The suggestion had confused Winslow at first; but after a brief exchange, during which the girl's age became apparent, he actually felt the blood drain from his face. Disbelief kicked in: Fifteen? Where were her parents? Right away, paranoia waved its hand from the back of his mind to ask what if someone saw him talking to her. He abruptly disengaged her. Then, as though his own age and a few noble intentions might actually provide him immunity from any possible misunderstanding, he proceeded to stalk the girl around the mall. The moral ship of state had been blown off course and was, he felt, in need of a few bearings.
He had come to the mall to buy his demented mother a birthday gift. Margaret Winslow had finally been consigned to a nursing home after her maid discovered her in the middle of the street, stopping passing cars and asking for donations to the Roosevelt reelection fund. Birthdays were always stressful for Winslow--how to decide on a gift someone might enjoy. Dementia only made it worse.
Now this--a fifteen-year-old prostitute asking him if he was lonely. Not that Winslow was a prude. As a Marine in Vietnam, he'd seen prostitutes younger than that. But this was not Vietnam, and the girl was not the daughter of some peasant rice farmer who had to sell herself to get her family a few extra dongs. Her cashmere sweater and Cartier wristwatch suggested an upper-class upbringing, her tattered hip-huggers, a desire not to flaunt it over those less fortunate. When he asked why on earth a young girl from an apparently good home would be doing such a thing, she shrugged. "Because I can." Her tone was smug with a dash of resignation, as though her existence were merely a clearing of the throat that would be followed by the same profoundly simple silence that had preceded it.
"Can't argue with that," he'd said. He tried to hide his shock, but there was no hiding it from himself; and so he lurked along behind the young beauty, skulking through the echoing clatter of commerce, trying to reconceive the socioeconomic dynamics of the world's oldest profession.
The girl ambled, alternately perusing window displays and each lone man that passed by. She looked older from behind, somewhat tall, her back-length hair an iridescence of wind-rippled wheat. Her body--and here Winslow's thinking stalled on the impropriety of his thinking such a thing--was runway voluptuous. But a hooker? He blamed the food industry--the insidious hormones, the leaching plastics. Her manner suggested that she was indeed hustling, that her accosting him hadn't merely been some passing teen-age impulse, like getting a tattoo or a nipple piercing. He tried to amble, too, but didn't think he was doing a particularly good job of it. People gave him suspicious glances.
All at once, the girl stopped and peered into one of the display windows. He did the same, hurling his attention into a harem of sultry manikins in provocative lingerie. He recoiled, then shuffled to the next window and pretended to study a pair of menacing-looking basketball shoes. The girl bent down and lightly tapped the glass, lingering several seconds before moseying on.
He slunk after her, passing the pet store window full of narcotized puppies, stopping whenever she stopped, faking interest in everything from maternity clothes to computer software to engagement rings. After circuiting the entire mall, he decided that the girl really was just playing at some childish masquerade. He winced at the possibility that he could be so gullible. Or maybe he really was lonely. After all, it had been two years since his divorce, and he'd found dating, at his age, bizarre at best, worthy of reality show outtake status.
Stony with self-reproach, he slumped to a halt and squinted after the girl's ceaseless idling. As she disappeared from sight, a creeping sense of finality left him feeling vacant and abandoned. He thought of his declining mother, his own life, then the tragedy of wasted opportunity. Desperation seized him and sent him hurrying after the girl. He rounded a corner and nearly collided with her. She faced him, smirking. "Lonely after all?" she asked.
She gave him the look--don't play dumb now.
"No," he said. "I'm shopping." He glanced around and fidgeted. Then, in near horror, he heard himself say, "Let me buy you lunch." She looked at him like he was trying to get over on her. "Don't worry," he added. "I'll throw in your hourly rate." All the while he was thinking he'd totally lost his mind.
She ran her tongue over her braces and thought about it. "Okay," she said. "But it has to be some place in the mall."
"You pick," he said.
Cactus Jack's was a mercifully low-lit bistro occupied by a few huddled patrons and a mob of conspiratorial shadows cast by candles lurking on every tabletop.
The hostess led them to a back booth but the girl didn't sit down.
"I'll be right back," she said and proceeded to the restroom.
He sat and waited, pondering a candle flame to a woman's plaintive voice singing over a jangly guitar on the restaurant stereo. A waitress appeared at the table with menus.
"Get you something to drink?" she said.
"Just coffee for me."
"Anything for your daughter?"
There it was, Winslow thought--the world's perception of fifty-five-year-old men having lunch with sixteen-year-old girls. Everything they should and shouldn't be.
"You better ask her when she gets back," he said.
A minute later, the girl returned, her hair brushed, flared out from the sides of her head. She was freshly scented--something pricey. He almost rose from his seat as she sat.
"I don't even know your name."
"Call me Melissa." She opened the menu, cradling it in her coltish arms.
