The Nature of Pimps
Dalel Serda is currently looking for an agent or press to take on the manuscript chronicling her friendship with Ninfa, her hometown's legendary prostitute, from which this essay is excerpted. Her modus operandi is speaking with, for, and to the underdogs of our world. An accompanying excerpt from the same manuscript can be found in forthcoming NewBorder Anthology (A&M University Press 2013).
Before the mid-eighties, before the big time hotels like the Omni Tower set up shop near the Marina on Shoreline Boulevard in downtown Corpus Christi, prostitutes walked the streets of Chaparral at sunset. Mostly, they paraded along the pavement and alleyways thinking up new ways to get picked up by regular or first-time johns more easily, more quietly, more quickly; then they'd busy themselves buying drugs off connections, showing too much pricked or pockmarked skin, avoiding their pimp's wrath, informing or running away from cops and keeping the more cautious, law-abiding citizens at bay.
B movies made real, according to Ninfa.
Just a few long strides southeast and they could hear the low rumble of the Gulf of Mexico; often, it brought with it strong winds and made the prostitutes look electric as it blew their hair into sandy tornados jutting horizontally out the backs of their heads. The sea breeze did this to me as I walked the boulevard and I imagined Ninfa (as Diana because that is who she called herself back then) and her girls patting their own hair down, running from doorway to doorway for shelter.
The walk from the Hoover Hotel on North Chaparral to the boulevard was an easy one when the sun no longer beat down on her. Diana preferred to bypass most of the other street girls and make her way to Shoreline where she'd walk the Marina and wait for the sky to fade from a slew of dying tangerine rays to near blackness; below the darkness, street lamps lit her way at nightfall. She'd sit on a bench and watch rich men dock their yachts, fishermen reel in lines, wary mothers speed up to grab children's sandy fingers if they got too close to her. The men looked at her from the corners of their eyes; the women stared in shame; everyone headed home because they knew too well what the boulevard became at night: a stomping ground for vinyl vampiras, mouths slathered red, legs dampened by more than the sea. An army of prostitutes in waiting.
Far off to the north of her, a ship had recently arrived at port. The merchandise had been unloaded, the men finished eating their first land-cooked meal in months as they nursed the new muscle aches and pains that came from too much heavy-handed work. Still, the sailors weren't thinking about their biceps or the new calluses and blisters on their thick palms; instead they waited anxiously for the sun to drift off. Their tongues thickened, their blood rushed through their bodies, their hands turned into slippery, wet lumps of skin: the women were on their way to them.
As a birthday gift to herself, Diana walked the length of the boardwalk and arrived smiling and waving at the ship's doorstep. She wasn't the only one to board; other women were already there; she didn't know their street names but she knew their faces: strung out, gaunt, swollen. These women worked the area around the port more regularly; Diana was here only for sport, only on special occasions two or three times a month because the money was spectacular though it didn't come easily. Still, she appreciated that unlike working the streets, the ship gave these women an opportunity to experience a certain degree of camaraderie. There was no need to steal tricks away from each other; there were plenty of men with plenty of money for everyone. After months at sea, the men were hungry; they were looking for a good time, they were looking for pleasure and Diana and her colleagues were going to provide it.
On board, men surrounded the women; they spiraled around them like salt struck coil.
"Got a room for me?" she asked, and a young guy in tight brown corduroys and a butterfly-collared shirt escorted her to his.
"This one okay?" he asked, but she was already on the bed taking off her clothes, and he had been hard and ready for her since he grabbed her hand and led her down the narrow corridors toward his cabin.
"I'm next," several men said as they queued outside and watched Diana work.
She left the ship with more than eight hundred dollars in her purse. It had been a particularly good night. An excellent night. Her lips were sore, dry, and cut at the corners from all of the men she serviced. The rest of her body hurt. She smelled of them, of their alcohol, their tobacco, their skin, their breath, their need. She felt tangled in their far-reaching shadows. Her legs felt liquid beneath her; her arms and hands ached; her sweaty hair stuck to her neck and the sides of her face. Her clothes were damp because although they had been pulled off shortly after she entered the cabin and she had left them in a heap of red and black fabric on the tile at her feet, the room had become hot and wet with each man who piled in.
And the ship refused to sleep; women continued to walk on and off, doors were still being closed and opened; jeans were still being unzipped, pulled off, thrown against walls and corners; condoms were put in men's hands again and again and again; women continued slipping twenties and fifties into their bras, their pockets, their purses, their underwear. The night was not yet over and no one noticed when finally Diana left. No one stood at the railing and waved her off. No one kissed her forehead, slicked back her hair, straightened out her blouse, cleaned off the smear of lipstick from the side of her lips. She came and left alone on her birthday. She walked the length of the ramp off the ship and headed toward the boulevard where she was no longer looking for work, but rather for a taxicab to give her a lift to a friend's house; he lived nearby.
