Flash: Comfort House

Image by JAY WILDE (https://www.bhg.com/home-improvement/exteriors/curb-appeal/victorian-style-home-ideas/)

The horseless dropped me off at the corner. Pulling my collar up and my hat down, I dodged my steps through the puddles reflecting the gas lamps lighting the sidewalk. The cold raindrops struck my heated cheeks as I rushed to my destination, reminding myself what I wanted was a basic human need. There was no need for embarrassment.

The embarrassment should be society’s for putting the fulfilment of this need behind a ledger book. Certain things should not require coin exchanges.

965 Steward Lane was set back from the cobblestones street and cement walkways of the busy mixed residential and commercial sector. Trimmed in burnt orange, crisp turquoise, and mint green, the three-story Victorian building mixed well with the seamstress shop on one side and the breakfast house on the other where the owners lived above the first-story business. The rose bushes leading up to the porch shined in the nighttime lamplight, reds and pinks sparkling as rain continued to fall. It looked so ordinary and respectable, I questioned Widow Leery recommendation. Only the thin horizontal wooden sign of a snake coiled around a rod with a cluster of grapes on the left end indicated its business. As promised, the grapes and rod were not painted purple.

I was deprived, not depraved.

Even deprived to the point of tears, I hesitated turning to walk down the brick path. But who knows when I will get another childless night?

My daughters each previously had taken sleepovers but never on the same night. More will likely happen now the youngest was thirteen and Confirmed.

I should go home. One more night alone will make no difference. I remain frozen in place long enough, searching for an escape, either forward or back, my eyes find a small painted wooden sign attached to the open gate. Curious, I step to the side to be able to read the mint green words painted on the burnt orange sign.

Laughter and Hugs Provided

A sob escapes.

Yes, my babies have given me laughter and hugs by the armful for years. Only recently have they transferred these affections to schoolmates and neighbors to the exclusion of their boring mother. My sister, who rents us the fourth floor of her walk-up, as typical of her nature, remained more shrew than sympathetic shoulder. How her spouses tolerate her has been a mystery I have never been tempted to unfurled. I grew up with her; it was enough she was happy and willing to offer me aid, limited as it is, after Raymond died in the war.

I could use laughter and hugs.

I walk down the bricks and mount the four steps to the wooden porch. The front door opens. Taking a deep breath, I enter the establishment.

“Welcome to Elizabeth’s Comfort House. May I take your cover, Ma’am?” The butler bowed slightly, before straightening and holding out a hand for my wet hat and coat. Sharply dressed in a black jacket and white bow tie and cummerbund, the servant makes me feel vastly underdressed.

I glance around the area, one last-last chance to duck out or move forward. In the foyer sits the hostess, if not Elizabeth herself, she likely will claim to be Elizabeth. Her cotton dress, a blue-green turquoise, deep skirt covers the legs of her chair, beside her rests a guest ledger like one sees at hostels and funerals on a painted table with spindly legs. An empty overstuff chair, the upholstery embroidered with snakes and grapes, waited beside her for me. Beyond her guardianship laid what I seek, a tea room full of men.

Males willing to sell their time to women.

They appeared cleaned and mingled with females, some seated in tete-a-tetes, others standing in groups with three or four short-haired or bunned women around them. Above the gathering hovered oil lights, a clear statement of wealth and a warning the men were well protected. Few houses in town had access to magicians. But this wasn’t a house, it was a business. Any relationship I establish here was a transaction.

I passed my hat and outer coat to the butler before I touched my vest, verifying my wallet remained with me, and approached the hostess. I showed leg in a bow I learned when taking my daughters to dance lessons. At thirty-five and after a hard week on the manufacturing floor, the ligaments protested the stretch, but the delivery would have please Mistress Florence. The inspection of guests indicated my attire fell in the lower end of acceptable, so I felt the need to break out extraordinary manners to offset my appearance. I took the uptick of her polite smile as approval.

“Forgive me for not standing, ma’am,” the hostesses smoothed the fabric over her legs, “skirts, you understand.”

Most women, when they entered the work world after the men went off to war, gave up the excess fabric. Manufacturing machines, no matter what the factory made, didn’t forgive dangles and snags. Long loose hair became a peace-time legend among the working class. But all of us older women remember the challenges of maneuvering the fabric.

“Of course.” Internally, I wonder what she is hiding beneath her petticoats. Was she the one responsible for the float spells and tucked a wand or spice within easy reach to protect her investments? I tilt my head to the chair beside her, “May I?”

Her lips twitched again and her eyes sparkled, granting approval with a small nod.

I sit, doing a pinch on the linen to keep my ironed lines sharp and the hem of the trousers just above my shoes, then turned my body toward her and the front door where I watched the butler go into a small side room to hang my coat. Inside the room, I could see windows facing the porch.

“I don’t believe I have seen you before, ma’am. My name is Elizabeth Kennedy,” she said as she pulled the ledger into her lap. “May I ask how you found us?”

“Frances Leery recommended your services to me when she found me adrift in melancholy a few weeks ago on my back porch.” Crying my eyes blood red more like. The calendar was above the bin in the kitchen, and I had noticed the date before walking down the stairs with the trash to dump into the containers my sister keeps in the alley. On the second turn fire escape, I remembered the date matched the day I received the letter which began “Mrs. Penkeeper, we regret to inform you…”

“Ah, many of our patrons seek our services for attending to this condition.”

“She did indicate that, dear friend that she is.” I hide behind my polite smile all the frustration I felt listening to Widow Leery taking Widow Penkeeper to task for not keeping up proper appearances as though we were close confidents, not block busybody and quiet neighbor. I think I would be less upset about her interference if she wasn’t right about my mental state and steps I needed to take to fix it and why.

“Even with an excellent recommendation from Mrs. Leery, to protect our employees, I will be asking you some questions.” The hostess reached for a peacock pen on the lower level of the table and twisted it out its inkwell.


“Your name and occupation.”

“Mrs. Edith Penkeeper, most people call me Dicey. I work for JJ Worthingtons, cutting the cards for textiles and helping with the looms.” I can read a bit, even upside down. “I see you record addresses, I live on Elm, the 300 block.”

“Thank you.” Elizabeth placed the feathered pen back into the jar and turned it until it was secure. “You do understand we only offer comfort, not the more … physical exchanges you might find elsewhere.”

I nodded. “One of the reasons I sought you out.” Widow Leery had given me the names of three places she frequented and this one sounded the safest.

“And, I apologize for the necessary, but our fees.”

I recited what I understood the cost of drinking tea surrounded by men to the cost of an overnight stay. She corrected me up and down and expanded the list of services they offered, including female companionship. “I’m interested, should I find someone amenable, staying the evening.”

“Very good. For the tea, the cost is five sheets. Leave it with the girl at the door. Should one of our gentlemen or ladies agree to escort you upstairs, you will settle the bill with them.”

“Thank you. Now, if you don’t mind?” I brace to stand and at her nod, lever myself out of the chair. “It has been lovely to meet you.” I make a slight bow, then spin on my shoe and make my way to the tea room.

At the door, a child, younger than my Wilma but old enough to do numbers well, waited beside a till. I pull out my wallet and remove a fiver. She thanks me neatly and I enter the room.

The customers and employees are easy to distinguish. The employees continue the theme of burnt orange and turquoise in patterned clothing of dresses on the women and lounging gowns with trousers for the men. Except for two, all the men and women employed by Elizabeth wore their hair long or in messy buns with loose strains begging to be tucked or pulled by the clients. One man had a clean-shaven dome but made up for the difference with a beard, and the woman shaved her black curls close, and displayed thick muscular arms. Both had already been drawn into personal conversations and had two or three green sheets of bills in front of them. One woman customer glared at the person who obviously had preempted her favorite comfort provider instead of mingling with the unclaimed people.

I traversed to the table with the teapots. In front of each was the name of the tea, most of which I had no experience with, and a small picture I guess of what plant they represented. I chose the mint, unwilling to risk my tastebuds on top of everything else I was attempting tonight.

“Leave room for cream on top, it helps cool it faster.” A deep voice rumbled beside me.

I turn to find a tall male beside me, he is pouring a cup from something marked with a bright flower and starting with a H – h-biscuits or something. “Thank you for the tip.” I smile at him. He is about my height and blond, not something I normally find attractive. His hair fell to his waist, and he bent deliberately to gape his lounging jacket to display a bare chest.

Too much for me.

I move to where sugar cubes, what a luxury, I might just come back for the tea, and milk options were stored at the end of the table. “What are you drinking?” I asked.

“Hibiscus, I just love the color and the tart flavor.” He tipped the steaming teacup toward me so I could see the rich color.

“That is beautiful.”

“Almost as beautiful as you.”

I laugh lightly. A real laugh. I hadn’t been flirted with in fourteen years. Drafted, Raymond left to before he even knew he had given me a second child. “Hardly, but thank you.” I take a sip. The mint was a spearmint base tea, sharper than the peppermint I expected. I put the cup down to swirl in a sugar cube. “Dicey.”

“Harvey. Would you like to join us under the green globe? We are speculating which portals are likely to be active during opening season.”

I look up at the oil lamps and notice each is a different color of glass and that the area under them are cleared of chairs but full of people. “Hm. Maybe later. Again, that you for the creamer hint, Harvey.” I move away toward a different globe, not really wanting to talk about a subject little better than the weather. The portals no longer poured out enemy monsters, but the Messmer magic left tears in reality’s fabric which reached their height of activity in late October. Scientists were working on ways to close the portals permanently, but so far nothing even shrunk them or contained the magic when they opened.

The yellow globe had people talking about the local stage production, and the traveling orchestra coming out of Newer York City. Purple picking out the politics of the Commissioners Board. I wondered if the conversations changed night to night, or even within a night. I ended up on the edge of the red globe where people debated the merits of the recently released novel Anthem. Between children and work and block duties, I didn’t have any time to read. Personally, I thought the author divorced from reality with her staunch stance against mysticism and magic.

“You look bored.” A man whispered in my ear.

I looked up, and up some more. This male towered over me by a handful of fingers spread wide. Brown hair, nearly auburn in the red light, rioted in curls around his shoulders. “Well, I’m not anymore.” And it wasn’t just because he wore his lounger close to his body, or his green eyes contained the exact green of cornfields drying for harvest, but he felt comfortable. My belly uncurled from tension for the first time of the evening.

He chuckled. Retaining eye contact, my gray to his green, he reached for one of my hands holding my teacup and pulled it up to his mouth slowly. “My name is Albert.” He kissed my knuckles, then returned my hand to my nearly empty cup.

I near swooned. I shouldn’t. The man’s face was virtually unlined. My best guess was twenty, maybe twenty-one. But instead of moving away, I stammered, “Dice, Dicey. People call me Edith. No, I mean I’m Edith and people call me Dicey.”

“A hooligan growing up, were you?”

A laugh escapes. “At least some thought so, before we moved to the city.”

Albert reached out his broad hand and rubbed the fuzz where I cut my hair with a thumb. I only leave the very top thick where I can tuck it into a cap. The sides I keep short for when I have to climb into the looms and put in the new pattern cards. “This is a beautiful black.”

“Thanks, I’m surprised it hasn’t gone gray with my teenagers.”

“You have children?”

“Two of them, girls.” I bit my lip. Of course they were girls. If either of them were boys, I would have been remarried and not need his services.

“Are they as beautiful as you?”

“I’d like to think so.” I take a sip of my tea and realize it is empty. “Oh, um. Do you have a tea you would recommend?” I ask while walking over to the table.

“Have you ever had rose tea? Elizabeth makes it from our gardens here.”

“No I haven’t.”


I wake in the morning, light flowing in under my curtains, to the scent of cotton and female musk in my nose where it is buried in a swirl of black hair. My arm is secured around Dicey’s body and she is curled perfectly into my form. My morning wakeup call presses against her back, so I lift away, taking time to admire the mark I left on her shoulder where it could be covered for her work.

While we aren’t licensed for breeding duties, we did have a wide range of activities we could offer at our discretion as part of our services or personal interest. My personal interest included marking this woman. I ran my fingers over the lip-shaped bruise, pushing just an “h” worth of hex into my temporary claim on Dicey, before slipping out of bed and down the hall to the third-floor water closet.

When I come back, I find her in the hazy stage of waking between dreams and duties. My heart leaps when I see the brightening of her sleepy face, then sinks when her visage closes off like a door as she remembers where she is.

I got a battle to overcome, but I will win.

Wizards get a lot of leeway claiming spouses. After two years general service, we could pick out up to four wives where the average man was limited to two and the second one was assigned. I only had a few more months until I was twenty and completed the mandatory comfort duties, after which, I will be picking up her as a spouse. Her aura called me across the room last night, and now I know she exists, I expect it will call me across the city.

“How long before you need to go home?”

“The kids are old enough to let themselves in,” she whispers sadly, “but I should be back to make them lunch and help them with block duties this afternoon.”

“The light says it is only six. We have a couple hours.”

I go over to the bed, sit on the side, and bend over to kiss her. Thoroughly.

(words 2,859, first published 1/21/2024)