"Is that the nom de jure? Some sort of occupational precaution?"
She frowned at him. "The what?"
"Is your name really Melissa?"
She rolled her eyes and tsked. "Well, yeah. Why lie about my name. I'm not doing anything wrong."
Yet, he thought. She went back to the menu and studied it, sucking at her bottom lip like a newborn. A small gold cross dangled from her neck and glinted in the candlelight.
Suddenly, she clapped the menu closed, elbowed up to the table, and looked him in the eye. "Guys don't usually give their names. I can just call you John if I need to call you anything," she said matter-of-factly.
He thought it amusing. "No," he said. "My name's Joe."
The waitress interrupted. Melissa ordered a burger and a Coke, he, tuna on rye.
"So, Joe, why the lunch date? I mean, it's not the weirdest thing I've ever had to do. One guy actually wanted to keep my panties wadded up in his mouth while he watched me take a shower." She took a sip of water. "I thought that was a little weird."
He didn't say anything, just sipped his coffee. The singer belted out something upbeat with a defiant lyric. Melissa gazed across the restaurant, twirling a strand of her hair, faintly bobbing her head to the beat. He studied her. "Do you really do this? Hustle, I mean."
"I prefer to look at it as a career choice. I don't usually tell people this, but I made three thousand dollars the last two months. Part time."
"You should be buying me lunch then," he said.
Her expression darkened. "You're the one who wanted to talk."
"I was just kidding," he said.
She chuckled uncertainly. "You get off talking to strange girls or something?"
"I'm just really curious. A fifteen-year-old girl from... where? Gallatin Heights?"
He stifled his surprise. "You sure don't need the money." He stared at her; she stared back. "Do you?"
"My parents are fogies. They won't even buy me a Beemer. Got to make do somehow."
"You're not even old enough to drive," he said.
She gave him a dry look. "I'm not old enough to be fucking fifty-year-olds either."
"It's just lunch!" he hissed.
"I should've mentioned, lunch is costing you two hundred plus."
Winslow nearly gasped. "You get two hundred bucks an hour?"
She seemed taken aback. "You think I should charge more?"
"No! You shouldn't be doing it at all."
"You're not going to start preaching, are you?"
"How can your parents not know?"
"They're in Monaco."
Winslow was about to ask--demand to know--how on earth her parents could leave her alone like that, but the waitress returned with the food. Melissa two-handed the burger and hovered as she ate. Her enthusiasm fanned the ashes of some smoldering regret, but his memory was too slow to identify the source.
"Why aren't you at work?" she asked.
She stopped chewing. "You're not that old, are you?"
"How old is that?"
"I thought you had to be like sixty-five or something."
"You can retire anytime you want. You should keep that in mind."
She gave him a crocodilian smirk. "Must've done pretty well yourself."
He grew smug. "I guess so."
"Doing what, selling yourself?"
He let the jab pass. "Cars, actually. I just sold a Honda dealership a couple of years ago."
"That's too bad," she said, "you could've paid me with an Acura."
"Lunch isn't going to be that long."
She leaned forward, her mouth fixed in an easy smile. "You sure you don't want to work a little deal? I've got a great body."
"I thought this was the deal," he said. "Or is the two hundred an hour your lunch special?"
She straightened up and flipped her hair over her shoulder. "I don't know. You might be fun to do. You're cute for an old guy." She flashed her eyes at him.
He hated smartassed kids, hot or not.
"You'd be getting a real deal," she said casually. "Doing me before I'm famous."
"What--you going to be a porn star?" He took another bite of his sandwich and washed it down with coffee. "Or maybe you're going to do an expose."
She sneered. "Whatever that is. Actually, I'm going to be on Oprah."
Sure, he thought. "Rich suburban girl gone wild?"
The quip didn't faze her. "She's interviewing under-aged working girls from good homes."
"Sure," he mumbled.
"Stay tuned," she said, grinning.
He left the mall with indigestion. He'd neglected to buy his mother's gift and now felt like he was being made to suffer because of it. Maybe so; he couldn't deny that lunch with Melissa had been interesting, even if it had cost him. She'd settled for the hundred dollars, chuckling that leaving a gig with the taste of bleu cheese in her mouth instead of come was worth the discount. He was sure she had seen him blanch at that.
He drove casually through the city, cocooned in the leather-smelling interior of his Mercedes, the cacophony of mid-day traffic muted to the level of a well-medicated psychosis. He wondered how on earth kids could be so brazen and thought how lucky he was to have grown up in a different time when there was still some degree of modesty. Propriety. The notion was followed by a tiny wriggling of flattery. After all, she must've been influenced just a little by aesthetics. He didn't appear to have money--jeans, polo shirt, and tennis shoes. Besides, he didn't feel fifty-five; and somewhere in the near-abandoned hallways of casa vanity, the echo of a younger self-image lingered, booing about like the persistent ghost of one uninformed of his demise. He checked the mirror--only a salting of gray, good teeth, not a lot of wrinkles. He hammered out a hundred push-ups and a hundred sit-ups every morning and still played a mean set of tennis. (Hadn't Charlie Chaplin married some girl thirty or forty years younger when he was fifty-something? Didn't rock stars?)
