Charlie once told us it wasn’t Vandalia he fell for so much as the way she applied lipstick. When he described it, he sounded like he was in church.
“She lines, primes, paints, blots, glosses.”
Fact is, the making of Van's candy apple lips mesmerized us all. Every day she drove to the warehouse at 5:15 to pick up Charlie. As soon as we heard the putter of the Escort’s engine or its door slam, we’d make our way toward the office to watch her do it, paint her lips.
Vandalia wasn’t a beautiful woman by traditional standards, but something about the way she held herself felt compelling, magnetic. Come to think of it, it was more gravitational. Like she was a sun and we were her planets.
There in the beginning, Mom O’Dell was the only one who recognized Van for what she was.
“I’m telling you,” Mom said after Van and Charlie left one day, “that female is a strumpet. Someday, hopefully soon, Charlie’ll regret joining up with her. Mark my words.”
Jason leaned forward on his folding chair. Reached toward Mom O’Dell’s candy dish.
“Mom O?” he said. “What’s a strumpet?”
Adam flicked his eyebrows up and down. Spoke under his breath. “A gal ya wanna strum, or pet, or both, I'm thinking."
Mark, our boss, rarely engaged in our end of the day banter. That afternoon, like every other at 5:25, he snapped his fingers.
“Paperwork,” he said. “Now please.”
“A strumpet,” Mom O said, as we fished in our cargo pockets for the day's sales slips, “is a woman of ill-repute. A trollop.”
Jason tilted his face and squinted until Mom-O produced another option, two in fact.
“A hussy, Jason. A tramp.”
Jason perked right up. “Oh,” he said with a grin. “Got it.”
Mom O shook her head and returned her attention to her calculator. “And the boy wonders why he still lives with his parents,” she said softly to her ledger.
Jason relocated his Fireball to the space inside his lower lip. Fixed his eyes on Mark.
“Why’s Charlie get to go home before the rest of us?” he said. “Every daggone day he does.”
Mark didn’t glance up from the stack of receipts he was perusing. “Because, Jason, Charlie’s numbers are perfect,” he said. “Every day. Without fail.” He paused to pin each of us with his gaze—me, Jason, and Adam. “You all would do well to learn from him.”
After they’d been married approximately one year and a baby, Van only entered the office on Wednesdays, payday. She’d perch on the edge of the folding chair there by the door, cross her legs, and rock Jeremiah’s pumpkin seat with her foot while she shined her pout.
Pregnancy had significantly increased the size of Van’s bosom, a fact she took full advantage of. The office air fairly crackled the day Mom O, in a roundabout way, addressed Van’s near indecent exposure. Mom stood, walked around her desk and over to Van. Without a word, she removed Jeremiah’s traveling blanket and draped it across Van's chest. She used her cupped hands to pat Van's shoulders simultaneously, firmly, as if to make the cloth stay put. Forever.
“It appears, Van,” she said when she returned to her seat, “that you are chilly. You best cover yourself so you don’t take sick.”
Recently Van had begun to line her eyes like Marilyn Monroe and when she narrowed them that afternoon, we fully expected her to hiss.
“Why, thank you, Mom O’Dell,” she said, her mouth barely moving. “I do appreciate your interest in my well being.”
Van then proceeded to pinch a corner of the covering and draw it away, revealing her impressive creamy expanse once again.
“However,” Van said as she tucked the pale blue fabric around her sleeping child, “I am more concerned for Jeremiah’s health than my own.”
Mom O’s pleated face compressed in on itself. Her lips seemed almost to disappear. We would say later that her face resembled an ancient sow’s.
“That’s touching, Van,” she said. “It most certainly is.” She hunched toward the floor and yanked her bottom desk drawer open. Jason had informed us not long ago that Mom kept a secret stash of peanut butter cups in that very drawer.
We held our breath as Van leaned toward Mom’s desk, her cleavage straining the fabric of her top considerably. It reminded us of a dam, perilously close to bursting. We felt suddenly strained ourselves.
“My mother named me Vandalia, you know,” Van told the hump of Mom's back. She spoke with her chin thrust forward. “It’s really what I prefer to be called.”
When Mom O didn’t respond, Vandalia’s gaze traveled from one of us to the next. She held her face as if someone was taking her photograph. Lips forward, her cheeks indented slightly, eyes wide. Adam inspected the ceiling. Jason moved toward the candy dish. I retrieved my Swiss Army knife from my pants pocket and went to work on my fingernails.
Charlie entered the office from the outside. Smiled and waved. “Have a good night, you all,” he said as he held the door wide to accommodate the baby’s safety seat and Van.
After they left, Mom O handed Jason his paycheck which he folded and creased and tucked into his breast pocket.
“Not to change the subject,” he said, “but tell me again why we get paid on Wednesdays?”
Mom O’s fingers flew over the calculator keys. “Van can’t seem to make money last Friday to Friday so she had Charlie beseech Mark to change payday to Wednesday. Apparently she thought that’d help.”
Jason rooted through the candy dish and made his selection. Bent a Tootsie Roll in two and popped one half in his mouth, twirled the other between his thumb and middle finger.
“You’d think if Charlie’s so good with numbers, he’d pay their bills his self.”
Mom O swept pink eraser bits from her ledger page. “You’d think now, wouldn’t you?”
Mark snapped his fingers. “Paperwork. Now please.”
(Want to read more? Please check back next Friday.)