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Miss Brown to You

by Ramona Barckert

Lovable, huggable Miss Brown to You/Is baby to me. Billie Holiday

The woman behind the front desk had to be fifty at least. She wore a fitted jacket that was orange with black speckles.

"And you are...." Her lipstick was bright and glossy but as she pulled back her lips into a forced smile, the teeth revealed something dark and disapproving.

"Tula Brown," she said, suddenly unsure.

"Uh huh." The receptionist pressed her lips together again. "Have a seat then."

Recognizing the disdain with which women in fitted orange jackets usually acknowledged her, Tula sat down on the soft couch across from the receptionist desk. She folded her lean, tan legs, one over the other. Orange Jacket sighed and picked up her telephone. Tula focused her deep blue eyes on the corner of her desk.

Need to be sure not to scowl, Tula told herself. Got to be sure to smile and be all white teeth and long, flowing hair. Must be sure to laugh and not roll my eyes. Must be sure to tuck my hair behind my ears and run my fingers under my chin, as I think of answers to Mr. Hansenís questions. Need to be sure not to throw my arms up in the air in disgust and spit in his face. Got to be sure not to reach across the desk and strangle him for looking at my chest and not my eyes. Need this job, need the money....

"Mr. Hansenís ready for you," Orange Jacket said from behind her desk. Tula assumed she was the "you" the receptionist was referring to, as she was the only other person in the office. But Orange Jacket hadn't looked at her, hadn't called her by name. Tula uncrossed her legs anyway and took a deep breath.

At eleven that morning, she was still in bed when Jimmy knocked on her door. She hadn't really been asleep, even though her eyes were closed and her mouth was poised open, drool threatening at the corner of her lips. But she was awake. She heard Jimmy's clunking footsteps long before she heard his clunking knock on her door.

"Uh... hello?" He said it as if he were the one answering the knock, uncertain of who was on the other side.

"A minute." Tula grumbled and rolled over. She had been expecting a visit from Jimmy all week and his timing proved impeccable. Tula knew she had the perfect I-was-just-in-my-bed look to pull the whole thing off. Her hair was disheveled and her eyes were seductively heavy. Tula thought about pulling some flannel pajama bottoms up over her panties and tucking in her worn "Class of 83" T-shirt but decided against it.

She went to the door and unlocked the chain. She pushed her lips into a fluffy pout and thanked God for last night's instinct to shave her legs.

"Good morning...ah...." He forgot her name momentarily as Tula opened the door and pressed her hip against the door frame. Jimmy's droopy eyes started darting around, looking for a safe place to rest. Normally, he would look down at his own shoes but there was bare female flesh in that direction. He tried to look just past the outside of her upper arm and into the apartment, but that was way too close to the pert breasts that were highly visible through her thin T-shirt. Jimmy tried to settle on her eyes, but was so struck by their blue coldness that he took a tiny step backwards.

"I know, I know. Jimmy, Iím so sorry."

Jimmy opened and closed his mouth a few times. He put a sweaty palm on the head of the hammer, which hung from a loop on his overalls.

"I'm just getting some things sorted out... I'm going through a rough patch."

Jimmy looked at Tula's eyes again and saw them watering up. But the tears froze once they reached the edge of her eyelids. Not one tear fell.

"Seems this rough patch is going on three months now." Jimmy's voice cracked as he said "patch." He tapped his right toe and looked down the hallway at the green shag carpeting, reminding himself that a corner piece on the fourth floor had come up and needed repairing.

"I know, I know. But Jimmy...." Tula's voice softened to a whisper. Jimmy turned his head back to her as she dropped her left shoulder towards him a bit. The stretched out neck of her T-shirt fell to the side and exposed her collarbone. Jimmy's eyes hung on that collarbone.

"I'll make up the rent soon, I promise. Hey, I even have a job interview this afternoon. Okay?"

Jimmy took another step back. Tula's collarbone expanded and retracted as she swallowed.

"Okay," was his reply. "Good luck then."

Tula closed the door and rolled her eyes, while Jimmy trudged away to fix the carpeting.

For the interview, Tula didn't have much choice in what to wear. She had one cream colored silk blouse and a peach skirt, both of which would have fit her better if she was three inches shorter and two cups sizes smaller. Both pieces were old and there was a spot on the right cuff of the blouse. Tula folded both cuffs back to create three quarter sleeves. Stylish and practical, she thought.

Her stomach grumbled loudly as she dressed. In her wallet was the last fifty dollars she would allow herself to use. Despite what she'd told Jimmy, Tula had half of her rent money in her bank account. She just wanted to put him off a little longer until she had the whole thing. Pride. Stupid pride, she thought.

