Poor Working Girl
by Zelda Fitzgerald

Eloise Everette Elkins stood on a dilapidated pair of wooden steps that belonged to a faded frame house with rain-colored trimmings. Eloise and the house were standing in the middle of a community that had of recent years grown very prosperous and so outgrown the capabilities of its older inhabitants. This was why all the good jobs in town were held by imported young men, who in turn imported their sweethearts from large neighboring cities and felt no necessity to know Eloise socially. And that was why all the boys whom she could have married were inadequate for marrying purposes and spent their lives limping along on a salary that she thought she could have earned herself. Industries, when they get started, grow faster than men or towns and do not allow the time for lying fallow which people seem to need when they have always lived in close proximity to cultivated fields.

Eloise was twenty and carefully protected but unprovided for. Her two aunts and her grandmother nagged her quite a bit about her laziness, but there wasn’t really much that she could do. Mamma and Father had seen to it that she had an education in a college for girls downstate, and nature had done well by the storehouse for all this knowledge. It must have been quite a strain for so Anglo-Saxon and flawless a skin to contain the verse and choruses of all the popular songs for five years back, together with a real talent for the ukulele, a technical knowledge of football, ten poetic declamations and a lyric taste in dress. Eloise knew shorthand, too, but she fumbled about in it and was pleased with herself when it worked, like a famous person making a speech in a foreign language. She knew how to get breakfast if the stove was electric and not overpoweringly large and if things could be cooked one at a time.

Her eyes were so clear that you could see right through to the mechanics of them, and she was altogether remarkably pretty and new looking even for an American girl of her age. She had twelve-year-old legs, like Mary Pickford’s, that were intriguing when they grew out of those square rubber bottom shoes which give strangers the idea that we are a sturdy race, but these same little girl legs had too much curve on the outside when she put on the tall heeled silver slippers which go with tulle and taffeta.

Anyway, she poked them out in front of her this morning and sat down on the third step because it had less splinters along the worn edge and wouldn’t send runs climbing along the back seams of her stockings, which shows that she had it in her to be more painstaking than she was. She opened Every Evening from yesterday. She had decided to go to work and she was looking for the want ads. She read with mingled suspicion, fear, and personal interest about all the people who wanted chocolate dippers and part-time maids and people to make fortunes selling unnamed things that sounded secret and complicated. Eloise knew she could never sell anything, and her light eyes moved lazily on down the column. Then she found a neat little square with all the dignity of a calling card, which announced tersely and dramatically that Mr. and Mrs. Goatbeck were looking for Eloise.

It seemed that they had a very refined child in a refined but isolated home with nobody refined to play with, so that Eloise could earn seventy-five dollars a month for just being natural and keeping a little girl from running over automobiles. She thought of all the refinement to be bought with seventy-five dollars: the twenty-five-dollar dresses and the ten-dollar perfume. Then she multiplied by four and five and thought of New York and Broadway. That brought her around after a while to thinking of the night after the commencement play when the college president himself had told her what a real dramatic gift she had.

All that ambitious thinking made it much easier for Eloise to contribute the outstanding excitement of months to the family dinner table. Over the sweet potatoes and meat pie and muffins wavered the announcement that she was going to leave home. Even when she was “in college” she had always slept at home and so it was not hard to understand why Mamma pictured Eloise in a strange land with a strange disease, somewhat like pneumonia only much more painful, and with nobody to look after her. There was indignation in Mamma’s mental picture. It somehow included the law and all the hygienic societies and the pound. Father didn’t see why girls didn’t stay at home, but he had his own worries and he made it a rule never to complain until afterwards.

The aunts thought that serious employment would be fine for Eloise. She had always helped them with their children and she could save her money and it wasn’t as if there weren’t telephones, so finally all was agreed upon. When everybody had got all he could of his own righteousness out of the situation, she set out with her semi-fiance in his secondhand car to interview the Goatbecks.

Eloise had been half engaged for four years now to numerous editions of the same young man. He always had a secondhand car, a fur coat, that irregular cast of feature known as an open countenance, and a gold football on his watch chain. Having him waiting outside in his long gray car while she went in to her interview reinforced her in a feeling of reduced circumstances. So many young Americans have that feeling as their sole equipment for meeting reality: the sense of being in circumstances reduced from the dreams and pamperings of parents still guided by the wisdom of an epoch when the mere fact of children to run the farm was an asset; reduced circumstances with its half whine and its fierce swallowed pride which robs the children of the old Americans of the clarity so necessary to success, and which inevitably nourishes the sulkiness that follows the first failure.

But it is a feeling that goes very well with taking care of refined offspring. Eloise told the lady humbly how she had to work and how she loved children, and the lady told Eloise that she was much too pretty to bury herself in a nursery. Eloise liked that idea and felt pleased and bravely sorry for herself. She made up her mind to be perfect and to live up to her reduced circumstances in all things.

When she started out for home again with the young man, she felt positively married to him. He had seen her ask for a job. They had gone through an overwhelming adventure together. As she put her arm under his on the steering wheel everything seemed changed to her, as if she’d already worked at her job, at all jobs, and now wanted to settle down with the fur coat and the football and cook breakfast on a ukulele for the rest of her life.

If you asked Eloise what happened for the next six months, she would say she worked and worked and got so nervous that life didn’t seem worth living. If you asked Mrs. Goatbeck she would say that Eloise didn’t keep her shoes in a row and that providence alone protected her refined child from a series of accidents.

