When Meryl is let go from her waitressing job, she has no choice but to turn to Gregory for work, an old man she served at the diner who has taken in girls in the past. Willing to do whatever she needs to support her son Leo, Meryl is nevertheless caught off guard when she discovers exactly what it is Gregory will pay her to do.
Gregory eyed her up and down. He circled her like a sculptor examining his clay, like a lion sniffing his prey. His face, beneath the whiskers, was wrinkly. Oily hair grew curly over his ears. Meryl shifted her weight from one foot to the other and saw a room with a desk, its wall papered with pictures of girls.
Meryl knew that the old man ran his business out of his cabin. His name was Gregory and he lived on the outskirts of town, down a gravely private way that forked off a country road and snaked through towering pines. There was a lake next to his property. She had paddled a rowboat on it once a few years ago when she was still a teenager, accessing it from the town boat launch. This was back when her mother was still alive and everything was still a laugh. Bobbing on the open water, Meryl had just been able to glimpse his cabin with the brown shingled roof through the brush. She and the other girls in the boat, all wearing stringy bikini tops and tight cut-off shorts, had giggled nervously when they passed by. People were always pointing, whispering, wondering about him. Meryl had gazed, looking for a clue to help her understand the kind of girl who would willingly work for him, or what they actually did – because nobody ever talked about it. Not to her, anyway. That day, she thought she saw a shadow shift beyond the lilac bushes, but she couldn’t make out the shape before it faded away into nothing. She vowed never to be involved in something that was unspeakable.
Meryl had heard rumors of girls who worked for Gregory back then – everyone did – and she thought she knew a few who worked for him now. One girl she was sure of, called Kaia, who lived in her building but on the third floor, one level above Meryl. She was blunt, unabashed and lived alone, whereas Meryl had Leo, whose soft, sticky hand she could always feel tucked inside her own even when they were apart. But Kaia had a good smile, a trim figure, and seemed okay.
Until now, Meryl had never before been desperate enough to consider taking a job with Gregory herself, even though she knew the man indirectly. She knew he always carried a fat roll of cash. It bulged in his back pocket when she served him coffee and plated his full stack of pancakes at the diner where she worked. Where she had worked. His face was always stubbly, a few days overdue for a shave. But he had never squeezed her ass or peered down her cleavage when she cleared his table like some of the old guys did. She felt good about that. Still, she knew something about him, or about what he did, was unsavory and not quite right for her.
He tipped her too high.
She kept her distance.