* * *
Al Roundtree was a janitor at a bowling alley who worked night shifts during most weekdays. He was a quiet, "tall, thin, nice-looking, black man"; he was unmarried, unhurried, older, with tendencies toward helping others: he sheltered prostitutes when they needed a place to crash. For a lucky few, he lent them his spare bed, let them keep some clothes in the closet, gave them access to the TV, the fridge, the hot shower and clean towels. He was a "good man." On occasion, he let them shoot up, but he preferred it if they didn't; he wasn't a user or a dealer himself. And he wasn't into cleaning up messes.
He lived in a duplex with a neighbor who was older than he was and always asleep. His house was as close as Diana had to a sanctuary.
And she was one of his special girls. He was, admittedly, an off and on again john, but that was not his primary calling when it came to her. He was more ardently a guardian who gave her the privilege to use the spare key when he was away at the alley and when she needed to be somewhere other than a hotel room or a john's bed or the passenger seat of a car.
Diana arrived at his house in the middle of the night by way of taxi. She thanked the driver, told him to keep the change and called him "dear" or "sweetheart" or "honey" as she closed the door. She smoked two, maybe three menthols sitting on the steps leading to Al's front door and noticed the neighborhood's relative quiet and the clarity of the night sky: she looked up and admired stars. She located Polaris and made a wish in half-acknowledgment of the birthday that had ended only a few hours before. She stood, reached up and ran her fingers along the top of a windowsill, found the key, and unlocked the front door. The house was still and dark, comforting to her. She called out to Al though she knew there would be no answer; she locked the front door, slipped out of her clothes, and spread them out on the floor; clothing she had discarded only hours ago she was now taking care to smooth out wrinkles and properly fold. She showered, put on a sheer white nightgown that made her feel virginal and clean. She pulled the curtains shut, turned off the bedroom lights, lay her head down, and tried to calm her pulse because her heroin fix had begun to fade; she tried hard to relax; tried to go to sleep to keep her head from recycling recent images of man after man from the ship.
A light sleeper, she woke to sharp raps on the door and quickly got out of bed; she didn't pull a terrycloth robe around her shoulders or slide her feet into velvet slippers because she had neither of those things. She stood in her sheer white nightgown and thought it'd be a pleasant surprise for Al when he'd see her like this in the middle of the night. She would wrap her arms around him; she would ask him to hold her; she would lean her head against his chest; she would tell him it was her birthday.
The knocking started again and then continued; it became loud and violent: constant. She worried; thought perhaps something happened to Al, that perhaps he was in some kind of danger and needed her help. She rushed to the door with hands that were now shaking. "I'm coming, Al. I'm coming. Hold on a minute," she repeated over and over. But there were too many of them.
Men stood at the front door when she opened it. She doesn't remember how many exactly: Five? Six? More? They filed in like they owned the place and pushed her back into the living room. The first one slapped her, told her to "Shut the fuck up, bitch." Knocked her to the floor. Then they knocked the lamp over and it fell heavily beside her. They kicked away the coffee table, dirtied the carpet with the mud lining the bottom of their boots. They cleared the area. Made room for themselves. For what they felt they had the right to do. For what pimps do when you fuck with them, when they're fed up with you, when you haven't given them a single dime, and they've been watching your ass bring in more than any of their own whores.
They kicked her, told her to "Get up, bitch." Told her they were going to "Fuck her up" if she didn't. But she couldn't. She screamed and they kicked her again to keep her quiet. Someone pulled out a blade and knifed her, cut open her chin, the top of her wrist.
They ripped the nightgown open and then ripped it off. Too many hands pulled at her, pushed at her, hit her, punched her. She lay squirming on the carpet. Nude. Pantyless. Already bruised. Already stained red from her own blood. Her pale white flesh moved in rapid, rough jerks every time one of them connected with her; she rocked from one side to the next, her eyes darting everywhere. She knew their faces well. But they didn't care. They didn't bother to hide. No black pantyhose covered their faces, no bandanas. Nothing.
They didn't move too fast. They were in no hurry. No one was keeping time. No one nervously looked too often at his wristwatch. They didn't expect anyone to come home or cause trouble. They'd take care of Al if he thought to interrupt them. They didn't plan to leave witnesses, she says nearly crying… It is an assumption at best, but also something she feels deep down, carved into the scars of that memory.
They spread her legs with their own; too many hands—Six? Seven? Eight?—too many fingers pulled them open. They unbuckled their belts, unbuttoned their trousers, unzipped them, pulled them down, covered her in men, and raped her. All of them. Whites, blacks, Latinos. All of them. Multilingual, multicultural pimps. A garrison of pimps out for revenge, protecting their common interests.
Mafia style. Gangsta' style.
Fear the mob.
