and house below. My room.
They were mostly normal women, some with college degrees. They expected to settle down with a special man. If you were that man, your middle-class family probably would approve as long as you didn't detail her career—if she ever told you in the first place. Most girls opted not to. What follows are vignettes I hope will give the reader a feel for life at Miss Nellie's. I have altered names and some locations for privacy.
Meeting Miss Nellie
After spartan nights in the watch quarters by the river, a senior enlisted man finally found lodging for me. Petty Officer First Class Weld was a veteran of Korea and Vietnam. To me he resembled a bear with less fur. He had a thick brown beard and tattoos on his dark arms. He took me under his wing for equal parts training and amusement, I think, in the way of the military since before recorded history. Upholding another tradition, no one pronounced my Spanish surname "Vela" correctly. They said it like "Veela," but it's closer to "VEH - lah."
The $70 monthly rent would later mean I sometimes went without food the last few days of each pay period, but I was glad for a place to live. Weld drove me in the government van to a nice-looking home in downtown Natchez on a payday. I remember it clearly. Weld glanced at me. "It's at Miss Nellie's."
"She's an old black lady. She has a lot of girls. Do you like girls?"
"Yes. I really appreciate this. Thank you."
"No problem. You'll have a lot of sisters. Yep. You have sisters in Texas, right?"
I nodded. "How many girls does she have?"
"Four or five, sometimes more. Some of them are adopted. Yep, adopted."
"Oh. Good for her," I said, imagining a foster mother. "How does she support them? I'll do whatever I can to help."
"They're working girls. They make their own money."
We rolled into the courtyard. Weld hopped out and disappeared behind the screen door leading to the kitchen. I followed with my 65-lb sea bag that pretty much shoved 138-lb me wherever it wanted to go. Weld gestured me to the kitchen table, solid oak and big enough for six chairs.
There she was by the sink, a heavy, 60-ish woman with skin the color of milk chocolate. She wore a loose, white, flower-print sundress. Nellie Jackson was about 5' 7" but seemed taller when bearing down on a chiseling customer or out-of-line girl. She wore thick-rimmed glasses having round frames with a sky-blue & silver inlay of the type popular with college girls today. She had pink plastic curlers in her collar-length straightened hair. Her belly competed with her drooping breasts for most-forward.
She dried her hands with a dish towel and watched my wrestling match with the sea bag—a victor was likely any moment.
"This is Veela," Weld said, then waved at me and looked down at the table. I mistook his downcast gaze as deference to her.
I stood still and offered my hand, "I'm pleased, to meet you, Ma'am."
"Nice to meet you, young man."
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you for letting me have a room. If I can help y'all with anything at all, I'd be happy to. Please don't hesitate to ask."
The adopted daughters, five of them, filed in and draped themselves on chair, table and countertop. Cut-offs, a short skirt that might also be a wide belt, tube-top, bikini top, muslin décolléte and wispy chemise. They were: Jackie, Cherry, Linda, Belle and Yvonne. Most remarkable was Cherry, a petite, freckled 26-year-old woman with blue eyes and long blonde hair who looked annoyed at my instant teen-crush glances. And Linda.
Linda was about 5' 9" with brunette hair naturally full, loosely curled. With sun backlighting it looked like tendrils of port wine. Linda wore cut-offs—cut off at about crotch-level for her perfect long legs of smooth, light tan complexion. Below the peasant-girl top her exposed midriff was thicker than the other girls'. Her waist and thighs had the merest beginnings of the cottage-cheese coup d'etat that overthrows many women's midsections. She was the heaviest of the lot, also oldest and most confident. Linda usually gave her name as Rachel. More about her later.
I must explain, it just seemed like good manners—new person at the house, everyone comes around to meet him. There were ten "House Rules" posted on the wall over the table, having to do with taking turns for laundry and dishes and other chores. It reminded girls and guests they were on the honor system in their rooms. Also, girls "...will not fight over guests. The guest's decision is final."
This seemed about right for a large family, to me. Some big families have lists of house do's and don't's for the kids and their endless stream of friends. I thought Nellie's family very courteous, though my mom would have gutted my sisters for wearing clothes like that.
