The Purveyor of Love


Most days he would trundle door to door, pulling his shabby cart through alleyways, hawking little bottles of “medicine” in their amber-hued glass. He looked time-worn in the way of gypsies and street peddlers, eyes hidden by the brim of his shapeless hat, hands calloused, his fingertips browned with the dirt of the road. Most days he sold no more than a few dollars’ worth, other days he sold nothing at all. His sing-song voice was a counterpoint to the shouts of children and the gossip of house-cleaning wives and spinsters. To some his patter sounded not unlike, “Bring out yer dead,” and sent them scattering deep inside their hovels. To others it was comforting in the way the drip from a leaky pipe was comforting, a monotone that lulled them into thinking all was fine and good. We’re no poorer now than we were yesterday, and certainly no poorer than him.

A few, the brave, would take pity on him, offer him a glass of water or, if he was especially lucky or if it was a holiday, a mug of ale. When he drank, he’d straighten to his full height, push his hat off his head with one hand and drink with the other, tipping the mug upwards and his chin with it. Then he’d hand back the mug and pull his hand through his matted curls, scratching at his sweaty scalp, and smile his thanks. It was then his spirit would first glint in his eyes, a deep blue-green to anyone who cared to look. His face, etched and scraped as it was, surprised many with its handsomeness.

“Thanks, ma’am. Mighty kind of ye,” he’d venture. “May I possibly interest you in some medications for any ailments you might have? Cures for starin’ sleepless at the ceiling at night? I got some milder ones here for babes that’s colicky. Or ones for warts, or maybe fleas? Dogs are always full of fleas that jump on ya. And I got lotions to rub on yer skin to ward off any insects that may bother.”

His voice was deeper than you would expect for a fellow of his frame, a balm to anyone who heard it, especially women. Most folk would shake their heads, “No,” and bid him a good day, not waiting to see him off before taking glass or mug back inside, as if they were afraid any more contact with him than that might taint them, rub off his poverty or isolation on them. Once in a fortnight, perhaps, he’d be invited to show his wares for this or that scourge. He’d step around to the back of his cart and rummage underneath the oiled covers held down by worn ropes criss-crossed over the irregularly shaped mounds of bric-a-brac. He’d make a show of digging for what he was looking for, just the right thing for the specific ailment. In truth, nearly all the bottles he handed out held, despite their different shapes and color of the glass, the same exact molasses-thickened fluid diluted with some cheap rye whiskey and made bitter with some herb or other. He’d found making the medicines bitter made them more believable. It didn’t do to have them all taste the same, in case two or three were called on for a customer’s different needs.


This day was fairly typical.

“Dear lady, this is the best remedy for your discomfort I’ve ever had the fortune to sell. The best you could get anywhere, even them fancy stores. I got’em right here. Take just a teaspoon with a cup of chamomile tea every night before bedtime. You’ll sleep like a swaddled babe, and you’ll start feelin’ better soon, jus’ two or three days in my own experience. My customers swear by it.” Once he had their attention it was only a matter of minutes till he made his first sale, and like water running downhill, another a minute or two to his second, and maybe even a third.

“You know,” he’d say, “it dawns on me, dear lady, I may have somethin’ else that might be of use t’ ye, if you tell me about other things that bothers ye…”

“Well…” she demurred, but it was clear as dew on snowbells that the little bottle he held called to the woman.

“Maybe you want to git out of this sun,” he suggested. Other times it had been the heat, or mist, or whatever weather might have surrounded them. “I shoulnn’t have kept ye so long…. ” And, like always, he let just the slightest tinge of wistfulness creep into his voice as he battened down his load slowly, straying a sideways look at the lady customer.

For it was invariably a lady that took his bait. Maddie Spelling was not unlike the others, the ones whose shoulders hunched from their farm labors or bed changing, cooking, and washing floors. Her brown hair was caught up in a sloppy ponytail low at her neck, her clothing soft and shapeless, its colors faded with innumerable washings. Her eyes were a washed-out blue and the lines around her eyes and the corners of her mouth dug years into her face.

His wrist just managed to touch her forearm, and the corner of his mouth barely twitched at the near-silent intake of breath, the hairs on the back of her arm standing on end and tickling his own.

“Ah, there,” giving a rope one more tug. “One moment more… long day, this,” he canlı bahis şirketaleri said, and leaned on his cart, looking exhausted. He had no need to feign that; it had been a long week of long, hot days with few sales, and the cart had gotten heavier and heavier.

“Why don’t you come in and sit down for a spell?”

“I don’t mean to impose, good lady.”

“Oh, no, no you ain’t imposin’ at all.”

“Won’t your husband mind?”

“He’s in town for the market day,” she said, pushing some stray hairs behind her ear. He’d expected something of the sort. He’d never had one retract her invitation, nor had any husband or father or brother ever intruded. He had a well developed nose for unwanted company.

“Cole. Cole Hartmann is my name.”

“Madelyn Spelling. Everyone calls me Maddie.”

She led the way, her small bottled treasures held tightly in hand, those elixirs that promised relief and escape. In the house, he found the same rude furniture as in most of the houses he’d visited, greyed or brown-black, clustered around a stove or a fireplace. She took him into the kitchen and sat him down at the table.

“I can make you some coffee, if you’d like.”

After a bit of rummaging around cupboards and the like, she came back with a cup. The coffee was weak and lukewarm, but he was grateful for it and the chance to sit down. When she’d reached across the table to set the chipped mug down, he’d noticed the long sleeves of her dress, the frayed ribbon circling the cuffs like a worn rope. Although the dress looked like (it was) the only one she owned, it was spotless despite the graying, faded colors – signs of too much washing – that didn’t quite hide the brownish spatters. Her sleeve had ridden up and he saw the yellow-green-purplish marks and still-raised welts on the inside of her wrist and forearm. He reached across and placed his hand directly over the marks, raising his eyes to look into her own.

“How long have those been there? I have a salve tha’s jus’ the thing to he’p those heal.”

“They’ll be fine. I tripped down the front steps when I was carryin’ too much and payin’ no mind. Anyways, I got no more money.”

“None needed. I’d like to repay your kindness for letting me rest outta the sun, and for the coffee. A little present from me.”

He held her arm and, though she had pulled back at first, his eyes had stilled her fretting. She lowered her eyelashes, long enough to almost brush the blueish skin under her lids. Being so close to her, he saw the thin laugh lines fanning out from the corners for what they were, rather than wrinkles – she couldn’t have been more than 24 or 25, though he’d first guessed she was at least ten years older.

He raised her wrist to his mouth, just lightly brushing her skin, cool under his lips.

She tried to pulled her arm back but he held on. “Please, Mr. Hartmann…”

“Does he do this often?” He turned her arm so the bruises were facing up, unavoidable.

“He…what? NO!” Her answer was so quick, he knew it was a lie. “No, really…” And she hunched over, but finally managed to pull her arm out of his hand.

“What sets him off, Maddie?” He trapped her eyes with his own. “Is it drinking too much? The housework? The kids not clean enough, or not well-behaved enough?”

“We got no kids. He says it’s my fault,” she said, sitting down suddenly on a rickety stool near the table, arms limp in her lap.

“When is he returnin’?”

“He usually stays in town two, three days. Comes back drunk as a skunk and tired enough to crawl into bed for a whole day. Jus’ left this mornin’. Give me time to catch up with all my chores, maybe.”

“Here, let me put some water on for tea. Is that there the pot?”

He filled the kettle with water and set it on the stove, then moved behind her chair and laid his hands on her shoulders.

“What are you doing?” she asked, starting to turn towards him and leaning forward to avoid his hands.

“Shhhhh. It’s part of the treatment. This’ll help you relax.”

She sat up and straightened her back. Watching out for her slightest movement, he kneaded her shoulders with his thumbs, using them to rub circles into her clavicles and the base of her neck. When he felt her relax a little, he moved his thumbs up along the column of her neck, under her hair – up and down, pressing into the flesh below her hairline, pulling his thumbs apart and together in a slow deliberate rhythm. Soon he felt the tension go out of her, slowly, like air softly breathing out of a balloon.

“There now,” he said, and turned to the kitchen counter. He fished out another mug from the cupboard, spooned some tea into the mug, and poured the kettle water over the dark leaves. He fished a small packet from his jacket and poured the contents into the cup, then stirred the whole with the beat-up spoon.

“Here, Maddie. Have this. It’ll make you feel a whole mite better.”

He sat down again, pulling his chair closer to her stool, canlı kaçak iddaa enough that he could reach over and make slow circles on her back, at first staying near her shoulder blades, then moving lower. As he stroked her lower back he pulled the fabric of her shirt slowly up, little by little, without her even seeming to notice, until her shirt was no longer tucked inside the waistband of her apron and skirt.

She took another sip of the steaming cup of tea, rolling the warm sweet liquid around her mouth while staring out the window. The shadows had shifted on the ground.

“I should get on with things,” she said, but the slow, long strokes on her lower back had her leaning into his hands and closing her eyes.

He kept it up, with strong solid fingers, murmuring little things, like, “There’s no shame in sittin’ down a bit, taking a load off yer feet.”

Stroking her back, he pulled the shirt upwards a little more each time, revealing a couple of inches of her skin, a mole to the right of her spine. He let his fingers stray onto her naked skin, enjoying the smoothness of it. Enjoying the way it shivered.

“May I?” Not waiting for her answer, he pulled his chair directly behind her, and continued rubbing her back. With his fingers pointing downwards, he swept up, pulling on her shirt again, letting her get familiar with the sensation of air and his calloused fingers on her back. This was essential – he knew from experience, if he didn’t take it slow here, she would get skittish and pull away.

To distract himself, he looked around the small kitchen, taking in the roughly painted pine sideboard, the shelves above it holding a stack of clean plates and mugs. Most were chipped. On the sideboard was a metal rack holding a pie, a couple of slices missing. Rudely-made kitchen implements, clean save the occasional spot of rust, were hanging on the wall below the shelves. What looked like a cutting board with a loaf of some sort, covered with a kitchen towel, sat next to a butter dish covered with a glass bowl. A water pitcher stood empty in the middle of a tray, a couple of glasses next to it, bottom side up. He could have used a glass of water.

He was feeling her vertebrae now, keeping his fingers light on her back. She hadn’t moved away from him yet and he decided to push a little further. He slid his hands, fingers spread, around the front to her stomach, rounded and smooth, and slowly continued to inch upwards. When the back of his thumbs brushed up against the underside of her breasts, she jerked upwards and clamped her arms against her sides, trapping his hands, but he held them steady.

“Shhhhh, Maddie, it’s OK. It’s all right. It’s all part of the relaxin’, getting you to slow down and breathe. Breathe for me, Maddie.” His voice went lower still, closer to a whisper. She did as he asked. When she quieted and stopped fighting him, he turned his hands upwards, his fingers whispering against the curves of her breasts. His fingers moved to cup their weight, fanning back and forth across and stroking their underside. He knew most women were very sensitive there – if he could do this for a while, this would loosen her up enough to enjoy the pleasure.

He remembered the first time he’d touched a woman, scared and so impatient he was trembling. The thought of it sent his fingers up and over the gentle swell of the breasts he now held, and his fingers brushed their tips sooner than he’d intended. He nearly pulled back but caught himself in time and held still, and only when Maddie sat up straighter, leaning into his hands just slightly, did he let himself run his fingers across her nipples. He took the small nubs, swollen now, between his thumb and second and third fingers and gently rubbed them, enjoying how they swelled even further under his ministrations.

“Feels good, don’t it? Releases all the long day’s hurt, all that tensing you been holdin’ in…”

Maddie arched her chest into his hands and he knew then she would be unlikely to pull back from him. He swept one hand away from her breast down over the swell of her stomach, over the skirt, and ventured down towards the valley that was his ultimate goal. Meanwhile his other hand held her breast entirely in his hand, unapologetically, his thumb moving over the corrugated tip. He pressed into her mound at the same time as he squeezed her nipple, hard, and was rewarded with a moan and a tensing of her torso that pushed her body even more into his hands. He let himself enjoy his own stretching and swelling in his britches but didn’t move except to flex the fingers of both his hands rhythmically, feeling her flesh filling out his hands. He’d once brought a woman to her climax just by doing this as she herself had rubbed herself against him, more and more frantic. But that wouldn’t do today.

He had made this his mission in life, finding neglected women along his travels, plucking their strings like a cello held tightly between his legs. Women that were canlı kaçak bahis pale and gray with their labors and the sameness of their days, women nearly withered from looking for a kind gesture from their menfolk and had nearly given up with the futility of the quest. Women resigned to spinning out their days into a shapeless woolen sweater to be worn over three other layers of clothing, hiding their need and their spark underneath the bulk.

They reminded him of his mother as he watched her work herself leaf-thin and brittle. By the end she’d been a wraith of a woman, shrunken and with hardly anything to smile about in her life. He couldn’t remember her ever laughing.

He shook off the memory and turned to concentrating on the woman in front of him. He knew no one ever truly gave up looking for kindness.

“Maddie, massages work much better on naked skin. I need to get underneath all this clothing you got on to touch you properly, to release all your worries.” He knew better than to ask. It worked much better when he told them what to do, almost like a doctor. “Stand up for me,” he said, his voice firm but making sure not to startle her.

He helped her to her feet, shoving the small stool out of the way and pushing his own chair behind him. She stood, docile, waiting for his next move. She looked straight out the window across the small table. White cotton fabric that someone had tried to decorate with some stitching at the bottom was shading the kitchen from the outside. It had been washed so often it was nearly see-through.

He tugged on the bow of her apron, pulled it away and laid it on the table in front of her. Then he bent his knees, folding his frame so he could lay his hands on her calves above her clogs and smoothed them upwards, bunching up her skirt to her waist. He could tell she had nice legs, shapely and not too skinny. When the skirt folds reached the bottom of her buttocks, he stopped and smoothed down her legs, then up again. It surprised him she wore nothing underneath. He moved his hands around and inward, then slid the skirt of her fabric down and upwards again.

“Could you please hold your skirt for me, Maddie?”

He stepped back enough so he could see her, and was startled at the sight of her bottom. He had been about to rub her buttocks, but he’d have to change his plans some. The flesh under her skirt was purplish-blue and scarred, the evidence of a viciously used belt fading but still visible. Good lord, how he hated to see this. Again, memories of his mother intruded – her cries had filled their hovel more than once. He hated the men she’d bring home, their rumpled clothes sweat stained, their breath smelling rank with cigarettes and whiskey, teeth yellowed or worse. They always came towards the end of the month. It wasn’t until he was well into his teens that he realized she must have run out of money to put food on the table that month. Worse were the whispers behind his back when he picked up groceries: “poor Cole, his mother’s no better ‘an a whore.” It had gotten so bad he’d go the twenty miles into Springs, the biggest town within a day’s ride/walk, just to avoid the contempt and the pity that followed him.

He gathered Maddie to his chest and held her for a few moments, more for his benefit than hers. He touched her as gently as he could, so lightly he felt her skin shiver beneath his palms. He moved his hands to the sides where he’d seen fewer marks, and kneaded her gently, soothingly, humming under his breath a melody he’d heard his mother sing.

Maddie held on to the bunched up skirt and let her head loll to one side, but her muscles had clenched up when he’d touched her buttocks. When he spread his hands farther apart, pulling the flesh with them, he saw her back channel opened half an inch or so across rather than the tightly puckered opening he was used to. Startled, he stopped humming and stroking her, and just stared. She turned her head, looking at him over her shoulder.

“Maddie, ummm, your husband… you said you’ve tried to have kids?”

She hung her head. “Yes. But… He hates blood, the sight of it. Well, anyway… he likes my…”

She turned away from him but he could tell her mortification by her tone, the tremble in her voice and the red that tinged her cheeks and spread down her neck.

“He likes your backside?”

She nodded. “He… he almost always does it there. Says it’s tighter. He…” She stopped, then started again, as if she had to work to get it out, and blurted: “He calls me a slut ’cause he says my other hole is so big it’s like swimmin’ in a pond. But it ain’t no bigger ‘an Maryann’s or Lindy’s!” She had turned away from him again.

He shook his head, not knowing whether to laugh or to scream. “You and your friends, you compared your… um, holes?”

“Well, yes. You know. I think there must be somethin’ wrong with me cause he hates goin’ in there. Says I’m too loose! Maryann says he jus’ got a reed for a dick! It’s wider than a reed for sure, but well, maybe not much wider than two or three put together. Maybe as wide as this,” and she let her right hand drop her skirt, then curled her forefinger until it met the very base of her thumb and showed him her hand over her shoulder.

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