Part fourteen of the series. The year was 1971.
"You’ve Got a Friend"
Song link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vY1peG8gHQ
The job proved to be easy for me. I began to feel more upbeat about my life. Serge seemed pleased with my work and paid me frequent compliments, something I wasn't accustomed to hearing. He was also a good listener.
Late one night after the club had closed, I was sitting at a table waiting for Serge to finish doing the nightly books. We went to breakfast together after nearly every shift, becoming a lot closer than just employer, employee. I was beginning to fall in love with him. He came along at exactly the right time for me; I did not feel so alone in the world now. I had Serge. I had a friend.
By now Serge knew all about my divorce and having given up custody of my son. He knew of my vulnerabilities, all of the wounds that were still fresh and open. I felt fortunate to have him, both as a boss and a friend. He lavished attention on me without expecting anything in return. I did not think many men would be so patient, months passed with no mention of sex. I was still very insecure, but I felt with Serge’s kindness and patience the issue would resolve itself. I wanted to know he was not going to use and dump me. I could not handle any more rejection at this stage of my life.
The door to Serge’s office opened. “Sheila?” He popped his head around the corner.
“I’m here.” My face lit up whenever I saw him.
“I’m sorry love, but we're going to have to skip breakfast. I have to drive to Reno.” Several endearing locks of hair tumbled into his eyes. He smiled that slightly crooked smiled which had, by now, captured my heart.
“Now, at this hour of the morning? You’re beat, why don’t you get some sleep first?” I knew the drive to Reno took about four hours.
“I would sweetheart, but I have to meet someone first thing in the morning.” He came out of his office to begin locking up the place.
“Well then--what do you say to me riding along with you? You could drop me at the airport in Reno and I could fly back. Want some company?” I hoped he would.
He was quiet for a moment, “Okay, sure. I really appreciate it. It'll be great, just the two of us. Good idea.”
He opened the trunk of his El Dorado, reached into his briefcase and pulled out a bottle of pills. He opened it, then sprinkled a couple into his palm. He put the bottle back and popped two pills into his mouth.
“What are those?” I'd never seen him take pills before.
“Just vitamins baby. They help when you can’t get sleep.”
Boy, maybe I should have tried some, because soon he seemed quite wide-awake,
talking nearly non-stop the whole way through Sacramento. I was glad I was along, the time alone with him was special to me, usually he was too busy with the club.
“Sheila, I have something to tell you. You may hate me for it, but I never counted on falling in love with you. Will you promise to hear me out before you say anything?”
My curiosity was piqued, yet at the same time I had this feeling of dread come over me. It was because of the tone in his voice. His sudden seriousness. The way his hand had gently reached over to touch my cheek. Something was coming that I wouldn't like. I was sure of it. “I promise Serge.” Though instinctively my body went into a protective mode, arms crossed tightly across my chest, as though this gesture would protect me from anything bad coming my way.
“This isn't an easy thing to explain, to anyone--especially you. I've known I couldn't keep this hidden forever. In fact you'd have found out very soon, and you deserve to hear it from me first.” He took a deep breath.
"What Serge? Tell me."
“I know we've only known each other a few months. In this time we've grown very close, something I've avoided doing with any woman in so many years. I think I had good reasons, then you came into my life. With you, reason goes out the window. You are so soft, so warm and so vulnerable. I want to be the man who loves and protects you from any more hurt. I know what it is to lose someone you love. I know you, I know you have endured more pain than any girl I have ever met.”
“Serge...” I interrupted.
“You promised to hear me out Sheila, let me finish. There’s another woman in my life right now." I felt a knife-like pain in my heart. No, no. no. How could I....
"Listen to me.” He demanded. “ It's not what you think. Her name is Shelly, she’s been working as a hooker for the past eight years. She’s in love with me. It's not the kind of love you and I have, but a sick, obsessive one.”
"Do you love her?" I managed to ask. I wanted to cover my ears, to avoid hearing his answer. He reached over to touch me. “Let me stop the car.” He veered over to a rest stop, pulled in and turned off the engine.
“Come here...” he held his arms open. I just sat there glaring in disbelief. “Hun, she devoted the past few years of her life to.... pleasing me. To be honest, at first I enjoyed her attention. But soon I got into some real financial trouble. The bar had always been somewhat successful, but I wanted it to be more so.” He looked at me, his eyes pleading to hear him out.
