A Dollar Short

Tilford has a dead end job. The idea that someone would offer him a great position seems alien.

A Dollar Short
By Angela Rasch

I could trust Stephanie. She lived across the hall from me on the fourth floor of a dilapidated sixteen-plex on Chapel Street. The swayed backs of its stair treads showed how far I had sunk after my last failed relationship. I had learned long ago that women and me were like jobs and me; we found each other mainly to have something to eventually trash. Although Stephanie had celebrated too few birthdays to be a candidate to bust my balls, she seemed to have an old soul.

“You’re turning into a library-aholic,” I said with a smile, as we passed in the hall. She had done something to her hair that emphasized her high cheekbones. Nice — I would have to ask what salon she used.

Her “last year” jeans screamed for my fashion counsel, but hey, for a Yalie they weren’t bad. The tattered sweatshirt she proudly wore stated a challenge. “For Every Ailment, There Is a REMEDY.” She spent her weekends as a volunteer for REMEDY, a non-profit organization that recovers medical equipment for the developing world.

There was a time when I could get excited about things the way Stephanie does. I would have given anything then to travel to places where no one had ever gone, but I had long ago realized people like me would always be limited in our scope and couldn’t be adventurous.

Stephanie stopped and adjusted the four worn textbooks nestled in her arms, along with several Yale bookstore notebooks. Big deal Yale -- old bricks and even older pricks.

“My thesis is starting to take shape,” she said. “If I keep working at my current pace I’ll have it done in a year, IF I don’t have to do too much grad-assisting.”

I shook my head and laughed. Her advisor had her on a yo-yo between advancing her thesis and scouring the stacks researching for his publications. At least he wrote about interesting things -- like the history of inner city gangs. He had located in the right town for that one. New Haven is a regular Crabby Appleton -- rotten to the core. I lived on fairly safe Chapel Street; we had the Wise Guys meeting hall right there with us. Chapel Street, however, served as sort of a thoroughfare between the Black and Latino ghettos.

Stephanie had once told me much of her doctoral research centered on the adverse impact of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. What could be more boring than spending more than five minutes thinking about a prissy Princeton man who devoted his career to an idea as specious as the League of Nations? I had been surprised when she told me about Wilson’s racial prejudice and his segregation of government jobs. Up until then, I had always considered him one of the good guys, even though I learned a long time ago that no real “good guys” ever existed.

Stephanie had been born in a mid-western state, one of those you hear about but have no interest in seeing. Still she took the time to dress right. I had seen the ochre blouse she was wearing in J Crew and almost bought it. After seeing it on her, I’m glad I hadn’t; it looked much better with her auburn hair than it ever would have on me. I loved being a blonde, but so many colors seemed to wash me out completely. She really couldn’t spend a lot on clothing. Her parents had died and left her almost penniless. She had told me that she would amass over $100,000 in student loans before she graduates.

“Are you on your way in to make the doughnuts?” she asked, in a way that told me she cared. She cared about everything. She was the only one in the world who seemed to consistently like the art I made with bright-colored yarn and quarter-inch dowels.

She made my ball and chain job sound almost respectable, which was quite a feat. I viewed it as a means to a paycheck -- one that just barely provided enough bread for rent, plus $45 a month for clothing, $62.50 a week for food, $14.80 a week for a bottle of my 80-proof pal “Jim” and nearly $8.75 a week of “mad money” -- with which I could do anything my little heart desired.

Last week I had spent a chunk of my discretionary income on a new lipstick. I thought its color -- “Merlot” — made me look perky. Stephanie said I looked much younger than I did when I wore my usual black plum.

“Discretionary income” is an economic term that had been drilled into my skull in a first-year economics course at Southern Connecticut State University -- that and “marginal revenue.” You come into the doughnut shop and eat one doughnut, and a huge smile spreads over your face. You're happy, even though we charged you nearly a dollar for something that’s made from less than eight cents worth of actual ingredients. If my counter airhead is doing her job, she will sell you another one before you’ve eaten half of the first. Once your hunger is gone, the pleasure you will get from eating the second doughnut is much less than the first . . . marginal revenue . . . a diminishing return for your investment.

