Mamma Georgia’s place stood out from all the other buildings on the street. It was the only wooden structure, and badly in need of repair. It appeared never to have been painted. Melanowski began making excuses as he pulled a ring attached to a cord that hung from the door. “Mamma Georgia said if she fixes up the place, they’d raise the rent,” he said.
I listened but I couldn’t hear any sound from beyond the door. Melanowski pulled the cord the second time. “Perhaps no one’s home,” I remarked.
“They’re home,” he assured me.
Sure enough, there came the sound of wooden clogs, and the door opened partly. Through the crack, I could see a girl standing there, a mere child not yet in her teens. The sight was sickening. Young girls working as chamber maids in whore• houses. What could be more disgusting? Melanowski saw the look on my face. “Mamma Georgia adopted her,” he said.
Yea, sure, I thought. Same old story, but I kept my thoughts to myself.
I was quite surprised that the small courtyard was rather clean and tidy, with plants in dragon-carved urns along the walkway. Nor did the place have that discomforting odor that the bordellos like Ping-Pong Willies in Tsingtao had.
The girl led us to another inner door and stepped aside. Melanowski took over and led the way down a long hallway with a white tiled floor to a reception room at the end. Here was Mamma Georgia, seated in a polished, hardwood Empress’ chair. With her hands crossed over her protruding belly, she sat there like a grand lady of the Chinese court preparing to pass judgment. She attempted to get up, but I bade her to remain seated, and it was probably well that I did. She was so heavy-set I doubted she could even stand, and if she did, it would have to be with great effort. In a heavy Southern black accent she asked me to be seated. She called for a servant girl to bring us tea, and even when she spoke Chinese, there was no mistaking she was from the Deep South. How the Chinese understood her was beyond me. I thanked her and sat down. I was really curious now and wondered how I would approach the question about her past.
“I understand you worked for a Marine colonel.” I began, cautiously.
“I shu did,” she replied, “and he shu wuz a hard-up somna-beech.” She began laughing. Her laugh was gruff, hardened no doubt from years of smoking cheap Chinese cigarettes, which I saw on the table next to her. She had to wipe the tears from her eyes before she could continue. It was evident from the start she was going to enjoy telling me her story, probably the same one she told over and over to every Marine and sailor who came to her establishment. She poured me tea and said, “I knowd you come ta talk at me, an I knowd you ain’t commin to get laid.”
“You’re right, Mamma George,” I said. “I’m leaving that up to my friend here.” With that she burst into laughter again and I had to wait until she dried her eyes once more before I could continue. “How long did you work for the colonel?”
“Until hiz misses done fired me when she catched us.”
“Caught you what?” I asked.
“You sur is a young fellar who don’t know nottin much.
Fur bein his lover, dat’s what.”
It was too hard to believe. As I sat there in the room listening to Mamma Georgia, I could not imagine her as the lover of a Marine colonel, or the lover of anyone for that matter. She had grown grossly fat over the years. And in all probability she hadn’t bathed in years. She certainly didn’t hesitate to talk about her past, as sordid as it was. “Ah used to be quite sexy when Ah wuz fo’teen an f’teen,” she explained.
“You mean the colonel was banging you when you were fourteen?” I asked.
“Wuz he evah! Ah wuz the bes’ lay he evah had. He use ta come git a nooner ever’ day, while hiz wife wuz boozin’ it up at da club.”
She stopped talking often, coughing and laughing at the same time. She’d stop coughing when she lit a cigarette, and then she’d continue the conversation. I found myself laughing too, also into tears.
“How long did this go on with the colonel?” I asked.
“Til one aftahnoon when da kernel’s wife come back a da house. She wuz already drunk as the Lord, too many Mints for lunch, and come draggin’ da kernel’s driver wif her up a da bedroom. He wuz a frightened, pimpil-faced Iil bastud. Don’t know what da hell she ever seed in him. Dey wuz haf undress by da time they enter da room, an’ der we wuz, buck-ass neked on da floor. Da kernel had dis crazy idea dat if we doodit on da floor-not on da bed-den it wun’t madder for sum reason. Ah didn’t mind. Ah didn’t have ta make up da bed. It wuz one of dem ole poster beds da kennel wife shipped all da way fum At-lanta. Come on oxen carts most da way fum Tientsin.”
“Okay, okay, Mamma Georgia,” I pleaded, “never mind the poster bed, what happened then?”
“Da kernel ‘sploded. Dat poor frigg’n private, standin’ der, ready ta take out his pekker. Beatrice-da’s da kernel’s wife-she begin defendin’ him. ‘What you expect!’ she screamed, ‘you wid da nanny.’ Der won’t much da kernel could do ’bout da driver. He made corporal a cupple month latah, and den go transferred.”
“And you, Mamma Georgia, what happened to you?”
“Ah had ta go, bu Ah won’t gonna go back to Jawja. Da kernel fix me all up wif da room. He nevah do me afta dat.”
“Nevah. Had too meny white boys doin’ me aftah dat. Dos Suttern white boys couldn’t get da black stuff back home, so dey come heah.”
Mamma Georgia went on to tell me how she later opened her own house and managed to remain in China, as an oppressed black woman during the Japanese occupation. “Da Japs wan’ white wimmen,” she said, “an’ der wur enuf white Russian wimmen ’round ta set up a gud bizness.”
Mamma Georgia liked Melanowski; I could see she mothered him. It wasn’t all business with her and him. She knew he was falling for Monique, and if things got too serious, she might lose one of her best money earners. But she also had a soft spot for Monique. I gathered this when she came into the room and we were introduced. I was shocked. She was beautiful, with all the fine features of an Oriental lass combined with the best qualities of her French father. I had the feeling that if Melanowski carried her off, it would be a Godsend. But I guess deep down Mamma Georgia knew that would never happen, unless he stayed in China, and that was another kettle of worms.
I knew, of course, that Melanowski was already entertaining this crazy idea. I stayed to have dinner with them, and after the meal he mentioned about getting a job with UNRA, but when I pointed out he had no engineering background or technical skills, he thought about working for one of the other foreign companies. “Come on, Ski,” I insisted, “once you start talking like that, they’ll ship your ass right back to the States. No one gets a discharge here.”
“You have to help me,” he said when I was leaving. I made him promise he’d attend class and we would try to work things out. I caught a pedicab back to Hostel No. 3, and was so deep in thought, wondering how this was all this going to end, that the driver had to shake me twice to tell me we bad arrived. The clerk at the desk handed me my room key and a telegram from Tsingtao. I waited until I got in my room to open it. It was from Ming-Lee. She was making plans to come to Peking for a visit and was very excited. I was hoping now that the Russian girl wouldn’t show up on Sunday morning. The last thing I wanted was complications like the other guys had. Probably the next thing I would hear was that Stevenson was planning on getting married. Maybe even Ruker. That’s what happens when they send Marines to foreign lands. The women fall in love with them. I remembered the pat phrase Ruker threw out every time someone asked him about his love life. He would sound out: “I am handsome, strong, good looking, easy to get along with, a good dancer, boxer, swimmer, track man, weight lifter, a Marine, and all the women like me. What do you expect?” Sometimes I think he actually believed it. That’s what the Marine Corps taught us anyway. We were the best. But we were also learning we were vulnerable.