really only one choice you get to make in this life: whether to sell Them your body or
the other mistake once, I now choose to sell Them my body. In other words, I'm a
secretary. Nowadays They get
my body from nine to five -- longer, if they're willing to pay through the
nose for it to Metropolitan Office Professionals. I'm a professional temporary
secretary, and I'm very, very good.
I can type
and take dictation and know what 'alphabetical order' means. I can also operate almost any word
processing system currently in use, and a number of those that are now
considered passť, except by the poor fool of an office manager who got
suckered into buying the Cutting Edge that dulled so quickly. I can also answer a telephone
promptly and politely.
laugh -- today the number of people who both can and are willing to do these things
is shrinking rapidly.
Everyone wants to love his/her work. I love my paycheck.)
As I said,
I do this from nine to five, Monday through Friday, and I get well paid
for it. MOP knows a good
thing when it tests it. And
then at five I walk out the door free and clear.
attitude drives a lot of people right round the twist, especially
managerial women. They just
can't believe that someone with my (and here I modestly quote)
intelligence, education, and abilities really wants to work as a
secretary. I could really
make something of myself.
(My mother agrees, except that she thinks I should make
something of myself by marrying again -- which I will do about the time
there's ice dancing in Hell.)
It's my opinion that I already have made something of myself. Something that I like.
current assignment was a six-week stint at Dayborne Ventures, Inc. Dayborne was an extremely
prestigious, high-ticket company that did something truly magnificent in
the way of international finance.
I wasn't quite sure what.
In my more cynical moments, I sometimes suspected even the regular
Dayborne employees weren't quite sure what. But whatever it was, it kept them
on their collective toes. At
Dayborne, a harassed manager was a happy manager.
might guess from the above, Dayborne was extremely corporate, and proud of
it. The firm occupied two
entire floors of a soaring glass-and-steel tower down in the financial
district near Wall Street.
Through the floor-to-ceiling walls of glass to the north, you could
see most of Manhattan; to the south, there was a magnificent view of the
harbor and parts south. East
and west looked only over Brooklyn and New Jersey, respectively;
glass tower, Dayborne's corporate taste ran to cutting edge decor and
Reception was a dream of polished steel walls and charcoal grey
carpet, and the receptionist's desk looked like a starship console. Past the heavy glass doors into
Dayborne proper, shades of cool blue-gray reigned supreme. Walls, carpets, secretarial
furniture all coordinated.
executive offices were polished teak, and the executive offices themselves
were supplied with the most intimidating power-trip furniture money could
buy. Upon the walls hung, at
precisely calculated intervals, works of art that just happened to
coordinate with the office color scheme.
was so elegantly low-key tasteful it occasionally made me want to spray
paint the walls in Day-Glo neon stripes.
to say Dayborne was a bad place to work, just that I found a little of
Dayborne went a very long way.
Fortunately, I was only there while someone named Annabel Price,
who was something called the Assistant Secretary to Ms. Fran Jenkins,
Executive Secretary to Mr. J. Abercrombie Davis, Executive Vice President,
had her baby. For six weeks
you can put up with practically anything.
the obligatory "No, really, Cornelia -- you have such potential"
will call me Cornelia, although when I'm working I prefer to be
called Mrs. Upshaw. I think
it adds a nice touch of efficient distance to business relationships that
are, by their very nature, temporary. Sometimes I get my way on this,
sometimes I don't. Although
why the Corporate Powers That Be insist that We're All Jolly Friends
Together with one breath and then with the next complain that This Is A
Business, You Know, I've never figured out. One or the other. You can't have both at once.)
I'd gotten cornered at my desk by Harriet Benson, who was the current
advocate of upgrading Upshaw.
Harriet was about my age, or maybe a little younger; twenty-eight
and already an assistant vice president. At Dayborne Ventures they gave out
AVP's the way a dentist gives out lollipops, and for the same reason: good behavior.
Now she was
bound and determined to raise my consciousness and show me the glories of
the fast track to success.
"You know, you could do a lot better for yourself, Cornelia --
Upshaw," I murmured without either rancor or much hope of affecting
Harriet's form of address.
Especially since Harriet was magnanimously overlooking the fact
that I was a Mere Secretary, and addressing me as an equal. Sort of.
the talent, the brains -- you know we have a management trainee program,
don't you? Why don't you
one thing, because I only like to work thirty-five hours a week. And because I already have
a full-time life which suits me very well. But I didn't say this, because as
far as I could see, Harriet Benson, AVP, could say the same thing about
her own life style choice.
Different strokes, as they say.
just perfect," Harriet continued.
"I'd be glad to recommend you, if you'd like."
you," I said politely. I was
raised to be polite; a Perfect Little Southern Lady. And then I asked Harriet what she
was doing over the weekend.
be here -- Davis wants the spreadsheets on AIB&C first thing
have commiserated with her if I'd thought she was in the least sorry to be
losing an entire irreplaceable weekend to AIB&C (which I had learned
stood for the vitally-important Accounts International Billing and Charges
subdepartment) and a computer.
