A hot wind blows at me, making my hair whip around my face. I feel my skirt flutter around my legs; a man sitting in the doorway says something to me that I don’t understand and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to. I tug my skirt back down, bunching it in my hand to keep it tucked against my body. I turn my eyes down to the sidewalk and walk forward, hoping to avoid catching the eye of anyone else.
This neighborhood is so seedy. I hate that I have to walk through it every day just to get to work, but I suppose it’s better than the walk home every night. That’s when I stick close to the shadows of the buildings and hope for the best.
A few minutes later I look up cautiously—I don’t see anyone lingering and breathe a small sigh of relief. Just ahead on the corner is the Moonlight Lounge; it’s surprisingly upscale for the neighborhood.
Until a few years ago, this wasn’t a bad neighborhood. The Depression has been merciless, though, and all the places I used to go when I was a kid are just in ruins now, abandoned or close to it.
I pause when I get to the employee entrance, making a face to myself. I really don’t like working here. I know I shouldn’t complain—honestly, I’m lucky to be working at all, and all I’m really doing is waiting tables. If my brother Ross hadn’t been in here when the last girl got fired and told me they needed help, I’d still be pounding the pavement, hoping to find anything, taking odd jobs like the rest of the city. Unfortunately, a lot of the clientele is a little more…friendly than I’m comfortable with, and as the nights wear on, their hands seem to multiply, feeling that they can take whatever liberties they want whenever they want.
Still…it’s a job. The pay isn’t great, but it’s enough to barely get by, and it means I don’t have to stand in line hoping to get food.
I look over my shoulder, a genuine smile reaching my face. “Hi, Phoebe.” Phoebe’s another waitress at the Lounge, but unlike me, she doesn’t seem bothered by the guys in there in the slightest. She just smiles at them, gracefully moves away from their wandering hands, and happily accepts their tips at the end of the night.
“You doing all right?”
I just shrug. “I’m already dreading how long tonight’s going to be.”
“It could be worse,” she tells me, looping her arm through mine, leading me down the stairs to the back door. “At least they’ll feed us dinner.”
Every time I start to feel bad for myself, I just think about the life Phoebe’s led. She’s been on her own since she was about ten years old. I don’t know the entire story—it seems so sad even though she never seems bothered by it—but I know that her father left when she was a baby, and her mother killed herself not too many years after that. Phoebe and her twin sister spent some time in an orphanage until Phoebe decided it would be easier out on her own. So, she left. She says she hasn’t seen her sister since.
I think she’s the bravest person I know.
I don’t know how she’s managed to survive for ten years on her own like that; I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to know. Not really. But she always has a smile and a kind word, and she’s been terrific about taking me under her wing to show me how things are done at the Lounge. She also looks out for me, making sure that no one gets too frisky with me.
I’m so lucky that I found her. I know she’s only a few years older than me, but it feels as if she’s lived a lot longer. My life feels like a walk in the park compared to hers.
Not that it’s been all roses.
We walk into the dressing room of the Lounge, already crowded with the other girls, and I make a face at the racks of “uniforms” waiting for us. No dignified girl should be seen in public in something like this. Or an undignified girl, for that matter. Tiny shorts, a halter top, all of it covered in sequins. It’s embarrassing; even when I was a little girl and went swimming in the river I wore more clothing than this. But Phoebe keeps reminding me—it pays our bills.
I’m sure my father would be mortified if he could see me now.
I sigh, feeling a wave of sadness wash over me as I try to find an out of the way corner to change my clothes. Phoebe just stands in front of me as she changes, blocking me from view as she casually chats with the other girls, pulling off her own clothing as if there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
I pull the shorts on under my skirt and shake my head. No; my father would not be pleased to see me like this, but it’s not as if he left me with much choice. My mother died in early 1929, which left a huge hole in our lives—it seemed as if she was fine one day, and the next she couldn’t get out of bed. She was suddenly horribly sick. Ross and I didn’t know what was wrong with her—we were just told to be very quiet at home so Mother could rest. Then she was gone. Just like that. We stuck together as best as we could while our father spent more time at work; we took care of each other and we made it work.
Of course, later that year, the stock market crashed. I don’t really remember it, but I was only six at the time. We all just went to school every day and life carried on as always. It was a few years before the effects of the Crash really started to hit us. My father lost his job and was suddenly at home all the time. Not that he said anything. He mostly just sat in a chair and stared at the wall for about a year.
Then he got involved in gambling.
I didn’t know what was happening at the time, but I think Ross did. He tried to keep a lot of it away from me, which worked until the day my father asked me if I wanted to go see the ponies with him. I was ten—I honestly thought we were going to a farm to see horses. But that was the first time I saw a racetrack. It was also the first time I saw my father lose an unseemly amount of money betting on the wrong horse.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time.
