“Two plain, a French cruller, and two large double-doubles,” the man barked over the crowd. Seven to nine in the morning was the busiest time. The bobbing heads and rustling feet of workers on their way to shifts at the Ford plant or sales desks at Bobby’s Nearly New Autoworld. There were mechanics from Midas, Canadian Tire, oil stains tattooed in the crevices of their palms as they handed June their money and headed back to their cars, grasping brown paper bags, balancing cups in cardboard trays.
“Three twenty-five,” she said.
“Keep a quarter for yourself, sweetheart,” the man said.
Mornings were so busy, June didn’t have to think. An automaton, pouring coffee, making change. Sorrelli’s Donut Castle was a dump, a dive. A minimum wage job on the wrong side of town. Industrial. Poor. East of the tracks. But June had been desperate. Nineteen eighty-one. Summer jobs were scarce. Stagflation. Even with scholarships and loans, first year at university in Toronto was going to be difficult. She had to save what she could or she’d be stuck in London, Ontario, for the rest of her life.
“Will you get that? ” Wendy shouted over the noisy crowd. Wendy was the longest reigning Donut Princess. A born-again Christian in her early thirties, she still lived with her mother in a walk-up apartment down the road.
June headed to the far end of the counter where, against a wall, the trilling ring and pulsing red lights of the switchboard beckoned. One of the duties of the Donut Princess was to serve as telephone operator for Sorrelli’s Motor Inn, the eighteen units on the other side of the parking lot. Truckers and motorcycle-gang members passing through London were regulars; a half-dozen girls were residents, living and working out of the dimly lit rooms.
“Switchboard,” June answered.
“Help!” A hoarse voice wailed. “I can’t wake up Josephine. Oh God.”
“I’ll...call an ambulance.”
Room 15. Two of the girls. Transvestites, actually. Josephine and Jacquie. June often served them during the all-night shift. Stoned, they’d stagger in, each order two chocolate-dipped and a Coke. They’d giggle and gossip about various johns, advise June on fashion and makeup, suggestively licking the icing, daintily nibbling the cake of the doughnuts.
Under the glare of the fluorescent lights, in the cozy intimacy shared by those awake in a land of sleep, June felt part of their world. A world that was exotic and thrilling, gritty and real. She was impressed by how free they seemed—not degraded or degenerate, but free. Living how they wanted, not caring what anyone thought.
After the bleating siren, after the orange-and-white ambulance had taken Josephine away, June struggled to finish her shift. She wondered what could have happened. Drugs? A rough client? June’s fingers trembled, spilling coffee, dropping doughnuts to the floor as she tried to focus on her work. But she couldn’t stop thinking about Josephine.
June lined up the sugar canisters for refilling and almost burst into tears when she knocked several over, white sugar streaming onto the counter and the floor. “You shouldn’t be here,” said one of the regulars, a farmer, long retired, as he passed June a metal canister lid that had rolled under his stool. “You’re a nice girl. You’ve no business in a place like this.”
He was right, in a way. June knew she didn’t belong here. But that was the attraction, the thrill, the exposure to the seamy side of a city she’d always thought was the dullest place on earth.
When June arrived at work the next day, Wendy filled her in. Josephine had almost overdosed on a combination of glue and Lysol fumes, Valium chased by vodka. Her stomach pumped, she was back in Room 15—the doctor insisted on a few days’ bed rest—before returning to her life.
“That’s great news,” June said, relieved. She wondered if Josephine’s overdose had been deliberate, but she doubted it. Josephine seemed to be having too much fun to want to kill herself.
“I prayed for her, I did,” Wendy confided, fingering the gem-studded crucifix at her neck. “Jesus wasn’t ready for her. It wasn’t her time.” Wendy’s hand was mottled with purple-and-blue ink.
“Bingo last night? ”
“Yeah. Those daubers, they really leak,” Wendy said, glancing down at her hands. “Things are pretty quiet. I’m gonna go out back and make up some éclairs.”
“I’ll shout if it picks up,” June said, smoothing the front of her brown-and-orange smock, frowning when she noticed she hadn’t tied it properly when she’d changed for her shift. She undid the knot and wrapped the smock tighter around her body, making a bow at the side. Even though the uniform was hideous, June knew it flattered her—snug at the waist, tight across her hips and breasts.
