by Mary Jo Melone
Holly Eldridge knew how to make a man happy, and the people of Sunrise Isles Mobile Home Park deferred to her in that knowledge. Dying wives who could afford it gathered enough cash to procure, upon their deaths, one chance for their grieving husbands to lay down next to Holly in her trailer, hard up against an overgrown bayou that fed the bay. Friends passed the hat on behalf of women who were poor. Then an anonymous individual—the mailman’s identity never disclosed, to avoid a facilitation charge—delivered the cash to Holly’s door. Holly’s going rate when Elson Moran showed up on his own with an envelope in his moist hand was $125 a lay, but when she opened the envelope, a $100 bill dropped to the floor.
“Sorry,” she said.
“This wasn’t my idea, Miss Eldridge. It was Virginia’s.”
Virginia Moran was the head of the park’s neighborhood watch, and she had never let up on Holly. She slapped big yellow stickers on her car when she didn’t fix a flat for a week, when she didn’t pull the weeds by her door, when her Schnauzer, Simon, barked after nine at night. Virginia Moran, the nuisance police, was a regular pain in the ass, and now, in death, intended to take advantage of her. Holly was a pro at being at the other end of that game, and it wasn’t going to happen again.
“She felt sorry for you? You want your dead wife to feel sorry for you? That’s pathetic.”
“I long ago gave up the idea of arguing with her.” He shook the rain from his wet umbrella on Holly’s bare feet. Summer rains were always cold on the skin.
He closed the umbrella and leaned against the wall, a knotty pale yellow pine of the sort she felt beneath her but figured men liked, men with wives who happily trailed after them on stout legs. This was a bitchy thought, but Holly would never have apologized for it.
“Did I invite you to stay?”
“Nobody disappoints Virginia, Miss Eldridge.”
“I don’t make exceptions, Elson.”
“I respect that,” he said in a pleading rasp that she recognized. She had made the same sorry noise over the phone when a creep from the electric company said there wouldn’t be a third extension on paying the bill.
“Please,” Elson Moran said. “She’s dead.”
“I’m guessing you don’t entirely mind. Because I can identify, I’ll make an exception. But on certain terms.”
“I was an accountant for forty years. I’m not new to terms.”
“You don’t tell anyone. Nobody should get the idea they can bargain here. And at these prices, Elson, you just get to look.”
He pulled up a folding chair and sat down.
With slender fingers, she began to undo the pearl buttons of her blouse.
“And if you want your money’s worth, Elson, you might keep your glasses on.”
Holly had other terms. In that first visit, she removed only her blouse and bra. She knew the effect the sight of her breasts’ unblemished slope and generous size had on a man, and when she pivoted on the sofa to face him after she dropped her bra to the floor, she heard him say, “Oh, my.” His eyes shifted to his lap and then back at her.
“God made women for a reason,” he said. “Yes, he did.”
She cupped her breasts so the flesh lifted and she appeared fuller still. “Are you a religious man, Elson?”
“Not very. But I am inclined now and then to wonder.”
When Elson Moran returned a week later, Holly was sitting on the sofa. She was naked from the waist down. He stood several feet away, like a supplicant.
“I don’t bite, Elson.”
She patted the sofa. He lowered himself gingerly. Soon, he was scratching the seat cushion between them with one hand. The scratching got faster, then it slowed down. Mostly, it got faster.
“Once, in the army, I went to a strip club. In Germany. That’s right. The women weren’t as pretty as you, though.”
Calling them strip clubs in Tampa would have been inaccurate. The phrase was nude bars because girls like Holly wore nothing to take off. Separating working mind from naked body, all those eyes on her, drinking her in, required a kind of dexterity that no hungry out-of-town big shot on an expense account would ever be strong enough to master, and that she had mastered the skill gave her a reason to sneer at them, as they looked up at her, eyes transfixed by her tease.
Elson Moran had that same stupid look.
The scratching stopped. He shifted his weight. He was straddling his cushion and the middle one now. A tiny bit of flesh, the edge of his tongue, slipped out briefly from his lips. What happened then violated the natural order. Her body began to stir.
A politician in town, trying to impose order on his own impulses or working very hard to alienate the public, once tried to pass a law requiring a six-foot distance between the dancers and the customers. As though the cops carried yardsticks. Two yardsticks.
“You can’t take your top off as well, Miss Eldridge?”
She took a few quick steps to the stuffed chair that faced the sofa. The wooly fabric, all wrong for Florida, tickled her butt, but her body stopped its humming.
