Friday morning started precisely at 7am for Abigail Rudd, as did every morning at Acme Chemical for the past six years. She parked her Volkswagen in the exact same spot and plodded to the front door to start her day managing the front office. Some of her co-workers sat on the loading dock with coffee and cigarettes before their shift. They would watch her pass and say “Good morning” to her. She would say “Good morning” back and there ended their conversation.
Abby was round, the shape and color of a dried gourd but with better skin. Although painfully shy, she wore fashionable patterned skirts as if someone had meticulously painted that gourd. They swung across her wide backside to the delight of some of the more lonely loading dock crew. She had a clumsy gate and kept her arms outstretched as if she were trying to maintain her balance. She had delicate hands and held them in a peculiar way- with her wrist bent, thumb and index finger pinched together, the rest of her fingers fanned outward in the shape of a bird’s wing scooping the air, trying to take flight.
Her desk was very neat and organized, with a framed picture of her cat Rufus next to a single potted plant. She worked quietly, consistently, and without complaint. No one really knew her. When other workers engaged her in conversation, it would revolve around work only. Because she avoided talking about herself to avoid being gossiped about, she naturally became the center of the rumor mill at work until finally it had been decided by the collective that she was far too plain and far too awkward to be hiding anything really juicy.
Her shift ended at precisely 4pm and by 4:05, she was wheeling her Volkswagen to a jewelry store on the north side of the city she frequented- just to window shop, just to dream. For wives of executive husbands, it was a very tacky place indeed. The shop was well known locally for their wide selection of extravagant costume jewelry. Abby had a sketchbook full of dress designs inspired by the large ornate necklaces the shop would sell.
The sales reps knew her and were annoyed by her always looking, never buying. In fact, they mostly thought she was stealing but had never been caught in the act. They decided to make her feel unwelcome so that she would stop coming but Abby had not gotten the hint. The truth was that Abby felt overwhelmed by the variety and the prices. She had to budget her money like all working stiffs and that money was earmarked for clothing, not accessories. She was waiting on something very special.
The shop was always busy with young girls sprucing up for a dance or showgirls (theatrical or otherwise) accentuating their assets. Long glass cases created an interior rectangle and the sales reps stood behind it to show customers more expensive items. The real showstoppers adorned the headless busts in the locked window displays.
Abby took her time walking along the outside parameter; necklaces of every color from floral to geometric deign hung from hooks. She stared for some time when a woman standing unnoticed next to her said in a husky voice, “How can one decide? Impossible.” Abby looked up at the woman’s face and realized that she was a very good female impersonator. “This is the best place for Lady Pearl to find jewelry but the prices and the lack of service…” She tapped a manicured nail against her lower lip and motioned her head toward the sales reps that were ignoring her. She then pointed her finger at a large draping rhinestone necklace and said, “That one.”
Abby noticed a lavender pearl choker and leaned forward to get a better view. She had not seen it before and it interested her enough that she did something she rarely did; she tried it on. The choker fit and the beads lay delicately against her skin. “Oh honey, look at yourself,” said Pearl as she handed Abby a mirror. “Here,” she stood behind her and pulled Abby’s hair into a messy updo without asking permission. “Glamorous,” said Pearl.
One of the more pushy sales reps ended her interaction with a customer to come over to Abby and say, “May I help you.” Abby flushed and looked down at her shoes. “Just looking,” she said. The sales rep held out her hand and snapped, “If you don’t intend to buy it, please don’t touch it.” Abby unlatched the necklace and gave it to the woman, embarrassed.
Lady Pearl dropped Abby’s hair in disgust and said, “Well, I do intend to buy something. No one seems interested in helping me.” The sales rep hung the necklace back up and said without interest, “How may I help.” Lady Pearl proceeded to occupy the sales reps attention for the next twenty minutes. She had her take down sets from high on the wall only to reject them, pull out velvet lined box after velvet lined box that were left aside in disinterest. She intentionally kept the sales rep distracted. Abby wandered through the large spinning stands that held earrings and bracelets of various metals and stone, glancing back at the choker, longing to buy it but too broke and too embarrassed to try. It was very special and it was destined for someone else.
Finally, Lady Pearl settled on the necklace she had originally pointed out to Abby and checked out. Abby had made her decision and left the store shortly after her. Pearl was parked one space over from her Volkswagen. She stood beside her car with the driver side door open, smoking, the delicate bell warning the door was ajar unnoticed. She waved Abby over to her and held out her clasped hand. “Here,” she said, “This is for you. That woman was a hag.”
The purple choker Abby desired dropped into her palm. “You didn’t have to buy this,” Abby protested in embarrassment. Lady Pearl laughed, “Buy? Oh honey, I did not buy it. You have no idea how little money drag queens make.” Abby flushed in embarrassment and guilt and excitement as the stolen necklace she so deeply desired lay in her hand. She was too afraid to take it back to the store and too grateful to Pearl for her kind gesture to insult her. It was not how she would want to acquire it but now that it was in her possession, she would not let it go.