My lips were bare except for a little ChapStick. I had asked the owner of the doughnut shop to allow me to work en femme, but he had thrown a shit-fit. It was his contention that I would drive away customers, as if people in the neighborhood had never seen me walking the street in my latest find from Sally’s.

“Besides,” he had said, “how will you ever get your staff to respect you if you dress like a fruit?”

As the nightshift manager, I had a “staff” of two. A crackhead worked the deep-fat fryers. He claimed to be a Vietnam Vet, although he was about twenty years too young. I had read his police record in the file; whatever he wanted to claim was okay by me. His rusted out Hyundai served as tacit proof that crime didn’t pay.

Also under me on the corporate chart was the counter diva/airhead I mentioned before, whose parents had to have been first cousins. Her idea of conversation consisted of seventeen short phrases she randomly threw out with the same effort she had taken to work her hair into a state of utter turmoil. How she kept her body in perfect condition while pushing pastry would have made a great thesis for Stephanie -- but then, I suppose doughnuts don’t have a hell of a lot to do with her history major. Actually doughnuts have a fairly vague history, with most in-the-know industry buffs speculating they were introduced by Dutch settlers, who called them olykoeks, or oily cakes. Doughnuts might be why Nigel Powers hates the Dutch.

I haven’t eaten a doughnut since the third grade. Can’t stand them. Just the smell of those things gives me a dull ache in my colon. I’m more of a bagel girl. Besides, doughnuts have to be the most boring food in New Haven. Within two blocks of my home I could eat cuisine served in seven languages.

“Lisa,” she asked, using my fem name, “do you want to get together after your shift to do our nails?” A Yale scholar, she seemed to be on the road to big things, but could barely manage her cuticles.

I smiled. “Of course, dear.” The hour we would spend lavishing attention on each other’s hands would be a much-needed break for her and would serve as the closest thing to intimacy in my miserable world. I also wanted to show her the new design I had created for my yarn-art.

***

“Tilly,” Walt said, and then beckoned me with the kind of index finger wave only a prick owner would think of using. “When you have a minute, please come into my office.”

His “office” consisted of a card table and chair stuck in the corner of the kitchen.

I had just finished what had been an excruciating five minutes with a young mother and her six-year old son. As a “treat” she bought him a dozen doughnuts, and allowed the little bastard to pick them. My face ached trying to keep my smile from becoming a life-threatening scowl. Toward the end of the ordeal I intentionally put the wrong doughnuts in the box, just to get the little bastard to scream more.

Sometimes when I did mean things, thought cruel thoughts, or said something despicable -- I would cringe. I knew I could never be like that as Lisa, but I had painfully learned too many lessons being the other way as Tilford. At the doughnut shop my defense was to be Tilford.

“What’s up, Walt?” Thirty-two and prematurely old, he had been a year behind me in high school and had a reputation as a dip-shit to be avoided. The elitists crowd that stuck everyone with their personal burdens had gotten that one right.

“Cheryl’s coming in this afternoon.” He grinned. “She’s got a surprise for you.”

Cheryl was the district rep for Connecticut for Sugar’s Doughnuts, a franchise based around the concept of a fifties’ diner and a heart-of-gold waitress named “Sugar.” Somebody once told me Sugar had been the first girl Harv Melchick, the founder of the franchise, ever laid. I guess some things you never forget.

The franchise started in Richmond, VA and had a home office there known as the Markel Building, a round edifice with an aluminum skin, which was also known as the Moon House. It looked a lot like a spaceship from an old sci-fi movie.

Cheryl couldn’t possibly surprise me. When I first met her eighteen months ago, I thought she might just be the most unctuous person on the face of the Earth. She had done nothing in her twice-a-month visits since then to lose that title. She would sit in the middle of our serving area in her short skirts and too tight jacket over a see-through blouse and watch people salivate. Those who weren’t just your average off-the-street droolers parked themselves in our booths to lust after the doughnuts — or her. She once told me she had a segment of her wardrobe she called Icarus. When she wore something from that collection, she wanted men to “fly” so close to her they would melt.