So I just smiled politely and carefully placed the cover over the
electronic typewriter, unplugged the computer keyboard and stowed it in
its special drawer in the desk, and made sure my desktop was empty and the
drawers were locked. Dayborne
Ventures was what they called "security-conscious" and I what called
paranoid. Nobody had the
least idea what Dayborne Ventures did, so I didn't see how any of
it could be of any use to anybody outside the firm. It was little enough use to those
other hand, Dayborne's attitude meant that even such an ephemeral employee
as I was got a key to the desk that was temporarily hers. This was a feature I liked. To recoin a phrase: lock your desk; take your
Then I beat
it out of there. Because
Harriet's Mr. Davis, head of the department I was currently working for,
had a cute little trick I'd discovered the first week of my stint at
Dayborne. Just before
quitting time on almost any Friday, he'd come sauntering along with a
major project that just had to be done before his secretarial staff
left. Said projects usually
involved overseas transport of papers to a part of the world in which
everybody was already in bed, and apparently planning to stay there for
the next twenty-four hours.
In which case, it always seemed to me that the Vital Information
could just as well be sent the next business day, instead of running into
Davis didn't see it that way -- which was, no doubt, why he was an
Executive Vice President working on hypertension and an ulcer and I was
only a Temporary Secretary working (at the moment) on reading my way
through the collected works of Anthony Trollope.
seemed that Davis hadn't managed to get any vital material in under the
wire; Fran Jenkins, his Executive Secretary, was also closing up. I looked back as I opened the
heavy glass door to Reception and saw her shutting drawers and turning
keys with firm, deliberate movements. And it only five o'clock,
rather amazing, as I'd begun to think Fran was shackled to her desk. Frances Jenkins, you see, was a
secretary of the Old School:
totally efficient, totally discreet, and totally devoted to her
boss's interests. She came by
these attributes naturally, as Fran was somewhere over fifty; plenty old
enough to be most of the Dayborne secretarial staff's mother. Her wardrobe didn't do anything to
dispel this illusion; Fran wore matronly and oddly outdated suits in
falsely girlish colors like baby pink and mint green. Under them she wore ruffled
blouses which she accessorized with a string of pearls. I suspected the pearls were
waited for her, holding the door invitingly. "Come on. I don't see him anywhere."
puffing up -- she was plump and soft, and any exertion whatsoever caused
her shortness of breath. I
could not imagine why a nice lady like Fran was at Dayborne, which
apparently hired its secretaries by passing them through the eye of a
needle, unless it was because she was the only secretary they'd ever found
who could work with J. Abercrombie Davis without going mad.
"I -- think
-- he -- must have -- left early," she panted.
after a manner of speaking, but we didn't find that out until Monday.
And I had
much, much better things to think about this evening than the whereabouts
of a temporary boss. It was
Friday, it was summertime, it was five o'clock.
stop on the way home was at Metropolitan Office Professionals. MOP is located in the top two
floors (plus roof) of an ex-factory in an unfashionable Manhattan
neighborhood halfway between Midtown and the Lower East Side -- the sort
of neighborhood composed of co-ops lived in by yuppies who're never home
and by retail stores whose ownership changes as regularly as the
building has an elevator, but it frequently isn't working, and I like to
take the stairs for the exercise anyway. So I climbed up six flights and
breezed in to MOP's lobby -- a large open area that still manages to look
like a redecorated factory loft no matter how many spider plants and mauve
movable walls MOP hopefully puts in.
Maybe it's the tangle of pipes writhing across the ceiling.
other hand, there's certainly plenty of space, a good deal of which I had
to cross in order to get to the receptionist's desk. In addition to the cheerful
receptionist, Krissie, sitting ready with a stack of neatly labelled white
envelopes containing the weekly paychecks, Holly Steinberg was there,
stuffing papers into her already overladen briefcase.
Cornelia. How's the Dayborne
said, "except for the boss."
wrong with him?" Holly
regarded me anxiously, her brown eyes wide and her brown hair seeming
extra-curly with concern.
Holly's my "placement counselor" at MOP, and is very protective of
"her people". She's an
awfully nice girl, and I always get a kick out of watching her try to
mother and protect me -- I'm several years older and at least six inches
taller than she is.
I assured her, "except that he's a complete son-of-a-witch."
all this time in New York, that's the last vestige of Southern speech
pattern that I just can't shake.
Other expletives may roll trippingly from my tongue, but I still
can't bring myself to call someone a "bitch". Not that we Southerners are
mealy-mouthed, mind -- the first time a New Yorker heard me call someone a
"mother-fucking son-of-a-witch", he nearly choked to death on his white
wine spritzer. And Lizard's
pejorative vocabulary can be quite Elizabethan in its frankness.
all?" Holly asked. "No
her that Mr. J. Abercrombie Davis never made inappropriate sexual advances
or innuendos -- at least, not to me.
like that -- he just always has this last-minute project that he managed
to forget about all week, or needs his secretary in at seven a.m. and then
he doesn't get there till nine -- that sort of thing."
