My work apartment is owned and
professionally maintained by the service so it
is always clutterless and catalogue-neat. The
furniture is sleek and modern and even the
couches have sharp edges. The faucets in the
kitchen and bathroom took me a while to figure
out they were so modern. It’s easy to pretend
that it is my own but actually I share it with
another girl I’ve never met and when she
leaves out a dirty glass or an emery file or
something it makes me unreasonably angry.

Most of the men who make appointments with
me here like to pretend something, and so it’s
fun when I get to pretend with them that it’s all
mine. Like I’m a rich lady, for instance,
expecting an illicit lover or totally not
expecting an intruder who knows I live alone.
The other day, a man wanted me to talk to him
after about why I chose the paintings in “my”
bedroom. They are really fancy-looking, blobby
pictures that had never made me feel any one
way about them. He thought they were
“derivative at best” and it kind of hurt my
feelings.

I am not an artist but I know what it means to
be talented. My father, in fact, was an artist,
but not famous because his whole concept was
anti-corporate and anti-commercial and he
liked to finish pictures and then burn them in
the yard. And  I used to be an artist’s model
when I first moved here, posing for life classes
and shit so I’ve seen a lot of paintings and the
ones in my work apartment seem fine. I like
abstract shit because you can think about it in
an open-ended kind of way that you couldn’t if
there was a face on it or something.

Josh knows what I mean. He is one of my
regulars and one of my favorites because he’s
nice and he brings pot. Josh is this really young
kid who is rich rich rich; his father is famous
but I’ve never heard of him. He is a really cool
kid, but he thinks he is exceptionally ugly,
which he’s not. He’s pale, a little fat but not
even, and he has curly hair which feels like
nice warm wool. Josh just loves getting head,
but he has a hard time making it last so I try
and start really slow and even pinch him
sometimes but he says I am “just too sexy.”
We kill the rest of the hour leaning way out the
kitchen window and getting high.

Every week night at one-forty I leave the
apartment so they can tidy up before the other
girl comes. I know she must be newer than me,
or less popular, because her hours are really
shitty. My real apartment is a room in a
boardinghouse for ladies. The Marymount. It
pretty much sucks balls and I hate everyone
who lives there—everyone I’ve met. My room
costs me $800 a month and even with my desk
and my pink glass floor lamp it sucks. My
window opens onto an air shaft and my bed
takes up most of the room. I don’t even have a
closet, so my clothes are either hanging on a
rack over by the door or crammed into plastic
organizer boxes under the bed. The walls:
layers and layers of white. The ceiling: white
plaster, thick and clumpy at the corners, less
white.

I keep thinking I see a girl from the service’s
website on my way to the good bathroom—the
one on the third floor with a lock. She’s called
Elsa on the website and apparently, I mean if it
is her—and her measurements are totally
viable since they don’t lie about that on the
site—then she is a student of classical music. I
am always thinking I see girls from the service
but you can’t just walk up to people like that. I
think it’s smart of the service to make sure we
never get to meet each other. The service is
very strict about its rules, and only sometimes
do I wonder about how bad I’m getting ripped
off because it’s totally useless to think about
shit like that.

On the website, my name is Anne, which I did
not choose. My measurements indicate a
narrow waist and average-big breasts, and it
has a real picture of me which I remember
shooting very well. They gave me some boozed-
up, yellow energy drink and everyone kept
telling me not to be nervous so then I was
worried that I looked nervous. They had a sort
of makeup-table or whatever they’re called
with the mirror and the cushy little seat and I
sat on that topless, wearing a slip skirt and
some way too-little high heels. I was supposed
to be putting on makeup but the table was
bare, so somebody gave me a lipstick. The
camera was behind me—“the eye of the lover,”
the photographer kept saying—so I was to turn
and look behind me as if surprised. But sexy
surprised. By the bulging glass eye of my lover.
Anne is a sculptor, the site says, as well as an
enthusiast of contemporary art. We all have
talents. One girl is a research assistant in a lab.

I laughed so hard when Josh asked me
something about my sculpture and I was sorry
because he really looked embarrassed for a
minute. “You read my bio?” I asked, nuzzling
his chest all stoned. “You are smart,” he said,
and I actually blushed and said that schools in
Canada are just way fucking better than the
ones here. He writes poems and says that they
are “doggerel” but he doesn’t really think that.
One time he read me one about “the asphalt
sky” and when he stuffed it away I stopped him
and said, vehemently, “Dude, I almost cried!”
Sometimes the sky really does look like it’s
made out of the same shit as the street and
ever since I heard that I think it all the time.

