The food court was peopled pretty sparsely. For a Wednesday afternoon, you'd expect as much. Most of them were older, retired probably. At one table, there was a group of those senior citizens who used the mall to do their daily walking exercise. They were kicking back, post-walk, with coffee and donuts from the food court Dunkin Donuts. I was filling out a job application. It was giving me problems. I was stuck at the section that listed past experience. How much of that, I was trying to determine, was relevant to working as an assistant manager in the shoe department at J.C. Penney's? A few moments earlier, I had met the shoe department manager. He was a short, humorless man with a little blonde bristle of mustache and a crusty, blow-dried comb-over. Dandruff dusted his wide nylon tie which he wore over a yellow, short-sleeve dress shirt. I would have bet the house he was a foot fetishist. If he wasn't, he should have been because he could have played one on TV. Until he spoke to me, I had no idea how seriously anyone could take the shoe department at J.C. Penney's. At first I thought he was being ironic, but with a slowly dawning wonder, I realized he was deadly earnest. I knew that even if by some miracle I got the job, I couldn't possibly last a month.
I'd been tapping the dauntingly large "past experience" box on the application for some minutes by now, staring off absently at the donut-munching seniors, and when I looked back at the paper there was a little galaxy of inky dots defacing the page. I was tempted to connect them to see what kind of image emerged.
Then, boldly, without hesitation, I wrote inside the box, in clearly printed capital letters: SEX SLAVE.
The rest of the form was a breeze. It took me less than two minutes to complete.
* * *
I was living in the basement of an abandoned church at the time. I'm not sure what they do with abandoned churches but they weren't doing anything with this one for the time being and I'd taken up residence in a corner of the basement, where they probably used to hold Christmas socials and potluck dinners. At night, you could hear the bats in the belfry. The rats in the walls. The teenagers who'd occasionally break in to party. The vandals who'd come in to vandalize. The thieves who'd come looking for anything that might be taken and resold, but by now, there was nothing left, if there ever had been. Not a statue or chalice or velvet curtain remained. The walls had been stripped bare. What remained was smashed, splintered and sprayed over with graffiti. You could smell the harsh, lung-scalding reek of piss in the corners. Whatever iteration of God had once dwelled there, he'd long since packed up and moved out. The neighborhood was in steep decline. You could hardly blame Him. If He hadn't been able to do anything about it, who could? It was mid-November and it was getting chilly, even for a warm autumn, even with all the politicians and scientists crying wolf about global warming. I couldn't stay hidden away in the basement corner for much longer. No one had discovered or thought to come down to the basement, at least not while I was there. But my luck couldn't hold out forever. If the weather didn't get me, surely I'd be discovered by some character even more desperate and dangerous than myself. It was a god eat god world out there, never mind the dogs. I had about a million tons of empty stone and mortar above me to prove it. I was basically living under God's tombstone.
* * *
As I predicted, I didn't last long in the shoe department at J.C. Penney's. Just long enough to collect two-and-a-half paychecks. That was enough to buy me a bus ticket to Arizona where I hadn't anything waiting for me but a lot of sunshine and turquoise jewelry. That's what the Arizona of my mind looked like, anyway. The real Arizona might just as well have been Utah for all I knew. Aside from the old cliche about it being a dry heat out there and some confusion about whether Georgia O'Keefe painted her skulls there or in New Mexico, I didn't really know much about the place. In fact, I wasn't even sure where it was on the map. Did it come before Nevada or after? Such was my state of mind at the time. Such is the state of it now. States of the mind, like states on the map, are arbitrary distinctions. All borders were just made-up. I was determined to pass freely between them.
* * *
On the bus that took me across country, I sat across the aisle from a very pregnant woman. We spoke a little during the long empty stretches of nothing unraveling on either side of the bus. She said her husband was in Afghanistan. He was some kind of specialist first class in something or other. She was going to stay with his parents in Tempe until he was discharged. He'd be a daddy by then. If doesn't get himself killed, I thought to myself. I pictured a body coming apart like it would in a cartoon, the head and all four limbs flying apart in five different directions around the fat-lettered word BOOM! I kept thinking she was about to explode herself. I was afraid that at any moment she was suddenly going to announce that her water broke; that she was going to have the baby right there on the bus. As it turns out, she didn't. Let me tell you, it was a big relief. I didn't want any part of that.
* * *
In Arizona, I ended up in a smaller town outside the small resort town of Paradise Valley. I came within three bus stops of Paradise, I took to saying whenever I got the opportunity, although I was tired of my own small joke, it was nonetheless of immense utility. I found that all you have to say is one halfway clever thing in the early stages of any conversation and you've proved yourself alright from thereon out. You can pretty much coast with saying nothing after that.
At first, I worked in a motel, changing bed linens with illegal immigrants. It was a surprisingly hard job to get seeing as I wasn't an illegal, hard to get the supervisor of the motel cleaning staff to accept the fact that I'd work at the same slave wages, subject myself uncomplainingly to the same kind of abuse as everyone else with no alternatives. She was suspicious, I think, that I might have been a plant from some government regulatory agency. Or a crusading undercover journalist. I can look like that sometimes.
In the end, I was able to persuade her that I was just a desperate, talentless girl with no prospects and nowhere to go and a lot of unseemly background to leave in memory's rearview mirror where, as everyone who's ever read the fine print knows, objects are larger than they appear.
"This is a job," she said, taking it that I'd know what she meant, "not without its opportunities for ambitious and industrious girls."
She looked at me meaningfully and, seeing no reflection of meaning coming back, she added "You make the beds in a job like this. And you can also lie in them."
* * *
I did a little of both but my career was not destined to be in motel bed maintenance. Instead, on one of my few days off, I drifted downtown and met a woman at a weekend craft fair who needed an assistant. I had stopped at her table display to admire her wares. We got to talking. She had developed rheumatoid arthritis in her hands and wrists some years ago and it was steadily worsening. It had been getting harder and harder for her to do the delicate work necessary for stringing beads and feathers and whatnot. She could use an assistant, was I interested? She offered me a room in her house as part of my apprenticeship. I would need to help her out around the house, too. One day, she feared, she'd end up all but crippled. I hoped to be long gone by that day, but you never know. I was building up a resume, although it kind of resembled a collage more than a narrative to any specific destination or meaning. I might wind up pushing this old lady around in a wheelchair, spoon-feeding her, cutting her toenails in the end. Who knew? She didn't ask me much about my past life and what she did ask I answered with a good amount of fictional aplomb. She never caught or, if she did, never called me out on all the contradictions in my purported life-story. I credit this to the fact that she lived with quite a few cats. It was hard to tell just how many. They were always coming and going and she talked to them the way you talk to cats, mainly saying a lot of different words in varying tones without there having to be any meaning to anything you said. We were, in other words, speaking the same language. We all understood each other just fine.