The Perpetual Virgin of Gassy Gap
News of Miss Priscilla’s demise at the delicate age of 16 wafted through the hidden Virginia hill town like the rotten-egg burps of its sulfur springs. By the time morning coffee’d been served at The Grandview, all of the vigilant inhabitants of Gassy Gap had heard about her brutal strangulation at the hands of their esteemed sheriff, Jefferson P. Stonewall. No one was surprised.
Like prey, the girl’d been spotted that warm spring day in 1899 as she struggled out of the Lynchburg coach, as good as camouflaged by dust. She’d survived, alone, for no more than a minute—as fast as snow melt in April—then’d been seized by a lady of particular notoriety. It had been that fast.
At the time, the watchers noted that nothing good would come of this encounter. And when, at last, calamity struck months later, they snickered. They’d been so right. Miss Priscilla, the everlasting virgin who received callers at Mrs. Rutherford’s Establishment for Gentlemen, was dead.
Out for a stroll, her senses roused by the sun, Mrs. Rutherford regarded the newcomer as she clambered from the rocking coach. The young woman’s boot heel caught on the rickety step, a catastrophe in the making, but she righted herself with practiced agility. Despite the lack of a left arm.
Interesting, thought Mrs. Rutherford as she twirled her tasseled parasol. Clever and resourceful. With a professional eye, she assessed the young woman, from the peak of her smudge-hammered bonnet to her buffed but exhausted boots. Tall, perhaps too stringy, but those forget-me-not blue eyes could pull ‘em. As could the nubbin. So the young lady was missing her left arm? Every man had his taste, Mrs. Rutherford, of all people, knew. There was money to be made here.
“Good afternoon, miss. Welcome to Gassy Gap.”
With a slight tilt of her head, the girl replied. “And good day to you, ma’am.”
She hadn’t curtsied as Mrs. Rutherford, a woman of a certain age and deportment, had expected. Perhaps she simply lacked manners. “Mrs. Amelia Rutherford,” she said, jutting out her arm.
Dust sputtered about the hem of the young woman’s dress when she plunked her portmanteau onto the street. With her only arm, she waggled the proffered hand. “Minnie Ida Smith, ma’am.”
“Oh, so silly. I’d forgotten, you see.” With a jerk of her chin, Mrs. Rutherford indicated the girl’s stump. Heat prickled her cheeks, a sensation unknown in more than forty years. What was it about this one? Real young, sorta pretty. Somehow appealing.
Oh, well. “May I help you? Perhaps direct you to your lodgings?”
“Thank you, but I was thinking of stopping here,” the girl said, swooping her only arm behind her to indicate the hotel, a moldering hangover of the town’s immoderate past.
Mrs. Rutherford flattened her lips. “Costly and not quite right for one such as yourself.” As the coach raced off, goaded by dust devils, she barked into her fist, then thumped her pleated bodice.
“Now, my dear,” she said, swiping her nose with a gloved finger, “because we are such good friends, why not stay with me?” With eyes wide, she bequeathed her Lady of the House smile upon the young woman. “I run a special kind of house, but I can offer you a quiet bedroom to yourself for a few days.”
Her false teeth clacked slightly. Oh, this was good. At the mention of the house, Miss Smith hadn’t blinked. This girl was not fresh but could be reinvented. She was just what Mrs. Rutherford had been waiting for. Oh my, yes. She’d do.
Even an overlapped front tooth didn’t diminish the young one’s grin. “Thank you, ma’am. I’d be happy to take you up on that invitation.”
She steered the girl around the corner and up the porch steps to her establishment, a narrow clapboard house bathed in coy pinks, bordered in husky blues. On the second floor, she showed her a room with a window that overlooked a smear of dirt and a conked-out cherry tree. Though poky, the space contained a bed smothered with comforters and a wooden chair with only one splintered leg. An experienced business woman, Mrs. Rutherford produced food and drink, then left her new employee. Tomorrow would be time enough.
After three demanding days, the transformation was complete. Scalding baths, generous scrubbings, and an assortment of almost-white linens. Red curls sculpted into a configuration resembling an art form. Warped toenails pared and the fingernails on her right hand buffed to a pearly luster. Finally, her apparel tweaked to make the most of the alluring stump.
