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Claire walked past the bodega, trying not to make eye contact with the shadowy figures leering from the nearby alley. Face to the gum-speckled sidewalk, Claire kept a fine line between walking and running. She tried to stave off the greyness closing around her with the sunny thought that after today’s work, she’d have enough to cover her back rent and then some. Just picturing the dumbfounded look on her landlords face, the check in his grubby hands, propelled her forward.
Claire cursed the underwire on her push-up bra; each step seemed to drive little knives into the bottom of her boobs. Acrid garbage in one of the passing alleys, stirred by the morning’s steady drizzle, seemed to be suffocating all the oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere. By the time she reached the nondescript glass door, sandwiched between a cell-phone re-sale store and an adult DVD rental joint, Claire could hardly breathe. She yanked open the door to start the first day of her new job.
Claire shuddered, surprise sucking the breath from her chest. It seemed she’d stepped from dreary brown Kansas into the Emerald City of Oz. Lilac with a hint of cedar replaced the smell of old tires and used diapers. Out of the dreary grey drizzle, the office opened into a cozy space full of warm light. A reception desk sat opposite the door, gold-trimmed masthead “Athena Entertainment,” hovering over a pixie receptionist.
“Hello, welcome to Athena Entertainment,” the girl spoke as she smiled from cheek to cheek. “Are you Claire?”
Claire, still mesmerized by the overstuffed waiting room chairs, the dark cherry coffee table and its splay of fashion magazines, could hardly manage a nod. “I am,” she said, her voice airy and distant.
“Excellent,” the receptionist chirped. “Please have a seat and Miss B will be out to see you in just a moment.”
Claire sat in one of the chairs and found it even more comfortable than it looked. The velvet and batting seemed to swallow her into a posture of pure comfort. Still amazed and now lulled to a stupor by this magical chair, Claire didn’t even bother with the fashion magazines fanned across the low table beside her. She contented herself in the euphoric glow of the room, somehow thrust from the utter destitution outside into a little slice of heaven. Her heart rate slowed from its sprinter’s pace; perhaps this job wouldn’t be so bad after all
“Claire?” The receptionist’s voice broke Claire from her daydream. “Miss B will see you in her office now. Down the hall and to your left.”
Claire stood and followed the receptionist’s directions to an open office door. Paintings lined the hallway, actual brush-strokes and artist signatures heralding them as more than mere re-prints.
“Ahh, Claire!” A bright, husky voice beckoned her from the nearby office. Miss B emerged into the hallway, slim and strikingly beautiful in a crisp skirt suit. Her raven hair, streaked with small bands of silver, was pulled back into a tight ponytail. Half-glasses sat perched on the tip of her aquiline nose. She reached out and took Claire’s hand in both of her own, her hands warm and soft.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you today, Claire.” Miss B shook Claire’s hand and ushered her into the office.
“Happy to see me?” Claire said. The whole office still seemed like a dream, a pinch or a warbling alarm set to thrust her back to reality.
“Yes, happy to see you, Miss Claire.” Miss B circled around and closed the office door behind them. “About half the girls I hire never show up. It’s not a business for everybody.”
Claire locked eyes to the elaborate, gilded desk set glimmering from Miss B’s mammoth desk and nodded a reply. She’d imagined Athena Entertainment would match the grey ghetto outside. Under Miss B’s golden brilliance that picture dissolved like honey to hot water.
“As you can see by our surroundings,” Miss B spread her arms as to model her opulent office, “we make good money here.”