I stop my pickup at a red light and look around, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, waiting to start moving again. There's not much to see, just the gas station and the intersection and a few sorry-looking houses on the verge of collapse. It's a bad neighborhood and I always make sure to keep my car doors locked when I drive on this street. Standing on the sidewalk is a woman, a prostitute probably, in a miniskirt and midriff top totally unsuited to the November weather. Curiously, I study her. She's about twenty-five and looks miserable. Her long hair, too blonde to be natural, is pressed flat against her skull and dripping rain. Poor thing. She's probably been waiting here for hours.
An irritated horn beep and a muffled oath make me realize the light has turned green. I press the accelerator and the truck moves forward. Iím passing some small stores now, decrepit with broken windows bandaged with cardboard and graffiti defacing everything. The f-word written on all the walls in garish colors. I study the spray-paint slogans and read about who is doing what to who.
But I keep thinking about the woman on the sidewalk. She's about my age, and look at the different lives we lead. It was hard to tell because of the fog and rain, but she wasnít too bad-looking. Will she get picked up tonight? If not, when will she finally give up and go home?
At the end of the block, I hesitate. I got off work a bit early tonight and anyway, I know my apartment is empty. My wife is working the night shift at the hospital, and my little girl is at her grandma's. I could stay out till dawn and no one would know, or care. And that girl back there...well, what the hell.
I go around the block.
The young woman is still on the sidewalk and she doesn't look very surprised to see me. She must have noticed me watching her at the stoplight. I park by the curb and get out of my truck, flipping up my jacket hood in defense of the rain. She walks over to me, looking expectant.
And like that, all desire leaves me.
I'm not sure what to say now. After an awkward moment I blurt, "How long have you been out here?"
She shrugs. "Three hours maybe."
Up close I can see that she's shivering in those skimpy clothes, and her nose is red and running. If there was ever any makeup on her face, it's long since washed off. I can't help but pity her.
"Look," I say, shifting position awkwardly. "How about we go get a cup of coffee or something. At least you'd get out of the rain." She hesitates. I can tell she isn't very happy with this idea. "Come on," I urge. "You could get hypothermia standing out here. You donít even have on a coat."
She still doesn't move for a few moments. I'm about to shrug and turn away when she nods and says, "All right then." She walks around to the passenger side of the truck. I get in and unlock the door for her, and she climbs into the seat next to me. Before shutting the door and starting the ignition, I take off my jacket and give it to her; she needs it more than I do. She curls up in a ball and drapes it over her knees.
I turn the key. The engine roars to life and I turn the heat up to full blast. The woman extends her arms and presses her hands against the vent, fingers outstretched. She has fingernails like talons, painted hot pink. I wonder if they're real.
"What's your name?" I ask her.
"Angelica," she answers through chattering teeth.
"Nice to meet you."
"I don't know this neighborhood very well," I say. "I just drive through here on my way to and from work. Where's a cafe?"
"There's one on Market Street. Three blocks down, then turn left."
Stopping at the light again, I take another look at her. She's only about five feet tall and slightly overweight but pretty in an overdone sort of way. Do her tricks ever hit her? My dad taught me to never hit a girl, but there are a lot of woman-haters out there.
"How old are you?" I ask.
"How long have you been, uh, working?"
"Ten or twelve years."
I think of my baby daughter, who isn't even talking yet. I try to imagine her selling herself at fifteen or sixteen years old, and my stomach lurches at the idea. What kind of parents did Angelica have, to let her sell her body in ninth grade?
"I work at a factory," I tell her. "I make tools. Wrenches and stuff. And go to college part time." Then I wonder if I should have mentioned college. She might not even have graduated high school.
But if she minds, she doesn't give any sign. Just says, "There's the cafe."
It's a dingy little place, just a hole in the wall, but it looks open. I park and we get out, walking carefully to avoid the puddles. When I open the door to the building we're greeted by a nauseating blast of warm, greasy air. The place is deserted except for the man at the counter. We sit down at a booth and the counterman walks over.
"I'll have a cup of coffee, black," Angelica tells him. "And a cinnamon bun." They seem to know each other.
"I'll have the same," I say.
The man nods and disappears into a back room without a word. "Why are you doing this?" I ask Angelica.
"Money," she answers immediately.
"I thought all prostitutes were constantly broke."
"That's because they spend all their money on booze and crack. I don't drink or do drugs. I only spend what I need for rent and food. I save almost everything I earn, and when I'm thirty-five I can retire for good. That's why I'm doing this."
"But isn't it dangerous? I mean, serial killers go after you people. And men like to beat them up."
She shrugs. "It's just one of those things you have to deal with. I've been hit before, but after awhile you get a sort of instinct as to who's safe and who isn't."
And here I'd been thinking that she was whoring herself because she needed to survive. "But what about your family? Do they know?"
"Haven't got a family. I was raised in foster homes."
"Are they really as bad as people say?"
The counterman arrives with our coffee and buns and places them before us. I take a sip from my mug and nearly spit it out. It's all watery and nasty. But Angelica, I notice, is drinking hers with relish. I guess she's grateful for anything hot, even something as foul-tasting as this.
"What will you do after you retire?" I ask, setting my mug back down.
She shrugs. "Whatever I want." Her clothes are beginning to dry now, though in places they still cling to her artificially brown skin. She probably goes to a lot of tanning booths.
I take a bite of the cinnamon bun, trying to obliterate the coffee's icky aftertaste. Itís not bad. She watches me steadily as I chew and swallow. "Travel? See the world?"
"Maybe." She doesn't want to talk about it. She doesnít want to talk at all.
We finish our buns in almost total silence. She drains her coffee cup, and mine too when I tell her I don't want it. I wonder how much food she has at home, but I don't ask.
"Do you want any more?" I offer when she cleans her plate and pushes it away.
"Nah. This is enough."
We stand up. The counterman has been watching us eat, and comes over with the bill. I open my wallet and pay him: $6.59, plus a dollar tip. "How about I take you home," I say to Angelica.
"Just let me off at the corner where you picked me up." I'm not sure if she plans to find someone else, or if she just doesn't want me to know where she lives. I decide it doesn't matter.
So we leave the cafe and get back into my truck. I toss my wallet next to me on the seat, then start the ignition. Angelica sits almost too close for comfort. I wonder if she's trying to hit on to me. I'm not interested in her, but she doesn't know about my wife and daughter.
She looks happier now, contented. I've given her a ride and a warm meal and that's all she needs, I guess, to be happy. She even smiles a little at me as I drive her back to the intersection where I found her.
"Should I pay you?" I ask as I park again to let her out.
"Oh, there'll be no charge," she says airily, and flashes me another huge smile, revealing gleaming toothpaste-commercial teeth.
Without another word she opens the door and gets out, then disappears into the mist and rain.
I think about her while driving home. How could a person be that greedy? I mean, I'd love to retire at 35 and spend the rest of my life loafing around doing nothing, but I'm not willing to sell myself for that. But still, it takes all kinds of people to make the world.
It isn't until after I get home that I realize Angelica has stolen my wallet.