We started playing poker in the private chambers of a legendary woman, Fatima Franklin.
Fatima was a former belly dancer from Baghdad, Iraq, imported and naturalized by marriage to an Air Force jet pilot. Divorced after bearing three sons, she was abandoned to her own economic devices. Her DNA and ancestry, rooted as they were in the Garden of Eden, perhaps dictated Fatima’s choice of the “oldest profession.” A Cadillac-driving mistress of the evening arts, she kept a retinue of younger women whom she managed to their purpose. Her Cadillac was hot pink too.
Her oldest son Anthony was one of my best friends. Nicknamed “Asia,” he might have more accurately been called “Asia Minor.” He was Persian, with black hair and black eyes, a lady’s man experienced beyond his years. He was the only one of us who didn’t have to lie about his sexual exploits. The young women his mother managed—Anthony called them, “Mommie’s Friends”—were generous tutors.
There was a picture of Fatima on the living room wall, an 8×10 glossy taken of her in the harem costume she danced in Baghdad when she was twenty-two, or three, or four, and you have never seen a woman so potentially dangerous, mesmerizing and erotic.
Her smile was confident, bold as a dagger of ivory. Physically, she was probably the most powerful woman in town at the time, if I do not underestimate. She might have held her own in all corners west, north, and south. She was not afraid of men, armed or unarmed. She would not run from a knife or a pistol, and knew the use of either. You could tell, listening to the mannish, Middle Eastern accent she spoke in, looking into her bottomless black eyes, that you better not cross her. You might not wake up with all of the pieces of yourself you had counted on returning with from dreamland.
Whatever you wanted to get away with at the Franklin’s, it was everywhere dark inside, with big leather couches and a brass coffee table from Baghdad, or somewhere over that way, also other things made of brass, a huge long-necked tea pot that stood in a corner. And there were strange smells, incense not as sweet as perfume, but close. Sometimes an odor more exotic, rank-smelling but alluring at the same time, came from a pot on the stove. In Asia’s kitchen, it was the only pot I ever saw in a ready position to cook. The same pot was often sitting there, on the left front burner, with a wooden paddle standing in a congealed green substance. Asia told me it was wax, which his mother would heat up and spread over areas of unwanted hair, which I had never heard of wax being used for that purpose.
Throwing common morality overboard, accepting sin as your daily bread, it didn’t seem like a horrible home environment to grow up in. Nutritious even. Mommie’s friends were slinky. One girl I remember, caught me staring at her rear end, as if I had tricked her into presenting it to the whole world for free, and I was the one caught for stealing it with both eyes, and I ought to have to pay just for that, which was her game to me, of course, I was the trick. She hated men, but who could blame her for that? She hated me for the innocence I couldn’t hide. She wasn’t much older than I was, but to look at me, was to see how far she had fallen. Then her eyes informed me that no free lunch had been implied, none was being offered now; a menu was available upon request.
I was too young to know that I was being played, but I was also appealing to the girl. She liked me. I was paralyzed, long enough for this moment to embed itself in youth’s memory.