NONFICTION ISSUE #29

"Old Virginia City" by Donna Tucker, 14x12, acrylic on hardboard
*Image: “Old Virginia City” by Donna Tucker, 14×12, acrylic on hardboard

 

Goodbye to All That

By Jordan Floyd

 

“…one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has happened to anyone before.”

Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That”

 

 

If Belle London were alive today, she’d be an intersectional feminist. She would frequent 25th Street in Ogden—where it all began, her Sin Alley, Two-Bit Street, the home of her once lucrative prostitution house. I like to think she’d petition to rename the north-to-south-oriented streets that run through the heart of the city up toward the base of Mount Ogden: Monroe Boulevard to Paul Boulevard; Jefferson Avenue to Angelou Drive; Adams Avenue to Anthony Drive; and a handful more, serving as an ode to women. There’s a chance her petition would meet opposition from some conservative activist groups in the suburbs of Salt Lake or farther south in Utah Valley. Each group would maintain identical arguments about patriotism and respect and hold archaisms in the back of their white-haired minds about the “end of times” and the divine inspiration behind the constitution. She would have city officials and police in her back pocket, though, just as she did at the beginning of the 1900s. After some time, the petition would be upheld, the movement passed, and the streets would don new names. There’d be a city-wide celebration on 25th Street with speakers from the National Organization of Women, the ACLU, the NAACP, and more. The city would look bright that day. This is a day for women, the mayor would boast, and a day for all marginalized groups across the state and abroad. Belle London, I imagine, would be a sort of guest of honor that day.

 

I remember spending an evening with my partner Georgia on 25th Street. Belle London, like a third member of our party, walked beside us, if only in my mind. I imagined her eyeing—omnisciently—the short expanse of side-by-side brick buildings that run east-to-west. The buildings had been modernized, but their new expressions—breweries, comedy clubs, so-called “lounges,” and bars—couldn’t hide what they’d been. Georgia wore a vanilla jumpsuit with rosebuds sprawled about its flimsy surface. Belle London, I pictured in black—all devilish black.

We ate at a pub filled with steampunk specimens and tattooed arms, perched atop tables, sticking out of limited-run t-shirts.

You would love Joan Didion, I said to Georgia. Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It as It Lays are brilliant.

“There was silence,” I recited. “Something real”—I spoke slow here and drew out the last syllable—“this was, as it were, her life. If she kept that in mind, she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever it meant.”

I was always telling Georgia that Didion was my favorite, how it was a shame that even though she’s alive, there is no conceivable way of meeting her. She’d respond with a nod, a honeyed smile, and not much else.

So my lament passed. I imagined Belle London, if she were with us, would offer her own. Even some hundred years after her death, her line of work—if I could be so bold, her art—would paint all things she saw a stinging kind of gray. It dominated her life. It was, possibly, the only way.

My conscience—yes, I have a conscience—has troubled me about it a good many times, Belle London would say.

I would lean toward her. She’d start up again:

I could do this much: I could make the business as clean as it was possible for such a business to be, and I could persuade a great many girls who were just starting in a life of shame to travel other paths.

 

Belle London left my mind, and her words dissipated. I finished the dinner with Georgia. After, we walked down 25th Street, our hands hooked together, watching the street’s lights float into the sky. They’re all like stars, I thought, in a bricked-building space. Old, very old, their distance from each other, from Georgia and me, measured only by time.

 

St. Mary’s in the Mountains is a nearly one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old Catholic cathedral on E Street in Virginia City, Nevada. The cathedral sits above the Comstock Lode on the southern end of the city like a red-brick memento mori. Its lone spire holds a cross into the Nevada sky like a mile marker wading deep in the sound of gold Catholic bells ringing at the top of every hour. Time surrounds the cathedral, slipping in and out of focus, and ushering city-goers, sagebrush, and all things in the Virginia City saloon tenements into the future.