"Can I help you up the stairs, ma'am?" I offered.
"No thank you. Do you want me to help you with that bag? Yvonne! Come help with this bag!"
"No ma'am, it's lighter than it looks."
Halfway up the flight it pinned me against the handrail and tried to push me down the stairs, forcing me back several steps. I heaved it up crab-wise one step at a time. I hoped the girls didn't see that.
Entering the room, I saw a huge bed to my left. A few feet from the foot of the bed a window overlooked the railroad tracks below which paralleled Monroe Street. A box window fan spun slowly, driven only by afternoon heat. There was a sliver of a kitchen to my right just off the bedroom. The kitchen hung over the courtyard about four feet and the beams sagged threateningly each time I entered it. Nellie waved off my fears of riding a kamikaze kitchen into the courtyard. "There ain't nothing wrong with it, Ed. Mmm-hmm."
I had been at Nellie's about two weeks. A Saturday evening, hot and damp. I sat on the edge of a bed that was far older than I was, attempting chords on an Epiphone guitar I still own. Then several things happened.
The room below began broadcasting very loud mattress spring squeaks into the courtyard and up into my room. A girl's voice followed, "Oooh, you're good!"
A man's muffled voice sounded, into a pillow perhaps.
She answered, "I can't do it again unless you pay first."
Pillow man asked a question to which she replied, "House rules. I know you'll pay after, I trust you, and I really want to, but you have to pay before."
The pillow was impatient.
"Yes, we have condoms, a dollar, unless you have your own."
More pillow talk.
"You left your wallet in the house? We have to go back and pay Nellie first. I'll go with you."
The door opened downstairs.
I resumed torturing my guitar, smashing a diminished-seventh chord that the laziest cicada in Natchez could have managed stone drunk. Suddenly my bed rocked me backwards, my feet in the air, I was on my back with the guitar neck on my throat.
"Yaaaaaahh!" I screamed.
It was Linda. She had dropped herself onto the other side of my bed. I hadn't heard her approach, although my door was open for air. She was wearing a black negligee. I flailed and scooted backwards across the bed, then sat on the edge near the headboard. "Sorry, honey," she laughed, cigarrette smoke puffing my way. "I'm on break." She walked round the corner of the bed. She squeezed her hips between the bedpost and mine. She patted my left thigh absently, fingers falling lightly over my penis.
I was terrified. If she was aware of my silent hysteria, she did not show it, but she exhaled the next cloud away from my face. "Put this out for me." She handed me her cigarette butt. She gripped the tall bedpost with both hands and writhed until her back popped. "Oooh. That's better." She rose to leave. "Just taking a quick break. Don't tell Nellie. Got two more down there," she nodded toward the house.
My wide eyes absorbed every detail as she walked out. She moved in three directions at once, a walking symphony.
Darkness crowded my field of vision like a tunnel—I had forgotten to breathe. For the duration of my stay, I was all curiosity and questions. I wanted to fit in.
Linda's Summer Vacation
Linda was 32, a CPA from Jackson with three children and a husband who thought she was visiting relatives on her summer vacations. She (and probably the other girls) used my room for short breaks from Nellie's supervision on busy nights—though Linda was the only one who did so while I was actually in the room. Linda did some work on Nellie's accounts and got a better cut than the other girls, she said.
She was patient (mostly) with my naive questions that must have seemed occasionally puritanical.
"I'm gonna call you Martin," she said one evening.
"Martin Luther King, Jr. Because every time I see you, you say, 'I have a question.'"
She saw from my face I didn't understand. She explained, "Martin Luther King gave the speech about Negro equality? You know? He said, 'I have a dream.'"
And it was Martin as often as Eddie. Martin if she was about to tease me, or "in a mood," meaning a contrary mood.
Linda said she enjoyed hooking. She liked the money and the sex was "...OK. Most of 'em aren't near as good as they think they are." As manager of her Jackson accounting and auditing office she made a lot by middle-class standards. More than her husband, she said. I gathered Linda thought him imperceptive at least, inattentive for sure, without the remotest glimmer that her vacations were working vacations in a whorehouse.
