Ramona of the Golden Skin is paid to be pleasant at all times, but today she’s in a dark mood, so she pouts as she sits behind the mahogany reception desk at the Pacific Sierra Research Corporation. She’s dressed as beautifully as ever in a black pencil skirt, a white linen blouse, and a well-tailored blazer, deep maroon in color, but what the visitors to this think tank don’t know is that she’s wearing the same outfit she wore yesterday because none of her other clothes survived the vicious attack of the evening before. Last night, her ex-boyfriend had made a statement (a bold statement at that, particularly for someone from the so-called better part of town). As soon as she’d entered her one-room apartment and looked through the open door to her closet, instead of seeing color-coordinated outfits hanging neatly on the rack, she saw strips and strips of hacked-up cloth. At first, she was taken aback—a step behind what she was obviously seeing—then she caught up with the moment and sank to the ground, giving herself over to the confluence of all that had been and never would be again.
In the reception area, two men sit at opposite ends of a long black leather sofa. One is elderly and is flipping through a recent issue of an avionics magazine that he took up from the glass coffee table in front of him. He had no scheduled appointment but is now waiting to meet with the president of the company. The other man, despite his wire-frame glasses, appears to be in his late twenties and is waiting to be interviewed for a job. When this man first walked in from outside, he seemed friendlier than the first. He strode right up to the desk, introduced himself as Steven Jones, and offered his hand for her to shake as if she had the power to make a decision in his favor. She hesitated, her welcoming smile firmly in place, then stood and clasped his hand gently. Now, as he waits, he looks up from his cellphone every so often and gives her a smile that seems genuinely kind.
Ramona knows the florescent lighting in the room isn’t her best, but she sees in his continued interest that it hasn’t detracted from the underlying glow that emanates from her skin. People have said, so many times, that it’s this glow—what her ex-boyfriend used to call “her golden aura”—that’s one of her best features (even if it is a glow that in another era would have made her an outcast, just one more yellow someone everyone would have looked away from). But in today’s world her multiracial mix has proved to be an asset (thank god for that!), and it’s her skin color, she has always thought, that got her this job in the first place. That was two years ago, soon after she’d graduated from high school. Up until then, she hadn’t much work experience to speak of, other than a short stint at KFC, but the older woman interviewing her for the position didn’t seem too concerned. After glancing at the application Ramona had painstakingly filled out, the woman placed her folded hands on top of the multiple forms and said, “You know, I just really love your overall look.” And even if Ramona didn’t know the first thing about being a receptionist, especially at such an upscale place, a major requirement of the job was to look good—and since she was one of those girls who enjoyed combing through thrift stores and putting together eye-catching ensembles, Ramona thought she had found the ideal job.
So, now as she stares at the computer screen, pretending to study the appointment calendar for the week ahead, she’s really thinking about her clothes—or lack thereof. Until she gets paid next week, she hasn’t the money to buy anything else (not even from thrift stores), and borrowing clothes is out of the question—none of her friends share her slim size.
The door opens to her right and it’s Manuel, the human resources assistant, who enters the waiting room. “Mr. Jones?” he says to the younger man. “Yes,” Steven Jones says, springing up from the sofa like a child called into the principal’s office. Before disappearing behind the steel-enforced door, Steven raises his brows at Ramona as if to say “wish me luck,” and she tilts her head, giving him a smile of encouragement. What position, she wonders now, is he applying for? That sort of detail is never shared with her. He doesn’t quite look like a scientist (too insecure). Or a programmer (too handsome). Perhaps he’s a professor of history. A long-time physicist at the company, whose job involves calculating the ratio of survivors to fatalities after a nuclear attack, once told her that the company needs a few academic types who have studied past wars and can predict future ones, based on a given scenario. Beyond remembering this explanation, however, Ramona doesn’t dwell on the matter. She’s still too preoccupied with thinking about what she can find to wear tomorrow and the next day and the next and all the days thereafter.
The elderly man, still waiting patiently, looks up from the magazine he has been perusing, his faded blue eyes appearing a bit more animated than before. As she meets his gaze, he smiles, and she thinks, he’s probably just one more scientist. Or he could be a government official. People from the government do drop by from time to time without warning. He tosses the magazine onto the coffee table and looks up at Ramona.
“Miss,” he says, “I don’t mean to speak out of turn, but has anyone ever told you what a wonderful quality you possess? Maybe it’s due to the lighting, but I don’t think so. Your skin practically radiates.”
Forty minutes later, the door to human resources opens and Steven Jones walks out alone. Immediately, Ramona notices a change in him, and the plastered smile she’s wearing, meant to welcome an applicant back into the room, feels more false than it has ever felt. His expression is downcast, and his energy matches the energy she herself feels inside. He smiles weakly in her direction as he heads out the door.
She is now alone in the waiting room. The older man is finally gone, escorted into the back offices a few minutes earlier by the president’s secretary. The phone rings and Ramona lets it ring a few more times before answering. “PSR,” she says brightly. “Yes, let me transfer you.” The phones have been light today, and yet she decides to let the next few calls go to voicemail. That way she can give herself over to her own thoughts for a while. Something about Steven Jones’s exit has hit her in a peculiar way. Or maybe it’s something else that’s gnawing at her. Maybe it’s the image of her wardrobe being ripped to shreds and all the violence and hate that went into its demise. And when that creepy old man likened her skin to something close to radioactive—that bothered her, too. It all bothers her. She wonders, not for the first time, if this company that has nothing to do with the Pacific or the Sierras may have contaminated her life in some real way. Is it possible, she considers seriously, for an atmosphere of destruction—even a hypothetical one—to seep into your everyday existence? Whatever the case may be, suddenly Ramona finds herself getting up from the mahogany desk, adjusting her pencil skirt so that the seam in the back is properly aligned, grabbing her purse, and rushing out the door.
Maybe she’ll go back, maybe she won’t, but as she’s driving away in her rattletrap of a car that needs an oil change and so much more, she’s finally thinking clearly now about her ex-boyfriend and all the damage he has done. He once called her “Ramona of the Golden Skin,” and at the time she thought that was one of the most beautiful things anyone had ever said to her. But now she thinks differently. And so she’s headed to the so-called better part of town to get what she’s owed.