She seemed to enjoy talking with me, and more than once I caught her watching me at the counter -- not the way a woman sizes up a man, but with the look of breathless wonder you catch on the faces of children at the zoo, seeing a panda or a tiger for the first time. Whenever I would catch her, Cheryl would smile, shrug her shoulders and let her cleavage distract me while it bounced in its tight, transparent confinement.

Still, there was something otherworldly about her. I could feel it every time she would visit. She could be the uber corner-office-wannabe one minute and the girl-next-door the next. One of the faces she allowed the world to see had to be an act; but which? Maybe she was just spacey?

I thought her calling might be to host a late night cable game show in which two people competed in a contest of matching vowels to people’s faces, the winners based on audience survey answers. My fantasy about her fictitious show had become quite vivid:

“For $350 and a chance at the big money jackpot, did the audience say this man’s an ‘o’ or an ‘e’?”

“I’m pretty sure I know, Cheryl. Give me a minute; it’s coming to me. Holy. . . . I’m always really good at this at home. It’s different when you’re on TV.”

“TV is tough on everyone. Tell you what -- you think about it and we’ll be right back in two and two.”

The last part Cheryl would have ripped off from Chuck Woolery, but then Chuck didn’t have Cheryl’s knockers. Damn -- neither did I.

I had given some thought to sending my game show idea to FOX, but I feared two possible outcomes: they could reject my idea, and even worse -- they wouldn’t.

“She hasn’t been in for a month,” I said to my boss, coming back from a well-deserved twelve-second self-imposed break. "Doesn't that freak you out a little?"

Although Walt owned the franchise, the contract he had signed had him in the position of being more like a corporate employee. If he stepped out of the corporate line by even a silly centimeter they could fine him heavily, or as a final punishment, force him to sell to them at terms that were dreadfully adverse.

He pretended like he hadn’t heard me. He also tried to pretend he didn’t care every time Cheryl came and made her life-or-death calls. The truth was, her intelligence frightened him deeply, which made an odd kind of sense since he was almost as dumb as the “deep”-fryer, in constant “deep” doo-doo with his wife, and almost always off in the “deep” end over his head in something or another.

“Cheryl wants to have a sit down with you.”

I looked around at the one-chair kitchen. One of us would have to “sit down” on the floor. I shrugged.

“Because of your shift, my store’s Dozens-Make-The-World-Go-Round numbers have been outstanding.”

I groaned inside. Apparently, somebody in the home office of Sugar’s Doughnuts had taken a management course in up-sell. They had sent out a memo about how every individual doughnut sale provided a chance to sell a half dozen, and every half dozen sale gave our store a chance to sell a dozen. Honest to God, that simple piece of crap logic had come wrapped in four pages of drivel with seven colored charts. I almost shot an e-mail back telling them every dozen sale was a chance to sell two dozen, but if I started down that road, who knew where the hell it would end?

Not that I gave a rat’s ass about corporate memos, but a chance to Make-The-World-Go-Round had caused me to think.

When I worked the counter by myself, I would stave off boredom by playing a little game I called “Fuck-With-The-Idiot.” If a customer seemed to like a particular kind of doughnut, I would sigh and say, “Gosh, I sure wish I could sell Vanilla Iced Cake with Sprinkles one by one, but you know how it is. Rules are rules.” After the customer fumed and I commiserated with them, I would sell them a dozen of their favorite face fodder.

I had carried this bit of fun a step further by hiding all the half dozen boxes and single doughnut bags, and then telling my “staff” that the government no longer permitted doughnuts to be sold in any quantities less than a dozen. The drugged-up moron in the back was so paranoid about narcs that he believed it when I told him doughnut laws were enforced by the DEA. My genius counter girl couldn’t find a phrase amongst her seventeen that could adequately refute my bullshit, so she merely threw me a “whatever” and sold those boxes of doughnuts.

We only sold singles to customers who looked like they might be carrying a gun or any other weapons of smart-ass doughnut vendor destruction. Unfortunately, those clients accounted for nearly forty percent of our trade, or our little store would have scored a perfect 1:1 on the Sales to Dozen Ratio. As it was, the weekly franchise e-magazine reported a nation-wide average ratio of 6:1, or six customers to every dozen sale. The store I worked in stood out from the pack with a 2:1 ratio.

