Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
An almost featureless desert spread out to either side of the highway as Tricia drove the rental car down it the following Saturday morning. “Boy,” Henry observed, “this is just about the middle of nowhere, isn’t it?”
“Pretty close,” she smiled, and pointed off to the right. “The middle of nowhere is over that way. It’s so empty they used to set off atomic bombs out there a long time ago.”
“I was right, the middle of nowhere,” he said. “How much longer before we get to where you’re taking me in such mystery?”
“A little while yet,” she said, “but we’re getting close. Henry, I know this seems like a mystery to you, but in a little while you’ll know everything you need to know. I appreciate your not trying to weasel it out of me the last couple of days, but like I said the other night, you need to see what I want to tell you, not just hear it. That way, maybe you won’t be tempted to read something into this that might not be correct.”
“Well, you have been pretty mysterious about it all, whatever it is.”
“I know, and I’m sorry, but like I said, all in one piece.” She let out a sigh, and made a decision. “Perhaps I ought to give you a little background so that when we get where we’re going you’ll understand what brought this all about. Henry, you know I grew up in a very poor family, don’t you?”
“You’ve never come right out and said it, but from things you’ve said I pretty well understood it.”
“It’s not quite the truth, but it’s the simple way to put it,” she replied. “When my father and mother were still together, I suppose it’s safe to say we weren’t dirt poor, but not far from it. I really didn’t understand that very well at the time, since I was still a small child. I never knew what caused my father and mother to break up. Mom wouldn’t talk about it, and the few times I saw my father after that he never mentioned it either. All I know is that after he left, dirt poor isn’t a bad way to describe how Mom and I had to live. I mean, a lot of welfare, a lot of Salvation Army clothes, and frankly, a lot of hunger. But again, I have to say that, looking back, at the time I didn’t understand how bad it really was, only that I knew kids who were better off than I was.”
“It must have been hard.”
“It was hard. However, I had the advantage of not knowing just how hard it was at the time. You’ve heard Myleigh talking about how she learned to play the harp without knowing she was doing things that were impossible on it?”
“Back at Jennifer’s at New Years, yes.”
“It was sort of the same thing for me. When I was nine years old, I was playing where I shouldn’t have been, and I was hit by a car. I don’t remember any details, except that I came close to dying, and I hurt a hell of a lot for a long time. I still have a few scars from that, and from the follow-up surgeries, and if you want I can point them out to you sometime, but for the most part they’ve vanished.”
She let out a long sigh and continued. “I suppose I can say I got lucky and had a damn good surgeon or two working on me, and I would like to thank them, but I don’t know who they were. What I do remember was that I was in a children’s hospital for a couple months. Like I said, I was hurting a lot of the time, and lonely much of the time. The high point of my day was when a doctor came around, a couple times a day usually, and rather than just look me over and press on, she spent a little time talking with me, even playing with me a little. I don’t think I knew at the time, but she must have been a resident, since I remember her telling me she wanted to be able to have a practice where she could work directly with people and their problems. I don’t know how I know she was talking about being a general practitioner. I don’t remember some of that clearly. But I got the impression she wanted to be on the front line of medicine, a position I later heard a professor of mine refer to as being ‘where the rubber meets the road.’”
“I’ve heard you say that before.”
“If the next couple hours goes all right, you will probably hear me say it again,” she replied. “But to get back to the story, she was so nice to me, she gave me so much hope, that I realized I wanted to do the same thing too. In that hospital bed at nine years old was when I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. I asked her how I could become a doctor, and she told me that I would have to want it very badly, and work very hard to get there.”
“So you did.”
“I did indeed,” she smiled. “Henry, I’ve told you before I tend to be a bit obsessive about things, especially goals. Once I have a goal set I will go through hell to get there. The odds are that my obsession started about that time, with that goal in front of me. There I was, Henry, in a charity ward in a children’s hospital. I didn’t understand at the time that the idea of becoming a doctor was the next thing to impossible for me. From that time onward, I wasn’t going to let the merely impossible stand in my way.”
“That’s a heavy burden to take on at the age of nine.”
“Yes, it is. Again, I had the advantage of not knowing just how heavy a burden it was going to be. I did understand I was going to have to work very hard in school just to take the first step. Let’s just say that I did and skip over the next few years by saying I was an all-A student when I graduated from high school. My grades were enough to get me accepted to UCLA. That by itself was a good deal more than anyone could have expected out of me a few years before. It was at UCLA I hit my first serious roadblock. To get most federal student aid, you have to fill out a form requesting it.”
“I’m familiar with it,” he nodded.
The desert around them was changing a little bit, and they were getting closer to a cluster of buildings, with an obvious airstrip close by. One of the buildings had a huge towering sign in front of it, although at that distance they couldn’t make out what it said. Tricia knew it very well, and felt the irony as she drove closer. She’d never thought she would be here again, and coming here like this was even harder to believe. But she kept it to herself as she went on, “Then you probably understand that part of the purpose of the form is to determine how much assistance parents will provide toward their children’s education. Of course, in my case, in a practical sense, it was none, and for that reason I should have been able to get reasonable grants. However, when I hunted up my father, he refused to sign it. His objection was that he didn’t want anyone to know his income, which might mean he’d be forced to pay my mother the alimony and child support he’d never paid much of in the first place. So, in a practical sense, I was blocked from most financial aid.”
“I’ve heard stories about things like that,” he said. “There are ways to get around a roadblock like that.”
“I understand that now,” she replied. “However, I didn’t then, and frankly, the advisors I had weren’t of much assistance to me. So I was left with trying to make a college career with very little money and no possibility of getting most student loans or grants. On the strength of my high school grades, I was able to get some scholarships, although they wouldn’t come near getting me through college. All I could do was do my best with what I had, working one, two, and sometimes even three jobs while I was trying to study in a tough pre-med program. I made it through my freshman year with reasonable grades, if not the greatest, but I could see that I wasn’t going to be able to carry on like that.”
They were getting closer to the buildings now, and they could read the sign now, although Henry made no comment about it. She slowed the rental car as she went on with her explanation, “I won’t go into how I managed to come up with a solution, although it’s a story I can tell you another time if you must know. It wasn’t a solution I wanted, and in some ways it wasn’t a very good solution, but I realized that if I were to become the doctor I dreamed of and obsessed about being, it was a way I could accomplish it. And at least it would be under my control, rather than being under the control of some paper-shuffling bureaucrat. As I said, I didn’t want to do it, but I felt I had no choice but to do it. That is why I ended up here.”
Henry looked up at the sign, now towering high overhead: Redlite Ranch Bordello. “I see,” he nodded. “And I can see why you felt you needed to cover it up.”
“Yes,” she sighed. “And the hell of it is, in many ways this has become sort of my home, and since my mother died, it has the people I consider closest to being my relatives.” She pulled the car into a parking space and shut the engine off. “Hell of a home, isn’t it?”
“I can’t imagine it.”
“You won’t have to imagine it,” she smiled. “That’s why I wanted to bring you here. Henry, over a period of five years, I spent a little under two years working here. It’s a very special place in some ways. I won’t say they were the best years of my life, but I would not be a physician today, nor would I have met you, had I not spent them here. Henry, I don’t want to pretend I know what you’re thinking, but I think if we’re going to have a future together, you need to at least see this place to understand a few things. As I told you the other night, I was doing nothing illegal. This is one of the few places in the country where house prostitution is legal. I would imagine my license is stuck back in some file cabinet in the office, if they haven’t thrown it out. The oddity of it being legal was the only reason I was willing to do it here or anywhere. Let’s go inside.”
“Tricia, I don’t know if I should do this. I mean . . . ”
“Nothing’s going to happen,” she smiled. “This is not an evil place, and the people are not evil. They’re just people, maybe with a little different outlook on some things, but human after all. I don’t want you imagining things when the facts are available, all right?”
“I guess,” he shrugged. “Since we’ve come this far.”
They got out of the car. Tricia sure wished she knew what was going through Henry’s mind after the revelations of the last few minutes. There was a little hope she hadn’t ruined things forever, but it was impossible to tell just yet. But, as she had said, he needed to know the whole truth, for better or worse.
They walked side by side to an obvious gate in the wrought-iron fence surrounding the place; no one was around outside, and the sun beat down harshly on a Nevada summer day that looked like it was going to turn into a real broiler. There was a sign next to the gate: RING BELL, PUSH GATE, HAVE FUN. Without hesitation, Tricia pushed the button next to the gate twice. There was a “click” from an electric mechanism, and she pushed the gate open.
“Come on, Henry,” she grinned. “Even if this doesn’t work out for us, you’re going to have a story I hope you’ll never tell.”
“Can’t win either way,” he laughed and shook his head. That laugh gave Tricia the most hope she’d had in the last several minutes.
