by Joe Ponepinto

At the charity dinner, the city’s wealth was like a fragrance, subtle and sweet. As she breathed it in she began to have a vision of an altered future. It came in a series of vignettes: her face on the agency’s brochure; her face in an ad in the local newspaper; maybe if enough money came in that night, on a billboard downtown. Kenzie had dreamed of it before, but it had never seemed so close. Tonight someone would notice her; someone important, with connections, would search her out and make contact, would invite her to do a test shoot, and would see she had potential, a natural expressiveness that engendered sympathy. And then she’d have a path, an end to the restless waste of her days. Because everyone got a chance, and Kenzie’s hadn’t come yet. If it meant they would call hers the face of need, the face that defined poverty in this city—if that’s what it took—she would wear it like a medal, proud and polished, pinned to the outside of who she knew she really was.

She sat at a table layered with plates and flatware, among seven strangers from the board of directors. Their tailored suits and dresses glowed in the light from the chandeliers above. Some of them had served on the committee that chose her from among the clients to serve as this year’s special guest—an example of the miracles the agency worked—and she’d agreed to have her dismal life screened on the two giant monitors, to tell her story, express her gratitude, and pump up the evening’s contributions. She wore a simple gray blouse and jeans, which they had told her would be okay. The twins, too small to make it through a long and crowded evening without causing a scene, stayed with Mom. She fingered the program and rehearsed in her head what she would say, as the emcee talked about want and hunger and auction items to come. A man two tables away ignored his neighbors to watch her, and she saw him, a few years older than her, and alone, and definitely watching, just as she had imagined. His peppered hair and thick ring whispered affluence, and he drummed the gold piece against the tablecloth in an unconscious rhythm. A little like Ricky, the way the man stared, and although he didn’t seem threatening, she felt a trembling inside. It might have been fear or anticipation; they often felt the same. She would talk to him after she spoke to the crowd. She would learn his story. She wouldn’t let him get away.

She left her dinner untouched after a few bites, and looked on while her tablemates devoured their salmon in cream sauce, and filet mignon, as though they were nothing special, as though they ate like that every night.

There was small talk, of course, before her speech, the strained language of trying to bridge the gulf between them. How do you do it? How do you handle two jobs as a single mom? All the questions she dreaded before coming, and the praise, just as bad. I admire your determination. I envy you, in a way. You have such balance in your life.

Yes, whatever. Balance. My children play in the alley behind my apartment. I work all day and hardly get to see them. My car broke down and I had to take the bus for two hours to come to this dinner.

But she couldn’t say those things of course. They wouldn’t understand. Kenzie couldn’t think of any truth they would understand, and so she gave them the answers they expected, about doing it all for her kids, and looking forward to a better future. Inside she hoped the staff would remember to call a taxi to take her back home, as she’d asked, because she knew the buses wouldn’t run in her neighborhood that late.

Kenzie stared back at the man at the other table. He looked at her face without wavering. She was used to the stares. Growing up everyone had told her she was beautiful. They said she would become a model, or a movie star. They said her face was the ticket to her success. It had hypnotized Ricky; convinced him to possess her. And then it had kept her from finishing high school. Two kids out of wedlock, because of the face. It was not part of the story she would tell to these people.

“I’m so grateful,” she said at the lectern, “to the agency, to all of you here tonight. You give people like me hope.”

Instead she told that other story, the one they wanted to hear, to validate the dollars they threw at wine dinners and trips to resorts, and some of which would benefit people like her.

“I was on my own, a teenager with newborn twins. The man I thought would love me and provide for me gone one night without a word. I had no education, no skills. My mother was in a wheelchair so I had to take care of her too. We got the eviction notice. I had no place to turn. And then I saw the number. I called it—”

They paused in their desserts to listen. She let the face smile back at them then, the timid smile they expected, of a woman down and out but not quite lost, whom they had saved. “And now my family has a home. I’m working—yes it’s two jobs right now—but as soon as I pay off the bills I’m enrolling at the community college. I plan to have a career someday. My kids will go to college too.”

And at the end, everyone in the ballroom stood to applaud, everyone except for the waiters hustling among tables to make sure the guests had enough coffee. Kenzie looked at them as they worked in their black pants and black shirts, dressed to seem invisible. They could not stop to acknowledge her, but she felt a kinship toward them. Then from the stage she surveyed the room, looking out at the guests, at the people who gave so much, and kept so much. It was their way, and she didn’t want to judge them for it, but how could she not? Didn’t their way keep people like her poor?

