“You’re kiddin’ me.”
“Would I do a thing like that? So listen, Cloris, did you hear the one about the blind man who walks into a bar and starts swinging his dog over his head by its tail? The bartender asks, ‘What are you doing?’ And the blind man says, ‘Just looking around.’”
“I got a million of ’em.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. What’s your name?”
“What name do you like?”
“You’re a real peach, you know that?”
“Peach is good, you can call me ‘Peachy.’ What are you drinking, Cloris?”
“Rum and coke.”
“Innkeeper,” I shouted and pointed at the woman. He nodded and moved toward us. “Did you hear about the woman who calls this guy one night? The woman says, ‘This is Mary. Remember me? We met at a party two months ago and you said I was a good sport. Well, I’m pregnant and I’m going to jump off the Lake Street Bridge.’ And the guy says, ‘Gosh, Mary. You are a good sport.’”
It went on like that for a couple of hours, me buying drinks and telling completely tasteless jokes. After a while, the other two hookers joined us. Most of the prostitutes I’ve met have been very pleasant to talk to and these were no exception. I was actually enjoying myself and the women seemed to appreciate my company as well. Yet they did not let me interfere with business. They worked out a rotation and whenever they spotted a likely looking customer, one of them would leave, do a bit of work, and return. A woman with a tired face that might have been pretty once tried to join the party, but the others chased her off. She was an amateur, one of those women who gave it away, using sex like a prescription drug. It might have been good for what ails her, but bad for a working girl’s business.
Not everyone approved of me. Two overweight women and an undernourished man sitting in a booth looked on with genuine disgust. You could bet that if they had hit the number they wouldn’t be wasting their winnings on a bunch of barroom layabouts, no siree. As it was, they were busy pulling tabs and discarding the losers in a plastic laundry basket. They had built up a sizable pile. Whenever they ran out of money, one of them would use the cash machine next to the rest rooms—it’s illegal in Minnesota to purchase pull tabs or lottery tickets with a personal check, so some joints install ATMs.
All the while, I watched the door, waiting for Merci Cole.
“A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar and the bartender says, ‘What is this? A joke?’”
I had reached the subbasement of my joke collection and was rooting around for a trap door when Merci arrived. I recognized her by Molly Carlson’s description—tall, blond, with green eyes. She had gone to high school with Jamie which made her about twenty-five. But she seemed so much older than that, her cheeks puffy, her eyes flat and lifeless. Still, she was considerably more attractive than the usual prostitute. If you don’t believe me, punch up the St. Paul Police Department’s Web site. The SPPD regularly posts photographs of the hookers they arrest and you’ll never find a less enticing group of women—which is another reason prostitution baffles me. If hookers all looked like Julia Roberts and Laura San Giacomo, that I could understand. But why pay money to have sex with an ugly woman?
I gestured toward Merci. “I want to meet her.”
“Are you serious?” Cloris replied. “You would turn me down for her? I was ready to give it up for free.”
“Cloris,” I said with mock indignation. “I do believe you have misunderstood my intentions.”
“That’s what I mean. Where would you get an idea like that?”
Merci Cole sat at the end of the bar, chatting with the bartender. The bartender whispered something to her as I approached.
“Hi,” I said.
“Depends,” she answered in a professional voice, waiting for the magic words that proved I wasn’t a cop.
“I’m not a cop.”
“If you say so, officer.”
I set a fifty-dollar bill on the bar in front of her, a very uncoplike thing to do.
“What do I get for that?”
Satisfied, she went down the menu. “I get ten dollars for a hand job, twenty for a BJ, and forty if you want the motherlode. Anything else is negotiable.”
“How ’bout conversation?”
“You want conversation, dial a nine hundred number, two-fifty a minute.”
I pushed the fifty closer to her.
“Are you serious?”
“Let’s take a walk.”
“Why not?” She snapped the bill off the bar.
“What the hell … ,” she said to my back as I juked and jived to the table where the three hookers sat scanning the crowd. I peeled off three one-hundred-dollar bills and dropped them on the table.