But they are not all like Josh. Some men really
like to squeeze every little drop out of their
hour, some have to be coaxed, some are so
handsome I wonder why they’re paying. The
handsome men are the worst. I never come
with a handsome man or at least not any more.
I try and enjoy it every time because duh but
really handsome men fuck like they’re being
filmed or something and trying to impress me,
or whoever. Then there are the really dopey
ones who want to know about me and they all
assume I was abused. They can be as nosy as
Marymount girls—where am I from? Do I have
siblings or pets? To keep it straight I tell them
all the truth: Yellowknife, Canada. One sister.
Cats that came and went. But then you have to
reciprocate and then all these naked men are
telling me about their dead pets.

Some men schedule me like exercise or
therapy and sometimes I see a man a few
nights in a row, which is flattering, and you
assume that these are rich men. But
sometimes you notice something—a shabby
coat or shabby dental work—and feel sorry. But
never really that sorry or for too long. And of
course there are men who break the rules, like
the dude—Patrick—who I’d seen a couple times
before he just hit me really hard on the face
because he thought I was daydreaming. I
immediately ran over to the door and buzzed
down to the desk and I know he won’t be back
but it’s amazing how much some of them just
hate you. Hate you like they know you.

After Patrick, I have to call in absent to the
service every day my face looks like shit. Fuck
all the nosy bitches at the Marymount and fuck
how much money I’m losing laying around with
my fucked-up face. Which hurts. Like fuck.

But I’m all better now and I took my time off to
get a lot of free coffees and shit from
sympathetic people all over town and to see Dr.
Mendoza, the dentist that the service pays for.
“Is the texture of your teeth,” Dr. Mendoza
says, “I know you are good girl, flossing.” Two
fillings. He's generous with the nitrous so that’s
nice. The service also pays for “personal
maintenance,” which is waxing and shit like
that, and “feminine health,” which is this sweet
grandpa-looking gynecologist in a slummy
office building who calls me “doll” or “babydoll.”

The buzzer rings and I look at the monitor by
the door to find that it is Josh waiting at the
desk. At first I’m relieved but then he’s all
macho-furious because he doesn’t ignore the
makeup-covered bruises like everyone else
who wants to pay for sex. I explain that I was
hit by someone now banned by the service and
it’s not a big fucking deal, but he is really
worked-up about it, all “Who is he, Anne? Who
is this fucker?” Poor thing. He wants me to quit
work and he will “set me up” and I’ll be safe. I
tell him that I am safe, that I have worked in
way worse situations and that if he goes on
about this I’ll have to take him off my regulars
list, which I would really hate to do since I
enjoy spending time with him, really. Then he
tells me I am an idiot and a whore and he says
he loves me. Then I tell him he has to go. He’s
crying when someone comes up from the desk
to escort him away.

The rest of the night is hard because I do feel
bad about Josh. He can’t see me again but he
can see other girls from the service. These are
the rules and I have to say the service has it
pretty much figured out. First up is a man I’ve
seen before who drives all the way down here
from Lynchburg where he raises dogs. He likes
a big smile and a lot of enthusiasm and he likes
to chase me around and then catch me. My last
hour is spent with a man who asks me to wear
this sailor dress he’s brought. At the end of the
hour he thanks me but explains plainly that he
prefers smaller breasts and shakes my hand.

When I get off the subway and walk up out of
the damp hole onto the street, the air smells
like fried food.  The Marymount is unusually
busy when I come in, and there are two
policemen and a shit ton of nattering bitches
clogging what my bitch landlady calls the
“parlor.” I am told by a breathless girl with
huge eyes that some girl I don’t know has
killed herself.

They are like vultures, going through her room
and opening drawers. There was no one to
contact and no place to send her things, so
girls are hanging around talking in murmurs
and guiltily looking through her chest of
drawers and a big pile of clothes on the
radiator. On her wall, the girl has a museum
poster of a famous painting of an ugly naked
girl, but she has covered this famous vagina
with another picture, an old photo of a man
and two boys standing beside a beached canoe.
I look around for a lamp, but there are none
left. The bed is stripped and the floral
bedspread bunched up on the floor. I notice an
electric coffee maker on her windowsill and
make my way past girls quietly looting and
saying “excuse me, sorry, excuse me” to each
other. I really have been needing a coffee
maker. One girl from my floor studies herself in
the dead girl’s mottled door mirror and then
takes off the yellowish trench coat she was
trying on. “Are you going to take that rain
coat?” I ask, and she says that I can have it. In
the pockets are a bunch of little papers torn to
shreds.