She went back to her table for the rest of the auction, to sit silently while numbered cards bobbed around the room, traded for weekends at spas and guest bartenders and shopping sprees and ocean cruises. By now no one at her table made eye contact with her. Only the man at the other table, trying to stay inconspicuous, but still looking as though he couldn’t stop himself. She closed her eyes and imagined her face on the side of a building: doleful, with her two kids in her arms, making the appeal. The world would judge her poor, but it wouldn’t matter if the right person saw. Maybe this man. But a man came with a price. Ricky had shown her that. Help always came with strings—someone else’s rules, someone else in control.

Near nine the emcee called one last auction bid, and then the agency director reported they’d raised more money in that one night than at any event they’d ever held, and the guests applauded themselves for it. The woman handled the closing thank yous. People began to sneak out to beat the rush. Kenzie slipped a program into her purse. She might want to remember this night as the start of something.

She waited to leave until most of the guests had gone; a few of those near the front of the room stopped by to offer her one more set of congratulations. Kenzie felt hungry, and remembered she had ignored her dinner. She looked to see if there was anything left to eat—an untouched dessert at one of the tables, perhaps, but instead she noticed her admirer walking alone toward the exit. She followed him out, catching up to him at the curb as he waited for the valet to bring his car around.

“I could use a ride,” she said. “I’m kind of stranded.”

Maybe he saw the taxi parked at the end of the sidewalk, maybe he didn’t.

“How could they do that to you? You’re an honored guest.”
“Maybe for tonight.”
He moved around his car to open the door for her before the valet could, and held it while she settled inside. He walked back to the other side and slid behind the wheel. “Tonight could be different,” he said. He turned to look at her in the refracted light from the hotel windows before putting the car in gear.
“Tonight is only one night,” she said.
“Tonight is young. We could go for a drink.”

She almost said something about her children. But Mom wouldn’t mind. She loved time with them. She would cope, tire them out with stories of magic and songs from her younger days, and then get them to bed. Kenzie hadn’t said when she’d get back from the dinner, and whenever she did the twins would be asleep. She shouldn’t worry about it.

He said his name was Edward. He told her she had the most beautiful face he had ever seen. Ricky had said the same thing, in his stupid way. Your face is like an angel’s. I dream of it every night. He said it so often, but it never lost the power to thrill. Even now she remembered.

You’re just saying that. You don’t really mean it.
You’re my goddess. I would do anything for you.

Another woman would have looked away. The compliment would belittle her, objectify her, soften her for the inevitable come-on later in the night. But Kenzie kept looking at Edward as he drove, inviting him to glance over again, daring him to keep the car from lurching across the centerline. Why not look again, if I am so beautiful—

“You didn’t bid on anything at the auction,” she said to him.
He drove toward downtown without asking her preference. “I was preoccupied,” he said.
“I don’t mind being stared at. People have stared all my life.”
“I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.”
“I hardly notice anymore.”
“But you noticed me.”

She had seen the ring and his silvering hair, and noticed, of course, him staring, but she had realized also that he sat without acknowledging the others at his table, who chatted around him as if his seat were vacant. She found it unusual. Usually there was a connection among people like that, a language of shared experience that she had recognized as the board members at her table traded their gossip. And a disconnect as well, in the awkward questions and compliments they made, offering them to her like handouts. Perhaps that fostered her attraction, that he didn’t take part in what the others had to say, but preferred to ignore them for her. She couldn’t help wondering then, why he’d attended the event. Not to bid or buy, and not to network. He at least looked like one of them in his expensive blazer and tie. Ricky had never owned a tie.

They cruised onto a boulevard filled with lights, a street of clubs and restaurants that stayed open past midnight, and of people who looked like him making their way to and from the nightlife. She knew a street a little like that on her side of the city, where people hung out, except the places there seemed tenuous, fragile, as if a strong wind could bring them crashing down, but no one cared enough to fix them. It was louder there too, the music from each place deafening, the voices of the people fighting to stand out from the din.

