I worked downtown at Irma’s Hat Shop, a small, dingy brown place with a dirty silver sign, next to the bus station, where several angled streets came together. Since there was barely enough business in the evenings to justify my slightly-more-than-minimum wage, I listened to the radio, waited for the infrequent customers to arrive and studied. Tonight, the newscaster announced that Mt. St. Helens had blown up yet again, and I thought of the eruption at the end of Journey to the Center of the Earth. There was some fuss about Billy Carter, but my math was more interesting than the First Brother. The door opened and a little redhead not five feet tall came in carrying a forest green Ozark flight bag. “I need a hat,” she said.
“I got five thousand,” I said, snapping my book shut. “We’re the only hatter in Central Illinois.” Her face was used to smiling and I couldn’t hear what she was thinking, as I could with people who talk at me like I’m stupid. “I don’t have many hats for women; there’s not much call for them anymore.” I pointed to the His Girl Friday poster on the left wall: Rosalind Russell wearing the last great woman’s hat.
“I’m going to a party as a Private Eye.” She read my nametag. “Kate.”
“I think PIs are supposed to be inconspicuous and ordinary,” I said. “They don’t wear mini-skirts. You might as well wear a pith helmet.” I waved at the one we had, $19.99 on sale. Cary Grant in Gunga Din posed behind it.
She deepened her voice. “Leave the judgments to us, Ma’am. The name’s Friday.” Her voice went back to normal: “I have a trenchcoat. Who knows what I’ll wear underneath?”
“With a trenchcoat, you’ll want a fedora. How about a nice one from Ecuador, where they make the finest panamas in the world? Only $49.”
“Handmade by Yves St. Laurent, is it?” She said the name as if she had grown up speaking French. “I’d like something—”
“A little more economical? Sure.” I looked at her head critically. “I think you take a six-and-a-half, but let’s measure.” I rolled my wheelchair out from behind the counter and held up the yellow metric tape. She squatted on her high heels, putting her head within easy reach and her blue eyes on a level with my chest.
I wrapped the tape so the end started in the center of her forehead and met the 21 centimeter marker. “I was wrong,” I said. “Six-and-three-quarters.” My fingers remembered the feel of her skin. I tucked the tape back in my pocket and used the reacher to get two of our most popular models from the high shelves, where the very small sizes were kept. “Did you know that the very first fedora was worn by a woman?”
She angled one and admired herself in a counter mirror. “No kidding?” she asked, sounding like Barbara Stanwyck.
“Sarah Bernhardt in 1882, a play called Fédora by Victorien Sardou,” I said, struggling to say it all right. My French teacher was a much better Latin teacher than she was a French teacher.
She gave me a slow smile and a sideways look as if she knew I was trying to impress her, and tried on the second hat. “You’ll take that one,” I said.
“I will? How much?”
“And with tax?”
“That price includes tax, Miss.” 4% State, 1.25% city and county.
“Ms., please.” She looked inside the brim and found the $7.99 price tag. “You did that in your head?”
“Yes. The register does it automatically so you’ll see I’m right, but it’s an easy trick. Take half, move the decimal point, plus half the half and move the decimal—” I shut up, thinking I’d bored her.
“Easy for you,” she said, rolling the felt in her hands and looking only at the hat. “I’ll take it.”
“All you need now is a charcoal suit with shoulder pads and you’d fit right into Bringing Up Baby.” I got the blank look I expected, but it came with a smile.
“I always thought this place was a front for the Mafia. I mean, who could sell this many hats?”
“Don’t let Irma hear you say stuff like that. She’s got
no sense of humor.” She paid in cash from her little black purse.
I stopped myself from peering out the window to watch her walk down the
street. I figured I’d never see her again.
