Miss Brown to You
by Ramona Barckert
Lovable, huggable Miss Brown to You/Is baby to me.
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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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