Any money we had was funneled into gambling, my father always positive that he’d win the next one.
Then we left our little house and moved in with my grandmother in the heart of the city, all four of us cramped in one tiny apartment. Ross was forced to share a bedroom with my father—who was rarely home by that point—and I was stuck on the couch.
Even though we were crowded, things seemed to get better for a little while. Ross and I kept going to school, just another family whose life had been turned upside down by the Crash. Too many of the people we knew were living lives like ours—forced out of their homes, all of their possessions left behind, not enough food for one person let alone an entire family, clothes worn and threadbare.
One day, my father and I were walking through the park and three men grabbed him, pulling him into the bushes. I don’t know what happened after that—I could hear them talking and I remember that they sounded scary, and when my father finally came back to me, his nose was bloody and his eye was swollen.
A week later, they pulled his body out of the river—it turned out that those guys were gangsters and my father had spread himself a little too thin, borrowing too much money from too many people and not ever paying it back. So he killed himself.
I was twelve. Ross was fifteen. Suddenly, we were all we had left in the world. Of course, we have our grandmother; she let us stay with her and helped take care of us, doting on Ross and telling me that the moment someone proposed to me, I was to drop out of school and get married.
She wasn’t joking.
By the time I was fifteen, I was still in school even though she kept telling me that I should quit and get a job to help pay for expenses. Ross kept convincing her that I needed to be in school but it wasn’t easy—he was gone a lot of the time at college, usually only coming home to sleep before heading out again. A little over a year ago he dropped out of college and enlisted. He spent most of his time in training, and my only champion was suddenly absent. I was lucky to graduate a few months later, and even luckier that Ross spends some of his free evenings here so that he could let me know about the job. Even though I still live with my grandmother, she mostly leaves me alone as long as I help out with the bills.
No—I don’t think that if my father were alive that this is what he’d want for his seventeen-year-old daughter.
I tug my skimpy little top into place and step around Phoebe, smiling at her gratefully. I head over to the mirrors and fuss with my hair a little, readjusting the bobby pins on the side of my head. I’m still not used to short hair. It’s been long my entire life, but about a week after I started working here, Phoebe told me I should cut it off. She told me that it would make me look older, and if I looked older then maybe the men wouldn’t think they could take advantage of me as much. She taught me how to put on makeup, which makes me look older, too. Now I can hardly recognize myself when I’m at work—my eyes are usually black-lined and smoky, my lips bright red, and my cheeks rouged enough so that I have cheekbones.
I put the finishing touches on what I call my “Lounge Look,” Phoebe quietly offering advice as she dolls herself up, too, and I can’t help but shake my head at what I’ve become. True—I’m not doing anything untoward. This is a legitimate business—despite the neighborhood, the clientele is actually very upscale, most of them coming here because they find it “charming” to go to such a nice place in such a rundown area. The other waitresses and I aren’t expected to do anything beyond serve food and drinks, and maybe bat our eyes at the right person, usually some military mucky-muck.
That doesn’t stop me from feeling cheap every time I walk out there.
I don’t know what I expected to do with my life—I don’t suppose I gave it much thought while I was in school. I was more concerned about just being able to finish. Maybe part of me actually hoped that I’d meet a nice man who would decide he wanted to take care of me. I know a lot of girls decided to become teachers—I probably could have done that. At least it would have been something. Unfortunately, there was no way I could get away with being in school another day longer.
“Hey, do you think your brother will be here tonight?” Phoebe asks me as I put my hand on her shoulder, balancing myself as I gingerly slip my feet in to my high heels.
Just something else I never thought much about until I had to wear them every night—they’re horrible contraptions that make my feet ache and cause blisters, but they make me stand up straight and arch my back. All part of the uniform.
I give my friend a look as I shake my head. “Why do you like to torture him?”
Her eyes twinkle as she slips on her own shoes. “Because it’s so easy.”
I can’t argue with that. Somehow, despite our life to this point, we’ve both managed to stay fairly naïve; it’s easy to trick either of us into just about anything, and Phoebe loves nothing more than to tease my brother mercilessly. I think she just likes to make him blush. She tells him she’s doing him a favor—when he finally gets his orders and is shipped overseas, he’s going to run into girls who’ll do a lot worse with much less honorable intentions, so he needs to learn the tricks sooner rather than later. Maybe that’s the truth, too. He seems to take it all in stride for the most part.
