Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
5055 words
SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Mary Wollstonecraft at the Kitty Cat

by Meg Sefton

Mary Wollstonecraft and her thoughts about equality had little to do with Peggy Shams, the madam of Kitty Cat Ranch, the provider of what her customers affectionately called tenderloin, nice gams, a fresh piece of meat. Peggy had never heard of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, a late eighteenth century document setting forth a cogent argument for the education and humane treatment of women. Though Peggy had been an ardent student of history as a girl, she had ironically and unfortunately missed the study of this very piece of literature. And yet, when Mary introduced herself at the doorway of Peggy Sham’s empire, requesting tea, Peggy thought: “This is a strange one, but who am I to turn her away? What right do I have to exclude someone based on the century one comes from, the clothing one dons, the way one talks?”

Peggy had no idea that this woman would have torn her whorehouse to pieces with a few deft strokes of her pen. She was only all too anxious for a closer examination of the convincing virginal getup, the elaborate folds of the dress lifting in the Nevada breeze. The woman’s ladylike composure against the burnished yellow haze of the desert and the lilt and play of dirt devils was exquisite, breathtaking in its unexpected juxtaposition.

“Please, yes, do come in,” said Peggy, squeezing her own hands together as if to wring from her body knowledge of proper etiquette. “We haven’t started our tea hour yet, but do have a seat and I’ll call the girls out.”

The woman drifted into the room and seated herself upon the new Victorian fainting couch. This, thought Peggy, was a fortuitous sign. At the very instant she, Peggy Shams, madam of Kitty Cat Ranch, was trying to bring decency to the flesh trade and thus ensnare a wider range of customers, a real lady, a class act, was sitting on her sofa, a diamond offered up to her on velvet.

“In tea, my dear,” she heard herself saying, “what is your pleasure?”

“Oh, most certainly Earl Grey,” replied the woman as she removed her gloves.

Wasn’t she a specimen, thought Peggy as she ransacked her brain, trying to remember what her last name was exactly. Mary Woollycroft, something like that, something Mayflowery, very Plymouth Rocky, starchy pilgrim.

“Kitty Cat Ranch is a fascinating moniker for a tea room,” said the woman. “Though feline animals are indeed often associated with women, it is good, I believe, to keep the tea room free of unaccompanied male intruders, as their presence can disrupt intelligent, enlightened conversation among female companions.”

“Er, yes,” said Peggy. She would have to be careful with this one. She sensed, oddly enough, she was only there for the tea. “This intelligent and enlightened conversation you’re talking about—I have always thought that the girls here could learn from someone like yourself, you know, a real lady who is also well spoken.”

“Oh, you are an educational establishment as well as a tea room? What a fine idea!”

“Well, on Wednesday afternoons, we have tea, girls only,” said Peggy, pulling out the electric pot she would use to warm the water. “The rest of the time we educate, especially the ones with no experience. This pertains mostly to the young men. The girls themselves are quite knowledgeable.”

“I am glad to hear of your educated women,” said Mary. “I cannot say enough for the acquisition of knowledge for the improvement of the status and character of our sex.”

“Do you mind, ever so much, if I took a look at your frock?” said Peggy, extending her dimpled hand and pulling her guest up to a standing position. This was a vision in white, this angel adorned in gossamer folds of fabric which flowed out from a satin empire waist—the waist, so concealing, yet so feminine— the folds so airy they formed a meringue around the sweet arms and shoulders and the skirt as long and drifty as a bride’s. The purple carpet of the Kitty Cat had never been caressed by anything so pure. This was a sign that all of her business plans and strategies were accurate, that America was ready for a new kind of whore, a new kind of fantasy. “Virgin in the parlor, whore in the bedroom,” she blurted out as if an eruption had occurred in her brain.

“What?” said Mary, looking alarmed, taking a step back from her hostess.

Peggy placed her hand over her mouth as if to restrain a mild attack of mid-afternoon reflux.

“Oh excuse me please! It must be my tummy,” she said.