“You’re the one who said you understood terms. Top then, bottom now.”
Holly placed her hand between her legs, while keeping her eyes on his face. His tongue flickered again. She spread her knees further still, tilting her hips up slightly as she did. His tongue reemerged. Then he seemed to push back against the sofa, as though trying to avoid her.
“Doesn’t doing this embarrass you?”
“What’s to be embarrassed about? I offer a service. You buy it. That’s what you did during tax time. Offered a service. And I don’t even have to move much now.”
Men thought that nude dancing was not work, but a shift was exhausting, and a serious enterprise. She ate right, worked out, stayed clean because she saw her work, the stroking, the writhing, the snaking up poles, as athletic performance. Hooking had never been part of it. This was not true, she knew, for some other girls. Some were gay and because they didn’t care in the slightest, happily earned extra money from desperate men. Some were desperate themselves, junkies or broke, and past caring. Holly had pitied those women, but was sometimes unnerved by the lesbians, who seemed too interested in her. Now she admired their game stance, and adopting it enabled her, she believed, to bend to circumstance.
The cause of her circumstance was a stockbroker, Simon Bakersfield. One night in the dark of a club called Dare, he opened his wallet, and more than her body opened up to him. When their five-year affair was done and he disappeared, the money he had invested for her was gone, as was the sixth-floor corner condo on Treasure Island where, he liked to say, he had ensconced her. Eviction came with a swiftness she was unprepared for, as unprepared as she was for a third-hand mobile home in Sunrise Isles, where you had to be at least 55. She was ten years younger, but the park manager hadn’t bothered to ask for her driver’s license. She figured he was like the others—men had always bent the rules for her.
“And what about you, Elson? Aren’t you a little embarrassed, being stuck in the position of not being able to touch a woman wearing nearly nothing?”
“I am grateful for what I get, Miss Eldridge.”
“I don’t believe that for a minute,” she said.
His hair, what he had of it, was the color of nowhere, and his head was flat. A purplish blotch covered one uneven temple. He was no different than the other men of Sunrise Isles. They were never presumptuous, never insisting. When she lay down next to them, they were hushed, their hands hesitant, their kisses light, and she held them in tender consolation if their penises faltered. Like most men in her silky presence, sex was when they talked, about their mistakes with their children, the places they would never see, the women they should have married.
“I had some big clients once,” he said. “I took a lot of their money, and not just in fees, if you know what I mean. When I was done with their money, I started playing with Virginia’s. After a while, I wasn’t an accountant anymore. Don’t blame Virginia for cheating you out of your money, Miss Eldridge. She paid what she could.”
Holly had been as limber as a ballet dancer, but now her back felt brittle, stiff. Her knees burned. She dropped her legs to the floor and positioned her hands on her lap, hiding the hair that so had his attention.
“And what did you spend it on, Elson? I don’t see too many Porsches in Sunrise Isles.”
“Poker. I like poker. We have some damn good players here.”
She kept her voice soft and high. “You’re lucky Virginia didn’t throw you out.”
“What good would that have done? Then we both would have been lonely.”
He cocked his head and leaned to one side.
“I much preferred your other position. Can you go back to that?”
“Check your watch,” Holly said, as she reached for a shimmery robe at her feet. “You’ll see we ran over.”
Holly seemed to be scratching the backs of her legs all night, and she blamed the chair’s rough, hot fabric. Still, it was a creamy white, the color of the hushed vestibule in the condo tower where she thought her happiness resided. She had picked up the chair from a thrift store for fifteen dollars. The sofa cost her twenty. She had doused them in a lavender-scented deodorizer to cover their stale smell, even though the lavender made her gag, as Simon’s cologne sometimes did. He had said he was taking her away from all that, as though he disapproved of Dare and all its variants. Holly, who was unaccustomed to talk of promises and vows, had overlooked his contradictions. She wondered what Virginia Moran had to lie to herself about. Elson Moran did not seem capable of declarations that were both big and false, although the thought of him now irked her with a pang that made her nearly cry out. Virginia Moran must have stifled a few cries, too.
Elson Moran returned a third time. “I could tell when I left last time I upset you. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. Why did I upset you?”
The terms required this time that Holly get completely naked, but maintaining the necessary artifice took energy. She had opened the windows. The air was damp, and it had slowed her down. She pulled her t-shirt up over her head, as though she was lifting a gym weight.