He abruptly scolded himself: the girl could almost be his granddaughter. If he had one.
A few blocks from the nursing home, he pulled into a florist shop. He decided it was no big deal; his mother wouldn't even remember he'd been there five minutes after he left. She could barely remember who he was in the first place. The rationalization seemed to fit. Still, compelled by the fuzzy notion that doing so might somehow compensate for his negligence, he tipped the florist twenty dollars for creating such a dazzling arrangement.
Despite his mother's apparently blissful ignorance, Winslow experienced a pang of guilt whenever he was confronted by Alton Manor's baroquely-lettered subtitle: Superlative Assisted Living. He was sure the phrase was coined to assuage the tacit horror of a nursing home, even if it was the best in the city.
His mood lifted somewhat when he passed the front desk and an elegant receptionist with a chestnut chignon glanced up from a magazine and gushed over the bouquet. His ascent stalled when he shouldered into his mother's room to find his ex-wife and daughter lounging next to the bed. For a moment, he just stared at them, relief gradually tempering his misgivings. Gail always started in about how he didn't visit his mother often enough, yet he couldn't say he exactly minded having extra ducks in the shooting gallery in case his mother started firing off non sequiturs which, lately, he had begun just ignoring. His daughter, Becca, was a cosmopolitan sort--thirty, neat, slightly overweight, a successful realtor and wine connoisseur who had addressed him as Winslow since she was ten. She claimed she never had time for a husband, which left him wondering if she was a lesbian, although he was not bothered by the possibility; the state of the world and his own experience with relationships made it seem almost practical.
"She hates yellow."
"Nana," Becca said, motioning with her eyes. "She hates yellow."
He gazed down at the arrangement he held--a preponderance of daisies. "I forgot."
"I'm rather surprised you remembered her birthday at all."
His ex-wife sat imperiously erect, legs crossed, like a duchess riding side-saddle. He didn't respond as he placed the flowers on the nightstand. His mother looked child-like, sitting on the edge of the bed with her hands cupped in her lap, her hair in taut curls, her slacks and blouse the springtime hues of surrendered hope. The vacant bliss of her expression seemed to brighten when he kissed her cheek and wished her happy birthday.
"Did you vote?" she asked, suddenly animating. "I hope you voted. And not for that fool Dewey. Roosevelt's the man to keep this country strong."
"Who else?" he agreed.
She paused, then blinked. "I don't know," she said. "Who?"
He gave her a tight smile and sat down. "Some weather, huh?" His daughter examined a fingernail. His ex-wife didn't say anything. He wondered how he had managed to spend twenty-seven years with her. Looking back, he couldn't really recall a time when she seemed to genuinely like him, except for the one birthday he gave her the Austin Healy with the string of pearls in the glove box. After taking it for a spin, she zipped into the garage, climbed over the console, and rode him right there in the passenger seat, her kisses, he imagined, hot with affection. Looking back, he guessed he should have seen the affairs coming. But how much could he really have expected from a marriage? He was busy selling cars. Building a dealership. Making a life. A family needed sustenance first.
All at once, Becca snatched the remote from the bed and clicked on the television, thumbing through the channels. Winslow rolled his eyes and leaned toward his mother, pondering something to talk about. He knew so little about the 1944 presidential election. Instead, he reached over and clasped her hand, doing his best to ignore the television. It had always struck him as rude to have such a distraction present when visiting. Then "prostitute," spoken in a throaty tenor, glanced off his consciousness. He looked up at the screen. Three very young women were sitting on a couch. "How old were you the first time?" The voice was off camera and spoke as though to seize Winslow's attention as much as to clarify a question. A quiver of anticipation shot through his viscera as the camera angle widened like a grin, revealing Oprah's perfectly coiffed sincerity. Winslow's jaw went slack, and he quickly scrutinized the three women. Melissa was not among them. They were all older--at least in their early twenties. The show's audio became a garble to him as he considered one possibility after another. He finally supposed Melissa must have made the claim just for shock value. So much of her demeanor seemed aimed at the sensational. Image, he thought. It was everything these days. He entertained the possibility that she had never really hustled in her life, and it gave him an odd sense of relief--even if it did mean that she had conned him out of a hundred bucks. He had no sooner thought this when the camera cut to another girl, backlit, her face in shadows, an outline all that was discernible.
"I was fourteen the first time," the girl said. "But that was just oral sex for concert tickets. Limp Bizkit." The girl chuckled, shifted, and pushed her hair behind her ear.