Gertrude is not a pretty girl. She wears her thick black hair pulled back into a messy bun. It’s the same coarse black hair that covers her arms in patches and dusts the space between her nose and upper lip with fuzz. She does not dress well, either. Her blouses are second-hand, stained with splotches that bleach couldn’t lift. She wears flat, plain, grass-stained shoes that do not tie or zip, but slip on. And she wears sweatpants most days of the week, not just on casual Fridays, the only day of the week where such attire is allowed at her place of employment; but most days.
Gertrude is not a pretty girl, nor is she a pretty woman—technically she is a woman. She is twenty-eight years old and has given birth. The swollen weight of motherhood has never left her hips, thighs, breasts or cheeks. But it is not her chubby cheeks, her bold, colorful assortment of snug-fitting sweatpants, nor her collection of kid’s meal toys lined up on her desk that make her a girl and not a woman.
It is that Gertrude is simple, a fact that her coworkers have long understood, that makes her still, in many ways, just a girl.
Gertrude has a simple job. Even simpler than the one for which she was hired. Initially she was to answer phone calls from doctors’ offices, collate files, and copy and fax insurance documents, when necessary. But this all proved to be too much for her. She was not good on the phones, and she never quite got the hang of the fax machine. So her duties were simplified. Now she files for the entire floor. She makes all of the copies for her coworkers. She starts the coffee in the mornings and wipes down the counters in the break room before leaving in the evenings.
She enjoys her job.
Gertrude does not speak often, and only when spoken to. She is Hispanic in ethnicity, but her speech bears no accent. She was raised speaking English and knows only a few Spanish words. Yet she still speaks with some labor, as if the words take longer than normal to climb that ladder from her brain to her mouth. She is simple in the way that she looks at things: big brown doe eyes that seem as if they could absorb all of the light in a room. But all they do is reflect it.
Gertrude’s co-workers often make fun of her, though if she is aware of it, she has not let on.
Frank, who sits in the cubicle caddy-corner from Gertrude has a habit of engaging other co-workers in discussions of politics or business and then turning to her and asking loudly, “Hey, Trudy, what do you think about that?” Of course he gives her no time to form a response. Instead he laughs. He laughs and shakes his head and the people around him often laugh, too.
And then there were the days when she would arrive at her desk and find magazine ads or coupons taped to her computer screen: Electrolysis Hair Removal, Two for One Special on Ladies Deodorant, Weekend Sale at Ladies Plus Size Department Store.
Of course, she takes it all in stride. She never is offended by any of it because she often does not understand the joke. She kept the deodorant coupon and placed it in her purse because it sounded like a good deal. She did the same with the clothing advertisement. And she kept the ad for electrolysis tucked away in her desk drawer because the word electrolysis sounded very technical and she thought that Henry over in Tech support might like to have a look at it.
Every day is much the same for Gertrude. She likes her job, and is not disappointed when confronted with a stressful or difficult day because she expects very little from a day.
But one specific day was different. That day mattered. It was a Friday. And she had a date planned for that night. It was the first date she had been asked out on in over five years. She kept this information to herself, but at least one person noticed the small smile on her face.
“Trudy, got lunch plans?” Carolyn asked early that Friday. Carolyn’s cubicle was just on the other side of Gertrude’s, and she often popped her head over the wall and spoke with her.
“I have a sandwich.” Gertrude said.
“Forget the sandwich and come with me to the bistro. I want to hear all about it.”
Carolyn was the closest thing to a friend that Gertrude had found at work. They would sometimes go to lunch or sit at the same table in the break room. Carolyn was a professional talker and rarely stopped long enough to let Gertrude speak, but that suited Gertrude fine since she rarely had anything to say.
They walked to the small corner bistro just across the street from their office building when the lunch hour came. Carolyn worked diligently at finishing one of her extraordinarily long and thin menthol cigarettes, chatting all the while about her weekend plans with her new boyfriend.
Only after they sat and ordered their food did Carolyn think to ask. “You have a date tonight, don’t you?” She gave her toothy, pink lipstick grin.
“From that dating service I told you about? Darlin’, I’m so happy for you! What’s his name? What are you doing?”
“His name is Manuel. We’re meeting at a nice restaurant.”
At least Gertrude thought it was a nice restaurant. It was in reality one of those gimmicky chain restaurants with garish decorations pinned to the fake wood-lined walls.
Carolyn placed both hands on the table in a display of emphasis. “Now, do you have something nice to wear?”
“I don’t know.” Gertrude had not even thought about that aspect of the evening. Oh, certainly she would put on a set of clean clothes, but it had not dawned on her to dress nicely. She was more concerned about how he would look. She was hoping that he would be wearing light colored pants and a jacket. He had said that his hair was dark brown. She hoped that it would be slicked back in that shiny sort of way. Hopefully he would wear cologne. Stetson. The brand that the father of her child wore.
