Friday, September 28, 2007

Places I Can't Show You

Here's the last part. Have a great weekend!

Working as a model for Ford at the annual Detroit car show was not how I expected to spend the first week of January, but alas, it is. Coley does this every year, but couldn’t handle all the standing, the early mornings, the late nights in her delicate condition. Josh has been in high-avoidance mode, staring at the television for hours, not even reading very much and not speaking at all. The grim feeling of winter has officially set in, just when we’re close to the days getting longer again. In a gesture of goodwill or sadism, she gave me the name of her boss and I interviewed in a room with hundreds of pictures of girls in all sorts of poses plastered on almost every inch of the thin wood paneling. The interview consisted of an extra skinny woman in nude pantyhose looking me up and down and saying, You’ll do just fine. I have lots of girls who are uglier than you are doing the car show.

You’re the type who makes up real well and you seem to understand foundation. Her complexion had deep pockmarks from acne scars and she’d caked on so much base that it looked as if she were wearing a mask. I felt positively unmarked, not an emotion I experience often.

The money, for one week of standing around and kissing journalists’ asses, is about what I make in two months at Planned Parenthood. With three weeks vacation stored up, it seemed like I could not not do it, given how the chance fell into my lap. Our parents would take Josh and me to the car show when we were young, something both of us found deadly dull, an activity made tolerable only by the dinner at Pizza Pappolis that followed. I imagine the best-case scenario, the one where I’m dressed in elegant gowns, the time passing quickly. I try to get some sleep the night before, abstain from drinking. I figure looking beautiful for so long might wear me out.

The first day all the girls go in a shuttle to Windsor for dress fittings. About fifteen minutes from downtown, it’s easy to get over the border. Windsor affords a beautiful view of Detroit, but not much else except a drunken hang-out for nineteen year olds, thanks to a lower drinking age and a ton of strip clubs, referred to by the wittier Detroiters as the Windsor Ballet, the suburban white men who are far too terrified to go to Eight Mile and see the same performances locally.

As we ride through Windsor, I think about the times Kevin and I came across the border to ensure that his wife wouldn’t see us. I see the restaurant we always went to, Spago, a beautiful Italian place with waiters that said, It is my pleasure, all the time and knew which kinds of scotch to recommend. Most of the girls on the bus know each other from last year and waste no time in complaining about having the same boss again this year, a high-strung Ford employee named David Levine. For now, though, we are stuck with the woman who hired me in the front of the bus, putting clear nail polish on the run in her pantyhose, probably the same pair she was wearing when she interviewed me. Her legs are skinny enough to be a thin woman’s arms. She’s along to decide what we will all wear. She gives instructions like, Don’t talk too much. You are to be seen at the car show, not heard.

We pull into an unlikely-looking strip mall and are led down the hallway to a room of dresses that would look at place in some cross between a ballroom and a legalized brothel. We are required to pick out five so I try to figure out what will be most comfortable. Turns out nothing looks uncomplicated except some light pastels and I think I’ve found the perfect ones until the skinny boss comes over and says, "Something darker might suit you." She picks out a five black dresses and says, "You should always wear the black ones. They look good with your complexion."
Turns out, she wants all the girls to stick to one color for the whole week, something she calls a signature, and refers to us by our colors. I make friends with Yellow because she’s standing near me and together, we could make a bumblebee.

After about an hour when the newness of the surroundings wears off, I begin to realize why this job pays so well. The boredom sets in and the music loop starts to repeat itself, containing only one decent song, Etta James singing "At Last" with such heartbreaking clarity that I can barely believe that such music can exist in this generic setting, Cobo Hall, the fist of Joe Lewis sticking out of the snow which has not melted from the blizzard and the city of Detroit that does not plow the streets, making each encounter with another car a stand-off of sorts, a fight for the one lane that has managed to get moved through snow. Yellow and I talk when David Levine isn’t directly watching us, and I find out her name is Kara. She’s also a social worker at a place I did my internship at, a group home owned by the state’s branch of Mental Health/Mental Retardation. I wonder if car show modeling is the fallback job for all underpaid state employees.

