Agatta Lugar arrived at No. 51 Dauphine Street, Madam Zulime Clovis’s Bordello, in 1884 on Valentine’s Day; she was fourteen years old. Since then, three years had passed and she had become one of Clovis’s most prosperous harlots. Specializing in women of color, Madam Clovis had operated a successful New Orleans assignation house for seventeen years. With Agatta as a prized acquisition, her trade grew all the more lucrative for the latter of her reign.
Standing five feet seven inches tall, with a svelte hourglass figure, Agatta’s charms were unrivaled. Onyx almond shaped eyes, an aquiline nose, and a full African mouth with a deep sensuous Cupid’s bow composed her regal mahogany face. A birthmark, a few shades darker than her coloring and the size of a ten-cent piece adorned the center of her forehead. All crowned by a mass of lustrous raven hair.
Veiled by a light haze of early morning fog, the Vieux Carré manifested as a mirage. Moisture ripened the smell of horses, and dampened their coats. With glistening dew-drenched manes, they appeared both majestic and mythical. French Market patrons gathered under the barracks to barter over the abundant assortment of fruits, vegetables, spices, and preserves. Fancy men, painted ladies, tailors, seamstresses, maids, and housewives were drawn to the fathomless array of imported gabardines, silks, satins, and velvets. A peculiar harmony of diverse languages simultaneously flowed through crowded aisles. Inflections of French, Creole, Spanish, English, and Italian produced poetry of wildly exuberant lyrics. All kinds of healers from confidence men to shaman touted potions, spells, and talismans to cure every human affliction. Street performers played banjoes, washboards, harmonicas, pots, and pans. The rattle-tin sounds of their coins landing into cups and buckets accompanied their music. Worshippers went to mass at St. Louis Cathedral. Some traveled by carriage or wagon; most strolled along with family and friends. Bartenders, saloonkeepers, and barmaids splashed the sidewalks with pails of water to rid Sunday morning of Saturday night’s stench. Alluring harlots of every hue lined the balconies of Conti Street. Cooling themselves with decorative fans, they flirtatiously waived clients good-bye while sparking the interests of new prospects. Madams and pimps graced thresholds for formal farewells.
Agatta strolled; content with her purchases and daydreaming about the power of appeal once she donned them. Her boxes contained brightly colored stockings, intricately laced garters, brocade corsets, silk nightgowns, lace-trimmed drawers, and petticoats. Like all the women of No. 51, she was well attired.
Thus far 1887 had been cordial. Oddly enough, it was February again. Although the wind still had a biting chill, winter would soon give way to the prelusive warmth that nurtured renewal and maturation. Agatta turned onto Dauphine. The skirt of her crimson dress flowed about her ankles as though trying to circumvent a phantom. Cloaked in her mysterious air, she seemed to be ever moving toward something—higher. Through the course of her journey, men were incessantly drawn to her mystique.
Two fellows walking toward Agatta tipped their hats. One of them remarked, “That’s something else.”
As she neared No. 51, she noticed one of Sazar’s girls watching her from a balcony. She strutted about with one hand on her hip, twisting her blazing hair. A sorry effort at mock confidence since her eyes gave her away. If they were the windows to the soul, then she harbored enough sorrow to trigger heart failure.
Resting on one of two verdigris griffins perched on either side of No. 51’s steps, Zulime saw their silent exchange. When she had Agatta’s attention, she offered a message of her own: You better watch out for that one.
With a smile and a nod of respect, Agatta acknowledged the warning. That woman don’t miss nothing, she thought.
Although Zulime had reached the middle sector of her years, there wasn’t a line in her face to condemn her. A generous bustline and wide hips rounded out her small stature, and agreed with her authoritative air. Today her ruddy hair was coiffed in an upsweep. An emerald green wool dress and a large cameo at her collar completed her dignified Sunday style. When she smiled, dimples in her tawny cheeks turned her into a jovial diva. The twinkling brown eyes, however, indicated smarts that had better not be taken lightly.
She had left Baton Rouge during the early 1860s. Her parents were schoolteachers and devout Christians. Her mother, Ines, was born free to modest farmers. Basil Clovis, Zulime’s father, had been a slave; but with money that he earned as a carpenter, he purchased his and his mother’s freedom. He learned to read and completed his studies at the Institute for Colored Youth. Basil was high on God, hard on mere mortals, and blessed with a steel will that he believed everyone should aspire to; especially his daughters, Zulime and Emily. “Sin will keep you longer than you’re willing to stay,” were his last words to Zulime. After burying a stillborn baby girl and divorcing an unfaithful potter, she wasn’t willing to stay in Baton Rouge. So she followed her lover, Valor Gatlin, a handsome white gambler, to New Orleans.
She lived as a secretly kept woman. Which was often a lonely existence, when Valor was away living white or chasing big games throughout the South. With the turbulence of the war, jobs were few. To ward off loneliness and learn the city, Zulime did stints as a cook, tarot card reader, and waitress. One day out of the blue, Valor gave her twenty thousand dollars, kissed her hand, and disappeared. She used some of the newfound wealth to purchase and refurbish No. 51.
Over time she acquired her own wealth. By way of sheer dauntlessness, she achieved staying power. Respected by people in her trade as a quick-witted, shrewd, flamboyant madam who flaunted big jewels, housed the prettiest harlots in New Orleans in a showplace bordello, charged top dollar, and managed her profits well. Revered by her girls, she shared close relationships with a few, among them Agatta.
“Morning lady,” Zulime said, in a low voice.
“Morning, Mam. Looks like an easy Sunday.”
“Ought to be. We had a hell of a Saturday. I’m going to the room. You want tea?”
“Yeah, I’ll put away my things.”
An understated eroticism prevailed at No. 51. Two bronze blackamoor statues flanked the parlor entrance. A six-arm brass chandelier lit the room. A tapestry colored of passionate reds ranging from rose to magenta covered the West wall. Its weave portrayed the spectrum of purple arts. The other walls showcased a gallery of paintings and photographs depicting semi-nude to elaborately dressed women. Two mahogany camelback sofas covered in luxurious burgundy velvet faced each other with a black marble fruitwood table between them. Side tables, a recamier, a pair of Rococo Revival chairs, and a lyre-form settee comprised the rest of the parlor furnishings. Ivies grew lush and long from hanging pots. Gardenias bloomed from porcelain pots. Incensed burned fragrantly throughout the ground floor. Seamlessly everything worked together to create an elegant bewitching ambience.
Waiting for Zulime, Agatta peered over the banister.
The room was the attic. It served as a place for prayer, meditation, or solitude. Rosaries, candles, and the Holy Bible were on the console table. A wooden cross hung centered above, between an icon of Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers; and an etching of the prophet Hosea. The girls referred to the room with its veritable altar as Mam’s church. The fact that is existed at all was simply “Mam’s way.”
They knew what her way was. All of them had been exposed to religion, some more than others. With clarity they remembered holiness from the women who shared their bloodlines. Every now and then they saw righteousness in themselves and their sisters at No. 51. Many of them had tried to bury their faith because they felt ruined, filthy, and cast off; therefore no longer worthy of God’s grace. Moreover, faith was an entity connected to a masculine force; such forces constantly took from them but never lingered for long. Thus, they trusted God just not too much. They accepted that ideology because it set them free enough to be whores. Yet when in need, they knew that faith was close by (near miracle). So they kept their holy of holies tucked away; to be fully resurrected when they got ready or got right.
Zulime understood all of that. Often she found the room holier than she left it. Tearstained handkerchiefs, lone flowers, wrinkled letters, faded photographs, blessed oil, singed locks of hair, a chair rocking, warm candles, and the lingering spirit of brokenness were telltale signs.
Agatta held the door for Zulime, who carried a tea tray. Chamomile infused the air as they filled their cups.
Agatta managed to open the attic’s tiny window, which was stiffened by time. As dust flew everywhere, she coughed and fanned wildly. The influx of fresh air was worth the trouble. She took her cup and settled in the rocking chair.
Sipping, Zulime relaxed on the chaise and searched her mind for something that might encourage Agatta to share her past. No one knew what led her to the cold wet alley where Grace and Magdalena had found her. For all their fondness, Agatta remained a woman with no yesterdays.
“Time is something else ain’t it?” Zulime said.
“Watching the sunlight bathe the oyster-colored walls, Agatta rocked slowly. “If that’s all you need.”
“That’s never all you need. Time helps you see things much clearer. It can put plenty distance between where you used to be and where you are.”
“I don’t know about that.”
Zulime drank the last of her tea, and asked, “Do you want to?”
“What difference does it make?”
“A big one. Time is like faith. It’ll heal you, if you let it.”
“Time can’t heal everything . . . it don’t change nothing.” Agatta sat her cup down, went to the window, and watched the passersby.
“Dolin’, you don’t have to carry your burdens forever.”
“I’m not ready Mam. Please don’t push me.”
Magdalena Marie cracked the door and peeked inside. Two dark pigtails dusting her buttermilk shoulders and pouting pink lips bespoke innocence, but the soft plump breasts under the nightgown signaled siren. “Morning, y’all seen Grace?”
Agatta turned around and answered, “She left early this morning—in a hurry like.”
“Come sit cher.” Zulime invited.
“No thank you. I got plenty to do.”
“You have the whole day.”
“I rather get an early start.”
Twiddling her thumbs, Zulime said, “Got word you rode off to Algiers with Numa Sabatier the other day.”
With her hands on her hips, Magdalena stepped inside the attic. “Who I ride off with is my business.”
“True. But your man loves lady luck, and she don’t return the favor. Half the hustlers in Nawlins’ ready to open his throat. Just be careful.”
“I been caring for myself a long time.”
“Reckon you have, but that don’t mean you know everything.”
“I know enough.”
“Do you know how to love a man and still see his faults?”
“Who and how I love is my business.” Magdalena bit the inside of her lip and sighed. “I ‘preciate if you stay in your place.”
Raising her hands, Zulime retorted, “This is my place.”
“Yeah it is, and one day I’m gon’ leave way from here running and never look back.”
“Sister, that’s fine by me. I just hope you know what you’re running to.”
“Let me handle that. In the meantime, I can’t sit here and play church with you.” Magdalena left, jerking the door behind her.
Looking out the window again, Agatta asked, “Why you care so much about what we do? How we feel? What manner of fortune we find?”
“I’d hate to come all this way and never care about nobody.”
“I hear you found somebody to care for too.”
Grinning, Agatta folded her arms and turned to Zulime. “Somebody found me.”