Jade Mornings in Dark Alleys
by Rose Mary Boehm

(Antwerp, the port city, 1959)

Cobblestones. For a heartbeat there are highlights
on the small, rounded, slippery boulders polished
by horses’ hooves, motorcars, shoes, sneakers,
vertiginous heels and boots of all colours.

Not only the light, even the air is furtive here,
rubbish bins overflow with last night’s
condoms, and the odor of old urine and feces
is lifted and carried by the wind. The women
huddle in doorways, near advertising pillars.

They share their stories on many mornings
during a breather. Soup, deep drags on strong
cigarettes, black coffee and a cognac or two. Some
of them virtually illiterate, thrown into the street
at eight (or six, or twelve), abused by fathers
or stepfathers, beaten, abandoned, moved from orphanage
to orphanage, foster home to foster parents…
There are those who have kids.

Head bent, the old woman walks, a scarf barely
covering the curlers, her ankles swollen, her feet
in slippers, a baguette under her arm.

For years now her place has been behind the till. Payment
in advance, s’il vous plaît. She’s doing evenings. Dresses up.
Big river pearls on long strings slipping between her blouse
and those wrinkled two mounds pressed into a low-cut bra.
Bright-red lipstick collects in cracks just above her mouth,
her eyes don’t smile. Voilà, Monsieur. No receipt.
It’s cash for personal services.

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