Miss Ruby was just about the nicest old lady I've ever known, and that was why I stayed with her. It got to where she didn't hardly ever use the other boys, except once in a while to break in a new fellow on the job.
I got to know all about her. She told me she was Texas-raised, on a hardscrabble ranch where, according to her, the cattle were leaner than the coyotes, and twice as mean. It come about, the year she was eighteen, her folks were killed in an automobile accident, right after oil had been struck on their land. Overnight, Miss Ruby had become an orphan and what you might call wealthy, if not downright rich. She didn't have to run the Liberated Lady for a living; it was only a means of keeping her hand in with her main interests in life, gambling and people.
"I perform a real service," she told me. "On the Liberated Lady, these women can let their hair down and just have a good time, not only gambling away their money, but by taking advantage of one of you nice boys - or just thinking about it, if that suits them."
She told me how she herself had gone hog-wild at eighteen with all that money. First it was gambling in Nevada, then sporting clubs in London, England, and afterward that place in Europe called Monte Carlo that everybody talks about all the time as being just the finest gambling in the world. In between, it was racetracks all over the world; she didn't miss a big race, and having her bet down.
"I used up much of the money; after all, there was more coming out of the ground every day," she told me. "But I had my fun doing it. Why, when I was thirty, I had my very own gigolo, a Frenchman who not only knew all there was to making love, but could also cook and serve a wonderful meal. He stayed with me ten years, until he had saved enough money to go home, marry his childhood sweetheart, and start raising a family."
Finally she had come home to the United States because the wells weren't pumping as much as they used to; besides, she had pretty much burned out her own personal gambling fever. So she moved to New Orleans, where for several years she lived the life of a lady of leisure.
How she got into the gambling-boat business, she had a chance to buy a nice boat on the cheap, from a fellow who had gone broke, and she used it, at first, to take her society friends out for a weekend on the Gulf, you know, just to drink and dance and fish and swim and have themselves a time. At first it was men and women, but she soon found out that people were likely to get drunk, and get in bed with other men's wives, all such chancy doings as that.
"Along about then, I began paying attention to this new movement called women's lib," Miss Ruby told me most thoughtfully. "I got awfully interested. One day it occurred to me there wasn't any reason in the world why women couldn't go out on a cruise, say, and just have themselves a good time without their men around to spoil it. Men do it all the time, don't they? Hunting and fishing in all-male groups, going to conventions where they'll screw any little chippie they can lay their hands on, and it's all just fine and dandy - the wives are supposed to be understanding and forgiving . . . or at best, pretend they don't know what's going on. What's sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, I decided; one day, when we pulled out from the marina, the ladies were surprised to find there were no men aboard - except two handsome lads I had hired for crew."
"It was a marvelous success. But, to my own surprise, they were most interested in gambling, not sex. We hadn't cleared the breakwater before bridge was going for high stakes, and one group was down on their knees shooting craps."
She kept the cruises going, the first had been so successful. One day a friend told her, "Ruby, I simply wait in suspense every weekend, hoping you'll invite me again. I wish I could volunteer to be your guest whenever I like - especially when my husband's out of town."
Which gave Miss Ruby to think. She traded the boat in on a larger one, which was the Liberated Lady, and let it be known quietly amongst her lady friends that they could come along anytime they wanted to, since it was now a commercial proposition. From that day she had never lacked for a full passenger list, glad and able to pay their way.
Miss Ruby was just a bighearted woman. Those nights when me and her would get all cozied up in her purple stateroom, it wasn't all just banging each other - though she took her gusto in that, too, let me tell you, like getting in bed with a Texas bronc - but for hours at a time we'd lay together and talk. That's when she told me all about herself; then, surprisingly enough, she'd tell me about me. She paid attention, you see, though never prying into a person's private life.
I reckon I talked more to Miss Ruby than any nice lady I'd ever met, even including charlotte Ainsley. I told her about my old ladies, how I felt about them, and once or twice got to wondering out loud why I couldn't seem to get to first base with a girl of my age - or want to, for that matter. I hadn't ever in my life, I told her, taken a date to a school dance or a football game.
