Leaving Desire Street
by Ron Van Sweringen
There were two drunks and a prostitute ahead of her when Dora Tripp climbed the steps of the streetcar that November night in 1955. It was chilly in New Orleans, and a light mist made waiting on the street corner miserable, especially since the soles of Dora’s shoes were worn down to the thickness of tissue paper.
I’ll get new ones, she thought, and a new life too, someday.
Seventeen-year old Dora settled into a seat on the half-empty bus and began watching block after block of shabby, run-down buildings glide by. She had just finished her shift at the Red Tavern Diner and would be home by midnight.
She couldn’t help wondering what would be waiting for her when she got there. That thought, as usual, made her uncomfortable. Actually, it frightened her; she never knew what to expect when she opened the apartment door. Would her mother be drunk or sober, alive or dead? Or would one of her cigarettes have burned the building down?
Dora got off of the streetcar at the corner of 14th Street. It was a half-block walk to the decrepit apartment building at 1406 Desire Street. The screen door had a hole punched in it, and the glass mounted entrance door behind it was badly chipped and scarred from years of abuse. A key was unnecessary; the lock had disappeared long ago.
“Is that you, sweetheart?” Agnes Tripp called out when she heard the apartment door open.
Dora hesitated, knowing by the “sweetheart” greeting that her mother was drunk but not yet at the cruel and nasty stage, when she would just as soon slap Dora as look at her. If Dora was lucky, she could get into her small bedroom and lock the door.
Dora was tired and would soon fall asleep. Even with the noisy radio and the screaming she knew were bound to come before her mother passed out.
“What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” Agnes said sarcastically as Dora appeared at the kitchen door.
The apartment smelled of cigarettes and beer, which wasn’t unusual, but Dora also picked up the odor of a man’s cologne. It caused her back to stiffen. Her mother was wearing a good dress and nylon stockings. Dora put it together instantly: Agnes had picked up a john and brought him back to the apartment.
The sound of the bathroom door closing and footsteps alerted Dora that he was coming down the hall behind her. She turned quickly, but not soon enough. A hand slid around her waist.
“What have we got here?” his drunken voice bellowed, the veins in his neck and forehead standing out. Dora tried to pull away, but it was useless; he had her pinned against the wall. “What’s your name, honey?” He breathed in her face as she watched his tongue slip in and out of his mouth.
“That’s my kid. She’s going to bed now,” Agnes shouted, waving her beer bottle.
Dora managed to push herself away from the man and quickly slip through her bedroom door. He tried to follow her and got one hand inside the door frame. Dora fell against the door with all of her strength, slamming it on his hand.
“Son of a bitch!” he screamed, pushing the door open enough to free his bleeding fingers. Dora twisted the lock and fell across her bed, drawing herself into a fetal position. Why was God doing this to her? What had she done to deserve this? The answers to her questions didn’t come; they never did. She closed her eyes tightly and gritted her teeth. There were no tears, only fear and anger until she turned out the light and fell asleep.
Dora woke up twice to loud voices arguing and furniture being pushed around. She was used to her mother’s raving, and a man’s voice was not unusual. She placed the pillow over her ears and went back to sleep. She awoke for the third time to complete quiet. The radio was off and there were no sounds on the other side of the door.
Dora lay on the small bed, still fully dressed and covered by the bedspread. She played a game she had invented as a child when she was afraid. By lying perfectly still and not even blinking her eyes she could make herself disappear. No one could see her or hurt her.
Dora remained awake and perfectly still until the blackness outside of her window had turned to a dull gray and she could make out the shape of windows in the building next door. She was sure her mother would be passed out, but she was afraid that the stranger might still be in the apartment. He was a big man, and Dora knew she was no match for him. If he caught her, he could hurt her the way some of the others had before.
A knock on the bedroom door caused Dora’s heart to pound. She lay there grasping the bedspread until her knuckles were white. She heard a man’s voice, soft and barely discernible through the door.
“Your mother and I are going away to get married. We won’t be back. I’ve left you some money on the table.” Then there was silence, except for the sound of the apartment door closing a few minutes later.
Dora finally summoned up enough nerve to crack the bedroom door. She could see a light burning in the kitchen. Her mother’s bedroom door, usually left open, was closed. There was no sound except Dora’s own heavy breathing while she made her way down the narrow hall.
With trembling hands, Dora counted ten fifty-dollar bills that had been left on the kitchen table. Then she noticed something strange. The sink was empty of dirty dishes, and the drainboard was wiped clean, along with the kitchen table. The kitchen floor had been also been scrubbed.
The bathroom was the next surprise. It had been freshly cleaned. Beads of water that bore a dark pinkish cast still sat on the old porcelain sink. Dora stared at her reflection in the mirror over the sink. She was sure of one thing: her mother had not cleaned the kitchen or the bathroom. An odd feeling came over her, a mixture of fear and elation.
The man’s last words kept repeating in her brain. “We won’t be back.” Mentally, Dora transposed the words as she wiped away the beads of pink water, realizing someone had washed bloody hands there.
Dora packed the few worthwhile clothes she had in a battered suitcase and picked up the five hundred dollars from the kitchen table. She folded the bills carefully and slipped them into her coat pocket. The last thing she did was slowly open her mother’s bedroom door. The bed was stripped of its sheets and the pillows were gone.
The closet door was open and Dora could see all of her mother’s clothes still hanging there, but the large trunk she kept was gone. Fresh scrape marks on the floor near the closet door caught Dora’s attention. She stood staring at them.
“What’s the matter Mother?” she said with a smile. “Cat got your tongue?”
Copyright © 2014 by Ron Van Sweringen