It wasn't that she wanted to spare her husband the suffering that her moonlighting would cause him, she said. If he were her only consideration, she said, "I'd give him the gory details and show him some Polaroids." But that would have cost her in a divorce and especially her three children (Mississippi lacked no-fault divorce at the time).
My vantage over the courtyard showed me every pickup full of anxious men, every VIP in a limousine, every good-bye kiss for a favored customer. This when I wasn't in the house itself doing an odd job for Nellie, or pretending to.
Window-shoppers comprised about a third of guests. They were curious but imagined themselves adventurers. They usually had several $1 beers or other refreshment while waiting for the bold among them to return from a back room. They always arrived in groups, frequently drunk already. It was always the window-shopper who thought himself so charming he could get laid for free. I thought the girls were very patient with them.
Nellie said she tolerated it partly for the alcohol and soda sales and mostly because about half the timid ones returned for real "especially after they get married."
Nellie favored big-spenders. Weld, who'd helped me get the room, was an atypical guest being both unmarried and a regular visitor. Nellie said more kind words about Weld than most clients. I soon found out why.
I had gone into the house one Friday evening to complete some minor errand for Nellie. On my way out I heard voices in Nellie's bedroom, my intended exit path to the back door. But no sound came from the door to the right, an alternate egress. I opened it.
I saw three naked bodies: A man on his back in bed. Cherry was on top, riding him, pumping her hips back-and-up, forward-and-down. Alice, a loud, friendly, dark-skinned black girl was perched legs spread on the man's face. Her right thigh blocked his view toward me in the doorway.
Cherry glanced at me, but didn't miss a stroke, "Him, too, Weld?"
A sound like "fffoof" from beneath Alice.
Alice raised slightly, he peered from behind her ass at me, then resumed his position. "Goddammit Veela," he said, "this is my $300 and I'm underway tomorrow. You go get your own. Better bring you some training wheels, too." He dragged Alice down again.
I apologized and shut the door with Alice roaring, "Training wheels!"
VIPs had the place to themselves for hours. All other guests were respectfully requested over the driveway gate to return later. Nellie prided herself on VIP business, telling me what office they held and who among the VIP's peers also "spent money on the girls." If the limo had government plates she'd point it out.
Her friendly relationship with the law appeared curious, but turned out to be the rule for her line of work. Weld said she'd jointly invested with a top county law official in several properties. About once a month city police responding to Nellie's call would remove some drunken boors from the house. These idiots, too, always ran in packs. There was the girl Nellie caught with stolen items, for a second time, and was given the free ride to jail in cuffs.
Some lawmen were regular customers. This arrangement appears to be common for up-scale brothels, a best and comparable example being the Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas. New York Madam Xaviera Hollander wrote that her operation depended on regular police bribes. A prominent judge or lawyer—satisfied clients, she wrote—averted serious trouble for her several times. However, nothing suggested to me a payoff arrangement at Nellie's.
Nellie enforced a peculiar apartheid. She allowed no black men as customers.This stunned me, believing as I did the equality rhetoric of my school books. I thought that sort of discrimination had disappeared, at least for cash-customer purposes. Nellie explained that if word got out blacks were customers, she would lose her white regulars. "It's not right. No sir," she said, "but I got to think about my girls, too."
Nellie Jackson said she was from Possum Corner, a canebrake and live oak thicket in a remote bend of the Homochitto River in Wilkinson County, just south of Natchez. Her deep Delta dialect most evident in saying "woiking," "foist" and "choich" for working, first and church. While the girls all called me "Eddie," Nellie always called me "Ed," or just "young man." Nellie visited Possum Corner with her husband every few months. She said she had been a hooker when she was younger.
She chiefly referred to her employees as "the girls," infrequently used the term "hooker," and only once that I recall, "prostitute," for a slow-as-Christmas guest. The slang "ho" would not emerge for another decade.
Her husband was a short, stout white man 15 years her junior and with a receding hairline. As a cook on a Gulf Coast offshore oil rig he made comparatively good money that he and Nellie invested together. It was the second marriage for both.
"Everybody thinks we have a million dollars," he once complained after a relative asked for a loan. "We don't. We only have about $800,000." (About $7 million in 2003 dollars).
