When I awake in the morning, sometime around 5 a.m., I rub my feet before leaving bed. They hasten even slower than I do these days, so I must soothe them, like newborn puppies, before I slip them into my house shoes. I massage each toe, curled with arthritis. They aren’t what they used to be, but I still keep up with them. My niece and I get pedicures every other Saturday.
Next, I shuffle to the kitchen to put on tea. I’m afraid it’s come to that. I’ve always enjoyed coffee, but I can no longer partake. My acid reflux just won’t tolerate it any longer. I add a teaspoon of honey, the organic sort; my niece tells me local honey is good for the allergies. I’m not sure the honey does much in the way of helping, but it’s sweet of my niece to care after me. Sarah and I never got around to adopting or obtaining children by other means.
I wash up and dress for the day in attire that’s called “business casual.” These days, I work as a “content writer” for a little digital agency where I write articles with names like “How to Open a Bag of Peanuts” and “10 Different Types of Sheets.” I used to be a real writer — I worked at the Downtown Gazette for 18 years before the internet wreaked havoc on the art of telling. I left that job with nothing but a half-empty box in my arms. No retirement plan, no healthcare. And when Sarah died, her family refused to recognize me as a person, let alone their daughter. They left me with nothing.
But this new life isn’t without its perks: my new dress code enables me to wear open-toed shoes all year round.
Around 2 p.m., I make my way to the water hole, which our company leadership refers to as a “fully stocked kitchen.” (Read: there is a Keurig, and they sometimes decorate the island with an already-browning bunch of bananas.)
When I return to my desk, connected to several others (“for camaraderie,” the leadership says), my twenty-five-year-old coworker pops his head over my monitor. “Did you hear about Little Black Book?”
The coworker to my right, another twenty-something, widens her abnormally blue eyes. “I know! I can’t wait to see what happens!”
“What is Little Black Book?” I ask, feeling foolish.
Mark, who studied to be a sports writer, says, “It’s a website that, uh, connects people — usually men — to other people — usually women, for certain, uh, services.”
Jessica, who blushes easily, blushes.
“Prostitution?” I ask, raising my penciled eyebrows.
“Not exactly,” Mark says. “These girls just sell pictures — and not even necessarily, uh, inappropriate ones — just ones that are kind of racy. They make pretty decent money from it, from what I hear.”
I consider this for a moment: young women scantily clad and young men who will pay to see them nearly (but not quite) nude. When I was younger, I suspect if the internet had been what it is now that I may have considered this. It could have supported my journalism habit. Although, of course, Sarah never would have agreed to it.
“Little Black Book got hacked,” Mark continues, “so now all the names of the customers and the, uh, employees are out there for all to see.”
My petite boss makes her way across the open office and a hush falls over my desk mates. “Fran,” Andrea says in a whisper, her pencil skirt pressing into her soft knees, “could you please come with me to Violet’s office?”
“Oh,” I say, deepening the wrinkles in my brow. Violet is our HR representative, though the woman has very little training in relational affairs of any kind. “Yes, I’m free now.”
With some effort, I rise from my swivel chair. Andrea leads the way to one of the few individual offices.
She closes the door behind me.
At the conference table sits Violet and the owner of the company, Ben. (Not “Benjamin,” mind you, but “Ben.” This is to demonstrate how “like us” he is. That’s also why he frequents the office in a hoodie and ripped jeans, which he dons now.) There are two open chairs, one with a stack of overturned papers before it, and Andrea takes the seat without. Befuddled, I take the remaining chair, carefully lowering myself into it. Violet looks — I’m not sure there’s any other word for it — smug. Andrea looks embarrassed. Ben, as always, has a smile plastered to his face that’s fit for television.
“Fran!” he says, after I finally settle. “How are ya?”
“Still alive,” I say. This is a joke I like to tell, but no one ever laughs.
“Great. Well, Fran,” Ben presses on, “I’ll just get right to it: in light of this news about Little Black Book, we’re going to have to let you go.”
I stare at him. I can see from his expression that he’s saying words to me that he believes I should understand, yet I absolutely do not. I look from Violet, who makes intentional eye contact, to Andrea, who picks at her fingernails. “I only just heard about this Little Black Book business,” I say, slowly and carefully. “I’m not sure what this has to do with me. Or why, after performing exceptional work for you for nearly four years, this would lead to my dismissal.”
I’m certain they’re more confused than I am. This will all get cleared up, and I’ll call my niece on the way home and ask her to put a hex on this company with her moonlighted crystals.
“I understand, Fran; it’s tough to get caught,” Ben answers in his trademark upbeat cadence, “and I’m sure you’re quite embarrassed. Rest assured, we don’t think any less of you — ”
“Though, the rest of us would never do something like this,” Violet interjects gleefully.