“Honey, you have to dress nice. This is your first date in years. No, no…go all out with it. Do your hair up nice. Wear some makeup. And, most important, put on your best pair of fuckin’ boots.”
Gertrude’s eyebrows furrowed.
“Don’t be bashful honey,” Carolyn filled her mouth with a fork full of salad. “I bet you haven’t been laid in years. Men love boots. The long kind that zip up past the knee. Do you have any?”
“Maybe. In my closet.”
“Well, pull them out and wear them. Works like charm, I promise.”
Carolyn lit another long cigarette after finishing half the salad and took a sip of her diet cola. She eyed Gertrude for a moment. “So, it’s been crazy these past few weeks. What with all of the layoffs. Can’t help but wonder if I’m next.”
She waited for Gertrude to respond, but she was focused on her roast beef sandwich.
“I heard from Tom that we should expect some cuts in our department,” Carolyn continued. “I just can’t imagine, can you?”
Gertrude nodded and continued to chew on her sandwich.
“I don’t know, though. Maybe the time off would be good. Sure, it would be tough to find another job, but there are so many things I could get done around the house. Have you ever thought about that, Trudy?”
“About what you would do, you know, if you got laid off.”
“I like my job.”
“Well, sure. But it wouldn’t be all bad, would it? You’d get to spend more time with Albert. That age is so precious. It’ll just slip right past. I think it would be good for you to spend some time at home. You know, in case anything happens.”
Gertrude stared off, those vacant wide eyes, and thought for a long moment. “My mother watches Albert. I like my job.”
“Well… it’s a job.” Carolyn stamped out her cigarette and forced a small, light-hearted laugh. She watched silently as Gertrude finished her sandwich. Gertrude did not notice.
It was at four in the afternoon when, just as Gertrude had gathered the mass of the afternoon’s files in her arms, Mr. Holloway called for her to come to his office. She had only been in his office once before, and that was the day of her interview eight months before.
“Have a seat, Trudy,” he said, not looking at her, but at a file folder open in his lap.
Gertrude was not apt to wonder about things which she could not know. While any other person might feel unease when called into their boss’s office, she sat in the cushioned chair across from Mr. Holloway without worry or speculation as to the reason she was sitting there in the first place.
“Trudy, you’ve been with the company a while,” he said, still looking down. “We hired you for a specific job, you know. But we’ve been flexible, with hopes that you would eventually be more comfortable on the phones and with the fax machine. That you would get the hang of things after a while.”
He looked up at her and paused, allowing her to speak if she wished. When she did not, he continued. “It doesn’t look like the arrangement is going to work out. We need for you to fulfill the duties you were hired for.” He cleared his throat and pushed his wire-frame glasses up farther on nose. “I’m sorry, Trudy. We’re going to have to ask you to box up your desk by the end of day.”
He stopped again, waiting for her to say something, but she only stared at him. The same wide-eyed look that always gave him pause.
“We have a small severance package for you. Two weeks pay. That should help out.” He pulled a white envelope from the folder and handed it across to Gertrude. She took it and held it in her lap.
“So,” he continued. “There’s no need to finish the day. You can just clear out and…and go.”
He waited again for a response, hoping to use some of the encouraging words he had stewed on most of the afternoon. But again, she did not respond.
Gertrude nodded and stood. “I don’t have a box.”
“A box. You said I should box my things. I don’t have one.”
“Oh,” Mr. Holloway blinked a few times. “You can grab one out of storage. We have plenty.”
“Okay.” She nodded and left.
No one said a word to Gertrude as she meticulously packed away her few belongings in the white file box. Not even Ted, who always seemed to have something to comment upon. She had only a few personal items; a few photos of her son, a magazine, and her collection of kid’s meal toys, which she carefully wrapped before putting away.
On her way out of the office, Carolyn was the only one who stopped her. “Oh, honey,” she said as she hugged Gertrude. “I’m so sorry. You take care, now. Get all dressed up for your date tonight, okay? And call me whenever you want. We’ll have lunch next week, okay?”
Gertrude said that she would and walked no slower or faster to the elevator than she would have on any other day.
Gertrude left her box of personal belongings in the trunk of her car and walked up the two flights of stairs to the apartment she shared with her mother and son. It was not out of shame that she did not bring her box upstairs. Nor was it out of shame that she did not mention to her mother that she lost her job when she greeted her family, or before dinner, or during dinner, or after dinner when she and her mother hand-washed the dishes. It was because her mind was focused on her date later that evening.
“You don’t even know this man,” her mother said as she rinsed a plate under a stream of scalding water. “There are plenty of good men at church that would love to take you out.”
“Manuel is nice. Very handsome. I’ve seen a picture.”
“A picture.” The old woman shook her head. “Could be anyone’s picture.”