Miss Ruby was so loving and friendly, at times I felt moved to talk to her about Billy, my twin brother who had died of a fever when me and him were nine years old. I didn't ever quite do it; I hadn't talked to anybody about Billy since the day I watched him get buried. It wasn't that I didn't want to. I just didn't know the words to use, how he was always with me, making it necessary to live every day for Billy as well as for myself. When I got to feeling like that, I'd put my head on her breast, my arms around her big, strong body, and hold her tight whilst she smoothed my hair with her gentle hand. Which was something I hadn't ever done before with any old lady of my acquaintance, nor felt the need of it, either.
One thing Miss Ruby was curious about was, what did I plan to make out of my life.
"Son, you're marvelous and young and full of loving," she told me more than once. "But time's going to catch up with you, you know. When you can't depend on your old ladies anymore, what will become of you?"
I didn't know. I didn't want to think about it. I couldn't see, day by day, that I was getting any older anyway, like over people seemed to do. But, still, she'd cause me to think about Charlotte Ainsley's statue, and wonder where it was now, who was looking at it and enjoying it. Time might catch up with me, like Miss Ruby said, but it sure wouldn't catch up with that work of art.
It must have been most of a year later when Miss ruby brought me a clipping out of The New York Times newspaper telling about Charlotte Ainsley's latest New York exhibition. The story even showed a picture of the statue, except that it was taken from such an angle as to miss Him entirely, which I didn't think was fair to the interested reader. It seemed that Charlotte Ainsley's new show was just the talk of the town in that great city, just like she had known it would be when she went to work on the idea. It made me proud all over to read what the fellow had to say about it - most of the write-up had to do with that one piece of sculpture. Though I couldn't understand the half of his considerations about it all.
"You're famous, son, did you know that? Though in a peculiarly anonymous way," Miss Ruby told me, laughing.
I gazed at her. "I'm not just famous. I'm immortal."
She nodded soberly. "I guess you are." Then, seriously harking back to her main concern, "But what will you do with the rest of your life? You don't want to have reached your peak at sixteen years of age, do you?"
"It was a pretty good peak," I said, holding tight inside of myself because I didn't want to bother my head about it. "It was a something that could do a fellow for a long time."
Still, I couldn't help but fret about it from time to time. Knowing full well she had my best interests at heart, I had to recognize that she was a couple of hundred miles wiser than I'd ever be. Of course, I'd tell myself every time that my life was just fine. Maybe those ladies were mostly interested in gambling; but, not to mention an occasional drawing for the grand door prize, from time to time I caught an eye - more often than any of the other crewmen, let me tell you that. I didn't take money from them, of course, except maybe a dollar here or a dollar there when otherwise it would have hurt their feelings.
But every one of those ladies, sooner or later, got it in their heads they ought to bring me a nice gift. I had more fancy cufflinks than a fellow could know what to do with . . . especially when I didn't have a shirt to my name I could use them with. Cigarette lighters, too, often sporting diamonds or other jewels, when I didn't even smoke. Wristwatches, and bracelets to wear, made out of fine metals, maybe with their name and mine engraved in linked letters. One lady even wanted me to wear a slave bracelet on my ankle.
This junk got to be such a burden, finally I paid a visit to a jewelry store, where I made a deal with the fellow to buy the stuff. It was always at a good price for him, of course, but at least I got rid of the stuff. Made me sort of uneasy, selling it for money like that, but I finally settled in my head how it didn't make me a hustling stud in any form or fashion, because as far as I was concerned it was just useless junk and, after all, a fellow could use some walking-around money from time to time.
Naturally, I kept the golden chain Charlotte Ainsley had placed around my neck. I was never without it, because the weight of it hanging on my chest reminded me of that great time in my life. There was one fine wristwatch, too, with all these dials and stems, which is called a chronometer, that had my first name etched out in tiny sparkling diamonds, which I kept, and a couple of nice rings, one a ruby and one a diamond. They weren't gaudy at all, just nice quiet rings that a fellow could take pleasure in seeing on his hands.
Right after she showed me The New York Times piece, Miss Ruby made up her mind about my future. Not that she told me right off the bat what she had in mind; she just started taking me around town, nights we weren't out on the boat, so that I got to see the fine places she went to, private clubs, gambling places, all that. I figured she only wanted a friendly escort, and was pleased to do it for her; but without my realizing it, she was teaching me how to carry myself in such fine surroundings, how to use a knife and a fork in the right way, how to carry on polite conversations with friends and strangers.
Of course, she had to outfit me with the proper clothes for such doings - even including some shirts with French cuffs, so the next couple of cufflinks gifted to me I kept instead of selling - and began correcting my grammar, so that when I wanted to I could talk just the same as all her fine friends.
Oh, I tell you, I cut such a figure alongside Miss Ruby - lighting her cigarette when she wanted it lit, making polite conversation, dancing with her now and again - many was the envious glance cast at her from other ladies. She had sent me to this school of dance to learn all the South American tangos and sambas and so forth, where I found out right quickly that, light on my feet as I was, any lady could be proud to hold me as her dancing partner.
One night she took me to a formal dinner, dinner jacket and all the rest of it - one of those meals where nobody gets to sit next to the person they had thought enough of to come there with - so that I had to deal with these two stranger ladies, each of whom seemed to want all my attention. Which didn't make the situation any easier, let me tell you. Miss Ruby, who kept an eye on me all evening, must have been satisfied with my public conduct, because when we got back to the Liberated Lady she told me the plan she had worked out.
"What you must do, son, is find the right lady and stick with her," she said. "It's time you began to make something of your great talent instead of squandering it heedlessly as you have been doing."
"But, Miss Ruby," I said, "I've told you a dozen times. I ain't nobody's stud. I just can't take money from a nice lady. I couldn't feel right about it, and that's all there is to it."
She looked at me for a full minute. "There's nothing shameful about such an arrangement. It's done all the time. Besides, once we find the lady you can take great joy in serving, I'll personally work out the details. I'll fix it so that, in time, you'll have accumulated enough money to manage with on your own."
I shook my head. "I'd know it, even if I didn't see the first dollar," I told her. "I can't do good to any old lady just because she's bought and paid for Him. She thinks."
She kept on regarding me. "You've got it now, son. Use it while you've got it." She was very patient. "Don't you see? It's only what you have always done for your ladies. The money is not for now, but for the future. What's wrong in that?"
I didn't answer.
She leaned forward. "Believe me, sone, it'll be so right, it won't cost you one twinge of your delicate conscience. I realize that I must not only find someone who can afford you, but who will need you for more than anyone ever has. Will you trust me?"
I didn't look at her. "Why can't it keep on being you?" I said. "I'm satisfied. I don't want to leave you, not ever. And you don't have to pay me no more than what you do already to work on the Liberated Lady."
She smiled sadly. "I have no wish to lose you, either. But . . . I squandered so much in my younger days, I can't afford to do for you what I feel must be done." She paused, then went on in this rough tone of voice. "Besides, I've got to stop worrying about you all the time. Once you're set in life as advantageously as I can manage it, I can wash my hands of you." Her voice changed again. "But you'll have to trust me."
"You know I trust you," I said. "But . . ."
She laughed. "But nothing. Just let me handle it. All right? I won't do you dirt."
"I never did think that. It's just that . . ."
She punched me on the shoulder with a double-up fist. "Shut up, son, and let Miss Ruby find your nice lady who can afford to keep Him in the style he deserves. I'm not doing this for you, anyway, it's all for Him."
Which was a whole new angle I hadn't thought about; after all, being the best, he deserved the best, didn't he? Maybe, I told myself, all this time I've been cheating Him of his rightful dues, except that one time with Miss Charlotte.