Kenzie’s fingers ran over a small tear in the seam of the carseat, and she played with its leather edges. She noticed now that much about his car had the feel of something from the past. It groaned over bumps and potholes. It had no computer on board, no navigation, just a radio and some buttons to program it.

“How old is this car?” she said.
“It’s a classic. A sedan from a time when people cared about craftsmanship.” His voice sounded like an actor in an old movie, one shot in black and white.

Coming out from the dinner she had expected something new and flashy for a man like this. Something he would have had polished every week. Yet this car fit him. It was an old shirt that had begun to fray, a first love that refused to be forgotten. She supposed he could grow attached to something like that. The more she examined, though, the more flaws she discovered. The windshield had a small crack above the dash; the door trim had come loose next to her elbow. Still, it might have cost a lot when it was new.

“Are you going to get these things fixed?”
“They’re like tarnish on an antique,” Edward said. “It diminishes the value to repair these things.”

Kenzie didn’t know much about cars, or antiques, but she knew his explanation was nonsense. He couldn’t really believe she’d buy it. She thought to push him a little more. “You’re lucky I didn’t see this car in the daylight first. I probably would have taken a taxi,” she said.

“There was one sitting right there. Maybe you should have.”

Kenzie heard Ricky’s voice through the traffic. Don’t take that tone with me. I’ll kick you out right here and you can walk home.

Edward asked her about the kind of place she might like to go to. “Do you like music? Maybe jazz, or something contemporary?” He asked if she cared for cocktails or wine.

She had no idea how to answer. For so long her life had been her children and her mother. Music was whatever Ricky put on, hip-hop or pop, as long as it was loud. Drinks meant the beer he brought home after work. She thought to guess Edward’s preference. “I could go for jazz, maybe,” she said.
At the next traffic light Edward leaned toward her. He wrinkled his forehead as he spoke. “You didn’t mean a word of it, did you?” he said. “You told those people at the dinner what they wanted to hear, but it was an act. Listening to you now I can tell.”

Kenzie looked out the window at the brick façades that lined the street. “It wasn’t all a lie,” she said. They were older, perhaps, than the places she knew, but in no danger of collapse. “I really didn’t know where to turn for help back then.”

“And now?”
“If it makes them feel good to think they’re helping people, then let them.”

Edward laughed. He pulled in at a dark little club squeezed between a shuttered art gallery and a clothing shop—another connection to a time gone by, another valet running out to park the car. The place had a boozy, leathery feel, and the air was humid with familiarity, the feeling that everyone here knew everyone else.

The maître d’ was busy in the back and Edward led her in without waiting. They settled in a side booth. Kenzie noticed the other patrons laughing and carrying on, and bantering with the black-clad staff, the way she’d sometimes imagined the rich on the town. She watched as they ordered too much of everything. Edward pondered the drink list.

“You were going to leave,” she said, “after spending the whole night watching me. You saw me look back. Did I scare you?”
“How did I know you didn’t have someone waiting for you at home? How did you know I didn’t?”
“So then, yes,” she said.
“I’ve learned not to expect too much these days,” he said. “I suppose that’s not a good way to get what you want.”
“And what do you want?”
“Only what I deserve. And maybe a little more. And you?”

Kenzie looked around for someone to acknowledge them. “The service here is too slow,” she said.
Edward made a signal to a waiter loitering near the bar. When the man came over he started to order, but the waiter shook his head before he could speak. “Sorry, sir,” the waiter said. “We can’t serve you tonight.”

Kenzie looked perplexed. “What’s wrong? You can’t be out of drinks,” she said.

Edward got out and walked the waiter far enough away so she couldn’t hear. He put his hand on the man’s shoulder, and seemed to be explaining something, and every few moments the waiter leaned out from the conversation and took a look at her, at her face, the face Edward must have been using to make his appeal. He took out his wallet and pulled a few bills, and tried to give them to the waiter, but the man refused, waving at the cash as though it smelled of something. Instead the waiter ushered him to a small computer monitor. He punched a few keys and then tapped a spot near the bottom several times to emphasize. Edward nodded. He spoke again. He implored. The waiter looked at her once more. Then he left to go behind the bar, apparently to place their order, and Edward came back. “It’s okay,” he said. “He’ll serve us now.”

She thought of what she could say, perhaps something encouraging. But she could think of nothing except that he had ordered for her without asking what she wanted. And he had used her to get his way. Like Ricky and every man she’d known. Even now a man in one of other booths took a glance in her direction, despite the three women sitting with him at their table. Kenzie tilted her head at him and parted her lips, feigning interest to see how he would react, and he kept on staring.

She turned to Edward and said, “What do you do? For a living.”

“I don’t work at a job, if that’s what you mean.”
The waiter was already on the way back with two martinis balanced on a small tray.
“Why wouldn’t he serve us at first?”
“A dispute,” Edward said. “I had an argument with the owner last time I was here. It’s patched up now.”

The waiter looked around before he placed their drinks. “I can’t get caught doing this, you know. But you’ve been a decent customer,” he said.

The waiter left them and Edward said, “Well, maybe not as patched up as I said.” He picked up his drink and took a quick swallow.

“You take me to a place where you’re not welcome?” she said.
“It’s not that. I’ve been coming here for years.”
“Well, I’m not in a mood to rush. It took me two hours to get to the dinner. I had to walk from the bus stop. The whole time I thought I’d be late. Now I want to relax.”
“I don’t know if we can.”
“And I’m hungry. I hardly touched my food. I’d like to look at a menu. I’d like to order something.”

Edward began to look afraid. “Let’s leave,” he said. “I can take you somewhere else.”

The man at the other booth seemed intent on watching their disagreement.

“Then take me home. I don’t understand why we can’t stay here.”
“Because I can’t,” Edward said. “I tried to tell you. An argument. Obviously the owner’s not over it.”
“Then why come here in the first place? Why not wait until you’re sure?”
“I was. I thought I was.” He stood up.
Kenzie gathered her purse. She followed him to the door, and just as he stepped outside, touched his elbow. “You didn’t pay,” she whispered. “After what the waiter did for you, you didn’t pay.”
“The drinks were on the house. He’s a friend.”
“And the owner? He’s what to you?”
“Enough,” Edward said.

In the car they sat in traffic. As the evening went on the boulevard had become busier, people coming from shows for a late drink or supper, Kenzie imagined. Perhaps to discuss the play they’d seen. Or just to talk. They must have so much to talk about. The people she knew—it was always the same things. Talk was gossip and complaint. Talk was family. How great it would be to talk about the world outside her life.

With Edward quiet now she began to think of her twins, who must be asleep. Her mother would be asleep as well, so that when she came home the house would be silent, hers alone for a little while, and she could sit there in the dark and remember what it was like to be the girl with the prettiest face, the one all the boys wanted and all the girls envied, the one with a future. She could remember having Ricky pursue her, and win her, and how they lived together—him filling her with his passions. He would talk of dreams, and then of revenge against those he believed stood in his way. He would stroke her hair and cry that he couldn’t provide for her and the kids; couldn’t give them the life they deserved. Then he would take her into the bedroom, where his frustrations with life would become the cruelty he would use to assuage his failures.

She watched as Edward peered through the windshield at the cars ahead, not looking to either side. If she waited until the next traffic light she could throw the car door open and get out. She could run back to the bar and go inside, and if the man at the other table looked at her again she would go up to him and ask if she could join them, and he would say of course. And the women at that table would hate her but tolerate her, because they needed the approval of the man. He would offer to buy her dinner and drinks. He would ask about her, where she lived and what she did. What her plans were. And the man would be somebody, a respected man with a business and many friends in the city.

“This is awkward,” Edward said. “I’ll just take you home. I shouldn’t have stared at you at the dinner. Then none of this would have happened.”
“What was the argument about?”
Edward paused as if to answer, but instead asked Kenzie for her address. “You might have to give me directions,” he said. “I only know this part of the city.”
“The argument,” she said. “What could be so bad that he wouldn’t let you come in?”
“It’s nothing,” Edward said. “And it’s none of your business.” He steered to the curb and turned on the overhead light. “Now tell me how to get to your house.”

Kenzie opened the car door. The night had turned cold, and the rush of icy air took her by surprise. But she kept the door open and swung her leg out. “The waiter said you were a decent man,” she said. “He knows something. Maybe I’ll go ask him.”

“You’ve been lying to me,” Kenzie said.

Edward said nothing for a second. He stared at her again, but the curiosity he’d shown at the dinner had vanished. She saw him fighting to hold something in, an emotion she recognized as shame.