Bishop Patrick Manogue, the Comstock Lode’s most famous Irish father, built the mystic refuge in 1862. St. Mary’s housed the trudging souls of Irish immigrants, miners and pillagers, prostitutes and animate wicker men. Since its construction, it stood as an island surrounded by mountains, with casinos and brothels only a street or two away. When I visited the cathedral, it appeared far plainer than any I had seen. The inside was wooden, not-so-intentionally-ill-lit, and bland. There was the usual Catholic decor—at least what I, a former Mormon, would call usual Catholic decor. Situated in rows along the high walls of the cathedral, a series of stained glass windows looked out over the pews. The windows bore cartoon-like Bible images of Adam and Eve in leafy garb, Job enduring God’s will, and Jesus staring up to his father, dying, supposedly, for every subtle, overt, ghastly, and menial sin humanity had committed and would commit after he died. The stained glass figures’ rounded shapes and newly-minted colors were far from anything gothic. St. Mary’s in the Mountains had been made stark in the middle of the twentieth century by a group of clergy who had come to be called the “Mad Monks.” The cathedral, apparently, had been too worldly for the tastes of the men. In a short amount of time, they stripped the cathedral expanse down to its bare, wooden frame. It became an absolute, the cathedral beyond time.

 

I had just turned twenty-one. It was mid-May in 2016. I sat in my grandmother’s front room in Salt Lake City, and she told me a story of a Sigma Nu boy she dated one spring while in college. He was from southern California—Westwood, maybe, but not too far from Bel-Air, she noted. He was a pilot and often flew her around in his plane above browns and greens, slithering blues, impenetrable horizons, passing landmarks and land-faces—she didn’t put it that way, though. She only said, simply, that they flew. But the way she spoke sounded like “Four Poems for Robin”—like eight years ago this May, like leaving it behind at nineteen. I knew what she meant. I had come across the quartet of poems earlier that spring. I remember showing the poems to Georgia. I hope I never write about us, I said, like Gary Snyder had written about a strange woman called Robin.

He wore cream-colored sweaters with a golden Sigma Nu insignia. He wanted my grandmother to move to California with him for the summer. His parents would put her up in their home near the UCLA campus and find her a job. I don’t know what year it was when he asked, but she told him she couldn’t do it—of course, she said, it was obvious to her why she couldn’t move there with him. I imagined my grandmother strolling around a summer-gold Westwood. The neighborhoods all around that area are gorgeous—thick and overgrown. What an austere thing, to say no, I thought—I, the troubled libertine, far from understanding my grandmother, the ascetic.

I recounted my grandmother’s story to Georgia. She, unsatisfied, wondered further, asking what happened after the Sigma Nu. I had to have come from somewhere, she laughed.

I hesitated but detailed the story. I told her that after that spring my grandmother exchanged the Sigma Nu for a local boy who played on the university basketball team. When he was twenty-one, he was six feet five inches tall, handsome, surely, well-spoken, and though my grandmother would never think to say it, I probably reminded her of him. They would get married. He would become my grandfather. I would only meet him three times—all on hushed trips to Las Vegas that my parents told my brothers and me to never mention to my grandmother. On all three occasions, he insisted we meet at the same IHOP in Summerlin. On all three occasions, I ate chocolate-chip pancakes and didn’t say much to the strange grandfather.

 

The Salt Lake City police ordered the madams of Commercial Street to vacate their so-called “resort of gamblers and fast women” on December 18, 1908. The women were to relocate to a single-block area on the west side of the city where a building would be built to house them. Mayor John Bransford and Councilman Martin E. Mulvey had easily pushed a proposal through the city’s legislative bodies that allowed the area to be purchased and developed as a prostitution stockade. The madams had until 4 a.m. that morning to leave.

Commercial Street had long since been a place where, the Deseret News reported, “the demi-monde, the male parasite, the dope fiend, the gambler, and the beggar” went to find a madam. The street’s patrons, however, were likely not as easily identifiable as Salt Lake City’s Deseret News suggested. The street catered to all kinds of men on the city’s socioeconomic spectrum—from poorer types who drank dollar beers in whisky glasses to those “big money” patrons who visited the parlors of madams that served wine—only wine. As Salt Lake City Police Chief Thomas D. Pitt noted, it was the site of the city’s “necessary evil.” It was a place where men went to fulfill some thousand-pound void pulsing between their legs—and, for some, just as much in their hearts.

Salt Lake City sanctioned the necessary evil and simplified the search in December of 1908. Bransford’s proposition—which was to take the madams “from the business section of the city and put them in a district which would be one of the best, if not the very best, regulated districts in the country”—was fulfilled, and it all happened at the hands of an enigmatic character. Bransford and Mulvey sought the help of an individual “known to have executive ability of a high order, to be gifted with business acumen above that of many men and most women”—the pair went to the “queen of Ogden’s underworld” Belle London. If anyone were able to see that their plans materialized, Bransford and Mulvey suspected it was her.