His job meant he was out most of the time, three weeks on the water then one week at home. He described his marriage to Nellie as a "business marriage," but they slept (as in sleep) together and were at least sometimes visibly affectionate. His 16-year-old daughter visited during school breaks.
"Momma don't know this is a whore house," she confided. "I'm not gonna tell her. Dad said if I do I might never get to see him. Hell, I don't care. I like it better here than with her."
Nellie was a businesswoman first and a strict accountant, also first. She inventoried items stored in "my" refrigerator or had me do it for her. She fussed at me if I fell asleep with the light on. In dead, hot summer nights she sometimes cut off the breaker to the whole back building if I left the window fan on so I could sleep. She threatened to charge me extra for electricity if I didn't turn the fan off. She was generous (comparatively) with me but this thing about the fan was a persistent idiosyncrasy. She had several air conditioners in her house; I had a lone window fan. Damn.
No girl of Nellie's was less expensive than a dollar a minute; some like Cherry were more. By-the-minute rates applied if, for whatever reason, no orgasms directly due to the girl occurred. The most usual charges were calculated by the orgasm, $75 being the least expensive, regular intercourse sort. Escorts to dinner or other public functions amortized at a rate lower than $1/minute but always amounted to several hundreds. Nellie arbitrated the fees.
Nellie's husband claimed he was awed by her ability to spot a girl working an unreported second orgasm. Nellie said she was sure she'd missed a few, but that girls who might try to do this tried to cheat on other things, too, like chores and stealing other girls' food. She knew how much to expect in income over time from each. "They hold out, they stand out," she said.
Nellie fed everyone two meals daily. She routinely loaned the girls money at no interest, though she expected it back right quick, and she kept them from physical harm. She sold beer at $1each, 50¢ sodas and some liquor. She had a jukebox, 25 cents a play.
She attended Catholic mass every Sunday morning. She dressed nicely in a formal skirt and jacket with a pillbox hat and gloves. This was the only time I saw her wear nylons, hairs matted down or poking out like springs. During my first many weeks she awakened me and offered a ride to "choich." I declined the first time and pretended not to waken thereafter until she quit asking.
Baseball: Nellie told a reporter in 1985 that she used to travel to LA Dodgers games, followed the team from the time they were in Brooklyn and Flatbush. I personally recall her leaving to see games. She had penants and ballcaps from the team in the house.
Stud and Muffin
Most of my shipmates pressed me for details about the carnal frontiers I was surely exploring. They urged me to somehow get them in on our enlisted men's budgets. They had heard of Cherry, the elfin blonde, and fired ranging shots at me about her.
I knew nothing about sex beyond the frustrating high-school date sort, let alone sex with hookers. But I longed to tell great, manly stories. It wasn't ethics holding me back; it was fear of certain failure. So I was honest. I told them I was a little scared of the girls. I didn't think they would give Jesus Christ a discount, I said. Although Jesus probably wouldn't try to use his influence to get one, I added.
They didn't believe me, any of it.
Linda sat Indian-style on a bench below the stairs leading up to my room. She wore a black bikini top and cutoffs, her right hand resting on her perfect leg, lazy curls of cigarette smoke wandering up in front of her long, curly hair.
"Introduce me," Riley whispered as we approached.
"Hey, Linda ," I hailed from 20 feet. Casually, I thought.
"Martin," she answered. Riley glanced sidewise at me, but did not ask. She scanned Riley. Twice. "Whatcha doin' boys?"
"Linda, this is Riley," I gestured to Riley, "we work together. He's a Fireman. Riley, this is Linda - um ... " Good manners require one making introductions to mention some pleasant talking point about each introduced person, such as their job or a hobby they might have in common. I blanked out on Linda. I couldn't say she was really a married accountant. That was confidential. Saying she was a hooker didn't seem, well, polite.
To my relief, they immediately ignored me.
The conversation went like this: Riley made a few jokes about "servicemen's discounts." Linda said there wasn't any. They made small talk, Linda learned that Riley's wife was out of town, Riley discovered Linda was herself married and from out-of-town.
"Just like your wife," she said, waiting for the verbal grenade to go off in his head.
" Holy shit. Man, that's wild, " he laughed. He alternated between pretend-hoping his wife made some money and swearing she would never do such a thing.
