Monday, September 7, 2009

“The quietness of his tone italicized the malice of his reply.”
—Truman Capote


for J.S.

Scaffolding ahead tarnished the entrance to the renowned ‘temple of society.’ “Perfect,” Alice Darling muttered as she strode across East 55th Street. When a younger coworker at her side, Tammy St. Clair, asked what she’d said, Alice replied: “Nothing.”

How long since that damned award was announced had it taken to get to this point, to finally be acknowledged by them? On the morning of the announcement, many months ago, Alice had stepped off the elevator on the 21st floor of Hatchet-LaFayette Media—hung over. It wasn’t unusual for her. Still able to rebound after a late night, but the time was fast approaching when black coffee and a hastily downed egg on a roll at her desk would no longer do the trick; no longer fortify her for the work ahead at ‘special interest’ magazines for women. When she had to, Alice relied on autopilot. Designing layouts like, Retouching Drab Normal With Fab Floral? Not a problem.

Alice Darling’s neglected personal life restarted its crucial, if impermanent, recovery as soon as the elevator descended from the 21st floor with her in it. After she'd passed through the soul-shrinking chill of the vast lobby’s travertine walls, waved goodnight to a benign security guard, hustled past the spaceship above the restaurant in the sunken outdoor plaza and then bounded up the short flight of stairs to Broadway, brightly lit by the Winter Garden’s marquee, a little bit of the day’s accumulated weight lifted from her shoulders. Back in her rent-controlled apartment on the upper eastside, she inhaled the blissful restorative tonic of oil paint and turpentine as she wolfed down take-out Szechuan. Nourished, she brandished a paintbrush and attacked the canvas.

If Alice left the office later—more often than not—then she went directly to Jimmy’s Corner, a down-at-heels bar not far from the office. Bolstered by a shot of Maker’s Mark she'd begin the transition to card carrying artist, swearing before the nightmarish tribunal in her head that she was not a corporate slave. She taxied uptown—sometimes close to midnight—and uncorked a bottle of red wine to stave off despair. Morning arrived like the natural catastrophe one might have been warned about, and still ignored. She’d lift an invisible gun to her head cradled in a sweat-soaked pillow and perform the ritual: “I am not who they think I am. I can get through this day.”

But on that fateful morning, as she mentally tapped her way through the department, eyelids lowered to half-mast, she passed Tessa Rizzo, another designer already slapping layouts of plaid-engorged living rooms onto the color Xerox machine.

“O-o-o-h, hello award winner.”

Alice squinted at the pert young woman. Tessa’s Lesbian bravado in the office could be heard cracking under weighty, argumentative phone calls with any one of her numerous family members, all Italian and all very Catholic. “Morning,” Alice mumbled to the mouthful of Chicklets-sized white teeth. She struggled to remember if she’d brushed hers.

Passing the corner office of Donna Gatti, editor-in-chief of the division, Alice saw her and the executive editor, Olive Munroe, with Rosalie Simpson, who was the art director and Peter Hightower, her deputy art director. They interrupted their huddle at her approach. Offered was the collective cryptic smile that usually predicted a pain in the ass. An entire layout would have to be redone—not her fault they would hasten to add—but blah, blah, the photographer, blah, blah, not enough, blah, blah. She’d heard it before. The department was run on a shoestring strong enough to strangle the life out of designer and editor alike. You bit the bullet. Got on with it. That’s what they liked about her.

Alice had shared an office with Peter Hightower. He stood out, the only male in a department of women; an escapee from a town in Wisconsin that he never talked about called Sioux Creek. Peter was single, in his late 20s. He affected an old school manner, a throwback that bordered on parody. Always in a jacket and tie even in the warmest months, his manner was genteel, with a not too self-effacing edge. The introduction of computers had allowed his inner nerd to flourish and he became indispensable in a department of overworked, computer-illiterate women. Everyone quietly guessed he was deeply closeted. In their office Alice took in an expansive view of Times Square rippled by winter slush. From above the streets looked furred with mold.

A light tap at the door was followed by: “So, you’ve heard the news.” Bunny Edmond assumed a golfer’s pose in the doorway, relaxed and yet, controlled. Arms crossed, skin newly tanned and waspishly freckled. Alice tried to gauge Bunny’s expression, inscrutable under a velvet headband that kept her auburn pageboy, recently highlighted, intact. Pleasant or stern, one could never tell. They had already shipped the quarterly issue of Decorating Inspirations magazine. It was on the newsstand. Bunny had just returned from a brief, well-deserved escape to Cabo San Lucas with her fiancé. What could possibly be the problem?

Alice mumbled through a mouthful of eggy roll that she had not heard any news. She drained coffee from a Styrofoam cup, sighing as she tossed the empty into the wastebasket.

“What’s going on, Bun?”

Like a grade-school teacher carefully praising a student for a job well done Bunny raised her chin: “We’ve won the Folio, Alice. Decorating Inspirations won. Best editorial. Best design in our category.” To Alice’s bemused expression Bunny added: “I know, right? A first for this department.”

Marta Kowalksi burst into the office, drawing Bunny and Alice to her ample chest, enthusiastically hugging them both. She was the managing editor, a generously proportioned round-faced blonde with an infectious laugh. Marty, as she was known, lived in Forest Hills, Queens with her husband who was a police officer now retired. Everyone knew how she’d met him. He had seen her weave out of a neighborhood bar one night and slowly followed her in a squad car until she safely reached her apartment building. Irritated, Marty confronted him. He liked her spunk and that, as she liked to tell it, was that. She managed the freelancers—all the disparate personalities—smoothed tensions between art and editorial, and expertly maneuvered a shifting tide of decorating magazines, journals of fitness and weight loss and those how-to craft issues with hellish instructions that designers avoided like devilled eggs on a sweltering summer day. Marty was bossy in a den mother sort of way and usually gregarious when she wasn’t under extreme pressure. Meaning when she was out of the office and halfway into a pitcher of margaritas.

She left Alice’s office with Bunny and her cheery congratulations resounded throughout the department. Later she was seen humbled before Donna’s desk, nodding her head in agreement.

A memo from the editor-in-chief arrived. It named the magazine, but not the designer and the editor. That memo and later a departmental meeting stressed that no one person could take credit for what was clearly a group effort. When Tammy dared to ask why Bunny and Alice should not be given a round of applause, she was met with Donna’s coolly calculated response: “We in this department work like a well greased wheel and as such every spoke in that wheel is important to its function.” She peered around the room, looking through rather than at anyone. Olive stood at attention by her side, planning her next cigarette. Rosalie stared at the floor and Peter searched for neutral ground. “Understood?”

The Folio award, an engraved crystal spearhead (no shaft, Alice observed) was delivered directly to Donna’s office where it sat on her desk, out of reach. Anyone who was in her office for more than 30 seconds witnessed her caressing it. Her Folio.

Since then Alice has been moved from the front office and the natural light she shared with Peter to a windowless cubicle in the back. The reason given was that she would need her own computer. The department had only just gone digital with that award-winning issue. Alice swore on first rumor that she would just as soon tend bar then go through the hell of learning the computer—at her age—and went so far as to check out bartending schools. But even she knew the dangers of an unrequited life landing in close proximity to alcohol. Instead, Alice sweated bullets tackling Quark and Photoshop and the expected frustrations, which came mostly from Donna Gatti who would be the last to embrace the digital age and the first to make you pay for her ignorance.

Donna, Olive and Rosalie had been nominally critical before the award whenever Alice and Bunny were teamed; happy to sign off on layouts, relieved not to have the kind of headaches they got from freelancers. Instead of granting them the leeway with design and editorial they’d had, the three conjurors stirred an ambiguous pot and mercilessly rejected, then revised, and refused until all traces of the original design and editorial had disappeared under their heavy-handed confabulation.

With summer approaching it was hinted that Alice and Bunny were finally going to be recognized. Or rather, as Rosalie said, “We should have a proper thank-you.” Rosalie was a middle-aged woman with an over-active son and an indifferent husband. She dressed like a good sport, like someone who needed to please. The Buster Brown hairstyle never changed. She had passed the moment when white ankle socks and black loafers made her look youthful. Peter felt certain ‘a proper thank you’ was meant for Alice and Bunny. Since the obvious change in Rosalie’s attitude toward her Alice wasn’t so sure.

But now, months later, they were about to celebrate with lunch at a table covered in thick white linen and set with gilt-edged china and flyweight crystal. The menu was French; the society of the place divinely encapsulated in a short story by one of Alice’s favorite authors. She would stay-tuned, listen for conversation ‘catty and thinly-veiled.’ As they entered, Alice glanced past the maître d’ to the few smartly attired elderly patrons seated at banquettes along the wall. The room was nearly empty. It had been some time since Mr. Capote was strategically placed on a banquette under the famous murals, perched on his haunches and beginning to gnaw at the hand that paid for the Cristal. Zagat’s bemoaned the restaurant’s loss of followers. And it was August.

They were ushered to their seats and a silver-haired waiter, honed by propriety, appeared.

“Oh, I feel like Dorothy Parker,” Donna crowed as she placed herself first with queenly attitude at the round table in the middle of the room.

Parker, my ass, thought Alice and cracked: “Wrong table, Donna.”

“What’s that, Alice?” Donna smiled tightly, splayed her freshly manicured fingernails in corporate mode before her.

“Wrong table,” Alice laughingly repeated and added: “Wrong restaurant.” She filled in the silence at the table caused by her overstepping by further overstepping. “I can see every monster as they come in,” she recited in a breathy whine. Heads lowered. Napkin fumbling ensued. Donna Gatti stared. Alice continued in her normal voice, staring back: “You know, Truman Capote.” She gestured to the banquettes, “This place?”

They had been coached on what to wear, how to behave. The French-owned company spared no expense producing upscale and not significantly profitable magazines: Belle, Belle Interior, Luxury Driver, and Urban Home. The Special Interest magazines, which had normally operated under the corporate radar, were for the time being in the spotlight. Conditional as that attention was they had to impress, or at least not embarrass. The magazines they produced profited handsomely from bored singles on line at the supermarket, dieters, craft project addicts and harried homemakers looking to make ‘quick-n-easy’ suppers. Unlike the fashionably thin women in the offices at Belle who clicked around like they were on a catwalk, they were too big, too loud, unsophisticated and they worked like mules.

All were in outfits they had worn for the photograph to appear in the issue that was just about to go to press. Even Alice was guilty as charged. Crowded in front of the fountain in World Financial Plaza the week before, Alice had been positioned on the far left of the group and in the photo she appeared to be escaping. Donna was furious. What was she thinking! But there was no time and she didn’t want to spend the money on another photo session. It would have to do. Besides, Donna—a step higher in the center—looked good. The men in production had a laugh when Alice corrected the color, always entertained by her caustic observations. She’d once impetuously scrawled at the top of the erase board and they never wiped it clean: “Better to be pissed off than to be pissed on.”

Rosalie, the first to be addressed by the waiter, shyly declined a drink before ordering from the menu. He continued with Donna who ordered her usual I-am-really-a-fun-gal-outside-the-office Johnny Walker. She demonstrated a student-level French to the waiter who expertly feigned both approval and disdain. Alice looked away, embarrassed for her. She had to have been up all night practicing that, Alice mused.

“I’ll have the same,” Olive drawled. That was expected. Both had been nastily divorced in middle age and replaced by younger women. When her cat died Donna vowed never to have another living thing in her personal life. Olive had a daughter. Apart from that, they resembled each other. Similarly styled, they wore clothes like resentment: severe and relentlessly replayed. Alice was the last to order and added her choice—a Kir Royale—to the list that included martinis and a Cosmopolitan for Peter. Rosalie, seeing she had underestimated, called the waiter back and ordered the scotch.

Alice sat between Tammy St. Clair who was twirling an olive in her pursed lips and Bunny, who had foregone alcohol. Tammy was an editor and the one she was closest to in the office, the one with the most potential for rebellion. Not that she did, rebel that is. But Tammy never left an editorial meeting without questioning something. A good twenty years younger than Alice, Tammy gravitated toward Alice’s leonine qualities. If Alice saw anyone after work, it would be Tammy. She was the only one ever invited from the office to view her paintings and from then on became an enthusiastic supporter. When they’d had a few drinks and Alice needed a sounding board, Tammy provided the cheerleading. Life excited Tammy. She was thrilled about a Grateful Dead concert at Madison Square Garden in September. Alice nearly fell over when she told her. Was that guy still alive?

Normally contained, Bunny was even quieter than usual. She was old New York and grew up on Park Avenue in the 90s, the only one of them who had dined here before. Coming from a family of professionals—father a banker and mother a university professor—it was a complete mystery to Alice why Bunny was in magazines and not editing some literary masterpiece. She revealed to Alice that morning that she’d had an offer from Bridal Veil magazine. She'd used it as leverage with Donna for an increase in salary and was not only turned down, but also lectured on loyalty. Bunny decided to walk.

Friendly for the most part, out of habit rather than choice, they sat as a group self-consciously adding to the restaurant's accolades. Constraint began to thaw like ice under a rainspout in early spring. Little by little glasses of wine were emptied and refilled. Conversation loosened but was still tied to office trivia. Wary of putting her foot in her mouth, yet bored with the direction the chatter had taken, Alice told of the time a friend of hers, a writer in Paris, had interviewed the head of the company, Bertrand LaFayette. He owned a vast collection of Surrealist art and Alice’s friend was writing a biography of the Mexican Surrealist painter Frida Kahlo. She began describing what her friend had told her of the opulence of his estate just outside Paris.

Donna charged over Alice’s tale, unable to relinquish the spotlight. “Will you look at this feast!”

Olive’s smoky laugh followed: “Imagine eating like this every day?”

Plates of Dover sole, fillet of black bass in potato crust, house-smoked salmon and roasted cod lay before them. Donna had ordered something called Noisettes de Veau Sauce Brun aux Morilles. They left her to it and went for the fish.

“S-o-o-o, let’s have a little game and everyone tell us what you would be having for dinner tonight if you had not had this delicious meal.” Donna’s rosacea had spread from her cheeks across her nose and was invading her forehead. Clearly she was feeling the alcohol. “I’ll go first.” She would be in her kitchen, over the sink, eating from a bag of salty pretzels.

“Why over the sink?” Alice ventured.

“Crumbs,” Donna replied and burst into earsplitting guffaws.

Peter, with his glass raised and pinkie crooked, revealed he would do, as usual, with a quiet burger in his neighborhood bistro in the West Village. Olive would have whatever her mother had made for her granddaughter.

“Well, you know how much I love to bake,” Marta offered and then comically pointed to her waist.

“Something Italian” piped Tessa and then asked Alice what she would be having.

“Oh, probably a freshly tossed…bottle of Maker’s Mark.”

They were interrupted by the tinkling clue of a toast to come. Rosalie stood up in awkward awareness of her surroundings, holding her wine glass aloft. “I can tell you what I would not be having.” She wrinkled her nose. “The es…the scarp…the snails.” She waited for the table to quiet down and went on: “We should not forget what we are celebrating today.” She looked at Bunny and Alice on her left. “It was a great honor for the department and we really owe it all to…” Rosalie turned to her right, “…to Donna!”

A hesitant round of applause died quickly. Alice pressed her forehead to a glass of cold water. Tammy whispered, “Okay there?”

Donna rose from the table, adjusting her too tight skirt, pulling at her jacket. “I’ve got to powder my nose,” she giggled. “Alice,” she suddenly demanded, “get me a cognac.”

Alice put down the glass and leveled a hard gaze at her boss. “Do I look like a waiter?”

Rosalie hurried to repair the breach, shooting a look of disgust toward Alice. “I’ll get it for you, Donna.” They ordered dessert, which all but Marta had left unfinished.

It was late on a Friday afternoon. Donna jokingly instructed them to take the rest of the day off. By the time they returned to the office it would be time to leave anyway. They passed the empty coatroom that once swelled with endangered animal skins. In the street Alice asked: “Anyone up for another? We are celebrating after all.” She started backing away. “Jimmy’s Corner? Guys? Anyone?” Excuses were mumbled as the rest of them trailed behind Donna. But Alice knew, in time, that others would join her on the barstools at Jimmy’s Corner.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END is an original short story by Linda Danz.

STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. ©September 2009.

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