They raped her many times. She lay crucified on the carpet. Held down by knees, by the soles of boots, by fists and roughened palms. Her thighs were no longer white, but rather they were a dark, muddied red. The smell of metal in the air from blood. The sound of violence: muted and furious.
She screamed into the palm that covered her mouth.
She felt inconceivable pain.
And they raped her.
Until she felt nothing at all.
Until she saw nothing at all.
Until she no longer resembled a woman.
Or a human.
Until they were through with her.
Until they took a brick they brought from outside Al's house, and smashed her head with it.
When they left she was no longer conscious. She was no longer aware that when she was once again alone, she lay surrounded by blood.
* * *
Jacob—before the wedding, before their life together: Jacob as john—made a habit of sitting in his car and watching Diana late at night if he couldn't help himself, if he found the time, if he could find her on the street. She didn't know any of this because he didn't tell her. He'd be with her, hold the top of her head when it hovered over his lap, when she'd sit in the passenger seat of his car. He'd run his fingers through her hair. Pat her shoulders, her back. He'd tell her he loved her. She'd smile when she'd look up at him. "I love you, too, baby," she'd say. Then he'd take her back downtown on most evenings. She would thank him and wave to him as she walked away. You're my favorite regular, she'd tell him.
He watched her board the ship on the night of her birthday and leave it hours later. He watched her transform from lace and curls on the way in, to sweat on the way out. He watched her flag down a cab and get in. He followed it to Al's house like he did on other nights when she ended up there. He saw her sitting on the steps, smoking, watching stars, reaching up to find the house key, unlocking the door, and disappearing inside. He sat watching the house until it went dark, and he was sure she was asleep. He turned on the ignition, and crept out of his parking space with the headlights still off.
As he drove down the street he saw a car driving toward him. It headed in her direction, and when it finally passed him, he saw people he'd seen on the streets, the faces of men. He drove away, uneasy with a rush of paranoia overcoming him. He actively battled against it. It's nothing, he kept saying. She is fine. He forced himself to continue driving. But eventually, paranoia won. He circled back and headed to Al's neighborhood, determined to verify that he was wrong for feeling it, for succumbing to it.
When he finally drove past the house again, he could see that it was no longer dormant. The car he'd seen was parked down the way from Al's; there was a dim light emanating from a faraway corner of the living room. Every so often, he saw the outline of men behind the curtains. She's making money, he thought, parking his car again, turning off the ignition and lights again, watching the house again.
The men left the house like rats scurrying away from fire. He watched them get in the car and exit the neighborhood. Then he waited for Diana to once again turn off the house lights, a sign that she was finally going to bed. But the lights wouldn't turn off. The house wouldn't move. There was no outline of her figure walking inside.
Jacob allowed his paranoia to overcome him once again. He walked out of his car and knocked on Al's front door. He waited. He knocked again, waited again, prayed, and then turned the knob, and let himself in.
* * *
Afterward: Diana lay in Corpus Christi Memorial Hospital. The doctors contacted her mother, her sister, and her brother-in-law. The women came to hold her hand; they came to call her Ninfa disregarding her stage name Diana because they didn't know it existed, they wouldn't have cared if they did: they came to call her daughter and little sister. They kissed her face and smoothed her hair back. Her mother forgave her before she could ask for forgiveness and then she asked God to exonerate her daughter. Dios mío, perdónala! Perdónala!
Ninfa lay in a coma for days or weeks or months. She doesn't remember anything other than the number seven and the hospital doesn't keep records longer than ten years. Her mother has long passed on. Her sister refuses to speak to me. Her brother-in-law, she suggests, shouldn't know I exist.
"I was in a coma for seven years," she first told me; my eyes widened, I nodded in horror.
"Seven years," I repeated, completely bewildered. It took me many conversations and interviews to realize that there weren't seven years available for this coma in Ninfa's chronology, and with no medical records, it's difficult for me to corroborate the length of time she spent in this state.
But she has scars and metal plates as proof that everything she told me perhaps did happen in one way or another.
"Touch here," she's asked several times and I do, I reach over and touch the top of her head in three different places. "I used to get headaches," she says. "I'm not supposed to be out in the sun too long, the metal gets too hot, it's bad for me."
"And those?" I ask, referring to the deep grooves I've seen across the bottom of her chin and near the top of her left hand.
"Yeah, those too. They used a knife."
She kicked her heroin habit while in a coma. "I promised God I would never touch it and I haven't since." She stopped smoking. She was in what she remembers the doctors calling a "vegetable state"; she had to relearn her family's names and her own. She had to relearn who Jacob was, who she was. She learned to walk again, to speak again, to live again. Eventually, she married Jacob and for four years, she was no longer a prostitute; she no longer belonged to the streets; she replaced the trauma of that night, of the many years before, with happiness beside her husband; she began her second chance.
A long time later, I met her. I sat down next to her, she took the blank sheet of paper I was holding, and she wrote her name for me: Ninfa. She told me her name was Ninfa.