12:05 AM, January 1, 1967.
Lower Haight neighborhood, San Francisco, California.
The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” emanates from a dilapidated house on an otherwise quiet street. The house’s windows glow with soft orange light. Darkness bathes the front porch. A match flame pops into life and illuminates the face of a prostitute named Sunshine as she lights a cigarette while standing on the porch steps.
Sunshine takes a drag, arches her back against the railing and exhales languidly into the night air. She can see herself perfectly in her mind’s eye, the way the curves of her body silhouette against the front door’s mesh screen, dimly lit as it is with the house’s interior light. She developed this ability to see herself from outside after years of walking the streets and broadcasting her services to wandering Johns.
Yes, she can see herself the way they see her, now — when she wants to.
She looks good tonight, too. She knows it. Orange polka dot mini-dress stretched taut over her wiry body. Hair freshly teased the way Elizabeth Taylor wears it.
Up the street two men stagger into a halo of streetlight, shoving each other around playfully and laughing. Sunshine pulls the bodice of her orange mini-dress down to show more cleavage.
“There’s your Johns,” a man’s voice says from the darkness behind her. “Do that sultry callout thing you do. You’re good at that.”
Sunshine stiffens. She’d managed to forget he was even there, and preferred it that way. She answers without looking back. “No shit. I know how to do my job.”
“I know you do, Sunshine.” He doesn’t laugh, but the hint of mocking condescension infuses everything the man does or says.
The porch creaks under his weight as he stands up from a porch swing and walks past Sunshine towards the front door. She doesn’t know his name or his purpose. She only knows he pays on time and pays well.
“These will be the last two for the evening,” he says. “Party’s full after that. After you get them inside, take the rest of the night off. Come back tomorrow and I’ll have the rest of your money and we can do it again. You know how it goes.”
“I’ll come back for my money. Don’t you worry about that. Whether or not I work again will depend on how I feel.”
“Sunshine.” Mockery in his false sympathetic tone. “When you took this job I told you that the one stipulation was that you had to see the whole thing through. Until the party’s over, you work for me.”
“I don’t work for pimps.”
He stops in the doorway and turns to face her. She feels his eyes digging into her. “Yes you do, Sunshine. We all do. Even the pimps have pimps, whether they realize it or not.”
His stabbing gaze lingers a second and then he turns and walks inside, letting the screen door slam shut behind him.
Sunshine takes a deep drag of her cigarette. There’s something deeply unnerving about the way he says those strange, subtly mystical things. Even the pimps have pimps. Whack jobs in tie-dye were sputtering that mystical mumbo-jumbo all over the Haight lately, but that stuff just didn’t seem to fit a man whose suits were always perfectly pressed and shoes perfectly polished. A man who never had a hair out of place.
The two drunks neared the house. Sunshine adjusted her foot down a step so that her legs spread open a bit. Not enough for them to see clear up the dress, but close enough that they could imagine doing so.
“You boys feeling groovy, tonight?” she called out. She hated the word groovy, but saying things like that was a way of signaling hipness.
The men walked into the small yard and ogled her body and jabbered drunkenly . They seem like nice enough guys, probably just a couple Midwest farm boys out on the west coast for a big adventure. A strange pang of guilt pricks Sunshine in the stomach. She never used to feel that pang for doing her job. Something about what she was doing now though bothered her. She had no idea what she was dragging these men into or what she’d already dragged dozens of others into.
Everybody’s got to eat, though.
“Righteous, babies,” she says. “Righteous. Come on inside.”
She thinks of the suit’s smarmy pimp tone and, on impulse, flicks her cigarette into the yard and leads the men inside the house. She’s not supposed to do this. He gave specific instructions for her to always stay outside. Oh well, it wouldn’t be the first time in her life that Sunshine’s instinctive obstinacy got her into trouble.
Just inside the door is a small foyer and at the end of the foyer is a heavy black curtain. She pulls that curtain inside and feels like she’s stepping into an acid flashback.
The interior of the house has been modified into a big psychedelic light show. There are no windows and it occurs to her that that the window-lights visible from the street are for show. They conceal what’s truly inside this weird cocoon within the house.
There’s a makeshift bar and couches and love seats. Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” has replaced the Beatles. A chaotic liquid light show covers every inch of the space into mutating color. Even in her sobriety Sunshine feels disoriented.
The Johns are all over the place, some of them bouncing around manically but most sprawled out on the floors or furniture. There’s girls, too. About a dozen of them. Sunshine recognizes some as fellow streetwalkers. Others, though, are new, and a couple look far, far too young to be doing the job.
The women are cuddling up on the men or chatting with them. A high, shrill laugh cuts through the music. Sunshine can’t tell where it came from.
The two Midwest boys she just met saunter up the bar and drink from mason jars. A bob-haired girl in a red miniskirt approaches them. They talk and laugh and the girl places sugar cubes on their tongues.
Something feels wrong. At that very moment there’d be a few dozen similar parties all around the Haight, Sunshine has been to many of them, but there’s a different vibe here.
It’s the suit, she realizes. The reason the scene feels wrong is because the suit set all this up. Why? He was a mystery to her, but one thing she feels certain about is that he’s not the sort of man to throw such a party just for the grooviness of it.
The bob-haired girl leads the Midwest boys across the room, weaving through the scattered bodies, opens a blue door and leads them inside.
Sunshine’s stab of guilt now turns to anger. To hell with the suit and his money. She’s never worked for a pimp in her life, neither in the streets nor in the boardroom, and she’d not start now.
She storms across the room to the blue door and throws it open. Shock and confusion freeze her in place as her brain struggles to make out what she’s seeing.
There in the wild swirling liquid lights are three men binding the hands of the two Midwest boys and slipping hoods roughly over their heads. The bob-haired girl is standing in the corner watching with eyes wide in helpless terror. Standing in the center of all this is the suit, the man with the misplaced mystical musings, the one who hired her and made her part of this.
He’s standing in a position to oversee the operation and give commands, but his eyes are not on the men being bound or on the girl in the corner. They’re on Sunshine, and he’s smiling.
Sunshine runs. In the chaotic lights she’s vaguely aware of hands grasping at her but she charges through these and reaches the porch. She kicks off her heels as she bounds down the steps and onto the street.
She keeps running without looking back. The whole way, though, she can feel the suit’s eyes burrowing into the back of her head. He knows everything about her. No need to cause a public scene, he probably figures. Cops won’t listen to a hooker, anyway. He’ll just find her later.
Sunshine runs for the safety of the projects and her friends. She knows places where men shoot men in suits on instinct alone. Out of principle alone. That’s her world. She can at least catch her breath there.
A low rumble comes down from the sky, and a drop of rain lands on Sunshine’s cheek. Lightning flashes. Sunshine barrels straight ahead into the storm, hoping the Haight is big enough for her to disappear inside of it.