She didn’t have to tell me anything; the whole warehouse knew the truth from the way she strutted in day after day, an hour later than the rest of the workers, drawing dirty looks from the other secretaries.
The guys on the loading dock back where I worked ogled her day after day, and when the boss was not around, hooted and hollered and asked for her to do for them what she supposedly did for the boss.
Although she had been around for a while, she was about my age -- nearing thirty, and more than a little proud, refusing to acknowledge the woof whistles any more than she did the looks in the office. But she seemed to take notice of me, not exactly flirting with me, but offering a friendly glance or quick hello when I was not in the company of the other workers.
I was too new to make waves, and, in fact, was only working out the summer until I could go back to college, one of those late intellectual bloomers who had dreams of becoming a writer some day.
Perhaps she picked me out because I did not bother with her the way everyone else did. Even when workers ignored her, they did so with great hostility, as if seeking to make her disappear. No one sat with her the few times when the boss’ absence led her to the cafeteria for lunch instead of her extracurricular activities elsewhere.
One day, after my manager had asked me to make a delivery in the van and I returned too late to take lunch with the rest of the crew, I found myself seated in the cafeteria alone, making due with a lukewarm grilled cheese when she walked in.
She hesitated at the door, looking around at all the other available seats before apparently deciding it was silly for her to seek a seat all by herself, and made her way to my table.
“Do you mind if I join you?” she asked, her voice unexpectedly sweet.
For all I had seen her over the first two months, this was the first time I had actually heard her speak to anyone, let alone me.
“Be my guest,” I said, swallowing nearly whole the mouthful of unchewed bread and cheese.
She had opted for the soup, possibly maintaining a diet she had no need of, her shape as grand as any model in a fashion magazine. She slipped slowly, her long blonde hair framing her face and the cup as she brought it to her pink painted lips. She didn’t exactly look at me, nor seemed to mind my staring at her. She seemed to understand that I studied her in a different way than the other people. Yet something in my action prompted her to speak.
“What do you think of me?” she asked.
Again I had to swallow before my food was thoroughly chewed.
“I don’t,” I said. “At least, not much.”
“You must have some opinion of me?”
“It is hard to have an opinion when I hardly know you.”
“Everyone else has an opinion and most of them don’t know me any better than you do.”
“That’s them, not me,” I said, and stared down at my sandwich, which I suddenly no longer wanted.
“But you’ve heard what the others have said?”
Suddenly, I was the one grilled instead of my sandwich, and the most I could manage was a nod.
“Do you believe what you’ve heard?”
I glanced up, saw her staring straight at me.
“Does it matter if I do?” I said.
“Because you seem different.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know what I believe,” I said. “Usually I wait to hear the facts.”
“But you’ve seen me go out with Mr. Wilson for lunch. Doesn’t that say something?”
“It says you go out, not what you do when you’re out.”
“You know what I do,” she said, then looked away, sounding rather sad and weary. “Those part of the rumors are true.”
Now, I stared hard at her, wondering why she had told me this. Why did she need to confirm tales, especially to as total stranger like me? I asked her that. She shrugged.
“I guess I needed to talk about it,” she said. “I’ve never been able to talk about it to anyone.”
“What about your family?”
“Daddy?” she said, and giggled, a slightly hysterical note sounding in that laugh. “I tried once. But that was when I was much younger, a little more foolish than I am now.”
You don’t strike me as foolish,” I said, and meant it.
“Oh, I am, but foolish in a different way, thinking this will go on forever.”
I had no reply for that, but some kind of inner dike seemed to have burst, and she started to talk without needing me to reply, as if shaping the story in her own mind by saying it out loud.
“As I said I was foolish then in a different way. Sure, I was amazed when he hired me right out of high school. But I was up on myself then. All the boys in school loved me, so why not this older man?”
“Sure I knew what his shinny eyes meant when they stared at my blouse. Hundreds of boys in school had stared that way. It always meant the same thing. But I pretended like I didn’t know.
“`A job, Mr. Wilson?” I said. `Doing what?’“
“That made him look a little uncomfortable. I think he expected me to know already.
“ `Well, you’d be my assistant,’ he said finally.
“`Your assistant? Really?”
“The offer was a surprise with or without the look. One didn’t refuse the owner of the biggest firm in town so lightly.
“`To tell you the truth, Mr. Wilson, I was thinking about going to college.’”
“Were you?” I asked.
“Of course not,” she said. “My parents couldn’t afford college. Not even the local community version, and Mr. Wilson knew that, too, having employed my father in some dinky little job in the basement for over thirty years.”
“What did Wilson say?”
“He just smiled then jotted a figure on a piece of post it paper and pushed it across the desk at me,” she said. “I nearly fell, and felt back for the seat before I did.”
“It was that good?” I asked.
“It was better than I ever supposed,” she said. “I looked straight at Mr. Wilson and said: `You’re kidding, right?’
“He shook his head. I stared at the number again. It was three times what my father made and twice as much as I would get anywhere else with or without college.
“Then I asked him if a title comes with it.
“His stare turned queer and momentarily angry. `What title would you like?” he asked.
“`For this kind of money I ought to be vice president.”
“`Done,’ he said. He looked relieved, and then his gaze returned to its previous state: the meat-market look I got when walking passed boys practicing football. But when he blinked, it vanished, and I wondered if I’d seen it at all.”
“Is that when you talked to your family about it?” I asked.
The woman nodded and sipped her soup. “I talked to Daddy that night.”
“What did he say?”
“He said I was trying to destroy the best moment of my life,” she said.
“That’s all?” I said, pushing my half-eaten sandwich aside, aware of the clock in the corner and my need to go back to work.
“It was a strange moment,” she said. “My father looked exhausted, sprawled out in his favorite chair before the TV set. I saw a bit of jealousy in his eyes, yet pride, too, as if he’d done something right in raising me if the boss hired me for money like that.”
“He had to have known what was what.”
“I wasn’t so sure at that moment,” she said. “I remember leaning against his chair, wishing he would tell me not to do it. I would listen to him. I’d even work the local sweatshop if he asked, rather than make him feel small or foolish. But he looked at me as if my uncertainly insulted him.
“`Well, you’d better go down there Monday morning and do your job,” he said.
“He didn’t need to say we needed the money, nor do I think he meant to. But it was there, floating in the air with his cigar smoke, part of the tattered fabric of our lives, worn rugs, chipped china, furniture that sagged. I guess he expected me to fulfill for him those things he couldn’t make happen himself. And maybe he was right. Maybe I was never really satisfied with things, always looking on the down side -- like when I came home with report cards filled with A’s and B’s, only to be miserable over a single c.
“What did you tell him?” I asked.
“I told him I would, and I meant it to, telling myself that I’d been imagining things about Mr. Wilson. After all, Mr. Wilson was one of the most respected men in town.”
“And you did it?”
“Sure I did. On Monday, I went in, walking through the grand glass doors my father had never gone through, stopping at the receptionist who looked and smiled and took my name. But her voice had a hint of something sour in it.
“Maybe I imagined that, too. For I didn’t hear it again from her, or from the other office people I came in contact with, suit & tie people who had always looked down their noses at my father, who drove up daily in BMWs -- all of them nodding and smiling as they passed. Not as if I was one of them. But friendly just the same. Some of them even remembered me from school, or from their brothers and sisters with whom I’d gone to school.”
“That seems to have chanced,” I said, “from the way they look at you these days.”
“Most of the people have changed since then,” she said. “Back then, most of the people knew my father had worked for the company for years, most of them made a point of telling me what a nice girl I was, though I heard something like regret in their voices as if they didn’t really believe it was true, or I had failed to leave up to all those noble speeches teachers used give during assemblies when I was shown off as a model of success.
“Of course, I could have told every one of these people that I was a success. That I was likely making much more than any of them were. That I had an office and my name on the door.”
“But you didn’t?”
“No, because I didn’t believe I was a success.”
“So when did Wilson collect on his investment?” I asked.
“Oh, he called me into his office right away. I thought it was to tell me my duties. And it was. He stared at me for a long time as I stood on the carpet before his desk.
“`Your skirt’s too long,” he said, rubbing his chin with his long fingers.
“`Your skirt. It’s too long. I can’t see enough of your legs.”
“I looked down. My father would have approved of my skirt, and the little leg that showed wasn’t unattractive.
“`I don’t understand,’ I said.
“`Don’t you?’ he said, and there was that look again, his thin tongue moistening his thin lips. `You know you’re a very beautiful woman?’
“`Mr. Wilson!’ I said, intending a tone of indignity, but found my voice shaky and weak as if talking to my father during a scolding. `I don’t think that has anything to do with my job!’
“`But it does. Why do you think I hired you?’
“He wasn’t even hiding his expression now, no more than some of the slimier kids at school did, wolf-whistles and rude remarks as I passed them in the halls.
“`I think my boyfriend would be a little alarmed hearing talk like this,’ I said.
“It was a lie designed to frighten the man. I had left all my male companions behind with graduation. They had all seemed a little immature and I was ready to find new people with more grown up ideas. I thought the mention of a boyfriend would cease this nonsense and lead us back onto the subject of work.
“`I suppose your boyfriend would mind us going to lunch?’
“The chill went right through me. I could hardly muster words to answer. I nodded with lack of conviction. I could only stare at his face. We both knew exactly what he meant by lunch.
“`Don’t tell me no,’ he said. `I’m not taking no for an answer.’
“`I think you should stop this, Mr. Wilson,’ I said. `I don’t need this job as badly as you think.’
“`But your father does,’ Mr. Wilson said with a smugness that was indisputable, as if he had been listening at the door when my father had told me to come, or worse had talked to Daddy about my future here. Daddy and Mr. Wilson arm in arm walking through the halls of the factory.
“`What exactly are you telling me?’ I demanded, with just a note of hysteria in my voice.
“`What I said. You leave here without taking me up on my offer, both you and your father will be filing unemployment claims in the morning.’
“`But you can’t do that!’ I protested. `My father’s worked here for...’
“`I know how long your father’s worked and I know when he’s supposed to retire, and I know how much is mortgage is, and his utility bills. Are you coming to lunch, or not?’ he asked as he rose from behind his desk.
“I stared at him. At his all-knowing expression. At slightly quivering lower lip that seemed to say he’d waited all his life for me to grow up, that he had watched from his office tower as I met my father every day after work. As if even then he had worked out the details of his bargain with the man, that my father had known and waited, too, and had let his dreams linger on for this moment in time when his daughter came of age.
“`I’m waiting,’ Mr. Wilson said, and I sagged and I nodded and I let him walk me to the door arm around my waist, knowing in the morning I would be back here wearing a shorter skirt.”
She shuddered, and pushed away her now cold cup of soup.
“So what happened?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I got old.”
“I don't understand,” I said.
“My father retired, I’m still here, and Mr. Wilson just hired a new girl to take my place...”