Stephanie got in my grill one day. She had come in to see me, and I had just told a woman in her forties she couldn’t buy just one Chocolate Iced Glazed Cruller. The women showed me her billfold. She only had two dollars. For some odd reason, Stephanie bought the woman the extorted forty-two grams of saturated fat. I felt bad after that, and then I felt even worse when Stephanie wouldn’t let me reimburse her for the cost of that dozen. She had a way of punishing “Lisa” for what “Tilford” would do.

“The people at corporate think you’re a fucking genius.” Walt sneered, not having any idea what went on when he wasn’t around. Walt had remnants of Glazed Devil’s Food Old Fashioned around his mouth. During the six months I had worked for Walt I had watched him eat nearly a thousand doughnuts and gain about fifty pounds. His face had gone from a ruddy color to a raging scarlet in response to what had to be a deadly change in blood pressure.

Every time Walt came in to check on things, I made sure to have four of his favorites, two Glazed Devil’s (340 calories each) and two Glazed Blueberry (at 290 calories a pop), freshly cooked and sitting on his “desk.” I fondly hoped Walt’s arteries would clog, and he would become textbook proof of the evils of saturated fat — seventeen grams in the four doughnuts.

“Cheryl wants to talk to you about a corporate job.” Walt laughed dementedly while my heart froze. “Thing is, you’re worth more to me out of here than you are working for me. Corporate will pay me ten grand for the rights to hire you away from me and take you into ‘Dough U.’ ”

“Dough U” was the name for Sugar’s Doughnut’s in-house university where they put real people through a year of training to magically turn them into perfect assholes.

Why did someone as smart and imaginative as Cheryl work for them? The only thing I really hated about her visits was the aftermath when Walt would talk about her “tits” as if he had ever seen them. According to Walt, Cheryl loved sex and had screwed a number of the top Sugar’s execs. Her kind of brains not only frightened Walt, but seemed alien to him.

The thing was — I wanted to go to “Dough U” and put living paycheck to paycheck behind me. I had orgasmic dreams about full benefits including health and dental. Maybe if I could update my wardrobe a bit and buy a better brand of cosmetics I wouldn’t look so much like an eighties’ chick. Dressed, I had a bad case of Cindy Lauper syndrome.

“The thing is,” Walt said, reaching for the last doughnut on the paper plate in front of him, “I haven’t mentioned anything to them about your little hobby.”

Asshole! What does he want?

“I’m not too sure old Harv wants his hand-picked elite crew to include a hairy-fairy.” Walt used the term “hairy-fairy” to refer to my cross-dressing.

I went through great pains to make sure my hair today was gone tomorrow, even on those parts of my body I found almost impossible to reach. The “fairy” element of his attempt at extortion amounted to idle speculation -- on both of our parts.

He only brought up my dressing when the two of us were alone; as if it would hurt his reputation if anyone found out he employed someone like me. Hell — I had never said anything about his clothes. Everything he wore came from a hunting and fishing store in two colors: camouflage and blaze-orange.

Walt smiled like he really had something on me. “I have this ethical conflict. Should I tell them . . . or shouldn’t I?” The words slid off his chocolate-stained mouth.

Any subtlety would have been lost on him. “What do you want from me to keep my secret quiet?”

The effort to think seemed to overwhelm Walt. Perhaps all the sugar he had consumed was causing a synapse blockage that shorted his receptors.

As he thought, I stuck four more fat pills in front of him. He stared at the pictures of his four kids.

If Walt has any luck at all two of them will someday be on a milk carton.

My confectionary offering seemed to get his attention as he finally grinned. “Tilly, I’m happy to say there’s not a fucking thing you have that I would ever want.”

Bullshit! He wants something or he wouldn’t have brought it up. My heart sunk as I thought of the only thing I had that might interest a sick, twisted asshole like him. He had shown too much interest in my cross-dressing. The only reason he would jeopardize ten grand had to be to get in my panties.

I turned and walked away. Luckily he left the shop without saying anything more to me.

