My work had nothing to do with me, a series of petty efforts I made between the hours of eight and five. It was a car finance firm, National Auto Credit, in the accounting department. I sent out titles for paid-in-full accounts. At the end of the day I worked the mailroom. Once in a while, I even got to send a title to someone I know – once, my old Little League coach. In any case, it was much better than working in the credit department, squeezing money out of people.
My desk-neighbor Naomi was her peculiar self that morning. She had on this hellacious red skirt, oil-slick satin, a big white bow on the back, at her waist. Senior prom redux.
“Mike? Do you mind if I ask you a very personal question?”
First thing in the morning. Imagine.
“Where’d you get that black jacket you were wearing yesterday? The double-breasted with the big buttons? I was thinking, you know, I might like to get one for my boyfriend.”
I released a breath and told her the store, the rack, the price. Then I went for more coffee. I think in Naomi’s world, a question about clothing really is a terribly personal thing. Maybe all those years of trying to explain how she can afford such a wardrobe on her income.
“Michael, do you have any girlfriends?”
Naomi never asked permission for really personal questions. I set my coffee cup down and answered.
“No, Naomi. But I am working on it.”
She giggled. I reached into my drawer and pulled out my rubber stamps: National Auto Credit, received, repossession, rebate due, trade-in.
“Who is that on your wall, Michael? She looks cute.”
“That… that’s a reminder.”
“Did you like her?”
“No,” I answered. “But I loved her.”
Naomi started shuffling papers around on her desktop. “Well, I shouldn’t be… that’s your business, not mine.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I don’t mind.”
I opened my red stamp pad and smoothed it over with an ink roller. That job was nasty with ink. I often went home with red fingers, red spots on my ties.
“Good morning, Michael.”
“Oh, good morning, Miz Cater.”
Ms. Roxy Cater, accounting department manager and enigma. She was fifty. We did the whole Over the Hill birthday party last month: tombstones, black balloons, gifts of prune juice and diapers. (Aren’t officemates a blessing?) The rest came from company gossip. She apparently went straight from college to the convent. She was a nun for ten years, then one morning at 32 she woke up and quit. Naturally, the next step was accounting.
She was about as professional as they came – power suits, spectacles, a stare that cut glass – but she had these little outbursts of girlishness. Someone reported some good news in a dead-serious meeting and she made like a cheerleader: “Oooh, yay! Way to go!”
Then, we had these branch parties at Sneakers, the company hangout. Some guy transferring to Fresno (“traded for fifty crates of raisins”), so everyone got drunk and tried not to confess how many office supplies we were snitching. And there she was, Roxy Cater, twisting her brains out. I danced with her once when she was doing intravenous Long Island iced teas, and I could swear she was eyeing my crotch.
I felt sorry for what I knew about Roxy – the bottle of whiskey in her filing cabinet, the afternoons she came back from lunch barely able to walk – but she was one of the few people there with the brains to understand that I didn’t belong. She saw the intelligence in my eyes, and she wondered what I was hiding.
“Michael, could you come with me to the mailroom for a second?”
Surprise. Roxy, at my shoulder.
“Sure. Let me sign this one… title. There.”
She marched off in front of me. I followed ten feet behind, trying to keep up. She waited for me at the mailroom door, and I pulled out my key to unlock it. She flicked on the lights and closed the door behind us. “Pull up a stool,” she said. I perched next to the sorting shelves; the lunchroom snack machines hummed through the walls.
Roxy paced back and forth, then tried to find a comfortable place against the counter. She straightened one leg and arched the other alongside, sort of sexy, really, though I was trying not to notice.
“I’m sorry I picked sort of an odd place for this, but the manager’s office was taken.”
“Oh that… that’s fine.”
“I was speaking with Mr. DeMartini yesterday, and he mentioned you. He said you seemed very bright. He’s seen those party invitations you write, and he was impressed with your written communications skills.”
“Yes,” I said
Roxy switched her legs and reached up to put a strand of hair back in place. “He said he’d like to have you in his department. You’d make a good accounting rep, with the right training. Now, I know you told me when you started that you weren’t interested in advancement, but I thought I’d at least give you the option. It would mean longer hours, but a lot more money, and it would be much more challenging than what you’re doing now.”
I thought about it for a moment, studying the names of the dealerships on the mail slots.
“No,” I said. “I’m happy where I am.”
I have not often felt as uncomfortable as in that mailroom, while Roxy Cater chased my eyes, trying to plow through my lies. After a minute, I had to look at her and repeat my answer: “No thanks. Really.”
“Okay,” she said. “Be sure and sort through the forms in the stockroom this week. I want to trash all the expired ones before we switch the departments around.”
I wished Roxy would believe me, but she won’t. She was too smart. I wondered if she knew about my degree.
My Wednesday ritual was a swim in the pool at the other end of the apartments. It wasn’t much of a pool, five feet at its deepest, but the water was a good day’s-end therapy. I did a cycle of strokes that had changed little in the previous two years: two laps of sidestroke, two freestyle, two side, then a nice easy backstroke. On my final stretch I watched the sky straight above me, a dull square of blue. A hummingbird shot in, slowing, stopping dead center. He hovered there and eyed me, shaking his needle like a nervous smoker. I stopped my stroke and tried to see through the hummingbird’s eyes, over the blocky tops of the apartments to the fading line of the sun, then back down to the blue lights of the pool, the dim creature paddling its limbs over the water.
He backed off an inch and was gone, shooting off in a gray streak. My portion of sky fell dark, and I dipped my head under the water.
Photo by MJV