 

The Mad Monks came to Virginia City in 1957, carrying only their one-thousand-year-old Cistercian ideologies. They centered themselves on a kind of radical simplicity that was birthed at the midpoint of Christianity’s lifespan in an abbey in Cîteaux, France. The Nevada desert, a natural landmark of austerity, had to have met the troop of black-robed men well—after all, the western state had adhered to its own strict, natural asceticism long before the arrival of Cistercian monks, and long before the pageantry of Christ’s time on the Earth that had sprung it all.

As the Mad Monks ascended into the mountains toward Virginia City, the town’s cathedral must have looked like a glittery monument, whose red brick, white spires, and shimmering silver-state interior called to them—I’m what you came for, aren’t I?—and demanded to be undone.

The first to fall was the choir loft, which had wrapped itself around the perimeter of the cathedral and high above the congregation. No longer would voices ring from above—no, they would moan from the pews. Next came a prayer, surely, for guidance, for something. They went to God, and she answered: the etchings on the wooden bema are too intricate, the ornate crucifixes too much of a Las Vegas peep show, the altar’s facade commands too much attention, the whole place makes mass feel like an afternoon in the Reno Nugget: five-dollar all-you-can-eat bread and wine, loose slots, winners every day, salvation—just a weekend away!

 

The only picture I’ve seen of my grandfather and my father together is a grayish nineteen-seventy-something photograph. In it my father is five or six. He is hunched over like a center in football and wearing a clumsy blue plastic helmet. My grandfather stands behind him. He is the quarterback in the photo set-up.

When my father was seven, I’m told, my grandfather left the family. It wasn’t until after the three Las Vegas meetings with him that I learned he didn’t simply leave. He had become intertwined with some number of women. He jettisoned my father, grandmother, and aunt, driving ninety miles an hour to a new life and a new family in Las Vegas. He raised another woman’s son, who, like my father, was named Todd. He is now dead, but living, I suppose, inside me, a nebulous man with an affinity for breakfast food, a determinist horror show, a fear.

I remembered how quickly my grandmother’s tone changed when she talked about my grandfather. She called my grandfather a womanizer. She said she never came to know how many other women he had been with, but she figured it was a lot. Her eyes weren’t sad. She looked away from me. She returned our conversation back to the Sigma Nu. Boy, it sure was something to be up in his plane, she said. I just couldn’t move out to California. I couldn’t do it.

 

The stockade met its new residents and their leader who, if she had to be described as such, was a twentieth-century humanist. Belle London moved from Ogden to Salt Lake City with a bold promise to the women entering her establishment. She would protect each “with her life, if need be.” She knew her business, she knew her madams, and she wanted all to know her stockade would “not be molested.” She employed, at the stockade’s peak in 1909, 170 women, one of whom was African-American and others who were Asian and Hispanic. Belle London believed she could “segregate the evil, that she could control it, and that she could decrease disease by an intelligent management, and while profiting financially herself, do some good.” Women went to Belle London’s place on the west side of Salt Lake City, perhaps, to find some small humanity in a business that often left room for none.

In a city like Salt Lake—having been founded by a group of often-persecuted Protestant misfits, the Mormons—the stockade was consistently met by opposition and viewed with disgust. The Mormon settlers who first arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 played an enormous role in the culture that subsequently developed. That a city-sanctioned prostitution stockade existed in a location with such a homogeneous and conservative culture—even by modern standards—is astonishing. City-goers went to the stockade, the Deseret News reported, to see “at the windows, only two feet above the sidewalk, the painted denizen of the underworld calling to the passers between puffs on her cigarette.” At the height of opposition, many residents both inside and outside the western Salt Lake City neighborhood formed a group called the West Side Citizens League that fought the stockade in the city’s government meetings and in public protests.

Despite opposition, men walked through one of the three entrances to the city-sanctioned stockade and perused the line of ten-foot by ten-foot brick rooms. The stockade kept the women housed and in control. The stockade kept reins on the city’s now legal evil for three long, devilish years. Yes, three years of gray men rapping on crib doors—of hushed conversation in the crib’s two-chair front room that probably erred on the side of timid—or alternatively, brash, and commodifying. And it all lead to the same pair of transactions—that’s what they came for: hand her the money and get the feeling, whatever it may be.

 

It was happenstance that I had come to St. Mary’s. Since I had met my partner Georgia, which was only about a year ago during our sophomore year of college in Utah, she had told me I needed to visit Virginia City. A Carson City native, she knew the city well. It was old, she said rather nondescriptly, and I needed to go. Georgia and I made our way into the tattered city above the Nevada desert on an aging-summer Monday.