She likes to tease me, too, though I think it’s more in a “big sister” sort of way; she’s amazed that anyone could be as innocent as I am. Of course, this place is very quickly chipping away at that innocence. But, to her credit, she doesn’t let anyone else make fun of me, and usually turns quite scary when someone else starts in on me.
I may look older when I’m all done up, but all of the other girls here know how young I am. I’m so very lucky that Phoebe decided she would take care of me.
As a group we head into the kitchen to pick up our trays and table assignments. The first customers of the night are already filtering in, and I can tell it’s destined to be a very busy Friday night.
The first few hours are a blur, mostly filled with those who’ve managed to not only hold on to their money over the last decade, but who have also thrived. It’s a little sickening the way they are able to throw money around as if the rest of the country isn’t trying to stretch every penny or make a half-moldy loaf of bread last a week.
But I just smile; every time I start to feel frustrated with these people who come in and eat half of their meals before deciding they’re full and sending the rest to the garbage, I look over at Phoebe. She doesn’t let any of this get to her. I don’t know how, but she doesn’t. So try to take a page from her book and find somewhere in my mind that I can escape to.
I think the only consolation I get is knowing that this food doesn’t really go to waste. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and a lot of people who are desperate for a meal scavenge the trash cans behind restaurants. Since we’ll get fired if we’re caught eating off someone’s plate, no matter how hungry we may be, some of the men in the kitchen put the half-eaten plates by the back door when no one is looking. It only takes a few minutes for the scraps to be removed, and it means that someone somewhere doesn’t go hungry.
Around ten, a lot of the tables are pushed off to the sides to make room for dancing. The band takes the stage, warming up, and I hide in a corner for a few minutes, balancing on one foot to take off a shoe, rubbing my sole and stretching my toes. Carefully, I switch feet, looking around to make sure no one’s watching when I almost stumble.
Walking through the door is the most handsome man I’ve ever seen. He must be young—his uniform is just like my brother’s. I put my foot back in my shoe and take a few involuntary steps forward. Even through the haze of the smoke he’s perfect. Light brown hair, bright blue eyes, and my heart flutters when he smiles.
I close my mouth, feeling ridiculous. He’s just a man. I look away for a moment, trying to make myself believe that before I look back to him.
He’s even more dreamy the second time.
I take a shuddery breath and swallow heavily.
He grins even more broadly, flashing his shiny white teeth and for the first time in my life I think I’m about to swoon.
Then his arm reaches out and I watch him pinch the behind of the nearest waitress, Katie. I can see her make a face before she turns to him, her face transforming from total disgust to completely flattered before she turns completely. She bats her eyes at him, swatting at his arm playfully before sashaying away, her hips swinging provocatively even as her face goes back to disgust.
No matter to him; he’s already reaching out for another waitress—Annie—so he can grab her, too. She jumps and wags her finger at him, and he just shrugs carelessly.
I roll my eyes, feeling disappointed. I shouldn’t be; it’s not as if I know the man. He’s been a part of my life for less than thirty seconds and he’s taken advantage of two of my coworkers. He was just so lovely when I first saw him that it’s hard not to be disappointed that he’s just like all the other men around here.
I start to turn away when I see my brother walk through the door and walk up behind the man; he slings his arm around the stranger’s shoulders and the man grins at Ross, looking excited. Before I can move, though, he’s waving me down, so I plaster on a fake smile and reluctantly head toward them.
“Monica! I want you to meet someone. This is my new friend, Chandler. Chandler, this is my sister, Monica.”
He holds out his hand for me and my hand extends in return, more out of habit than anything else. “You’re his sister? Wow.”
I’m not sure that I manage to keep the look entirely off my face this time. “Chandler—that’s an…interesting name.” That’s about the nicest thing I can bring myself to say to him right now, but he smiles at me, and something about it looks different, though I can’t figure out why. I feel my heart flutter again despite myself, the feel of his hand in mine like nothing I’ve ever felt before, and I drop it suddenly. “Phoebe’s been wondering if you would show up tonight,” I tell my brother before I turn and walk away.
I can hear Ross calling to me but I don’t let myself look back. I want to see my brother but I can’t bring myself to look at that man for a moment longer, and not only because my heart is suddenly doing traitorous things when I see him.
It is an interesting name.
I just shake my head. It doesn’t matter. Sure, he’s the most attractive man I’ve ever seen in my life, but I also saw his behavior when he thought no one was paying attention. I think that says a lot more about a person’s character than anything else.
I really doubt this will be the nice man I’ve been waiting to meet; he’s just another pretty boy taking advantage of the girls who fall for his sort.
Well, I’m not the girl who’ll moon over someone like him.
I just need to forget his smile.
Start writing here ...