by Daniel Maclaine
Paula Richter began the day as she always did. She silenced the radio alarm with a well-practiced reach that allowed the tip of her finger to expertly find the snooze button. The overly enthusiastic voices of the morning DJs would not intrude for another nine minutes. Until then, she stretched her legs the way she had seen her tabby Milo do upon waking. Blood flow was important. Paula was convinced it improved her complexion. Small rituals performed at a still youthful twenty-nine would pay dividends when she hit forty or—was such an age even possible?—fifty.
She arched her back and lifted her torso towards the pastel-colored ceiling. It had taken her a full two weeks to get permission from the landlord to change the shade from a sickly off-white to a more soothing and subtle salmon. Even showing him the magazine clipping that promised such colors were beneficial to psychological peace had not impressed him. Paula credited his eventual acquiescence to her persistence which, although relentless, was also handled with appropriate tact and delicacy.
Paula liked to think of herself as delicate. People mistook it for fragility and so thought of it as a weakness. But she knew that no flower stem was ever broken by the strongest wind—even while the trunks of mighty trees lay in splinters all around.
The radio squawked to life again. Swinging her legs off the bed, her feet slid into the pink slippers that had been placed properly in position the night before. Paula took a deep breath and hit the OFF button. She had never heard more than a few seconds of the banter she found banal. The device had one purpose. Paula was awake therefore the radio had fulfilled its purpose.
After performing the morning necessities of hygiene and grooming, Paula slipped into her Friday blouse and skirt. It was tasteful, feminine and would have met with Jackie Kennedy’s approval. No woman should wear pants unless such masculine attire was demanded by the activity to be engaged in—hiking, perhaps?—or, if she were unfortunate enough to have employment in a trade that had been pioneered by Rosie the Riveter. Paula did not understand why women did not return to their proper place as guardians of grace after World War II had ended.
She entered the kitchen and prepared the morning pot of coffee. Drip, gurgle, drip, gurgle. Even the ambient sounds of routine were comforting. Paula took her usual place at the table, choosing the chair facing out towards the living room and the large windows on the outside wall. 7:45 AM and the spring sun was just beginning to exhibit powers of warmth and penetrating brightness again after a cold and dreary winter.
A spiral notebook contained the day’s schedule that had been painstakingly itemized the night before. Paula had no need to review it as she had already internalized the myriad obligations and duties contained therein. Still, she liked to have it open before her while she waited for the final percolating shudder from the Pyrex pot.
Paula rose from her seat and poured two cups of the steaming brown liquid. She placed one in front of her and the other across the table. Both rested on tasteful cork coasters emblazoned on the top with an image of a white horse in full gallop. Paula liked animals. Actually, she admired them. They exhibited little of the unpredictability and irrationality of human beings. They could be counted on almost unfailingly to do exactly what one expected of them. The trick to avoiding disappointment was in not expecting too much. This did not mean that their behavior was always good, just that it was consistent. For Paula, that was a virtue of rare and singular value not often found in their human counterparts.
Without delay, Paula was joined in the kitchen by representatives of both species—animal and human. Both appeared as if by magic with the opening of the second bedroom door. Abracadabra. Of course, there was nothing magical about it. Paula’s roommate Janey had heard or smelled the coffee being prepared. Paula had no doubt that, as was her usual habit, she waited to make her morning appearance until she was certain of the caffeine reward awaiting her on the table. As for Milo, the cat curled its way around Janey’s legs and, with tail pointed straight up in the air, headed for the promised morning meal that Paula had already faithfully dished out into his bowl which was placed eight inches to the side of the refrigerator door.
Milo was Paula’s cat but had since adoption spent his nights in Janey’s bedroom. This upset neither Janey nor Paula. Both chalked it up to the electric blanket that provided Milo with a nesting warmth that probably reminded him of a long-ago kittenhood that could be recaptured while at rest. For his part, Milo showed no signs of concern one way or another if his chosen place of slumber had put anyone’s nose out of joint.
