by Laurie Sandra Davis
Sylvie slid the window open as a blast of cold wet air slapped her with U.S. 30’s diesel fumes.
“Yes, sir, what would you like to drink today?” She smiled.
In a black Lexus, a businessman, fumbling for his wallet, turned toward the G-String Grind coffee shack and seeing Sylvie, frowned. He thrust his credit card at her with downcast eyes.
“Just a small coffee,” he said.
Sylvie watched him refuse to meet her eye. Shit. That meant no tip. Grinding her teeth, she poured his coffee and ran the card. Sure enough: no tip. When a man went to G-String Grind for coffee, he wanted more than semi-nude. He wanted young. In a bikini, Sylvie couldn’t disguise her aging body, shriveled breasts and sagging belly.
As he drove off, she slid the window closed against the pelting rain. Shivering in a cheap pink bikini inside a lavender-colored coffee shack in a gray Portland winter no longer paid the red collection notices. Tips went to the young. Even to Sylvie, the twenty-year-olds who staffed the shack during peak hours seemed like ripe fruit in their bikinis, lingerie and undies. At thirty nine, her own breasts looked like fallen apricots, left to rot. Without customer tips, all she had was minimum wage. She calculated how short she would be on the rent in three days.
Elbows propped on the counter, Sylvie gazed at the traffic on U.S. 30. This was the road out of town. Traffic either went south to Portland or north to Astoria. In this neighborhood, the only reason to stop was business at the hazardous waste disposal site, appreciating a scenic view of petroleum tanks, or getting coffee from a scantily-clad girl. Or in Sylvie’s case, a hard-done-by old stripper. At least when she was stripping, the money poured in. Then, she could afford plenty of clothes for her daughter. Now, even Mary’s Club wouldn’t hire an exotic dancer past her prime.
Knowing she shouldn’t, Sylvie stooped to reach her cell phone. Choosing a number, she pressed call.
“Hi Susan, it’s me, Mommy,” she chirped.
“What do you want?”
“Just to say hi, sweetheart.” Sylvie caressed the red plastic phone at her cheek.
“Olivia says she hasn’t received a check from you.”
“Yeah, my tips ain’t too good lately.”
“Ma, I need clothes. Olivia says if you don’t cough up, she’s sending me back to foster care.”
“Honey, I’m not sure when I’ll have more cash.”
Sylvie stared at the cheap plastic phone. Her heart hurt like a bruise. Damn Olivia! Susie had one more semester of high school, and then she’d be on her own. Now, the only thing Sylvie had left to give her daughter was something Susie didn’t want.
Sighing, she ground beans and poured them into the reserve coffee maker, then topped off and re-organized the syrup bottles. As she hefted supplies onto a high shelf, Sylvie noticed a picture postcard tucked under the molding and plucked it down. A trucker gave it to her with his tip. The photograph, shot from a hill, looked down at the Astoria Bridge where the Columbia met the Pacific. According to the trucker, there was a bar across the mouth of the river underwater that caused two thousand shipwrecks. Sylvie’d never been there. Didn’t have time for pleasure tips. She imagined herself on the Astoria Bridge, then beyond the bridge, flying, clean ocean spray on her face.
A trucker pulled up to the window. She slid the glass aside and gave him her sexiest smile. His eyes travelled slowly from her crotch to her breast.
“How the fuck am I supposed to get off looking at those shriveled things?” The snaggle-toothed, greasy-haired driver pointed furiously at her breasts. “God damn it!” He slapped the wheel, then gunned his engine. Sylvie watched him go, her smile sliding away with the fumes. She sank heavily onto a low stool below the window.
Throat tight, eye moist, she remembered how men used to look at her. Thick red hair and a porcelain complexion: pretty had always been her job description. Squatting near the floor heater, she remembered the first time a man looked at her with indifference. It was in her last days at Dancin’ Bare. A jerk looked right past her as if she wasn’t shimmying until her breasts ached.
The mid-afternoon crowd trickled through, bringing men in hard hats who poured concrete nearby. Near closing, the manager pulled up in a battered, panel truck. He tapped on the door.
“Hey, Joe, whadayouknow?” An old, joke, worn thin.
“Hey, Syl.” Joe said, unsmiling. “You done real good work here, but I told you from the start, I didn’t know how long I could keep you.” Joe was an old customer. When she’d asked for a job, he’d done what he could. Now he handed her a final paycheck: $372.11. Not enough to make the rent.
“I’ll close for you.” Joe’s craggy face was a neutral mask.
Sylvie pulled on her jeans and T-shirt, then slipped the Astoria Bridge postcard into her purse.
Hood over hair, she tramped through the dark, rain, and sucking mud to her old Ford Fiesta deep in the weeds. She started the car, waited to get warm, and tucked the postcard in the sun visor band.
She drove towards St. Johns Bridge, then waited to ascend the hill to the entrance. Across the Willamette, her studio apartment waited. Now she’d have three final days to enjoy it. Through pouring rain, Sylvie watched the red stoplight and listened to the rhythm of the left turn signal. Her Fiesta rocked every time a car sped by heading for Astoria.
She stared at the postcard, now red in the dashboard lights. She could almost hear seagulls flying past the bridge out to sea. The ocean spray on her face would feel so cool, so cleansing. Flipping the turn signal from left to right, she checked over her shoulder for traffic, and turned into the right lane, the one to Astoria.