Walking papers

Honourable mention, creative writing contest (fiction)

Illustration credit: padlaversusmoij via Flickr

For whatever reason, city hall gives Kelly’s department four months’ notice before the layoffs. It’s probably the union that’s responsible for that. Endless days of morose chatter. Everyone has an opinion. No one can be bothered to work, standing in wilted clumps around the office, turning heads like deer at passersby. The departmental mood swings adolescently from anger to depression and back, taking everyone with it. The people who are staying are, on average, angrier than those who will be leaving. Kelly will be leaving. After she gets her official letter, she has to go to meetings where counselors give out leaflets on grief. Kelly scowls through them. She dead-eyes the HR reps from her seat at the front, too pissed off to listen, then sends emails hours later requesting clarification about what the hell she’s supposed to do about her pension. Is she vested, or what?

She’s so angry that it doesn’t really sink in until the last three days, when there’s cake and retirement speeches, that her work buddies will be gossiping without her from now on. And it’s while she’s standing there beside the veggie platter, listening to her boss’ boss laud the team he just gutted, that she counts some faces and realizes that in the end, really, she’s the only one going. A few others will fade into early retirement, where their pensions will supplement some part-time work. And some of the clerical staff will move to the mailroom. But considering that the budget got axed by 30 per cent, the fact that she’s the only one who will be applying for EI strikes her as ludicrous. She’s the only one whose ties – pay, pension, and benefits – will be entirely severed.

Her boss’ boss gives them all a self-help book as a parting gift. To the half of the people in the room who haven’t been retired, relocated, or outright canned, he says a cheery, “Well, have a great summer.” He likes to take his six weeks of vacation all at once, she’s heard. She leaves the book beside the dip, but takes the $10 gift card inside.

The meeting’s over. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. Tomorrow she’ll come in and collect the last of her plants from her desk, and that’ll be it. She’ll be done.

Kelly walks out of city hall and down the street to a lingerie boutique. It’s the kind of place where the staff come into the change room to tuck cool fingers under the straps to ensure a good fit. And it’s good-looking lingerie – spiky black, lacy white, hot pink, burlesque red – which is important because it’s an investment. Like her master’s degree, but cheaper and less time-consuming. She pays $900 in cash. She’s such a high roller they throw in a free pair of black panties at the till.

If she caught her boss’ boss alone in the parking lot right now, she’d say something to him. She might be shaking. Her voice might pitch funny. She’d say, “You did this to me.” It’s not true. No one’s done this to her; she made the decision alone in her bedroom on a sunny Tuesday morning a month ago. But still. She’d like to see the look on his face if he knew.

As of her termination date, she’s had sex with six guys who aren’t her boyfriend and netted about $1,900. The count doubles her previous number of sexual partners. She knows because she’s always kept careful track; she’s a natural bureaucrat.

Pretty quickly she got used to how old men kiss – each one different and already locked deep in his ways. And how they all tell her she’s beautiful and special and not like a hooker at all. She is entertained by these assertions, but not flattered. She aims to treat all her clients with the same level of friendly customer service for which she was valued for at city hall, which means she’s often too honest about her real life. She tries to stop being so open, but can’t; she likes making them know her. She shoves the most boring, regular parts of herself right in their faces: gardening, mortgage, layoff, skiing, dog. She’s also maybe a little too honest with her boyfriend, who didn’t really believe in this career transition until she walked out the door in a short skirt and lace tank top that first night.

“Just don’t make me drive you anywhere,” he stipulated later. His one rule.

“Alright,” she said. And her rule: condoms always, from now on. With him, with everyone.

It’s important to her that this doesn’t affect him or their relationship in any major way. And that’s actually pretty easy. Half the time she forgets about it. Sex work is just work.

She finds another day job – something clerical that is a little below her – because she can’t stand the thought of her in-laws thinking she’s leeching off her boyfriend. Yes, he’s paying the mortgage and the property taxes and whatever balance is on the credit card every month. But her crisp fifties and twenties and hundreds are paying for groceries, gas, dog food, and their whole summer vacation. She buys clothes, gifts, movie tickets, beer. Every time she goes out on a call he gets a twenty off the top to spend on whatever he wants. Pizza, video games. It’s the first time in a long time that they are profligate.

She keeps a detailed spreadsheet to track all her clients, her income, and the fees she pays to her agency. Eight hours at the day job doesn’t equal what she makes in one hour with a client. But those eight hours are guaranteed, and there are nights the clients don’t call.

She buys a dress that she wears on dates with new clients. It’s grey, short, and sleeveless, but not busty. She wears it to visit her grandpa in August. She wears it to the community health clinic for her monthly tests. She washes it twice a week. Clients can’t figure out how to take it off her, which means she gets to undress herself. She prefers that, which is maybe a little petty. The other way she gets back at them is on her blog, where she writes about them as carelessly as they’ll write about her, later. The other girls she meets online are her favourite part of the job. The reviews that clients write, her least favourite.

She goes back to city hall a few times over the summer. To visit. She drifts into the office wearing the grey dress and innocuous canvas espadrilles. Her hair is cut. Her skin is waxed. She works out five times a week and she’s more pensive about what she eats than she used to be. She looks good, and they say so. She rolls her eyes, flattered. She’s always been the youngest one there; they’ve always flattered her.

