Falter

Chapter Four

Barry wanted to promote me to manager. I’d deal with salaries and new hires, all the in-house H.R.

“How bad do you want it?” he asked.

Outside the office windows, late afternoon sunlight shone autumn gold on the mirrored surfaces of nearby buildings. Everyone but us had left for the weekend.

“I want it.”

I craved it, really: more money, more responsibility, my own office. In the months since my promotion, I worked all the time, even through the summer when most of the staff took their half-days and vacations. If a volunteer was needed to pull an extra Saturday, I did it. I stayed late every Thursday and Friday night, and on Monday mornings I was always early. Though the circumstances had changed, my motto remained: keep moving. I could never take the chance of feeling unmoored, as I had those last weeks in Fox Hollow.

Much of my dedication was loneliness. I knew almost no one outside of work. Everyone my age was either in school or else struggling at low wage jobs, unapproachably defensive behind a cashier’s smock or a waitress uniform. I attended movies and plays in my neighborhood, I took myself on trips to Chinatown and Buckingham Fountain, but everyone I saw seemed either closely bound or deliberately solitary, armored with hostility. Eyes were meant to be avoided. Once on South Wabash I returned a man’s smile, after which he softly called, “Hello, whore.” There was no one with whom I could compare notes, no one to whom I could say, “It’s so different here!” I was grateful to be whole and self-sufficient, but my moments of contentment outside of work subsided like mist in the glare of morning. There were times when I awoke sweating two or three hours before dawn, my heart pounding. The blackness of my bedroom felt heavy, like a clammy, confining blanket. The only escape lay in calling the office to hear my own voice say, “Thank you for calling Venture Investments. Our office hours are…” Thus reassured of my connection to the rest of the world, I relaxed and eventually slept again. Work was my harbor. I longed to be further anchored, made fast.

Now Barry peered at me from across his desk. “How do I know you can handle this? You’re young — are you ready? Reassure me.”

“Barry, I said I want it. What else is there to say?”

He rocked in his leather swivel chair.

“What do I tell May?” he asked. “You know she’s ahead of you in seniority.” His remaining curls had diminished into a metallic frizz. His pale eyes bulged. What had his ex-wives seen in him?

“Tell her the truth, that I need it more.”

He grinned. “Tough little nut, aren’t you?”

“Give her a raise instead,” I said. “She’s probably due.”

He slapped his palms on the arms of his chair.

“Okay. You’ve got it. Don’t make me look bad. Now get out of here so I can talk to Peggy.”

Peggy supervised our branch, and always approved Barry’s requests.

Twenty minutes later, on the corner of Madison and LaSalle, I waited for my bus under the big Bank Leumi clock with its baffling Hebrew numbers. I wanted to whoop, jump and dance, but instead stood quietly with the other expressionless riders. Swarms of rush-hour liberates swerved around our silent crowd. A face detached itself from the mob, hovering above me with an expression of uncertainty.

Whenever I was asked for directions, natives inevitably interrupted and corrected me. “I probably don’t know where it is,” I said

“I think I know you. Amy, right? Fox Hollow?”

“Who are you?” My heart pounded.

“Jack Mapes. Basketball? Swim Team?”

I remembered him. A year ahead of me. Popular, dated younger girls. We’d never spoken.

“You live here now? You look great.” His dark eyes raced over me.

“Yeah. Here’s my bus,” I lied.

“Great! Mine too.”

I pretended to squint at the numbers. A row of silver-headed parking meters stood like sentries, blocking my escape.

“My mistake. You go ahead,” I said.

“No, no, I’ll wait.”

The doors closed, and the bus pulled away with a puff of sulphurous exhaust.

“So what are you doing now?” he asked.

I sighed. “Working.”

“Really? What at?”

“Options trading.”

“Must be exciting. You like it?”

“Yes.” He’d have been so handsome if he hadn’t come from Fox Hollow. Go away, I thought.

He watched me in silence for a moment, bouncing lightly on the balls of his big feet. When my bus finally appeared from around the corner, I turned away to board. Suddenly, he said, “Want to get together sometime?”

The line was moving. In an instant, I’d be free. “I work a lot,” I answered.

“Well, maybe I’ll see you around, okay?”

“Sure,” I said, certain it would never happen. The doors closed behind me, the engine groaned, and we surged into traffic.

The next few days were bad. All through the weekend, I was plagued by memories of home as it looked every autumn, when the stands of maple across from our house and Wanda’s blazed orange and amber before the leaves wafted down, blowing over the road before being gathered by the city. I knew Fox Hollow best as a pedestrian: the smooth cement sidewalks giving way before the gradual low curbs of the wide boulevards lined with hawthorne trees. Streetlights were few, but every house had either lighted pillars or yellow-burning carriage lamps beside a thick front door. I had often walked without purpose, sometimes even skipping school to do so, though now I thought that I had had a purpose: reassurance. Every house seemed girded with stability. Surely something so big would not give way? The façade of security could never afford to crack, weakening, as it would, the others. I’d been too young to realize that the only mortar behind these suburban palaces was money, and that no one had a stake in maintaining anyone. When the House of Hache collapsed under the strain of bankruptcy, divorce ensued and the place was sold. (Bev must have sold.) I tried never to permit myself the luxury of homesickness, but that weekend it returned to me unbidden, like phantom pain in a missing limb.

On Monday, May gave notice after learning she’d been superseded. Marching out of Barry’s office, she appeared before my desk. The nostrils of her pretty freckled nose flared.

“Let’s talk,” she said.

I followed her into the break room, where the guys from the trading floor liked to watch soap operas during lunch. Small white packs of salt littered the big pink table. She closed the door and leaned against it, folding her arms across her chest. White fluorescent bulbs throbbed above us, casting a crown of light on her smooth black hair.

“Listen, the position was offered to me, and I took it,” I began. “I’d expect you to do the same thing.”

“Well, it wasn’t, and I didn’t,” she answered.

“What do you want me to say, May? I’m sorry, all right?”

She frowned, lightly bouncing her back against the door. “What the hell is wrong with you?” she asked.

I moved behind the table.

“What? Nothing.”

Stray hair stuck to my lipstick and I tucked it back behind my ear.

She crept forward.

“You showed up here and took over. You crowded me out. You played dirty.”

“Barry approached me, May, not the other way around. Go back and bawl him out.”

I stepped around her toward the door.

Her smoky breath floated toward me on her words. “You screwed me.”

I shook my head. “I told Barry to give you more money.”

“Fuck you,” she said.

“Get out of my way, May.”

She came closer, close enough to show her pores and the individual spikes of her painted eyelashes.

“Whatever it is that’s wrong with you, I want you to know it shows. I mean it. Everyone sees it. We’ve all talked about it. Nobody really likes you here, Amy.” Then she stepped aside, moisture glinting in her shining eyes. She was pretty and sleek, like a mink. Her voice cracked when she added “Go to hell.”

Through the afternoon, I moved into the small vacant office beside Barry’s bigger one. Dintz remarked, “To the victor go the spoils,” and though Mick said, “Shut up, Dintz,” it sounded automatic. Clouds raced across the silver sky, warning of the coming winter. When I left, the wind on my cheeks was cold, and a fine, gritty rain had begun. The corner was empty, which meant I’d just missed the bus. Annoyance swelled within me like a goiter.

Godamned shitty Monday,” I muttered. Footsteps approached, but I didn’t look up.

“You here again?” It was Jack, wielding an enormous blue umbrella. “We have to stop meeting like this.” His white teeth were perfect as he smiled.

My annoyance swelled into anger. “What are you doing, lurking or something?”

“ Lurking? I just came up from Hyde Park.”

“Conveniently landing at the same spot at the same time.”

He flushed, red staining his brown cheeks. “I’m not trying to stalk you, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“What do you want with me?” I asked. “I’m the girl with the fucked-up family, remember?”

From beneath the muted twilight of his umbrella, he curled his lips as he spoke. “Yeah, you’ve really moved on since high school.”

“What are you even doing here?” I asked.

He raised a hand, showing his palm. “I thought it would be nice to get together, that’s all. It won’t happen again.” He turned, his big umbrella revolving with him.

I stood biting my lips for a moment, while the wind slashed my hair and a feeling of shame bloomed in my chest.

“It’s been a bad day,” I called toward his receding back. “I got a promotion!”

He kept walking.

“Hey! Don’t you want to hear about it?”

He turned around to face me. I tried to smile, though my eyes watered from the growing cold.

“It’s kind of a big deal,” I added. As he came up beside me, he gave off a good scent of clean hair and warm skin. That delicious boy smell.

“Tell me,” he said.

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