Mike Firesmith on Bonnie Parker: Selling and Buying, Living and Dying

Posted on October 12, 2012


There wasn’t anything such as pride and dignity cost extra back then. If you was a woman without a man you was something to be bought and paid for and it wasn’t a question of if you would be bought but only how much you could get. Some men came right out and asked how much and I saw plenty of girls that liked it better that way. Some of them even went to trading for food and for bills to get paid or for rent. That went on a lot more than most people thought it was but most people didn’t think about it. You know the women who got bought and paid for were called whores but there wasn’t a name called for those men who did the buying. You called them “sir.”

Waiting tables was the way some women advertised what they were selling but I didn’t. I can’t say I never was bought cause we all were. Some like to pretend they liked it and some men paid more for that but I never had that in me, whatever else might have been. The first time I did it rent came due and I didn’t have it or anything else for that matter. He said for me to come into the bedroom and talk to him about it. He told me to take my dress off and lie down on the bed and that’s what I did. I didn’t do much more than that, and he didn’t ask for more either, and in a few minutes I had rent paid for that month. I had seen it before so it wasn’t like it was unexpected but that was the first time I had to do it. It wouldn’t be the last time, either, and I can’t lay claim to me being different or special cause none of us were.

I thought I was special when I got to writing speeches for the mayor, but they didn’t want a woman getting credit for that. Men in office needed a woman to write for them and a woman to lay down with them, but that was all they needed from a woman, and no woman was worth giving more than that to. Some were worth a whole lot less and asking for more was a good way to find out how little a woman meant.  It was like when a dog jumps up on a man and he slaps that dog down, but then reaches down to pat that dog a little later. That man expects the dog to be grateful for all of it. But the times were such nobody meant very much at all and women weighed out on the scales a lot less than men until they were wanted, that is.

Was a young girl named Betty that liked to play with the men, liked to flirt and wave her hips around in front of them, and I think Betty liked the action and she sure as hell liked the money. She was upfront about what she was doing; selling for rent money, selling for a new dress, and Betty was getting some attention from some of the right men to be able to get real money, and maybe being set up on the side like the truly good looking women got sometimes. But she got coupled up one night with somebody’s cousin from out of town and he worked on her. He claimed she tried to lift his payroll but nobody believed it and even if she did there weren’t no reason to ruin her. He cut her face up but good with a knife and left her twenty miles out of town on foot and naked. They patched her up as good as they could, or would, but she was a world of hurt to look at. She couldn’t wait tables or work anywhere her face could be seen and there wasn’t anymore selling anything  for Betty. A woman on her own without any looks was something that could be survived but to be scarred up and alone was a burden. We didn’t see Betty except a time or two after that and God alone knows where she went off to. The thing was he walked around town like nothing had happened. The man strapped a knife on his leg, and it wasn’t even the knife he did it with, like it was some sort of trophy as to what he done to Betty and other menfolk seemed to admire him for it. We didn’t have a choice but to wait on him and to smile and ignore what he did to one of our own. What else was there to do? I didn’t ask that question for another year or two after Betty.

Sally was one of those girls who seemed to be born to better things. She rode hard when she rode and men kept coming back to her. She wasn’t scared of showing a little more of her legs than most and we knew Sally was going to hook a man with some money or something sooner than later. There was a quiet man that came in to eat breakfast every day and Sally poured it on while she poured him coffee. He didn’t laugh much but he did smile at her. I thought he had scary eyes and I was more than happy to let Sally have him. He tipped good, I won’t say that he didn’t, but there was something about that man I did not trust.

Sally took off one weekend and we didn’t see her man while she was gone. She came back laughing and talking about what a good time she had but there was something different about her. Over the next month she started giving away her time on the schedule to others which wasn’t like Sally at all. Her man started asking for her by name and we knew he was going to put her up somewhere. But she treated him different now. She seemed to be all laughs and smiles around him but we could tell there was something else there and nobody liked it.

Sure enough to tell, Sally dropped her job one day and left with him. She never owned up to being with him, which wasn’t something she was shy about, and she never did tell us so much as his name. Before she left I noticed Sally was drinking during the day which she wasn’t prone to doing before, but so many did it didn’t spook me when she started.

It was a month or two later we saw her at a county fair. My, but Sally cleaned up pretty and she was all over the arm of her man. You would have never guessed she had worked tables before in her life this one, no. Her man left her alone for a minute and I was already heading towards her, to speak to her, and when I reached out and touched her arm she flinched like she had been burned. The look in her eyes was a little more than fear, but it was that too. She turned away from me, like she didn’t see me, and I let Sally go. I never did know what that woman was getting paid to do, but I did see the gold ring on her finger. She had been bought the legal way and whatever else those women who were being paid by the meal were being fed, it wasn’t anything like what was on Sally’s menu.

Marlene was one of those women all the men wanted and very few got to. She was short, not as short as me, but short still, but her face was beautiful and she had that yellow colored hair some men fall over for, and she had them great big blue eyes. She had to sell out for her father to keep his land, and if I could have sold for that kind of price I would have been tickled to death but Marlene broke down in tears over it. The banker that bought her felt bad for her and before long he set her up on the side proper, but she kept her job right on, for looks. But she was wearing shoes I would have died for, and the stockings were made of real silk. Marlene was a good girl, a decent and God fearing young woman who thought what she was doing was wrong but she had to keep doing it. The banker kept her daddy on his land, Marlene on her back, and his wife in the dark.

Some women got put up by men that wouldn’t treat them right but they stayed right on for the money. Married women put up with more than paid women do, when it gets right down to it, because a married woman is stuck where she is, and a paid one can quit mostly. But once a woman gets bought you can tell it and so can everybody else. Two women who work together for the first time can tell which one has gotten more for what she has than the other. Marlene wasn’t like that at all, even though she was, if you know what I mean. She would do anything for any of us and we knew it. Most of the time a woman wouldn’t ask another for money especially a woman making more on her back than another making less. But Marlene was generous, and she was even before she got put up and dressed up. We all thought that man would leave his wife for her, and she thought so too. We were wrong about it and worse yet Marlene was too.

What most women was scared of more than running into a man with a knife or a need to beat a woman, was a man that had some sickness about him. Most tried to be picky but sometimes even a man that looked like he hadn’t a thing in the world wrong with him did. Sometimes a woman would come to work with that look in her eyes and we would all know without her saying. Most men that owned a restaurant would fire a girl in a heartbeat if she came in with the drip.  A woman with a sickness between her legs might as well had been dead. If a man knew who gave it to him, or just needed a woman to blame for it, she might take a beating for it, sure enough, but once it got out she had something there was no selling it again until the rumors stopped flying. That was bad enough. That was something we all had to deal with, even those of us who didn’t make a living lying down.

But who didn’t make a living like that?  If a man took you out, bought you a meal, sat in a movie theater with you, and you felt halfway decent about him, you’d get to thinking it wouldn’t be a bad trade at all. That’s different from selling it, or trading it for rent, or so everybody wants to say, but the truth is this; if all they want from you is one thing then you can’t sell or trade off anything else at all, and every single moment you spend talking to a man it’s nothing but what you can get for what he wants. How do you get away from it? You got some plan to make some money and get away from this sort of thing, and another year goes by you sell off a little piece of yourself and you make plans and another year goes by and nothing ever changes until things get worse.

Marlene came in crying one day and I knew what had happened before she could tell it. Young, single, and pregnant wasn’t a death sentence and there was ways around it, hard ways, but it could be done. Marlene lay claim to keeping the baby and we all thought the banker might do right by her. She packed her stuff up to go off for a while and we knew where that would end even if she didn’t. There was places where unwed mothers went to have babies and maybe the child got adopted if someone wanted it and maybe it didn’t. Either way, the woman was sold out as house help or farm help or factory help before being allowed to go back to her family, if she was allowed to leave at all. They made ’em pay for having the baby and finding a home for the baby and it was slavery legal was what it was. Marlene’s daddy put in that he hadn’t raised no whore and turned his back on her. I thought about it being her that saved his farm and that man had to know what got done to save it. But we saw her off at the bus station and thought we wouldn’t see her again.

The banker and his wife came in one day, and you could have heard a feather fall. His wife was as tall as Marlene had been short and had hair as dark as night. But there in her arms was a baby boy with hair the color of a hayfield at noon. We thought it odd he would bring them both in there like that, but that was his way of letting us know who owned what. That was his way of letting us know he was going to get what he thought was his and people like us would still smile and wait on him, and his family. He was right.

It was just short a year later when Marlene showed up again but it was hard to see the same woman inside her. She was skinny and pale looking, and those eyes looked like ice now. She had stole some money to get away from where they had her and she had taken off looking for her baby. The banker and his wife had lay claim to the child after Marlene carried it and she meant to get her son back. I gave her three dollars because it was all I had to my name and I knew if I had come to her she would have give it to me. I thought she might try to ease her way back into the banker’s life and maybe try to get him to ease back into her. But she walked right into his house, stuck a knife into his wife’s belly, and took off with her son. She walked just as calmly down the street like she lived there all her life. When she got to the bridge over the Trinity River she jumped. They found her body right off and the baby floated up a day later.

I never claimed what I did was right. There was people I hurt that never would have harmed me and I know it. I never said I was forced into it and I weren’t. I will say that what I seen happen to other women made me think something like that was going to happen to me. That doesn’t make what I did right and I know it and that is not what I am trying to say. This isn’t a confession or an apology. Somebody walked into my life and handed me a gun and told me that I could either live for a little while or die for a long time. I knew the first time I saw a man die they would kill me. I knew the first time I fired that rifle I was just shooting at myself. I knew they would never stop hunting me not because I had killed, or stole or because I was dangerous, but because I was a woman. I had raised my hand against the way things were and they were not going to allow that. In Kansas City I took up arms and laid down every man in front of me. I still don’t know if I killed the man shooting at me, but I do know he lay down and screamed for me to stop. For the first time in my life I was more than equal to a man, and it took me killing and a man dying to make it that way. It was still killing and it was still wrong and if’n there’s an answering one day then this will be my answer, what you see here.


Bonnie Parker

See more of Mike Firesmith’s work at The Hickory Head Hermit!