Her old work buddies talk about minute procedural changes under the new boss. Same old boss’ boss, though. Half the desks in the department are empty. Kelly’s desk has been co-opted for storage. Her filing cabinet is so old it qualifies as vintage, and she wishes she’d loaded it up on a dolly and taken it with her on her last day. She looks at her desk and wants it back.

Her boss at the agency is a Czech with shaggy puppy-dog hair and an iPhone addiction. His accent is so thick that she had his name wrong for the first two weeks she worked for him. He tells her he does all this for fun. He has a real business too, but he’s a workaholic and likes the late hours. He says he barely makes any money, pumping his cut back into online advertising and paying for the two-bedroom apartment they use for incalls. She believes him. He likes to drive the girls to dates, pick up fees in person, go out for dinner in loud groups.

Mostly, Kelly tries to avoid him. She is terse when text messaging. She drives herself around, ducks around the pressure tactics he uses to try to get more photos for the website. She believes him, and she likes him, but she doesn’t trust him. The many pictures he has of her naked don’t bother her. But the ones he has of her face make her anxious. Some days, thinking about those pictures and the things she’s said to clients, she feels like she’s leaving parts of herself splayed out everywhere. All of these strange men holding bits of her that she can’t get back.

He wants her to get a municipal escort license. It’s a photo ID with her working name and her face, issued by the city. She can’t imagine going into city hall and applying for it. She puts it off. Every week she makes a promise to get it, then an excuse as to why she can’t. That kind of lying is unlike her, but all the girls are doing it. No one wants to pay the 200 bucks. And everyone’s afraid of giving their name, birth date and address to city hall. Honest to god, the clerks get the cops to do a criminal record check before they’ll issue the license. What kind of idiot would announce to the police she’s a hooker?

Moreover, even though those databases are supposed to be separate and protected, they’re not. Working for the city, she saw plenty of instances where information bled out through the cracks. She can just imagine it: the house across the street from hers will apply for rezoning and suddenly all of her old colleagues will know that she’s licensed to work as an escort within city limits through March 2013.

So she procrastinates. Keeps putting her boss off. And because he is lenient and he likes her, he lets it slide. Though he continually reminds her that the fine, if bylaw catches her, will come out of her cut, not his.

In September the city sends her the last of her termination documents. A letter about her rights, descriptions of her pension options. It also says she owes them $565 because they overpaid her vacation time. She can send the city clerk a cheque, it says. Like hell, she thinks.

She puts all of it aside, files it away with three years of pay stubs and her T4s. Part of her doesn’t believe they’ll have the gall to come after her for that money when they’re the ones that laid her off and screwed up her pay in the same week. Still, she puts the money they say she owes in a mason jar on her dresser for safekeeping.

In October, her boss calls a staff meeting. It’s at the agency’s apartment, and she and seven other girls sit around on the couches in the living room listening to shitty dance music on satellite radio waiting for him to show up with pizza. It’s been slow lately, and no one’s got a good reason why. Consensus seems to be it’s the boss’ fault for not advertising enough. He claims it’s the economy. At three months, Kelly thought she’d be one of the newest girls there, but she’s one of the oldest, both in experience and age. Some of the girls don’t even have pictures up on the website yet. The newest one is fielding outlandish suggestions for her working name.

Their boss comes in with the pizza and the middle-aged woman who works the phones, and they all jostle into the kitchen to get plates and warm cans of pop. Someone asks the phone woman if there have been many calls yet today, and then someone else starts in on how slow it’s been lately, and the boss goes, “It’s not that slow. The calls are coming in. You know what it is? It’s that you aren’t available when you say you’ll be and we are turning guys away and we look unprofessional and they call someone else and we lose business.”

Kelly frowns and chews while he lectures. It doesn’t apply to her. She answers her phone. She’s basically chained to the thing. It’s just how she works: she had 200 hours of unused sick time built up when the city laid her off. She’s tragically reliable.

She blinks when he says her name and reads her mind. “This doesn’t apply to Kelly. She always answers her phone. She treats this like a real business. She’s a pro.”

Then he starts nagging them about the licenses they’re all supposed to have. Which does apply. But she’s too busy watching everyone else’s feet on the carpet to listen. Bare painted toes. Some of the girls live together in other apartments in this building; they’re tangled over each other in ratty pajamas. The ones who aren’t working tonight have dirty hair and puffy faces. They look like hungover undergrads. As far as she can tell, only a few are students. And she’s the only one with a day job.

The phone woman, who’s also new, keeps getting up to answer her cell as if to prove that it’s not slow at all. But Kelly is unimpressed. The woman squawks like a deaf duck. If Kelly were a nervous client calling for the first time, she’d probably hang up. It’s not helping with the agency’s general lack of professionalism. She almost feels for her boss. The girls are constantly interrupting him – snippy comments followed by showers of laughter – and he’s fighting a losing battle trying to keep their attention.

In her grey dress with her knees together, Kelly listens more politely than she ever did to the HR reps. When the meeting’s over, she’ll take a call with a guy at the Delta downtown, and after he’s come on her face she’ll gently disagree with him about government funding for the arts, and then she’ll go home and watch a movie with her boyfriend before they go to bed.

And the next day she’ll go to city hall, and she’ll do three things: visit her old coworkers, hand over the cash for her vacation overpayment, and apply for her license. And when she sees her boss’ boss in the hall, he won’t recognize her, and she won’t say anything to him. As it turns out, she’s not angry anymore.