I’ll pull this post by tomorrow I bet, but here’s a smutty little piece from the novel describing a holiday fete in a brothel in 1907. My influences are obvious: Deadwood and Annie Lennox’s Christmas album.
December 23, 1907: Centenary, NV
Two days before Christmas, Lily made a legend of herself, one from which she and Centenary would never recover. The girls of the Ophelia offered up a holiday pageant, and the white lights of High Street were wrapped in gold and green veils with ribbons tied to every post. The air was cold but dry, and yet there was a promise in the clouds, a signal of sorts.
There had been parties for weeks. Polite parties, family parties, feasts and dances, and pious choirs in Dickensian robes as if they could call down winter snow by acting the part. And there had been a myriad of church events, even though the Blessings—the Blessing of the mines, the Blessing of the burros, the Blessing of the dynamite stores and the like—would not happen until the New Year. It was a socially fatiguing season, particularly because Centenary’s population was so small relative to its largess. There was an abundance of wealth moving through the community and no place to hide if you were disinclined to celebrate.
So by the eve of the Eve, many men were exhausted by the wholesome and spiritual pleasures of their families. They poured into the Ophelia and the Ophelia poured into them—each man entering the brothel received a hefty punch cocktail at the door and many more after that if they kept the cards and the girls in play. The Ophelia doves dressed like shabby winter queens in silken dressing gowns and tin-can tiaras set with hunks of polished bottle glass. One of the women played a banjolin, loaned for the occasion by a Turkish miner. She sat on a stage of borax crates, her knees drifting apart as she concentrated on keeping her strums lively.
The men were unusually fresh and jovial, all shaved and bathed for the season. For once there were no dusty boots, no sullen faces, and best of all, no violence. Even Mr. Tanglewood had trimmed his hair and laundered his vest. When the banjolin woman was called away to ply her trade, a handbell player took the stage dressed in a man’s smoking jacket and fez, but nothing else. She played a few carols with a great deal of seriousness, and her audience responded with raucous applause.
Despite being fully electrified, the room was gold with candle light, and the smoke added to the intoxicating fog already generated by pipes and cigarettes. Tanglewood could hardly keep up with the money changing hands at the bar and games tables. The girls were expected to keep their own accounts.
Arthur Goud sat at the bar in a place of honor. He was wearing his Sunday shirt and his boots were carefully cleaned. He hadn’t paid for a drink yet, but he was well oiled, thanks to the generosity of friends he did not know he had.
Just as rumors of Centenary’s decline had threatened the joy of the season and hope for the future, Goud was profiled in the Prospector as a particularly intuitive and savvy miner whose faith in the Apollo operation remained unshaken. He was depicted as a rambler who had been tamed by Centenary’s gleaming modernity, where the streets glowed with gaslights and shop windows dazzled with electricity.
The pull quote was this: “Centenary makes night into day. Life is longer in Centenary.”
Goud believed in Centenary, and his optimism was the antidote to the caution of the Apollo mine’s assessors. He claimed could read the gold in a fistful of dirt from Penance Lane.
At nine o’clock a gong was struck, and most of the candles were snuffed leaving the attendees in shadows. The frails still on the floor pulled away from their men and assembled together at the back of the hall. There were eleven of them, including the banjolin and handbell players. The women linked arms and pointed their toes so that their legs were exposed as they sang three songs: The Boy I love is Up in the Gallery, Oh! Mr. Porter, and of course, Jingle Bells. When they finished the women scrambled back to the laps of their preferred patrons, waiting in the darkened room for the evening’s special performance.
The room hushed, except for a few giggles of anticipation, but no one had to wait for long. Soon a kind of candelabra appeared, blazing with seven sticks alight, held high and tilting out of a shadowed corner like a string-borne prop at a swindler’s séance. Eventually it became clear that the candles were affixed to a kind of helmet-wreath worn by none other than Lily Joy.
That she wore a crown of flames was only one remarkable aspect of her appearance. Her garment, an angelic robe with long, open sleeves, was made of a shimmery, transparent material, revealing her naked body beneath. Her nipples and pubis had been darkened to ensure visibility by candlelight.
She was greeted with sighs and groans, and other non-translatable expressions of carnal reverence. Lily Joy positioned herself at the center of the back wall so all could see. Her red hair spilled down from the candle crown, and the tendrils had been oiled to curl around the outsides of her breasts. Between them hung a heavy gauge golden chain, at the end of which two green oval stones wrapped in gold wire cages dangled like clock weights.
The necklace was far from fashionable. It made no sense. And as beautiful and erotic as Lily Joy could be, the green stones lay like occult weapons on her flesh, deliberately crude and primitive. Deliberately disturbing.
Except to Goud, and possibly any other squarehead miner in the room. He recognized his lover’s moving tribute to Saint Lucy, the virgin martyr who was sentenced to prostitution for distributing her family’s great wealth among the poor. And who tore her own eyes out rather than let them be admired by pagan men.
Statues of Saint Lucy often depicted her presenting her own eyes on a platter. Lily Joy dangled two green stones between her breasts. Oh night divine . . .
And then she sang, unaccompanied. Her voice was unexpectedly beautiful and strong, but it was her introduction of the sacred into this secular event that was truly shocking. She sang:
As Joseph was a-walking
He heard an Angel sing:
This night shall be the birth night
Of Christ our Heavenly King
The song was received with quiet awe for the first few verses, but then as Lily’s confidence grew, she began to move with the rhythm she’d chosen, bouncing her breasts with every downbeat. Objections were raised, but those men were either shouted down or escorted out of the party.
For the most part Lily’s profane performance was hypnotic. The jolly mood gave way, and a kind of hunger spread wordlessly throughout the hall. Those who kept their senses moved to private rooms to exercise their urges, but some, in fact many, couldn’t wait.
Tanglewood found it convenient to play the pianola with his back to his guests. He played the three songs he knew, and then he played them again. When he tired, he loaded the paper rolls and pumped the pedals, trying to look professional under the circumstances.
Goud took Lily Joy to a padded bench near the Faro tables and snuffed out the candles of her crown one by one. The Ophelia, darkened by just that much, began to hum with low, devotional murmurs and other unmistakeable sounds of release. While bankers and merchants cooed like children, miners reverted to their native speech: German, Italian, and whatever witchy noises the Irish fell into when they’d drunk the barrel dry. As Goud caressed Lily’s breasts through her fragile garment, he also stroked the great green pendants. She seemed to enjoy his fascination with the stones, and as he made love to her, she said the same words over and over to him: “I told you there was more. I told you so.”