That morning, before the trip, Georgia’s mother said she used to live on the southern end of Virginia City in a white house situated on the absurd precipice that ascends to the town. It was a time, she joked, that she didn’t remember well. Although she did remember listening to a lot of the Steve Miller Band, which, I suppose, said plenty. She and her husband—sometimes Georgia and her siblings, too—visited Virginia City each year on her birthday. She went to see the annual camel and ostrich races. She went to drink pinot grigio with ice in the Delta Saloon. Virginia City, the ritual. Virginia City, a pendulum town. Virginia City, I’m becoming ancient. Oh, the city laughs, have a drink, and another.

Georgia and I began our day at the Delta Saloon where we talked over lunch about ghosts. The whole goddamn town, apparently, was filled with them—murdered prostitutes in the Old Washoe Club, two sad gamblers who lost $70,000 and $86,000 in the very same building where we sat and consequently committed suicide, miners and miners’ wives, a crew of seven who sit in the balcony at Piper’s Opera House, a hanged man who cries in the back of the Storey County Courthouse.

Georgia was a mystic, but only loosely. We had never talked much about religion, but I knew she believed in God. I knew she was okay with the idea of dying, which I liked because I didn’t feel the same. She believed in ghosts—she really did—and it was, to her, undeniable given the things she and her family had seen.

I watched her as she spoke. She looked like James Dean. Her eyes squinted, asymptotically. Her expressions mimicked the flow of some esoteric injustice, one she might have known for years, that had become a tailored kind of listlessness fit firm to her brow. She was colder then than the night in June only a month ago—which, as all nights seem to go, was unlike any other before or after—when I first noticed she looked like James Dean. All the same, it was to Georgia that I wanted to hand my feelings of impermanence. For months, she had been present each night when I drunkenly orbited around her and when we went to bed—she was a weight of certainty, lying unmoved each morning. There was a coherence in her existence I loved—it was her foot tapping the Delta Saloon stool and her lips curling over the rim of her wine glass. Later on, she would ask me about a pair of red zits on her chin. That much would never change. I could be sure of it.

Her talking slowed to a foggy halt. My skin felt strange. We sat quiet, a blank pair, for some time before we left the saloon and found, just a few streets away, St. Mary’s. Our decision to visit the cathedral went unspoken. I gestured toward the building and she, in agreement, began walking toward its weighty doors.

A trio of wine bottles on the top of a cathedral gift shop display case greeted us to our right. Clunky, egg-shaped pendants with “Jesus Saves” inscribed on their flattened broadside lay in disarray below. A man, the overseer of the cathedral’s shop, paid no mind to our entrance and began cleaning the glass sides of the case with a rag. We sat, our shoulders pressed together, in the second pew from the back. We, the only cathedral-goers at the time, waited. Neither Georgia nor I spoke until she asked if she could pray. I told her yes, though I didn’t understand why she needed to ask. She knelt on the ground next to me, resting her folded arms on top of the pew in front of us. I looked down toward her lower back and saw a small area of skin showing between the top of her jeans and the bottom of her shirt. When she was younger, she felt self-conscious about the near-invisible hairs that grew on her lower back. Her mother, she said, called them sun hairs as a way to remedy her worry. I saw the hairs in the cathedral’s low light that passed through the translucent images of Jesus’s eyes and Job’s weary head while she prayed. I loved them, really.

We both left the cathedral carrying apostrophes of sorts: I, a bottle of Mad Monk pinot rosé from the cathedral gift shop, and she, a prayer. We could both, perhaps, distort longer what it was we needed to see—the weight of an August sun would sink into the Nevadan mountain folds; I would never ask Georgia what she prayed about.

 

"St. Mary Of The Mountains" by Donna Tucker, 18x24, acrylic on canvas

“St. Mary Of The Mountains” by Donna Tucker, 18×24, acrylic on canvas

 

Sheltered under a warm black June night in Logan, Utah, Georgia and I planted ourselves next to each other on the parking lot pavement. It wasn’t long after the conversation with my grandmother about my grandfather and the Sigma Nu, and a trio of months before Georgia and I would visit Virginia City. We were only twenty feet outside the apartment door. Inside, the party we had come for oscillated. I had spent most of the night mulling around, carrying a bottle of cabernet in one hand and gripping Georgia’s hand in the other. Now I cried to her, because in the middle of the party there had been a man playing guitar. He was a regular indie caricature—the type with a soft spine that lurches under the guitar’s weight. He wore some denim button-down shirt and had Lou Reed eyes that were hidden from view for most of the night. It didn’t make sense to me why he played.