“What a night,” Janey groaned as she slumped into the chair, causing the legs to creak. She cradled her head in an open palm, elbow resting on the table. “I can’t remember a thing, of course, but I must have had one hell of a nightmare. The bed looks like a family of raccoons was rooting around in it.”
“That’s too bad,” Paula said, closing her notebook and tucking it away inside the soft case carrying her work papers. Her morning solitude was at an end. “I read a magazine article that says you shouldn’t eat before bed. I noticed you had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Maybe that’s the problem.”
The real problem, as Paula saw it, was the crumbs left on the counter whenever Janey decided on a late-night snack. It also hadn’t escaped her attention that one of the sky-blue side plates was missing from the cupboard and that there were definite traces of strawberry jam inside the peanut butter jar. It meant that the side plate was probably sitting on Janey’s bedside table with a crusted knife balancing precariously on its face. Paula shuddered. She had never once entered her roommate’s bedroom and this image did nothing to make her regret that decision. Besides, privacy was to be respected at all costs. That was one of the fundamental precepts of her life philosophy.
Janey scoffed. “The problem isn’t my snacking, it’s Ken—the creep of a boyfriend that I can’t get rid of!”
She sat straight up for the first time this morning, causing Paula to wince. Her bathrobe was a one-size-fits-all terrycloth disaster that had obviously been purchased in the men’s department of a discount chain store. One side folded and flapped open exposing three-quarters of a breast to which Janey seemed oblivious. Or, like Milo, she simply did not care what others thought.
“I don’t understand. If you don’t want to be with Ken then why can’t you end it?”
It baffled Paula that someone would desire a certain set of circumstances and not work methodically to bring them about. Such a confusion of thought and purpose was exhibited when a person claimed to want to bring about a change but threw their hands up as to why the desired result was not being realized. Such untidiness of mind collided directly with Paula’s worldview.
Janey slurped her coffee, looking at Paula over the rim. “Girl, what planet are you living on? Nothing is simple in relationships.” Evidently, she couldn’t resist adding, “Not that you’d know anything about that.”
Paula glanced at the wall clock, not even noticing the catty, cutting edge in Janey’s voice. The clock had a lovely ceramic face encased in a wooden cabinet. The hour and half hour were marked with a peach and pear respectively. The minute hand was still seven minutes away from the peach. It was Paula’s routine to leave the apartment at precisely 8 AM. Each and every morning, she sat across from Janey until it was time to leave. It was their only real interaction of the day.
Janey reached down to stroke Milo’s ears, for which he purred contentedly. This action caused the already precariously concealed breast to drop down fully exposed. Paula looked away towards the Hummel figurines perched on their shelves inside the display cabinet to the left of the living room sofa. Her favorite was the young boy blowing his horn. She would not react or comment to Janey’s vulgar exhibitionism. A genteel and refined woman let such things pass as if unnoticed.
“Besides, he’s so jealous. I swear if another man even looks at me, Ken wants to kill him. That’s love, baby.” Janey tapped her finger on the table with such vigor that it caused the twin salt and pepper shakers from Niagara Falls to wobble. Paula was about to cradle them but they spun in place and did not fall. Each showed an unfortunate daredevil in a barrel being swept over and falling from the top. She was even more distressed to see that, as the emphatic tapping continued, it caused Janey’s nipple to move in rhythm to the point she was making.
Paula’s mind returned to a long ago music class in middle school when she had tried to learn the flute. A small dot projected on the overhead had bounced over the expected notes. Paula would never hear the flute again without being reminded of Janey’s nipple.
“I have that kind of effect on men. They turn into animals after they’ve been with me. It’s primal. Yes, that’s what it is. Primal.”
Paula did not resent Janey. She was a necessity. When she had decided to take the job in the city, she knew that it would require certain sacrifices—financial and social. High rents in the city had forged many an unlikely partnership. They had both needed an apartment at the same time and found one another through an advertisement announcing their need in a small, community newspaper. Even though Paula felt herself to be discerning in all things, she also prided herself on an unassailable practicality. Janey was a single woman of roughly the same age and she was available. It was a sober, wise and reasonable decision under the circumstances.