Gertrude dried her hands with a dish towel and left to get ready.
“You be home early tonight,” her mother yelled over her shoulder. “Need to spend some time with your son.”
After taking a long shower and carefully shaving her legs twice, Gertrude searched her closet for the boots she had in mind. The red ones with heels. The ones that zipped up to her knees. She found them buried at the bottom of a paper bag. They were a darker red than she remembered. Not burgundy or a burnt sienna brown, but a richer shade. The boots were imitation leather, but Gertrude never had learned the difference between real leather and fake leather. They were scuffed white in places, at the toes and heels, so she brought out her makeup kit and searched for shade of red lipstick that might match the color. What she found was only three tubes of red. One more pinkish, like the shade Carolyn wore. Then there was a bright, apple red and another shade that was deeper in color than that of the boots. It was the closest match, though, and she dabbed the lipstick on the scuffs and stood back, pleased at her solution.
She sat on the edge of her bed and pulled on the right boot. She found that it still fit fine in shoe size, but as she tried to zip up the boot, the zipper came up no further than the bulb on the back of her calf. She flexed her leg and tried again, but found again that the zipper would not go. She tried on the other boot and found that it, too, would not zip to the knee as it should. Her legs had grown thicker in the five years since she had last worn them, but Gertrude did not see it that way. Oh, she noticed that something had changed in five years. She understood the boots that used to fit her no longer did. But the thought that her weight was the determining factor in this equation did not cross her mind.
No, clothing and shoes sometimes just no longer fit. Clothing and shoes must shrink after years of disuse. Or perhaps the shirt or pants or shoes had never fit properly in the first place, and she had just never noticed it.
She zipped her boots up as best she could and stood in front of the sliding mirror that was also a closet door. She took the tube of lipstick and, as carefully as she could, smeared the color on her lips in thick strokes, first her top lip and then her bottom. Then she removed her towel and stood naked in her room.
Gertrude was not a pretty girl, standing in front of the mirror without a stitch of clothing save her too-small boots. Her breasts were pendulous. Her arms and legs were thick with all that gravity does to hanging weight. The loose skin and fat from her stomach hung dimpled like worked dough and almost covered the top of the tangled bramble of her black pubic hair. She remembered to shave her legs twice, but not that other place.
But she does not see these things. She sees herself not as she is, but as she was. Before the child. She sees that woman who never had a slim figure, but at least a slimmer one. A woman who always had large breasts, but breasts that once had some lift to them. A woman with red, zip-up, fucking boots. A woman whose boots fit her.
Gertrude arrived at the restaurant/bar at 8:30, half an hour before she was to meet her date.
It was a slow night at the restaurant. Slow for a Friday, anyway, and the bar was empty of its usual energy. So no one took notice when Gertrude entered the room, dressed in a black dress too tight for her shape, boots half unzipped and a thick, pasted on make-up job rival to the work of a thirteen year old girl. No one except Nick the bartender noticed when she finally took a stool at the bar after carefully surveying the patrons.
“What can I get for you?” Nick asked.
“I’m meeting someone here soon,” Gertrude said.
“Did you want to wait?”
Gertrude checked the watch she kept in her purse and saw that only five minutes had passed, and she still had twenty-five minutes until Manuel would arrive. She noticed the pretty drink in the hand of a pretty woman sitting at the bar. The one that comes in a glass shaped like a bell at the bottom and a fluted top. A pink drink with both an umbrella and a skewer that held a slice of pineapple and a strawberry.
“Can I get one of those?” she pointed at the woman’s drink.
“Sure,” Nick said. “A daiquiri, then.”
While she waited for her drink to come, Gertrude watched the pretty woman with the pretty drink. The woman was chatting with a handsome enough man. Gertrude watched the woman’s actions closely, especially the way the woman reacted when the man placed his hand on her thigh. The woman lifted up her head and laughed. Gertrude took note of this. This is how pretty girls with pretty drinks react when a man touches their leg.
She wondered if Manuel would touch her leg. The father of her child never did romantic things like that. Gertrude had only met him that one night. He was a friend of a girl that she went to high school with. There was a party that she went to, and that was rare, because usually Gertrude did not like to go to parties. But she went that night because her friend had asked her to. She met him. He was not romantic. He smelled like Stetson, but he was not romantic.
Gertrude sipped at her drink and found it delicious. She had never tasted anything like it. She watched how the pretty woman across the bar held her drink. She held it just above the bell of the glass, in the narrow spot just below the fluted lip. The woman held it with a weak wrist, sort of hanging there haphazardly, and when she sipped from the straw, she pursed her lips like a kiss. Gertrude held her glass the same way. She lifted and sipped from it the same way. She sipped at it longer than the pretty woman. It tasted so good that she could not put it down.
Gertrude had finished the entire drink before she thought to check the time. It was almost nine.