A week later, she stuck her head in the door a few minutes before closing. “Hi. I just flew in from St. Louis and was in the neighborhood—” She wore a little black revolutionary beret I bet she bought at the Army-Navy Surplus, white cotton culottes, a starched ruffly blouse with a black string tie and a little matching vest. Instead of heels, she wore black boots and white, lace-patterned pantyhose. The handbag was the same as before, but this time her hair was in a ponytail.
“There’s nothing in the neighborhood but this store, the bus station, a jewelry store and the police station. You’re either a nice-looking PI or a hooker.”
“There’s the diner down the street. I thought if you got a break we could—”
“I don’t get breaks. The store closes at nine and I roll home, unless Jeannie gets off from the bus station early and drives me—”
“Is Jeannie your girlfriend?”
“Best friend.” How much to say? I looked at her warily.
“My name’s Joy. I thought we could be friends.”
I stuck a finger in my book. “I don’t have too many friends,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“I got arrested. Can I borrow a hundred dollars for bail?”
I opened my book again.
She grinned. “I’m glad you think I look nice.”
I closed the book. “I never said that,” I mumbled.
“Look, it’s quarter ’til and there’s a coffee shop in the station. I can drive you home after.”
“Getting me and my chair into a car isn’t easy,” I said. I’m not a big person, but I still outweighed her by twenty pounds.
“I’m stronger than I look,” she said. “I’d like to.” Her face softened. “Please?”
“Look, I have a calculus final tomorrow—”
“That’s a filthy lie. It’s summer, you can’t be in school. I don’t know what that book is, but it isn’t calculus. And tomorrow’s Saturday!”
“I’m in summer school and it is calculus. Look.” I peeled back the generic dust jacket and held it up. “If I do well, I can take more advanced math when I go to college in the fall.” I pushed the cover back on. “But—I don’t have a final. Not a filthy lie.”
“Do you like math, or are you just good at it?”
“I love it.” It was hard not to smile back at her, so I didn’t try. “I bet you hate it.”
“Well—let’s say I’m not sure a passion for fashion makes me a prime candidate for higher education,” she said. “Math turns you on, huh?”
“Mmm,” I said, feeling a little bit like I’d shown my underwear in a public place.
Her mouth opened in a little half-smile. “I saw Bringing Up Baby on TV the other night.” She said TEE-vee, not tee-VEE.
“That movie is full of hats! No wonder you liked it. You think I could hire Howard Greer to design my clothes?” She didn’t give me time to answer. “I only watched it so you’d think I liked what you liked, but I liked it a lot better than I thought I would. It was cute.”
Not many people would admit that. I stuffed the book into my backpack. “OK,” I said. Her face lit up like a Hollywood searchlight. “Turn the sign to Closed.” It was only ten minutes but if Irma found out she’d lecture me about responsibility for a week.
I counted down the drawer and locked up. We arrived at the Greyhound lunch counter at 8:55; there was a spot at the end of the counter where I could park and not be too much in the way. “H’lo, Elvira,” I said to the woman who took our orders.
“Hmph,” she said, and licked her pencil. I didn’t take it personally. The bright lights in the station weren’t kind to her face, but then, they weren’t kind to anyone’s. The air conditioning wasn’t working very well, and everyone looked wilted, like characters out of The Wayward Bus.
Joy perched up high on a stool and spun from side to side waggling her knees, stopping to pay Elvira when she brought our order. “How’d you end up in the chair?” she asked.
“Most people act like it’s not there,” I said.
“I should be like most people?”
“Never.” I sipped my drink and waited.
“I lost both legs in Vietnam,” I said.
“I’m not very smart,” she said, “but even I can tell you’re not old enough.”
“Plus I got legs,” I said. “Or didn’t you notice?”
“I noticed you’re very pretty.”
I pretended to disregard that. “I’ve been in a chair ever since I can remember. Momma says she didn’t, but the doctor says it could have been that she dropped me when I was a baby.”
“I bet your Momma likes that.”
“She spends a lot of time ignoring what’s not in a bottle.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Shall we change the subject? What’s your favorite class?”