“I can’t believe it,” Minnie Ida giggled, twirling in a bourbon-brown dress before the mirror. “It this me?” While her hips swayed, her stump sashayed in harmony, and the air itched with the scrape of starched cotton on petticoats. She grinned at the mottled reflection of the older woman. “Thank you kindly, ma’am, I’ve never had anything so beautiful.” A wink. “I hope I can repay you in some way.”
“Oh, think nothing of it, my dear. Anything for such a pretty little lady.”
Why was she tittering? What had come over her? This was just another young one, and, here she was, acting like an old fool. Was it the girl’s easy ways? Her toothy grin? Or was it the shadow of an odor that lingered despite multiple washes. The smell she couldn’t quite identify. Like battered-in misuse. Like too many selfish fingers about the girl. Mrs. Rutherford licked her dry lips.
Maybe, after all, it was that lovely nubbin. The length of her outstretched fingers, from the knob of the girl’s shoulder to the abrupt but well-mended climax, that stitched up end. The stump blazed pink, verging on violet, freckled like a sausage and as silkily glossed. Delicious to behold, bewitching to touch, with nary but a black-threaded lump or two to draw the eye. And the finger.
“Now, sit up straight, my dear, and smile. Always smile for our gentlemen.” Mrs. Rutherford demanded perfection in every detail and insisted that Minnie Ida be well prepared. Afternoons swelled with anatomical lectures and workshops of an energetic nature, in addition to an oral exam at the end. An apt and compliant learner, the child tugged a kind of indulgence, a partiality, from her heart. This was new.
“What have I fashioned?” In her shaded office, fiddling with the topmost button of her dress, she pondered her options aloud to the mantel clock. “What next? What do I do with this one?” She found herself bewildered, punch-drunk, like many of the ardent gentlemen callers. When she considered the girl, her bosom prickled. Her belly tingled. Could she give this one up for public consumption? Relinquish her to the gentlemen? Ah, but could she afford not to?
While she sipped whiskey from a porcelain teacup, there came thoughts of her old age. Her much older age. Would she be alone? Sleep in a friendless bed? Who’d love her if she had no money? And so her business head overruled her heart. She wouldn’t be selfish, but would, to a degree, share. Accordingly, she and Miss Smith came to a certain conversation and a financial arrangement, to which both parties agreed. Then the name change.
“I’m sure your parents intended much, my dear, by naming you after your grandmother, but Minnie Ida sounds…well, if truth be told,” began Mrs. Rutherford, puffing into the air, “like a farm girl. A hillbilly girl, if you see what I mean. Not elegant enough for the well-schooled woman you have become.”
She scrunched up an eye to consider the apparition before her, then reached for the girl. “You need a special name, dear heart. Perhaps Queenie? No,” she mused as Minnie Ida shook her head. “How about Princess May?” No, again. “I know.” She flattened Minnie Ida to her bosom and inhaled, as always, that muffled odor. Like leavings.
“I’ll call you Priscilla. Miss Priscilla.” The name hissed. “I once knew an exceedingly talented girl by that name. Did wonders for the gentlemen. A lucrative kind of name.”
Thus was Miss Priscilla drawn into her new life, her new identity, at Mrs. Rutherford’s establishment. The gentlemen callers flocked, standing in line to visit. While Mrs. Rutherford fingered her hefty change purse, she watched the men stagger away, to return the next evening. She’d made the right decision in turning the young woman out to market. And it hadn’t even hurt because, in all of those lovely, warm morning hours, the two of them alone together, the girl could rouse her flaccid heart. Most of the time, she even seemed willing.
And that was another thought. Why did this little thing agree to her attentions? Not as if she was young herself. No longer beautiful. So it was love, pure and simple. Not because she was the boss, was it? Certainly not. The girl loved her, didn’t she. Never objected, never said no. Mrs. Rutherford’s brain sizzled, quenched only by a cuddle.
