Thursday, April 30, 2015

Chapter Twenty-One...Is She On To Me?


Chapter Twenty-One



Alright, for the past week I’ve felt neglected.  No longer the family member; more the roommate spawned crawling from a cesspool.

And what do I do?  Deposit all my physical and mental energy into learning a job I despise.

Does this make sense?

Well, maybe I don’t despise the actual job; more so the fact that Mom spends her afternoons perfecting make-up, flawless and feminine, wearing new outfits I picked out; voyaging.  Where?  Who knows?  I know these mysterious expeditions leaves her eyes distant when she returns. Drifting past me clothed in her recommended drabs.

“Who wouldn’t feel a little resentful?” I complain, entering a dim living room; flipping the light switch near the door.

Not much better.  This whole house needs rewiring, I note before proceeding with my former line of thought, after a glance in the living room mirror.

Hicksville.  Of course I first took the job not minding that I looked like this escapee from Mayberry, since Mom rushed to greet me at the door; danced me around the room; plied me with questions, then told me how much she appreciated me.  What a wonderful a daughter I was.

Now?

I hurry home from the agency, female incarnate Paul Revere, carrying the message: Cowen is coming; Peters is leaving; but Cowen is coming, for what . . . Why? I ask.  Today won’t be any different; she won’t be there.

And I’m right and tired.  I’ve held this information over a week waiting for the right time to tell her.  Clearly that time doesn’t exist.  Mom returns home either too tired, too distracted, or too upset, leaving me to wear the label “fraud,”—if only to myself.

“Cowen Riley,” I say gazing past my image reflected in the mirror.  A name like that inspires loyalty, I think, finally turning towards the steps to my bedroom.  I’m not his team player.  “Mom wanted that position,” I continue out loud.  Two weeks is long enough, I decide about the position.  It’s not fair to him or the agency.  He’ll need a steady crew knowing the ropes to rebuild the agency, a difficult, almost impossible assignment as it is.

Either Mom takes this job now or I’ll just quit. . . .Where is she anyway?  Where does she go? I wonder, rubbing my temple due to a headache from the exhausting drive through bumper-to-bumper late afternoon traffic.

Then I stop.

Listen to me.  This isn’t like me—lately always griping; irritated.  I sound like a disgruntled cow.   I’m beginning not to like myself.  I reason: Be happy she’s busy and happy.

But what happened to her original enthusiasm about the work idea?  My foot balanced on the bottom step, I wonder, what’s the hold-up?  She was so “gung-ho” for me to get the job and then nothing?

She must be dating. . . But if so, why the secrecy?  Is it because Steve’s death is so recent?  I wouldn’t judge her about that.  Who am I?

Is he married?

No.  Madame’s training on that note was intense.  “You can never, never trust a man that will cheat on his wife,” she drilled.  “If he cheats on her, he’ll cheat on you.”

I believed her.  And I’m sure that Mom got that same spill, so she must too.  Or would she? . . . .Why should she? . . . .They don’t get along anyway.

No.  The trueness of the statement remains.

But if Mom is dating—since she acts like a woman who is, I think heading upstairs: Why not forget the agency?   Why have me dangling? since I am dangling.  What I bring home to teach Mom tosses aside like dirty hosiery, forcing me to swallow irritation as she smiles sweetly, asking, “Is that all?”

It is making me ill.  I resolve: We’ll discuss the switch today.  Then I’ll explain the situation to Mr. Peters.  He’ll understand.  He’s very reasonable.  Plus, I did reorganize the files and centralize the needed forms.  That took some doing; he owes me.  And it’s not as if Mom doesn’t exhibit aptitude for the job.  Though her typing leaves a bit to be desired, I concede, close to the top of the stairs.

Yet, typing isn’t the bulk of the agency’s work, I rationalize.  Mom already speaks the insurance lingo and identifies the various insurance forms for different policies like an agent.  I found that out when my face registered surprise at her demonstrated ability.  She just laughed, explaining that the terms and paperwork became second nature during Steve’s illness.

Okay, maybe that’s why she’s dragging her feet.  She already knows this stuff.  But shouldn’t she say so.  Plus, didn’t she express the desire to work with the soon departing Mr. Peters. . . Where. . . In Boca Ra—“Boo!”

“Shoot!” I yell, grabbing the wooden railing in time to keep from tumbling backwards down the stairs, my heart pounding, as a hand reaches down to grasp the collar of my leather coat.

“Whoa, girl.”

Bronco-bucking mad, I glare upwards; shouting, “Are you crazy?” throwing off her hands; lifting myself upright on the stairs.  “You trying to kill me?” remembering, this is just like her.

It’s a good thing the carpenters finished the staircase a few days ago.  I could’ve broken my neck.

