As I ascend the spiral staircase, I hear the Technotronic jam of “Pump Up the Volume” blaring as it ricochets off the cement walls. Five o’clock sharp, I enter the studio, where I’m swallowed by a Phil Spector wall of sound. Straight ahead is Studio One. The windows, mirrors, and glass door are obscured by steam from all the sweat. Roberta, the gatekeeper to the kingdom, is stationed at her post in front of the cash register. She knows everything and every one by name. Nobody gets past her. She’s the all-knowing, all-seeing, evil Yoda.
Roberta is what southerners call big-boned, and she only wears long, black, flowing Stevie Nicks dresses. Her long black hair cascades in loose curls to her waist, tattoos cover her arms, neck, back, ankles, and piercings fill her ears, eyebrows, and even her tongue. She looks like a cross between Elvira and Morticia. She’s super smart, way, way, way overqualified for this job, and she wouldn’t be caught dead taking an aerobics class.
It’s my first day of work at the Jeff Martin Aerobics Studio. Jeff Martin’s is the hottest aerobic studio in New York City. They have top teachers, the best classes, and a sound system so powerful the police are called on a regular basis. I smile as I enter and say, “Hi, Roberta.” But she doesn’t even glance up, just grunts, and continues whiting out a name on one of the reservation sheets. She’s intimidating and has a way of making me feel like a complete idiot. All the phones are ringing, continually ringing.
“Jeff Martin Studio,” Roberta shouts into the phone. “Booked. Booked. They’re all booked,” she snarls with almost as much vitriol as a right-to-lifer fighting for the death penalty.
“You know, it wouldn’t hurt you to answer the phone,” she snaps.
“Right.” I grab the phone. “Please hold, I’ll check.”
But before I can ask, Roberta growls, “Everything’s booked. Tell ’em to call back tomorrow at nine—make a reservation.” Then Roberta grabs the phone out of my hand and hangs up on her.
“First rule,” she barks like a staff sergeant. “They’re all desperate, lonely, crazy, anorexic bitches. Okay? You’re not being paid to babysit.”
She points to the makeshift card file stuffed to overflowing with 3×5 multicolored cards and begins her rant, “Class cards. These contain the names and phone numbers of all the clients. They show the number of classes they have left. They must be marked every time they take a class. Sign-in chart.” She points to the clipboard on the counter in front of me. “Phones, cash register, which nobody touches but me. Understand? NOBODY! Sign-in for class is one hour prior. Not one second before. These bitches will try all kinds of ways to weasel themselves in sooner. Don’t let ’em. Get their name when they come in. Make sure their card is marked. If they owe money, make them pay. And don’t let them sign in for anyone else.”
I steady myself and begin signing in people for 6:30 Cardio Moves. I know these women, not by name, but by face. We take classes together, change clothes together, discuss liposuction, facelifts, eye jobs, boob jobs, who’s had them and who hasn’t, who needs them and who doesn’t. These women assume I know them, which I do. I just don’t know their names. Several of the women wave, “Hi,” as they breeze past me. I’m starting to sweat. Just as the class is about to start, two stragglers explode through the front door, see me, wave, and hightail it into class. At which point I call after them, “Excuse me. Excuse me.”
“Who was that?” Roberta demands.
“Uhm—no idea. I mean, I know them by face, but no idea.”
Roberta glares at me with her dark eyes lined in black cat-eye eyeliner as if I’m the biggest loser who’s ever walked the face of the earth, and at this moment, I believe, as she does, I am.
The days pass, and with each passing day, I get considerably better at my job. I memorize the faces and put the names with them. I learn who has a yearly membership, who buys a 10-class card, a monthly, pays as they go, and who tries to sneak in or out without paying.
Sitting behind the front desk, I observe the famous and not-so-famous sign in for class. Everyone from James Taylor to Sigourney Weaver to the infamous Sidney Biddle Barrows of Mayflower Madam fame takes classes here. We have television producers stepping out of black sedans and high-class call girls entering in furs.
And then there’s Shirley. She’s far from glamorous or famous. She’s a rather pudgy, unattractive woman with short, frizzy red hair. Always late, she rushes in talking on her phone, laden down with bags of stuff. Tonight she hands Roberta two filled to overflowing grocery bags from Fairway. Roberta’s scowl turns into a massive grin as she gushes, “Oh, hi, Shirley,” and gleefully stashes the Fairway bags behind her seat. “Thank you so much.” Shirley then hands her a Godiva chocolate bag. “These are for Jeff,” she confirms. Then, giving a white paper bag to another one of the desk staff, announces, “Assorted muffins: blueberry, cranberry, carrot, and bran.”
I watch with curiosity as Shirley doles out her gifts, initials her permanent spot, #37, and scurries into class. Spot #37 is located in the back row, rear corner by the coat rack. It’s absolutely the worst spot in the class. But no matter, because when Shirley works out, if you can call it that, she hardly moves. She sort of walks in place, and every so often, does some stretches.
Shirley is also the only person I know who owns a cell phone. Well, back in the day, they were called “cordless.” We’re talking 1990. It’s the size of a brick and probably weighs more. I figure she must have some high-powered, important job where she makes a lot of money. And she has a yearly membership.
I’m a little in awe of Shirley because not too long ago, I also had a yearly membership and was treated with respect. When I entered the studio, everyone smiled, waved, and called me by my name—even Roberta. But these days, working behind the front desk, I wonder how I’m going to pay my rent.
After class, Shirley always stops by the front desk to chat. She’s super friendly to me and, without fail, gives me a big grin that reveals a few missing teeth. Today, like many other days, she asks, “Jill, is there anything I can get you? Anything at all?”
And I reply, like I always reply, “No. Nothing. Thanks so much. I’m fine.” Truth is, I’m anything but fine. I’m making $12 an hour, barely able to eat, let alone pay my rent. Not too long ago, I was making 70K a year working part-time at Color Direction. But being the codependent I am, I put my life and my acting on hold for four years to put my soon-to-be ex-husband, Henry, through law school. Call me crazy, but I was under the mistaken impression we were building a future together. Honestly, I worked my ass off because I was afraid if I didn’t, we’d be homeless. And out of that fear, I took my passion, drive, and anger and built Color Direction into the country’s number-one color forecasting business. After five years of working like a dog, I began making lots of money. And the minute Henry passed the bar, they fired me for making all that money. Then my mother died unexpectedly of lung cancer. It only took six weeks from the time she was diagnosed until she passed. I was devastated. And to add insult to injury, Henry left me for the glitter of Hollywood to become a motion picture producer. Although he promised to send me $700 a month to pay my rent, that money is sporadic at best, and currently, it’s nonexistent.
Just thinking about my current situation causes me tremendous anxiety, but I catch myself because when things get excruciatingly tight, there’s always my trusted Visa with its twenty-thousand-dollar credit limit and super-high-interest predatory checks. Sadly, I’ve used those checks more than once to pay my rent. I’m barely hanging on, but I can’t imagine taking stuff from Shirley. It feels weird. And according to my Southern upbringing, even tawdry. But as time passes, I find my resistance, like my diminishing income, waning.
And that’s why one day, when Shirley approaches me for the umpteenth time and pleads, “Jill, you’re sure there isn’t something I can get you? Something you need or want? Anything? Anything at all?”
To my absolute horror, I hear myself blurt out, “Black high-top Reeboks, size nine-and-a-half,” as my face flushes red with shame. The next day, true to her word, Shirley appears like my personal fairy godmother. Grinning like the cat that swallowed the canary, she proudly holds up the Foot Locker bag for all to see and announces, “Here you go! Black high-top Reeboks, size nine-and-a-half.”
Ohmygod, I’m mortified and embarrassed. I want to disappear. I’m such a failure; I have to resort to taking contraband from Shirley. Managing a smile, I casually take the Foot Locker bag and stash it under the counter in front of me. Unable to look her in the eye, I respond, “Wow. Thanks, Shirley. I really appreciate this.”
And I wonder, Who is this woman? What’s her deal? One evening after class, Shirley stops by the front desk and begins chatting with Roberta. “Yeah, my dad’s a diplomat,” I hear her say. “But you’d never know it…more like Ebenezer Scrooge. Stingy, stingy, stingy. Seriously, he reuses his tea bags like a dozen times.”
Now, I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, but this tidbit gives me an insight into her character. And I surmise that Shirley’s trying to distance herself from her father’s chintzy behavior by proving to herself and others she’s anything but stingy. She’s generous to a fault.
One evening after taking class, Shirley approaches me. “Jill, you have a terrific voice. You’d be great at what I do.”
“Thank you so much,” I gush.
“Tell you what I’m gonna do,” she beams. “I’m gonna bring in a sample script for you to read while I’m in class, and you can let me know what you think.”
“That sounds fantastic,” I say. “Thanks so much for thinking of me.”
My mind is flying, spinning, jumping with anticipation. Voiceovers. Shirley must be talking about voiceovers. I’ve always been told I have a unique voice. Yes, voiceovers! They pay well. They could help pay my rent. This is truly a miracle.
And I watch as out the door and down the spiral stairs, Shirley goes. I can’t believe it. This is a godsend. Voiceovers could be the answer to my prayers. It all makes sense now. She’s some high-powered producer or works for one of the top ad agencies or voiceover houses. No wonder she has a cordless! Nobody has a cordless!
The next day, Shirley, late for class, as usual, rushes in, talking on her gigantic phone with the four-foot antenna, which if she turns too quickly could impale someone, and true to her word drops a script in front of me.
“Take a look. I’ll check back after class.”
And off she dashes to her reserved #37 worst spot in the studio. After I’ve checked in the class and everyone’s accounted for, I gaze down at the white blank cover on the script and think, Here before me is my future—no more struggling. I’ll be a successful voiceover person. I steady myself, open the cover, and begin reading. “Oh, baby, baby, your cock is so big and so hard, and—” I slam the cover shut. Holy shit. There must be some mistake. I discreetly peek around to make sure no one’s watching before covertly reopen to a random page. “I’m so wet. I want you to…“ I slam the cover shut again. Are you kidding me?
Roberta lifts her head from the cash register, turns her enormous, suspicious dark eyes on me, and asks, “What is that? What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I lie.
“Okay,” she says, “doesn’t look like nothing to me, but whatever,” and goes back to methodically counting the mounds of cash.
After class, Shirley makes a beeline for the front desk, all smiles. “Well? What’d you think?” she asks, her face flushed with sweat and anticipation. But I find myself distracted by Shirley’s dazzling smile with her missing teeth, and I feel anger. I want to grab her and scream, Hey, wake up! You’ve got money. Stop spending it on the desk staff and get your damn teeth fixed. But instead, I manage to say as I hand her the script—the script that held so much promise but turns out to be just another broken vow, “Oh, uh, thanks, Shirley. Thanks so much, but it’s not for me.”
“Jill, I’m telling you—you’d be great. You make your own hours—the money’s great. You can do it anytime—anywhere. You can take your phone to the beach and lay in the sun while you do it.”
Now, I’m starving on my twenty-hours-a-week, twelve-dollars-an-hour job. I need the money badly, but I’ll apply for food stamps before I’ll do this.
“Okay,” she says. “But if you get tired of starving…the money’s great. You’d be great. I’m telling you. Great. Great. Great.”
And with that, she’s out the door, humming “Like a Virgin” as she goes.
I watch as Roberta unwraps one of the oversized double-chocolate cupcakes Shirley brought her and begins devouring it. My stomach growls as I sip my water. Gripped with fear, I wonder what’s to become of me? I’ve been left destitute after fifteen years of marriage. My so-called acting career is nonexistent. I lost all my contacts and my agent, and on top of that, I’m forty years old. I might as well get a shovel and dig my own grave. Yep, it’s official; I’m going to end up wandering the streets living in a cardboard box. But wait, there’s always those predatory checks. I smile and go back to counting the number of clients in the class.
Jill Dalton is an award-winning playwright whose plays Whistle-blower (2015) and Collateral Damage (2014) were both semifinalists in the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. She has also been published in Auntie Bellum Magazine and Progressive Activists Voice. Jill is also an accomplished actress and has performed on television, in film, and both on and off Broadway. Her acting credits include Saturday Night Live, Law & Order, and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. Her book, My Life in the Trenches of Show Business: Escape to New York, Act 1, is available on Amazon, and Act 2 is coming soon. She enjoys walking in Central Park and taking care of her bossy cat, Magpie.
Image: “not a pyriamid scheme” by salvation burnette