Let me guess what you’re thinking, how this is about Johnny giving me a job. You can bet that I was thinking the same thing. A girl has to take care of herself because who else will?
I had money for next month’s rent, a dozen packages of Top Ramen noodles and enough quarters to do two loads of wash. Getting a job had suddenly escalated to the top of my list.
In order to land the apartment, a friend had vouched for me as a freelance artist. My new landlord had been desperate to rent the place. It had been vacant for three months. Taking my first month’s rent and security deposit, he said, “Rent is due the first of the month, every month. No exceptions.” I may be a lot of things, but I’m not dumb.
Anyway, my new apartment wasn’t bad, small but with working appliances and hot water. I looked up at the cracked plaster of the ceiling and mumbled something along these lines:
“Thank you, Big Bopper, for teaching me to never give parts of myself away, including loans of money to asshole boyfriends, and thanks for keeping me and my cat Mr. Purrfect, safe,” which reminded me that I also had to figure cat food into my overall budget. But then I cheered myself with thoughts of how people all over the world are getting blown up for no good reason so my situation didn't seem so bad by comparison, and managed to wash a few dishes before gathering up my backpack and leaving the house, thinking I’d walk around the neighborhood to see if there were any “Help Wanted” signs. I saw “Closed” and “Out of Business,” and one “Lost Our Lease,” but as far as I could tell, nobody needed help. Even the Holiday Motel, a place whose beige exterior had faded into dirt a long time ago, wasn’t hiring housekeepers.I was told that people were not piling into the Holiday Motel; they were staying put. But at that moment, all explanations wrapped around my body in tight a sinewy knot and spun me on the street like a lopsided top.
Really, what was I going to do? I passed a storefront window and asked my reflection that same question, a short kid with a ponytail wearing jeans and a ribbed t-shirt. Maybe I should’ve listened to my parents before they’d died and gotten myself a teaching credential. “You’ll get the summer’s off to spend with your husband and kids,” had been their mantra. Instead, I wanted to drive across the United States with a canvas and a box of acrylic paints, and did.
The girl looked back at me with her puffy eyes. Geez, no help there. She shrugged her shoulders and pointed back at me, across the street where I saw an orange “Help Wanted” sign posted in the lower left-hand corner of a window. Thinking the sign was a mirage conjured up by my stressed-out mind, I blinked. Sure enough, it was still there.
I spit slightly into my palm and smoothed down the top of my hair with saliva, pulled my t-shirt straight over my jeans. There wasn’t much else to do except go inside the storefront on a street that was pretending to be a commercial thoroughfare in a run-down neighborhood. There were several “Sale!!!” signs posted in the window on orange poster-board. It was getting close to Halloween. A nice touch, I thought, although the graphics were lousy.
“I came in to find out about the job,” I asked a woman with long grey greasy stringy hair who stood behind a counter smoking a cigarette. Her fingers bulged at the joints, slightly arthritic with the yellow stain of a habitual smoker. I pointed to the sign in the window.
“You mean that,” she laughed like it was a big joke. I’d had enough of looking for a job, turned around and started to leave. “No wait,” she said, balancing her smokes on the edge of a counter. The place was empty except for shelves on every wall filled with bric-a-brac, something like a Goodwill Store stacked with orphaned appliances, glasses and half dinner sets. “I just put that sign, I mean just, in the window and here you are. That’s funny. Don’t you think that’s funny?”
“More good timing than funny,” I said, and twisted my hand around the handle of my backpack, ready to leave at any moment. I was afraid that I should’ve broken out in some maniac laughter and agreed with her.
“You don’t look like a bad kid. You doing drugs?”
“No m’am,” I said in my best swear to God voice.
“Okay. I need someone to stay here while more boxes arrive. You unpack them and put them on the shelves. Here’s a dust cloth. Make ‘em look nice. I’m going to my storage unit to get more.” She picked up her purse and a sweater from the back of her chair, and then circled around to get the burning cigarette. “I better put this out,” she said to herself. “You think you can do that? I’ll be back,” she said, looking at her watch. “In a few hours. There’s a hot plate in the back if you want to heat up water for coffee,” and then she ran off and disappeared.
I kicked myself for not asking her how much she was paying an hour and if this was just for one day. I also wished that I had taken a package of Top Ramen with me because I was really hungry. But for now, I had a job and the knot inside my stomach relaxed.