Hired Girl -9-
by Erin Halfelven
Paul’s office had only one window, with a sliding glass door beside it that opened onto an airshaft. Ferns and cycads provided greenery with geraniums and fuchsia to provide color. Paul sat in his chair, behind his desk, silhouetted by the late afternoon light on the small internal garden. With the A/C on and the doors and windows closed, the scent of growing things did not penetrate the room, making the little outdoor scene feel almost like a diorama or simulation.
Harold stopped staring at the flowers, gathered his courage and spoke. “You’re probably going to find out anyway, so I better tell you now.”
“You masterminded the Brinks robbery in 1981?” Paul asked.
“What?” The question derailed Harold for a moment.
Paul slapped his forehead, almost as if by accident. “Of course not, it couldn’t be that. You’re much too short.”
Harold couldn’t help it; he laughed a snorting giggle that left him red-faced.
Paul smiled. “It can’t be as bad as how you looked, getting ready to tell me your deepest, darkest secret.”
“Yeah, okay,” said Harold, shaking his head. “I get it. Um, but you should know this. When you see my I.D., you’ll find out my real name is Harold. I’m a boy.”
Paul nodded then did a theatrical double take, looking Harold up and down. “Are you sure?” he asked. “I mean, have you checked—recently?”
Harold rolled his eyes, giggling again.
Paul grinned, winking one of his ticcy winks, then he turned serious, but not too serious; he still had a smile and a twinkle in his eye. “So you’re trans? How long have you been living as a girl?”
“Um,” said Harold. “Since this morning?”
Now Paul really did look startled. “Seriously? Well, you had me convinced and everyone else, I’m sure. And I’ve had some experience in meeting transfolk.”
“Jake told me that you guys have a cousin….”
Paul frowned. “He probably shouldn’t have mentioned that. Jake is an ass, but maybe he just wanted to reassure you.”
“I think that was it,” Harold agreed, not wanting to cause problems between the brothers.
“You should probably meet Danni, but no hurry. She’s in L.A. bargaining for advertising time, I think.”
“Uh,” said Harold, not sure how else to respond. His big secret seemed to have turned into a failed souflée.
Paul still grinned at him. “Bet you were worried sick about telling me this?”
“Uh, well, yeah?” Harold admitted. “It seemed like a big deal?”
Paul nodded, then went through one of his twitching routines that seemed to indicate he was thinking hard. “How did your parents take this news?”
“You have told them?” Paul faked indignation.
“Well, Mom reacted about like you and Jake. No big surprise here?” Harold couldn’t keep a bit of annoyance out of his voice. “Almost as if she had been expecting it.”
“Mothers,” said Paul. “About how mine reacted when she found out about the wheelchair.”
Harold knew when his leg as being pulled. “Yeah, so…. I haven’t told my Dad yet. He’s in Sacramento which is where he stays most of the time. He’s an Assemblyman. Mom may have told him by now.”
“Oo, hoo! Republican?”
“Uh, no, Democrat.”
“Then you’re probably okay, diversity and tolerance and all that jazz.”
Harold nodded, his eyes wide. Paul was probably still kidding him, but it was hard to tell.
“So,” said Paul. “Now you’re a bit bugged that no one seems to care?”
Harold blinked. “I guess I kind of am.”
Paul wheeled around and came out from behind his desk. “And you kinda think they oughta be?”
Harold blinked again, aware that this time he had a tear in his eye. He sniffed and made a face.
“It’s as if Harold the boy didn’t really matter and everyone just loves Carol the girl?”
“Yeah,” said Harold in a small voice. Paul passed him a tissue, and he dabbed at his eyes with it, not wanting to smudge his mascara.
Paul said nothing while Harold got control of his emotions. The tears had startled the boy in the dress, but Paul seemed calm and unruffled.
“Let me ask you this,” Paul said when Harold seemed done with tears and tissue. “Is this just an experiment? Or just a temporary change? Or something more permanent?”
Harold shook his head. “I just wanted to get a job. No one would hire a sixteen-year-old boy who looks twelve.”
Paul rolled his chair back a bit then forward. “So the dress is your wheelchair?” he asked. “Just to help you get around in the world?”
“Uh….” Harold glanced down at his borrowed pink party dress. Wheelchair?
“How long do you think you’re going to need to wear a dress?” Paul asked. “If I hire you, are you going to show up in a prom gown or a tuxedo? Or one of them one day and the other the next?”
Harold hesitated a moment. “How long is this job going to last?”
Paul grinned. “Good answer. Hey, did you know I started out as a host in a different restaurant when I was your age? Didn’t have to wear a prom gown, it was a vegan place, so t-shirt and jeans were okay. But no leather shoes.”
Harold smiled. “Your chair now has a leather seat?”
“Yeah, but I had to get a vinyl one for that job. You want to sit your sweaty butt on vinyl for six hours at a time? Hey, dress for success comes in lots of flavors.” He laughed, and Harold giggled politely.
“So,” Paul continued, “supposing H.R. does not find out about the Brinks caper, you’re going to get the job. And you’re going to show up for your first shift tomorrow night wearing…?”
Harold blushed. “A smile?”
Paul laughed and slapped the arm of his chair. “Good answer! I hope you’re wearing more than that!”
“A prom gown then, if I can find one that fits,” said Harold, still blushing. "Otherwise I'm back to looking twelve."
Paul nodded. “Okay. Don’t spend too much on it; you get a one-time $50 uniform reimbursement if you stay with us, uh, I forget how long? Sixty days?”
Harold didn't know, but he nodded anyway.
“When’s your school start?”
“August 22nd, 23rd, I forget. Tuesday of the fourth week in August.”
“So that’s less than sixty days. You want to keep the job after school starts? Friday, Saturday evenings, Sunday brunch or afternoon? We can be flexible.”
“Ah, I live in San Antonio Heights.”
“Up on the side of Ol’ Baldy?” Paul’s eyebrows went up. “Heckuva commute on a Friday afternoon to get here in time for a shift. Have you and your sister thought of changing schools? Maybe just move to Riverside?”
Harold blinked. It really had not occurred to him. And wouldn't Judith be going back to school in New York in September?
“Move down here,” said Paul, “and you can even go to school as Carol.” He paused. “Or not.”
Harold blinked some more.
“I mean, you could go to school in the fall as Carol where you are. Ain’t no big thing but there would be some kind of hassle, probably, with the school and maybe with kids that have known you. Huh?”
Harold nodded. He could just imagine. He didn’t have that many close friends at high school, but he had several acquaintances who liked to give him a hard time.
Paul nodded too. “So, is it an experiment? Just something you’re doing for a job? Or are you changing who you are?”
Harold swallowed hard. “I thought it was just for the job….”
“Starting to look different now? Need to think about it?”
He nodded. “I’m not sure….” Harold didn’t finish the thought.
Paul smiled. “Okay, you’ve got the job. Next thing you need to do is find yourself a prom gown to wear to work, in fact, two would be better.”
Harold smiled and shook his head. “I have no idea how to do that.”
“Your sister will help. I take it the idea of going shopping fills you with neither dread nor glee?” Paul asked.
“Um, no. More like confusion.”
“Confusion is okay,” said Paul. “Maybe confusion is about right for you. You want to know what I think?”
Paul moved his chair forward again. Sitting down, his warm brown eyes were almost on a level with Harold’s anxious blue ones. “I think this is an experiment for you,” said Paul. “You’re reaching out, trying to be a grown-up and exploring just what sort of grown-up you want to be.”
Harold nodded again, a bit unevenly this time, like a cuckoo clock that wasn’t quite sure what time it was.
“Let me ask another very personal question,” said Paul. Not waiting for permission or even acknowledgment, he asked, “Do you have a girlfriend? Or a boyfriend? Both or neither?” He moved his chair first left then right, forward then back, by tiny amounts. He didn't smile but managed to look friendly anyway.
“N-n-neither,” said Harold.
“Aha!” said Paul.
“W-what?” asked Harold, a bit startled.
“Oh, nothing,” said Paul. He stroked an imaginary Viennese beard. “Just doing my Ziggy Joybuzzer, routine.” He grinned widely and winked.
Mystified, Harold could only giggle in response. Paul was full of surprises.
“I suspect that before this six-week summer job is over, you are going to acquire a boyfriend, a girlfriend or both, huh?” Paul laughed as Harold turned red.
They stayed in that moment a while, the man in the chair and the boy in the dress.
“Go find your sister,” said Paul, softly. “Neither of you can start tonight; you have to go to the health department and get a certificate to work in a bar or restaurant. And you’ve got shopping to do.”
Harold looked around as if suddenly aware of where he was. He stood and turned toward the door then hesitated before turning back. “Um, thank you, Mr. Prentiss, thanks for the job.”
“Paul,” said his new boss. “Everyone calls me Paul. Mr. Prentiss is my dad or one of my uncles.” He grinned, the corner of his mouth ticcing up and down then up again.
“Thank you, Mr. —Uh— P-paul.”
"Don't be expecting any fish sticks," his new boss said mysteriously, shaking a finger at Harold in mock annoyance.
Giggling to cover his confusion, Harold left the room quickly and almost skipped down the short hallway to the entrance foyer where Judith stood talking to Jake near the doors to the night club. He paused for a moment, watching his sister, feeling the tension between her and her ex-boyfriend.
What would it be like to have a relationship with someone like that? Harold shook his head, pushing the thought away. Paul had given him other things to think about, things that had never occurred to him before. An experiment? Six weeks of trying out life as a girl to see if he liked it better?
Had Paul’s cousin Danni gone through something similar? What might he find out about the world and himself if he approached the next few weeks this way?
Outside the big windows at the end of the hallway, the July sun beat down fiercely on the city, peak summer in the desert. In six weeks school would be starting, would that be long enough for Harold to find out what he really wanted to do with his life? He walked toward his sister more slowly, thinking.
Judith turned toward him as he approached. “You got the job?” she asked smiling, perhaps at his bemused expression.
Harold’s excitement returned in an instant. “I got the job!” He couldn’t help squealing. “Sis! I got a job!”
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