They were only partway up the Astroturf sidewalk when the ornate front door opened. An elderly woman wearing a nice-looking, almost go-to-church dress stepped out, followed by a solid sixtyish-looking man in slacks and a polo shirt. There was enough age difference he could almost have been her son. “Patty!” the woman smiled. “It’s so good to see you again!”
“Patty?” Henry whispered.
“I’ll tell you in a minute,” she replied, then spoke up, “Shirley! George! I sure have missed you.”
“It’s been a while,” George smiled. “But you’re sure looking good. Shirley tells me you’re in practice now.”
“Yes, finally,” she said, stopping to give both of her friends a hug. “This is Henry. I told you about him when I called.”
“Patty,” the older woman grinned, “you really look like you’ve done well for yourself.”
“I like to think I have, Shirley,” she smiled, then turned back to Henry. “Something I should have explained,” she said, “is that George and Shirley are probably the only people here who know my real name, and you probably shouldn’t use it inside, just in case. In here, I’m known as Peppermint Patty.”
“I think we’re probably about the only people around who would remember you from the old days anyway,” George said. “People come and go pretty fast around this place sometimes.”
“Yes, but you and Shirley will be here forever,” Tricia – well, Patty, just now – grinned.
“Seems like it sometimes,” he replied. “It’s hard to believe it’s pushing twenty years. Let’s get inside. It’s going to be a scorcher if we stay out here today.”
Things had changed at the Redlite in the years since Patty had been there; a new addition had been put onto the building, for example. The lounge and greeting room had been redecorated, but she still recognized it. At this hour of the day, it was almost empty, which is why Patty had selected this time to come in the first place; Henry might get the wrong impression if they’d walked in twelve hours later. There were a couple girls Patty had no way of knowing sitting at one of the tables in the edge of the lounge, wearing sultry outfits and playing cribbage. There was a guy behind the bar, polishing glasses and cleaning things, like Danny had done when he’d been there almost a decade before.
“One of the things I’ve been meaning to ask when I got the chance,” Patty said, “is what Jennlynn is doing these days.”
“She drops by every once in a while,” George told her. “She’s not active anymore, but we worked out a deal where she owns a piece of the business. That came when we put the new addition on. She says she misses those days, but it was time in her life to move on.”
“Henry,” Patty grinned, “does the name ‘Jennlynn Swift’ mean anything to you?”
“The name rings a bell, but I can’t place it.”
“Jennlynn is a huge hero around this place,” Shirley said. “Come on, you want to see this.” She led them around the corner into the waiting room, where there was a big shadow-box framed display, with front pages of newspapers and covers of magazines. It was a collage of stories about the Southern 111 hijacking back in 2002, when passengers had overwhelmed the hijackers, recaptured the plane, and a Learjet-flying Nevada prostitute had landed the airliner because the regular flight crew was injured beyond the ability to do it.
“I hadn’t seen this,” Patty said, “but I’m glad it’s here. I’ve met Jennlynn several times, but I didn’t know her very well. She was only a weekend girl at the time, while I was pretty much a regular. But she made the point pretty clearly that just because a woman has been a prostitute doesn’t mean there aren’t other things she can do as well or better than anyone else. Believe me, Henry, I’ve had some dark days when I’ve had to conjure up Jennlynn’s image to give me a mental kick in the ass.”
“Jennlynn is one of a kind,” George shook his head. “She’s very out about her past, not that she wanted it to be that way, but she’s the kind of person who takes mud and turns it into apple pies. Lord knew she got a lot of mud slung at her after the press found out about her, but she made some damn nice pies out of it. But it still started with a person solid enough in who she was to fly her own Learjet in to work here.”
“Learjet Jenn, the fastest woman in the state of Nevada,” Patty smiled. “She’s cut a pretty good path in her life, hasn’t she?”
“You know, Patty,” Shirley spoke up, “I know you really want to keep your privacy, but there’s a part of me that would like to have a plaque or something in here honoring you. I’m still impressed by the determination you showed in making use of what you earned here. We’ve had several retired girls become nurses, and my understanding is that the more caring ones make pretty good ones. But we’ve never before had a girl who became an MD on us. We’ve had a few who already were MDs who came up here for weekends to help with student loan payments, but that’s something different.”
“I really would rather there not be a plaque here with my real name on it,” Patty nodded. “But if you felt like putting one up that said, ‘Dr. Peppermint Patty, MD’ with my work name in quotes, I wouldn’t object. Maybe I can be a little bit of an inspiration to some other girl.”
