2010
SHORT STORY CONTEST
First Prize
$1,000 Award

ASPHALT SKY

by Hallie Rundle

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.

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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.