“With that in mind I moved the club to where it is now. The trouble is nobody is interested in going to a County and Western club when the other clubs have live entertainment like Tower of Power. The place I bought with such high hopes turned out to be a real loser. The former owner left me with huge unpaid bills. Just paying them off wiped me out financially. Frankly, it was all I could do to make ends meet. That's when I really became desperate. By now Shelly knew how bad things were.”
This was so surreal, listening to his story, being stuck out in the middle of nowhere, listening to the man I thought I could trust talk about a side of him I'd never heard about.
“Then she just showed up at the bar one day with a paper bag full of money. She plopped it down on the bar and told me to remodel the place. There was fifteen thousand dollars in cash in that bag! I was so shocked, probably feeling like you do now, yet I accepted the money. She understood my one weakness and my big dream. In return, since I couldn't pay her back, I made her a full partner in the bar. In hindsight it was stupid, yet if it hadn't been for Shelly, my dreams would have died. I never would have come to know you.”
I struggled to process this, but I just sat there speechless. He kept on talking.
“I'm still far from being in the clear, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. You can’t believe for a minute that I'm in love with her; I feel gratitude, and obligation, that's all. Now, I'm all she has. Where does a twenty-eight year old hooker go? She loves being a partner in the club, it's her future. I just can’t turn my back on her now.”
I was stunned and anger seeped into my voice. “Can I ask something? How come I’ve never met her--if she's your partner at the club?”
“Fair question. She spends most of her time just outside of Reno, in a brothel. It’s called Mustang Ranch. It is legal there.”
“Really. I had no idea prostitution was legal in the United States.” I said sarcastically.
“Yeah, a county in Nevada just outside of Reno recently legalized prostitution. Shelly is why I'm going to Reno. I'll pick her up from the brothel and bring her back to Oakland. She'll be there for a week. In fact, you'll meet her tomorrow night. I want you to understand I won't be able to spend time alone with you while she's there. I feel a sense of... loyalty to Shelly, but I can’t deny I am falling in love with you.”
After what seemed like hours, I finally spoke, my voice barely audible, “Well that’s some story Serge. I won’t pretend I'm not shocked, angry and hurt. How could you have led me on for this long? I was falling in love with you, but... I don’t really know you.”
I rolled down my window in hopes the chilly morning air would bring a sense of reality to the situation, as if anything could at that point. Serge put his arm around me and pulled me close to him. He kissed my wet cheek. I turned to face him. “Serge, what is it you want from me?” I could see tears streaming down his face too.
“I have exactly what I want from you, your love. I don’t want to lose it.” He kissed me.
I thought to myself, I don’t want to lose you either. I won’t lose you.
I thought about everything on the flight home, including quitting my job, yet my curiosity about this other woman was undeniable. The next night I was introduced to Shelly, she looked tough, but was very sweet to me. She seemed to go out of her way to be friendly. It was hard not to like her, she wasn’t the monster I imagined. She even invited me to join her and Serge at a Giant’s football game.
I decided to go with them. It was the day Ed and Mike were leaving. I needed the diversion to keep my mind from thinking about it. Shelly and I got very drunk and on the way back we were stuck in horrible traffic. Despite Serge's best effort, I totally missed taking Ed and Mike to the airport. This led to a sense of guilt and disappointment so deep, so commanding I no longer cared about anything. I was as low as I ever had been.
Serge and Shelly were masters of exploitation and preyed on my obvious and considerable vulnerabilities. With their manipulation and encouragement I spun out of my own control and into theirs. So much so that by September I was working along side Shelly (known as Candy) as a prostitute at Mustang Ranch.
We worked three weeks on and a week off, which was spent back in Oakland. I still not had sex with Serge, and the one time we tried I blurted out what I felt, that Serge was nothing more than a trick to me. That apparently cooled his ardor for me, but not his need for the money I made. Buffy, as I was known at the brothel, was the number one girl, raking in the money for both Serge and the brothel owner, Joe Conforte.
Joe took a shine to me, and set out to woo me, as only the biggest pimp in the world could do. He kept after me, and since he was not stupid, he would pick apart the reasons I should be "his woman", not a pawn of Serge and Candy's.
This is a picture of Joe Conforte and me, as Buffy, taken at Harrah's one night.
By December of 1971 it was obvious the premise of my working with my “friends”, Serge and Shelly, was all a lie. I was not going to be a partner in anything, much less the club, as they had promised. It was then I began the plan to escape from their clutches. It had to be done as cleverly as when they had ensnared me. Joe would unwittingly become a part of my plan.