“Then I guess we’re even,” he finally said.

In her thin blouse she might freeze before she could walk the four or five blocks back to the bar, if she could remember where it was at all. But Kenzie pushed herself out of the passenger seat and stood on the sidewalk. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders and started running, past a surprised couple coming out of a restaurant. Ricky would have chased her. He would have run her down within a few feet and grabbed her by the hand, squeezing so hard she would drop to her knees from the pain. He would have slapped her, in front of everyone, and dared them to stop it. He would have called her whore and bitch, and dragged her back to his car, and made her apologize for her disrespect, and if any of the bystanders had interfered he would have threatened to hit them, man or woman, as well. Edward, though, sat behind the wheel of his aging car and did nothing. Still, she ran.

Around the corner Kenzie stopped. She panted clouds of vapor from the exertion and the frigid air, and bent over, bracing her hands against her knees until her lungs stopped burning. Edward hadn’t followed. A valet at another restaurant down the block noticed her for a few seconds, but then a customer came out with a ticket and he went back to his work. She looked up at the half dozen stars that managed to twinkle through the city’s smog. And then she knew. Edward was poor. Poor like her and yet not like her, poor in his own way, the way anyone can be poor. She knew it. The idea absorbed her, making her forget about the cold and the street. She didn’t know how he had managed to attend the expensive dinner. Perhaps his poverty had happened only recently and he had purchased the reservation before. Maybe an investment had gone bad. A divorce. The reason wasn’t really important. He’d had to sell his new car and buy an older one. There were bills he couldn’t cover, expenses that had once seemed trivial, now eating away at him. He’d run up a tab at the bar that he couldn’t pay. She could confirm it with the waiter. Maybe the man in the other party was still in his booth. This was supposed to be a night of change. She would go there.

If only she had paid closer attention when they came out of the bar. She didn’t know the name of the street, and hadn’t watched to see where they’d turned. Kenzie had only a vague sense of the direction she needed to go. If she could find a taxi she could ask the driver to take her there, but she hadn’t even noticed the name of the place. She would have to have the taxi cruise the streets, and she wouldn’t be able to afford that. She didn’t see a cab on the street anyway.

So she walked. Into the wind and toward a strip of clubs that beckoned with the pinkish neon of affluence. There were enough people out that she felt safe walking. In each car that she passed on the busy road someone turned to look at her, a ghostly visage gazing through a window to see, to look at her face. Women in passenger seats, men and women driving—they all watched her like they would a movie star, watched her lean into the weather and continue on. At first she thought to smile at them, to grace their concern with a glimpse of her beauty. They would see it again, perhaps soon, and they would remember that the woman in the ad and on the billboard was the one they had seen on the street. And they would think they should have offered to help her. But then, for the first time she could recall, Kenzie wondered what they really saw. She paused at the next car. The man and woman inside turned toward her like everyone else. She ignored them to see her reflection in the window. Her face seemed different from the one that would soon appear as the icon of the agency campaign. Did the people in the cars see courage and innocence, or was hers the face of hopelessness? Since those days with Ricky she had never thought to ask anyone. She assumed people saw what he said they did. How happy it had once made her to believe herself so beautiful.

She turned around and went back to the corner. Kenzie had already gone so far that she could not see Edward’s car. He would have departed anyway, gone chasing what was left of his life. Now she felt sure about him; a poor man always ran away.

She felt the cold more acutely now. It began to sting her skin beneath the blouse, and Kenzie realized she could never make it back to the bar they’d visited. But there were others, here and there along the boulevard, all inviting her to come inside. And still more down the side streets, smaller places but just as intriguing. Down an opening no bigger than an alleyway she could hear the sound of a saxophone float on the biting air. So many places she had never known existed, and inside them so many men, men who would be looking for her. Like Ricky and Edward they would see her, see her face and become mesmerized by its beauty. The story would yet come true. She would only have to go inside and wait and they would come to her, with their promises of love and rescue, and she would only have to choose which of them she could trust.

About the Author:

Joe Ponepinto has published stories in more than forty literary journals, and two novels with indie publishers. He publishes and edits the literary journal Orca, and was the founding publisher and fiction editor of Tahoma Literary Review, a nationally recognized literary journal. He has an MFA in creative writing, and teaches at Seattle’s legendary Hugo House writing center.