Janey shooed Milo away. Sitting bolt upright, she snapped her fingers a second before tucking her breast away—allowing Paula to stop thinking of flute music. “That reminds me,” Janey announced. “Ken’s coming over this afternoon. I’ll need to wash the sheets! I was sweating like a pig last night. Have you got any quarters I can borrow?”
Paula’s nose crinkled. She looked at the clock for an escape but it still had not struck 8. She retreated to her room and removed exactly twelve quarters from a pink piggy bank. As she wrote “3 dollars” on a Post-It and stuck it on Wilbur’s side, she admitted that if there was one area of Janey’s life that she did not wish to know about—or be forced to imagine—it was her love life. Such an obvious intention to … to … go to bed with a man in the middle of the afternoon could not have been more clearly announced had she plastered the news on a paper billboard flowing down the side of a building. She returned to the kitchen and counted out the change.
Still, it was her life. The fact that Janey worked from home, no doubt hunched over the computer in her room all morning and afternoon, forced Paula to make certain allowances. The poor girl did not have an orderly schedule and this chaos overflowed into her private life.
“I’ll be home at 5:45…” Paula began. It was not an attempt to change the subject but rather a way to remind Janey of their agreement regarding visitors—especially male visitors—in the apartment.
“I get it, Paula. You’re always home at 5:45. When have you ever not gotten home at 5:45? We’ll be finished by then. Promise.” She leaned closer to Paula and said with a giggle. “In fact, even if we don’t start till 5:44, we’d still be done by 5:45 if you know what I mean!”
In fact, Paula did not know what Janey meant nor did she have any desire to find out.
Janey reached out and collected the quarters from the table top. They disappeared inside the pocket of her robe. She sighed, “Yes, girlfriend, I’ve got it all planned out. Going to give the loser one more roll in the hay so he knows what he’s going to miss and then I’m dumping Ken. Time for this city chick to move on to bigger, better and richer men. Especially bigger, if you know what I mean,” she snorted.
Once again, Paula did not know. She was thankful the two of them had an understanding. Visitors were permitted in the common areas—to enjoy a cup of tea or a muffin for instance—at any time. As long as the activities were suitably chaste and honorable then no restrictions were necessary. But if there was to be any … oh, what was the word? It was on the tip of her tongue. Oh yes. If there was to be any canoodling taking place then that was to be done when Paula was not in the apartment. The same restrictions applied to Paula but the situation had never arisen.
She gathered her things and left precisely at 8:00 as she had done every morning. There was a brief moment of panic when she reached the elevator. Should she have taken the umbrella with her? It stood in its stand by the door, the handle an elegantly curved elephant in faux-ivory—trunk extended upward of course. Paula had been tempted but decided against it. Rain was not even probable. There was no need to carry a full-sized umbrella to and from work unless rain was certain. Its only value today would have been as a weapon of protection on the subway to ward off those who would take liberties with an unescorted woman.
No, to go back would be an inefficient waste of energy. Worse, Paula did not want to be thought of as vain. She was convinced those who saw her carrying the umbrella with the elephant handle in faux-ivory could not help but think as she walked by, “Oh my, what an elegant and tasteful lady.” To provoke such a reaction in passers-by when there was no inclement weather was vanity pure and simple.
Paula’s arrival at the law office of Malone and Douglas went unnoticed. This was for the simple reason that Paula was always the first to arrive. She unlocked the double-wide mahogany doors with their gold-embossed lettering at 8:50. She entered the outer reception area where she placed her carrying case on the far-left edge of her desk. She then draped her pink cashmere sweater over the back of the leather chair, making certain that each side of it folded in equal measures of visible fabric across the oval back.
