The overcoat immediately draws your attention. It is bright green like a tropical parrot. The coat extends from the soles of Ella Blunstein’s shoes to the hull of her prickly chin, topped by a faux mink collar. She wears a string of pearls and ruby earrings that are also not real. The smile is genuine though, embalmed by bright red L’Oréal that has cracked in the frigid morning air. Thanks to the cold she does not have to worry about highlighting her bony cheeks.
From her patent leather purse, she draws out the lipstick for another application, but it is as hard as wax. She finds the Bianca Blast peppermint spray and refreshes herself, never knowing when that might be necessary. She hopes her man — some man — will come by soon enough, preferably in an Eldorado. If on occasion she takes a swig of rum, it is only to stay warm. The alcohol feels like a surge of Paris in the springtime through her veins, reminding her that love and sex are equal parts holy in the eyes of the Lord.
She stands alone at Third and State, pacing and shivering with another snowstorm on the way. She knows this corner better than the spindly veins of her hands and it is hers to keep. Fortunately, there is little competition. Others leave it to her, fearful of what else she carries in her purse. She knows how to handle herself. She barters for hourly rates at the local hotels. She is an independent businesswoman who pays her taxes on time. What she earns under the table is no one’s concern but her own.
Today the weather is bad enough, but it is also Sunday morning and the gentlemen — the few of them that qualify for that distinction — must all be in church. In fact they are probably making amends for what they did last night or what they should have done with a classy lady of sincere European heritage. If they knew what was in their interest, they’d keep their dollars to themselves when the hat gets passed around.
Her eye is out for a man named Charlie who comes by almost daily in an official county car, wearing a beige or powder blue suit. He alternates. He is formal, the way some men are and all men used to be. He asks her questions in a milky voice and never insists on giving her a charity gift, like food in a take-out container. He always wants to know if she is keeping warm. She’d like to show him how warm she keeps herself, but he defers, perhaps because he’s one of those men too afraid to turn fantasy into reality. He enquires about where she sleeps at night because he wants to spend the whole night, not just an hour or two. Where she sleeps is of course her business, but if he keeps on asking she might drop a hint. At least he gave her a calling card. Charlie Bartlett, Social Worker, Adult Protective Services. Funny, the things men choose to brag about.
She thinks she sees the car turning onto State a few blocks away. She imagines him living in a matchbox-sized duplex in a middle-class neighborhood. Almost certainly there’s a missus who boils cabbage and nags him for everything, plus a few kids running around. Poor Charlie, Charles as she’ll call him, overworked and under-indulged. If only he’d loosen up, lose the tie and spend an idle hour at Dino’s Bar, right across the street. That’s where they’d go and then who knows where they’ll go.
Ella walks a few paces down the street and stares into boarded up storefronts, wondering what kind of merchandise they used to sell — home furnishings or items more exotic? She draws the pint from her purse, takes a sip and then heads back to the corner. Across the street, the bartender has emerged and is waving for her to come over. He flaps his hand as if he’s splashing water on his dirty face. He’s impatient and not used to the cold.
She looks both ways and crosses the street, careful not to lose a heel in a gutter or a pothole, holding her coat high above the gray slush made slushier by all the rock salt dumped in the street. When the weather warms, she’ll plan a trip to Washington, DC to stroll on the mall, which is not an unhappy alternative to the Champs Elysees.
Dino’s is warm and dimly lit. On one side of the narrow room there are leather booths, some of which are occupied by droopy men guarding their drinks. On the other side there is a long bar with shelves of bottled spirits that have been doubled up by the mirror behind them. The bartender sets down a tumbler with ice cubes. He pours a rum and Coke and Ella lays down a twenty. He points to the last booth within the smoky depths of the bar. She takes her drink and walks over there.
The man is not wearing a suit though at least he sports a collar. His hat is set on the table, not on the seat beside him where it belongs. His face has that untroubled look that comes when the lights are low. She slips into the booth opposite him and moves her drink forward on the sticky surface to clink glasses. He has barely touched his beer. Charles, she says, as if she were patting a good boy’s head with her soft words. Where shall we go today?
Michael Kozart hails from a rural county in Northern California.