Virginia Jenks ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The girl knocked on all the doors, starting on the first floor and working her way up. She thought the people very diverse and unique for poor people living in a broken-down brick building on the edge of nowhere. There was the fat woman and her midget husband who used to be a circus clown; the two women who acted and dressed like men and who went by the names Butch and Sluggo; the pale single man who worked twenty hours a day in a factory. On the second floor the blind woman with her little dogs that helped her to see; the old man whose apartment was stacked with books from floor to ceiling; the newlyweds who answered the door holding hands; the old woman who wore a wad of cotton where her nose used to be. Some hid from her and pretended they weren’t at home, but most paid when they were supposed to. She wrote down in the little ledger who paid and who didn’t. She put the money and checks in a canvas drawstring bag and held tight to it.
At an apartment on the third floor, a beautiful (the girl thought) blond woman in a Japanese kimono with dragons invited the girl in and asked her to sit down while she and her roommate, a woman with dark hair wearing a man’s striped pajamas, got the money together for the rent.
“We’ll have to pay you in cash,” the blond woman said.
“What else would we pay her in?” the dark-haired woman said. “War bonds?”
“It’s all right,” the girl said. “Most pay in cash.”
“We’re gong to need a receipt,” the dark-haired woman said. “We don’t want anybody saying we didn’t pay when we did.”
“I mark it down in the book when you pay, anyway,” the girl said.
They counted out the money to the penny and when they handed it to the girl she put it in the canvas bag and wrote out a receipt.
“Would you like a cup of coffee or something?” the blond woman asked the girl after the transaction was completed.
“I’d like a drink of water.” the girl said.
“Well, come on into the kitchen.”
On the table were the remnants of breakfast, even though it was past lunch time. The blond woman motioned for the girl to sit at the table while she got her a glass of water.
“The first of the month sure comes around fast,” she said. “Just when you’re thinking your rent is all paid up, here it is the first of the month again and you have to fork over more dough.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the girl said, sipping the water.
Both women laughed. “You don’t have to call me ‘ma’am,’” she said. “I don’t think I’m the ‘ma’am’ type, anyway.”
“No, she’s more the ‘madam’ type,” the dark-haired woman said.
“We were just finishing breakfast when you knocked on the door,” the blond woman said. “If you had come a half-hour earlier, we wouldn’t have heard you because we were still sleeping.”
“Tell her the rest,” the dark-haired woman said, “or she’ll think we sleep this late all the time because we’re lazy.”
“We work nights. We don’t get off until two or three in the morning and sometimes later, so that’s why we’re just getting up when everybody else has been up for hours.”
“What do you do?” the girl asked.
“We’re hostesses in a nightclub.”
“We dance and drink and pretend we’re having a good time,” the dark-haired woman said. “We cozy up to the lonely single men and get them to spend all their money on liquor.”
“Sometimes we go to their hotel rooms and sleep with them,” the blond woman said, “if they’re good-looking enough and there’s enough money in it for us.”
The dark-haired woman spatted her on the arm. “You shouldn’t be telling her that!” she said. “She’s too young for that kind of information.”
“I think she’s older than she looks and knows everything she needs to know.”
“I’m in the ninth grade,” the girl said.
“To be so young and innocent!”
“What’s your name?”
“Well, Virginia,” the blond woman said. “My name is Opal Coots and my friend here—and I use the term loosely—is Louisa Biggs.”
“But everybody calls me Lou,” the dark-haired woman said. “I always hated Louisa.”
“It’s a pretty name,” Virginia said.
“Hey, I think I like her!” Lou said. “She knows just the right things to say.”
“How is it you come to be collecting the rent money?” Opal asked.
“I’m doing it for my grandma. She’s sick.”
“She’s the one that owns this building?”
“So, that old water buffalo that strong-arms us for the rent every month is your granny?”
“Well, as I live and breathe! There’s absolutely no family resemblance!”
“Lucky for her!” Lou said, cackling with laughter.
“Well, thanks for the water,” Virginia said, standing up. “I’d better get back or they’ll be wondering where I am with the money.”
“You don’t need to rush off,” Opal said. “We don’t very often have anybody to talk to.”
“Except each other,” Lou said, “and that gets pretty sickening.”
“Tell us about yourself,” Opal said. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“For heaven’s sake!” Lou said. “Why would she have a boyfriend? She’s only a child!”
“Well, I had a boyfriend when I was in ninth grade,” Opal said.
“Yes, but you were a special case.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Virginia said.
“I’ll bet you have brothers and sisters, don’t you?” Opal asked.
“One brother,” Virginia said. “He’s in high school.”
“Is he good-looking?”
“You’re not supposed to ask a girl a question like that about her own brother,” Lou said.
“I had a brother and I always thought he was very good-looking,” Opal said.
“Please! Not of front of a child!” Lou said.
“You have a mother and father?” Opal asked.
“What are they like?”
Virginia shrugged and wanted to leave. “They’re just ordinary, I guess. My dad works for the government.”
“Is he an FBI man?”
“No, I think he’s an accountant.”
“Does he go out drinking and slap your ma around when he comes home?”
“No, he mostly sleeps in the chair.”
“Is your ma pretty? Does she have lots of pretty clothes?”
“No, she’s a housewife.”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I don’t know. I guess I don’t think much about it.”
“That’s right,” Lou said. “Live for the moment and let the future take care of itself.”
“What is your favorite subject in school?” Opal asked.
