by Paul McComas
They’re out in full force this afternoon, stationed one apiece on each northwest and southeast corner from Chicago to Randolph, a kind of Thin Blonde Line snaking its way down North Michigan Avenue. Never before have I seen two dozen women who looked so much alike: all young, all white, all medium height, dressed in white pumps and white stockings and airy white cotton dresses and white wide-brimmed hats, and each one holding a white wicker basket filled with little white boxes. When the sun dips out from behind the cloud cover, it almost hurts to look at them.
“Do you smoke?” the one just ahead of me cheerily inquires of the portly businessman crossing in front of her. He nods, take a sample pack, keeps walking. “Enjoy!” she calls after him, then turns, still beaming, to me. “Do you smoke?”
I smile, shake my head; I walk past her and cross the street. The next, one block ahead, already is clearly visible. Even from here, I’d swear I can make out her teeth.
Aspiring actresses, perhaps? Or would-be fashion models not quite tall or emaciated enough for the pages of Elle or Vogue? No — models would be too aloof for a gig like this. Actresses after all, I’d bet; it must take at least a degree of dramatic talent to sustain such sunny gregariousness with countless anonymous passers-by over the course of an entire afternoon. Besides, a part’s a part. Who knows; maybe they even list the role on their acting résumés. “Cordelia in King Lear; Nora in A Doll’s House; Viceroy Girl.”
Or maybe not.
The one up ahead is doing a brisk business: a gaggle of tourists has converged upon her, palms thrust out expectantly, chattering amongst themselves in a language I cannot identify let alone comprehend. Unperturbed, she serenely hands a pack to each one in turn — “Enjoy! Enjoy! Enjoy!” — and, with a gentle wave of her arm, ushers them off to the side so that others, now approaching, might have their turn. For instance, me. “Do you smoke?”
“’Fraid not.” Passing her, I cross the street — and spot, in the distance, the next one. I ponder the white outfit: a corporate color choice intended, no doubt, to foster in the public mind an image of freshness and cleanliness and even, perhaps, unsullied innocence. An image of youth; an image of life. So much for truth in advertising. The Surgeon General should require them to dress in another color — say, the mottled charcoal gray of the average smoker’s lung. Still, with its vague resemblance to a nurse’s uniform, the current version does constitute a nice bit of foreshadowing.
But wait. The woman up ahead, the one on the next corner — she’s a brunette! How could this be? Did one of the regulars call in sick at the last minute? Who’s responsible for this lapse? Drawing nearer, I find myself acutely attracted to this brown-haired stranger. And not just because she lacks the Stepford-esque sameness of her sisters to the south; she is, on her own terms, simply lovely. There she stands, shifting lackadaisically from one foot to the other, idly swinging her basket of carcinogens by her side, a shimmering, slim-hipped, bright-eyed angel of death.
I am smitten. I must talk to her.
She senses my approach — what should I say? — and turns, smiling, in my direction. “Do you smoke?”
“No, but I’ve been thinking of starting.”
Instantly her smile vanishes; her delicate features harden. She leans ever-so-slightly forward, toward me, and looks me dead in the eye. “Don’t.” Then she turns, her smile and face replaced, to the elderly woman on my left. “Do you smoke?”
“Why, yes, dear.”
I pass her, cross the street — and turn back at the curb for a final glimpse. Adjusting her hat, she flips her hair back over her shoulder; she raises her wrist and glances at her watch.
It almost hurts to look at her.