She took her seat and noticed with an annoyed resignation that one of the telephone lights was already blinking. Paula ignored this. Office hours were clearly stated in the outgoing voice message as being from 9 to 5. Whoever the person was, they could call back in eight minutes. If the untimely caller were a prospective client of either Mr. Malone or Mr. Douglas, it would do well to accustom them even at this early stage to the importance of time observances and deadlines that were inherent in the legal process. If one started answering phones outside of office hours then who knows where such a collapse would lead? It amazed Paula that so much of the rest of the world was oblivious to the fact that chaos lurked behind every relaxation of rules and order.
Shortly after nine o’clock, Mr. Malone entered the office.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Hello, Paula. How are you?”
“I am well, Mr. Malone.”
“Wonderful,” he said without breaking stride. He disappeared into the inner sanctum, their morning ritual repeated and done.
A few minutes later, Mr. Douglas hurried past her carrying an overcoat that was much too heavy for the season. He did tip his hat. “Miss Richter.”
Paula favored Mr. Douglas because he properly referred to her by her family name and not by the overly familiar ‘Paula’ that Mr. Malone was so fond of using. It was a small thing, admittedly, but in such small things one found culture and—dare it be so?—even virtue.
So practiced was Paula at controlling the flow of business into and out of the law offices of Malone and Douglas that she was often told by her employers how they “could not manage without her.” This pleased Paula. She also noticed how the respective wives of both attorneys paid her compliments and offered genuine smiles of warmth and friendliness on the few occasions when they had reason to visit the office. Paula had read many articles in magazines about the sometimes tense relations between a secretary and a boss’s wife. For some reason, such tension had never existed between Paula and either Mrs. Malone or Mrs. Douglas. It was as if they perceived no threat whatsoever from her. For that, Paula credited her upbringing and sense of decorum and decency.
Invariably, a spousal visit meant lunch was near and both men would be whisked off to dining establishments that were no doubt far beyond Paula’s present firm and inflexible budget. Paula took her own lunch from 12:10 to 12:50 each day. She allowed ten minutes on each end of the hour for descent and ascent to and from the atrium situated in the lobby of this magnificent art-deco building. The edifice was truly a monument to a more refined time when people knew their places. There she would sit in the fourth table to the right of an indoor lily pond and be soothed by the babbling waters as she daintily ate her egg salad sandwich.
Paula had read more than a few magazine articles about the dangers facing a woman who found herself alone in public. They demanded attention with full page titles like Danger Lurks For Those In Skirts! or the even more frightening Predators Have Their EYE on YOU! It was for this reason that she refused to leave the safety of the building during her lunches and why she always went directly to and from work with no deviations. She knew that a moving target was much harder to hit. The magazines had been very clear on that point.
Returning to her perch behind the reception desk, Paula noted that neither Mr. Malone nor Mr. Douglas were in the office. She was alone but felt none of the anxiety that would have been present had she not been in her usual place. Routine and familiarity cloaked her in an impenetrable blanket of security. She gazed out the floor-to-ceiling windows behind her at the city far below. Paula pitied those poor people who did not have predictability in their lives.
She snapped to attention as the phone rang.
One ring—two rings (never allow a third ring)—pick-up.
“Malone and Douglas,” she announced with polite but professional reserve.
“Paula? Is that you, doll?”
Janey’s voice was unmistakable as was the breathlessness of her tone. She always seemed to be rushing, which Paula could not understand as necessary from someone who did their work from home.
“Yes, Janey, it’s me.” While not a regular occurrence, a call from Janey was not completely out of the ordinary. Her calls usually concerned a misplaced or needed item from the apartment. “What can I do for you?”
Janey spoke in a whisper. “Ken’s been here for the past hour. His back is acting up again. Do you have any baby oil I can borrow? I want to give him one of my massages before lowering the boom.”
“The … boom?”
“You know, breaking up with him, giving him his walking papers, throwing him overboard, telling him to take a…”
“Yes, yes, Janey, I have a clear picture now. The ‘boom.’ Yes. Very good.”