Personality even pulled on me, even though I'm a temp and the overtime
would hit him where it hurt -- in the budget.
In case you
don't know how a temporary office help agency works, I'll explain. The average temp agency charges
the firm hiring a secretary from them precisely twice what the temp agency
pays that secretary. MOP's
billing practices are slightly different: they pay their temp personnel less
than the going hourly rate and charge the hiring firms triple that rate,
example, since I'm paid ten dollars an hour (as I mentioned before, my
skills make me a high-ticket item), this means Dayborne pays MOP thirty
dollars for each hour I work.
This is certainly more than Dayborne pays its own secretaries.
that ten dollars an hour -- $350 a week before taxes -- doesn't sound like
much. In fact, it isn't much,
considering that I could walk myself over to almost any of the major firms
and make more than twice that as an executive secretary to some
hyperactive Type-A boss. I
could, in fact, make more by working for the average temp agency, instead
of for MOP.
are three reasons I work for Metropolitan Office Professionals
instead. One is the health
insurance. The second reason
I work for MOP is that I can (with care) afford to. And there's a third reason; the
most important one.
MOP's administrative offices occupy the sixth floor of that old factory
building in that less-than-fashionable neighborhood. Their free child care facility
occupies the seventh floor.
The playground is on the roof, which is also MOP territory.
reason is three years old, and her name is Heather Melissa Upshaw.
care is even more unusual in the temp business than health insurance. In fact, Metropolitan Office
Professionals is the only agency I've ever heard of that offers it. The day care center is the reason
MOP is located way downtown from all the other temporary employment
agencies. They needed the
space an old factory building provides. The day care is also the reason
MOP has a die-hard core of fine workers who stay with them rather than
flitting from agency to agency or off to the world of permanent employment
in search of a benefits package and a larger paycheck. Workers like me.
was Friday, I was here at MOP to pick up both my paycheck and my
that's pretty typical," said Holly of my analysis of Mr. Davis's
managerial flaws. "Just as
long as he doesn't think you're fair game just because you're a
said, taking the long envelope containing my check from the receptionist,
"nobody thinks that."
I waved my left hand, making the broad gold band flash in the
fluorescent light. "I just
tell them it's Mrs. Upshaw, and they behave like perfect little
gentlemen. Now stop worrying,
honey, and go home. It's
Friday, you know."
know." Holly sounded grim, as
was only natural for one whose days -- and sometimes whose evenings and
even weekends -- were frequently made hideous by frantic phone calls from
desperate clients. "Look,
how much longer are you at Dayborne?"
weeks," I told her. "Until
just after the Second Quarter Closeout, whatever that is."
weeks," she said gloomily.
"Oh, well, I guess maybe I can get Danielle for this call-in. Want to work at a design
said, "as long as MOP's paying me."
I waved the
pay-envelope gently back and forth like a lady's fan before shoving it
into my purse. "Have a good
weekend; I've got to go up and get Heather."
Holly to her paper-packing, I went back to the corridor and climbed up one
more flight to the MOP child care center. Pre- and after-school; bonded and
licensed and very, very reliable.
Leave your precious child with them with complete peace of
wonderful? It is -- but MOP's
management isn't run by altruistic fools; they own the best stable of
temps and have the lowest turnover of any agency in the five
By now it
was five-forty-five on Friday.
I collected my particular little darling and we went down the seven
flights of stairs with me helping her slide carefully down the elegant, if
ancient, brass banister.
time, I will admit right now that my daughter is the delight of my
life. Unlike her mother, she
is angelically lovely, and shows every sign of becoming what is known,
where I come from, as a "heartbreaker" when she's a bit older. Huge dark eyes surrounded by
sinfully long lashes, wavy dark hair, skin like heavy cream; in looks,
Heather fortunately takes after her father. Unlike her late father, Heather is
willing to be pleased by almost anything; a talent she must have inherited
from some other ancestor.
we reached the lobby, where Heather regained terra firma. Then we went out into the
shimmering heat of a late June afternoon and walked uptown, towards
echoed down the thirty-foot hallway.
It was either Lizard or our Siamese cat.
home," I called out, which was pretty obvious. Heather dashed past me, eager to
tell Aunt Lizard all about her day (the MOP pre-school group had made
squirrels out of brown paper and, as a bonus for good behavior, had also
learned to sort their Crayolas by color).
began lugging the D'Agostino's bag down the long hall towards the
I was named
Cornelia, after one grandmother; my unfortunate sister was named
Lispenard, after the other.
These names were the fallout of a fit of optimism on the part of
our parents: perhaps
Grandmothers Cornelia and Lispenard would Remember Us in their wills.
Unfortunately, they did.