The day before the car show, I picked up my antibiotics at work and everyone told me how lucky I was to have the week off. I didn’t relate what I was doing because it seemed inane, even to me. Who would pay me to stand around and drape myself over the occasional car? No one with any sense, that’s for damn sure. The antibiotics upset my stomach, and I have to work at keeping everything down because it needs to work its way through my system, just like I tell everyone that comes into Planned Parenthood. I take the sheet that I hand out at least a few times a week, big bold all caps bantering each page of instruction -- The Rate of Your Recovery Is Up to You. I don’t want to fuck up and have none of this count. The biggest problem most people have is either having sex while infected, not allowing the infection heal or stopping the pills when the symptoms stop, but before all the medicine is gone. One thing you learn in my position is the simple fact that nobody ever wants to take all the medicine.

When I get home from the long days, I don’t feel like anything, not even a drink which scares me a little. What if my desire is gone? Could standing around being nice to assholes all day kill your soul? The girls are mostly veterans from last year, falling into easy conversation about men, make-up and money, more complaints than compliments. Only one of the girls is married, a child bride from the looks of it, too young to offer champagne to the journalists, becoming even more of an ornament than she already is. We are trained to be friendly, but not overly so as to lose our mystique.

I think of my first job at K-Mart, all of sixteen and ready to make money to be buy all of the things I thought I’d die without. I’d already starting having sex with someone that was not my father and was overwhelmed by all the things one needed to make it perfect. The day after training at K-Mart, I worked in the pit of hell for retail -- exchanges and returns, a place where nobody got what they wanted. Even so, I was glad to be away from home, and I smiled until a ratty woman brandished a black lace teddy from the Jacqueline Smith line at me, claiming it had never been worn and she didn’t have a receipt, but she deserved a full cash refund. A used sanitary napkin attached to the crotch, I told her that such a refund wasn’t possible without proof of purchase. Look, she said, I know you’re probably new to this job and a little on the stupid side to boot, but do I look like the kind of woman who would wear something like this? She pulled up her shirt and pointed at the pronounced stretch marks that ran across her stomach. There’s more, she said, in places I can’t show you.

I nodded, gave her a full refund, took the dried bloody pad from the crotch and put it in her hand with the money. And somehow, standing around in a get up that makes a bridesmaid look tasteful, I think this is more exhausting and slightly less clean.

I take the medicine for my urinary tract infection, like a good girl, forcing the unpleasant horse pills down after snapping them in half between my index finger and thumb. I haven’t slept with anyone in over two weeks, a veritable record for me. My relationship with Mark is dead and gone, the relationship having given way to entropy with unreturned e-mail and cell phone calls. This job has also allowed me to lose weight, the long hours and standing, no real breaks except for after the waves of journalist sweep through, when we are allowed to go to the kitchen and take the leftover food off the plates. I eat enough not to faint. The waitresses serve huge platters of shrimp, quiche, and desserts, exquisite foods, most of which end up in the trash.

All during the car show, I imagine that I see Kevin, given that he works for GM, but it’s almost exclusively journalists who are deadly dull and intent on gorging themselves on free snacks while downing light beer. They all seemed depressing and ill-dressed and my long hours in stupid outfits do not make me like anyone any better. On the last day of the car show, I do see Kevin and his son Christopher. The chickens have come home to roost. Christopher motions to his dad and says, I’ll be right back. I can’t leave the car I’m assigned to and I don’t know if I would if I could. Part of me wants to know if he’s figured out I’m not one of his sister’s friends.

"Hi, Mystery Girl," he says.

"I’m not supposed to talk," I say, looking for the horrible David Levine who chews our asses each night about everything.

"You’re getting paid to be beautiful," he says. "That makes sense."

