I can’t believe I’m still here.
After tossing down a couple of pain-killers, I wait for relief, wishing myself home instead, lying down; but here groaning; I don’t need this.
Mr. Peters’ moved too fast. Monday the announcement, then today—Friday—Cowen arrives? And, I’m still here pretending permanency.
Vie even has me debating another pill, perched on the corner of my desk as wanted as oozy pimples on prom night . . . especially with that motorcyclist get-up. Chunky black leather calf boots, tight black leather suit, shorts and jacket, and cropped tee exposes a slanted cross tattoo displayed next to the gold navel ring.
Look at her. She’s cut two parts in her right eyebrow—the one already pierced with a small hoop earring, I notice catching another glimpse of her profile. And my goodness, can her hair be any more spiked? In the right scene this works!
But Mr. Peters gave me this job in good faith; and now when Mr. Riley arrives he’ll assume that Mr. Peters’ is running a bikers club. I can hear him now. “No wonder they can’t get the premiums. Too much play.”
I can’t deny I know her, I admit, wishing I could pawn her off on Jackie. But she’s my friend—loosely tossing around the term. She’s tailing me not Jackie. I hate that my shadow, like a pesky kid sister, will reflect bad on Mr. Peters. I’ll explain her, though, I can say I didn’t drive Vie here today. She stopped in on her own, dropped off here instead of home from a “late-niter” in a nearby karaoke bar.
Why didn’t she just go home? I wonder annoyed, rearranging papers on my desk—annoyed not just because of her, just mentally venting them on her. I didn’t wish to be here and I know this definitely isn’t her idea of a “hot spot” either.
I’ve asked her on different occasions; “Vie, don’t you have something better to do with your time? Like a job,” trying to give her a hint. But Vie doesn’t take hints.
Her occupation stomped me, so I asked, “What kind of work do you do, Vie?” But her response remained ambiguous.
“For work? Oh just call me Dr. Feel-good,” she’d blurt out in song. Or she’d flippantly toss out some other sarcastic gibe phrases. Phrases I’m too embarrassed to think about let along repeat, she’d utter with a smirk as if harboring some raunchy mystery.
She could’ve said, “Mine your own business,” but she knew I’d tire of asking. And I did. I quit asking, thinking; it’s probably best I don’t know; though I provided my own conclusions. Conclusions like: She’s probably a belly dancer, because of the naval ring. She could actually perform at night, and tail me during the day. It would fit her labels. And it would probably pay well, since the caliber, though not the class of her clothes suggests money.
Watching her swing her boot-clad calf, talking across the room to the guys, I again wonder, what’s the draw? She thought the agency a bore. But it can’t be the boys, could it? seeing as they don’t seem her type.
Not-unless, they’re for practice? An everyday exercise between herself and Jackie—whom Vie christened the Cat Woman because of her feline personality. Yes, a practice for prowess in commanding the attention of the junior agents. That’s it! Jackie helps Vie perfect her new feminine power.
I sneak a glance at the desk right in front of mine where the Cat Woman tidies herself in the mirrored reflection created by her compact mirror. I quickly look off after our eyes connect, my observations and amusement distracting from the real issue—Mr. Cowen Riley’s arrival today.
Now, because I made an eager promise to Mom, I suffer a nervous total body itch. Not since New York have I thoroughly felt the necessity to sit on my hands, while wishing to be transported anywhere but here. No more confrontations, no scenes, just peace.
I think about what Madame drilled into me: Value your word and name, Diamond. “They’re the most important things you own,” she said.
Now what will they be worth? I wonder.
And lately, somehow everything I touch here seems to go haywire. Files disappear; messages are lost; appointments missed, my fault supposedly, even though Jackie’s supposed to offer assistance.
But what could I do?
I wrangle with this dilemma until I see—through the name “South Dutch Insurance” on the plate glass window in front of me—Mr. Peter’s black Oldsmobile creep up to the curb. At least this produces a reluctant smile, remembering how he once proudly proclaimed, “I never get a speeding ticket.” No one disputed him. And I understand his unwillingness to speed; rain, sleet, snow, pedestrians, dogs, etc. challenge my reflexes, so imagine someone older.