What kind of scene was that, I asked.

Georgia leaned toward me and put her cheek on my shoulder. I cried to her because of isolation. I cried because I knew the very things the party wouldn’t understand about the guitar-playing man were the plagues in my own art. I cried for my own blood and cried for Georgia, too. At the time, she only thought of my Kerouacian bullshit—art, autonomy, too young, too fast—as essays and drunk monologues. I cried for my grandfather because, in theory, he may have only been a guitar player, but now he was dead, and the party went on.

I heard voices, would-be voices inside of me, nebulous but sharp: Man, that guy was a real piece of shit, huh?

Yeah, fucking cheater.

I cried because it was true, and there wasn’t much anyone could do about it. I cried because although I resembled him, and wanted to derive something from that, my essence was my own.

I turned my face toward Georgia and touched my lips to her head. I pulled away. I saw a James Dean woman, still warm.

You’re like Jesus for me, I said. You know, I come to you because you get me—my writing and art. You’re like Jesus Christ herself.

 

A month after that night, Georgia handed me my copy of Joan Didion’s The White Album before she left. I had given it to her in the spring. I don’t think she had picked it up. The book, among many other things, conjured the very feelings she was driving four hundred miles away to escape. These days she drank non-stop—dirty Shirleys or, really, whatever was lying around her apartment. She woke up at four a.m. most nights to throw up. It couldn’t have been morning sickness—the thought of being touched by anyone only served to make her more nauseous. The feeling was reminiscent of when she was ten, she said—she cried, then and now, because she wanted her parents to stay together. She cried because she wanted to spend time at one house instead of two. Her mother drove her away from her father’s house, and she cried because she figured she would never return. She wanted something steady that she could lean on and put her whole fragile, silent, howling self within. She said she had looked at my fingers now, thick and nails chewed, and couldn’t help but imagine them pressed, as they had been, inside someone else.

I cry now because of what came next for Georgia and me—for what I left behind at twenty-one, for feeling ancient, for having no other choice but to make something beautiful out of what my karma and atonement and blood demanded.

 

If I were to walk into the stockade at the height of its operation, I don’t imagine I’d see much. If I were to see another man, I don’t suspect he’d be cordial. I imagine him keeping his head tilted downward and his stride not necessarily quickening, but taking on more intent. If I were to try and stop him—say, man, what are you here for?—he would ignore me. He would be at the stockade, I imagine, for a trove of reasons—none of which, however, would include admitting his whispered and perhaps long-held impulses to a passerby.

If, at the end of my stroll down the block, I were to see Belle London sitting perched in her office, I imagine trying to admit to her why I took interest in the stockade.

When I found essays on Salt Lake City’s “Red Light District,” I felt vile, I’d say. I guess its existence and the need, you know, felt too close to me, I’d add. And Georgia—oh God, Georgia.

I imagine she would drag on a cigarette, and I know, in that moment, I would think of how uneasy I felt when Georgia told me she had taken her first drag on a cigarette, and how she joked that it had been everything she ever hoped it would be. Did I balk then at how profligate it sounded—she was studying medicine, after all—or was it a larger time-induced churning that made me want to vomit?

Why did you come here, she’d ask.

A faint cloud would shade her face. Her knees would press together. She would hunch over, tapping her finger on the cigarette, and her eyes—I don’t doubt—would shimmer like two plum-shaped glasses of merlot—ready to fill whatever void they may: in the stomach, the heart, the frontal lobe, the stark hand.

To say, I guess—no, to admit something, I’d stumble. Yes, to admit a need without sounding ambivalent. Time—my god—I wish I could go back.

 

I found myself calling Georgia under the same empty twilight week after week, eventually month after month. For erasure? No. For forgiveness? Closer. For ownership, and yet—

I’m sorry, look, I know how you felt—well, you know, as close as I can get to it. You’ve got to understand, I’m human—still human. I’m better than that, than him. I just need time.

 

Two days removed from our trip to Virginia City and St. Mary’s in the Mountains, it was my turn to pray. I lay next to Georgia in a cathedral-like morning at her father’s home in Carson City. I ran my finger across the tops of her sun hairs. She slept. The bottle of Mad Monk sat empty on her room’s window sill. Today was the day I would leave Nevada.