“Don’t patronize me.”
She bit her lip. “Are you always this hostile or is it just me?”
“I’m not hostile—” I stopped; neither one of us believed it. “I’m cautious. At school, girls who said they wanted me for a friend wanted an algebra tutor.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you about this word problem.”
I opened my mouth but she charged ahead. “If Katie is rolling north at six miles per hour and Joy is walking south at three and they’re five feet apart on a hot day in August, how long before Joy gets a kiss?”
“That’s a lousy problem,” I said. “Equations don’t have kisses.”
“Then what good are they?” she asked, kicking her feet.
“I better go,” I said. I left a tip on the counter for Elvira and backed away.
“What happened to our deal? You said I could drive you.”
I started off to the ticket window to tell Jeannie. “I don’t want to put you out.”
Joy grabbed the handles and pulled me to a stop; it wasn’t difficult because I didn’t resist much. “It’s no trouble. What, you got cold feet? Ulp, sorry,” she said glancing down at the footrests under my loafers.
I laughed. “You weren’t afraid to talk about my legs, now you’re worried about my feet?”
“I thought—never mind.” She grabbed the handles. “Ready?”
“Let me check with Jeannie. It’ll only take a second.”
Jeannie’s got muscles, she wears her shirts like Rosie the Riveter and she smokes all the time out of the cigarette pack rolled up in her sleeve. “Who’s this?” She ran a hand over her short and grizzled orange hair. Behind me, I felt Joy relax.
“This is Joy—Friday.”
“I’m going to drive her home,” said Joy as if she were talking about a chocolate bar.
I waited to see how Jeannie would react. Smoke curled from the cigarette hanging from her lip. If she worried, I’d roll myself home, which I do when she can’t drive me. It’s a mile and a half and I do it all the time, but it’s not fun; I carry Mace. She raised an eyebrow but didn’t say no. “I’m a good driver,” said Joy. “I’ve never had a moving violation.” I watched Jeannie’s gaze flit back and forth between us.
“Great! Let’s go!” chirped Joy. She swung me around much too fast and was out the door before Jeannie or I had time to react.
It was hot outside, even for August; sweat formed on my upper lip. My hair felt lank and limp against my scalp, making me wish I’d taken Callie up on her offer last week of a free perm at the shop where she worked. “I don’t date, why should I bother?” I’d asked. It wasn’t strictly true. A boy I’d known in math club had asked me out after graduation in May, and I’d accepted, thinking things might be different. It had been an uncomfortable evening.
Joy was careful negotiating curbs, but not as careful as people who’ve never pushed a chair before. “How was your party?” I asked.
“The fedora was a big success, and so was what you told me about Sarah Bernhardt. The other stews loved the trenchcoat, even though it was too big. I’ll model it for you sometime.”
I felt my face go red; she didn’t have catalog ad modeling in mind. At least it was dark. “Uh—”
“Saved by the bell. Here’s my car.”
“It’s a truck!” A little yellow Datsun, only a year old, a sticker from Chanute airbase on its front bumper.
“Girls can’t have trucks? Damn, now we have to walk. You can help me buy a proper girly car tomorrow.”
“That’s not what—”
“I know. Here.” She opened the passenger door and helped me in. She was strong; she slid me up and in without histrionics. Her hands were firm but gentle, and she folded the chair right the first time; it tucked away like the space behind the seat was made for it. I watched the white cloth stretch taut across her bottom when she scooted in. “Want air?” I shook my head and we rolled down the windows. The interior was spotless and smelled brand-new, not like Jeannie’s and Callie’s cars, which were full of empty cigarette packs and spare oil cans and smelled overpoweringly of 30-weight and Kools and Camels.
Joy turned the key and pulled away from the curb. The engine was so quiet I only knew it was running because we were moving. I started the conversation again. “I got a cousin who’s a PI. She lives up in Chicago.”
“Is she a lesbian too?”
I took a deep breath. “She is, but—I don’t know that I am.”
“So, you’re not opposed.”
“Well, no, that would be hypocritical, seeing that I live with Jeannie and Callie. Why are you smiling?”
“’Cause you’re not opposed.”
“Now listen, if you think I’m easy—”
She laughed. “You’re not serious. Anyone who talks to you knows right off you’re not easy.”
I almost argued, but it would have proved her point. “Turn there.” Another block. “Left.” I pointed. “There. Pull in the driveway.”
I acted like I didn’t notice the extra touching when she helped me into the chair; she locked in the armrest and pushed me to the house. “I can take it from here,” I said.
“I’m sure you can.”
I got out my key, put it in the lock. “Thank you for the ride.”
“Thank you for inviting me in.”
I turned the knob and pushed. “You’re pretty bossy.” It was a flimsy straw.
“Oh, and you’re not? ‘You’ll want a fedora.’ ‘You’ll take that one.’”
I rolled onto the avocado shag carpet and turned on the two living room fans. It was Callie’s bowling night, otherwise she would’ve been slumped on the lime-green sofa in her boxers, drinking a beer and watching a game on cable.
Joy took off her beret and looked at the flimsy furniture, the fiberglass bullet lamps on a rickety pole, the wobbly brass-plated TV stand, the little ceramic jackasses on the end tables. Jeannie’s a Democrat and wants everyone to know. One of the bulbs in its turquoise shade was burned out. Joy took aim, tossed her beret at it. It landed on the shade like the flying saucer on the baseball diamond in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
“I don’t have any white wine. Would you like a beer?” I didn’t wait for an answer, but spun and rolled into the kitchen with its red-and-white checkered floor, the white browned from years of waxy yellow buildup. I switched on a third fan, found a frosty brown bottle and levered the cap off with the soda opener Callie’d mounted at my elbow height the day after I’d moved in. I turned. “Here—”
“I’d rather have that kiss you promised me.” Her face an inch from mine, she rested her hands on my armrests.
“I didn’t—” She put the bottle on the counter and covered my lips with hers. She wore lipstick. I put up my hand and found it pressed against her breast. “Oh—” I snatched my hand away, but not before I noticed the crisp feel of the cloth, the firmness of the bra underneath.
“Shhh,” said Joy. I closed my eyes and let her kiss me again. She was—much—better at it than the boy from math club, although I wasn’t sure I liked the faintly chemical flavor of her lipstick. When her tongue traced my lips, I could feel my heart thudding in my chest.
“Jeannie’ll be home soon,” I said.
“The station sign said the agent stayed on duty until midnight. We’ve got hours. What’re you afraid of?” She reached up and began unbuttoning my blouse.
“What are you doing? Stop that!”
“What do you think I’m doing?” She pulled the cloth aside and saw my bra. “Now, that’s the kind of practical I admire.”
The phone rang; saved by the bell again.
“Hello.” I tried to put myself together while holding the receiver with my head.
“Hey, Katie. It’s me. I guess you got home safe.”
“Uh, hi Jeannie, yeah, no problem.” Safe?
Joy knelt at my feet, folded her arms and leaned into my lap.
“So, where’d you meet this Joy?”
So far, my prayers that she wouldn’t ask whether Joy’d gone home had been answered. “She mmm, stops in at the shop now and then.” Not a filthy lie.
“So, you like her? She OK with your chair and all?”
I finished doing up my buttons. Joy promptly began undoing them again. I tried to fend off her hands, but I didn’t want to make any noise or drop the phone—or try too hard. “I think so. I mean, she didn’t run away screaming.”
“Ha. She didn’t strike me as the screamy type,” she said. Joy unsnapped my bra’s front clasp one-handed. “You gonna see her again?”
I watched Joy’s mouth approach my nipple. “Um, I think so. Yeah. Yeah, I am.” I jerked backward and stifled a gasp.
“So, you wanta have her over for dinner sometime, kid?”
“Mmm, maybe, lemme think about it. And don’t call me kid, granny.”
“Whoops, got a customer. Glad you’re fine. Bye.”
I cradled the receiver, met Joy’s gaze.
“No last-minute rescue from Jeannie?”
“Maybe I should call her back. You weren’t supposed to do that.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to do anything I wasn’t supposed to.”
I reached tentatively for her pearl buttons. “I don’t want to be hurt.”
“You’ll have to come up with something better than that.” She leaned forward and kissed me; her hand gently cupped my breast, felt the weight of it.
I managed to unbutton her top two buttons before she thumbed my nipple and I jerked away again. She sat up straight and placed her hands on my knees. “OK, what’s going on?”
“Nothing,” I said, and reached for her hand.
She sat back on her heels. “No. Every time I touch you, you flinch like a feral cat.”
“That’s not true!”
“It is. You’re as nervous as a mouse in the monkey house, and if you expect me to wheel you into the bedroom, you’re going to have to tell me why.”
I shook my head.
“No? You don’t want to talk about it?”
I shook my head again, and saw the hurt come into her eyes. “I can’t,” I whispered. “It took me a year to tell Jeannie.”
I opened my mouth but nothing came out. My head throbbed. The silence went on and on until it was obvious I couldn’t speak, rusted solid as the Tin Man. One of us had to do something; she stood and went into the living room. I forced myself forward, over the trim strip. It was as far as I could go. She retrieved her beret from the pole lamp, walked to the front door. “I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I need—something. A hint. Anything.”
“Didn’t—” She waited for me to go on. “Didn’t you wonder why I live with Jeannie and Callie?”
“I thought—assumed your parents were dead.”
“I was ten when my older brothers taught me how to give really good blowjobs. I was afraid to tell my parents because I thought it would give Dad ideas, and Momma was already drinking too much. When I turned sixteen, I got the job at Irma’s and moved in with Jeannie and Callie. That was two years ago last March.” I remembered my brothers hiding in the trees in the yard, out of sight of the house, surrounding me, unzipping themselves, laughing. I remembered the rage and the humiliation as if it were yesterday.
“Jesus. Didn’t your parents object?”
“Jeannie and Callie helped me move, I think my folks were scared of them.” I remembered how—protected my friends made me feel.
Joy watched the tears running down my cheeks. “Did you tell anyone else?”
“You didn’t say anything to the PI?”
“They’re still my brothers. She’d kill them.” I wiped my chin on the back of my hand, looked at it, held out the dry one. “Don’t go? Please?”
She didn’t hesitate; the beret flew from her hand and landed, only a little crooked, on my head. “Bet you didn’t think I could do that again.”
“I knew you could.”
“I knew you could too.” She rested her hand on my shoulder a moment before she rolled me toward the hall. “I hope you can feel what I’m going to do to you.”
“I can feel. Otherwise I’d be hooked up with bags and hoses and stuff. It’s the last room on the right.” I clutched at the armrests. I had butterflies the size of locomotives in my stomach.
We sat on the couch with the TV off. “I’m home!” shouted Jeannie from the door into the garage.
“We’re in here!” called Joy.
The refrigerator door opened. “Want a beer?”
Joy winked at me. “Got one!” She plucked the beret off the lamp and tossed it onto my head. It was an easy goal.
Jeannie walked in, took in the hat. Joy, who was rubbing my feet, said, “Kate was just telling me about movies I should see.” She drank from her beer.
“Yeah? Like what?”
“My Man Godfrey. Kiss Me Kate. That one’s from Shakespeare, you know.”
“You and your movies,” Jeannie said to me. She turned to Joy. “Nice to see you again.”
“Same here. And my name’s not really Friday.”
“I knew that. You like hockey? There’s a game Sunday.”