"You're funny," Linda said, "These guys, they're all married, they all think their wives would never. I don't mean just hooking. They think their wives wouldn't step out."
"All your guys are married?"
"Ninety-nine percent of them."
"I been married two years. I can see where that might be," he said.
"Why?" I asked.
"Well, Martin," Linda answered, "you get tired of the same piece of ass. Too many women think their pussies are made out of gold; they're special princesses. They got the only pussy in the world. Or the old lady won't give you none, or she won't do blowjobs."
"It's boring," she said. "I'm married eleven years now. We got a nice house, four bedrooms. We got three cars. It's so fucking boring, the same old shit."
"What about your old man? Riley asked.
"What about him?" she said. "I don't care what that bastard thinks. He don't do much around the house. He hardly sits with the kids. Sits on his fat ass and watches TV."
"Do you love him?" Riley asked.
Linda gave an undecided-sounding "Mmmm." After a moment she said, "We did. Love each other. I think deep down he loves me. Me too. But I'd leave him if I could afford it. Shit, I hope he files for divorce."
While we were talking, Cherry had walked out into the courtyard smoking a cigarette. She was wearing a white leather miniskirt and a white midriff muslin top draped over firm breasts. Her long straight hair cascaded over her right shoulder, flowed down one breast and parted above a pink nipple. Nellie sent her out to see about business, she said. Cherry stood hip to one side and listened without reaction to Linda's golden pussy exposition.
"Are you married, too?" Riley asked Cherry.
"Do you have a boyfriend?"
"Goddamn, you must have someone you like? You haven't met anybody here that you like?"
"Shit, I don't care about any of these people. I don't love no one except my man."
"My man. I love him. He's good to me. He's about the only person I trust. He is the only person I trust. I guess he's like my boyfriend."
Guests chose Cherry most often. Men fawned over her. They strutted, hoping to evoke a sign of genuine interest, I think. Of the twenty-five or so girls who passed through while I was there, Cherry best fit the damaged-soul-hard-life cliché favored by TV writers and crusading DAs. There was no smile in her eyes. I sensed a prematurely old, cold spirit in her young, firm body.
"How old are you?" Riley asked Cherry.
"How old do you think I am?" Cherry replied.
"I was going to say 19."
"You look like you could be a high school cheerleader."
"I get that a lot. Y'all here to spend some money?" she said to both of us.
"Naw, we're gettin' underway to a bar," Riley said. "You want to come with us?"
"Have to work," Cherry turned on the ball of her foot and went back in.
Riley returned to prices and homed in on a blow-job ($50) as something he could afford. "Can you do it right here?" he asked, meaning right there on the bench.
"Against the rules," Linda said and led him to the door behind us, the room beneath my bedroom.
I went upstairs to change clothes before going out. I heard simultaneously Riley's "Oww! Shit!" and Linda's laugh, then nothing. Linda later said Riley "never shuts up." He made her laugh, and she accidentally bit him. It was Riley's favorite sea-story for months.
Living at the town whorehouse drew skepticism from every possible direction, especially from potential girlfriends. I learned not to tell them too soon where I lived. Even my shipmates did not fully believe I led a life devoid of their fantasies. Lucky me.
Cheryl Ann was a 17-year-old Natchez Adams High School Senior. She had long wavy pecan-colored hair reaching to her shoulder blades and that she tamed to a graceful inward curl at the ends. She was slender and strong, had lovely wide eyes of aquamarine streaked with silvery gray. Her eyes reminded me of open Gulf waters in high seas.
We trusted each other. Her parents seemed truly to like me so things went very well. Except for some tiny doubt about Nellie's. Cheryl was not allowed "over there" for any reason. Like villagers near Dracula's castle, her folks wouldn't utter the name.
After many months it was just home to me. And by this time, Cheryl's curiosity was an itch only a visit to my place at Nellie's could scratch. So a week in advance of The Visit we planned a complicated date designed to confuse all pursuit. Curiosity aside, Cheryl made me promise about 30 times that we wouldn't actually go inside Nellie's house for any reason.
The summer evening sky deepened blue as Cheryl and I walked hand-in-hand up the side drive into the courtyard.