Vie, leaning over the renewed stabilized railing resembles a female pirate wearing a red flowered bandana covering all hair except pieces flipping up the back and earrings galore—a studded eyebrow and tongue, with hoops in her lobes.  But the wicked spark in her eyes and a smirk on her face makes me want to spit cannon balls at her.

“Now why would I do that?” she asks in reference to my question about killing me.  “How would that help me? . . . Anyway, what took you so long?  I fell asleep in your fabulous new room.”

I noticed.  Deep creases line one side of her face.

Why did she have to wake up?

“Looks like you plan on staying awhile.  Making yourself quite cozy, huh?” she continues.

Why shouldn’t I?  Who wants to continue sleeping on that old sack of a baby bed? It doesn’t take much to make a place habitable.  And anyway, why does she care?  I wonder, convinced that she does.

My heart struggles to regulate itself as I walk up the last few steps.

“So Vie, Mom let you in? . . . Why?” I ask, staring at her as I pass.  “And where is she?”

“I saw her in Little Italy earlier, but she didn’t see me.  But you’ve been fending for yourself, right?” she asks, following me into my new old room dressed in jeans and jacket. Underneath, braless in a tight white sheer jersey top.

Figures.

The room does look vintage good, with antique white and rose toile wallpaper and Roman shades gracing both windows in a matching fabric.  It took no time—for the store clerk’s son, to paper the small room; but whipping up the Roman shade was a breeze for me; the biggest problem? Mom’s old sewing machine.  I also replaced my baby bed with a Victorian mahogany head and footboard and a firm new mattress.

“So what’s there to eat?” she asks slouching in the slip-covered burgundy club chair by the small window near the bathroom door, rolling loudly back-and-forth across the wooden floorboards.  The wool area rugs covered only the floor under the bed and the spot before the love seat right across from it.

Vie’s noisiness has me considering putting one under that chair too, while she sweeps the room with a quizzical look on her face.  She takes in replicas of old-fashioned granny boots in matted frames on either side of the small window, the new cotton coverlet of Belgian mantle rumpled by her nap, a small walnut side table covered with a sheer cloth holding a cream bowl and pitcher set and an empty plate of fruit.  And the small antique dresser beside her holding my laptop, a small a CD player and my book of sketches.

 Vie’s expression asks again, “Settling in?”

I answer her non-verbalized question with, “I will be visiting her often; so I might as well make it comfortable.  Mom didn’t object,” so why should you?

“Why should she?” she asks crossing her legs.  “Anyway, I’ll ask again.  What have you got to eat?”  The contents in the small wire trash can—an apple core and banana peel—consumed a little while ago by their color probably aggravated her hunger.

“What did you bring?” I answer still upset, since I could’ve broken my neck.

You thought I learned to cook when you went away?” she mocks.  “You’re funny. . . I looked in the frig and didn’t see anything. . . What happened?  Crystal not a house mom?” she asks leaning over to pick up my sketchpad.

I ignore Vie while stripping out of the navy wool suit, throwing it temporarily on the loveseat—the room next door now converted into a walk-in closet.  I then pull on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt from out of the dresser.

Flipping through the pages, she says, “Designing, huh?”

Ignoring her question, I do silently surrender to Vie’s company, reminding myself that this is Vie.  To know her is to unfortunately know her.

“You can tell me why I deserve this unexpected visit as I make us a chef salad.  If I recall the ingredients were in the refrigerator. . . .Don’t tell me you can’t even do that?” I ask over my shoulder.  She trails behind as we head downstairs to the kitchen.

“No, because I hate salads.  If that’s all you have to offer me I’m going home.” 

Just like that? 

“So what did you want?  Why did you wait for me?”

“Oh, no particular reason.  I didn’t have anything else to do?  Wanted to see your set-up.”

Figures again.

“Well you might as well stay now and tell me what you’ve been up to while I make the salad.  Or there’s some cereal if you like,” I say opening up a cabinet door.

“No, Gotta run.  See ya later,” she says taking off.  “Don’t worry about walking me to the door; I can let myself out.”

So Vie leaves whistling, and me wondering: What was that all about?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Chapter Twenty...Is She On To Me?


AnMa's World ✿⊱╮

 

Chapter Twenty


 

Wow.  Three weeks gone already.

I first arrived to trees full; colorful; very welcoming.  But today only a few tenacious stems cling to stark branches waiting for a strong breeze to rip, then hurl them to where?  The next yard.  The river beyond.  Or to the base of their beginnings.

One vibrant golden brown leaf caught by the same breeze ruffling my hair as I raise the car window, my eyes follow.  It falls rapidly, blown in several directions, before landing on my windshield.  Its peaked form slides down the glass, my finger tracing its journey, before the wind lifts it again, sailing, eventually settling it gently on the path to Mom’s house.