Why should he chance it?
I rally him on; go ahead Mr. Peters. Take your time. Especially today. Please. Matter-of-fact, take another trip around the block, I plead thinking about the rapidly approaching moment.
Mr. Peters parks and I wait while his arthritis and independent spirit keep me on pins and needles. Everyone waits for him. If you offered him a hand, he would automatically swat at you. His words, “I can do it”, ring out—announcing, “Hear, here. I’m not dead yet.”
I smile again. This man I will miss.
Everyone here also anticipates the newcomer; what kind of man he will be. And finally we’re granted the opportunity to observe Cowen Riley standing on the sidewalk side-profiled.
“Ahh!” Vie says, as Jackie inhales sharply audible to all. “That explains. . .” Vie mumbles, while he waits patient or controlled.
I squint because from this distance he resembles . . . No. No he doesn’t, rubbing my lens-less lids.
Vie leans forward as Cowen Riley turns towards us.
What did Vie say?--Not really concerned since my head’s now spinning. Concentrating on anyone’s reaction now would be a feat short of a miracle with my world rolling along in slow motion and my throat now scratchy like I’ve swallowed a fuzz ball. I try to clear it away as Vie glares at me.
What? I glare back, my look asking, you think I can help it? But I do grab my purse, Vie glancing at me as I make my exit; but no “are you alright?” issues from her lips. Her attention already directed back towards the window, while I dash behind me to the bathroom next to Mr. Peters’ office.
There, taking a paper cup from the dispenser over the sink, I fill it with water to kill the itch in vain, only aggravating it. I stare into the dingy mirror trying to will my wavy image into still comfortable obedience.
“Pull yourself together Diamond,” I order my reflection, but also in vain. Instead anxiety flutters my gut, bends me over the sink—the same weird feeling felt that night with Seneca.
Turning on the cold-water tab, I cup the water attempting to cool my flaming face.
“Take it easy, Diamond,” I say when the series of coughs stops briefly. Not even briefly. I clutch my stomach with one hand, trying to muffle my coughs with the other, when I realize, my cough syrup! . . . .Thank goodness.
As a precautionary step I placed it in my purse, not needing it since New York. But today I shuffle through the bag’s contents, extracting the bottle, ripping off its seal, then top; finally turning it up. The sensation of the thick liquid coating my throat brings me instant relief, the once horrible taste, welcome. Actually its calming effect began with the idea that I possessed it. I cradle the bottle in both hands against my stomach as the tickles dissolve. Closing my eyes, I rest against the porcelain sink, the coolness felt by my hand, not my hip—my straight olive wool skirt a deterrent to cold—as I bring the ridged opening again to my lips, this time for good measure.
Eventually, after checking my appearance—re-pinning my French roll, though a few wisps escape, I smooth down my white cotton blouse. Finally able to leave the bathroom, I slide back into my seat before the men enter the agency.
Vie bends over to whisper, “Not bad, huh?”
“Me?” my attempt at a little humor.
She looks at me. “No, Mr. Riley. . . Girl, you smell like a medicine cabinet. What did you do in there?”
Not waiting for an answer, her interest in me again flees. Jackie now has her undivided attention.
“I can’t say I blame her,” she says.
“Blame who? Jackie? . . . For what?” I ask trying to catch her train of thought.
“You’re a freaking alien,” she says glancing at me, then rolling her eyes. “Ms. Feline. Look at her; he’s got her eye. This is gonna be good,” she whispers. “I’m glad I came.”
Vie tilts forward, chin propped in her hand, as I fish for a mint inside my purse. But a quick peek at Jackie shows me Cat Woman on the prowl.
Suddenly, my stomach roils. Oh no, that’s right. I didn’t have breakfast. But the medicine can’t cause me problems this fast, can it? I wonder.
“What do you think?” Vie whispers again loud enough for everyone to hear.
It now lurches.
Trying to stifle the bile rising in my throat, I manage, “What do you mean?” swallowing, feeling lousy. “I don’t have on my lenses; how does he look?” I ask, quietly placing my head on the desk.
Vie croons; “He’s gorgeous.”
I had disregarded the bell’s jingling announcing the men’s entrance concentrating on my own discomfort, but now looking up, I stare, now that he’s close enough for me to actually see.
And yes he is gorgeous; but I sit swallowing repeatedly, horrified.
Seneca? I blink hard. Then again. Finally, amidst the rapid pounding of both my head and heart I confess, you know it isn’t him. But at first glance he could almost be his twin—an office version. Short haired and conservative.
The frenzied drummer vibrating my chest attempts to balance its beat, allowing me a brief reprieve to observe Vie ogling Mr. Riley.
I follow her lead quietly critiquing him in comparison to Seneca. Their long lean faces are similar, I notice. And body structure and stance the same—that’s why outside the resemblance struck me briefly. However, it ends there.
But that’s enough.
Silver streaks highlight Seneca’s long dark hair, distinguished against a sober unlined face. He was quite arresting, especially on the nights he wore it flowing loose. Though, mostly he wore it pulled back into a ponytail. But violence mars distinction, I think growing warm.
However, Mr. Riley’s dark hair is silver-less—about thirty-one? And while he stood outside with Mr. Peters, somehow I detected an air of nonchalant confidence in him, not arrogance.
I remember feeling that way about Seneca, especially when he played. Other times around the club, he appeared withdrawn, vulnerable. Somewhat mysterious. The band members loved amusing him. And the women catered to him. I recalled that I had to find a way to stand out.
Again agitated, I stop myself, asking, why am I reliving this? My stomach had begun to settle; now the memories and Vie’s staring aggravates it and me again.
What? . . . Did she ask something? Hiding my discomfort—mental and physical—I toss out, “Vie, he’s probably married,” knowing Vie’s line of thinking.
“And?” Vie clips the word for effect, raising her pierced eyebrow at me. “Maybe that means hands off to you, Ms. Goody-goody. But if he’s happily married, there’s no problem, is there?” she asks, disgusted. “Still, you know what assuming does. And he just might be unattached . . . or he will be, if it’s up to Jackie.” She winks before turning back around again, swinging her boot.
“Or me,” she whispers for my ears only. “Who knows?”
Who cares? I think noticing an extremely bright sun streaming in behind Mr. Peters and Mr. Riley casting them into silhouettes.
Oh boy, I forgot again to slant the mini-blinds, a pet peeve of Jackie’s, giving her the opportunity to pounce into action. Only seconds lapse while Mr. Peters hangs his coat on the coat tree near the front door; so she waits. All eyes must be on her. Of course, then she saunters over to the window in her snug black mini.
“Oh, my,” she purrs, in a deliberate struggle with the blind’s tilt, until the sun reflects up towards the ceiling, causing a large chest to strain against an already fitted blouse—fibers stretched beyond mercy.
I watch amazed, waiting for the mint to take a quicker more permanent effect on my stomach. Vie, though, who is impressed, leans over and whispers, “She’s good.”
Of course you would think so, I think watching Jackie finish adjusting the blinds. Next, she runs her hands over her hips, tugging on her spandex skirt, which, in all her efforts shifted upwards, slowly turning around.
“Whew!” she says, rubbing her silk-clad arms. “You two brought in a chill,” she continues, her arms boosting her bust for Mr. Riley’s viewing pleasure.
What. . . The old lift-and-pronounce trick Jackie? Everyone knows that; will you let it die?
“I’m sorry. Sometimes our little receptionist is a bit forgetful,” she says. Extending one hand towards our guest. Jackie ‘tips like it tickles’ over to the men. That was one of Madame’s favorite phrases.
Wow, where have the thoughts of her been? Again dispersing as the show continues, while I wonder about my own conflicting emotions: dizzily spinning attraction? Aversion. Maybe curiosity. But definitely amazement.
Probably at Jackie’s gall.
“Cowen Riley, I’m Jacqueline Slaughter. You can call me Jackie; and welcome to South Dutch Insurance,” she says, her voice husky. Gliding up on him, she finally stops short of invading his spot and recycling his breathe. Any closer, “and the two shall become one,” I want to vocalize, as a smile plays at the corner of Mr. Riley’s mouth and the ends of his eyes crinkle. But he responds in an impressive rich baritone, “Thank-you. I’m glad to be here,” looking over Jackie’s head.
Stepping back, he turns towards Mr. Peters standing right beside him, placing his hand on his shoulder and says, “Hello everyone. I know I won’t be able to duplicate Mr. Peters’ fine presence and knowledge, but I hope to contribute something of substance.”
“You already have,” says Jackie in a low voice, yet audible to all.
Flipping back her long red hair, Jackie addresses Mr. Peters. “With your permission, Mr. Peters, I would love to introduce Mr. Riley to the rest of your staff.”
Mr. Peter pushes his horn-rimmed glasses high onto his nose, laughing nervously, waving his right arm and all responsibility, “Of course you may Jackie. Sure. Go right ahead.”
Consent confiscated, Jackie places Mr. Riley’s arm through hers—close to her body, leading him to the other agents with flowery introductions as the young men stand awed.
Of Jackie? It’s nothing unusual, just more brazen. So it must be Mr. Riley that captivates them. He is impeccably dressed in a dark navy suit, white starched shirt, with a horizontal-striped blue and gold tie. The boys shift and stutter their names … in admiration… Must be. Then, Jackie turns in our direction.
“The girl perched on the desk is Vie, a visitor, not staying long. A friend of the receptionist.”
Vie isn’t affected by the light dismissal. She leans far forward, extending her hand, “Octavia Hunter,” she says slowly, her eyes dropping, falsely demure as she gives him the full view.
I shake my head.
Mr. Riley shook her hand, says, “Nice to meet you Octavia,” his voice pleasant.
Vie now stares boldly into his eyes. “It’s definitely my pleasure,” Vie continues, angling her head to gaze at him from beneath long eyelashes. I watch as Vie slowly sits erect, gradually drawing his hand forward before letting go, her fingertips … stroking his palm?
“Wow, big strong hands,” she acknowledges. “Not the hands of an insurance man,” she finishes, while I clinch my fingers together underneath the desk in embarrassment for the agency and womankind. Cringing, at the same time hoping, maybe the eyebrow and tongue ring clued him in.
I realize; he must get this reaction a lot, because he seems nonplussed.
I start shifting papers, not able to look at him anymore. There’s no point in him thinking that all women will swoon, though I find myself peeking at him often, my stomach still very active.
He’s attractive, but so. It has to be his similarity to Seneca that causes me to continue looking against my will.
Jackie fumes at Vie, but resumes control. Before Mr. Riley comments on Vie’s remark—as if he would—Jackie says, speaking fast, directing him to me, “And lastly, we have Diamond Dupree, our receptionist. She’s our part time help.”
Cowen Riley turns, his smile somewhat fixed, his look very direct, inquisitive, making me wonder, what is it? His behavior suggests he’s been waiting for this introduction, though not quite happy with it. This causes the volcanic pressure to really bubble, taking over.
My mouth fills, though I swallow. I try to extend my hand, swallowing again, but the room spins, causing me to withdrawn it. I close my eyes briefly, thinking, of all times. I can’t believe this. Fumbling under the desk for the trashcan with my left hand while rising, I wonder—can I make it?
A medley of expressions—Jackie’s, anger; Vie’s, shock; and the others, concern—flash before me as I brush past Mr. Riley rushing for the bathroom, spewing my insides into the pail as I go.
Gratified, I think, yeah, nice to meet you too, Mr. Riley, as I close the bathroom door.
And so my emotional saga continues. . . Amazingly, I did notice a ring.