A loud wolf-whistle from the dark of the courtyard door made me jump.
My fear of a drunken customer was replaced by the reality of Alice opening the screen door to whistle again. She was more dressed than usual—tan culottes, a red tube-top and sandals. The girls had not yet slipped into work clothes. "Hey, " she called.
"Hi Alice," I answered, giving off my strongest not-talking vibes.
"Well, come here, introduce us," she said, following us into the courtyard. I wheeled us around, reminding myself there was no excuse for bad manners.
I liked Alice best of all, better than Linda. Nearly 6-feet tall, Alice was friendly, always had a big smile and a loud hello for me. She wouldn't let me pass by in a cloudy mood—especially not. I brought her single-stem flowers (sometimes yanked from a neighbor's flower bed) when I was in a good mood.
The flowers! My God! What if she said something?
"Cheryl, this is Alice. She's from Biloxi."
"Alice, this is my girlfriend Cheryl."
Alice bent at the waist a little to put her face near ours. She held out both hands to Cheryl. "How you, honey? Nice to meet you." She patted Cheryl's clasped hand. "He's a good boy. Real sweet. You take good care of him."
"Yes, Ma'am," Cheryl said, mostly apprehension in her voice.
Alice called over her shoulder to the house and most of the Eastern United States, "Linda! Miss Nellie!"
No answer from inside. After a bit of small-talk, she said, "They prob'ly busy. Y'all stop by before you go."
Cheryl and I climbed the stairs to my room, me pointing out historical markers like the squeaky bedspring room below. She was mute. Normally a fire-hose-stream of commentary, she was now all eyes and ears.
When we returned to the courtyard Linda was sitting on the bench beneath the stairs. She was wearing her jean cutoffs and the white peasant-girl midriff blouse. I perspired unseasonably, hoping Linda was not "in a mood."
"Hi Linda," I called, towing Cheryl toward her.
"Hey Martin," she said. Cheryl glanced at me, "Martin?" in her eyes. I made introductions.
"You're the Cheryl he talks about. Nice to meet you."
"I'm pleased to meet you, Linda."
"You been over here before? I haven't seen you around."
"Daddy would skin me alive if he knew I was here, " Cheryl said, rolling her eyes. "Ground me for life."
"Why? We don't bite, 'less you want. Hell, he's probably been here hisself."
Cheryl put her hand to her mouth. Linda could make you doubt the law of gravity.
"I don't know. He just doesn't think it's safe," Cheryl said.
Cheryl switched topics, "I like your top. It's real cute."
"Thanks. Got it at Nieman's in Dallas."
"So, uh ... so, do you work here?" Cheryl asked.
Linda looked from me to Cheryl and back. "You don't talk about me, Martin?" she teased.
"His name is Eddie," Cheryl said sharply.
Linda exhaled smoke from the corner of her mouth and considered Cheryl. "It's a joke." Linda said, "I call him Martin 'cause he always says 'I have a question,' " like Martin Luther King, you know, 'I have a dream'?"
Cheryl laughed a small "ha."
"That's him, " she said.
"Yeah, honey, I work here, " Linda said.
"How do y'all know what to do? Is there a, uh, a class or something?"
Linda understood Cheryl's question beyond the words.
"You learn as you go, " she answered. "Do what comes natural."
That Cheryl and I could only guess about "natural" did not immediately occur to Linda. We assumed like most that desire guaranteed skill. That it all should "just happen."
"At first it's kind of unpredictable," Linda said. "I got sore."
Linda answered Cheryl's expression. "Your pussy, well, your vagina, gets sore, hon. You use some lubrication before, you know, Albolene or something."
"Does doing it a lot make it get looser?" Cheryl whispered.
"It does if you don't use it. Like your ass stays firm if you run and flabby if you don't."
Linda screened her mouth with one hand for Cheryl's benefit.
"Big things are OK, but they're soft. Too little is too little and too big is too big and everything in between is all right. What you want is hard."
Then Cheryl wanted to go into the house.
