Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 12 • Winter 2004 • Fiction

How To Fly A Sign (If You Are A Girl)

Amy Silver

The reason my experience won't be useful to men is because I have never tried to fly a sign without tits, an innocent smile, and a ponytail pulled through the back of a cap. So, girls, wear clean clothes if you have them, and stand in the median of an intersection that has long lights. Make sure the letters on your sign are big enough and clear enough.

Flying a sign is illegal in most places, but don't let that intimidate you. Cops will never do more than warn you. Some have even given me money. Once a cop caught me twice, yelled at me, and I yelled back, and I still didn't get a fine or go to jail.

The first time I had to beg for money I couldn't stop bawling. But you don't have to feel guilty as long as you follow these two rules: 1) Be honest about what you need the money for. 2) Don't take more than you need. You can make it into kind of a religious experience, taking alms like ancient ascetics used to. Living on the kindness of humanity.

People will ask you how you got into this mess. You won't have time to tell your whole story before the traffic light changes, so think about what you're going to say ahead of time. My girlfriend and I had the standard explanations -- health problems, lost jobs, car trouble, raised rents. Also we had both been kicked out of our families for being queer, but we didn't tell that to the people who helped us.

Our signs said, "Going Home Need Gas". It was true that we were going home, but we didn't usually mention that we didn't know where home was yet. Home would be wherever we could get jobs and get indoors. I had a list of the ten cities with the lowest unemployment rates and we usually told people that we were from one of them.

I folded my sign when a guy in Oregon waved me over to a gas station and asked me to mow his yard. When we got to his house he put a movie on, gave me a beer, said I could start when the sun wasn't so hot. Then he asked me to type a letter for him.

The letter was all about how his spa had been closed down on the technicality that he didn't have a permit for his sign. He said that the real reason the city closed his shop was because they thought it was a whorehouse.

I was typing the letter when the guy got a call from someone he called a client who wanted to see a naked girl. "Want to be a model?" he asked me. "You don't have to do anything illegal. He just wants to look."

The client wanted more than to look, and I was impressed with how much money I got. That night I dreamed that I was trying to rescue fat bald babies who had been swallowed by a giant snake. I climbed into the snake's mouth and kept crawling until I found, instead of fat bald babies, fat bald old men.

I thought my new job was no more unpleasant than changing diapers. My girlfriend and I got a weekly motel room with the money I made. Every day while I was at work she bought me cards and little gifts from the dollar store. I quit and we went back to flying signs when I was arrested.

My next period never came, and I was so tired and sick and bloated. I checked in to a homeless shelter in Ohio. My girlfriend had to sleep in our van alone because the people at the shelter told her they didn't have enough beds. The truth was that they didn't have any beds at all for people whose bone structures didn't match their outfits. My girlfriend told the volunteer who did our paperwork, "It's not your fault. Our society is only set up for two genders."

Meals were served to men and women separately, too. My girlfriend said she would rather starve than eat as a man, so the security guard looked the other way when I stole food for her.

There were two fights in the shelter before we all settled down to play cards. The first fight was over a Bible that later turned up misplaced, and the other was over a stolen pillow. One woman claimed that she had stolen the pillow from the hospital, and the other said she stole it from her son's house.

My head hurt so bad I could hardly focus on the jumbo print playing cards. One of the ladies gave me a big pink pill. I gave my hand away and went to bed. The volunteer who had broken up the fights earlier woke me up at midnight to tell me that I hadn't done a service. I could wash the windows, or I could clean the bathroom. I told her I was too sick. She said she would write my name down if I didn't do a service, and I said that was fine.

I went back to bed and dreamed that I was something small trying to hang on in a warm, red place. I was tumbling and falling. My voice from the outside said, "You can't stay here. Not this time. Keep moving." I willed the tumbling and the falling.

In the morning I washed the sticky blood from my thighs and went to my job search appointment.

The last interview on my list was for a construction job. The lady who set up the appointment told me that I had a good chance because the company was required to hire a set number of women. I was wearing grey slacks, a pink blouse, black flats and black stockings -- all given to me freely after I sat in a little room with my back to the life of Christ for an hour.

I kept eating candy from a dish next to my chair. It's funny how sugar has that bitter aftertaste when you haven't had any in a while. Then I was having the worst cramps I'd ever had. I remembered hearing that labor felt like extreme menstrual cramps, and it wasn't hard to imagine being in a hospital bed. I stuck my feet out, gripped my arm rests, and quietly controlled my breathing. I looked for the restroom key I'd seen passed around earlier in case I needed to pass out in private.

The man behind the desk in the back office looked at my papers, and he looked at me. I gave him a bright smile and wondered if he recognized that the address and phone number I had on my application belonged to the homeless shelter. I could tell he'd already made up his mind when he said, "Did they tell you what I'm interviewing for?"

"Construction!" As if this were the most exciting job I could imagine.

He was very kind. He said, "You're smart, you're courteous, you seem like a nice person. You would probably do well in an office or a bank."

I said, "I'll take any job I can get." For a crazy second I saw myself begging for the job and promising to be his most loyal if not his most muscular employee. But instead I shook his hand and went to the temp agency he told me about.

My girlfriend and I made fresh signs and we made it to a town in Indiana where there were a lot of jobs and low rents in the newspaper. I loved that town for not checking my criminal background or questioning the fake local references on our applications. We got jobs there and we got indoors, thanks to all the people who help cute girls with cardboard signs.

I've been indoors for years now, but still sometimes when I feel nervous I get in my car and drive until I'm sleepy, then camp out somewhere like a hotel parking lot. I still keep a pack of condoms in case I get into a pinch that there's no other way out of, and I have a cardboard sign somewhere in the back of my closet.

Amy Silver lives in Washington state with her sister, her niece, and three cats. She works for a temp service. In 2002, she hitchhiked to Maine and returned in an unreliable old van. Inspired by that road trip, she is working on a collection of stories. Her fiction has appeared in Outsiderink.com. Amy can be reached at silveramy77@yahoo.com.

Go To: Issue 12 or Lodestar Quarterly home page