For some reason I hurry to get out and race around the front of the car to place the tip of my loafer on its stem; I squat to note its colorful details.  With it I stand admiring its endurance, its strength to be torn from home, tossed about, and remain beautiful.  Even its small weathered veins wore beautifully, I note, thinking; if I had my journal I would entitle it. . . .Ah.  Survival.  How it can be beautiful.

Hesitating a second, I flick the leaf off into the air, watching the wind twirl and transport it a ways behind me, home to mother oak to eventually dry and wither at its base in the days to come.

Yes, survival can be beautiful; but painful too.  I recall four years ago, twenty stories above the traffic and famous shops in an exquisite modernly decorated condo on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, Madame sent me away.

She said to me, “Diamond, I am ill.  I must see a doctor in Maryland who will run a few tests.  But everything should be fine.  Take that time to see New York.  I own an apartment there.  You can occupy it while I am away.”

This news floored me. 

Madame going for tests? . . . Me in New York?  In an apartment she owns? Alone?  I couldn’t. 

To me Madame embodied wisdom.  She’s perceptive and my main source for guidance.  How was I to make it without her?  And for how long?

Madame further blew my mind by withholding some information from me.  Crucial information.  I overheard her on the telephone telling a fellow realtor that the doctors diagnosed her with a terminal illness.  With proper care and medicine they foresaw a maximum of five years for Madame to live, if she was fortunate.

Why didn’t she tell me?  Yes, I brooded, but in vain.  Madame never divulged the details to me; she just orchestrated my move. 

Before we parted company in Chicago, I met Madame Downtown before dinner in her luxurious “Loop” office.  There, she made me vow to locate her ex-son-in-law, my father, a well-known jazz pianist who frequently played the Manhattan clubs when not abroad or elsewhere in the states.  She thought it time for us to forge a bond.

I remember Madame’s words as I sat on her black leather sofa, the skins tight beneath me.  Looking professional in a tailored hounds-tooth suit, with steel-gray hair cropped close and hands clasped behind her, she broke her purposeful stride on Persian wool to stand before me, her hazel eyes—my inheritance—piercing.

She said, “Diamond, you have never been alone.  I have.  That is not what I want for you, but I am an old woman.  So find Seneca.  You need family. . . And he is right there in New Yo--.”

“But Madame,” I said, her words propelling me to the sofa’s edge, my voice high-pitched and animated in comparison to her slow deliberate speech.  “I barely remember him, and I can take care of my--.”

“Shush girl!”  Her velocity picked up then.  “Don’t interrupt.  Now, listen. . . I expect that you can take care of yourself.  I taught you to; so I count on that.  And I realize that it has been awhile since you have seen Seneca, though you will know him when you do,” she ended in control.

Chastened and apprehensive, I fell back against the sofa, my hands picking imagery lint from the lap of my knit skirt.

Again she paced, then paused before the large picture window facing shoppers carrying department store packages and plastic “thank you” bags, the early dusk silhouetting their figures.  Destination home?  Probably.  The question, now where will I call home and with whom? boggled my mind.

With her back towards me, she said, “Diamond, give Seneca the chance to know you,” her tone pleading?

If it were anyone else.  I thought, Madame.  He doesn’t want the chance.

She turned around saying, “People love you, Diamond. . . He won’t be any different.  Go on and win him over,” she encouraged, smiling.  She rarely smiled.

Also, with her eyes focused elsewhere and her hands fidgeting abnormally with the bottom of her jacket, Madame said, “Initially, Diamond, do not say who you are or you may frighten him.”

Frighten him? How? By appearing? Then why—Madame kept talking. 

Poised and confident again, Madame held my gaze; finished, “Let him get to know you slowly, Diamond.  Everyone needs family; he will come around.”

Just whom was Madame trying to convince?  Surely not me.  Believe me I welcome optimism; but I’m also a realist.  During childhood, I nurtured that selfsame desire of Madame’s—a reunion with father; but the majority of my letters addressed to his P.O. box in Brooklyn went unanswered; or when answered, the words felt dry, detached.  The letters bestowed no sense of family; it only left the impression of “duty-done,” maybe, or at least hopefully, out of kindness.  Then they stopped.  Completely.  My own letters stamped: Return to Sender.  The message blood red.

But Madame surprised me. 

“Here,” she said, handing me a framed miniature dangling from a silver chain.  “You should have this.” 

Full lips and teasing warm brown eyes in a strong lean face smiled at me eliciting a smile and tears in return.  My handsome young father.  The fading portrait matched his image retrieved from the dusty vault of my memories, bolted for self-preservation.  During her varied recounts of heart stirring “remember when’s,” Madame extracted the necklace from a locked desk drawer cornered in her office.  I last glimpsed it as a child.  It graced Mom's neck.

Now looking at my hand, I recalled the pain, a sharp pain; it forced open my fingers.  Afterwards I stared mesmerized by a receding imprint surrounding the miniature’s intricate carvings in my palm.  My hand’s gentle throbbing underscored the resurrected ache in my heart—Madame’s instigation. 

Yet, Madame despised vented emotions, obvious weakness; so I blinked several times to conceal mine.  She had me.  From then on I wore that necklace.  It represented a measure of hope, of success . . . until last month.

Turning towards the house, I sigh, maybe it’s just good to have a home to fall back on, when a delicate double, “Meow” causes me to whirl back around.

Peering up into the sparse leaves of low-hanging branches, it’s not long before my search for the owner of the soft endearing sound ends.  I exclaim, “How did I miss you?” to the crouching striped-gray furry frame of a Persian, calling, “Here, kitty, kitty.  Here, kitty, kitty,” gazing into its golden eye.

He turns towards my voice . . . “oh my god!” instantly muffled by my hand covering my mouth.

“How sad. . . .Oh, come here, kitty, kitty,” I again call; hoping to comfort the cat whose badly scarred left side of her face held an eye permanently shut?  Is she permanently blind? I wonder as my eyes blur.

“Come here, kitty, kitty,” I coax.  “How did that happen?  Who did that to you?”

“Meow,” she finally answers, pouncing off the limb, landing a few feet before me—close enough to acknowledge me, but far enough to escape, if necessary.

“Smart, kitty,” I praise while stooping.

Her stature erect, she slowly approaches me, then gently brushes against my leg before proceeding to lead me up the walk, gracefully climbing the stairs as I follow, obediently amused.

I think, despite your injury you are still the commander, huh?

“Since, Mom’s not here” again noticing the drapes pulled shut driving up, I ask, “why don’t you keep me company?”  I unlock the iron screen door for us.  But instead, the cat walks across the front porch, glances back at me, meowing one final time before turning the corner headed towards the back yard.

Again tickled, I ask, following, “Don’t want to come in, huh?” reaching the end of the porch, before once more calling, “Here, kitty, kitty.  Here, kitty, kitty.”

Hey!  Where did she go to so quickly?  Well, I think, smiling, spotting her crossing the neighbor’s back yard.  She’s sure independent, assured she can handle herself.  But my smile fades when I turn back towards the door.

Um.  Maybe the cat has a point.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Chapter Eighteen and Nineteen...Is She On To Me?


 


Chapter Eighteen



No laughter?

Okay I’ll try again.  From the front door I repeated, “Old Country Road, in South Holland,” giggling, but continuing, “Sounds like a back road that will twine, then t-wose me. . . Mom, get it?” I asked after kissing her cheek in good-bye.

Yeah, my rendition of Tweety-bird needs tweaking; not being my best material; but it wasn’t my worst.  And anyway, isn’t it the effort that counts?

My hand on the doorknob, I went on, “Translation, Mom: it will wind then lose me.  To-doom.” I finished in vaudeville style, right arm and hand outstretched over right foot lounged into the living room.

She did grin, barely.  Okay.  Not quite the reaction I expected, especially since my first material when I arrived practically split her sides.  Where did that go?  What?  Was that pity laughter?  Whatever it was, I want it back.  Every ego needs a little stroking.  That showed: At least someone cares enough to humor you.

Now?

She’s so serious.  Too serious.  Maybe she’s preoccupied these past two days. . . Or maybe I’m just acting too childish for the mission assigned.

Aye, aye, captain, I thought with a mental salute.  Ready for instructions.

So she proved me wrong; I didn’t get lost.  Looking at the blue-sleeved arm controlling the steering wheel, I thought, “Finding the address was easier than navigating her slew of suits,”—bogus numbers contributed by she for this morning’s scheduled interview.  Most of the fabrics consisted of tweed or old plaid hokey stuff.  Itchy A-lined material a mummy wouldn’t lie died in.

Mom’s idea, her interview . . . and yes, I think, now somber, I’m not even allowed my choice of outfits.  She said, “You should dress like you need a job.”

Okay.  It looks like I need a job.  It also screams, “This girl needs help; she’s caught in a time warp.”  No one will believe I’m capable of current anything?

But no.  Mom thinks the position calls for subdued.  A person who directs all focus to the agents, not to a clothes hog like myself.

Alright.  So be it.  I’m her girl.  Temporarily.

I smiled, ingesting just a teeny bit of irritation at all her instructions.  She obviously gave it a lot of thought—for me.  But I can do this.  Again, it’s only temporary.  For her, I reminded myself.

So I chose the best of the lot.  Quickly glancing down at my jacket for lint, I replayed the whole morning scene during the highway drive, since the view along the route was blah—composed mainly of storefronts and fast food restaurants.  No house scenery, so the drive dragged, although only fifteen minutes from Mom’s place.

I bet Mom loves that.

Now all difficulty lies before me in the form of a small inconspicuous brick-front structure with a tan awning protruding over the agency’s glass windows and door.  Nerves make me again question whether Mr. Peters really needs a receptionist.  And if he doesn’t, can I even convince him that he does?

Fixated on the structure, I reach inwardly deep; coax, come on Diamond; go on in.  There’s no time for nerves.  Especially since you know they’re watching through the open vertical blinds.

Yes; movement inside the office.  So I get out of the soothing comfort of Steve’s navy blue Acura, now Mom’s; thinking: yeah this looks like I need a job.  I should’ve parked in the side lot.

Taking the short walk determinedly up to the door, jumping suddenly with the clanging bell, I manage to compose myself while waiting just inside the hall near a coat tree.  Deliberate in my refusal to interrupt the older gray-haired man standing in the middle of the shop, wearing dark horn-rimmed glasses.  I bet it’s Mr. Peters.  An attractive woman, a redhead, stands talking with him; so I survey the small office.

Pretty non-descript.  The set-up doesn’t actually encourage walk-in customers.  Somewhat intimidating, milling around the back of the office near a water cooler on a long Formica table holding a coffee maker and condiments are two young men who stand watching me, one on a telephone.  Everything’s positioned before another glass window with mini-blinds concealing the inside—probably Mr. Peter’s office.   Then I spot the confirmation nameplate on the door.  Continuing my visual tour, production didn’t spring to mind.  Chaos.  That’s it.  But who knows?  Not all things are what they seem, though in this case. . . 

Smack center of the room stand two desks—Mr. Peters and the redhead leaning against one—small, with papers strewed all over, appearing to fall into overflowing wastepaper baskets.  Though, from this angle and the height of the paper, is the paper actually climbing the desk? I wonder amused.  Plus . . . where are the telephones? seeing two long mouse tails descending the veneer fronts.

Across the room, an old library table holds a computer, fax machine, printer, etc., probably shared by the agents, with four portable metal chairs, randomly placed near the rear on a threadbare carpet which faces a white-board displaying figures—the board against a sidewall right between two tall green metal file cabinets. And the only source of accent: one large elephant-eared plant beside me near the entrance, begging for a mercy killing.  Overall, the d├ęcor is a hodge-podge of cast-offs.

I finally catch the older man’s eye, so after a brief moment he stops his conversation, limping over to me, hand outstretched, while the redhead continues to lean against the desk, arms folded, observing.

“Are you the young lady I spoke with on the phone?” he asks.

“Yes.  Mr. Peters, I presume?” I joke.  I know it’s generic; but really.  I feel a need to lighten up the atmosphere a bit; it’s tense.  I’m tense.

Mr. Peters laughs, “The one and only.  Why don’t we step into my office?” he suggests, looking over his glasses.  His limp slows him, so we turtle-trot the short distance to his door past the mute redhead.  The young men, courteous, introduce themselves when we arrive at the back of the agency.  After introductions are made, I turn to shut the door.  Through the glass window I notice—like I thought, I’ve got the redhead’s total attention.  My smile, though large, doesn’t crack the hostile exterior.  So forcing myself, I block her out to concentrate on what I’d rehearsed.  The lack of desk space in the office makes my request more difficult—who needs more personnel in this box?

Mr. Peters runs his hand through his hair, which I spotted him doing quite a few times while he talked earlier.

“Have a seat young lady,” he says, directing me to a straight-back chair before his desk.

Like student before principal I sit erect, hands folded on top of my portfolio bag.

“So, how may I help you?” he asks, his voice gruff, but kind.  And his eyebrows—salt and pepper and bushy, really bushy—keep rising high above his glasses.  Distracted, I want to laugh; but I answer his question.

“Sir, I’m looking for a job, something close to home.  So I thought I would come in and see if you could use my assistance, though I know you can.”  I smile, continuing to talk.

Fast.

“Most agencies have a lot of necessary paperwork to organize. . . . And the agents love having their phone calls announced; it gives the agency ‘class.’  So if you don’t have someone in mind for that position, I’m you’re person.

Also, most agents love not having to search for files, or insurance documents, things of that sort.  Too time consuming.  I can take care of that for you,” I say with a wave of my hand.  “I’ll also learn your particular computer program if you don’t use a standard one—which I must confess, won’t be difficult for me to learn—and I’ll demonstrate if you like,” looking around his office for the non-existent computer.

His eyes sparkle in amusement—he’s so cute.  He looks like he wants to say, “Slow down”, but instead he says, “That won’t be necessary.  I’ll give you a try, sweetie.”

What! Wow, I think.  That was easy.

Almost too easy, I decide on the ride home.  I pull up to the curb, seeing Mom in the window. 

I hope she didn’t sit too long, for the second my foot hit the pavement outside of the car the wrought iron door swings out.  The door was like Mom’s eyes, opened wide, her face bright with anticipation; her body positioned resembling an eager kitten wired to pounce.

“So, how did it go? . . . .You got it, didn’t you?” she screams, as I approach the porch.

I toyed with the idea of teasing her on my drive back, to fake an interview failed; but I dismissed the thought.  Now I’m glad I did.  With the way she’s performing her heart might explode under the suspense.  I couldn’t live with that guilt.

Look at her, I think; now posted like a sentinel—to bar the wrong answer?  What?. . . She would send me home if I didn’t get the job? I smile, not asking.

She rushes on, “What took you so long?  You should’ve been home hours ago.”

“What?  You wait with ba. . .bated breath?”  I giggle, amazingly sapped after the interview and shopping—the packages concealed in the trunk.  Also, I’m winded from hurrying up the walk with my news.

I think; I’ve got to get back to exercising.  I start up the steps, but Mom stands planted and stares at me, adamant.  “Diamond, answer me.”

Wow, such a commanding tone from this small woman.  The anticipation must be killing her.

“Okay, okay Mom.  In Vie’s words, ‘I nailed it.’”

She attacks me.  Arms wrap around my head and neck, as she squeals, climbing me like a tree monkey; screaming, “When do we start?  When do we start?”

Amazingly I keep my balance, surprised; this means that much too her?
“Okay, okay” I say, laughing.
I peel her arms off me, ducking underneath them, then slip into the house before I answer.  “I’ll tell you over some coffee.”  It’s a gorgeous day with the remaining leaves deep rust colors, but I’m cold and need to warm up.

While she puts on a pot, I climb the stairs to remove my wool suit, throwing on comfortable gray sweats and thick socks.

Thinking back, it was probably the suit that put me over the edge with Mr. Peters—senior agent and owner, because he stated, “You look so professional, how old are you?”

I recalled the bay shop and saw what he meant.  The junior agents—boys really—dressed completely casual in baggy khakis, formless blazers, one in a loosened tie and the other without any.  They looked a little bit sloppy; made you wonder about their work, whether they took any pride in it.

The young woman, the other agent, dressed more businesslike, but her clothes said “provocative premiums,” probably making her top agent in sales among men.  At least I didn’t doubt it.

I thought; okay, this will be interesting.

I finish dressing and run downstairs to dispense particulars.

Umm.  French vanilla.   Mom has it poured, steaming, and waiting for me; so I seat myself at the breakfast table across from her.

Excitedly her questions begin.

“So, Diamond, what happened?  Weren’t you nervous?  I mean, . . . .how did you start?  How did you know how to begin when the job wasn’t even out yet?  Details.  I want details.”

Even though tired, her animation prompts me.  Resting my elbows on the table’s edge—the metal rim biting into my skin, I begin.

“No, Mom, Mr. Peters hadn’t posted the job yet.  And when I first walked in I was nervous, but he put me at ease.”

I told her all the morning events, ending with, “it was as if he knew I was coming. . . So, there you have it.  I start tomorrow getting familiar with the layout for a fresh start on Monday,” as outside the kitchen window showed the day setting into evening.

“The hours are from 9:00 am till 1:30 pm.  And then,” I smile, “I’ll come home and teach you what I’ve learned.”

Mom looks puzzled.  “I thought you, I mean we were only going to work three days a week.  Why did you say ‘everyday’?”

“Oh.  Well, you may not have to keep that schedule,” I say sheepishly, “. . .but I kinda put my foot in my mouth when I said, ‘the agents love having their phone calls sorted to the appropriate person,’” I impersonated myself in a whiney voice pushing my hair back off my face. “‘It gives the agency class.’ After that he said, ‘it would be good to have someone sort the calls every day,’ so I couldn’t back out.  I just opted for leaving early.  I figured you and me would work out the glitches later.”

“Well, I’m impressed,” Mom, says, putting down her coffee cup to reach over and ruffle my hair back into my face.  She looks awed.  “Honey, you’ve got the confidence I’m lacking.  How-in-the-world did you ever develop it?”

A personal question?. . . About me?. . . Wow, we’re making progress.
“Mom, you’ve got confidence.  You just never needed to sell yourself—that I know of.  I’ve gone through enough jobs, so I’ve learned how.  I got addicted to eating.  That meant interviews and constant pavement pounding,” I said laughing.  “The mean streets of New York fed me.”

I started with a lot of temporary assignments—always receptionist positions.  But I won’t tell her that—because even though I made sure I looked the part—with my suits and all—I didn’t have the skills for a lot of jobs.  The suits I’m wearing remind me of that period.

“It got depressing, Mom.  There was always someone there ‘more qualified.’ Many days I’d wish I’d spent high school learning more office skills, not taking college prep courses.  But at the time I thought Madame wanted me to go to college,” I finish watching Mom flinch.

Oops!  I pick up my coffee with both hands, taking a sip.

Madame.  I didn’t mean to bring her up just yet, . . . but honestly it felt natural.  And why should she still be upset?  Whatever happened between them was long ago.  Plus, she can’t possibly know about Madame’s last mission for me, can she?  If she did I wouldn’t be here, because she wouldn’t have asked me to come.  And she definitely wouldn’t understand it; I wasn’t sure I did myself.

But I was interested in knowing Mom’s current feelings about Madame.  I considered, maybe I should mention her again; make her fit into the conversation.  Maybe she’s ready to leave the past as past.

But, putting down my cup I decide against it.  I continue, “Mom, you know, after awhile I had to re-think my strategy.  I would hang out in the courthouses of downtown Brooklyn, hoping to meet women who could help me in my designing field; the line of work I really wanted.”

My speech comes faster as I go on, picturing myself strolling among the crowds on the cement pavements of Court Street.

“I would dress to kill.  I wanted to attract a lot of attention—nothing immodest, of course,” I stated after Mom gave me a funny look.  Not really.  “But it worked.  Women lawyers and secretaries loved my clothes; though they wanted their styles a ‘little shorter’ and a ‘little tighter.’  So those were my first real clients; I began to work for myself, designing.
Not saying that the temporary jobs wouldn’t have covered my expenses, Mom, but I had bills.  Real bills.  I loved shopping.  And sales?  Wow.  Who could past them up?  New York is known for their clothes and my credit cards proved it.  I had a problem.  All over the limit.  Mom, . . . I was afraid to answer the phones.  So I had to do something.  Fast.”

While talking I wonder, does she thinks I’m talking about her now? although I don’t stop. I just keep right on going.  It’s already too late; for I see Mom fading out.

Lacking control I go on, because how many times will I have this opportunity?  “Because of my bills, I started shopping for others.  It was the perfect solution.  I would design for those who wanted to be unique and shop for those who didn’t know how.”

Cutting my work history short, I say, “So there you have it, Mom.  I just did what I loved, and what I knew how to do.  The confidence grew.  Madame taught me, ‘Believe in yourself’.”

With that statement Mom gets up, taking her cup to the sink; rinses it out.  With her back to me she asks, “Want some more coffee?”

“Oh, no thanks, Mom.”

Did I say too much? Was it the fact that I talked too much about myself, or me mentioning Madame again?

Not sure, I promise, smiling inside, next time I’ll keep it short.  But at least I had her attention for a while.

Remembering I’d left my portfolio by the front door, I go to retrieve it.  Walking back to the kitchen, I remove insurance forms.

“Mom.  I brought some blank insurance forms home for you to read over.  Mr. Peter wants me to know the difference between them, so when an agent needs a form promptly I can supply the right one,” I say, standing in the doorway separating the dining room from kitchen, holding them out for her to see while she dries her hands on a dishtowel.

She takes them from me, with a quick once over, then tosses them onto the dining room table.

A little rattled, I continue, beginning to hate the sound of my own voice.  “Now, Mom, the telephone system isn’t too difficult.  It’ll just be a matter of juggling lines.  The biggest problem I see is the filing system.  I hope it won’t be too difficult for me to arrange something workable; it’s really disorganized.  Then . . . when you arrive, you should have no problem with the upkeep.  Or figure out something else if you like.”

“Oh, Diamond, . . . speaking of phone lines, your phone kept ringing while you were out.  I would have answered it, but I didn’t know what to tell them,” she says, walking towards the living room.

I follow.  “It’s okay, Mom.  I have an answering service.  In a minute I’ll sort through the calls.  I just want to tell you about the people you will work with.”

She sits on the sofa and I lean against the wall dividing dining and living room, watching her thumb through a fashion magazine.

I’m surprised, though I keep going.  “You called it right, Mom, Mr. Peters is a doll.  He’s so cool you won’t have any problems with him.  And the guys,” I say, waving my hand, “they’re a cinch.  But Jacqueline Slaughter. She’s a pill and a little hard to swallow.  I don’t know, Mom.  She seems territorial; we’ll have to really work hard to win her over.”

“Diamond, . . . I don’t think you’ll have any problem with her at all,” she says without looking up.

Feeling dismissed, I stare; struggle to keep my mouth from dropping open, as she mumbles, “Everyone loves Diamond.”

Her tone evoking … what went wrong?





Chapter Nineteen

The wooden office door slams behind him with a bang.  Already at the coffee maker finishing off the last cup, I’m close enough to see every flinch, each grimace as Mr. Peters hobbles along, snarled fingers gripping the table’s edge.  Not here a week and I’ve watched his limp worsen.

No, he doesn’t look good.  Even his thick gray hair is more disarrayed; though . . . is that possible? I debate.

Poor Mr. Peters.  Our eyes meet, he grins, forcing me to grin back.

“Is everyone here?” he asks, scanning the small office.

Why?  We’re having a meeting?  Uh oh, what’s up?  We never have meetings.

“Where’s Jackie?”

“In the can,” yells one of the guys from a chair near the blackboard.

“Thanks,” Mr. Peters says, rolling his eyes behind his glasses; reflecting my sentiments exactly.

At her mention, Jackie emerges from the bathroom decked in total jersey glory.  This shade of sprayed-on black, admittedly was striking opposite her red hair—dark roots a shadow.  True, the outfit offends most females.  But the men?  Well, that’s always another story.

Yes, spin-off Mrs. Wiggins—from old Carol Burnett re-runs—haughtily sways by me; and I suppress sneezing as her trail of perfume bends my nose hairs.  Fortunately, I’ve learned the art of not inhaling too deeply when she passes, being somewhat ignorant regarding third degree nasal burns.  How do they heal?  Easily?

Immediately, I’m contrite; all right, Diamond.  Be kind.  There’s good in everyone, I remind myself, remembering someone once said, “Even the devil gets credit for determination.”

Though, Jackie guards her “good” with a verbal cattle prod.  The electric charges from her tongue forces enough distance between us to necessitate a genie to peer inside her being.  Her constant look of utter disgust had me regularly checking my mirror for junky-green-gunk caught in my eye.  Except, I eventually learned: It’s just her attempt to assassinate your confidence.  But it can’t if your shield is amusement.  And I am amused.

Jackie settles at her desk located right beside mine, the new arrangement instituted after I arrived.  She then swivels her chair to face Mr. Peters, crossing, then re-crossing her legs.

Now where have I seen that move before?  And why? 

Mr. Peters continues.  “Since everyone’s here, I have an announcement.”  He props his slightly stooped frame against the table near the water cooler.

“As you can see, my arthritis is getting worst.  I hurt all the time.  So the missus and me are Arizona-bound,” he says with a slight grin.  “I’m gonna retire there.”

Retiring?! … He can’t; what about Mom?  She’s got to get in here quick.

The motor of the cooler churns loud, defiant; for a moment the only audible sound inside the agency with Jackie and the guys’ expressions resembling deers-in-headlights.  Then, a large gurgle from cooler.  An air bubble of antipathy—an amen to his comment escapes as Mr. Peters’ grabs a cup of water.

Then it commences, an escalating chatter like aggravated geese.  Everyone’s squawking; no longer comatose cronies.  Did I hallucinate it? that short-lived eternal pause.  I wonder; how will Mr. Peters get everyone in control again? with phrases like, “bailing out,” “compensation,” and “left in the lurch” exploding over our heads.

Mr. Peter’s voice and hands rise over the unbelievable commotion of the three.  “Calm down.  Calm down.  Don’t worry about your jobs.  I know the agency is not pulling its weight right now; but it isn’t your fault.  The agency is still new; things will get better.”

“Better?” a collective voice, but Jackie’s voice screeched high above the others.

“Yes.  I’m proud to say,” Mr. Peters says, his chest swelling; “I’ve found someone who’ll put the shop solidly back on feet.  His name’s Cowen.  Cowen Riley.  You’ve probably heard of him; he’s a motivational genius.  With his experience and your cooperation, of course, this bay shop will do great.  More than great.”

The news, though encouraging, failed to uplift even me, one on her way out, because Mr. Peter’s a sweetheart.  His presence in the shop is comforting; he’s so easygoing.  I smile inside—probably why the lack of sales.  But you can’t help but love him, his manner.  These past four days with him were wonderful.  His presence somehow settles the underlying tension that exists among the agents, frustrations due to low clientele, I suppose.

Honestly, with the workload so unstable, how did I get the job?  No wonder my coming creates friction between her and me.

Mr. Peters continues, even more enthusiastic now.  “Cowen Riley is coming over from another agency.  He’s top in the state, snagging the admiration of everyone, top executives especially.  Every year for three years he’s won the awards handed out in the Carolina’s and Hawaii, for most earnings during the year.  When he comes, check out his rings.  I know that under him you’ll win awards and rings too.  He’s our money man.”

“So what brings him our way,” Jackie asks.

“Because he’s like a son to me.  I knew his father.  A fine man,” he answers.  Then his eyes sparkle like he has a secret.  “Plus, a nice-looking man like that has to stay on the move sometimes, if you know what I mean,” he finishes with a gruff chuckle.

I’m pretty sure that gives Jackie something to look forward to.  And that brief explanation gives hope; at least that’s the way I see it.  The fact that Mr. Peters didn’t just leave the shop “headless” emphasizes his loyalty—and he got someone who knows what he’s doing. . . That’s great!

So, for Mom’s sake, I listen.  I need to explain what sort of employer Cowen Riley will turn out to be.  The words of a song stating she should, “Make her move, right now,” come to mind.

Later, Jackie even stops to talk with me about him. After catching my eye—since she never speaks my name—she says, “So I bet you’d like working under a younger man too, wouldn’t you?” 

No need to answer.  Matter-of-fact, I turned away.  I’ve learned; that’s Jackie for you.