“I figure the more relaxed he is the better. And nothing like a little rubbing before a roll in …”
Paula closed her eyes as if temporarily not seeing would protect her from the words she was hearing. “Janey, there is a bottle of baby oil on the far right of the third shelf of my bathroom vanity. You may use it.” Thinking about it while still keeping her eyes tightly shut, Paula felt compelled to add, “In fact, you may keep it.”
“Are you sure, sweetie?”
“You’re a lifesaver, Paula. Wish me luck and see you later.”
“I’ll be home at 5:45.”
“Of course you will!” Janey’s giggling lasted until being replaced by the dial tone.
Paula replaced the telephone on its cradle and felt a small shudder pass through her body from tip to toe and back to torso. A law office was not the proper place for calls that were so … so … so blatantly pornographic in nature. She prayed that whatever was going on in the apartment would be confined to Janey’s bedroom as per their agreement. The last thing Paula needed was a baby oil stain on the cream-colored fabric of her flower-printed sofa covering.
The rest of the afternoon proceeded with the soothing regularity of routine. Both Mr. Malone and Mr. Douglas returned shortly before 2 PM—minus their wives. Calls were answered and paperwork filed but no clients or court appearances were scheduled. Paula was so efficient in her work that she found herself sitting in the outer reception area with nothing to do. After 3 o’clock, the calls into the office stopped altogether. The Easter holiday weekend was approaching and this had apparently halted business throughout the city much earlier than usual.
With little to do, Paula found her mind wandering to Janey’s phone call. Paula resented having to push out of her mind the carnal images provoked by her roommate. It wasn’t that Paula did not appreciate that there was a place for relations between men and women. Propagation of the species demanded certain sacrifices. She understood this. Paula knew in her heart that she was proper and not a prude. Why, she could even imagine in her own future that one day—after a period of courting—she might find herself the object of affection for some as yet unknown Heathcliff or Mr. Darcy.
Paula allowed herself a smile. On that day, she knew she would dance in the arms of a gentleman—a man of taste and refinement who shared her values, morality and aversion to physical coupling purely for pleasure.
The doors leading from the attorneys’ offices opened wide and out strode Messrs. Malone and Douglas. Both wore more animated and excited expressions than usual, like two schoolboys who anticipated a surprise.
“We’re packing it in, Paula,” said Mr. Malone.
Prepared for objections, Mr. Douglas already held his arm up with palm outwards as if halting traffic. “No argument, Miss Richter. There’s nothing more to be done today. Go home and enjoy the weekend. Beat the traffic, hey?”
The two men had already moved behind the desk to stand on either side of Paula, like guards anticipating a combative prisoner.
“It’s only 4 o’clock,” Paula almost sputtered. No, no. This was not good at all. This was an unpredicated violation of order and routine.
But the two lawyers were already helping her into her coat and, one hand on each arm, escorting her to the door. “Now, now. We’re not going to hear any more about it. This is not Scrooge and Marley. Once a decade, we can afford to close an hour early on a Friday afternoon. You work hard, you deserve it!”
They marched her all the way to the elevator. A twenty dollar bill was placed in her hand. “Our treat. We want you to take a cab on us! Forget the filthy subway today.” As the doors closed, Mr. Malone leaned forward so that his face was bordered in an increasingly narrowing frame of metal. “We could not get along without you, Paula!”
“Don’t think we don’t appreciate you, Miss Richter!” added Mr. Douglas, but the doors had already closed, muffling the ending punctuation of his praise.
Despite the compliments, Paula found herself spinning as the elevator descended. She was so flustered, she barely managed to focus long enough to wonder why, if the office was being closed early, neither Mr. Malone nor Mr. Douglas had been wearing overcoats or carrying their briefcases? There was no explanation for this and, Paula thought forlornly, no excuse for forcing her into a complete change of schedule.