She looked around the bar for the face she had only seen in pictures. The bar was still slow, and no new people had entered.
She was disappointed when she looked at her empty glass. She had wanted for Manuel to see her sipping the pretty drink when he walked through the door. She ordered another one.
By nine twenty, Manuel still had not arrived and Gertrude had finished her second drink. Still, she was not nervous about his tardiness. He must be running late. Fashionably late, perhaps. She was not nervous, but she was beginning to feel dizzy. She had only ever had a sip of alcohol before, and the high rum content of her pretty drinks was having an effect.
She checked her watch again.
“Can I help with anything?” Nick asked, leaning in low.
“Is there a phone here?”
“The pay phone is out of order. But I’ll let you use the bar phone. So long as it’s local.” He handed a cordless phone to her and gave her a small, comforting smile before attending to another customer.
Gertrude pulled a folded piece of paper from her purse with Manuel’s name and number on it. She felt a strange sensation while dialing the number. Her stomach tingled and the sensation swelled much the in the way the coolness from the daiquiris spread across the inside of her chest. The number rang several times before finally forwarding to voicemail. It was not even his recorded message. It was an electronic female voice.
She waited a few moments before calling again. This time someone picked up.
“Yes?” An older woman’s voice answered.
“May I speak with Manuel?”
“I’m sorry, but you must have the wrong number.”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“No, you do. I don’t know a Manuel. I’m sorry.”
The woman hung up on her end.
Gertrude hung on to the phone for a moment. She looked down at the piece of paper and figured that she must have written the number down wrong, even though she had been so careful to be exact with every digit.
She looked at her watch again. It read nine forty.
“You all done with that?” Nick asked, leaning with his arms braced against the bar. She had not heard him the first time he asked.
“Yes.” She handed over the phone.
“You need another one?” He nodded toward the empty glass.
She said yes, and when he brought it to her, she took a long sip from it, even though it was a frozen drink and hurt her teeth and head to drink it so quickly. But it tasted good. She had never tasted anything so delicious and wanted nothing more than to keep drinking it.
The pretty woman on the other side of the bar laughed loudly, head up. She had been drinking her pretty drinks quickly as well. The handsome man kissed the woman’s neck as her head was uplifted. Gertrude wondered what it would feel like to have her neck kissed in such a way. She would have to remember how the pretty woman laughed. Head up. Neck stretched.
Gertrude pulled out her watch again, but could not focus enough to see the small hands on the face. She squinted, but still could not make it out.
When Nick passed by her end of the bar, she asked him for the time.
“It’s a few minutes after 10,” he said. “Someone running late?”
“No,” Gertrude said. “No, he’s still got time. We’re meeting at 9.”
Nick turned his head. “Right…well, I think… he might be running late.”
“No,” she said, with a smile. “He’ll be here in a few minutes. We’re meeting at 9.”
Nick nodded, some glint of sadness in his eyes. He had sympathy for this pathetic creature who could not hold her liquor. This sad, over-weight girl who cannot put on make up and who can’t hold her liquor.
“This last one is on me,” Nick thumped the rim of the empty glass and left to pour another drink.
Gertrude sipped at her drink clumsily. She had to hold on to the bar with those thick, dark haired arms of hers to keep from falling over. But she still drank, slurping away.
Gertrude didn’t notice the pretty woman approach her at first. She was too busy slurping.
“Excuse me,” the pretty woman tapped Gertrude on the shoulder and surprised her.
“I just noticed, sweetie,” the woman whispered. “Your boot is unzipped.”
The woman walked in the direction of the bathrooms and Gertrude looked down. Her red boot was almost completely unzipped. With some effort she bent down and pulled the clasp of the zipper up as far as it would go. Still only half way. She tried again to zip it higher, but again it would not budge.
It was then, bent over and pulling as hard as she could on that boot zipper, that
something dawned on her. It only took a few drinks.
She realized then, in that very moment, that her lipstick splotched boots were not too small. They had fit perfectly when she bought them, years ago, from a flea market. Her dress, indeed, had not shrunk.
She was the one who had changed.
Gertrude slowly lifted herself back up. She looked at her hands and her hairy arms. If she had realized that there was a mirror that lined the back of the bar she would have looked up and made detailed observations of her face. She would have touched the hair on her upper lip, the too-dark eye shadow and the thick mascara lines. She was taking stock. Soaking it all in. She held her belly, and maybe it dawned on her that the extra weight and skin was from the child she had carried.
There was a flicker of light in those big, dumb eyes of hers. That was worth seeing. Oh, but it was such a terrible awe-full thing to witness. Like watching a high-rise building implode and collapse in on itself.
She realized, in that moment, that Manuel was not coming. She realized that she had not written his number down wrong.
She realized something that every regular in the bar already knew: Nick can pour a hell of a drink.