“A trailer isn’t much more than a tin box, is it?” she said. “It never stays cool.”
“You don’t think of that when you buy one of these things,” he said. “You think you’re getting a bargain, holding down expenses. Then you find out.”
“What are you waiting for?” she said, gesturing to the sofa.
Her denim shorts dropped to her ankles
He had arrived wearing a wide-brimmed canvas hat, the kind fishermen wear. He dropped it on the chair.
“Can you lay down on the sofa today, Miss Eldridge?
“Lay down? Terms, Elson. Remember?”
“Just lay down and face me.”
She had seen pictures in elaborate hotels—Simon had taken her to Vegas more than a few times—of fleshy women draped across red velvet furniture, with cherubs or dogs posed around them, and columns behind. The women were living in stone mansions, at the top of great staircases, with carriages at the gate. Holly needed gas money.
She lay down.
He pulled his chair up close to the coffee table that stood between them. She was supporting herself with one elbow, and it soon tingled from numbness.
“You may not believe this, but Virginia was really something once.”
“Then perhaps you should have treated her better.” She was watching her feet. She had worn tottering mules for years. Now she had bunions sharp as elbows, the kind old women grow.
“I followed the rules every day of my life. I needed one way to not. Just one,” he said.
He adjusted his glasses. The black frames were nearly milky-white with ancient sweat stains. “I envy you, Miss Eldridge.”
She could have been a clattering of bones piled up before him. He saw, every man she had met saw, only what he imagined. No matter the colors on her face, the parts of her waxed and exposed, men saw what they needed. They did not see how malleable she was, how that was the rule she obeyed, to take the form the moment demanded, like ice or steam or a sprinkle of rain. Shapeless as she was, there was no line between her work and her longing, so she had had no defense against the risky state Simon had induced in her. She looked up at the trailer’s speckled ceiling. The speckles were merging, her head light.
“It’s awfully lonely on this side of the table, Miss Eldridge.”
The people who bought the condo from the bank had other tastes, and Holly had found the coffee table at the curb within a few weeks of the eviction. An oval of glass rested on brass legs and had been chipped in three places on its way to the street. She and Simon had purchased it at a very fine store, the name of which she could not summon.
She wondered what Virginia Moran had been forced to surrender, and why she loved her husband enough to want this for him.
“Then move it, Elson.”
“You don’t mind?”
He sounded like a small boy, but he pushed the coffee table aside with an unhesitant shove. He looked down, waited. As bidden, she raised herself and took a position against him when he sat down. His fingers settled in on her shoulder.
His nails were dirty, and his yellowed socks had slid down his ankles. Still, his smell was not unpleasant, like someone who had been briefly caught up in a warm wind.
She told Elson Moran about Simon. “The men who have been with you should have treated you better,” he said.
“Just like you and Virginia. She thought she was safe with you.”
“I never set out to do it,” he said. “After a while, some things are just hard to stop. Even when you want to.”
“I’ve lived in Sunrise Isles for eleven years,” he said. “We’ve never had anybody in the park like you.”
Holly lowered herself, dropped her head on his lap and stretched out.
“Living on the beach must have been nice,” he said.
“I thought I would be there forever. I should have been there forever.”
“Sometimes, we deserve to lose what we think we deserve.”
He rose and unbuttoned his shirt. She heard his fingers rub against the cloth and then the snap of the loose end of his belt as he unbuckled it. She closed her eyes. She was calm, without will, flattened by defeat. He draped his shirt on the arm of the sofa.
When he sat down again, his broad belly was pushing against her face, skin against skin, and the buckle of his belt, closed again, was digging into her cheek.
“A tornado pulled the top off a couple three homes here once,” he said. “Double-wides. That was something to watch.”
“Where did you go?”
“No place to go.” This sounded as though it were simply a fact to Elson Moran, nothing that worried him. “How much safer was it going to be anyplace else?”
Holly turned her head away from him and looked out across the living room. A vase of tall silk flowers stood next to the TV, which rested on the top of a packing box. The thinly-carpeted floor sloped towards the narrow door of the bathroom.
“A lot of us here at Sunrise Isles don’t have much,” he said. “We help each other out.”
He laid his shirt on the naked expanse of Holly Eldridge, until she was covered to the top of her thighs. The shirt, its cuffs frayed, was worn and soft. Elson Moran hummed a slow tune, a song he said Virginia loved. He was still humming when Holly turned her head back towards him and her eyes fluttered shut.