(excerpted from the novel, Little Wolf)
Melissa didn’t think anything about Boone at all, but she smiled at him. She ducked her eyes, looking away the way men like a girl to do. In the years she’d been in this brothel, she’d learned a lot about what men want. She pouted her lips just a little and held her hands together demurely. She didn’t think about him, barely registered he was even there. Like flies. Like working through trash looking for food, and you know the flies are there, and you know they bite, but you’ve learned to live with them. They buzz past your ear, you might swat at them, or you might not even bother.
Boone was appraising all of them, but Melissa knew the minute he walked in that he would choose her. He was the type, and she was his type. Small. Delicate, he might call her. Little flower, he might whisper to her. Or maybe she’d be wrong. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t posture. Maybe he was the silent type.
Melissa didn’t actually think any of this at all. These things just registered somewhere in her mind as she looked at her nails, subtly arranging her hips. Her body was like a vase of flowers: meant to be arranged. Meant to be bought. Not alive though. Just wood. Stems cut, no water, pretty at the top, dying below.
Behind Boone’s head, a decoration hung from the drop ceiling. A woven red circle encased a plastic jade-colored Buddha. It twisted slightly in the breeze from a fan and moved behind Boone in a jolly way. Melissa focused on the tassel which brushed Boone’s shoulder every second or two, coming to rest for a minute and then jiggling again. Buddha on his shoulder. Melissa thought this was very funny. Kill Buddha if you meet him on the street, they say. She hadn’t had an altar to her ancestors; maybe she never would. She never paid ghost money to them, and hence, she had no luck. Buddha must know she was very bad. She would kill Buddha if he came to her here.
This is how her thoughts went, jumbled, almost incoherent. This was the surface of her thinking. Below, there was another layer of not thinking. At that level, she knew things she didn’t think; she just knew. And one thing she knew was how to wait well, how to wait beautifully.
Boone did nothing for a while. He just looked at the women as they waited. Finally, he chose. All he did was nod at Melissa, and then Madame Bolan began to chatter amiably to him, while nodding almost imperceptibly to Melissa. It was a hard little nod, all business, a nod that came across a room with the force of a slap. It meant Do a good job; do what you are supposed to do. It meant Don’t fuck up. It meant Or else.
The only resistance in Melissa registered in her lips. Not her whole mouth, but just in a subtle tightening of the right side of the lips where they meet. Outwardly, she smoothed the hair behind one ear, letting her hand linger a moment, letting it tremble a little, all the while looking down and tilting her head as she got up to move to Boone. As she came before him, she tilted her head more to the side and raised her eyes to look at his as if from the floor and with all the moist brightness she could bring to them.
It worked on Boone, and as he looked back at those eyes, so black he couldn’t tell where the pupils and the irises met, he felt something in the back of his head squeeze, and he had to look away. “Like a little doe,” he thought. “I found me a little doe after all.”
Melissa saw through his eyes right to the back of his head where things were squeezing, and she could feel it. She could sense the loosening of his legs, and the breath getting caught in his chest. Got him, she thought, though it wasn’t exactly a thought, and when the Madame nodded again at her, and Melissa touched his arm, so tentatively that she knew it would take a split second for the feeling to register on his skin and race through his body to light his brain on fire, she knew this too: he would be a crier.
LAURA MCCULLOUGH has two collections of poetry, The Dancing Bear (Open Book Press) and What Men Want, forthcoming from XOXOX Press, as well as a chapbook of prose poems, Elephant Anger, by Mudlark. Her first novel, Finding Ong’s Hat is forthcoming from Plain View Press. She holds an MFA from Goddard College. Her poetry and fiction has recently appeared in or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Nimrod, Gulf Coast, Hotel Amerika, Slab, The Hiss Quarterly, New South, and other journals.