Hired Girl -5- Plum Sauce

 

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Hired Girl -5-
Plum Sauce

by Erin Halfelven

 
“That was Mom,” said Judith, clicking her phone to hang up.

“Yeah, I figured,” said Harold, his voice quivering.

“We’ve got Chinese takeout waiting for us.”

“Uh-huh,” Harold agreed. He stared at his reflection in the full-length mirror and didn’t move. The image of a pretty girl in a short pink dress stared back at him.

“Not hungry?” asked Judith.

Harold shook his head.

“Scared?”

Harold nodded, and the girl in the mirror nodded, too.

“It’s just Mom,” said Judith. “She’s not going to care. Well, she cares, but she’s not going to be upset.”

Harold made a face.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” asked Judith.

Harold gulped and turned pale, the blush on his cheeks standing out.

Judith reached out to take his hand. “Forget I asked that,” she said quickly. “You’ve got some imagination there.” She laughed softly.

Harold looked at her sideways. “No laughing,” he said. “I’ll throw up if someone laughs.”

“Okay, okay,” said Judith. She tweaked a strand of his hair away from his eyes. “This is serious. But come on, you have to eat. Can’t you smell the shrimp five flavors?” She took a deep breath. “Mm-mm, ginger, garlic, green onion, chili spice, what’s that other one?”

“Coriander,” said Harold. Shrimp five flavors was one of his favorite dishes and Judith knew it. He swallowed because his mouth had begun to water.

“Yeah,” agreed Judith. “So good. You know in New York there are some really good Chinese places but nothing quite like Rickshaw shrimp.”

“Too bad,” said Harold, fidgeting a little. He turned left, then right, looking at himself in the mirror again.

“Of course, you can get delivery anytime, even in the middle of the night for some things,” she noted. “New York really is the City That Never Sleeps.”

“I thought that was Las Vegas,” said Harold.

“Nope,” said Judith. “Las Vegas is the City That Passes Out in the Buffet Line at 4 a.m.”

Harold made a sniffing noise. He really did feel that if anyone laughed, even himself, he might throw up. He sighed. The girl in the mirror looked scared but very, very cute. Her white-blonde short hair in a post-punk Bart Simpson up-do, her blue-on-blue eyes set off by the hint of lavender eye shadow, her cheeks rosy with youth and blush, her lips moist with pink sophistication—she looked all of sixteen and ready to meet the world.

But maybe not Harold’s mother.

Judith stood suddenly and headed toward the door. “Well, I’m going to go down and have some five flavors. Coming, shrimp?”

After making more faces at the mirror, Harold turned and followed his sister.

“Careful on the stairs,” she warned him. “Remember you’re wearing heels.”

* * *
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Dottie Pink looked up from setting the kitchen table with paper plates, wooden chopsticks, and glasses of water to see her eldest enter from the laundry room add-on that connected the house with Judith’s bedroom above the garage. “Thought the smell of Rickshaw’s Shrimp Five Flavors would get you downstairs quicker,” she said, smiling.

“We had a little delay,” said Judith. “Did you get any plum sauce for the egg rolls?”

“Of course,” said Dottie, pointing at a plastic container of the sticky sweet condiment.

“Dad always forgets,” Judith noted. Behind her, Harold paused in the doorway of the laundry room, still wearing the short pink mini-skirt Judith had worn to her first high school party. Two-inch heels made him appear taller, and Judith’s careful makeup made him —or his new alter-ego Carol— appear closer to his real age of sixteen than he normally did. The tousled, spiky but feminine hair-do Judith had achieved completed the effect.

Dottie paused to set down the bottle of spring water she had been pouring so she would not spill it. She stared at him for two beats, opened her mouth and then closed it. She raised her eyebrows and smiled. “You look nice, Harold,” she said. “I’m sure you two will get around to telling me what is going on sooner or later.”

Judith took a crispy noodle from the plate in the middle of the spread their mother had laid out. “I told you she wouldn’t laugh,” she said between crunches.

“Sit down,” said Dottie. “Let’s eat. I have to take a couple of clients to look at that ranch in Cucamonga in an hour; that’s why we’re eating take-out so early.”

“I figured something like that,” said Judith, pulling out a chair and retrieving a squeeze bottle of mustard from the cabinet before sitting down.

Harold pulled out a chair too, smoothing his skirt beneath him as he sat.

Dottie nodded. “Are you going to say anything?” she asked him, still smiling as she finished pouring water for each of them.

“I have no idea what to say,” Harold whispered. “It was Judith’s idea,” he amended, a little louder.

“Obviously,” agreed Dottie, turning to look at her older child.

Judith shrugged. She took two tablespoons and, using them like a clamshell digger, lifted some of the shrimp five flavors from its carton onto her plate. “Harold needs a job, and no one will hire a boy who looks eleven.”

“You don’t look eleven,” Dottie said to Harold.

“Not now,” said Judith. “Carol looks her real age, sixteen, or at least fourteen or fifteen. Huh?”

“Carol?” Dottie asked no one. She nodded. “All right. Are you okay with this, Bunny?” she asked Harold.

He squirmed in his little pink dress at the ancient nickname. His mother had stopped using it when he started fifth grade, but Dottie still called Judith by her baby name of Kitten occasionally.

“I think so,” Harold answered. His voice sounded even lighter and higher than it usually did. He tried again, a little louder. “I think so.”

“You think so?” his mother asked with some emphasis on ‘think.’ She looked thoughtful. “Hmm.”

Harold stared at her.

“Eat,” his mother told him. She nodded. “Well, I ‘think’ it might work. You certainly make a lovely girl. You remind me of Rhoda when she was young.”

Judith almost laughed. Rhoda was Dottie’s younger, taller, more zaftig sister. “Was Aunt Rhoda ever as skinny as…Carol?”

“Oh, yes,” said Dottie. “She was thin all through high school; she didn’t get all curvy until she married and had several kids.” She grinned suddenly. “I was pretty slender before I met your father and got knocked up, myself.”

Her children pretended not to have heard that last part.

Harold loaded his plate with shrimp, vegetables, rice, an eggroll, a dollop of sauce and another of mustard. He took a sip of water. His mother and sister watched him, casually. With expertise from long practice, he used his chopsticks to pop a shrimp into his mouth. The burst of flavors brought tears to his eyes and he sipped more water.

Everyone sighed and went on with eating.

“Where are you planning on having ‘Carol’ apply for work?” Dottie asked Judith.

“At Jazz Promenade where I’m going to do some waitressing. Or rather, in the Promenade Cafe, since, uh, she’s too young to work in the bar.”

Harold blushed.

Dottie nodded, then blinked while munching a particularly spicy bit of carrot. She waved her fingers in front of her nose. “Whoo! Sounds like a plan, but….” She paused for a few sips of spring water. “But doesn’t Jake Luft know you don’t have a sister? In fact, hasn’t he met Harold back when you two were dating? Or is he not working at The Prom anymore?”

“Uh, no, he’s the manager now. His brother moved over to the hotel management, so he has the club.” She grinned, perhaps at some private memory. “He’ll hire Carol, or have the cafe manager hire her. Trust me on this.”

“Then why wouldn’t he hire Harold?” asked Dottie.

Harold looked at the ceiling.

“Because the job would be as a host or hostess for the dining room. Even Jake would balk at hiring someone who looks, at most, twelve for that job in a sophisticated hotel restaurant.”

Dottie looked at Harold. “You don’t look twelve,” she said.

“Well, not now I don’t!” said Harold.

“We spent almost two days trying to get someone to hire Harold,” said Judith. “No go. And the fact that nearly half of them thought he was a girl suggested this solution. I knew that with makeup, I could make him, her, look her age.”

Dueling chopsticks divided up the last of the shrimp and Dottie savored her win for a moment, chewing thoughtfully. “It’s your voice,” she told Harold.

Swallowing some water, Harold nodded. “It hasn’t changed yet.”

“He’s still a soprano,” said Judith. “Luckily,” she added.

“That’s not it,” said Dottie. “It’s the way you pronounce ’s’ and ‘l’ and ‘th’. Like a girl, not like a boy.”

“Huh?” Harold and Judith both looked puzzled.

“It’s something I learned back in my Little Theater days, before I figured out I couldn’t act,” said their mother. “A lot of girls, maybe not most, but a lot of them, you can see the tip of their tongue when they say ‘th’ and sometimes when they say ‘l’ or ’s’. It’s almost like a lisp. Boys never do that.” She amended, “Well, some gay boys do. It was a tip our director gave to one of the straight guys trying to play a gay character.”

Judith hid a smile with a bite of her consolation prize, the last eggroll.

Harold stared at his mother.

“Say ‘synthetic liquid thistle’,” she instructed.

He shook his head.

“Is that why you asked me if he was gay?” asked Judith.

“Well, that and the way his eyes lit up when that fellow, Dwayne Johnson was on screen…” Dottie trailed off as Harold bolted from the room.

“Uh, oh,” said Judith, starting to stand up and follow her brother.

“Leave him alone for a bit,” said Dottie. “I notice he headed for your room.” She gave her eldest daughter a hard look. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“It’s where he left his own clothes. Not certain-sure, but have you got a better one?” Judith challenged.

“Humph,” said Dottie. “Why does he even need a job? He’s only sixteen.”

“I had a job when I was sixteen,” Judith pointed out. “And as I recall, you and Dad both pushed me into getting one.”

“That was mostly to get you out of the house that summer,” admitted Dottie. She and Judith exchanged grins. “You were a trial,” said Dottie. “Harold isn’t.”

They spent a few minutes cleaning up the detritus of their feast while talking about the situation.

“I don’t know,” Dottie mused. “And I do think you’re going to have to tell Jake something more than that you just discovered you had a sister he didn’t know about. Remember he’s been over here and seen Harold.”

“That was three or four years ago. And Jake was drooling over me, not paying attention to my family.”

“Jake’s no dummy,” Dottie cautioned.

“Just a lech,” said Judith, smiling.

“Well, don’t let him hit on Harold, or Carol,” said Dottie as they put the few utensils they had used into the dishwasher.

“I—I don’t think he would….” Judith trailed off, looking thoughtful. She started toward the laundry porch and the outside stairs to her room above the garage. “I better check on Harold.”

Her mother called after her. “If he’s still wearing the dress, he wants to do this,” said Dottie. “But if he’s changed back, maybe you should drop this plan.”

Judith nodded without turning around; she hurried a little.

“Don’t slam the doo….” Dottie started to say before she heard the noise that meant her order was too late. “That kid,” she muttered. “Harold would certainly make a quieter daughter.”

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