When Francesca moved, people watched. When she spoke, rooms fell silent. And when she loved, everything was beautiful.
“Florence,” I heard her voice like soft wind chimes. Each word she ever spoke had the power to caress the listener and any tension or pain they were feeling would fall away like shedding skin. My hands tightened around the glass and I shook it making the red liquid twist. Jack didn’t like when we would bring liquor out on the streets, said that it whistled in the moonlight. I pulled it to my mouth and sipped the harsh wine. I swished it in my mouth liking how it made my teeth feel rougher once I swallowed.
I turned to look over my shoulder. My hand holding the glass dropped to rest by my waist, my other arm crossed across my body, my hand tucked underneath my elbow. The beading on my dress scraped the soft skin on the underside of my arm.
The alley was smothered in heat and blackness. The shadows hid in doorways as the light from the street struggled in. If it ever did enter, the darkness would pounce swallowing up the offending light in quick, dangerous jaws. This was a place for dark things. The door to the back entrance of Al’s Hardware was painted a bright red, a whore’s lipstick stain in ashes.
I heard Fan’s footsteps crumple on the gravel behind me. A deep blue dress hung off her creamy white shoulder and wrapped around her hips and fell to her knees. White embroidered flowers gently followed the deep V over her chest and trickled down the middle of her stomach to end in a circle around the bottom of the dress. Where my skin was tanned and freckled, hers was milky. Large, deep set eyes were surrounded by dark lashes that extended out like feathers, curling just under her eyebrows regarded me sympathetically. Growing up together, Fan had always loved dolls and she saw me as the most fragile of her collection. It was as if I had been sewn together one too many times with too cheap string.
“Are you coming in soon? Margaret was wondering.” She suggested as her hands wrapped around her small frame.
“Yeah, yeah.” I drank the wine until my throat burned. I left the cheap glass next to a dumpster. I walked past her and the smell of roses stroked my face. It didn’t matter how long she worked in this hell hole, she always smelled like fresh cut flowers. I swung the door open and heard the bursting laughter and trumpet player whose music filled the air like smoke. That reminded me I would need a cigarette as soon as I got in.
“What do you do on your breaks anyway?”
“Drink.” I said. “Smoke.”
“Can’t you do that in the basement?” Fan asked from behind me.
“Yeah, I guess I can.” Once you walked in through the back door there was a hallway. The passage way was tall and narrow and I had a habit of stretching my arms out to both sides down the brown wallpaper painted with flowers.
“What’s Margaret’s problem? Jack doesn’t care that I go out.” I mumbled.
“I think that’s her problem.” I glanced back at her and her eyes were focused on the wooden stairs. The room was alive with crooked smiles on eager lips. Business men sat with prostitutes on their pin striped laps and gin made in a bath tub in their hand. I glanced behind me as I came to the bottom of the stairs surrounded by tables and people. There was a wooden bar to the left with three bartenders behind it pouring drinks. Fan’s face had brightened, her cheeks breaking into a red blush that made her lips look as red as strawberries. It wasn’t because the bar. Jack was here.
I followed her eyes to where he was leaning against the bar, his large and calloused hands pressed into the curved edge. His eyes were such a light blue that any person could tell they were blue from across the room. His nose jutted from his face and there was a bump in the middle, the only remnant of his boxing career. His jaw line was dusted with stubble and his hair, which was the color of aged brandy, was greased back away from his face. He was rich, but you could never tell by his clothes. His white button up was a size too large, the collar undone, and he had the sleeves rolled up that revealed a black spider tattooed on the inside of his forearm. He was handsome in a dangerous way. He was in control of everything in that room. The only force he didn’t want to control was Fan. The only one he couldn’t control was his wife, Margaret.
“Francesca,” a woman stumbled forward, her lips curled upward into a perpetually disgusted look which wasn’t hard to find in one of the underground bars. A drawn on mole sat in the middle of her pudgy cheek. Her breasts were pressed up to her chin in a tight red dress and blonde hair was piled on top of her head.
“Go service that table.” Her left eye brow darted up and she turned to where Marie was laying across the table, one of the men’s hands roaming up her stocking clad leg to where the garter was attached. Marie’s eyes were closed, her mouth opened in a smiling “oh” and the three gentlemen looked pleased.
Fan scoffed. “It looks like Marie has it under control.”
Margaret crossed her arms under her chest and looked down her nose. “You think she can handle all three?”
“I haven’t ‘serviced’ anyone in two years. Go ask one of the girls who do that for a living.” I stood behind Fan and watched with lazy eyes as Margaret’s lips twisted into a smile.
“Oh, I forgot. You do it for free.”
Fan wavered, her body physically crumpling around the verbal blow. I ran my tongue over my teeth that still tasted like wine. She turned away and walked towards the bar. I watched as Margaret turned away throwing, “That’s what I thought,” over her shoulder.
I leaned backwards on the one end of the bar as Fan let her head fall into her hands. I motioned for Brady, the younger kid behind the bar to get me a cigarette. He gave it to me and I placed it in my mouth. He pulled the lighter out and I nodded my thanks. I pulled in a deep breath.
“Why do you let her push you around?” I said as I exhaled, smoke swirling around my face.
“Because she’s right. I’ve been sleeping with a married man for over a year now.”
“So? Just means she got to him before you did.”
“Do you remember Mom?” Fan asked. Her face turned up to me and her eyes were wide. They were a dark green with flecks of gold. I immediately saw her when she was ten when I told her we had to move from New York to Chicago. I looked away and nodded putting the cigarette back in my mouth.
“What would she say?”
I let the smoke run up my face. “If he’s a good fuck, keep at it.”
Fan’s eyes downturned and she reached for the martinis that had been made for the table. She turned away, a soft smile replacing her frown when the men caught sight of her.
“What was that about?” A strong baritone voice laced with liquor wafted towards me.
“What do you think, Jack? You have your mistress working for your wife.”
“She won’t be my mistress for long.”
I let out a harsh laugh that burned almost more than whiskey. “Oh, and you think that Margaret is going to let you off the chain she has leashed around your neck?”
“I don’t give a damn.” My eyes followed the veins in his neck to his chin and I wandered up his face to where he was staring at Fan.
“She married you for the power. You think she’s going to just give it up because you decided you loved someone else?”
“Yes.” He said smoothly. Confidently. He focused on Fan with a predatory stare as he walked forward to what I could only assume was to lead her into his study.
“God, Jack, you’re as naïve as Fan. You two deserve each other.” I motioned for Brady again. “Shot of whiskey. I need one.”
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