But Eloise stuck to her job and did her best when she hadn’t been up too late the night before, and it really looked as though all her reading of dramatic school prospectuses might help her formulate a future after all. She was gravely saving money to study in New York.

But then spring came right in the middle of things, as it always does, and the manufacturers flooded the showcases with shoes for tramping golf courses, and the smell of chocolate began to seep through the more open doors of drugstores, and music from the phonographs in the ten-cent stores became audible above the noise of the trolleys, and Eloise succumbed.

The first thing she bought was a tan coat much too thin to wear until it would be too hot to wear it. To make up for that, she wrote for more dramatic school prospectuses and wore the coat anyway, so she got the grippe. After that she had an awful attack of loneliness on account of having been in bed, and spent a lot of her money on some blue things with feathers and something green with pink hanging off. And there was a little rounded hat that was too old for her and another one that she wore on one side so it looked like the rings around Saturn on her head. Self-expression, that was, and it runs expensive. But she told the lady that she was going to save every cent of her money for the next three months and go to New York in the summer.

The self-expression served one purpose: it renewed her confidence in college presidents as dramatic critics and, just for good measure, attached some new young men to Eloise—one with a face as open as a cracked safe, and one who recited The Ladies to Eloise.

Finally, she felt so sure that she was going to save enough money to keep her safely in New York while she studied that she went home to consult her family about it. Father’s idea of the stage was founded on the stereopticon slides of 1890, and Mamma’s was positively biblical. You would have thought Morris Gest wanted to produce The Miracle in the front parlor! Eloise drew courage from all the gold footballs and signed photographs in her bureau drawer and went back to work in such a dynamic frame of mind that the refined child learned two multiplication tables in a day. Nothing remained but to save her salary.

Long days went by. In the mornings there were lessons, a correspondence course for children which gave Eloise a sort of missionary pleasure. The half hour of mythology she especially liked. To hear the labyrinthine Greek names twisting the tongue of the child always left her with a feeling that life was perhaps a bizarre affair after all.

Eloise had grown quite fond of her charge, so fond of her that she could forget her entirely on the long afternoon walks in the country and project herself into a dream that consisted of all the hazy, unsolved things of the past and an unresolved future state—not rosy nor misty nor anything definite, but just a flooding of a gentle light, as a blind person must feel when he finds himself in a pale spring sun.

At night there was the bath hour and several choruses of “What’s the Use?” and then, often, when the family wasn’t going out, there were the movies or dancing at the local hotel with her current beau. Eloise loved ice cream. It was extraordinary how her skin stayed like that with her eating it on top of pie and under cake and around bananas, and disguised as stews and soups and puddings. But it was certainly not a taste for simplicity that made her enjoy so many simple things.

Now spring came in earnest and America began to look like the inside of a small boy’s pocket to Mr. and Mrs. Goatbeck. The migratory instinct settled over the house until the suburban stillness teemed like flies in a bottle. Eloise went out more and more at night, so by the time the air began to melt and settle and touch the earth as capriciously as falling toy balloons, her ambition fell away to the same tempo. In spite of her determination to finish her job well, now that the Goatbecks had decided to go abroad, her lapses began to catch up with each other so that soon she was floundering about in a void of things-not-done, with the child following after like an inquisitive puppy sniffing at the unusual.

The row came when there were only four days more to go. There were recriminations on the stairway and nonchalance in the day nursery and tears in the hallways, and finally cryptic telephone calls in a deeply injured tone of voice. It seems the cupboards weren’t in order and the child had no clean socks and there was eight dollars’ worth of telephoning to numbers unknown to the Goatbecks—a formidable list of misdemeanors. Eloise tried awfully hard to care (she admitted to Mrs. Goatbeck that she hadn’t been doing her duty lately), but it was too near the end for that, so she left one afternoon in a battleship gray secondhand car, with all her photographs and dance cards and some letters that Mr. Goatbeck had given her to theatrical managers in New York—enough letters to get her into forty choruses and a house of correction.

But to Eloise, all motivating power was of divine origin and people waited for its coming like a prisoner for a trial, with the expectation of release or a sense of black misgiving. Both these sensations were merged in her when she found herself at home again. She couldn’t decide whether or not she was as wonderful as she thought she was, and New York seemed awfully far from the yellow frame house full of the sweetness of big Sunday meals and the noise of the cleaning in the mornings and black shadows from an open fire.

New York seemed so far away that it was a full three months before Eloise stretched out her rubber soled shoes and let herself gently down into a patch of sunshine on the third step. Then she opened Every Evening and once again began on the want ads.

When the Goatbeck family came back months later, she was working in the capacity of pretty girl in the local power plant. All the secondhand automobiles that waited out front at five-thirty added quite a lot to the traffic congestion around that quarter.

The refined child saw her one day in a theater lobby; she didn’t remember her fair flaxen skin and eyes like transparent pearls, though she remembered several governesses she had before Miss Elkins. The blood in Eloise’s veins had worn itself out pumping against the apathy of weary generations of farmers and little lawyers and doctors and a mayor, and she couldn’t really imagine achieving anything. She came from our worn-out stock. But perhaps there are lovely faces whose real place is in the power company; perhaps Eloise wasn’t destined for Broadway after all.

Published in College Humor magazine (January 1931), published as by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Illustrations by Charles V. Chambers.