After dressing, Tula buried forty-five dollars in between the pages of her copy of The Bell Jar. She would celebrate her new job later and get some groceries. Maybe a bottle of wine. She checked her look in the mirror, and smiled at her tanned cheeks and smooth forehead. In her hand, she clutched her five dollar bill like it was gold.

Two weeks ago, Tula had answered an ad for catalog models. The address led her to a white building. The left wall of the building was crumbling away and there was a front door frame leading into the lobby, but there was no actual door.

On the fourth floor office, a bearded man named Gabe and a leather clad woman named Moira sat behind a metal desk. The office was one room and except for the metal desk and the three chairs they were sitting on, there was nothing else. No potted plants, no pictures on the walls.

Gabe did all the talking while Moira took two Polaroid pictures of Tula and spent the rest of the time looking at her cuticles and sighing. Gabe asked Tula if she was uncomfortable doing seductive photos.

"Um... no, I donít think so," Tula said. She mentioned that she'd only modeled once before, for the course catalog at the college where sheíd gotten her bookkeeping diploma.

"Why aren't you a bookkeeper then?" Gabe's ' smile was hidden underneath his unruly beard.

"I will be," Tula said, "but I need some fast money. Quickly. A lot of it."

Moira looked up from her cuticles and smirked in Gabe's direction. Then Gabe said,

"Are you comfortable posing with seductive props?"

"Um... like what?"

Then Gabe tossed Tula the catalog she could be posing for. On the cover was the phrase Just Like a Real Tongue! and a pasty-faced woman with bowling ball sized boobs, her head thrown back in ecstasy. Tula tossed the catalog right back at Gabe.

"Thanks for your time but I'm in the wrong place," Tula said.

"Lola, please sit down," Gabe said. "You'll make forty dollars an hour. Minimum!" But Tula was gone, without bothering to correct his misnomer.

Tula stopped at a coffee-shop and parked next to a blue, beat-up Toyota. There was an annoying, repetitious beat of dance music coming out of the car and three teenage boys sat inside. She walked past the Toyota and felt their eyes, like bullets, penetrate her. Their eyes went up. Their eyes went down. She heard some snickering but pretended she hadn't heard a thing.

The coffee tasted a bit burnt, but she sipped it with pleasure. The whole wheat bagel was stale but she chewed slowly, grateful for every morsel.

When she was walking back to the car, the boy in the driver's seat honked the horn at her. She looked up, startled. They said stuff like, "hey baby" and "what's up?" One of the boys thrust his pelvis through the open window, in her direction. Her face grew red and hot. She thought to say, "screw you" or "maybe when your voices crack, boys." She thought of a thousand obscenity-laced comebacks to shut them up.

Tula got in her car and drove away, thinking up a thousand more.

Mr. Hansen had dark gray hair that shot out in every direction. His upper lip was dotted with sweat. Twice, he wiped the beads away with a handkerchief only to have them reform moments later. Tula smiled at her lap.

When Mr. Hansen told her she was unqualified for the position, Tula leaned forward over her crossed legs and hugged her hands to her elbows. When he shook his head and said if only she had worked in an office setting he would hire her, she tipped her head to one side and traced her earlobe with her index finger.

And then, after he'd asked all the questions and Tula had answered slowly and always with a shy smile, Mr. Hansen seemed to forget to end the interview. He went on for another twenty minutes about his brand new Mazda Miata and did she know how to drive standard? And then he complained about how desperately he needed a bookkeeper and that Orange Jacket how no time to do the work conscientiously. So Tula listened and stifled her yawns. She told him she only drove automatic but was willing to learn and that one of the teachers at college had called all her work very conscientiously completed.

Mr. Hansen finally paused, and took the handkerchief to his upper lip one last time. As he wiped the sweat away, Tula saw his eyes drop. And then they dropped again. Tula wondered if they would ever rise.

"I'll see you first thing in the morning, Mr. Hansen," Tula said.

"Yes, yes. I'll see you too, Lulu."

Tula sat in her car with her hands on the wheel and the keys in the ignition. She felt ill. The bagel was sloshing around her stomach angrily and her mouth was parched. Every time she swallowed, her throat was rubbed raw. "I should have told him, fuck you," she thought. "I should have said, don't act all casual, calling me Lulu. That's Miss Brown to you."

She reached out to turn the key ignition on, but her hand stopped mid-air. She tried desperately to push her fingers further, to grab the key, but she couldn't Tula started to cry then, dots of wetness moistened the collar of her old blouse. And she froze just like that, her hand outstretched, grasping at nothing.

Ramona Barckert has been published in the online magazine The Hinterland. She also wrote the short film "No Man's Land" (1999) and an upcoming independent feature-length film. She recently graduated from York University and lives in Toronto.

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Picture "Arabesque" by: Catherine Marche

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