Cornelia Caroline Upshaw bestowed upon me a twelve-piece sterling silver
Victorian tea service so heavy and rococo that you risk a hernia if you
presume to lift the lid of the teapot. It crouches like a sullen beast of
prey on the coffee table in the living room, as there's simply no other
place to put it, and gives the unwary a nasty start when they come upon it
unexpectedly in a dim light.
Service and Waldo, the living room is an interesting territory to
Grandmother Lispenard Wharton Mingott's legacy to her
namesake. He's a seal-point
Siamese cat quite as heavy and rococo as the Service; Grandmother Lis had
named him something long and impressive in Thai. After we'd had him for a week we
changed his name to Waldo Lydecker.
It seemed to suit him better.
The principal difference between the feline Waldo and his filmatic
namesake is that our Waldo would be exceedingly delighted to see
his neighbor's children devoured by wolves. He would then devour the
Occasionally people -- usually people who've seen BELL, BOOK, AND
CANDLE too often -- ask Lizard whether he's her familiar. Lizard always says he's not
because he's too lazy, whatever that means. But she told me once that she
wouldn't dare. I don't blame
calls her Lispenard; she's been Lizard since the day she was
christened. For the usual
reason: I, at the tender age
of three, could not be expected to pronounce "Lispenard" with any degree
of accuracy. And as anyone
with a name in the least unusual will agree, "Lizard" is infinitely
preferable to what's on Lizard's birth certificate: Lispenard Evangeline.
Lizard suits her. Unlike me,
she's small and quick and vivid and glistens with color, especially after
a buying binge in the makeup department at Bloomingdale's. When I got far enough down the
hall to spot her, she was glittering in purple and gold and was actually
wearing a dress.
like the Assyrian. What's the
I are going to the movies."
Lizard continued examining the brown paper squirrel (slightly
crushed and damp from handling) that Heather had proffered for
inspection. "Hey, honey, this
is real nice. You've got a
real talent for color work."
Which was a
tactful way of saying the squirrel's tail was painted in green and orange
stripes. I went into the
kitchen, set the bag on the table, and glanced at the calendar. Today's square was filled with
arcane symbols that I recognized as Lizard's excuse for handwriting.
when are you going to cram in a movie tonight?" I called, beginning to
unpack the strawberries.
Vespers and before Circle.
It's the new Arnie Schwarzenegger."
this one called, THE DEFENESTRATOR?"
like that." Lizard darted
into the kitchen and kissed my cheek. She reeked, not unpleasantly, of
patchouli. "I'll be
late. See ya."
good time," I said. "Here's
some fresh Eye of Newt in case you need it." I put a jar of black olives into
the refrigerator. "And don't
forget -- widdershins is counterclockwise."
Lizard, and dashed off again.
likes to think she's a witch, and currently belongs to something called
the First Church of Wicca Scientist (I swear I am not making this
up). Julian is an
Episcopalian minister with Saint Benedict's on East 65th Street. They met at an AIDS outreach
clinic, literally over a patient (who turned out to be Jewish and didn't
want to see either of them), when his cross became inextricably
entangled with her pentacle (which is a sort of line-drawing
five-pointed star in a circle; the last time we visited home it gave two
of our aunts Palpitations, because they were sure it was a Star of David,
and were not in the least soothed by our mother pointing out that "at
least with Jews you always know who their people are").
Lizard and Julian have been Significant Others ever since. This isn't, actually, as odd as it
seems, especially in New York.
They both share an interest in comparative religion, a number of
social work groups, and a detestation for the IRS vis-a-vis its stand on
non-profit, charitable, and religious organizations that amounts to a
mania and leads them to support some surprisingly unlikely groups.
also Julian Lovell of the Boston Lovells. The Lodges may talk to the Cabots
if they like, and the Cabots to God; the Lovells won't talk to any of
them. Julian blotted the
family escutcheon permanently due to his democratic willingness to
consider God his equal.
Julian is also rather devastating in the
Ashley-Wilkes/Lord-Peter-Wimsey fashion, and eminently suitable as a love
object for anyone involved, as Lizard swears she is, in a Nature
religion. Summer sunshine
hair, eyes the mottled iridescent blue of the wings of certain exotic
butterflies, skin like very pale spring honey -- well, you get the
picture, and a very attractive one it is, too.
Julian and Lizard have one other thing in common: the opinion that I'm too cynical,
and could use a good deity in my life. I've given up listening on that
the fading clatter of high-heels on the hardwood floor and the slam of the
apartment door. I followed on
back down the hallway to the door, Heather chasing after me to slide on
the polished wood. There I
made sure all the locks were turned, shot, and bolted, and then turned to
walk back to the front of the apartment.
Or, as I
should say, The Apartment.
there was one more legacy from Grandmother Lispenard; one for which we
could almost forgive her saddling Liz with Waldo. The Apartment. Which she had left, in her
thoroughly documented and totally legal will, to "my faithful and beloved
companion of many years."
words, to her dyspeptic Siamese cat.
Fortunately, it was a life tenancy only, or the entire matter would
have wound up as one of those Dickensian legal cases that crawl on past
the heat death of the known universe. As it was, it meant that Lizard
owned (or would own, after Waldo's demise) a long, dark, pre-war apartment
in the East Fifties. Which
meant both Lizard and I lived rent-free. Which meant we both could go our
own merry ways without too much let or hindrance from reality.
let anyone tell you that money can't buy happiness. Have you ever noticed that those
attempting to foist this philosophy off on the general public are usually
twice as rich as Croesus and have every intention of staying that way,
their allegedly miserable personal lives notwithstanding?
with delight, Heather slid past me again; a clever girl, she'd taken off
her shoes to reduce friction.
Her Princess Jasmine socks gave great slide, especially in our
hallway, which is, as mentioned, thirty feet long.
still has the original wallpaper, something dimly Victorian. Sometimes we argue over what,
precisely, the blobs of faded colors are. Lizard says they're pre-Freudian
Rorschach blots; I say (prosaic to the last) that they're probably cabbage
roses. Heather's vote wavers
between bloodstains and big fuzzy spiders. Sometimes I think Heather watches
too much television.
right-hand side of the hallway are rooms: bedroom (Lizard's), bathroom,
bedroom (mine and Heather's), in that order. Since the apartment is pre-war
(Spanish-American, we think), the rooms are lofty and spacious -- a good
thing, since the closets are slightly smaller than my high-school
those rooms, there's the kitchen (also pre-war; in this case, pre-War
Between the States). Then the
apartment opens up into a room the full width of the apartment that must
once have been used for Gracious Dining. We have other uses for that space,
so we eat in the kitchen, which is large and also came to us equipped with
an old and sturdy dinette set.
Now half of the former dining room is a home office for me and half
of it is Lizard's art studio.
An archway closed by a set of glass doors etched with peacocks in
splendor leads from the office/studio into the living room.
room is the largest room in the apartment, and the only one that looks out
over the street, instead of the side alley. The full width of the front wall
is windows, the old-fashioned kind composed of dozens of tiny square panes
of glass. The glass itself is
so old light wavers through like light seen underwater.
also, tucked behind the kitchen, a six-by-ten foot cubicle once called
"the maid's room". These days
(since no modern maid would condescend to dwell in such a primitive cell)
Lizard uses it to store her art supplies and canvases in various stages of
see, works as a free-lance cover artist. Next time you're browsing at
Barnes & Noble, check out the fantasy books. The painting on the cover may have
been done by Liz Upshaw.
Liz's painting wasn't, yet, a living -- but without rent to pay,
she got by.
say money could buy happiness?
Or at least freedom, which is almost as good and twice as
Mommy, come look!" Heather,
demanding I admire Aunt Liz's latest masterpiece.
prudently around Waldo, who was lying in a large, malevolent,
beige-and-brown coil in the geometric center of the living room rug, I
came; I looked; I admired.
that's awful pretty, honey," I said.
Right now Lizard was working on a line of covers for the science
fiction line at Flatiron Press, and the living room was strewn with
canvases on which fire-breathing damsels threatened lovesick dragons. Or possibly it was the other way
around. Lizard's a good
artist, but when a book publisher's art department wants a "definitive
look" for a line, all the covers tend to look alike. (You should see the covers Lizard
did for Chantilly Romance's "Next Chance at Love" series sometime.)
me," Heather cooed, sounding like a delighted pigeon. She pointed at an tiny elf holding
something (a sugar lump, possibly) out to a particularly scaly
makes shameless use of the materials at hand -- in her case, her
long-suffering sister and semi-insufferable niece. Rather to everyone's surprise,
Heather adores posing for Aunt Lizard. In fact, Lizard calls Heather the
best model she's ever had, which always strikes me as odd, since patience
has never been one of the Upshaw virtues. I don't know where Heather gets it
from. Sometimes I worry about
that the glitter-clad elf looked suspiciously familiar, and leaned forward
as if to inspect it more closely.
"Mustn't touch," Heather warned me darkly. "Because it'll
Lizard'll turn you into a frog," I said, swooping my daughter up and
nuzzling her cheek. Heather
regarded me with the fond superiority of the pre-schooler who has not yet
been taught to believe in utter nonsense.
Friday. I want ice cream for
dinner," she announced.
nights, Heather chooses dinner.
Usually it's ice cream, which is all right with me. Fortunately, I don't have to worry
about what I eat; we all get at least one blessing to ameliorate our
trials here on earth.
said. "Where shall we go for
this ice cream?" As if I
"Ben-n-Jerry's!" Heather shrieked, just as she did every
said again. "It's a long
walk, though, honey."
"Ben-n-Jerry's," said Heather firmly. Heather already has her future
mapped: she plans to marry
either Ben or Jerry -- precisely which ice cream entrepreneur is to be the
lucky man hasn't been finalized yet -- when she grows up to ensure a
steady supply of premium ice cream.
Heather, like all little girls, has her eye squarely fixed on the
And so we
went to Ben and Jerry's ice cream parlor, where I had a strawberry sundae
with vanilla ice cream and Heather had pistachio walnut with fudge and
Reese's Pieces. There's
nothing like a well-balanced diet for a growing girl. I consoled myself by thinking of
what my mother would say if she could see us now.
dinner, Heather and I walked slowly home, enjoying twilight and the
passing parade. New York is a
And that is
pretty much how I spent the weekend:
innocently indulging in modern family values. I vacuumed the apartment and took
Heather to the library; I posed for Lizard, who had developed an urgent
need for a tall model to portray a Wicked Queen; I read the latest Kinsey
did I think about Dayborne Ventures or about my current temporary boss,
Mr. J. Abercrombie Davis. I'm
a temp; when I leave a job at five, all of me leaves. It's one reason I haven't had
either an ulcer or a nervous breakdown yet.
Monday morning I dressed myself up as a sober member of the working public
once more, dropped Heather off at MOP's day care center, and returned for
another fun-filled week at beautiful Dayborne Ventures.
arrived at my desk in Dayborne's offices on the twenty-first floor, I
began the Monday-morning ritual of preparing for the day's work. I unlocked my desk and put my
pocketbook in the lower right-hand drawer. I untied my Rockport Walkers and
slid on my plain black leather pumps. I turned on my computer and booted
up the word processing system.
prefer to arrive fifteen minutes early rather than fifteen seconds late, I
was still alone in the office.
This rather surprised me, as Fran Jenkins was always at her desk
practically at first light, just in case Mr. Davis needed her. But today she wasn't there yet,
although Davis was. I knew
this because his door was closed, which was the first thing he did in the
morning when he came in.
Well, the second thing.
First he stalked past Fran -- and me -- without a word. Then he slammed the door to
his office. This guy would
never make it big in the user-friendly South.
were no signs of life in our little corner of Dayborne, I walked down past
the ladies room to the staff lounge to see if anyone had started the
coffee-maker going yet.
had; the rich dark scent of brewing Maxwell House filled the recycled
air. I poured myself a cup,
added milk and two packets of Sweet'N Low, and tossed the empty pink
envelopes into the trash on top of the blue foil Maxwell House
When I got
back to my desk, Fran was at hers, hastily stuffing her oversized pink
plastic handbag into her lower right-hand desk drawer.
said, and she jumped slightly and turned, hand pressed to her plump
you," she said on a half-gasp.
"You gave me quite a start."
knew what she meant, I glanced over at the polished mahogany door upon
which an oval bass plaque announced in chaste italic script that "Mr. J.
Abercrombie Davis, Executive Vice President" resided within.
worry -- his door's been closed, so no one'll know you were -- " I checked
my watch -- "gee, all of sixty seconds late."
late. I was in the
ladies. I always get
here at 8:30, you know. To
make Mr. Davis's coffee. Just
like I did this morning. You
know how particular he is."
Although Fran only drank herb tea, she made coffee twice daily for
her boss in his own personal private coffeemaker. With his own personal private
coffee, too -- Maxwell House apparently wasn't good enough for him.
said. Fran was chattering
more than usual this morning, and to be perfectly frank, I didn't listen
with any particular attention or sympathy. The woman seemed to be perfectly
happy with her eternal role as Davis's Doormat -- and I as knew only too
well, it takes two to dance that particular dominance-submission
I ought to
know. When I'd been married
to Ravenal, I'd known all the steps by heart.
stalked by on leaden Monday feet.
There was no word from Mr. Davis's office, so I efficiently
answered phones, took messages, and typed two short memos. In between these tasks I enjoyed
the passing parade of Dayborne Ventures; as the temp, the outsider, I
could observe this particular patch of corporate jungle with the detached
interest of the scientist.
high-ticket firm, Dayborne Ventures was sleek in that heartless corporate
fashion that negates all humanity.
The ultra-modern corridors and offices were inhabited by men and
women dressed for success in all the possible shades of grey, from ice to
charcoal. These were the
executives, the high-riders, the smooth-cruising sharks. Occasionally a maverick in
something radical, like navy, slid by.
flashed past, slim and quick in bright silk dresses. Everyone was obviously on his or
her way to accomplish some task of overwhelming importance to the free
world -- or at least to Dayborne.
At ten the
robot mail truck trundled slowly along its track through the
corridor. As it rolled past
my desk I got up and walked alongside the Dayborne R2D2 to collect the
morning's mail from the bin marked "Davis/Corp. Res. & Accts". Which, translated from
business-speak, meant "Davis's Department: Corporate Restructuring and
Accounts". Which does not, as
far as I can tell, translate at all into plain English.
and sorted the mail preparatory to handing it to Fran for further analysis
before it went before the critical gaze of Mr. Davis, Ex. V.P. Corp. Res.
& Accts. The usual, the
usual, the usual -- and then I unfolded a letter and found myself staring
at a sheet of plain white paper which bore the following message: "You won't get away with it."
first instant's freeze, I took a deep breath and a closer look. The words had been cut from a
newspaper and taped to the paper.
Careful not to touch any more of it than I already had, I turned it
over; nothing. I held it up
to the light; no watermarks.
Setting it down with equal care, I examined the envelope: standard number ten (business
size); first class stamp; postmarked at the main Manhattan Post Office the
previous Wednesday. There's
nothing like the prompt mail delivery in the Big Apple, thank god.
playing Jessica Fletcher with the letter and envelope, I called, "Hey,
Fran, better take a look at this."
obligingly heaved herself out of her chair and walked over, reaching for
touch it," I said. "There may
over and examined the letter closely. "Oh," she said after a moment,
"another one. Don't worry
about it, he gets lots of these."
She scooped up letter and envelope before I could stop her. "I'll just file these with the
we tell Mr. Davis?"
worry about it," Fran repeated.
She hauled open one of her file drawers and dropped the hate mail
into one of the Pendaflex files.
Fran kept ferociously detailed files which she understandably hated
anyone else to touch; I wondered what that folder was labeled.
ever call the police about it?"
important man; he gets lots of crank letters." Fran seemed almost proud of this
rather dubious achievement.
I'd been there two weeks and hadn't seen any yet. Of course, maybe Fran had been
intercepting the mail before I got it -- no, that would be "going outside
of proper channels".
Executive secretaries did not chase after Robbie the Mail
Truck. Ordinary secretaries
like me -- and Annabel Price, for whom I was substituting -- did
As you can
see, Dayborne favored a strict chain of command system. This efficient system ensured that
everyone always had someone below them in the hierarchy to shoulder any
blame that needed assigning.
wonder why I don't take a permanent job with one of these wonderful
the refreshment wagon bell rang in the main lobby by the elevators; there
was an instant exodus in that direction that reminded me forcibly of the
Eloi answering the summons of the Morlocks. I admit I joined the flow myself,
pausing only to ask if Fran wanted anything.
"Oh, no --
" she glanced over her shoulder at the closed door to Davis's office.
sure? What about your
traditional jelly doughnut?"
yes. That would be
lovely." She fumbled in her
outsize purse for change and handed me a crumpled dollar bill.
him?" I asked, indicating Davis's door with a tilt of my chin. He'd never wanted anything yet,
but the habit of helpfulness dies hard.
"Oh, no --
you know the rules. Mr. Davis
is not to be disturbed unless he leaves explicit
instructions." This was said
in the reproachful tone of a kindergarten teacher who has been sadly
disappointed in one's playground conduct.
said, and went off to procure and bring back one cellophane-wrapped jelly
doughnut for Fran and one Coca-Cola for me. Classic, of course.
The rest of
the morning passed quietly, all one hour of it. Then it was noon, and
lunchtime. I sat on a concrete
bench in the little pedestrian plaza outside the building while I ate my
sandwich, and then walked across the street to Battery Park. I always felt that New York Harbor
provided a pleasant contrast to the concrete canyons of the financial
on such a glorious June day, when the sky was a smooth pale blue and sun
sparkles danced diamond-bright across the dark grey-green surface of the
harbor. Out in the harbor,
the Statue of Liberty lifted her lamp. Past her, in the middle distance,
the ferry chugged its industrious way towards Staten Island. Overhead seagulls whirled and
screamed. The wind off the
water tugged at my neatly pinned hair and teased the hem of my skirt.
the water's edge made me feel wild and free; it was worth having to take
ten minutes at the other end of my lunch hour to re-tidy myself into Mrs.
Upshaw, Perfect Secretary.
returned to my desk at one, Fran was brushing crumbs from her desk into
the wastebasket. The Davis
door was still closed.
get out at lunch," I told Fran.
"It's good for you."
Fran, as far as I could tell, never left her desk at all.
"Oh, no --
he might need me."
Kenobi?" I muttered, sliding into my secretarial chair.
Fran said blankly.
I said. "By the way, are you
sure he's in there?"
"Oh, yes --
there's nothing on his calendar, you see, and he would certainly have
called me if anything had prevented him from coming in, and --
really listening, and began typing in new numbers on an old spread
And if you
say I should have been more suspicious at the time, all I can say is you
haven't worked in as many offices as I have. For example, you probably haven't
worked in the office where the boss's secretary did nothing but answer the
phone and knit her afghan. Or
in the office where the boss leaves for lunch at 11:50 and doesn't return
until the next morning at 9:00.
Or in the office where the boss hangs around your desk most of the
day chatting about sports, movies, and his military service. (This last chap then wonders why
nothing ever seems to get done on time in his office. And he's serious, too.)
Or in the
many, many offices where they simply don't trust a temporary secretary to
be able to do more than keep the regular employee's chair warm until she
returns. This is very
Safety Tip for the professional Temp: Always Bring a Book.
It's also a
good idea to bring along your personal correspondence. Letter-writing enables you to look
terribly industrious without endangering the esoteric filing system that
no one but Valerie-on-Vacation can either understand or negotiate.
two-forty-five, Fran cast me an agonized glance and murmured that she
really must.... She trailed
this statement off with a delicacy of feeling that my mother would have
admired; I assured Fran that her secret was safe with me and that I'd hold
Fort Zinderneuf in the face of all comers until her return.
I told her. "You need a
break. Oh -- if you hear the
three o'clock bell, would you be kind enough to get me a Coke?"
"I won't be
that long," she assured me, and hastened down the hall to the ladies room,
clutching her big pink purse.
head, I returned to my spreadsheet.
Less than five minutes later, I heard knocking and looked up to see
Raymond Clough tapping on Mr. Davis's closed door. This was lamentably contrary to
Dayborne procedure; all approaches to a Great Man -- or Great Woman --
must be made via his or her secretary. Chain of command, you know.
me," I said, "may I help you?"
so. I need to talk to
Davis. New info on the
RE&T merger; he's got to know about it ASAP." Mr. Clough worked down in the far
corner of the twenty-first floor, doing something in Overseas Investment
Futures. Moderately tall,
moderately dark, and moderately handsome, he looked amazingly similar to
all the other Dayborne Assistant Vice Presidents. Idly, I wondered if Dayborne cut
out their AVPs with cookie cutters and then used some different colored
icings to achieve the illusion of variety.
sorry," I said. "Mr. Davis
can't be disturbed if his door's closed."
"Damn it --
" Clough began, and then stopped.
After a moment, he said, "Where's Fran?"
said. "But she said -- "
can't you at least buzz his intercom and get him to answer his damn
If I'd been
a Dayborne employee, I might have hesitated more; Davis's temper was
notorious. But I wasn't
employed by Dayborne, but by MOP, and if any place gave me enough grief,
I'd pick up my marbles and go home.
And have a new temp assignment the next day, if I wanted one. (Once I'd even had a new one that
same afternoon, but that was a special case involving long-standing and
especially desperate MOP clients.)
it was possible that Davis had spoken to Fran (who wouldn't bother to tell
me, and why should she?), or had popped out while I was away from my desk,
it was also possible that the guy was lying in there incapacitated by a
heart attack or a stroke.
(His blood pressure had to be about 200 over 190, minimum.)
buzz him," I told Raymond Clough, and pushed the intercom button. And held it down. Although the walls and doors at
Dayborne were as rock-solid as its financial status, I heard a faint
irritating drone inside Davis's office. I admit I was listening pretty
solid ninety seconds, I looked at Clough.
answering. Look -- I think we
should go on in there. He may
I thought I
heard Clough mutter something that sounded suspiciously like, "He sure
does," but I pretended I hadn't heard and we both headed for the
door. I tried it and
discovered the door was locked just about the time Fran came scuttling
back, breathing hard.
"Cornelia! What are
you doing? Mr. Davis will be
furious if he's interrupted -- "
"He'll be a
sight more furious if he's had a stroke and is lying there without the
strength to call 911," I said.
I was starting to wonder if Davis was even in there. Maybe he'd snuck out while we
weren't looking. Maybe he'd
suddenly wanted to spend the afternoon with his secret mistress, or at the
movies, without informing the ever-vigilant, ever-concerned Fran.
said Clough, and tried to turn the knob he'd just watched me fail to
turn. Perhaps he thought it
would miraculously unlock under a masculine touch.
the locked door was admirably gender-neutral; in other words, it was just
as locked for Raymond Clough, AVP, as it was for Cornelia Upshaw,
knocked again -- pounded, rather.
"Davis! You in
oh, dear -- " Fran was literally wringing her hands in distress. "You don't think -- "
I said over Clough's continued pounding, "that you'd better get someone to
open that door. Hey, Fran,
don't you have a key to his office?"
at me wide-eyed, as if I'd suggested multiple orgies in the lobby. "Well, yes, but Mr. Davis said to
never -- "
"This is an
emergency," I announced firmly.
"Come on, Fran, get the key.
Everybody's looking," I added as the final inducement to
compliance. Heads were
turning as people walked past; other heads were poking out of
offices. Nobody, I noticed,
did anything so sensible as come over and ask what was going on, or if we
needed any help.
To a steady
stream of "oh, dears" Fran rummaged in her purse and produced a veritable
handful of keys. The key to
her boss's office door was obvious -- it was the one attached to a large
enameled tag that said "VIP".
It was also the one that fell to the floor while Fran was fumbling
about sorting semi-identical keys.
up the key before Fran's worser sense came to the fore again and slid it
into the keyhole of J. Abercrombie Davis's locked door. Then I turned it, and turned the
knob, and opened the door.
And then I walked into J. Abercrombie Davis's office.
slumped over his desk, and he was dead....