***

“After you’ve successfully completed the first six months,” Cheryl said, as she smiled and checked off another box on a form clipped to her pink and white clipboard, “you will be given a company car and your benefit package will be upgraded to include long-term care insurance.”

Cheryl had gotten right down to work with an offer “you just can’t refuse.” For once I didn’t have to look at her pictures of her purse dog. She said she scoured the universe looking for ridiculous outfits to wrap around him. One of those outfits, she laughingly had told me, came from Uranus. She hadn’t finished that joke — and I didn’t ask her to.

The dog’s name was Skierna, or something like that. I once asked her how to spell it, but Cheryl told me it was a foreign name that didn’t translate well in our alphabet. Most people like her treat their tiny dogs like babies, but she said, “He’s my brother.” Definitely spacey!

Her ever-present Obsession perfume overpowered the deep-fried odors that permeated my life. The longer she talked, the more it became clear what was hidden behind doors one through three would all be mine if I agreed to a stint at “Dough U” and played the corporate game. I had pulled pretty good grades in high school and in the almost three years I had spent at college, before I decided the whole system sucked and bailed. No doubt I could score big on “Counter Maintenance” and “No Surprise Supplies,” two of the courses Cheryl said, “You’re going to love.” Sure, I was getting a break through a fluke, but I had gotten the shaft for much less.

“Tilford, I’ve already scored you out-of-this-world on the interview,” Cheryl said, as if she had just blown me and I should be eternally appreciative --- and in fact I would have been, if she had. “That’s the kind of score you need to be successful in what we have planned for you. All that’s left is for you to go through this list of previous illnesses, which will declare your health to be okay. From what I can tell, you’re a flawless specimen.”

I gazed at the questionnaire while thoughts of the drawers in my apartment crammed with bras and panties cause me to have trepidations. I scanned the document for the word “pervert,” but didn’t find it. Nothing they asked came close to wanting a declaration of my preferred lingerie.

She looked at my signature as she took the form back. “I’ve never asked; where did your first name come from? It’s very unusual.” She smiled at me, almost as if we were becoming equals. It felt good to have a woman do that.

“My mother named me for the small village in England where my great-grandmother was born. The kids in grade school called me ‘Squiggly’ after they learned the real name for a tilde.”

“Squiggly, that’s better than some of the names I’ve been called. A guy a few years ago, when he found out what ‘Dough U’ was all about, called me a Little Green Man. Don’t ask!” Her face became serious. “I have to double-check my facts for my submission. You told me you don’t have any living relatives. I just need to be sure. Is that correct?”

I nodded my head. “My mother passed away a few years ago. There’s no relative I know of other than a shirt-tail second cousin that I never met, who apparently doesn’t even know I exist.”

She smiled broadly. “I’m sorry about your mother.”

She didn’t look sorry at all; in fact, she seemed to be pleased by my orphan status.

“Walt says you have interesting hobbies.” She took the signed form from me and stuck it in her briefcase. “He’s never elaborated, but the interesting looks on his face when he talks about you have me curious.”

I stared at the floor thinking “Tilford” thoughts about Walt.

“There’s just one more document to sign.” She placed another small sheaf of paper in front of me. “Sign and date this one, and you’re ready to go. Tell me about your hobbies.”

I was thinking hard and beginning to fidget. My face went slack as I could see all the good things slipping away. All my life I had wanted acceptance. I had been going out in public as Lisa for years. If someone gave me shit, the next day Tilford would find them and just give it back — with interest. I had a right to my private life, damn it.

***

“You what?” Stephanie asked as she filed the nails on my right hand. We had been chatting in that I-really-don’t-give-a-darn-if-you’re-listening-I-just-want-to-hear-the-sound-of-your-voice mode for several minutes.

“I quit.” I said. I could hardly believe it when I said it. “I couldn’t let Walt hold my cross-dressing over my head. So I quit.” I sighed with resignation. It wasn’t the first time my “interesting hobby” had ruined things for me — and it undoubtedly wouldn’t be the last. “Don’t worry about it. The service industry always needs people. With the current crackdowns on illegal immigrants, hundreds of jobs are available to English speaking workers with blue eyes, blond hair, and limited ambition.”

Her cell phone rang. Stephanie answered and told her boyfriend she was much too busy helping a friend pull her head out of her ass to talk.