Embarrassed to admit it, even to herself, she revelled in the attention she drew at the Donut Castle. The frank stares of men who gave her the once-over, flirting with her as if they were grateful just to be in her presence. For the first time in her life, June almost felt beautiful.
The door swung open and Tony Sorrelli swaggered in. A short, fat man in his mid-forties, greasy black hair plastered to his skull, he was the owner, the “brains” behind the Castle.
“Mornin’, sweetheart,” he said, leaning up against the counter, his belly thrust out, straining the buttons of his flowered mauve polyester shirt. He sparkled as the sunlight streamed in from the plate-glass windows. It was the gold. Tony was covered in gold. Rings, bracelets, and necklaces glinted from under the dense, dark hair that sprouted on his fingers, wrists, and chest.
“How’s my favourite princess? ” he said, sliding up behind June.
“Fine,” she said, backing away.
“She plays hard to get, this one,” he said, grinning at Wendy, who had returned to the room, a tray of éclairs in hand. “I’ll leave you girls to it,” Tony said, heading to the back office.
“He’s a pig,” Wendy said.
“I know,” said June.
Tony had been after June to “party” with him ever since she’d started working there. “Pot, booze—I’ll get you anything you want,” he’d said. She tolerated his attentions, even smiling and shrugging off his occasional lewd remark. But last week, he’d crossed a line. June was in the bathroom, changing from her uniform into her jeans, when Tony had burst in, filling the doorway. He’d grabbed her by the shoulders and plunged his thick wet tongue into her mouth. She’d screamed and told him to fuck off. When she got home, she gargled three times with Listerine. But though she didn’t quite understand it, deep down she knew she’d hesitated before repulsing his advance, a few seconds of compliance before she shoved him away.
Friday night. The graveyard shift. Sorrelli’s glowed from the inside out, a square cinder-block jack-o’-lantern breathing light. A beacon to those high on drugs and booze, scattered on the streets after last call. Headlights flickered like sparklers in the parking lot, young men in muscle shirts and cut-offs scarfed crullers, dangled their legs from the backs of pickups, and insisted, louder and louder, that tunes be cranked up. Miniskirted girls on stiletto heels teetered from car to car, sipping coffees laced with double cream, double sugar, and Southern Comfort. Middle-aged men clustered on the fringe, their murmuring punctuated by throaty laughter.
“The cops just drove up,” Danny said, tossing the joint they were sharing out the open window. They were in the backroom, Danny baking and June icing the fresh doughnuts. Danny was wiry and freckled, with short, stringy, dirty-blond hair. He was older than June, just old enough to buy beer. He had dropped out of school at fifteen, but recently completed his high-school equivalency. And he had plans. Big plans. A friend had a job on an oil rig outside of Calgary, and they were hiring. So Danny was saving his cheques. Any day now, he’d be packing his things and boarding the bus.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” June said, lighting a cigarette. “I’m sure Tony has some sort of ‘arrangement.’”
“Maybe there’s a fight.” He tore off his apron. “I’m gonna go check it out.”
June skimmed a doughnut along the surface of the chocolate, simmering just below the boiling point in the dented pot on the gas burner. The backroom was hot and stuffy. She reached under the counter and took a swig from the tepid Coors Light Danny had given her earlier.
“Sorry to say, no action out there tonight.” Danny sighed. “Just some cop sittin’ at the picnic table, shooting the shit with Tony.”
“That’s a drag,” June said, placing the freshly iced doughnuts on a tray lined with wax paper.
“June,” Tony called from the front. “Come out here, will ya? ”
“Just a sec,” she said, brushing powdered sugar off the front of her uniform.
He sat at a table by the window. “Oh, there you are,” he said. “C’mon outside. Someone wants to meet you.”
An uniformed police officer in his mid-twenties stood up from the picnic table, towering above Tony.
“Hi there,” he said, smiling at June. His black hair was short, clipped close to his head. He was different than the older, seedier cops who usually dropped by for a smoke or a chat with Tony.
“So, Rob,” Tony said, pushing her forward. “This here’s June.”
“Glad to know you,” Rob said, extending his hand. “You work here long? I never saw you before.”
“A couple of months.”
“Tony treating you O.K.? ”
“Good,” he said, fiddling with a lighter, adjusting the height of the flame.
“I better get back to work.”
“Nice talking to you,” he said.
Minutes later, Tony burst into the backroom. “You want to go out with him? ”
“Rob. The cop. He wants to take you out. Buy you dinner. Maybe more,” he said, winking.
“Why not? He’s a nice guy. Got a good job. He’d make it worth your while.”
Worth her while?
“Forget it. I don’t even know him,” June said, grabbing a tray of doughnuts.
“Excuse me.” She waited for Tony to move out of the doorway to let her pass. He shifted to the side, then followed her to the front.
“Be right back,” Tony said, heading out to the parking lot. June watched him chatting to Rob.
A few minutes later, Tony returned.
“Well, I told him you didn’t want a date. Tried to get him to take out one of the girls from across there,” Tony said, nodding his head toward the motel. “But he wasn’t into that. Only wanted to go out with you.” Tony slid onto a stool at the counter. “Get me a Coke, would you honey? ”
As June headed to the cooler, she wondered what had really gone on. Had the cop just wanted to take her out, or had he and Tony actually been negotiating for her body, determining a price? The lines between dating and prostitution weren’t as clear as she’d once thought. June was surprised she wasn’t angry, not even offended, just amazed at how effortlessly, if she wanted to, she could disappear into this life.
June placed the pop in front of Tony and continued her work. She sensed the flit of his stare on her as she emptied tin ashtrays, wiping them down with a dirty cloth.
“Guess where I was yesterday? ” he said. “Took the Lincoln up to Port Huron, just across the border. Know it? ”
“They got it good down there. Real good. Guess what they got there? ”
“I don’t know.”
“You go into this bar, pay twenty bucks, and right there in front of you...right in front of you, on this stage they got there, there’s these guys and girls doing it. I sat up close and saw everything. Everything. Maybe you and me’ll go there sometime.”
“Right,” she said, deliberately leaning over to clear away his empty glass so that from where he was sitting he could peek down the front of her uniform. “I’ve gotta go help Danny,” she said, smiling, once she’d seen him look.
“All right, princess,” Tony said, winking. “Till next time.” He smacked his lips against his hands, wiggling his tongue between his fingers. “For you,” he said, blowing her a kiss. As she headed to the back, June felt completely in control. It was almost exhilarating how easily she could play him.
June spent her free time in the last days of August trying to break the monotony by reading, going to bingo halls with Wendy, and packing and repacking. She was working right up till the end. She could use the money. Besides, there was no one to say goodbye to, no one to miss. Her dad was camping cross-country with his latest girlfriend. Her mother had been staggering in later and later from dates with various Harveys, Harrys, and Pauls.
Time dragged during her last shifts at Sorrelli’s. Danny had left for Calgary a week earlier. While June was happy he’d made it, she missed the comfort of his presence, their easy banter and laughter as the late nights became dawn.
When Tony heard that June’s final day at Sorrelli’s was approaching, he intensified his efforts. His hands brushed her breasts. He groped her from behind, grinding his groin into her, whispering, “Great tits,” “Nice ass,” and, “Come get high with me.” June tolerated his advances, sometimes even responding, leaning into him, not contradicting his belief that she wanted it, too. She wondered what she was doing, playing a role in this sordid game.
But Tony’s determination affected her, made her aware of her beauty, her good fortune to possess an arrangement of features, skin, hair, flesh, muscle, and bone men found attractive. There was something about his relentless pursuit, his raw hunger, that made June feel powerful. And she liked the idea of choosing this as her final London experience. Escaping with a flourish, liberated by behaving badly. She dared herself to do it—in some ways couldn’t imagine a more fitting end.
So June agreed to party with Tony, after her final shift at Sorrelli’s. It would be her last night in London; she was leaving for Toronto the next day. Without specifying the exact terms of the transaction, they negotiated a price: a dime bag of pot, a twenty-sixer of vodka, and at least one hundred and fifty dollars cash. Maybe more, Tony promised with a leer, depending on how things went. June wasn’t sure how that compared to the going rate, but it was more than she’d expected.
June slammed the door when her last shift ended at 11 p.m. She stepped into the night and entered his waiting car. Tony pulled out of the parking lot, heading south on Wharncliffe Road.
“There’s a place I know, just north of Lambeth. Don’t want to go across the street,” he said, grinning. “The other girls might get jealous.” He pointed to a bag by her feet. “That’s for you.”
She peered in. A baggie of pot. A bottle of Smirnoff.
“I’ll give you the cash after,” Tony said.
“O.K.,” June said, “but I need some rolling papers and cigarettes now.”
“I’ll stop at the next store,” he said. “You should ease up on the cigarettes, you know. They’re bad for the lungs. I quit last year, using these.” He popped a white Scotch mint into his mouth. “Want one? ”
“No,” she said. June was curious about how things would go. Unlike the other times she’d had sex, the anticipation was not in her body, only in her mind. She wondered how things would unfold. The situation was beyond words. Their roles were clear. She felt free. She could speak in tongues. It didn’t matter. He wouldn’t care. She could say or be anything, here in the car, driving into the night. Only her body felt the smoothness of the leather seat, heard the crickets in the fields, smelled the sweet freshness of the evening air. She liked the feeling of being invisible. Disappearing, if only for a few hours, into this world.
The Golden Phoenix. A blue-and-yellow neon bird soared skyward, rising above an illuminated sign that read: “ROOMS $19.99/NITE.”
“Wait here,” Tony said, squeezing her leg. “Gotta go get the room.”
They parked in a spot at the back of the motel. A naked bulb shone on the aqua number nine.
“Have a seat,” said Tony, as he held open the pale yellow door. “You want a drink? ”
“Yeah,” June said, settling into a black vinyl chair. She rested her feet on the edge of the bed. The ridges of the gold chenille spread tickled the bare skin of her ankles, exposed by the leather straps of her sandals. She placed a cigarette between her lips.
“I’ll get it.” She smelled sulphur as Tony lit a match. He opened a mickey of rye and poured the amber liquid into a glass.
“Not that,” she said. “I want vodka. Over ice.”
“Be right with you,” he said, grabbing a plastic bucket from the top of the television. Minutes later he was back.
“Here,” he said, handing June a vodka. “Just the way you asked.”
He gulped down the rye and made himself another drink. He plopped on the mattress and began stroking her calf, the inside of her thigh.
“Take these off,” he said, leaning forward, fumbling with the metal button of her jeans. “The T-shirt, too.”
June stripped to her bra and panties.
“I want another drink,” she said. She lay on the bed. She was light-headed. Her face was flushed. Tony bent over her, slid her breasts out of her bra, and began licking and sucking.
“No kissing on the mouth,” she said. “No oral sex.” His face was bristly and scraped against her skin.
“And you have to wear a condom.”
Tony arranged limbs, positioned her to gain access, seeking out the various endpoints of his desire. June was reminded of playing Barbies with her friend Jill, back when they were kids. How they’d move Barbie’s arms, her legs, manipulating her through cartwheels, handstands, and splits. They marvelled at Barbie’s flaxen hair, her flawless skin, as they dressed her in silver sequined halter tops and pink hot pants. The high arches of her feet as they wriggled purple pumps over her toes. No need for cosmetics, her black lashes permanently thick, her eyelids forever emerald, and an immutable smile always radiating from her rose-tinted lips.
Tony spread her legs.
“Shit,” he said, trying to enter her. He rolled to the side of the bed and June could hear a bag rustling. “Good thing I brought this,” he said, opening a jar of Vaseline. She tried to numb herself against the cold wetness as he sank into her, his bulk, the matted hair of his chest against her skin. She wasn’t there, she reminded herself, she wasn’t really there. She stared at the ceiling as he shifted and moaned. A deep grunt signaled the end of the act. June leapt from the bed. She went to the bathroom where she washed and got dressed.
“Let’s go,” she said.
Tony turned over and rubbed his eyes. “Right now? ”
“I’ve got to get home.”
He dropped her off a few blocks from her house. It was late, nearly three. She opened the car door.
“A bonus,” Tony said, handing her two crisp hundred-dollar bills. “You worked out good this summer.”
“Thanks,” June said, taking the money and turning away. As she walked home, she gazed at the stars, the sliver of the moon. The air was crisp and clear. In about six hours, she’d be heading to Toronto. What would the residence be like? Her classes? Professors? June wondered who she might be in this new life. She sat on the porch steps, shifting her legs, trying to ignore the stickiness between them. Lighting a cigarette, she waited for the dawn.