Although that wasn’t everything. More to the girl than that, considerably more. This one was sharp, like herself as a beginner. Almost a mirror image. Not like a daughter, though. No, not like that. This one was a protégé, an apprentice. Someone she could shape after herself. Often the girl told her how she admired her. How she respected her knowledge of men. How well she regarded her good judgment.
“Oh, Mrs. R. You’re so smart, the way this place makes money,” the girl declared one late morning in bed. “I want to be just like you. Live the way I want, no man to tell me what to do. Get rich, like you, and have everybody know who I am.” She smiled, tapping her employer on the arm. “Someday, I’m going to have my own business, too.”
“Well, thank you, my dear,” Mrs. Rutherford blinked, feeling in a bit of a flap. She dabbed her clammy face. Did the girl love her that much? Was she so admired? This one knew her well. How she’d made a go of it, by herself, a woman alone. That the girl wanted to be like her, just like her, made heat bubble up in her breast. It took her breath.
The girl ran her fingers up her employer’s pouchy cheek. She leaned close. “It’s real good to see how you manage now that you’re so old.”
Well. That pulled her up short—old?—but she let it go. It was meant kindly, after all, wasn’t it. No harm done. The girl loved her, truly loved her. That much was clear.
Each summer evening the gentlemen wheeled about Miss Priscilla like woozy-headed moths. Curious, Mrs. Rutherford scrutinized each caller as he left, dumfoundment on his whiskered face. How was this possible? What was going on? One ear smooshed flat to the door of the girl’s room, Mrs. Rutherford eavesdropped.
“Now, now, take it easy, sir. Gently, gently.” Then a pause. “Of course, you could wallop it right in, but…could you hold on a minute?”
Then came swooshing and swishing sounds like blundering fingers on silk drawers. The bedsprings squealed in glee as, in Mrs. Rutherford’s head, the bodies oscillated and throbbed as they should, fulfilling the promise of the house. But, what was all this talk? Had Miss Priscilla disrobed as required? Was she following the guidelines? Mrs. Rutherford gasped aloud. Would she have to switch this gentleman to another girl? Or—heaven forbid!—refund his money?
Her teeth snapped shut as she heard the gentleman caller plead.
“Come on, Miss Priscilla. I need some loving.” Thin as the door was, the caller’s voice sounded muffled. Had he asked to be bound? Then, more clearly, “I won’t hurt you, hon. I just want to feel that pretty pink nubbin.”
Next, more of the girl’s mumblings. Bare footsteps whispered to the window. Mrs. Rutherford knew every inch of that room—what was her new pupil doing in there, for Pete’s sake? Why wasn’t the girl in bed where she belonged? Maybe she’d have to break in on this little rendezvous, something she didn’t like to do unless someone cried murder.
And now she couldn’t even remember the gentleman’s name, only that he had little hair and could have used a wash. Her brain leaked. Everything she’d ever known was gone, her head empty. What was all this forgetting? For Heaven’s sake, her business was at stake.
Then, from behind the closed door, the gentleman growled. “Enough talking now.” Miss Priscilla said something, too soft to make out.
The gentleman again. “Leave it on if you want, hon, but get on over here.”
Aha! So, Miss Priscilla hadn’t shed her combinations. There’d be demerits for flouting that requirement. No one broke house rules. As Mrs. Rutherford fluffed herself up and prepared to fling open the door, she heard, of all things—something she thought she’d never hear in her establishment—the gentleman crying. She jerked her hand back as if scorched.
“Oh, Miss Priscilla,” the man sobbed. “You’re the sweetest thing. No one’s ever talked so kindly to me, not even my dear old mother. My missus don’t ever ask me how I’m doing, what I’m feeling. Nobody’s ever cared before—only you.”
The gentleman blew his nose, the blast ringing against Mrs. Rutherford’s ear. “No one’s ever asked me about myself, what I’d like out of life. Thank you, Miss Priscilla,” he snuffled. “You make me feel like I’m somebody.”
Well. Then more words Mrs. Rutherford couldn’t make out.
Next, “No, hon, you just keep yourself together. No need to go undressing on my account.” A loud sniff. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me. I’ve never felt like this.”
Mrs. Rutherford heard jouncing bed springs, then footsteps moved toward her. As the door opened, she casually put a hand to her stiff ringlets, as if passing through the hall.
“Why, Mr. Edwards”—she’d remembered his name—“how nice to see you. Such a fine evening.” With a practiced eye she considered her employee, then turned back to the caller. “Everything satisfactory?”
“Wonderful, Mrs. Rutherford, couldn’t be better.” He looked to the girl. “See you tomorrow, sugar.” Red curls looped down the front of Miss Priscilla’s linen wrap as she waved goodbye with her stump.
Mrs. Rutherford’s forehead puckered. Her lips pursed. What was going on? The gentleman appeared satisfied with…words? Could it be true? If this caught on, what would become of her establishment?
While one busy month clattered raucously into the next, Mrs. Rutherford came to understand that such was the girl’s talent that she simply conversed during a caller’s visit. That she gently caressed a hand limned with dirt, patted a gruff shoulder while the gentleman sniveled into his brittle handkerchief. “Oh, Miss Priscilla,” she overheard a gentleman gasp, “I feel so much better after talking with you.” Other gentlemen thanked her profusely. “You make me feel different, Miss Priscilla, like I was worth something.”
Fluent in her art, Miss Priscilla brought forth longings so hidden, breathed words so sugared, that no caller realized that she’d disrobed only to her linens. Enraptured, the gentlemen grew sightless. Mrs. Rutherford was astonished, pleasantly so, to learn that no physical attentions were forced upon the girl. Miss Priscilla remained innocent, unspoiled by any gentleman. At least, that’s what was said, and it was in the interest of the establishment to be discreet. The girl remained Mrs. Rutherford’s moneymaker.
Summer dawdled in the streets of Gassy Gap. As she sweated through the afternoons, Mrs. Rutherford hid in her darkened office. Again she spoke aloud, as if comforting a friend. “Good Lord, Amelia, what is going on with you? What in the world do you think you’re doing?” Her voice squeaked to a close. “Where will this end?”
Despite, or because of, these reflections, she pursued the girl, pampered her, pressed candied treats upon her. And lovingly bathed her long white back. Sure, she was a comely thing, pretty to play with, but this one stirred her. The freckled chest and one pale, sinuous arm. The nubbin. Maybe it was that glossy red mane that she brushed and through which she’d run her gnarled fingers. Maybe she was fearful of growing old. Of being alone.
But she’d be fine even if alone, wouldn’t she. Smart, like the girl’d said. Able to take care of herself and live by herself. She’d never needed anyone, and she sure didn’t need this one. Why she’d had girls before. Real friendly girls. Happy-go-lucky girls. She’d be just fine. She could handle anything. Even alone.
One evening as expected, given his appetite for youngsters with slender forms, Sheriff Stonewall burst into Mrs. Rutherford’s establishment. He tipped his hat and straightaway sighted Miss Priscilla, cradling her stump, smiling that gap-toothed grin.
“Whoa, boy,” he whistled.
Nearby, Mrs. Rutherford watched. The sheriff’s wattles shook, and his grey lips wrenched open, spewing a muddle of soured mash that Mrs. Rutherford politely fanned away. She saw him lose himself in those blue eyes. She saw him fall in love.
He did appreciate good woman-flesh and liked ‘em tender, but this one? This one was hers, damn him, and when Miss Priscilla fluttered her lashes and twinkled her little fingers at him, well, it bruised her heart. Though she’d trained the girl to flirt, this was different. Sheriff Stonewall wasn’t just any man. Oh, no. He was a town official, someone of note. Someone who would be demanding, who’d control the girl. Still, what could she do but give up Miss Priscilla to him? Knowing that it would be the end of her affectionate hours with the girl, the end of her love. There. It’d been said.
“Sheriff?” With an expert smile, Mrs. Rutherford placed the girl’s only hand on his arm. “May I introduce our new young lady?”
As she listened at Miss Priscilla’s door, her mind spun with images, with details. How Sheriff Stonewall’d move in real close, take the girl’s hand, rub his coarse palm about the nubbin. How he’d want more, of course. But, when she heard only soft mumbles, she knew the man’d been taken in by the girl’s art, her concern for his never-before-expressed troubles. He’d tell her how damn tough it was being the sheriff of Gassy Gap, how no one could know his tribulations. How no one understood, only Miss Priscilla.
Near about closing time, Mrs. Rutherford saw the sheriff in the parlor. The way he sauntered in, belly first, and the face on him. The man supposed himself special, believing the girl was his—and his alone. How dare he? The gall. He knew nothing. Nothing. As he walked out of the house, she heard him declare that he’d throttle any man who stood on his path to paradise. Any man.
Though Sheriff Stonewall claimed the girl most nights in October, Mrs. Rutherford broadcast good cheer and counted the coins. This was business, wasn’t it, and she still had the girl on occasion. And, if she was to lose her completely, well, she’d lose her, that’s all. What else could she do? He was the sheriff. And she was only a woman.
One drowsy afternoon near the end of the month, Miss Priscilla sat up in bed. “Oh, Mrs. R, you’ll never guess.” With the help of her stump, she yanked the covers to her chest. “I can’t keep it in any longer. As of next week, I’m done here.”
The girl’s crooked tooth glinted. “I’ve been planning this for a while, saving everything I could, and guess what?” She laughed, slapped her hand over her red mouth. “This is so good, Mrs. R. I’m going to open up a Genteel Marriage Introduction Parlor to help gentlemen meet ladies. I know it’ll be a success, so wish me luck.”
What? What had the girl said? Was she now deaf? Buzz, buzz, buzz. After their cuddles, it took a minute or so to come back to her senses, but now here the girl was, staring out the window, rattling on about something, looking very pleased with herself. What was this? She’d seen the girl squirrel away her coins, heard the clink of her money box under the mattress. Watched as she dressed, then mysteriously traipsed out many afternoons. What hadn’t she understood? What had she missed?
Then she got it. Not one to scream or slap, not outwardly, anyway—though the girl certainly deserved a smack for her ingratitude—Mrs. Rutherford lashed her dressing gown about herself. She choked back a reprimand and strode from the room, knowing that they’d speak about this later. After all, she was almost as skilled with words as the girl.
But, in the privacy of her bedroom she reconsidered. As the owner of a fine establishment, she would neither be petty nor mean. Anyway, what could she say? She had launched this creature, knew she was saving her wages, and now the end was as good as finished. The worst had happened, hadn’t it, and she’d have nothing. Though the sheriff would also be deprived, wouldn’t he?
Her gloating was rewarded. That evening, Sheriff Stonewall yelled and hollered. He stamped his boots, and, striking the wall above Miss Priscilla’s head, caused the house to shiver. With a lighter heart, Mrs. Rutherford heard it all from behind the door.
“It’s one thing to visit this establishment, a man is a man for all that, and the missus is an understanding woman,” he began, “but I could never visit the Introduction Parlor. Why, I’m a married man, blast it all. I can’t be seen walking into the Parlor like some lonely old fart from the hills.”
A dull wallop on bedcovers. “No, Puss, it won’t do. It just won’t do.” Mrs. Rutherford could all but see the man shove his waggling finger in the girl’s face. “You’ll stay right here where I can keep an eye on you.”
“But this will be the making of me, Sheriff.” The girl’s voice rose. “The Introduction Parlor will be a success, I know it.”
“No, child. You can’t, and that’s final.” The bedsprings yelped, and Mrs. Rutherford heard the shushwhirl of a gun cylinder. The sheriff’s revolver, ever close. A Civil War memento.
“Oh, for goodness sake, put that away,” the girl tsked. Then a clunk as if the gun had settled on the floor.
“You know, Sheriff, you have no hold over me.” Every word crisp, clear. “I’m old enough to take care of myself. Can’t you wish me luck on my new business?”
“Your Introduction Parlor be damned.”
With that, the door crashed open, and Mrs. Rutherford disappeared into another room where she watched the girl jostle the man out. A difficult thing with one arm, but she wrangled with five strong nails and good kicking legs.
“How dare you,” the sheriff said. “Child, you will be sorry.”
Mrs. Rutherford left the girl alone, didn’t call upon her to entertain other gentlemen. But, as she prepared her establishment the next evening, she wondered if Sheriff Stonewall would appear. Miss Priscilla needed to be ready. Enough sulking, enough feeling sorry. Grow up.
Once she’d plumped a sofa cushion, polished a table or two, Mrs. Rutherford ensured there were clean glasses to hand for her slightly watered drinks. The evening felt festive for some reason, like a holiday, although it was only October 29th, and she hummed as she unbolted the front door, sensing money on the cool breeze.
“Now, gentlemen,” she laughed to the crush of callers. “Plenty for all. And, ah, Sheriff Stonewall,” she fluttered her fingers. “Welcome, sir. Miss Priscilla is in her room, waiting for you.”
He pushed by without a glance, without a greeting, his face flushed beneath white scraps of beard. Now what? No need to be rude. But, busy as the evening became, she thought no more about it. Miss Priscilla would see him right. She knew the girl, knew she’d do what was needed.
While the callers amused themselves with the other women, Mrs. Rutherford poured whiskey for those that waited. She walked about, chuckling. Asked the gentlemen about their beautiful wives, their smart kids, their magnificent grandchildren. If she heard a hoarse voice or any scuffling from Miss Priscilla’s room above the parlor, well, she thought of it only as a makeup session with the sheriff.
Then, over the laughter and chatter of waiting callers, she heard a distinctive whack from above, like a toppled chair. A sharp crack over her head. One or two of the gentlemen looked to her, but she only smiled. “Oh, that Miss Priscilla,” she snorted. They beamed and nodded in appreciation.
Then two thumps. Enough already. She strode up the stairway, her boot heels striking the wooden treads. This kind of behavior would not be tolerated, regardless of the sheriff’s renown. Well, unless he and the girl had agreed upon certain activities, and Mrs. Rutherford had been remunerated in kind. But this had not been arranged. It wouldn’t do.
As she banged upon Miss Priscilla’s door, she heard gurgling. What were they doing? Something new? Could she charge more? With teeth clamped, keen to take control, she threw open the door.
Her heart juddered. There, on the floor before her, Sheriff Stonewall and the girl tussled, squirming as if in the throes of love. His hands clamped about her neck, the back of his outsized paws bristling with tangled veins. Under the sheriff, Miss Priscilla’s legs wriggled, her bare heels on the floorboard tapping out a message. Her only arm flapping, waving goodbye. She gagged, her face a confused red.
“I say no, and that’s final,” the sheriff spat.
“And I say, not on your life.” With that, Mrs. Rutherford hurled herself across the sheriff’s back, tugged at his arms, but he was too big, too absorbed. She slid off to yank at his hands. “Help! Help me!” No one came, no one heard amidst the laughter and talk below. “Somebody, help.”
As Miss Priscilla’s blue eyes goggled wide, her gurgles sputtered to a stop. The sheriff’s wheezes, vulgar, wet. And then Mrs. Rutherford spotted the revolver. With one thought only, she grabbed the Colt and cocked it, shoving it onto Sheriff Stonewall’s hard head, exactly behind his right ear. The gun fired.
What was this? Why were there bodies on the floor? The air seethed, quivered. She lost her breath. Too late. Too late. What had she done? And what was this stink? A scalding stink like a barnyard after the fall slaughter. The hot gun clanked on the floor. With eyes closed, she shrouded her mouth with panicked hands, as close to prayer as she’d get.
Into the hot silence, from below rose chuckles and happy shouts. Someone began a rude jingle about a young lady from France, the one she’d taught them a few days ago. Then foot stomping and more laughs, snorts of hilarity. Had no one heard her call? The gunshot?
She closed the door of the room behind her and walked down the stairway to her guests, her chin up, the Lady of the House mask upon her face. One of her more grateful gentlemen, to whom she’d propose special rates, would see to the untidiness upstairs. Gassy Gap was Gassy Gap, after all.
She’d surely miss the girl but had a business to run. Things to do. A living to be made. Her throat in a muddle, she swallowed. Then, with professional cheer, she called out. “Drink up, boys. On the house.”
[Check out Edna’s back porch wisdom here]