Mary retired to her place on the couch while Peggy clomped across the parlor to a door painted purple. “I will summon the girls.” The office was a room walled off from the parlor by painted particle board with a cracked door and a pass-through window where customers paid for services rendered. Peggy pressed a worn black button which activated a shrill bell. She could hear the tread of the girls in their platform pumps, those gargantuan elevated shoes whose effect was to slow the girls down, to make movement and freedom impossible, to give the body the appearance of length, to signify the identity and class of the wearer. “No more!” said Madam Peggy. She managed to pull off the exclamatory remark as a cough.

There must be some other way, she thought, some other seductive yet more virtuous footwear that would thrill the hearts of men without solely reminding them of corruption. The kinds of people who expected her girls to wear this gear were the kind she didn’t want to deal with anymore. She pictured all those sleazebags: beefy gods with woefully outdated mullets, drunken pond scum with money to burn, virgin dorks, sad, horny couples. “Phew” she said, as if coughing out these bodies from her very own mouth.

“Would you care for a piece of licorice?” said Mary from the parlor. “It seems you have a case of mild dyspepsia.”

“Oh, no thank you. I must ready the parlor for our repast.” Peggy thanked Jesus for the movies her mother used to make her watch, movies based on classic books by Henry James, Jane Austen, Marcel Proust. That’s how she knew about a “repast,” though she wished she could look it up real quick, to see if she had used the word properly.

From her post at the tea table, Peggy observed Mary’s face as the scantily clad girls filed in. They wore flowered hats, fishnet stockings, silk corsets and garters, patent platform stilettos, push-up bras and boas. The woman didn’t blink. When the girls had all seated themselves, Mary commenced speaking.

“I regret I may be sorrowful company for your merry gathering,” said Mary. “I confess I am downcast over inequalities between men and women, inequalities I wrote about over two hundred years ago. I see the licentious dressing which the sensualists are bribing you to wear for their own pleasures. I have witnessed how, in times past, such attention to sensual pleasure disables the development of the nobler sensibilities and inhibits the enhancement of the powers to reason.”1

The girls stared at the queer little woman from under the plastic flowered brims of their bonnets.

“You know, Ms. Woollycroft,” said Peggy, “I have often thought to myself—haven’t I girls?—that we could learn to be a little more modest, like Mary is suggesting here, and maybe read some more on our off hours, you know, get educated.” She handed a cup of Earl Grey to Mary and plopped in three lumps of sugar, an uncharacteristically generous serving, and a dollop of full cream. Then she scrambled to her office and wrote, on a piece of paper: “Finishing school; purification of footwear; virgin whore—theme, incorporation of?” The girls lined up at the tea cart to fill their cups. Peggy scrambled back out to the parlor and snatched away the sugar and cream.

From her office where she was stowing away the fattening items in a mini-fridge, she heard one of the girls, nicknamed Army Amy, speaking to Mary Woollycroft. “You need one of these newfangled things I ordered from TV, Ms. Mary.” Army Amy was their oldest “girl.” She was a veteran of the Persian Gulf War. She had been a nurse and she was pretty in a tanned, toned, bottle-blond type of way. “I got a new contraption that will give you orgasms like you wouldn’t believe,” said the Army nurse. “It will sure take away those blues we’re talking about. I had four orgasms—four, count them—before coming to work today.” The girls who were listening to this clapped and laughed.

Peggy hightailed it out of the office. Many of the girls were in various states of sloppiness, having thrown off the refined postures of “high tea day.” They slouched, their legs spread. A couple of them who were bending to laugh were gathering their breasts into their bras. “Ladies!” said Peggy, her fury manifesting itself in the hardness of her eyes.

There was a silence, and then Mary, who sat in the center of the room, started to speak as if addressing a room of women gathered for a formal lecture on some topic.

“I should like to steer clear of an error in talking to all of you, an error which many respectable writers and speakers have fallen into. That is, that of addressing women as ‘ladies.’ I would prefer instead to address you as ‘women’ in order to avoid portraying us all as the frivolous sex, to be ridiculed or pitied by the men who endeavor by satire or instruction to improve us.2 A gentleman drinking spirits at a taproom in town directed me to your establishment as a place to have tea today, but now I see I have been led here by Providence for some higher purpose. If this purpose is not achieved in the course of one afternoon, and something tells me it will not be, I will return until all have all been enlightened as to the cause of our discontent as women and of our failure to improve our status.”

“I mean no frivolity in my use of the term ‘ladies,’ Ms. Woollycroft. I mean no insult,” said Peggy. “I was thinking of gracious women who take tea and mind their manners.”

“Manners and morals are so nearly allied,” said Mary, “that they have often been confounded; but, though the former should only be the natural reflection of the latter, yet, when various causes have produced factitious and corrupt manners, which are very early caught, morality becomes an empty name.”3

“I get it,” said a long, lean blond stretched out across a faux leopard-skin chaise lounge. “The manners you don’t like are the ones we fake at these fucking tea parties.” Mary raised her brows at this, fixing a steady gaze on Peggy, as if some sort of explanation or apology would be forthcoming. The girls all doubled over in raucous joy. They’d never had someone to ally with them against Madam Peggy, except Kansas, the long, lean blond who just attached the f-word to this girls-only, cocaine-and-alcohol-free social event with their frumpy overseer, squashy as a dumpling. The only reason Kansas got away with anything is that she made the most money for the Ranch. She cost $10,000 an hour and up, while the others’ rates hovered somewhere around eight thousand.

Madam purpled. She could not let the girls see how this antique broad’s trump had infuriated her.

“It is acknowledged that the female sex spends many of the first years acquiring accomplishments,” said Mary. At some point, thought Peggy, it would be time for all of them to get their asses back to work. “Meanwhile,” said Mary in a sonorous, oblivious tone which crawled around on the sensitive patches of Peggy’s brain, “strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty and to the only way women can rise in the world—by marriage. And this desire makes mere animals of them, when they marry, they act as such children may be expected to act: they dress, they paint, and nickname God’s creatures. Surely these weak beings are only fit for the seraglio!”4

“Goddamn, I knew I was in the right place!” said Kansas. The girls fell out again. A spring was coming unwound in them and a couple of them bounced on the couch and a few had to rise to stretch out from laughing cramps. Army Amy blew tea through her nose.

“This is not a Turkish seraglio!” said Peggy, pounding a fist on the back of a storage bench where they kept the chains, in the off chance a man wanted to be enslaved. “I offer health care to you girls! I listen to your problems! I treat you like a mother would her very own children!”

“If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism,” said Mary, “their mother must be a patriot and a lover of mankind.5 Such language as I have heard today from these women does not reflect even a respect for self. I blame this on poor instruction.”

“I do love mankind,” said Peggy. “And I am a patriot, to the last!”

“Furthermore,” said Mary, “women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement in their society.”6

“Our former manager, Rusty Felton,” said Kansas, “we were all friends with him. Me especially.”

“Our tea is running overtime today.” said Peggy, glaring at the girls and avoiding eye contact with Kansas. This had not gone quite like she had expected, although she was still undecided about what had happened. She felt uncomfortable, unsettled. She reached for a little container of nitroglycerin spray she kept in her pocket to ward off oncoming angina. She didn’t know if she had heart trouble, really, or anxiety attacks. She covered both with an amply supplied medicine cabinet.

Madam clomped back to the office and pressed the bell, signaling the girls it was time to go back to work. Customers would be arriving soon and the girls were to go to their rooms to ready themselves. Peggy sat at her desk, staring at the notes she had scribbled earlier. She craved something sugary. Before the nighttime desk clerks arrived, she would hide herself beside the filing cabinet and eat a candy bar, catching the nuts in her skirt, cramming bits of chocolate into her mouth with her nails.

She heard the tread of the girls’ heavy footsteps. She heard the creak of the fainting couch as Mary rose to leave.

Peggy rushed to see her guest out, not quite sure why she was so anxious to see her again, to reassure herself of the continuance of their relationship. “Are you going to come again sometime, Ms. Woollycroft?”

Mary nodded, her cool blue eyes appraising her but not unfriendly and she turned and stepped out into the desert of Nevada, reddened by the setting sun.

In the darkness of her room that night, Peggy plopped down on a squeaky cot she inherited from her grandmother. She felt her body melt into the thin mattress and drift as she recalled her granny’s speeches. “You dress like a whore!” she had said when Peggy was young and played poker at her Daddy’s bar where she scammed men out of their money. “You look like a hooker! Go get that willow branch, go get me that switch. I won’t rest until I’ve applied it to your bottom. I won’t rest until I’ve raised the guilt in you like a welt. I made mistakes with your Mama, but I won’t make them with you!” On Sunday mornings, the old woman dragged her to church to take Satan out. When Peggy prayed out loud that Satan would come out all by himself, her grandmother ordered her not to blaspheme the church: “Not on my time, you don’t. Not on my watch!” Her Granny saw something deep in her, something dark and inextricably wound around her heart, a blackness like a tumor.

When the old woman died, all the life and starch were taken out of Peggy. She dropped out of high school and spent the rest of her senior year lying on her mother’s hip watching classic movies and ordering pizza. Finally, her mother told her to get her own life. She left home and started hooking and making lots of money. Later, she became a madam.

During the ten years she waited for her boss to leave, or die, she sat at her kitchen table over microwaved dinners, dreaming of starting a gentlemen’s club, a really classy one, with no poles or elevated dance floors, and no garish furniture like the eyesore of a purple leather sofa that snaked its way through the parlor. The club would be named something different, she didn’t know what, but it would be graced with deep leather seats, mahogany tables, and long, luxurious white curtains like the ones in some of the more expensive night clubs in New York and Los Angeles.

The girls would wear modest clothes, would look like girlfriends or even potential brides. “Virgin whore,” she said, thinking of Mary Woollycroft. With this thought came the memory of the woman’s accusations: that Peggy was running a Turkish seraglio; that she did not respect the girls because she called them “ladies”; that she was unpatriotic, which to Peggy was the very worst of denouncements. She was no one if not a lover of America, a free country allowing voters to do whatever the hell they wanted.

“Mary Woollycroft is the resurrection of my grandmama,” thought Peggy in the darkness of her trailer on the edge of the desert. A shyness crept over her, a necessity for cover so deep she lifted the mattress off her bed and crawled onto the springs. She pulled the mattress over her and felt the weight of it press into her like the weight of a man, something long since forgotten.

When she woke, she could not remember why she was in this position. She tried to get up, but her robe caught on a spring and she had to tear it to pull it loose. She felt like she had been smashed in by a fence post. Then she remembered the previous night’s memories of her granny. She shivered as if the woman was tromping down the hall, waiting to snatch her out of her room and drag her down to the pastor who would clunk her on the head. Satan and Granny had been neck on neck. If it hadn’t been for Granny, there wouldn’t have been Satan, and if Jesus hadn’t come, Satan would have laid low too.

Peggy lay on top of the mattress and listened to the wind whip around the sides of her house. She felt free and clean, swept out and ready for the next thing, and she thought of the sounds of her office—her very own office, with no one to boss her around or gross it up. She thought of her adding machine, its comforting clicking, the coffee machine—its dripping and wheezing—the odd beeps and hisses of the credit card machine.

Besides, what did her grandmother know? Wasn’t her grandmother dead? Weren’t her bones lying in a casket? Did her mouth speak? Did her hand flail with a switch?

When Peggy arrived at the Kitty Cat, she came upon Mary Woollycroft in the parlor drinking tea.

“It’s good to see you, Ms. Woollycroft,” she said. “But this is a busy day. Maybe you can come see us again next Wednesday on our tea day.”

“I will consider your invitation,” said Mary. There was something in her face that was different. She didn’t look as abstracted and checked out. Her eyes glittered intensely and her jaw had a set look.

“Yes, we’re getting all new furniture, a new look, a new name,” said Peggy. “Lots of hard work to do, not much time for chitchat.”

“You have not represented yourself genuinely,” said Mary, nestling the cup in its saucer. “You have led me to believe you are helping these women.”

“That is exactly what I am doing,” said Peggy. Her heart was racing like it used to when her granny yanked her out of bed.

“You are not being of assistance to any of them in the least. I have spoken with some of the women pursuant to their arrival this morning and have learned that you are contributing to the demise and slavery of a significant portion of our numbers. You should know your history, Ms. Shams. If you did, you would know who I am and why I have chosen to remain.”

“I know my history better than anyone.”

“You speak another untruth, Ms. Shams.”

Peggy sighed and clomped off to her office. She was sick of this tiresome broad, just as sick as she was of her vinyl pumps sliding off her heel. It was time for leather, all new leather everything—leather shoes, leather purse, leather wallet, leather coat, leather desk chair. She threw her notebook down beside the phone. She had sketched out some nice dresses for the girls, retro sixties, sexy housewife. When the girls came in, she had them come into her office so she could measure them.

“What’s this for?” said Kansas.

“Your own good,” said Peggy.

“I got the whole industry for my own good. I can call your old boss and get the fuck out of here.”

“Do you see how they treat me, Ms. Woollycroft?” Peggy shouted to the woman through the open door. She was sure Mary was listening. “And me, taking care of them and all and making sure they never want for anything.”

“You’re some kind of sugar teat, all right,” said Kansas. Kansas bent down to Peggy’s face, for the older lady was on her knees getting a measurement of the working girl’s slim hips.

The smoothness of the girl’s sex-enhanced skin brought beads of sweat to Peggy’s little soft mustache. “Now you listen here, you mother fucking bitch,” said the girl through clenched, pearly teeth. “Don’t touch that woman. If she wants to drink tea the whole goddamn day, you give her tea. And if she wants to talk to us, you better let her talk. And if she doesn’t like you or agree with whatever it is you’re doing here, whatever it is you got going up in that little noggin”—Kansas wrapped on Peggy’s forehead with her knuckles—“you fucking deal or I’m outta here.” Kansas stood and made a sharp one eighty turn as if she had come to the end of a modeling platform and was heading back down the runway. Peggy fell back against the file cabinet, her legs spread before her, her knees puckering beneath her tan stockings. “Slut!” she screamed inside her head.

“Ms. Shams.” A voice croaked from the parlor. “I would like some tea.”

They were out of Earl Grey, thought Peggy. How had they run through it so fast? The old bag had messed with her head so much she must have made too many pots. But Peggy remembered Kansas’ snarling threat. She had to keep this prima donna of theirs happy.

“I’ll get us restocked, don’t you worry, Ms. Woollycroft,” said Peggy, pulling herself up from the floor. “I just have to run to the store. It’s a pretty good ways down the road, so I’ll be back in about an hour.”

“Oh, and some more cream,” said Mary.

Son of a—Peggy thought. “OK!” she said. She grabbed her purse and stepped outside, onto the threshold. She slammed the door on the vision of Mary in her parlor. “Bitch!” she said out loud.

“God bless you!” said Mary.

“Damn,” she said, more quietly now as she crunched along the sidewalk of pebbles. It was an hour until they opened and she would just get back in time to start dealing with the customers. What had she been thinking? And why had Mary become one big stubborn demanding heifer?

She peeled off from the gravel lot onto the road. The five o’clock sun stabbed murderously at her eyes. Peggy lowered the sun shade. The air went out on her, and Peggy added “new car” to her mental to-be-purchased list, along with leather accessories, a bed fit for a queen, a truckload of rocks.

She paid for the tea and cream. She had just enough cash left over for a snack at the ranch, for a candy bar and coke from the machines plastered with signs that read “Client Use Only.”

On the drive back, she spied a familiar looking man in black, loping along the shoulder. She pulled up to him. Perhaps he was heading to the Ranch and if he had been drinking at all, could be easily conned. When she had come alongside of him, she recognized the side of his puffy face and the Johnny Cash getup. It was the former owner, Rusty Felton.

“Well, Russ,” she said, “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Give me a ride,” he said. He was breathing hard and squinting.

“Where you going?”

“Kitty Cat.”

“You a paying customer?”


Peggy’s chest tightened as he crawled into the passenger seat. He didn’t buckle up, but she couldn’t give a flying fig. She pulled onto the highway.

“What brings you back?” she said after a long pause. The sky was a violet purple now with streaks of red and pink. There was nothing out here but dirt, sky, and a range of faraway mountains.

He had aged, in just two weeks. Less sex, she thought. A man like that, having been bolstered so long by a satisfied appetite collapses in on himself.

“I thought you had some hot offer outside Vegas,” she said.

“Fell through,” he said, looking out the side window.

Peggy pulled up behind a huge dark dump truck whose contents were covered by a vinyl tarp. In front of that was an RV. She had spotted the RV a mile or so back on a curve. She was trying to judge whether she could get around both.

“So who you going to see at Kitty Cat?” she said, ignoring his question. She swerved out from the dump truck, but then had to swerve back to avoid an oncoming semi.


Peggy pressed in the lighter. This called for a cigarette. “You can’t afford her.”

“I’m taking her with me.”

She slammed on the brakes just in time to avoid hitting the dump truck which had stopped suddenly. The RV in front of it had slowed to pull off onto a county road. Peggy’s bumper had missed the dump truck’s worn black fender by a foot.

The dump truck burbled up to a start and lurched ahead. Peggy followed, not bothering to pass now. She returned the case to its safekeeping by her breast.

“Listen, if you think she’s going with you, you’re an idiot,” she said. “You’ve got nothing for her.”

“Yes I do, Ms. Shams,” he said, rolling down his window. The breeze ruffled his thinning hair. “I got love.”

Peggy laughed and pounded the wheel. “Oh Lord help us! Oh saints preserve!”

“That’s right,” he said, sitting up on his seat and turning toward her. “We were just talking about it, on the phone just now.”

Kansas was supposed to be getting ready for her clients, and here she was, talking on the phone to this putz. It was that Woollycroft broad with all her speechifying and pretty ways. She had set this up, the bitch. As soon as this thought launched itself, Peggy felt a rush of fire on her flesh. Grandmama! I’m sorry Granny, she almost pleaded aloud to the hot wind.

“We’re gonna get married,” Rusty went on. “We’re gonna have us a normal life now.”

“This is outrageous! Oh this is just hilarious!” She pulled hard on her cigarette and spewed a plume of smoke. She tossed it out the window and sparks flew past. She jammed the lighter back in. She tore at the top button of her blouse and jammed her hand into her bra, searching for the cigarette case. The lighter popped back out and she held it to her cigarette and breathed heavy on its tar-filled offering.

“She doesn’t love you and you don’t love her,” she said, smoke coming out of her nostrils and the sides of her mouth in little bursts. “You want to know why? Let me tell you why. There is no love, that’s why!”

The black hull of the dump truck was upon them in the headlights and there was a screech of metal and the sound of a million tiny stones falling from the truck ahead like an avalanche of coins falling from a giant slot machine. They fell into the car, mixing with bits of glass from the windshield. They filled Peggy’s mouth, her eyes, her blouse. They made a pillow for her head and a leg rest for her feet. They were pink, roseate, striated with gray.

Rusty fell out of the car. The rocks pressed down on the door handle in some fortuitous way, and Rusty, being that he was unbuckled, rolled over the shoulder of the road and onto the dry, barren earth. He jumped up and stood for a moment, shaking nervously. Yet he was strangely calm, as if he had not just been in a crash and nearly lost his life. And then it dawned on him that the former owner’s presence at the scene of the accident might look suspicious. A rolling tumbleweed gave him opportunity. He grasped hold of it and, using it as a shield, effectual enough in the partial darkness, crept toward the Kitty Cat.



  1. Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Project Gutenberg Etext No. 3420.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Ibid.


SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Meg Sefton’s

fiction has appeared in Best New Writing 2011, The Dos Passos Review, Danse Macabre, Emprise Review, Connotation Press, Dark Sky Magazine, Corium Magazine, Atticus Review, and other journals. She graduated from Seattle Pacific University in 2008 with an MFA in fiction. She is the proud mother of a teenage son and the owner of a Coton de Tuléar, and resides in central Florida where the coast is less than an hour’s drive away.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury