tagRomanceA Woman's Will

A Woman's Will


This is a 2014 Valentine's Day Contest entry.

~~~~~ Edited by ~~~~~

Willow bounded up the steps to the staff entrance breathing crisp fresh air and ready to start her new job. It was three weeks into the new year, and she would finally be able to support herself. When she graduated from high school four years earlier, the economy forced her to accept temporary sales jobs she hated. Things improved, and the 1984 Christmas buying season at the mall was insane. Overtime pay gave Willow the financial cushion she needed to make it on her own with roommates to soften the obscene cost of city living.

Her long, thin honey-colored hair bounced and swayed offering stark contrast to her navy blue uniform shirt. Willow's hair grew slowly and tended to fall out easily. It didn't reach between her shoulder blades until she was fifteen years old. The one significant vanity she allowed herself was keeping her hair long and neat.

"Aren't you chipper this morning," the Assistant Manager said.

"I'm happy to be here," Willow explained. "Anything's better than retail."

"Hmm," the older woman replied. "Here's your timecard. Go ahead and clock in now." The Assistant Manager pointed to an old-style mechanical clock.

Willow dropped her card into the obvious slot and waited.

"Press the button."

A slender finger pressed until her knuckle turned white and a click followed by a thud fulfilled the machine's purpose. "Where do I put it now?"

"There's a board over here."

Willow followed past a row of dented old lockers.

"I haven't labeled your slot yet, so just pick one of the unlabeled ones."

The pair navigated through a maze of dingy corridors leading to the front reception area. "You can start here." The Assistant Manager indicated a polished wooden counter as high as Willow's chest. "If the phone rings, answer 'Five Oaks Country Club. How may I direct your call?'"

"How should I direct the calls?"

"Most will be for dining room reservations. The number is labeled on the phone. Press 'forward' and then 'dining room.' Stay on the line until someone picks up. If you hang up too soon, the system sometimes drops calls."

"OK. Anything else?"

The Assistant Manager regarded her. "I don't have a name tag for you yet. Do you want it to say Willow, or do you prefer a nickname?"

"Willow is fine. Some people call me Will."

The Assistant Manager's eyes scanned Willow from head to toe. The new girl's clean, pretty face and delicate bone structure failed to overcome an overall sloppy appearance. Standard black Converse with white laces looked anything but feminine. Baggy tan uniform pants were ordered with the smallest waist available for her height. The arms of her long-sleeved polo shirt barely reached her wrists, but in anything larger, she'd look like a potato sack. The ensemble concealed any figure the young woman might have.

After a sigh, the Assistant Manager continued a well-rehearsed first-day speech. "This is an exclusive club, and members pay more in dues than you'll earn in a year. They expect to be pampered. Study the pictures in the member directory under the counter until you recognize them, and greet members by name if possible. Our staff fades into the woodwork, anticipating needs without being asked and providing services without being noticed. Don't expect tips, but graciously accept any offered. We're short-staffed, so you'll likely have several assignments over the next few weeks. My office is around the corner. Fetch me if you have any questions."

"Yes, ma'am."

The morning dragged with few calls and fewer guests. Willow worked through the member directory as far as "Dr. MacMillan" before noon.

"Take a half-hour for lunch," the Assistant Manager barked. "I'll watch the counter until you return, and don't be late."

"Is there some place I should go?"

"Use the break room."

Willow assumed her boss meant the hallway with the time clock and lockers. When Willow turned the final corner, she almost bumped into a tall young man who loomed above her. His uniform matched hers, and his name tag said "Denim." Willow hated being in close quarters with strangers.

Junior high and high school conditioned Willow to be wary meeting new people. Kids were cruel to anyone unusual, and she was the girl who never developed. She did, but it wasn't until late in high school. She remained rail thin with tiny breasts. People often mistook the shy twenty-two year old making a place for herself in the world for a lanky twelve year old. Her mother said looking ten years younger than her age would be a blessing one day.

"Um, hello," Willow sputtered, remembering that people don't like it when you pretend they don't exist. Coworkers at a short term job a few years earlier called her a snob, excluded her from conversations, and pushed her around. Ever since, Willow had made an effort to socialize even when instincts told her people would end up talking behind her back anyway.

"Hey," he replied. "You're the new girl."

"Yes. Willow."

"Nice to meet you," he said but seemed disinterested.

"Where do you work?" she asked.

"I'm a locker room attendant, and sometimes I work the counter. The best days are bussing tables. I can make forty dollars a night from my share of tips."

"Where is everybody else? You're the first person I've met besides Shirley."

"Yah, don't get on her wrong side. She's a mean old battle-ax."

Willow nodded.

"There are a couple of girls who work the women's locker room. The restaurant's open, so there's a dozen people back there. We usually have a couple more attendants for the men's lockers, but I'm holding the fort today. There are physical trainers and a masseuse most days. Oh, and the maintenance staff works at night cleaning and doing laundry."

"Huh. I haven't seen anybody."

"Didn't you get the speech? We're not supposed to be seen, especially not in the front lobby."

"How long have you been here?"

"It's been three years, ever since I finished high school."

They looked at each other in awkward silence.

"Well, ah, I better get back to work. I'm expecting the regular group for racquetball," Denim said.

"Nice meeting you." Willow forced a smile. It went better than she expected. He didn't ask her where she went to school. New coworkers at the mall always asked. They looked at her like she was a freak when she told them her age.

"Yeah," he replied and stepped past her.

The first week elapsed much like the first day. The antique phone system dropped calls even while she stayed on the line during a transfer. She memorized an apology to use when members called back. The job allowed too much time for her thoughts to wander. Shirley added tasks like collecting wet towels and robes from the women's locker room, which gave Willow a chance to see more of the facility. She met other staff, or at least introduced herself when they called the front desk. Each time, Willow forwarded the call to the Assistant Manager who never went home, as far as anyone could tell.

Willow recognized most members from the directory pictures even if she couldn't yet match names with faces. One member, a young professional sort, passed her counter barely noticing her existence every day. The directory called him Mr. Gregory (Smalley) Hamilton. He dressed in unfashionable pleated slacks and ugly sweaters, but he carried himself with athletic grace.

Willow watched people come and go. She indulged her habit of daydreaming and devising elaborate fantasy back stories and glamorous lives for strangers. The old woman with pearls and alligator boots had married a mobster. Debutants organizing the Valentine's Day Cotillion had escaped from a sadistic Swiss finishing school. Willow leaned against the counter with her eyes closed at the end of her Friday shift and concocted an explanation for the young Mr. Hamilton's ample leisure time. She made him a millionaire tennis champion. Her new good friend, Smalley, bent and whispered an invitation to dine on his yacht.

The phone buzzed her back to reality. Shirley called her into the office and introduced her to Mr. Gauss, the club's General Manager. He greeted Willow in the manner of an indulgent grandfather and asked about her first week.

"I'm very happy here," she answered in a meek voice.

The Assistant Manager's stern manner made the General Manager's seem even kinder. "We'd like you to work Saturday morning. The lockers in the break room need a coat of paint before the doors rust off the hinges."

"What time should I arrive?"

The General Manager smiled and locked eyes with his assistant.

"Be here by six a.m. so the paint fumes have a chance to clear before the lunch crowd arrives."

Willow forced a neutral expression and agreed.

"You can clock out now," Shirley commanded, but as Willow turned, added, "Wear your uniform in case I need you to fill in somewhere. I'll find something you can use to keep the paint off your clothes."

"Thank you."

Willow inspected the lockers as she departed. A few doors hung cockeyed, and she saw traces of rust bubbles in the paint. Padlocks protected three or four on the end of the row, but most remained empty or contained trash.

~~~~~ ~~~~~

The earliest bus passed Willow's apartment at 5:05 a.m., and she almost missed it. The typical forty-five minute ride took half an hour because nobody wanted on or off the bus. A week of mild weather had turned nasty faster than anyone expected, and Willow regretted not bringing a coat. She shivered in the dark by the locked side entrance for fifteen minutes before one of the cleaning staff opened the door to leave.

"Thanks," she said through chattering teeth to the old man in coveralls.

He let her pass but stared too long at her. Willow experienced her usual creepy premonition. She didn't like the way men looked at her sometimes. She wondered if other girls learned as young teens to tolerate predatory looks. When Willow was a young teen, she received looks of pity or ridicule. "Hey little boy, did you lose your mommy?" One kid in ninth grade asker her every time she passed in the hallways at school.

As an adult, Willow accepted that men either looked past her or leered. She preferred to be invisible, but invisibility brought a tinge of sadness as well. Girls like her roommates relished "the look" and embraced the pleasures of men. Being invisible kept Willow from unraveling the mystery of life that plagued her imagination. It was a curse to evade and desire the same thing.

A short stepladder supported two cans of gray paint along with written instructions to fetch a brush from the maintenance cupboard and something from lost and found to protect her uniform. What maintenance cupboard? Nobody ever showed her a maintenance cupboard.

It turned out to be a closet by the kitchen delivery door. An old woman in a hairnet took a break from chopping lettuce to direct her. The mechanical clock showed 6:32 before Willow returned and remembered to punch her timecard.

With no clue where to find the lost and found, she rolled up her sleeves and resolved to be careful. The row of lockers looked much better at ten when Shirley appraised her work.

"How much paint is left?"

"More than half a can," Willow estimated.

"Paint the worst of the insides then. You might as well use it all." Shirley didn't wait for a reply before striding away.

"Where's the lost and found?" Willow called after her boss but received no reply.

Twenty minutes spent dragging a large trash can and tossing the contents of open lockers left Willow tired and panting. The narrow hallway forced her to collapse the step ladder to make room for the trash container. She stashed the empty paint can and the paint brush on top of a five year old Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition in one of the lockers with a broken door. The other paint can nearly spilled when she bumped it with the folded stepladder, so she pressed the lid into its groove with her fingers and set it on top of the lockers.

Willow crawled along the floor to empty the bottom row when the side door burst open. Time slowed as the door slammed against shiny wet paint. Hope bloomed for a moment when the can tipped but didn't spill. The side door rebounded closed until Denim stomped in brushing snow from his coat and shoved the door out of his way.

The falling can struck Willow below her shoulders. Its lid popped loose, and thick paint splattered in every direction. It coated her hair, her shirt, and an impressive area of the floor. She collapsed onto her stomach feeling cold tiles sap heat from her body and smiled to fight off despair.

"Oh, shit," Denim cursed and made exaggerated movements to wipe a splatter off his trousers. It smeared and expanded the problem.

Willow sat and rotated her shoulders. Her back ached, and she pictured a spectacular bruise developing. One of the locker room girls slipped past Denim to stomp sleet and snow from her boots. "I'll get Shirley," she warned in the most serious deadpan.

To everyone's surprise, the Assistant Manager didn't yell. She looked murderous, and her level voice was cold, but she never raised it. "You two, clean up this mess. I want every bit of paint off the floor before it dries. Don't even think of tracking paint out of this room."

Denim looked scandalized. "Why me? I didn't do anything."

Willow tried to rip the skin from his body with her eyes, but that power eluded her.

"I'll send somebody with buckets and sponges." Shirley turned and muttered, "You'll pay for new uniforms, too."

In a way, the last comment heartened Willow. It meant she wasn't fired, yet.

As expected, Denim contributed nothing to the effort. He paced, complained, and smeared paint. Willow seethed. At least Denim wouldn't get paid for being useless. He never punched his card.

The floor sparkled at noon when Shirley checked their progress. "Denim, go home. Willow, try to get the paint out of your hair before it dries any more."

"Can I use the showers?"

"Absolutely not. There's a utility sink in the closet behind the kitchen. Use that, but before you do, change your clothes. I don't want you tracking paint."

Willow shrugged with a bewildered expression.

The Assistant Manager stepped out of the staff area and promptly returned with a large cardboard box. She rummaged to produce a white muscle shirt and black sweat pants with a ripped knee.

"The lost and found," Willow guessed.

Shirley shook her head at her least favorite employee and glared at Denim. He took the hint and slammed the door behind him as he stepped into the cold. Willow refrained from pointing out the paint splatter on the outside of the door. It must have still been open at the critical moment.

"Hurry up. Get out of those filthy clothes."

Willow glanced past her boss without seeing anyone lurking around the corner. The door behind remained closed. Her shaking hands pulled the uniform shirt over her head, exposing a bare torso. Willow seldom bothered with bras any more than she bothered with makeup, and she didn't give either a single thought when she woke at 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Shirley did a double take at the sight of breasts too small to fill champaign glasses. The older woman exchanged the muscle shirt for the uniform shirt.

The stained white cotton drooped to expose Willow's nipples if she neglected to readjust. Material hung low enough to conceal pink silk panties after she removed ruined slacks. The elastic waist of the sweatpants didn't come close to gripping Willow's hips and threatened to fall off until she found and knotted a drawstring.

Shirley tossed Willow's clothes in the trash and led the way past the Kitchen. Staff turned to observe the walk of shame, but they resumed their chores in reaction to Shirley's glare. Willow bent over the large utility sink and placed her head under the faucet while Shirley let the water run until it went from gray to clear. In the process, she drenched the white shirt, making it translucent. Willow squeezed her eyes to avoid getting paint in them.

"Hmm," Shirley remarked after turning off the water. "Do you have a way to get home?"

"I rode the bus this morning."

"I'll drive you."

~~~~~ ~~~~~

Willow tried everything from hot water to cold water to turpentine which did nothing to remove latex paint. Once dried, it became solid plastic, and plenty of it dried in Willow's hair. Her roommates called every hair salon in the area until one gave Willow the last Saturday appointment. Hairdressers milled around her and conferred before calling Ian, the expert. He closed the shop at eight p.m. but stayed past nine working on Willow. Too much paint had clumped and dried too close to her scalp. In the end, Ian resorted to the electric trimmers while tears welled in his client's eyes.

Shirley called on Sunday, telling Willow not to come to work until her new uniform arrived on Wednesday.

"I haven't even cashed my first paycheck yet," the independent young woman complained to her sympathetic roommates.

She wore her heavy coat to the supermarket and kept her hood up in the store. She wished for a pink coat instead of her loose-fitting black one. Anything and everything feminine gained appeal to an extent that on Tuesday, she purchased an impractical pink bra from the girls' department at K-Mart. She browsed the personal grooming aisle reading labels on blush and mascara. Her roommates graduated from the "too much is never enough" school of sex appeal. Willow lacked confidence to try cosmetics on her own.

"Take off the hood," Shirley demanded on Wednesday. "Let's see how bad it is."

Willow cowered in her boss' office and complied.

"Your new uniform arrived." Shirley shook her head and pointed to a box on the desk. "Change in here while I find out why it's taking so long for your name tag."

Upon returning, the transformation appeared complete. A young man or boy with crew-cut honey hair slumped in a unisex uniform. Shirley continued to shake her head as she handed over a name tag inscribed, "Will."

"Go work the front counter," the Assistant Manager grumped.

The morning went well, and even though Willow kept her eyes downcast, she gained confidence. To her pleasant surprise, members passed the counter with hardly a glance. She received none of the lingering looks she dreaded. The phone buzzed with a tone characteristic of an inside call, so Willow answered, "Front desk."

The voice on the other end didn't belong to any of the staff. "Hello, hello!" he bellowed. "I need fresh towels and a robe in the locker room."

"Yes sir," Willow replied.

The phone clicked, and she dialed Shirley. Members never used the internal phone system. There was going to be hell to pay.


"I just answered an internal call from a member. He wants fresh towels and a robe in the locker room."

"I'll be right there. Stay by the phone in case he calls again."

The phone buzzed ten minutes later as Shirley arrived, and Willow handed it directly to her.

"Yes, sir. Someone is on the way. I understand. I'm terribly sorry, sir." She dropped the phone back in its cradle.

"Here's the situation," she said with uncharacteristic hesitation. "Lloyd left the building for his lunch break without telling anyone. Denim called in sick today. Mr. Gauss is on vacation. There isn't time to fetch anyone from the dining room, and they can't be spared during the rush anyway. I want you to take the towels and robe to Dr. MacMillan. Take extras in case there's anybody else. Don't dawdle. Don't stare; just in and out."

"But, um—-"

"I know, but it can't be helped, and if he gets any more unhappy, neither of us will have a job. Just do it. In and out, and nobody will notice. Remember, we aren't seen."

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