From then on, when we went out, it was always with another lady or two. Just a friendly party; except that Miss Ruby secretly watched them with me, and me with them, because, she told me, she had already decided through other investigation they were all possible candidates. It made me feel sort of awkward at first, but it went on so long - she couldn't ever seem to locate exactly the lady to satisfy her standards for Him - pretty soon I just went back to being my natural self, which had got me through life pretty good so far in spite of all Miss Ruby's fretting about my uncertain future.
There were two ladies she recommended that I try out, one just for a night, the other for a long weekend on a great big plantation somewhere up the Mississippi River. I really did like the second one, a tall woman with coal-black hair and Frenchified face, who looked haughty as all hell but after I had got done with her just turned into the warmest kitten you ever petted. She liked me, also, to the point that she and Miss Ruby got down to brass tacks. Later on, when we didn't see her again, Miss Ruby remarked that the French are just the stingiest people on God's green earth.
During this time, I got to know New Orleans in both the high and the low. It was a various town. One night we'd be out on Lake Pontchartrain at a quiet private club where gambling went on, another time in a nightclub on Bourbon Street where ladies would take off their clothes to music. One night, I remember, we went to a rooster fight where everybody but our party was black, and money changed hands so fast, and the excitement was so high, you couldn't have kept track if you'd had a dozen eyes. We went over into Mississippi to see a dogfight, in which one of these tough, all-muscle-and-mouth dogs just naturally killed down the other one. I didn't like it very much, though I hadn't much minded the game of roosters fighting with them long steel spurs and killing one another just as dead. It didn't seem right to do such to a dog, no matter how mean he might be in his nature.
There were genteel parties in private houses, where everybody stood around with a drink in their hands and talked to one another about nothing at all. One time we went to hear this great big orchestra play a symphonic sort of music, and again to hear four old guys playing that good Dixieland stuff, all of them white of hair and wrinkle of face, they'd been around for so long, but when they got into "Muskrat Ramble," or something like that, you'd have thought they were sixteen years old and at their peak.
The curiousest thing I remember about all this going around New Orleans to take in the sights was the sex show we saw one night. It took place in this awfully plush place, a whorehouse, I reckon, to give it its rightful name, though it was a mighty high-class whorehouse. The funny thing about this sex show was, it wasn't just men there to see it, but ladies, too - ladies who didn't work there, I mean, but had paid cash money to see the acts they put on.
It was something, all right. I sat there with Miss Ruby and these two ladies she had brought along to meet me, and watched it all. You wouldn't believe what all went on if I told you. They had a great big white German shepherd dog that had been trained in ways strange to see. They had a billy-goat, living in billy-goat heaven if there is such a thing. They even had this little jackass-except he wasn't so little where it counted - and I couldn't believe my eyes when a woman laid down under him and not only took all he had to offer, but actually acted like she was overjoyed with it. There was a woman who had trained herself to go around and pick up half-dollars off the tables with her pussy, which was something to see how she'd do it; except some smart-aleck held a cigarette lighter to his half-dollar, getting it all heated up before he laid it on the edge of the table. It didn't take her hardly any time at all to find out what he'd done, either, and she started cussing and hitting him over the head with her fists, which pretty much brought the show to a standstill for a few minutes.
I took a natural interest in the men who worked in the show. There were three or four of them, one with a whip, but the others just with their natural-born equipment. I must say, I didn't see anything remarkable that would bring them to such great stardom.
Miss Ruby agreed with me about that. How I know is, after the show was over, this lady who owned the place came over to say hello. Miss Ruby, after congratulating her on her fine sex show, laid her hand on my arm and said proudly, "Of course, I must say, this lad would put any of your boys to shame."
The owner glanced toward me, smiling. "I'll take your word for it, Miss Ruby." Then, to me, "Anytime you need a good job, just come around and see me."
"Oh, no," Miss Ruby said, laughing and shaking her head. "I've got bigger plans. His cock has already made him immortal, and now, if I have my way about it, it'll make him rich."
I was glad the two candidates weren't there to hear all this - they had gone off somewhere for the moment - because then Miss Ruby began to explain about Charlotte Ainsley's work of art and what a sensation it had created in New York. It interested her friend, too, who kept looking me over with her shrewd eyes.
