The Story of a Sex Worker

August 18, 2004

On to Florida

Two days later I went to Florida. I packed and flew and landed in Orlando on a Monday afternoon. My mom picked me up at the airport. The airport was half-filled with kids wearing mouse ears.

"Hey, Shirley," she said. "You look pretty."


"I mean it."

We were silent as we rode down the hot Orlando freeway. Orlando didn't look much different than L.A. Palm trees and ugly architecture.

"How's Zowie doing?" I asked, twenty minutes into the drive.

"She's not good. Health-wise the doctor says she's a little stronger than yesterday, but her mind's going and she sometimes gets hysterical and refuses to eat. It may be a shock for you to see her because she's stopped putting on make-up and some of the gray is peeking through her hair. You know how much she tried to hide her age."

I looked at my mother driving the car with her frail hands and arms. My mother wasn't a looker. Zowie was. Grandma Zowie was still a beautiful woman at eighty. She dyed her hair black and put on beet-red makeup everyday which really did hide her age. She always dressed sharp, usually shades of black and white, and went dancing a couple of nights a week. She was a drinker and loved parties. She was an even bigger partier when she was younger. It was the roaring twenties. Other women resented her for her suburban glamour. My mother also resented Zowie and only wore lipstick and some powder if she was going out to dinner. Throughout her life she was overshadowed by her own mother. That must have been tough on young Joy. I had to be stuck with the square growing up, the quiet woman, too reserved to raise a finger to hostility. At least I got the looks from Zowie. The good looks had skipped a generation.

Before I was born, Zowie created a minor scandal in our family. She started dating a guy named Charlie only four months after her husband, a poor, unsuccessful sports columnist named Ivan, died. They moved to Florida together. Charlie had enough money so that they could go out dancing regularly. There was a rumor that Zowie and Charlie were having an affair during the marriage. Until I started working in porn, Zowie and Charlie was the main subject of bitter gossip in my family.

"Do you think Zowie and Charlie had an affair during the marriage?" I asked my mom.

"I don't know. Nobody knows. The secret's probably going to die with them. It's better if you don't bring that up. Zowie's very unstable right now."

The drive took forty minutes. Zowie lived in a gated complex of identical homes that looked something like a moon colony. The plants and trees seemed to be made out of plastic, the black asphalt was perfectly paved, the unblemished stop signs were as red as cherries. My mom and her brother, Mitch, moved her in there after somebody got murdered in her apartment building. "The jigs are moving in," Mitch said. He paid most of the rent because he had more money. He worked in New York in business. He wasn't quite Wall Street but he had some money.

My mom said, "Rosetta," her maiden name, to the security guard and he let us pass.

Zowie tried to bring as much of the flavor of her old apartment to the stale complex as she could. She couldn't bring the red, brown, and yellow shag carpeting from her old apartment but she brought her black grand piano which was gravely out of tune, her vast collection of sculptures of animals made out of glass and wire, and a large portrait of her painted by a local artist in Newark. I had always loved to look at the painting as a kid because it showed her in all her early glamour, sequined dress and hair cut in twenties style, wearing a tiny black hat.

"She's in the bedroom," my mom said as we entered the apartment. "Let me go check on her."

I went into the living room and sat on a long black and white couch, a pattern of black and white flowers. This was going to be hard.

I was staring at the painting of Zowie when my father walked in from the kitchen carrying a whiskey with ice, his drink. When he saw me, he stopped and took a step back into the kitchen as if he wanted to go back. He looked at me, knew he couldn't escape, and walked slowly into the living room. He sat across from me in a tall black chair.

"Hello, Shirley," he said in a low voice.


We were silent for a long time. I looked to the door of Zowie's bedroom hoping my mom would come out. Dad drank his whiskey. I didn't care if we never said anything but "hello" to each other for the rest of our lives. But then after a while the silence seemed more uncomfortable than talking.

"You got yourself a whiskey," I said.


"Bourbon? I thought bourbon and whiskey were the same thing."

He looked at me as if studying an insect.

"I never have learned the difference between liquors," I said quickly. "I know Vodka's made from potatoes and Saki's made from rice."

"Saki," he said.

"You know, Japanese wine."

"I've had Saki. It almost made me sick. I could drink three gallons of it and it wouldn't get me drunk."


We were silent again.

My mom came out then, thankfully. She was holding her arms. She had fear in her eyes.

"You can go in now if you want, Shirley. I have to warn you, it's not that easy."

"What is?" I said.


  • At 2:55 PM, Blogger Vadergrrrl said…

    Amazing as always.

    You have the gift of writing.

  • At 12:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The Japanese wine made from rice is spelled "sake," and pronounced like "sahkay." Sorry to be pedantic, but to those who speak Japanese or are familiar with the pronunciation, "saki" is a bit jarring. Please do not see this as a criticism, I just thought you should know. I read your blog regularly, your writing is capital stuff, better than the books my friends recommend to me.

  • At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    ..after reading some of the more jar-headed critiques - both the 'good ones' that seem imbecilic and the shit ones that seem just as imbecilic: i wanted to weigh in to say this about writing ---

    writing becomes a forum for expression: and while not every expression appeals to everyone that expression (..spelling errors and all...) are part of that expression and as such -- can we all just sit down and read what shirley has to say without being 'too pedantic' or being overly gushing and not saying anything other than '....you have such a gift for writing shirley...'

    both are useless rhetorical extremes and if anyone who truly writes can understand gushings for the sake of gushing means nothing -- as well as the pedantic critics who have never had any of their works published on a mainstream level and do not understand that editors exist to smooth over the rough edges.....

    shirley writes as shirley must write for shirley -- if anything express your thoughts deeper and not monosyllabic prattlings that means nothing but eye sores to read...


  • At 10:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    There's something not right about your description of Orlando.


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