THE WORK ETHIC

by Barry Graham

She’d been working there for about three weeks before my visit. I didn’t want to go there. I wanted to meet her in a cafe, but she’d lost her driver’s licence, and the bus took too long to get to the centre of town. She’d have had barely any time to eat and talk with me before she had to head back there.

I arrived just after one. I was nervous. I didn’t know how to act in a place like that. I think I probably acted so nonchalant it was obvious I was agitated.

It was a big, detached house. It looked a bit like an old hotel, and that’s how it was run. There was a reception desk in the hall, with a young woman sitting behind it. I told her I’d come to pick up Louise, that she was expecting me. The woman paged her, then told me to take a seat. “She’ll be down in a few minutes.”

There was a couch in the reception area. I sat on it and waited.

Louise came down the stairs. I’d wondered what she’d wear in a job like that, imagining rubber dresses and thigh boots. She was wearing a T-shirt and denim shorts over black tights, and was putting on a wool scarf and a leather jacket.

She smiled when she saw me. I stood up and she hugged me. I kissed her cheek. “How’re you doing?” I said.

“Okay.” She took my hand and led me outside. The receptionist gave her a cold look as we went.

We got in my car. “Where do you want to go?” I said.

“Wherever.”

“Well, I don’t care. You’re fussier than me, so you decide.”

“How about the Aztec?”

“Fine.”

It was sunny, and the sky was a luminous blue. But it wasn’t warm. When we got to the Aztec Cafe, I wanted to sit inside. Louise insisted on sitting outside, despite the cold. She said that after being in that one room of that place all morning, she had to have at least an hour in the open air before going back to it. I couldn’t argue.

We sat outside and looked at the menu. She told me what she wanted and I went inside to get it. A chicken salad and a pot of coffee for her, a bagel with cream cheese and a glass of orange juice for me. I loaded it onto a tray, paid for it and took it outside.

“It’s really good to see you,” I said after we’d spent a few minutes eating without saying anything.

“It’s good to see you,” she said. “Even with bagel in your teeth and cream cheese on your face.”

I covered my mouth with my hands. “It always happens. Everybody else can eat bagels without making a mess. . .”

She laughed. “I’ve got some gum. Less gross than using a toothpick.” She gave me a stick of gum. I put it in my mouth and chewed. I wiped my face with a napkin.

I gave her an exaggerated grin, showing most of my teeth. “Okay now?”

She studied. “Yeah. Nice and clean.”

I spat the gum into the napkin. “How’re you handling the job?” I said.

“Okay. It’s not like I’m ever going to like it or anything. But I’m managing. I hope you didn’t come to town to save me.”

“No. I wouldn’t know how to. If I did, I would have before.”

She smiled. “I’m not your responsibility.”

“I know. But I wish I could help.”

“If you could help, you would. I know that. Why do you think I’ve never asked you for help? Because I’ve always known that if you could help me, I wouldn’t have to ask. You’d just do it.”

“I didn’t realise you knew that. I’m glad you do.”

“Of course I do. Anyhow, I’m all right. It’s not killing me. I just accept that I have to do it, and I do it.”

“Do you have to do things you don’t like?”

She made a face. “I don’t like any of it. Did you think I did?”

“No, I mean like. . . Well, do you have to give head?”

“Oh, yeah. You couldn’t really do the job if you wouldn’t do that.”

“That’s what I meant. You used to have a problem with that.” Although she’d slept with me the night we’d met, it had been weeks before she’d sucked my cock. It wasn’t that she disliked doing it, it was that she found it to be more intimate than anything else, and she couldn’t do it until she was sure about the guy.

“Yeah,” she said. “Well, the first time I did it on the job and the guy came in my mouth, I felt pretty hysterical. But then I made myself think about the money I get for it, and how much I need it. That makes it easier.”

“I guess it would. Knowing you have to.”

“How long are you here for?” she said.

“Just till tomorrow. I have to get back to work.”

“You’re driving twelve hours each way for a two-day visit?”

“Yeah.” I laughed. “I know, I’m insane. But I needed the break. I had to get away. It wasn’t so bad — I actually enjoyed the drive. It’s a good feeling, covering so much country.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“Do you want to go do something tonight? Have dinner or go to a club or something?”

“I would. But I’ve already arranged to meet somebody.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“I would like to,” she said.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Will you be in town again soon?”

“Yeah, probably. I hope so.”

“Well, give me some notice and we can plan something.”

“Okay.”

I drove her back to work. We sat together in my car for a couple of minutes before she got out. “I’m glad you came,” she said.

“Me too. I’ll try to stay for longer next time.”

“That’d be good.” She leaned over and hugged me. I kissed her mouth. She opened her lips and hesitantly gave me her tongue. Then she said, “Take care of yourself.”

“You too.”

She got out of the car and closed the door. She smiled at me. Then she went into the house. I watched her go up the steps, push the door open. I saw it swing shut behind her.

I was staying at a friend’s apartment. He wasn’t around much — he was working nights and going to school during the day — but he’d given me keys and told me to treat the place as my own. That evening I sat in his living room and flicked through the channels on TV. I thought about one afternoon years before, when I still lived in town and had no plans to leave. Louise and I were supposed to meet some friends in the cafe of a bookshop. As we walked there, we stopped at a bank so she could cash her pay cheque. With the money in her purse, we went to the bookshop. We were early and it would be another half-hour before our friends showed up. Louise wasn’t into looking at books. She had a joint in her pocket and wanted to go somewhere and smoke it. I wasn’t into getting stoned, so she said she’d go and smoke, then come back to the bookshop.

I was browsing when she came back in tears. She’d lost her money. She’d met a couple of people she knew slightly, and she’d sat in their car with them and sparked up the joint. For some reason she’d taken off her purse, which she wore on a thong around her neck. And she was so stoned she’d forgotten to put it on again before she’d left the car. She didn’t know where either of the people lived. There was ID in the purse, but the address on it wasn’t her current one. We stood there in the bookshope and she sobbed and said, “What am I going to do? I haven’t got a penny now.” And I wanted to help her and I wanted to yell in her face.

That went on. Different things happened to her, all pretty much the same. Then I moved away. We never talked about breaking up. We just did.

I stopped surfing the channels and made myself switch off the TV. I went to my friend’s kitchen and searched for something to eat. He didn’t have much, mostly canned stuff. I emptied a small can of soup into a pot and heated it, then sat at the kitchen table and ate from the pot. It was around nine-thirty. I hoped Louise was having a good time, and her evening would be without tears or crisis.

I didn’t feel tired, but I decided to go to bed and try to sleep. I’d be up at five, to start driving home. Knowing I wouldn’t see him before I left, I wrote a note to my friend, thanking him for letting me stay there.

I fell asleep quickly, but I woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t drop off again. I lay there for a long time, looking at the window. I could see the moon, shining between the telephone wires.

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