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 décor 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.