“It would be nice if you could be,” George smiled. “I’ve always been partial to girls who manage to make this place a steppingstone to something good in their lives. You’re not the only one by any means, Patty, but you took some bigger steps than most. Let’s take a quick tour. There’ve been some changes since you were here last.”
“Might as well,” she said. “I want Henry to see a little more of this place, anyway.”
It was fairly involved for a nickel tour, and it went into some places customers never saw. Patty showed Henry the room she’d spent the majority of her time working in – it was currently unoccupied, and mostly just bare walls at the moment. But there was much more than that; there was a rec room and an off-duty lounge for the girls, an exercise room, and more. Out back there was a large pool and a hot tub, and several small buildings that they told Henry were decorated in various exotic ways; they cost extra, but the girl got a chunk of the profits.
They went back through the kitchen, a large and professional looking place. “Is Sarah still here?” Patty asked. “I miss her.”
“We all miss her, especially me,” Shirley said. “I went to school with her, after all. God, that was a long time ago. She died of cancer a couple years ago. We have a pretty good cook in here now, but she’s not Sarah and she never will be.”
“The cook we have now does a pretty good lunch,” George admitted, “but there’s something lacking, and I can’t describe what it is. There’s still time for breakfast, if you’d like to have some.”
“I’d love it,” Patty said. “A pre-packaged honey roll on a plane does not make the kind of thing I consider a breakfast.”
The breakfast in the lounge was pretty good. “The thing we used to like about Sarah,” Patty told Henry, “is that she always realized we girls had to watch our weight. It would have been very easy to just sit down and pig out on some of her cooking, but if she caught you at it she’d give you hell. Oh, I don’t mean swearing or anything, she was a Mormon and I never heard a bad word pass her lips, but she could always get through to you. She always had low-calorie, healthy stuff for us and would make sure we ate it. I’ve had to eat a lot of ramen noodles meals over the years, Henry, but I have never in my life eaten as well as I did here, and I actually dropped a few pounds in the process.”
The four of them sat at one of the tables in the lounge. Henry noticed a small stage at one end of the room. “You have shows here?” he asked.
“Not as many as I hoped when Shirley and I planned the place,” George shrugged. “Once in a while we have a band in. There used to be a couple of gals who knew every song ever written about prostitution. They’d come around every now and then, dress up like parodies of street hookers and put on a hell of a show.”
“I heard about them,” Patty said. “They were before my time, though.”
“They got to be a big enough act that they thought they’d better stop playing here,” George shrugged. “When you get right down to it, I can’t say as I blame them. I sure wish we could turn up someone else like them, though.”
They got to talking about how George and Shirley got into the business. George, it proved, had liked hanging around the Nevada houses for years before he got the idea of owning one himself, but he had money enough to prime the pump to do it right. He’d brought in Shirley to actually manage the place, since it was considered better to have a woman who knew what she was doing in charge of the girls. Shirley knew what she was doing; she’d “turned out” as a house girl in the business at the age of fourteen in 1943, which meant she was close to eighty now. Patty had known that fact but forgotten it; she still seemed a lot younger.
That got them to telling stories; Patty knew that both George and Shirley had a lot of them. One of the better ones was the time when Jennlynn wound up in her Learjet, taking on an Air Force pilot in a Stealth fighter – and roundly whipping his ass. Patty remembered it well; she’d been there when it happened, and some “double or nothing” bets had made it one of her most profitable days ever. That led to other Jennlynn stories, and then just other stories.
The place had been pretty slow most of the morning, but after noon things started to perk up a little. They sat back and watched a few customers come in and select girls out of a lineup, and take them out back; Patty described how things were done, and that barriers or condoms were always used. That was partly for safety’s sake, partly because George and Shirley insisted on it, partly because it kept a little barrier of intimacy between the girls and their customers, but mostly because it was the law. “As far as we know,” George told them, “there has never been a case of AIDS passed along in a Nevada brothel, and we in the business are pretty proud about that. It’s our duty to our customers, and it’s our duty to our girls.”
By the middle of the afternoon Patty figured that she’d shown Henry about what he needed to see. There was still much more he could have learned, still more stories he could have been told; in fact, it could have gone on all weekend. But at least she thought now he had a picture of what had actually gone on with her life there, limited though it had to be. Now all she had to worry about was what he would decide – and the distant but still existing possibility he’d announce her secret if he was too disappointed in her. He’d been interested, but impassive, and once again she couldn’t tell what was on his mind. The only thing she could do now was to let him decide; she’d done what she could do, and now it was out of her hands.