Lady Pearl said, “They are always bitches but where else can a girl like me find jewelry to suit her? Buying clothing is worse. Sometimes I have to steal it because the sales reps refuse to sell a dress to me. If I were buying it for my sixty year old mother that would be fine but not if I intend to wear it. One time, I couldn’t try on this gorgeous sequined number and that shit ended up just one size too small. Can you believe that? I can’t return it and I can’t use it.” Abby stared blankly at Lady Pearl, “Why don’t you just alter it?” Lady Pearl laughed through billowing smoke, “Do I look like I know how to sew?” Abby blinked, “I do.”
Pearl put one hand on her hip, “How fast do you work? Will you fix it in exchange for that necklace? Can you get it done by tomorrow night? I have a huge show at ‘Dick’s Bar’ and I would absolutely KILL IT if I was in that dress!” Abby had plans to clean her refrigerator and sterilize the cat box on Saturday. Instead, she scribbled her home address on the back of her business card, “Come by at lunch tomorrow. I will fix your dress.”
Abby expected Pearl to arrive precisely at noon the next day. At 3:37pm, Abby answered the knock at the front door and Pearl burst into her living room as a woman late to her own wedding. “I couldn’t find the damn thing or my new lipstick. It’s OK if I get ready here, right?” Rufus wound himself around Pearl’s ankles, demanding cat food. Pearl handed Abby the garment and followed her into the bedroom.
The closet door was open and when Abby went in to retrieve some supplies, Pearl gasped, “What is THAT!” On the left side of the closet hung a line of hangers with neatly organized business casual clothing and leisurewear. On the right side of the closet was a series of purple dresses- elaborate, flamboyant, and risqué costuming suitable for a burlesque showgirl. Tubs of craft supplies- beads, feathers, and strips of leather were stacked underneath and Abby was digging to find black elastic in order to modify Pearl’s red sequined mini dress.
“I think I have what I need to fix this,” said Abby ignoring Pearl’s question. She never let anyone see her dresses. She wanted Pearl to see them. She craved her approval but only if it was unprompted. She had to know her work was good enough to stand on its own merit without sympathy. “If you can’t fix it, I would die to wear that instead!” Pearl pointed at the French Can Can dancer outfit. “Do you like it… do you think it goes with my choker?” asked Abby. Pearl smiled a huge toothy grin.
Hours passed and Abby finished the alteration while Pearl finished shaving. It was precisely 7:14pm and Pearl was suddenly heated up about being late again. She burst into the living room where Abby waited to see the altered garment. Pearl was in the dress she had arrived in and said, “It looks great. You can see it when I am on stage and my hair is done and these God damn false lashes are finally in place. You are coming?” Abby looked at the clock, “I was going to watch a movie and go to bed.” Pearl rolled her eyes, “Girl, get in the damn car. I may have to have you sew me into this thing.”
Pearl was right. She had forgotten to bring her larger bust for the fitting and was popping out of the dress until Abby fixed it backstage. The dressing room was a kaleidoscope of costumes and makeup and women all over six feet tall in platform heels. Hairdos were high and earrings hung low and Abby felt as if she had finally come home.
Pearl got her a seat at the reserve tables right in front of the stage. A friendly lesbian bought her a drink which made her chatty and want to drink more and for the rest of the night she talked at length to the girls about their costumes and makeup and inspiration to perform. Abby did not remember coming home Saturday night but she did remember the hangover that kept her in bed most of Sunday.
On Monday morning, at precisely 7:22am, Abby pulled into her parking space. She spent the morning staring out the window of her office and was rather listless in her duties. Her boss approached her at lunch and asked if she was feeling OK, “If you are ill, please take the day off Abby. It would be the first time in my memory that you did.” Abby tried to shake off the funk. She was determined to concentrate on work until the afternoon break at 3pm.
Later when she returned from the break-room with her coffee, a group of workers and her boss were standing outside the conference room. They had just finished a meeting when the front double doors of Acme Chemical were thrown open. Abby’s jaw dropped as Lady Pearl in a floor length leopard coat sauntered in. Everyone in the front office stared at her and then at Abby when she exclaimed, “What are you doing here? How do you know where I work?”
Lady Pearl winked at the workers, “I have your business card, remember?” She slapped both her hands on Abby’s desk and leaned in, “It’s amateur night at the burlesque club… You’ve got that dress, you’ve got that choker, and we are about to get you some stockings.” Abby looked at Pearl, looked at her shocked boss, looked at the workers’ cigarette and coffee stained teeth, looked at the picture of Rufus. Lady Pearl straightened to her full statuesque height, “Abigail Rudd, are you coming with me or are you going spend the rest of your life rotting in that brown tweed here at Acne Chemo?”
Abby slammed her coffee and grabbed her purse. “Acme Chemical. I’m taking the rest of the afternoon off. Let’s go.”
-Copyright C.M. Mounts, August 2016