While I stood listening, little did I know how big a part this sex show I had seen tonight would play in my real and actual future.
Which came about as follows.
One night on a cruise, about four o'clock in the morning, Miss Ruby suddenly buzzed my stateroom. I happened to have a lady with me, but the minute I heard it, I got up and went, because Miss Ruby hadn't ever called me at that time of night, and I just knew in my bones there was something to it.
When I got there, Miss Ruby was sitting up on the side of her big bed, still dressed, holding her hand gripped to her chest.
"Get me a drink of whiskey," she said, gasping out the words. "Then tell Captain Phoebe to take this boat in as fast as she can."
I didn't stand on my two feet; grabbing the decanter of sour mash, I poured a glass half full, put my arms around her shoulders, and held it to her mouth, making her gulp down a healthy shot. Then I laid her back on the bed and ran to wake up Captain Phoebe.
"Miss Ruby's took bad sick," I said. "Make a run for the marina, and call in on the radio to have an ambulance waiting."
When I got back to Miss Ruby, she was sitting up again, doubled over against the pain. I poured another glass of whiskey and made her drink again, after which, believing it would be better for her, I eased her down on the bed again. She laid there, gasping hard and sweating cold blood - her gown was soaked, and her face looked to be a hundred years old - but in a minute or two she had to sit up.
When I tried the whiskey yet again, she pushed it away. But now the boat was under way; I could hear the rumble of the big twin Chryslers, and the water slipping along the hull.
"What's the matter, Miss Ruby?" I begged, hardly able to hear my own voice, I was so scared.
She was some easier now, though still showing the cold sweat. "I don't know," she whispered. "I think it's my heart."
That did scare me. I stood there watching her, not knowing what to do. She finally laid back, letting out a big sigh. Since she seemed to be some better, I took the opportunity to run up to the big lounge. It was a bridge night; the ladies were still playing.
"Any of you ladies know anything about doctoring?" I said. "Miss Ruby's mighty bad sick."
They all said no and kept on dealing out new hands. I went on up to the bridge. Captain Phoebe was there, and one of the crewmen.
"She's took bad, and not a soul on board knows anything to do," I told Captain Phoebe, my voice asking. "Miss Ruby says she thinks it's her heart."
"I was just on my way with the first-aid kit," Captain Phoebe said. To the crewmen she said, "Steer for that light younger, and keep her flat out. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Miss Ruby was sitting up again, bent over and gasping. Captain Phoebe opened the first-aid kit and broke a capsule of ammonia under her nose. Miss Ruby drew in the deepest breath she had taken yet, and collapsed.
"Bring the emergency oxygen," Captain Phoebe snapped at me. "Know where it is?"
I brought it on the run. Captain Phoebe put the mask to Miss Ruby's face and adjusted the tank valves to start it feeding. It brought the color back, so she didn't look so much like death warmed over.
"I must get back to the wheel," Captain Phoebe said. "Watch her. If there's any change, let me know."
The oxygen seemed to be doing the trick, all right. She laid easy during the long run in, breathing it in, while I sat and looked at her, hurting inside. We didn't speak. But I held her hand as they loaded her into the ambulance, then got in to go with her to the hospital.
Miss Ruby got through that first attack all right. I stayed with her until noon the next day, when they moved her out of intensive care. After I'd got some sleep, I went back, as soon as they'd let me in, to find her right chipper to have passed such a rough time. She told me, though, that the doctor had ordered her to stay in the hospital at least a month, and afterward she'd have to take it easy for a long time, no late hours to overtire herself, anything like that.
"I suppose I shall have to give up the Liberated Lady."
"Yes'm," I said, feeling sad to think about it. "I reckon so."
It didn't bother me half as much, though, as the mortal fear that dwelled now in her eyes. She had been brushed by the wing of old death, all right, and she'd know it the rest of her days.
I came daily to see her, spending as much time as they'd allow. When I couldn't be at the hospital, I stayed aboard the Liberated Lady, scrubbing the decks and polishing the brightwork, because I couldn't seem to sit idle for a minute. Nobody there any more but me and Captain Phoebe, because as soon as the other fellows understood there wouldn't be any more cruises, they took off.
On the fourth day, when I went to the hospital, there was somebody else in her bed. I hurried to the nurse's station to ask where they'd moved her.
"Oh, she's dead," the nurse said, scarcely looking up from her work. "She died last night."
I must have made some sort of sound, because she did look then, saying in a kinder voice, "Oh, I'm sorry. Are you her son?"
"No'm," I said, choking out the words. "But I loved her."
I still think it was hell of a way to let a fellow know.
I went to Miss Ruby's funeral, of course, but I don't want to talk about it right here and now. A mighty lot of folks turned out to pay their respects, let me tell you, from every walk of life.
After it was over, I went back to the boat, where I put all my stuff into the nice leather suitcase Miss Ruby had bough for me when she had furnished my fine clothes, and for the last time I walked away from the Liberated Lady.
Hard days had come upon me. Not only from grieving for Miss Ruby, which I did every waking minute; but it seemed like I couldn't find me a job of honest work to save my life. First I went around to all the little corner grocery stores there in the French Quarter, thinking, since Miss Ruby's great plans for my future had fallen through, I might as well start over again at the beginning.
But not one of those stores was in the least interested in providing delivery service for their good customers. One owner even laughed and said, "Let 'em tote 'em themselves, do 'em good." I offered to work for nothing as far as the store was concerned, depending on tips for the service I could provide, but he yawned in my face.
Money, I found out, don't go hardly noplace in a fancy town like New Orleans. At first I was sleeping in cheap little hotels, but after pawning the suitcase and all my fine clothes, I had to give that up. Within a few weeks I was down to the one suit of clothes and sleeping wherever I could find a place - in the bust station until a cop would come to hustle me, in an alley somewhere, like unto that.
It was at this time, while walking around at night getting tired enough to sleep where I knew I'd have to, that I got offers from these fellows. I hadn't ever had but one man to do his thing on Him, which was Mr. William back home in Pass Robin. Since I hadn't ever thought much of that way of doing, I turned down these anxious fellows - until I had run out of eating money altogether and began feeling the pangs of hunger.
So I had at the last come down to nothing at all. I had made Him nothing. Because here I was being a stud for the first time in my life, letting weird men use Him for cold cash, in ways I hadn't even known about when I was young and innocent. It was the bottom, all right. Just as low as a fellow can get and still call himself a human being.
Then, one day, I happened to be sitting in Jackson Square when this woman stopped alongside the bench. "Well, hello," she said. She sounded surprised. I was sort of dirty and bedraggled, I must admit.
It was the woman who owned that fancy whorehouse; I recognized her right away. I stood up and said, "Hello. Nice to see you."
"What are you doing here?" she said.
Her eyes so sharp and hard on my face, I didn't try to lie. "Not much of nothing, to tell the truth."
"I read about Miss Ruby dying," she said. "As a matter of fact, I had the girls send flowers . . the nicest wreath." She kept on studying me. "I would presume she didn't get you fixed for life, as she planned."
"No'm," I said. Then I hurried to add, "It wasn't her fault. It was just that . . . Miss Ruby was the finest lady I've ever known in my life, bar none."
"She was that," the lady said. "And more." She stood silent for a moment. Then she said, "Hungry?"
"Yes'm. I ain't ate today." I didn't mention yesterday.
Looking in her purse, she took out a card. "I'm going shopping just now. But come along in an hour or so to this address, and I'll see that you get a square meal."
"That's mighty kind of you, ma'am," I said, taking the card.
She smiled in her frosty way. "I haven't forgotten what Miss Ruby told me about you. So don't disappoint me. I want to talk to you."
"I sure will," I said gratefully.
That was how I come to be a part of the sex show - when, the night I had watched it, so high and mighty, it had been the furtherest thing from my mind. Life sure does take a fellow in strange ways sometimes, don't it? Because, out of all that grief and all that hunger, being down so far I couldn't see any way up, it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened.