02 – The Devil Is In The Details

The week-long trip from Kansas City to the Southside stop in Brooklyn, had been the longest week of my life. I had it mapped perfectly. I would arrive, get a cab, and meet my new landlord at the little studio apartment I rented all on my own. Bright-eyed and enthusiastic, I stepped off the bus and thank the driver as he unloads my bags from the underbelly. The man who commandeered the aisle seat next to me the entire time from Kansas City comes up alongside me and before he can get a word in edge-wise, a burly black man with silvering hair steps into my shadow silently staring him down.

“Hope-Marie,” my shadow’s voice is gentle compared to his appearance. I turn and let out a squeal of surprise. Marcus’ father stands there with a question in his eyes I didn’t quite catch but am too excited to ask him about it. I pull him into a hug, not caring what people around us might think. His body goes stiff, and he gently wrapped an arm around me, patting in a paternal manner. “Come on girl, it’s late. Paulette has made up Marcus’s room for you to sleep in tonight.” He gathers my suitcase and walks toward his Chevy. I don’t even look back at the young man who traveled alongside me.

The next morning, Friday, I wake up early. Too excited to sleep, I gather up my things, thank them profusely, and set out to get the keys to my new apartment. I give them my new address so Marcus’ father could check on me, as promised. I don’t know him very well, but my father trusts him implicitly as they were in the war together. That, and he is family. His son, Marcus, married my eldest sister, Tabby. Even if Tabby isn’t very close to the rest of us, Marcus makes sure she keeps in touch. The cab ride to the little apartment building is harrowing. I don’t think I have ever been so terrified in my entire life. Well, until I saw the building he stops in front of.

“You sure this is the right place?” I question the address I had given him.

“Sure is, sweetheart, it’s $4.25.” His grizzled voice is full of mirth.

I hand him a five-dollar bill and slide out of the cab. I get my things from the trunk of his car, and I stand on the sidewalk, gulping. This place looks like something straight out of a horror movie. The portly man that emerges from the door stops and gives me a full once over from head to toe, then licks his lips. I want to run and hide just from the look. Swallowing my fear, I gather up my bags.

“Mr. Tomlin, I presume,” my brassy Midwestern accent shines through.

“Miss Wolfe,” he returns in a question and mock at the same time. “Come on. I don’t have much time.” He turns and holds the door for me as I walk into the building. It’s a four story building with no elevator. By the time we reach the fourth floor, I am covered in sweat, and everything hurts. I’m quite thankful I didn’t have any furniture to haul up here. He inserts the key in the top lock, then the handle lock, and pushes the door open. The wafting stale smell of cigarettes and booze fill my senses. When I step into the little room they call an apartment, I frown. There is a bathroom in the corner with a shower and tub. One big window that leads to a fire escape. A small full-sized bed that has seen better days, a table with a chair, and a small kitchenette. I can make this work. Just a bit of elbow grease, along with decorations and it will be perfect.

I was trying to psych myself up about this hovel. “Rent’s due on the first. Late on the third. No parties. No guests longer than two nights, or your rent goes up.” He tosses me the keys and is gone before I can get any further details from him. I close and lock the door after him. I turn slowly, unable to decide if I was excited, sad, or afraid. I hope my new job will be everything they had described it as being.

I spend the entire weekend stocking up on groceries, cleaning, bug-spraying, cleaning some more, and shopping for a dress for my first day on the job. I can’t believe I am going to be working for Vogue. I spend hours at Macy’s and finally find an adorable little yellow chiffon dress and flats to match. I love my tennis shoes, but they are old and scuffed. Not the epitome of fashion.

By the time 9:00 A.M. Monday morning rolls around, I am standing in the building’s lobby, waiting patiently for the receptionist to point me in the right direction.

“Hope-Marie Wolfe, reporting for duty to Philip Mack,” I inform her.

She has a bemused look on her face as she gives me a once over and hands me a number, then motions to the waiting area. Nothing was bringing me down. I stroll over to the area with great confidence, not even realizing there are at least a dozen other young women all dressed like me in varying states of boredom. I glance at the number and then at the door, where I can see people talking around a table. A quick glance at the herd waiting patiently, and I stride right into the room with the other men and women. Silence fills the air as they look up at me.

A mix of irritation, amusement, and frustration erupt from the man’s voice. “What?” he growls at me.

“I… I’m… Hope-Marie, your new fashion assistant,” I stammer out, far less confident than I had been moments prior.

“That so, princess? And just what makes you any better than the other girls who are following the rules out there?” He crosses his arms and leans against the table.

The others stop in their work to watch this little drama unfold. My stomach feels like someone has pumped it full of lead. I lift my chin, not wanting to show fear. They had given me this position. He will not scare me off on the first day.

“The offer letter I got in the mail. ‘Sides. They aren’t gonna be half the worker I am. None of them know the industry like I do, and well. And… and… I’m the only one smart enough to hold you to your meeting time instead of waiting like cattle.” I cover my mouth, my temper getting the better of me. I realize my mistake as his face burns hot and his colleagues all burst into laughter.

“Oh, Philip, I like this one. She’s feisty,” an Italian woman I recognize too late as Grace Mirabella, the editor-in-chief of Vogue herself. She is one of my heroes. He cuts her a look and storms over to me, invading my bubble with such a menace I was sure he was going to strike me.

“You,” he practically snarls, “Are a child. What have you designed? Look at your clothes and those shoes. What could you know about fashion? Did you learn to style your hair with a fork and a light socket? I don’t know what game you think you are playing, but I have not offered the position to anyone. And those cattle, as you call them, are all as qualified as you, if not more so. So, tell me again, little girl, what are you doing in here?”

I swallow hard, completely mortified. I open my mouth to speak, then close it. Open it again and close it. My cheeks flame red, and he looks so smug at tearing me down. I thought I looked beautiful and fashionable. He makes it sound like I was not only ugly, but stupid, too. He gives an angry snort, turning from me when I didn’t answer fully. “Go sit with the cattle, girl,” he dismisses me entirely.

Defeated and embarrassed, I trudge back out into the waiting area, where their gazes look full of disdain and disgust. I take a seat. The way the letter had looked, and read, and the way it spelled out all the benefits, hours, and position suggested I was already hired. I feel ignorant as I sit here. One by one, the women are taken to another office. I sit here, silent and fretful, as the hours tick by. It is nearly two in the afternoon when, “Hope-Marie Wolfe,” the woman’s voice chirps from the doorway.

I spring up like a jack-in-the-box, smooth my dress, and try to quiet my growling stomach. I have been here all day without so much as a snack. As I step through the doorway, the office is stark and white, designed to reflect the light. Philip is leaning over a table with a magnifier, looking at various pictures and poses for the next edition.

“I hope you have regained your tongue, Miss Wolfe,” his tone is full of amusement, and I flush red.

“I’m sorry, sir. I truly thought I already had the job. The letter read like I had it. I moved out here right away and made sure to be here on time this morning, like it said.” I fidget with the bracelet on my wrist. My heart is going a mile a minute, and I have not even realized he has moved from his work to come stand in front of me, invading my personal space again until he is touching me.

His fingers ease up and brush against my cheek. “I tell you what, princess. You take care of me, and I’ll take care of you.”

When I don’t respond immediately, he quirks a brow. I don’t understand what he is asking for at first. Until his fingers move from my cheek down along my neck to cup it. His hand firmly presses downward, trying to have me kneel before him. My cheeks flame as red as a tomato, and I smack his hand away. This man is more than twice my age, easily. His touch makes my skin crawl. I could hear Maman’s words screaming in my head about becoming a whore, or worse. I want out of this room in the worst way.

He raises a brow and leans in close. “You’re gonna give me what I want, princess, or you will never work in this industry. You got it?” His hand returns to my neck, pushing me down again.

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