She shook her head as she ended the call and came back to our conversation. “The job you would have had after you finished ‘Dough U’ would have been better than most college graduates can find. Geez Lisa, you’re thirty-three. How many more opportunities do you think are going to fall out of the tree for you?”

“Uh huh, well that’s all in the past.” I hadn’t been angry with Walt until just that moment. I knew I would find it hard to forgive him for screwing up my life, but as Lisa I always found a way.

“Did you burn your bridges?”

“Huh?”

“Did you say anything about anyone or anything that would prevent them from rehiring you?” Stephanie had dropped my hand and gestured wildly in the air as if to stave off negative thoughts.

“No, in fact Cheryl gave me her business card. She even wrote down the phone number of her hotel. She’s staying at the Omni. She said she has a view of Yale.”

“Why did she tell you where she’s staying?” Stephanie crossed her fingers and closed her eyes.

I picked up the polish brush and continued where she had left off. “Uhmm, she said I should call her if I changed my mind.”

“Yesssssssss,” Stephanie shouted. “Yes, yes, yes. You call her right now and tell her you want to go to “Dough U.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not? Tilford, you’re an idiot. You’ll never have another chance like this.” She started to pace. “Maybe I should agree with you. After all, how many dyed-in-the-wool do-gooders have a full-time charity case living in the building with them. Tilford, I could spend the rest of my life picking you up when you're down.”

I had never seen Stephanie mad before, at least not at me. Never before had she put me down like that. She shocked me by calling me “Tilford” when I was wearing a skirt.

“I would be giving all the power to Walt,” I said. “He could ruin me any time he wanted by telling the corporation about my secret.”

Stephanie’s mouth dropped. I had never seen the drama-queen side of her before. “Secret?”

“Yes. You know. Let’s see. It’s not little secret A . . . and it’s not little secret B. Then it has to be big ol’ secret CD! Cross-Dressing.” I swept my hand across my body indicating my feminine attire.

“Okay. Reality check. Do you, or do you not wear panties everywhere you go.”

“How did you. . . ? Mmmmmm. Ah. . .yes.”

“Of course you do. Every time you bend over I see a lovely bit of lingerie.”

“Mainly cotton,” I sniffed.

Stephanie smiled. “Sure, but always pink. The point is, I’ve seen them dozens of times, and so do other people.”

I shook my head. “I’m careful at work.”

“Okay, but what about your perfume?”

Stephanie had lost it, in my opinion. “I don’t wear perfume to work.”

She laughed. “Of course you do. That stuff doesn’t go away entirely just because you take a shower. My guess is I could identify your perfume at five paces most days when you go to work.”

“No-o-o-o.”

She nodded. “What do you use to remove your make-up?”

“Soap and water.”

She grinned. “Don’t you ever use special make-up remover -- even for your eye make-up?”

She was being rather nosy. “You know I can’t afford that stuff.”

“Which is why you leave half your make-up on your face, Lisa, especially your mascara.”

“I don’t think so.” I cleaned my face thoroughly.

Stephanie quit pacing, and came back to the table. “Let me finish your nails while we talk.” She took the polish brush from me. “What did you tell me they call you at work sometimes? You know . . . what’s that name they call you that makes you mad?”

“Tilly,” I whispered.

She looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Isn’t Tilly a girl’s name?”

“It isn’t very nice of them to do that; and I’ve asked them repeatedly not to. Of course, if they allowed me to dress as I wished, I wouldn’t mind. Lisa’s a much sweeter name than Tilly, don’t you think?”

She nodded, and then went on. “Even your nails give you away.”

I looked. They were utterly feminine shimmering with the new polish. I did like the color Stephanie had chosen from her own collection. “I’ve never worn nail polish to work.”

“Never?” She again raised an eyebrow.

“Does clear polish count? I only wear a little, so I don’t chip or crack a nail. That shouldn’t count . . . does it?”

“Only if someone looks at your hands. Do any of your co-workers look at your hands? Did Cheryl ever look at your filed, oval shaped nails? Did Cheryl ever take notice of your perfume?”