“But it’s not good for our brand for one of our writers to be outed like this. It’s very clear from the articles posted this morning that Francesca Foote is a contributing member of Little Black Book.”
I’m sitting before him looking, I suspect, the very same, if not worse, than I did when I left home this morning. I wait a moment for Ben to realize his egregious mistake, but his face remains unbreakably pleasant, a small amount of rehearsed pity in his eyes.
“You can’t possibly think this Francesca Foote is me,” I finally say. “It’s obviously someone else with the same name. ‘Foote’ is a common surname, and surely, some other unfortunate soul has parents who found the alliteration cute.”
Violet says, “We hoped it wouldn’t come to this,” then indicates the pages before me. I can feel my mouth gaping, my dentures sliding somewhat loose.
I turn the top page and stare at it for several moments. It’s nothing erotic or explicit in any way. Why, it’s a picture of a pair of newly pedicured feet. “This is feet,” I say, turning the picture toward them. Ben turns his head, and Andrea flinches beside me. “It’s just feet,” I enunciate, thinking they must not have heard me correctly.
“Yes,” Violet nearly purrs. “They’re your feet. You don’t have to tell me, but I’m curious: how much did you make per picture? Was it worth losing your job?”
“Violet,” Ben reprimands lightly, but Violet isn’t dissuaded. She watches me as I inspect the picture and discover to my horror that, indeed, this is a picture of my feet. These are my slightly off-center toes, my low arches, my slender ankles. There’s a little flower on the big toe, which I had added during my last pedicure — which Violet had paid me a compliment for.
“How is this possible?” I’m too shocked to be concerned — about money or identity theft or my reputation. I actually cannot believe what’s taking place.
“It’s OK, Fran,” Andrea finally says. “I’ll pack your desk for you, and we can walk out the back door together.”
I sit in my little car, a box of my things beside me: a small succulent I kept by the window sill in one of the conference rooms, my Moleskine (now with a month of appointments that are newly moot), a box of Earl Gray tea and a mug my coworkers got me that says, “World’s Best Grandma.” Holding my iPhone in my weathered hand, I send Kayleigh an SMS message that says, “Laid off today. Little Black Book listed my name and pics. Driving home now.”
I’m not sure how I managed to arrive home safely; my mind was entirely elsewhere. I take my time ascending the steps to my front door, carefully gripping the railing. After setting my purse down, I see Kayleigh has called me seven times. I tsk aloud. She knows my vehicle, like me, isn’t “with the times,” so answering would surely put my very life in jeopardy.
Below the notification box that alerts me to Kayleigh’s misguided attempt to reach me is another square which reads a rather curious number. 412. It’s my email inbox.
I tap it open and find that all 412 new emails are from men I do not know, the subject lines reading things like, “Francesca, thank God I found you!” and “I’ll give you $1000 for a pic today plz.”
The one with the dollar amount is tantalizing, especially in my newfound circumstances, but I hesitate to open it. I know about these Armenian princes who send emails with declarations of riches, if only the recipient could provide their bank account information. Could opening the email somehow offer access to my private information? I wouldn’t think so, yet somehow someone: one, found several images of my feet (how? I can’t remember taking them.); two, connected the images to my likeness; and three, posted the two together in the hopes of earning income. I wouldn’t think it possible — earning money for pictures of asymmetrical feet — but here is a man in my inbox offering me quite a sum of money.
I decide to chance it.
This email says, “hi sweet young lady I am heartbroken about Little Black Book I trust it’s alright that I discover your email. please consider sending an image to this email address please for $1000 I will give you for an image of your delightful feet dunked in honey. kindly guarantee they are covered totally. do you incline toward Venmo or PayPal?”
I’m awestruck, perhaps for the first time in my life.
A notification rectangle takes up the first line of the message: 1 New Voicemail from Kayleigh. I tap it instinctively. It must be from one of the many missed calls; the delayed notification has always perplexed me. I press the phone to my ear.
“Fran-ma,” comes Kayleigh’s voice, panicked. “I’m so sorry. I’m just — I’m so — I’m so sorry! I can’t believe someone leaked the names. Fran-ma, please understand … I’ve been so worried about you. You don’t have any retirement savings! And one of my friends was telling me about how she gets guys to pay for pictures of her feet, and I thought that was so wild at first, but then, well … Every time we go get a pedicure together, I always snap a pic of your toes, and then I post it. I opened a savings account for you, Fran-ma, and it’s got $20,000 in it. Please don’t be mad…”
“Ah,” I say aloud. So, it was Kayleigh. Kayleigh betrayed and humiliated me and got me fired… from a job I absolutely loathed. And has money put away for me. And has, strangely, puzzlingly, provided me with a means of earning income.
From my periphery, I catch a glimpse of something golden and organic on the breakfast nook table, something that might feel absolutely delicious to step into.