That life had suited Rosa very well. The girls tried to make up for their awkward bodies with polite, respectful mannerisms that gave an impression of refinement. When they argued they danced, evolving into their monstrous limbs like birds as they fought. Most of the time, though, they were kind to one another. And they were careful to conserve their strength. They saved everything: their energy, their small change. Because they could hardly believe their success as sexual objects. And their farewells to their clients were remarkably sincere, with all the melancholy of a lovers’ adieu. And the men, as well having a strange liking for imperfections, felt somehow drawn to that polite atmosphere in which even the worst profanities carried within them a maternal murmur.
Of all the girls, Rosa was the least sweet because she didn’t need to be; she had more important skills. “You’re our salt and pepper,” her Dad would say. The other girls were grateful to Rosa for accepting the more unusual work so they didn’t have to. They knew nothing but the city. Even if they came from other towns, they still knew nothing but the city, that is, nothing but houses and concrete. They found some of the more sordid requests disgusting. Rosa, on the other hand, had been used to going barefoot into the animal pens on the farm and reaching inside goats to pull out their dead young. She didn’t mind stickiness or bitterness or decay. And her tough skin could cope with pinches and other far more brutal treatment. “You’re our salt,” her Dad used to say. “Our pepper.” One thing Rosa could not endure, however, was boredom. Life there was varied enough to keep boredom at bay.
Of all the girls, Rosa was the least sweet because she didn’t need to be; she had more important skills.
Her Dad’s business was going well. In fact, it was going too well. It was attracting unwanted attention. He was invited to become a business partner in his own brothel, and the indignity of it almost made him ill. Lucia the dwarf burst into tears before he’d even mentioned the ultimatum. He railed against the cruel injustices facing the poor on this earth. He was on the verge of becoming a communist, but then turned to the Bible instead. Not long after that, the building burnt down.
The building had some security in place, but there were weak points. A balance had to be struck: too much attention paid to visitors’ comings and goings would have caused problems. And so, through the cracks in the minimal security, the fire got in. And although nobody was killed, their Dad’s spirit died in there. No one could console him.
They lived in the boarding house like refugees fleeing a war zone. They all thought it was just a temporary crisis. Sometimes their Dad made grand speeches in which he called for a revolution. “Freedom, what freedom? Whose freedom?” he cried. “We’re living in a Hollywood movie, that’s what’s going on.” He sat on the bed surrounded by his dependents: a dwarf, a girl with an open wound on her leg, another with webbed hands and Rosa, the cripple. He had aged. One day, he came back with no gold chains, no bracelets, no watch. And yet instead of seeming lighter, he was bent and stooped. It wasn’t just his possessions he’d lost, it was his clients and friends. He was trapped in a Hollywood movie, and around every street corner lurked the shadow of a murderer. They were going to kill him and take the girls. The father gave the four girls everything he’d saved, down to the last cent, then he said: “There’s always a showdown,” and never returned.
Rosa and the girl with webbed hands moved into a single room together to save on rent. But the girl with webbed hands was hardly the most restful of roommates, and Rosa wasn’t content there either. The landlady, who always felt guilty about something, was simultaneously awkward and helpful in the way such people tend to be, and sorted out the paperwork for them to get their charity handouts. “No, that’s not what it’s called,” she corrected herself. But the right word sounded strange, and besides, said Rosa, things hadn’t changed as much as all that. “It’s up to the State now,” the landlady explained. Which rather reduced the importance of her own efforts. “The State’s grateful to people like me,” she added hastily.