“Once she told me she liked my cologne. That was sweet of her, but boys wear cologne.”

Stephanie grinned. “So do I. Lisa, when you walk across the room do your hips sway?”

I blushed and nodded — loving the mental image of my feminine gait.

“Are you aware you often walk like Lisa when you’re dressed as Tilford?”

“No — I don’t - - do I?”

Lisa nodded. “Cheryl knows about your cross-dressing. I’ll bet everyone knows about your cross-dressing. You just quit a great job AND passed up on an opportunity to travel -- to hide a NON-secret.”

“I am an idiot.”

“You’re not, Lisa, but Tilford sure is.”

***

An hour later I stood outside Cheryl’s suite at the Omni. I had taken a cab, because it was dark and I wanted to get there alive. Yale’s campus had those security police buttons posted everywhere to push if you felt uncomfortable and wanted help. Had I walked I would have pushed all their buttons.

“Come in Tilford,” Cheryl said, obviously unfazed by the skirt and sweater I wore. “I was relieved to get your phone call. I’m hoping this means you want to reconsider our offer." She gave me a critical eye. "You don’t look too bad. I could show you a few things about applying make-up and give you more than a few tips about picking your clothes — but overall, not bad. You make a better woman than you ever did a . . . whatever you are at the store -- somewhere in between.”

I knew exactly what she meant. I always felt much more attractive when I dressed.

I had called as soon as my nails dried, and asked Cheryl if I could come over for a chat. I opened our conversation. “I’ve done some thinking.”

“Good.” Cheryl said, smiling. “I’m having a glass of white wine. It’s one of those things about life on this planet that I love. Would you join me?”

I accepted her offer, and soon we were facing each other in the parlor of her suite sitting in over-stuffed chairs. After a moment, Cheryl sighed.

“I shouldn’t have been so bitchy a moment ago. You have excellent taste in clothing,” she said. “For someone of your order, you wear mating clothes quite well.”

I blushed. From Cheryl, that was a real compliment, even if it did sound slightly spooky and just a bit off the mark. Although when I thought about it, it really sounded like classic Cheryl. Aside from being a bit slutty at times, she looked nice. As I stared at her, I realized I really didn’t dislike her at all.

“Tilford. . .,” she started. “I’m sorry, is there another name I should be addressing you by?”

I answered softly. “Lisa.”

“Lisa is much nicer than Tilly,” she said just as softly.

Stephanie had been right, right, right. I gasped and my hands flew over my mouth. It was horrid to think everyone had known, but what can you do when the door to your closet has been blown clear off its hinges?

Cheryl acted like nothing was wrong, as if she could read my mind. “I have already sent one “Lisa” to my people. You have about the same coloring as her. She’s already back and studying at ‘Dough U.’ Now, why don’t you tell me why you picked this afternoon to resign?”

For the next five minutes I explained as clearly as I could how I had asked Walt if I could dress en femme at work some time back, and then what he had said that afternoon, which had led me to believe he was going to blackmail me.

“Lisa — Walt’s blackmail would be impossible. I expected you to attend ‘Dough U’ attired as a woman. That’s one of the reasons I picked you.”

“Huh?”

She pulled a file from her briefcase and handed it to me. It appeared to be a report from a private investigator. I had been watched for a quite some time. It contained several pictures of me walking in my neighborhood during the last year in some of my favorite outfits. They must have paid plenty, as some of the pictures were aerial photos that had to have been taken from a helicopter. One photo baffled me; somehow they had taken a picture of me applying my makeup in the morning. No camera I knew of could have been used, as the picture seemingly had been taken with sort of x-ray technology to photo a clear image through a wall.

“We know all about you, Lisa. We’ve studied your art and love your creativity. Our home office believes people like you will get behind their ideas and never run out of steam. By the time we get done training you we will have invested over $200,000 in your education. We don’t do that on a whim.”

Two hundred thousand dollars?!

“And that doesn’t include transport expense, which is scandalous in this sector.”

I smiled. Cheryl often used words and images that shot right over my head.

“I liked you immediately,” she said. “After my second visit, way back when, I sent a report up the line to my home, and alerted them to a possible candidate. I’m impulsive, but I’m rarely wrong.”

She layered it on thick, but was so sweet in doing so that I became emotional. I hated to come out with what I had to say. To stall for time, until I could get up the nerve to confess, I studied my copy of a form I had signed without really reading it thoroughly. Suddenly, I noticed something in the small print. “This says some of my training time could be at locations other than ‘Dough U.’ ”

Cheryl appeared startled for a second. “You do want to travel, don’t you? Don’t you have a desire to see strange places where no one else has ever gone?”

I nodded. I can’t remember telling her my childhood ambitions, but I suppose I must have.

“Good,” she smiled that coffin salesman, tight-lipped smile that showed she was happy with my decision -- and her commission -- but not so happy as to appear less than utterly devastated at my loss. “I can promise you there will be a lot of traveling involved, to places few other humans have ever been. There are so many people who can’t wait to see you. We’ll do everything we can to make sure you won’t feel like you’re on exhibition. However you will probably be required to dress as a male at times.”

Travel! Strange and new places! It all sounded wonderful, but. . .? “I don’t understand. Dress as a male? I thought you were comfortable with me as I’m dressed now.”

“Other than your skirt being a bit too long, you look marvelous. You need to show off your long legs.” She smiled and refilled my glass. “Lisa, you’re almost like two different people. As Tilford you seem frustrated, angry, and bitter, but when you’re dressed as Lisa you become much a much kinder person.”

A tear ran down my cheek as I remembered being cruel to a small boy who only wanted his doughnuts to be special.

“My people want to see both sides of you; that’s why I’ve given you such a huge build up with them.”

It felt good to be understood. Nonetheless, I had to come clean. “I can’t go.”

“I just told you, we want you. We have a commitment to the. . .ah. . .GLBT community and you’ll help us meet that quota. Unless things change drastically, you’ll have a job for life. You’ll be given first shot at advancements. You could very well end up my supervisor some day.” She shuddered.

Even as Lisa, I suspected it wasn’t my cross-dressing that made Cheryl squirm, but the thought of anyone passing her on the corporate ladder.

Cheryl leaned forward and placed her hand on my knee. “Lisa,” she said softly, “you and I could be close. I’m not into lesbian love, but I do value my female friendships. I’ve always felt you and I could become buds.”

I believed her; and the thought of another close girlfriend appealed to me. Cheryl was manipulative, but it might have been her way of motivating people to help themselves.

I strengthened my resolve. “I can’t accept the job, because it would be under false pretenses. My Dozens-Make-The-World-Go-Round numbers are a fluke.”

Cheryl leaned back and waved one hand in dismissal. “We know that. That program is a real stinker. You’re not the only one who’s pulled the ‘government regulations’ dodge.” She grinned. "You're just more successful than most."

I wonder which customer was their private eye?

I sat for a while, my mind hunting frantically for any reason to "dodge" what seemed to be a one-way trip to future success.

It was almost as if Cheryl saw my mental scrambling, because she sat up straight and looked me in the eye. “Look, Lisa. You're the perfect candidate for the program, and if you say yes, everybody wins. Walt gets ten grand. I get a gold star for finding a great GLBT candidate for ‘Dough U’ and you get a dream job. All you have to do is agree to three months of. . .uhmm. . .scrutiny in ... exotic locations, far, far away. Just three months, surrounded by creatures like me, where you’ll sort of be on display, and then we'll give you the kind of intensive executive training all the corporations do.”

Cheryl placed a yellow form in front of me for my signature. My signature would indicate my final acceptance of their offer to enter “Dough U” the middle of next month.

I looked at the form and had almost decided to sign, but another thought hit me and my face fell. “Will I have to eat doughnuts?” I asked tentatively, ready for the answer I didn't want to hear.

It seemed her eyes caught the light in such a way as to cause them to emit an almost ethereal glow. She shook her head, smiled, and handed me the pen. “That's one of the things that made you attractive to us, Lisa," she whispered conspiratorially, as I scrawled my signature. "Nobody on our company home office actually eats the disgusting things. In fact, they don’t even exist where I come from.”

The End

Thanks to Jenny Walker, Laurie, Randalynn and Erin for their friendship and advice.



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