I am more upset about the dead girl than I
should be, morbidly imagining all the
Marymount girls going through my things. It
would be a guilty, low-voiced free for all
because I can’t think of anyone from home who
would come get my relics in a million years.

After the desk called up and informed me that
one of my regulars had cancelled, I broke one
of the rules and took a bath in the fancy
bathroom. One minute I’m just checking my
legs for stubble and the next I’m totally
breaking down. Crying and shit. I almost get
my hair wet, leaning over my knees with snot
running down my face. I have to get it
together. I have to pull my shit together, I
think, looking at the tiles on the wall around
the tub. Then I notice that the tiles aren’t
really textured—of course, they are smooth—a
cheap screenprinted trick, and whoever tiled
this room fucked up and put up four in a row,
right at eye-level, repeating the same false
shadow. I use one of the heavy, oversize
towels to dry off and try and fix my makeup in
the dim light. All the lights in the apartment
are super low watt bulbs to enforce a sexy
ambiance, I guess.

Everyone at the Marymount is still gossiping
about the dead girl. Saying she was a coke
whore and all that. I have not been sleeping at
all lately, so I’ve been sneaking down to her
unoccupied room which is exactly like mine and
smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and
looking at the walls, punctured by years and
years of missing push pins. I guess I worry that
someone might catch me hanging out in the
dead girl’s room—her name was Fern, I found
out—but it’s not really breaking a rule and its
not that fucked up I don’t think. My room is the
creepy one, and it has become impossible for
me to sleep in it. There is just something very
calm and very steady about the air in her
room, and if I am lucky, I might fall asleep on
the bare mattress for a couple hours.

A buzz from the desk. No time to look at the
monitor and see who it is, I hurriedly put on
my heels and silver dress. My eyes are done, at
least, and I bite my lips as I ready myself for
my appointment with the lubricant I keep at
hand. I wipe off my fingers on the nubbly fabric
of the rug and answer the door with a slow
smile. He ties my wrists together and fastens
me to the dormant radiator. I hate doing it on
the floor. I remind him that he’s screwed if I
get bruised up and he says he wouldn’t dare.
He tells me to look at him and I hope my
fearful expression is coy enough. Then he’s
stalking around in his underwear. Where is the
ashtray, he wants to know.

“Coffee table,” I say. “Would you undo me?”

“Later,” he says, and turns on the TV.

The next night he is a changed man. He shows
up drunk or on something that makes his eyes
unfocused and oddly vulnerable looking. "I
scheduled you before I left last night," he
mumbles. He is stroking my hair and kissing
me very lightly on the face and ears. He is too
drunk to get it up, but doesn’t seem too
distraught about it.

“Do you know what? I’m thinking of committing
suicide.” He scans my face for a reaction. “I
thought I’d get laid first but fuck it. Not in the
cards.”

I tell him he shouldn’t do it and that I’m sure
he will feel foolish tomorrow when he
remembers what he said.

“I think about it the minute I wake up,” he
says. “Don’t you?”

I tell him No and he looks disgusted, as though
he has encountered something bad and foreign
in me. “I thought everyone thought about it.
Especially…well, I mean everybody.”

“Well I don’t,” I say too loud.

He imitates me:
Well I don’t.

I don’t. I don’t think about it because I don’t
want to kill myself. I can’t think of anything I
despise more than weakness like that. People
who kill themselves should be spit on at their
funerals.

Well I don’t, he taunts, now with a prim accent.
And fuck, I am in tears. I hate him and I am
furious at him and I don’t know anything about
this doughy asshole.

“You’re crying?” He is incredulous and seems
genuinely displeased. The buzzer announces
that our hour is over. He dresses in the
bathroom and avoids my gaze as he slinks past
me out into the carpeted hall. Opening the
door sexily and forcing the client to brush past
your body upon entry and exit is one of the
rules. And they have cameras in the hall.

That night, I find the dead girl’s room locked. I
guess someone’s in there. Out of numb
wakefulness I decide to go down to the so-
called parlor. I settle into a plushy armchair
and watch the bad girls let themselves into the
building, and then watch the good girls file out
into the humid morning to go work at their jobs.
1ST
PLACE
Gemini Magazine
Short Story
Contest
$1,000 PRIZE
ASPHALT
SKY
by Hallie Rundle
Hallie Rundle, fiction
writer, poet, and critical
essayist, was born in New
Orleans where she is
currently working on her
first novel. This is her first
published story.