"Shit, I guess," I say. "This is it, though. Tomorrow all the make-up comes off and I turn back into a pumpkin."

What are you really?" Christopher asks. He notices me looking around and says, "I don’t want to disturb you for much longer, so here’s my cell -- do you have a cell that I can plug the number into?"

I laugh and gesture to my skin-tight dress with nary a pocket. "Just write it down."
"Where will you put it?" he asks, fishing a card out of his overstuffed wallet and writing the number on it. "Don’t lose it, okay? I want you to call me."

"Sure thing," I say, tucking the number between my breasts where it will stay until I take the dress off.

"Call me tonight," he says. I knew he wouldn’t ask my name since we’d slept together, it would be humiliating for both of us. I watch Kevin pretending to look at a car and wondering why his son was talking to me. Things are turning out even more complicated than I had imagined and better in some ways. Even though it doesn’t look like Kevin was coming back, I could insinuate myself into their family if I wanted. Right now, I am a dead, beautiful thing standing by a car and as odious as this job is, part of me will miss the ease of being something most people only see and dismiss as part of the landscape.

Michelle's Spell of the Day
"What I aspired to be and was not, comforts me." Joyce Carol Oates

Cocktail Hour
Drinking novel suggestion: American Appetites Joyce Carol Oates

Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Friday!


Cheri said...

Oh man Michelle, I love this!! When does the book come out??

Anyways, I had a conversation with someone last night about trying to write about Detroit, about how we have our own style here that's different from any other city. I told this person that you had it pretty damned good even though you aren't a native to this area. Having actually lived in the city though gives you a bit of head on a lot of people in the area because most of us live in the subs. But I don't know where I'm going with this.

Ropinator said...

I will read it because I am tired but I will. I changed my blog's link to

eric1313 said...

Standing next to yellow, you could make a killer bee!


Killer Bee

a double shotglass with...

one half Jagermeister

one half Barenjager (A dense version of jagermeister made from fermented distilled honey)

wait three or so seconds for the layers to separate,
and enjoy--if you dare (or if you can stomach jager...)

eric1313 said...

It's a really sad story, I do have to say. That she isn't so insane as to not be able to deliver her story is the wonder of literature.

K-mart is one shitty place to be employed, as I've said before. Refunds and exchanges suck, but the deli is far worse. You don't know what rage is until you've cut your hand on a grotesque, pork-encrusted slicer and your own blood spatters back onto your apron before you can duck.

Let me handle enraged, bitter personalities all the live-long day, compared to that.

the walking man said...

"What I aspired to be and was not, comforts me." Joyce Carol Oates

Me too.

I'm glad that you aspired to be a brain surgeon.



Cheri said...

And PS-

I loved American Appetites!! I have two short story collections of hers right now, along with some philosophy and some Kerouac to read..

Charles Gramlich said...

Great ending. I love "dead, beautiful thing." Enjoyed "standing next to yellow."

They shoot guns in New Orleans at midnight on the first too. I like to be out of town, or under layers of wood and stone away from the windows.

the walking man said...

Charles it's the morning after that's the worst because you have to go on the roof and check for holes where the rain may come I hate new years,



Anonymous said...

Ohhhh yeahh..
Show me baby!!! SHOW ME!

randster said...

I'm lovin it! I need to know more!!What's going to happen??
Is her infection going to clear up or not???
What about that cocky cassanova Christopher?

BTW, is this what they call "chick-lit"?

totall said...

Hi Michelle,

I want to buy your book. Can you mail me?

Somehow I have problems with giving replies. I love your weblog.

randster said...

Really. I'd like to know. Is this chick-lit? I could use it as an example of chick-lit in the section of creative writing that you still allow me to teach.

Do like my pseudonyms? They are terribly witty.

Methinks they are, anyway.

I'd rather read your writing and mock it than even think about my own paltry abillities. How do you spell abillities, anyway?

Please email me your answer at