We drove down a narrow asphalt street and through a stop sign to the rhythm of washer blades and the static from his radio. Through the side window, I could see a long curved black iron fence. I watched the image of a large, red brick building, with gray slate roof, move on to the windshield then leave as we pulled under its portico. It had once been Phenix City’s finest whorehouse.
When he opened my door, I stayed in the car but stared at his face. He dug something out of his shirt pocket. “I almost forgot. She wanted me to give you this,” he said, and he handed me a small, crushed red rose.
After he drove away, I waited on the steps and stared at the sad eyes of a tarnished brass lion on the dark rosewood door. And I remembered the day the brass lion was new, when it came wrapped in brown paper from Charleston. It was my Barlow knife that cut that twine. We had just hung this rosewood door and rubbed it with linseed oil. She wanted us to put the lion where people could reach it.
I tried to move the ring in the brass lion’s mouth but it was stuck. My fingers traced a long scratch in the rosewood. Then I just knocked until the door was eased back a respectable distance and an old dark face in a napkin white shirt and loose black suit that had long forgotten its creases looked down at me and smiled.
“Good afternoon,” he said.
I must have looked confused.
“It’s Henry Lee, Mr. McLendon. You used to know my brother Johnnie.”
Neither name seemed familiar. “How’s Johnnie doing?”
“Dead twelve year.”
The inside of the foyer smelled like wet newspapers. I wondered out loud, “Tell me, is Miss Rose still living?”
Henry spread a smile as bright and welcome as a Royal Flush. “She’ll be right down.”
I waited in a parlor with heavy red drapes tied with silk cords. The floor was dark polished wood and you could see swirls of the sawmill blade. I remembered setting a dozen polished steel ball bearings in a line across that floor and betting drinks that not one of them would roll. In the center of the room, on a thin Persian carpet, stood a white marble statue of a woman. She was nude and her hands clasped down her front. The sculptor had chiseled manacles on her white stone wrists and a chain that draped across her thigh and coiled at her feet. I walked behind her and the crease at the top of her buttocks could no longer be seen. I rubbed it anyway, recalling it was supposed to bring good luck. Then I heard her laugh.
She must have walked on light feet because suddenly she was there, standing under the stained wood archway where tall pocket doors hid inside rosewood-paneled walls. She wore soft, black leather high heels and a red dress with a tight sash that hung down her thigh and made her waist small. Reflected sunlight from the foyer mirror sprayed gold flecks in her red hair and the color in her eyes swirled like cold iced tea. She bit her lower lip and smiled, then traced her finger on the side of her throat and down a thin gold chain until I heard the click of her red nail touch an ivory cameo.
“Ain’t you a sorry son-of-a-bitch? But I like your little moustache,” she said, and winked at me.
She nodded at the crushed rose in my hand. “I see you got my invitation. Now grab your favorite bottle and come on up.”
She paused on the stairs I had seen her descend the first night when they turned her out. I had broken out of Atlanta Federal and was flush from robbing the banks in Marietta and LaGrange, outbid every man there, and wound up staying with Rose for an entire week. We talked about running away together, but never did.
They said her name was Rose. A young bride from the Battery District of Charleston, who was married in a wedding-cake house overlooking the bay, to a man whose soul, I’m sure, is now in Hell. She soon found out he was a sadist, then tried to leave him and have the marriage annulled. But the husband put her in a car, beaten and drugged, drove to Phenix City to a place he knew, a red brick building with a slate gray roof. It was built as a school, but became a place where whores were trained in unspeakable ways.
When he came back in one month, they told him she wasn’t ready. Two or three days later, she came to the door herself with two men beside her and told her husband she was never coming back, then shut the door in his face. Over time, men, especially bankers and politicians, called her their favorite. From as far away as Savanna, Atlanta and Montgomery, they scheduled business in Phenix City just so they could spend time with her. Before each man left, she took a rose from a vase, brushed it across her lips then pinned it to his lapel. Sometimes, men would stop and kid each other in the street when they’d see a man wearing a red rose in his lapel, poke his arm with their elbow and say, “You’ve been plucking red roses, ain’t you. I can tell,” then both would laugh, each knowing that they had each shared something more than their sense of humor or Georgia sunshine.
Through these men, she gained her own wealth and influence. Then, in 1954 when the National Guard closed down Phenix City, the gamblers left and the juke joints closed and a thousand whores were seen carrying suitcases across the bridge to Georgia to find a ride to somewhere else. But Rose never left. She showed them a deed to that big red brick building and other properties in town. All of the deeds had been prepared by a respected lawyer and sealed by the state’s most powerful judge.
I followed in the wake of her perfume. Rose waited for me on the landing of the stairs, her eyes half-closed.
“Do you even remember how?” she asked.
I remembered. And I remembered our first time, and her smile as I carried her down the long carpeted hallway and she grabbed at bright crystals that dangled from wall sconces, then undid my collar as we entered her room. She danced by the mirror, and I lit tall candles on the fireplace mantle, then we made love by their light.
The old sconces were still there and she tapped a dull crystal as we walked down the hallway. I watched in the mirror as she lit one candle and smiled as she saw me, then looked down at the floor
And in that moment, I was caught by the scent of wild rose found blooming on a riverbank when the sun split open a blue morning sky and yellow and gold splashed down on dark earth and the river and our lives. My old, dry mouth ached for the taste of that nectar before the heat of the sun would burn it away forever. I walked over and held her, then kissed her on the lips, and we lay down together on a carved Charleston rice bed and the world went on without us.
Sometime during the night she got out of bed, walked over to the fireplace and set a fresh candle on the carved stone mantle. I could see her watching me in the reflection of the gold gilt mirror, her eyes liquid and alive with thoughts.
“Oh, my,” she whispered just loud enough for me to hear. “I never thought this would be a three-candle night.”
Earlier we had found each other’s tattoos.
“What’d that cost you?” she had asked.
“Two cartons of cigarettes. How much was yours?”
“None of your damn business,” she said.
The next morning, I woke to smells of strawberries, warm biscuits and the steam of chicory coffee on a breakfast tray sitting on the bed. Rose adjusted my pillows and handed me a single white flower.
“No red rose?” I said.
“Sugar, when I sent Henry Lee to the flower shop last night, I told him bring back a lily for you instead of a rose,” she said, “because I never thought you’d live through the night.”
Christopher Zell came to the writing party late, having spent four decades in the homebuilding industry. Along the way he has studied writing with Larry McMurtry, Pulitzer poet Henry Taylor, Richard Bausch, and William Haywood Henderson.
Red Rose is adapted from Phenix City, my novel in-progress about the Alabama town Look Magazine called, The Wickedest City in America.