“I don’t know. English, I guess.”
“You don’t like math, though, do you?”
“I hate it.”
“You’re the sensitive, artistic type. I can tell.”
“I guess so.”
“You have an awfully pale skin,” Lou said. “Have you ever thought about using a little light lipstick?”
“No, I don’t think my mother would like it.”
“She’s not here, though, is she?”
“Would you like to try a little lipstick and see how it looks? Maybe a pale pink?”
“I guess so.”
She went into the bedroom and came back carrying a tube of lipstick and a little mirror. She set the mirror on the table and titled Virginia’s head back and applied the lipstick to her lips. After she showed Virginia how to blot her lips on a Kleenex, she allowed her to see herself in the mirror.
“See? Doesn’t that make a difference?”
“I guess so,” Virginia said. “It makes me look like somebody else.”
Lou laughed and gave her the tube. “You can keep this,” she said. “I’ve got a whole drawer full.”
“My mother doesn’t allow me to wear makeup,” Virginia said, “but I can keep it hidden in my room and put some on when I go out.”
Opal pulled Virginia’s hair back in both hands. “Your hair is so lifeless,” she said. “You could use a good cut and some curl.”
“My mother cuts my hair,” Virginia said.
“What does she cut it with? A steak knife?”
She pulled Virginia’s hair to the back of her head, twisted and pinned it so it stayed that way. “What do you think?” she asked, holding up the mirror so Virginia could get a good look at herself.
“She looks like a sophisticate,” Lou said.
“You know, I miss having kids around,” Opal said.
“Don’t start that!” Lou said.
“I’ve got a daughter, just a little older than you, Virginia, and a son, but I don’t ever see them. They live with their father a long way off.”
“Here we go!” Lou said.
“My daughter’s name is Meredith and my son is Christopher. The funny thing is, I’m dead to them. Their father told them I died. He thought it would be better that way.”
When she began blubbering into a dish towel, Lou rolled her eyes. “I’m a mother, too, you know,” she said.
“Yes, but you don’t care about your kids,” Opal said. “I care about mine.”
“That’s not true!” Lou said. “I care about them. I send them money and presents all the time. I’m just not the motherly type. It’s better for them and it’s better for me if we just live apart. It’s a perfectly wonderful arrangement.”
“Maybe if they knew what a whore their mother was, they wouldn’t think it was so perfectly wonderful,” Opal said.
“Well, look who’s calling who a whore. If I’m a whore, what does that make you?”
“I’m in a different class than you. I’m much more refined.”
“One of these days, I’m going to knock you clear across the room and through the wall!”
“Yeah? Well, you’d better go easy on the walls. The landlady will make you pay for any damage.”
“Well, I think I should be going,” Virginia said. “They’ll be worried about the rent money.”
“So soon?” Opal said.
“Wait a minute,” Lou said. She slipped a bracelet off her own wrist and put it on Virginia’s. It was a narrow band of alternating red and yellow stones.
“It’s beautiful!” Virginia said.
“Wear it to remind yourself to come back and see us again real soon. Next time we’ll have a real party.”
On the way home, Virginia stopped off at the park. She was sitting on a bench in the sun when she attracted the attention of an older boy. He sat down beside her and smiled.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you around before,” he said.
She ignored him and was thinking about getting up and walking away when he offered her a cigarette. She took it from him and he lit it for her, even though she had never smoked before.
“Whatcha got in that bag?” he asked.
“Nothing that concerns you,” she said.
“My name’s Harvey Pinkston.”
“So?” She took a draw on the cigarette and blew the smoke out between her lipsticked lips.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Well, Rita, I don’t believe that’s really your name, but if it’s the only name you’re going to give me, I’ll take it.”
She turned and looked at him. He had a good face, in spite of needing a shave and having two or three pimples.
“How old are you, anyway?” she asked.
“Almost nineteen. How old are you?”
“Um, I’d say you’re about seventeen.”
“You’re a very good guesser. You’re only off by a couple years.”
“Are those diamonds?” he asked, pointing at the bracelet Lou had given her.
“Diamonds aren’t red and yellow, silly,” she said. “Diamonds are clear and sparkly.”
“Would you like to go someplace quiet, Rita?”
“It’s quiet here.”
“That’s not what I meant. Would you like to go someplace where we can be alone?”
“Why would I want to be alone with you? I don’t even know you.”
“We can get acquainted.”
“How do I know you’re not a murderer?”
“Do I look like a murderer to you?”
“Murderers don’t always look like murderers,” she said.
“I’ve got my car right over there,” he said. “Would you like to go for a drive with me?”
“I don’t believe you’ve got a car. You don’t look like the type who would have his own car.”
He took the keys out of his pocket and jingled them in her face. “I can break down your natural reluctance,” he said, “if you give me a chance.”
“I’ve really got to be getting home,” she said. “There’s someone waiting for me.”
“Where do you live? I can give you a lift.”
She threw away the cigarette. “All right,” she said, “but you’d better not try to get cute with me. My father’s an FBI man.”
When they were in his car, he didn’t ask where she lived and she didn’t tell him. He just began driving.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“You’ll see,” he said.
“I don’t know if I should trust you or not.”
“Nobody’s going to hurt you, Rita.”
She looked over at him and smiled. She liked his profile, the way his black hair was combed neatly over the top his head to a little crest over his forehead. He really didn’t look like a murderer. She could easily see herself sleeping with him if there was enough money in it for her.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp