From the minute she walked up to the counter with a packet of green mint gum and a bottle of water, I could tell exactly what she did for a living. She wore a tight black leather skirt that started low enough on her hips to reveal the strings of a dark purple thong, and ended about a quarter of an inch below her butt. Her legs were barely hidden by black fishnet stockings and her feet must’ve been sore from walking around in nine-inch blood-red heels that would have looked more normal on a transvestite. Her full breasts were practically bursting from the purple lace bra she wore visible for the world to see underneath a button up white shirt that she had left unbuttoned and instead tied the tails together Daisy Duke style. Over that she wore a burgundy trench coat—open, of course, so everyone could get a look at the goods.
Her body was beautiful, surprisingly healthy even, for a woman of her occupation. For a moment, I wondered if maybe I’d jumped to conclusions about her job and she was just a very “confident” woman, but then I looked up. Her long chestnut hair was curled and streaked with candy apple red, and at first glance all I could see were the half dozen layers of make-up that surrounded her eyes and glossed her lips.
It wasn’t uncommon for my little drugstore to get visits from women of her kind. They were a natural occurrence in any city and this one was no exception. When they stopped by for their cigarettes and gum I tried my best to be genial, even though just looking at them made me feel dirty since not one of them ever bought a box of condoms.
This particular Lady of the Night was not one I’d seen before. For some reason, I was sure I would have recognized her if I had and it wasn’t because of her outfit, or lack thereof. She had that “X” factor, that extra something some people are just born with that made you look twice when she walked by, made you want to shake her hand and ask her how her day has been. Maybe that was the reason I had the confidence to say something to her, when I had never said much beyond, “that’ll be $10.50,” to any of the others.
“What’ll be your poison? Marlboro or Camel?”
She looked up at me with surprise before answering, “Oh, no thanks. I’m not a smoker.”
Now it was my turn to be surprised. I believed her, about the smoking. Her voice was too clean, lacking the rough rumble that came with lengthy nicotine dependence. But that wasn’t what surprised me. Even though she hadn’t said more than a half dozen words, her voice just didn’t match the persona she displayed. It was youthful and intelligent, there was no inner city slur, no white trash twang; it was a pristine, well-educated accent.
I was so startled I actually took a second look at her, this time trying to delve deeper than the make-up to see the face underneath and I found myself shocked again. This was no woman; this girl couldn’t be much beyond twenty years old at the most—a baby! What was she doing parading the streets in lethal shoes and clothes that barely amounted to lingerie?
“Is everything okay?” She asked, seeming more nervous than concerned.
I felt like I should have been asking her that. What in her life had gone so wrong that an attractive, obviously intelligent girl like this felt she had to resort to that kind of lifestyle?
Without even thinking, I blurted out, “How old are you?”
I half expected her to get angry, as that was the way most women over the age of sixteen would have responded to such a question, but she surprised me yet again.
“How old are you?” She asked with a coy smirk.
“Forty-five,” I said. Unlike most of my friends, I wasn’t ashamed of my age. Plus, I felt it was only fair to answer the same rude question I had just asked.
“I’m twenty-three,” she said, the smirk growing to a smile just big enough where I could see her teeth. They were white and perfectly straight.
I shook my head. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. This girl was a conundrum.
“Wha—What are you doing?” The words escaped my mouth before I’d even realized it. Her smile disappeared and an adorable crease split her brow as she tilted her head in confusion.
Beside me, Gary, one of my younger employees started ringing up another customer, an elderly lady clad in modest colored clothing better fit for a colder climate than that what we had on that particular spring afternoon. I didn’t miss the sneer and barefaced dislike that crossed her wrinkled face as she took one up-and-down notice of the promiscuous girl at my register before turning her attention straight ahead, stoutly refusing to acknowledge the girl’s presence any longer.
It was so strange. A part of me agreed with the old lady, that this girl’s choice of occupation was just foul and obscene, but then another part of me seemed to disagree vehemently. There was more to this girl than her attire lead one to believe. I could hear it in the articulation of her voice and see it in those bright, perceptive brown eyes.
The girl had noticed the old woman’s judgment, but if she took any offense or felt any shame from her obvious attitude, she didn’t show it. Instead, she kept her attention all on me.
“I beg your pardon?” She asked, politely. She could have been asking me to pass the salt. I’d almost forgotten my question.
“I don’t mean to offend you,” I said. I tried to come across as polite as she’d been. That seemed to rub the old lady the wrong way, if her rather un-ladylike snort was any indication. “But, I don’t understand… this.” I gestured with both hands to pretty much all of her. “You seem so together and… well, smart—” The old woman let out another boorish snort at my choice of words “—so I just don’t see—That is, I don’t understand—Why do you do… what you do?”
I was afraid my fumbling over such a blunt question would outrage her and force her away in a huff before she even had a chance to pay for the gum, but she was unlike any other girl I had ever encountered, Woman of the Town or otherwise.
She gave me a big smile that made her eyes sparkle and her left cheek dip in a charming dimple, and for a moment, as I stared at that smile I could actually see her the way she would be without the thick eye-liner, the heavy eye shadow, or the bright lip gloss. Simple and clean, without adornment, she was a lovely girl that would one day be a stunning woman.
“And what is it that I do, exactly?” The sparkle in her eyes never faltered, and I got the feeling that she was toying with me a bit. All the same, I didn’t know how to respond.
“Like it isn’t obvious?” The elderly woman scoffed as Gary put her money in the register. He glanced at me quickly as he counted out her change, clearly just as caught between convention and curiosity as I was.
The girl turned her head to the old woman, her smile never leaving her face, and politely asked, “I beg your pardon?”
The woman finally turned, full body, and acceded to the girl’s presence. Even though the girl had a good two feet of height on the woman with those criminally high heels, the old bat still managed to look down her nose while she spoke.
“Dirty harlot—That’s what you are! Infesting the streets with disease, tempting men with your promiscuity!” Then the old woman turned to look down her nose at me. “And if the owners of this establishment had any moral fiber to speak of, they wouldn’t allow their employees to serve such ignorant filth!”
Gary paused in the middle of bagging the woman’s purchases and watched my reaction—or more accurately, lack thereof. I felt that same war within me that I’d felt earlier: agreement battling with disagreement. Not more than five minutes earlier I was in complete harmony with the woman, would have done exactly as she expected and kicked the girl out of my store, telling her to warn her sisters of the street not to come by anymore. But in the past five minutes, something had altered my perception of this scantily clad girl, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell what it was. I didn’t know what to say, really, as the old woman’s eyes bored right through me.
“I beg your pardon, ma’am,” the girl said, without a sign of the nerves that had completely taken over me, “but I feel the need to inform you that while my profession may not be the most virtuous, I am far from ignorant.”
“Hmph!” Having said her piece and not wishing to hear the girl’s response, the woman turned back to the counter, prompting Gary back into action. He had almost finished bagging her things when the girl continued.
“Trust me,” the girl turned her body so that she could face both the woman and me at once. Her smile grew again, as if the insults that had been flung at her hadn’t even been launched. “I have no illusions about what I am. Call girl, hooker, floozy. Whore. I know what I am, and I know how I come across to people everyday. But I am not as ignorant as I appear.”
She looked me in the eyes as she said; “I have a Bachelors of Science from Holy Cross University. I majored in marketing with a minor in psychology.”
The old woman snorted for a third time, letting everyone know just how much she believed that information to be truthful. I was rather skeptical myself, to be honest.
“If that’s true,” I tried to sound less cynical than I felt, “then why are you here, dressed like that, instead of running around an office in a tailored suit?”
“Because along with my degree, I graduated with about $60,000 of debt that I have to pay back. I spent the first four months after graduation looking for an entry-level job in my field. Then I spent the next two months looking for any job at all. I even applied to Denny’s down on Seventh. But no one would hire me. I was under qualified for the marketing firms and over qualified for everything else, and that’s not a reasonable excuse to a lender. When the last two weeks of my grace period were nearly over, and I was ready to give up all together, I was approached about a job opportunity that was… less than reputable. It may not be the career I earned all that debt for, but its money just the same and that’s all the lenders really care about.”
“What about your family? Your parents—”
“I was raised in a single parent household and my mother passed two years ago. I don’t have any other family.”
“But resorting to… selling yourself? There must be something else you can do.” I refused to believe that this was the only option for such a bright, strong girl.
“Actually,” she dug through one of her inner breast pockets before pulling out a clean, white sheet of paper, and unfolded the quarters. “There it is.” Her smile shifted, her shoulders straightened, and her eyes lit with warm professionalism as she smoothed the creases and handed it over the counter to me. “This is my résumé.”
I took the paper from her, even though the sudden change in direction made my stomach feel a little queasy. I didn’t know what else to do. Her résumé was concise; it looked better than mine. At the top of the page in strong, bold font was her name, Allison Foster, followed by her contact information and street address— not the best area of town. Then she’d listed her schooling information, graduated just last year with a 3.4 GPA, before mentioning her work experience, her awards, and her skills. All of which were menial jobs for a less qualified individual.
“If you’ll look, I have experience in retail. I worked for a small clothing store for a year in high school and then the last two years of college I was a work study in the university’s bookstore.” Her voice was steady, confident, like she’d practice this pitch enough times in front of a mirror for it to almost sound natural. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why a local marketing firm hadn’t snatched her up already. That was why, with every word she spoke, I felt worse and worse.
“I can crunch numbers with the best and I’m great with customers. I’m available for any and all hours needed. I always show up early, and I give nothing less than 110% no matter the task.”
“Hmph!” The old woman snorted, her eyes still on Gary, who was still watching me like a hawk as I took another gander at her résumé before looking back up at the girl. Allison, her paper said.
My eyes must’ve betrayed me because her professional mask slipped a bit. “I can produce a list of references, if necessary,” she added, but I could hear the disappointment she was trying so hard to hide. It only made me feel sicker to my stomach.
I looked over the résumé once more, wishing there was something I could tell her besides what I knew I had to say. She was over qualified for a mediocre position at my little mom-and-pop shop, and if I didn’t already have a staff that had faced cut backs due to the lousy economy, I would have hired her on the spot. But, unfortunately that wasn’t the case.
“Allison, right?” Even to my ears, my voice sounded flat. She nodded proudly, and I wondered if she knew she was holding her breath. I handed her résumé back to her as I said, “I honestly wish I could tell you you’re hired, but…” Her shoulders slumped a fraction, just enough for me, Gary, and even the old woman, to see how hopeful she’d really been and how discouraged she must’ve felt. I couldn’t help but wonder how often in the past year or so she’d felt real hope only to have it dashed by circumstances that were no fault of her own. “I’ve got a full staff that I struggle to pay, as it is. I can’t… I’m sorry.”
“I understand,” was all she said. I pushed the résumé towards her, urging her to take it back, but she held up her hands in refusal. “No, you can keep it, just in case you change your mind. I have other copies.”
I nodded, putting the paper out of sight under the counter. There was a loaded silence then, like the world had suddenly turned from bright blue skies to grey thunderheads without a single warning. The only person who didn’t seem affected by the melancholy atmosphere was the old woman.
“Well, I, for one, don’t blame you,” she said, still looking down her nose at me as Gary sprung back into action and shoved her last item, in the plastic bag with the rest of her purchases. He held out the bag and she took it as she scorned Allison without even the courtesy of looking at her. “Honest folk shouldn’t let themselves be shamed into hiring trash with a clever fib. The economy is not that bad, young lady, and I think you should feel ashamed for trying to weasel a decent position with a story like that.” The way she said young lady was how one might say useless waste. “Now, I would suggest you pay for your things and be on your way back to whatever smutty corner you lurk at. Nothing more than a false document from a common streetwalke—”
“Ma’am!” I raised my voice to interrupt, which seemed to catch Allison and Gary just as off guard as the old woman, and despite my old-fashioned upbringing I didn’t feel a lick of guilt. I hired teenagers quite frequently, and as such I had seen many flowery, overdone résumés that looked like they’d been Xeroxed right out of a résumé writing textbook. Allison’s was nothing of the sort, and the old crone’s judgmental opinions had just about run my patience through. “There are many things I will tolerate in my store, but blatant disrespect of another customer is not one of them. If my employee has finished with your purchase, I’d appreciate it if you’d be on your way.”
The woman’s face turned beet red. “Well, I never!” She glared at me, and then at Allison before storming out of the store muttering, “See if I continue business in such a seedy establishment!”
Allison was still standing in front of my register, her face a slight shade of pink underneath the make-up. She glanced at me for a moment, appearing unsure what to say until she muttered, “You didn’t have to do that. Anyone else would have agreed with her.”
“Well, I don’t,” I said. “Sometimes people are not what you think.”
She smiled at me, though it didn’t quite reach her ears. She peeked at the clock on the back wall of the pharmacy and suddenly she remembered she was late.
“Oh, wow. I didn’t watch the time, I guess.”
I quickly rang up her green mint gum and bottle of water. She paid in cash, and took the items, refusing a bag. She turned to leave but hesitated, turning back before taking a step.
“Thank you,” she said, heavy with meaning.
“What for?” I honestly didn’t think I deserved a thank you of such magnitude.
She didn’t answer, she just smiled, and this time it reached her eyes.
“Have a good day,” she said.
“You, too.” I meant it.
“Mind if I stop by at a later date? It’s not often you find such a considerate place—Well, at least not often for me.”
“You’re welcome anytime.”
She gave me another big smile that revealed the beauty behind the make-up and then went on her way, her shoulders just a little more square than before.