I had driven from Salt Lake City to Georgia’s home, not to see St. Mary’s in the Mountains or the Delta Saloon, but to sit in a pew next to her and confess what she already knew. There weren’t so much new questions to find, but an aching decision to be made about what she and I would be willing to endure.

I wondered about the cathedral before I left. I wondered if I would ever walk through its doors again. That felt too easy to do, though—to hand my fears to a phenomenal abstraction. No, I wondered if I would ever experience this same cathedral-like morning again. If I could ask forgiveness of Georgia, if time would quit for a moment.

 

On the brink of fall in September of 1911, Belle London announced the stockade would be closing, and as soon as she could, she would sell the property. Her west side underworld, where, one Salt Lake City newspaper noted, “Occasionally a female figure flits in from one of the side streets and is swallowed up in the darkness,” had reached its end. The rows of brick rooms would soon be vacant, housing, then, no person, but rather the famished, unchaste parts of any passerby’s imagination.

The stockade’s end raised a question that could have been asked of its spectral patrons, but was pointed toward Belle London’s madams—where would they go? One newspaper fretted the closing would release “a flood of scarlet women into the streets, thus creating a condition more horrible, if possible, than the stockade itself.” The Deseret News feared the women would return to the Commercial Street business district and “flaunt themselves on the streets, and offend the public morals.” No one in the city, however, seemed concerned for the well-being of the women who had gone to Belle London for safety in the only business that allowed them to make any money. Further, the city of Salt Lake seemed to take no notice of Belle London or to wonder where she would go.

The stockade closed, just as Belle London had announced. She moved back to 25th Street and eventually made a pilgrimage to California, where she would die only a few years later. I like to imagine Belle London found a small home in Tahoe City or farther east in Half Moon Bay. I picture her spending time wandering around Lake Tahoe or watching tiny crabs flutter across the sand on Poplar Beach. Her life, at last, would be calm. She could say goodbye to desire’s churning. She could say goodbye to men rapping on doors—they would go to someone new, surely. It makes me feel good to think this—to think she could say goodbye.

 

I met with Georgia in San Francisco, months past our visit to St. Mary’s, “Four Poems for Robin,” 25th Street. It was the last time I saw her happy. She stayed in an overly-commercial hotel on the east side of the bay near Hayward. I stayed in a hostel-style place on Folsom Street in the middle of San Francisco’s Mission District. We were twenty-seven miles away from each other; we were a six-dollar toll to cross the Bay Bridge away; we were a pedal-to-the-floor kind of drive through Oakland and a jaunt across the foothills above Fruitvale and Alameda and Jingletown away; we slept with only mustard-colored city lights and a handful of highway miles between us.

We decided to meet at one of the beaches in Half Moon Bay. She wore gray chino pants and a fleece pullover. She stood next to her car in the parking lot when I arrived. She looked like Bridgeport, California in spring—which isn’t so much to say that she looked like any of the area’s topography. No, she looked how Bridgeport felt. I’d only read about the mountain town, but when I saw it for the first time, the whole place felt familiar and calming; I was at ease and overcome with snow-cache, indigo-mountain-town awe. The day was overcast. The ocean birthed waves that were the biggest waves I’ve ever seen. It took no time at all for Georgia to convince me to dive into the water with her. It was cold, and neither of us brought anything to swim in.

It didn’t matter, she said. I was always so concerned with transience—the moment, she laughed. Come on—get in with me.

Our clothes were soaked. We smiled big. We said goodbye to uncertainty and goodbye to pain, if only for a moment. Her wet shoulder pressed against mine. We watched sand crabs flutter at our feet.

 

 

 

Notes

 

  1. “If Belle London”: There is speculation over what Belle London’s name actually was. In Christy Karras’ book More than Petticoats: Remarkable Utah Women—from which I’ve taken most of the details and information that characterize Belle London—she writes that Belle London’s supposed legal name was Dora B. Topham, but that “may have not even been her real name.” Karras goes on further, writing that Belle London was “known to have used at least four aliases in her life.” For the purpose of the essay, I’ve chosen to use the alias Belle London, because it fits best with the character I am trying to explore and interact with.
  2. “Where it all began, her Sin Alley”: Christy Karras notes that 25th Street in Ogden had multiple nicknames, including “Sin Alley” and “Two-bit Street,” both of which were given for the supposedly lewd activities, namely prostitution, that found a home on the street.
  3. “just like she did at the beginning of the 1900s”: Christy Karras writes that Belle London had become “adept at working with local politicians and police” by the time she was chosen to help open and operate the stockade.
  4. “There was silence”: The quote is taken from Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play It as It Lays. The main character Maria is having an uncomfortable conversation with her ex-husband. The quote comes at a break in the conversation. Didion writes, “‘I mean I thought we were separated.’ That did not sound exactly right either. ‘If that’s what you want.’ ‘It wasn’t me. I mean was it me?’ ‘Never, Maria. Never you.’”
  5. “My conscience”: Christy Karras characterizes Belle London as empathetic and aware. Reportedly, Belle London “never liked or wanted to be in the business of prostitution.” The dialogue is taken from a statement Belle London made in a newspaper. The tense of some of the words has been changed to match the rest of the section.
  6. “like a red-brick memento mori”: The direct translation of memento mori from Latin to English is “Remember you must die.” I felt, if anything, such a token speaks to impermanence and the supreme indicator of impermanence, death.
  7. “The windows bore cartoon-like Bible images”: I have no recollection of what Bible images were actually displayed on the stained glass windows. The images I chose are biblical stories that, maybe all-too-apologetically to myself, matched the emotional tone of the scene.
  8. “made plainer in the middle of the twentieth-century”: The information about the Mad Monks is confirmed in the Online Nevada Encyclopedia at, onlinenevada.org/articles/st-mary-mountains-catholic-church
  9. “like eight years ago this May, like leaving it behind at nineteen”: As prefaced in the paragraph, the lines are taken directly from Gary Snyder’s “Four Poems for Robin.”
  10. “Mayor John Bransford and Councilman Martin E. Mulvey had easily pushed a proposal through the city’s legislative bodies”: In John McCormick’s essay he states that the idea for the stockade originated in a statement by Police Chief Thomas D. Pitt in 1907, wherein he recommended “that a change be made in the city’s method of dealing with prostitution.” Such a method came primarily at the hands of Mayor John Bransford. He was a member of the American Party, which, McCormick writes, was an “explicitly anti-Mormon political party…made up of people opposed to what they saw as the Mormon church’s continued domination of political affairs in Utah.” Bransford and Martin E. Mulvey were the two leading figures in planning the stockade and faced little opposition. McCormick writes, “The stockade policy was not merely policy of the American party but received support from council members of all parties.”
  11. “the demi-monde, the male parasite, the dope fiend, the gambler, and the beggar”: Taken from an article on page 2 of the June 24, 1909 issue of the Deseret News.
  12. “necessary evil”: Salt Lake City Police Chief Thomas D. Pitt called prostitution a necessary evil in 1907 in his annual report that pushed for a change in the way the city handled prostitution.
  13. “from the business section of the city”: Mayor Bransford made this declaration in the December 7, 1908 Salt Lake City Council meeting. To Bransford, McCormick writes, “Prostitution would always exist…it could not be eliminated but only minimized and controlled.”
  14. “Bransford and Mulvey sought the help”: John C. McCormick details the mayor’s and Councilman Mulvey’s approach of Belle London in his essay. According to McCormick, they asked her to “form a corporation, purchase land on Salt Lake’s westside…and set up and operate a stockade.” As noted before, they approached Belle London for her ability in business and because she was able to put $20,000 toward opening the stockade.
  15. “queen of Ogden’s underworld”: Taken from an article published in the Intermountain Republican on May 20, 1909. The article goes on to say of Belle London, “In company with various respectable citizens of Salt Lake, who compose the Citizen’s Investment Company, [she] is owner of the West Side Stockade, and is active manager of that walled city of sin.”
  16. “with her life, if need be”: Christy Karras writes that Belle London invited other madams who had not already joined her stockade to do so. In a Salt Lake City newspaper she is quoted, saying, “I will protect you with my life, if need be. I know what I am talking about and want women to show the others in Salt Lake that this place will not be molested.”
  17. “not be molested”: Ibid.
  18. “She employed, at the stockade’s peak in 1909”: Information about the demographics of the stockade were taken from Christy Karras’ essay where she, in addition to mentioning specific statistics about the women Belle London employed, calls Belle London an “equal opportunity employer.”
  19. “segregate the evil”: Taken from an article on page 2 in the September 28, 1911 issue of the Salt Lake Tribune. Belle London, in this instance, is speaking in retrospect about the stockade.
  20. “at the windows, only two feet above the sidewalk”: Taken from an article on the first page of the May 18, 1909 issue of the Deseret News.
  21. At the height of opposition: In his essay, John C. McCormick writes that a group of residents formed the West Side Citizens League and “submitted petitions to the city council, and held mass meetings at which they protested the establishment of the stockade on the westside.” McCormick pulled the details about the opposition from meeting minutes from the June 21, 1909 Salt Lake City Council meeting.
  22. “ten-foot by ten-foot brick cribs”: John C. McCormick describes in his essay the stockade cribs as being “ten feet square, with a door and a window in the front.”
  23. “given the things she and her family had seen”: Georgia told me stories that day about her ex-boyfriend and her stepfather. Both men, allegedly, had experienced many encounters with especially sinister apparitions. She seemed fanatical when she spoke to me about it. I did, in fact, experience an enormous onslaught of goosebumps during her stories.
  24. We waited”: I wanted to write about Georgia and me as if we were Vladimir and Estragon from Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot.” I imagined us sitting there, filling our time, finding a hobby, praying, and doing whatever it was we did and intended to do for the remainder of our lives as a way to wait for—what?—anything, I suppose. It may be prudent to say Georgia was waiting for an answer, or a feeling of solace. After all, the day at the cathedral occurred in the middle of the most tumultuous time in our relationship. For her, it seems, she may have been waiting for the feelings of dread to leave. She, immersed in the moment, and I, on the other hand, waiting to leave the cathedral and to travel into a future where she could forgive me; where I could be human; where we could love like we ought to have loved all along; where our Beckett-like waiting could simply be time spent happy with each other.
  25. a bottle of Mad Monk pinot rosé from the cathedral gift-shop”: The label on the bottle reads as follows: “St. Mary has endured the test of time and will forever be the spiritual heart of what was once the ‘richest city in the world.’ Thank you for your purchase of this fine wine so that we can remain open as a place of prayer and rest for pilgrims from places near and far. May God Bless You.” I read the script after finishing the bottle at dinner with Georgia and her family. Only an hour before, Georgia had felt that it was all too much. She ended whatever was left of our relationship. I was four-hundred miles away from home and still had a night left in Carson City with Georgia. I drank the bottle quickly. I hoped God, whatever the hell he was, would bless me.
  26. “under a warm black June night”: The night I describe actually happened in April of that year. Though chronologically inaccurate, I felt the conversation with my grandmother gave the situation with Georgia a frame from which I could synthesize some greater meaning.
  27. You’re like Jesus for me, I said”: This bit of dialogue came on a morning in June. I cried to Georgia hysterically. She was leaving. Rightfully, she had her mind turned to Reno.
  28. “for what I left behind at twenty-one”: This line and those that come after are adaptations of lines in Gary Snyder’s quartet of poems “Four Poems for Robin.”
  29. “I were to see Belle London sitting perched in her office”: In John C. McCormick’s essay, he describes Belle London’s stockade office as a “two-story brick building” where she conducted her work and lived.
  30. “When I found essays on Salt Lake City’s ‘Red Light District’”: I didn’t go looking for essays about the history of prostitution in Salt Lake City, per se. I spent the summer working for City Weekly magazine and was tasked with creating a timeline for an issue devoted to State Street in Salt Lake City. While completing this timeline, I came across information about Commercial Street and eventually delved into the small bit of existing literature on prostitution in the city.
  31. “as close as I can get to it”: This, perhaps, is my biggest qualm with existing. What is empathy? Is there a way to truly experience something in the same way as another person? Do cognitive limitations prevent us from being able to connect with others? I have no answer.
  32. “Belle London announced the stockade would be closing”: Reported in the September 28, 1911 issue of the Salt Lake Tribune on the first page. John C. McCormick notes that there was a lot of speculation about why the stockade closed. In his essay, he mentions a report by the Salt Lake Telegram that said Belle London, Mayor Bransford, and Councilman Mulvey had collectively decided to close the stockade. Belle London, however, publicly maintained that the decision had been her own.
  33. “a flood of scarlet women into the streets”: Taken from an article on the first page of the September 29, 1911 issue of the Daily Herald.
  34. “flaunt themselves on the streets”: Taken from an article on the first page of the September 28, 1911 issue of the Deseret News.
  35. “She moved back to 25th Street”: Christy Karras, in her book, ends her discussion about the life of Belle London by noting that after the stockade she “moved back to Ogden and operated brothels there” and “died in California a few years later.”
Jordan Floyd

Jordan Floyd is an undergraduate at Utah State University studying English and journalism. His essays have been featured in Bird’s Thumb and Sink Hollow. He also contributes to Salt Lake City Weekly magazine as a reporter.

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