We opened the screen door and found Nellie in the kitchen occupied with preparations for the evening rush. She was wearing only an expensive-looking white silk bra and a modest-length silk slip. She stopped loading beers in the icebox when she saw Cheryl. She made us sit at the table. I don't recall Nellie's exact words, but they were kind, especially considering we'd been arguing about the electricity bill earlier. She fixed Cheryl an iced tea. Nellie then called Cherry to show "Ed's girl" the house.
Cherry was Nellie's Lieutenant and acting Madam during Nellie's absence. She made the trains run on time, but appeared to lack Nellie's insight as to how far somebody could be trusted. Cherry distrusted all equally.
She gave us the standard newcomers' tour. She walked the rooms pointing to the same antiques and paintings Nellie's husband always showed. She and Cheryl locked eyes several times. Not in challenge, more like in comprehension. Cheryl's gift was her ocean-deep, probing gaze. Nellie's girls, who literally feared no man, later told me they liked her for it.
Cherry escorted us back to the kitchen. We three joined Nellie, Alice and Linda at the table. Nellie again took up the electric bill with me. The girls, including Cheryl, shared a tumbler of sweet white wine between them. They chatted while I "yes, ma'amed" Nellie.
Something passed between Cheryl and Nellie's girls that evening I could not define. Although I later asked her about it, and she explained it in different ways, her new understanding stayed forever behind her eyes.
Cheryl's encounter with the girls seemed to unlock something inside her, like the flick of a latch on a large cage. Her renewed affection startled me with its strength; it was better than bourbon and lifted me off the ground. We engaged a few weeks after her trip to Nellie's and set a wedding date for the summer after her graduation, seven months away.
I do not know the end of the story for Cheryl and I. It might be the same as it has always been for so many servicemen. I was reassigned to a remote, wild area of the equatorial Pacific to chase Communist radio signals. After more than a year of waiting, Cheryl had the sense to go on with her life and sent me a letter beginning, "Dear John." She was making fun of the joke, but was really saying with only those two words that our relationship, too, had become another casualty.
The end for Miss Nellie began as midnight neared July 4, 1990. The stream of holiday customers had slowed to a few stragglers. The last was too drunk and she turned him away. Nellie waved the 20-year-old man back out the kitchen doorway, the girls lined up with her like they were all herding a stray. It was Daniel Breazeale, an honor-roll psychology student at the University of Mississippi, he was a neighbor from two blocks down. About four hours later, he returned to Nellie's silent household with a can of gasoline, according to police and newspaper accounts.
Nellie rarely opened the porch front door—it was a nuisance with its three locks—but she did so that night. Daniel soaked the 87-year-old Madam, himself, the porch and the entryway before igniting it all. Nellie died July 11th having never left the hospital. Same for Daniel who died eight weeks later.
There were several hundred people at her funeral, some wearing the "Follow me to Nellie's" T-shirts thay had bought from Nellie, according to newspaper accounts. The fire was front-page news in regional newspapers and in the Clarion-Journal, paper-of-record for the Delta, which carried at least six more stories concerning the brothel in the following year.
Those who like to settle eternal accounts for others ahead-of-time might see her death by fire as a biblical hearse to her home in the hereafter. Some Natchez preachers are said to have expressed delight from their Sunday lecterns at this work of the Lord, right here, right now, say hallelujah.
Those who must settle accounts as best they can with what they know saw a woman whom they respected and admired. Those people included notably the county sheriff, the police chief, the former mayor, some clergy, and me.
I was for my part only a cricket in Nellie's garden of Venus, not one of her many well-tended flowers or their frequent visitors. If you'll excuse my speaking for all crickets, flowers and their admirers, I hope the godess of love sends us more gardeners like Nellie very soon and somewhere nearby.
For more information on Nellie Jackson see Clarion-Ledger articles:
Following his honorable discharge, Eddie Vela earned Baccalaureates in
Physics, Mathematics and Journalism from the University of Texas.
He wrote for the Dallas Morning News and other major news organizations
for several years before becoming a medical software engineer.
He continues to write at his current home on the Pacific Ocean in San
Following his honorable discharge, Eddie Vela earned Baccalaureates in Physics, Mathematics and Journalism from the University of Texas. He wrote for the Dallas Morning News and other major news organizations for several years before becoming a medical software engineer. He continues to write at his current home on the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco.