“Life is most peculiar.”
Now I don’t really know what that means, but its what Preacher Jo says, when after he tells us one of his tall tales. He will take a long drag on his well-lit corn-cob pipe, ease back into his rocking chair and say, “Life is most peculiar.”
“I think it means that there are lots of things in this life we might not understand, or ever want to understand. But all that thinking is a bit high-minded for me. I don’t really like thinking about stuff that is mere fairy-dust. If I am to spend time thinking, it should be about something real, something that is going to help me get by.
“Take men for instance. Men are easy to figure out, well, most of them that I know at least. Men have needs. Women have the means. And they get together and both are happy. Well, mostly. But then something happens and throws everything into a tailspin.
“Sometimes, though, I get a bit confused. Like, as soon as I think that everything is all one way, I see something that is just the opposite. Take Preacher Jo.
“Preacher Jo drives Mr. Haller, the big-shot lawyer. Many times he has pulled up outside the whore-house, come in and stayed most of the night. Now, that man has needs. But all the while Mr. Haller is in the whore-house, Preacher Jo is sittin’ on the porch, rocking in the rocking chair we have just for him. Mr. Haller insisted we get him one. He never seems to notice anyone coming or going. Just sits there and smokes his pipe and rocks. Back and forth, he rocks. But that’s just what he wants you to think.
A ways back before I knew Preacher Joe, I stepped outside late one night and comes around the front of the whore-house where there is this big porch. Well, Preacher Joe, sitting and rockin’ in his rockin’ chair, spies me and calls me over. He says, “Now child, why are you up so late?”
“What’s late? I get up at dawn and sleeps when I want, just as long as I get my chores done.” I was a bit put off having someone ask me about my goin’s on outside of the whore-house.
“Oh. I see’s how it is with you. You’re one of those.”
Now, I didn’t like the tone of his voice either so I speeks right up. “What do you mean, one of those?”
“Why, one of those special people. One of those who is owned by no one and who does as they please.”
“Well, not exactly as I please. I do have to do all my work, but then when everyone is doing their work, I do what I want. So maybe I am one of those special people you talk about.”
At that, he started to laugh and nearly blew out his pipe.
“Where are my manners. Put me in front of a whore-house and I loose all my Christian up-bringing.”
“Child, my name is Preacher Jo. At least that that’s what everyone calls me, including my friends.” He said this as he looked sideways at me with a slight grin on his face. “My name if Mattie Mae.”
“Nice to meet you Miss Mattie Mae.” He stuck out his black hand and I took it in a good, business shake. “May I assume that you live in this here whore-house?” “You can think I do, as I do.”
“And who is Miss Mattie Mae. may I ask?”
“You can ask and I can tell you they call me Mattie Mae. At least, that’s what they tell me my name is; just Mattie Mae. I stay way up in back and stay out of trouble as much as I can. I hurts too much when I don’t. But no one owns me. Tonight I’ve made up my mind to do some exploring since have my chores done for now.”
“I see.” said Preacher Joe. “I like the way you talk Miss Mattie Mae. It shows real intelligence. But I beat people tell you that you’re smart all the time.”
“No that don’t. Usually they don’t pay me no never-mind. And some think I’m a little touched. But I don’t. I tell things the way they are and try to think straight. That seems the best way. Know what I mean?”
“Yes, I think I do.” said Preacher Jo as he leaned back into his chair again. “Not too many people like straight talk. Too much honesty in it. Honesty can get you into trouble., you know.”
“So can not being honest. That’s was Miss Lizzie used to say. And I seen it myself. When I try to hide that I didn’t get all the laundry just right, someone finds out and I get a whoopin’, right good. But if I just say I’m working on it and it will be done right soon, then they just leaves me be.”
“Now that is a wise insight my young friend.”
“That is something not very many people have learned in this here world. It shows you are wise.”
“I not sure about being “wise”, but if it keeps me from getting my brains rattled about some, I want more of it.”
“Yes, I suppose you would.” chuckled Preacher Joe.
All the while we were chewing the fat on that porch, there were lots of men coming and going in and out the front doors, but we didn’t pay them any mind. At least I didn’t. They were to the back of me. But I learned later that Preacher Jo could tell you every person who set foot in the whore-house on any given night that he was there. It was one of the things he was paid to do by Lawyer Haller.
“You know Miss Mattie Mae, there may be something you can do for me.”
“What’s in it for me?”
He smiled that smile that I later learned he used for those who did as he thought they would.
“Why, of course I would never ask you to do somethin’ for nothin’. Only special friends do that. And right now, we barely know each other. But I’m sure that will change soon enough.”
“What I want you to do, is this.” He motions me over to the window and points to a very well-dressed man in a gold trimmed waist-coat and white pants.”
“You see that man? He is my boss, Lawyer Haller.”
“You mean master, don’t you.”
At that he straightened up-right. “I am NOT a slave young lady. I am a free man and don’t you forget it.”
“I didn’t mean nothin’ by it Preacher Jo. It just seems all the men who look like you are slaves to someone.”
He seemed to relax a bit and then smiled his little smile. “Yes, you are probably right and I assume you mean someone who looks as handsome as I do? Am I right?” “Oh, most rightly sir.” I did a little curtsy and he smiled again. He started again leaning in towards me.
“What I want you to do is to make sure that Lawyer Haller doesn’t leave anything behind tonight. I mean not a button, or pen or anything. Sometimes those kinds of things come up missin’ and we just can’t have that, you understand?”
“I think so. You don’t want any of the girls liftin’ anything from him.”
“Yes, nor any of the men. You see, some men don’t really like Lawyer Haller and would love to have something against him. I wouldn’t put it past ‘em to steal something and then blackmail ‘m with it.”
“But they all know he spends time here, and it an’t for this singing.”
That got a big laugh out of Preacher Jo. “No, it aint. But what I want from you is to keep an eye out in the whore-house. I hope you are able to get around without anyone noticing you.”
“The only time they notice me is when there is a mess to clean up.”
“Good. Then this will be a mess you can clean up for me before it happens, and I will pay you for it.”
“Right to the point. I like that. How much do you want?”
I had to think on that one a bit. I don’t get paid any money for the work I do at the whore-house. But I had wanted a couple of bits of taffy that I saw in a store window today but didn’t have any money. They cost two for a penny.
“How about two pennies?”
He pulls back in what I knew was pretend shock.
“How much? Well, we will just have to see if you are worth all that kind of money. I tell you what. If you recover anything tonight, I will pay you three pennies. How about that?”
And so began my business with Preacher Joe. Little did I know that I would find out I was pretty good at it and would like it more than I supposed I would. In fact...well...we will leave that for later.