Resisting the urge to panic, Paula concentrated hard on maintaining her composure. She barely noticed the two women who jostled her as she exited and they entered the elevator upon arrival at the lobby. One of them pressed the button for the floor Paula had just left. This was made more difficult due to the almost ridiculous length of a glittered fingernail. Had this been any other day, she would have silently criticized their choice of clothing which was, to say the least, overly revealing and unsuitable to the weather at this time of year. Even through her anxiety, Paula could see that.
She wondered to which office they could possibly be going while dressed in such an unladylike fashion. As she bundled her coat and fingered the twenty dollar bill in her palm, Paula thought they looked almost like … like harlots. She blushed at even thinking such a word. The shame of her thoughts accompanied her out the main doors onto a city street still slushy from the spring thaw.
Paula checked her watch. She looked right then left then checked the time again. Only 4:10. No, this was not good at all. A full hour ahead of schedule. Passersby brushed against her as she remained immobile in the middle of the sidewalk. One particularly rude man launched an unrepeatable epithet over his shoulder as he rushed past. Paula wrapped her scarf around her as if to ward off the crudity in his single word and slowly backed up towards the security of the building’s outside wall where she could decide what to do in safety. She did not like to be touched, especially by unwashed strangers.
The subway entrance was across the street and one short block away. Still, she did have the twenty dollars in the palm of her hand. It was safely hidden by her woolen mitten from the eyes of robbers and hobos. Many magazines had warned about the dangers of exposing wealth to those who searched for just such an opportunity to pounce. No matter what she did now, take the subway or hail a cab, she would be ahead of schedule.
Paula decided to do as she had been told by Mr. Malone and Mr. Douglas. They were her employers and they had clearly desired her to take a cab. Paula prided herself on her sense of duty and obedience to those who provided her with the financial means to negotiate life in the big city. The knowledge that she was following instructions, despite the upheaval in her routine, calmed her enough to allow her to step to the curb with outstretched arm. Within minutes, she was seated in the back of a Yellow Cab and headed home.
Paula gave the driver her address. She was relieved to see he was an older gentleman who showed no interest in conversation. Still, she moved herself as far to the right as she could so that her shoulder and head were pressed against the window. Her right hand rested on the door handle in a preemptive pose should she have to exit quickly. The driver looked harmless but wolves often wore sheep’s clothing.
The cab arrived without incident in less than fifteen minutes. Paula paid the driver and exited. Once safely on the curb she generously offered a full dollar’s gratuity, which was snatched without thanks. Well, she thought, not everyone had the benefit of a traditional upbringing where the magic words of “please” and “thank you” were ingrained. Paula did not judge those who suffered from lack of breeding or politeness. The fault was not in their character but in their parents.
Entering the building, she walked towards the elevator and checked her watch while she waited for the doors to open. She was a full hour earlier than usual. She began to feel a kind of exhilaration at having proven to herself that she was not—as had been pointed out to her in unkind criticism—a slave to routine. Let all those who had censured her in the past apologize in abject shame if they could see her now. Had she not been contained inside the elevator, Paula might very well have removed her purple fabric hat and thrown it triumphantly into the air.
But she did not. Such open displays of emotion were to be resisted even during those times when one was completely alone. Stopping at her apartment door, Paula smoothed the wrinkles from her coat before inserting her key into the lock. She could only imagine the expression on her roommate’s face when Janey saw her arrive early. She would see that Paula was, as her grandfather had always proclaimed while bouncing her on his knee, a “real firecracker.”
The door swung open and Paula entered. She blinked once, then twice before ridiculously checking the number plate on the door she had yet to close. For a split second, Paula thought she was in the wrong apartment. In the seemingly slow-motion moments when her arm was jerked forward, the door pushed shut behind her, and she stumbled to the carpet, Paula took in the disorder of the scene laid bare before her.
The kitchen table lay on its side, its four legs pointed stiffly outwards like a deer lying dead in a child’s drawing. Curtains that had been painstakingly hung so that they fell an inch from the hardwood were ripped from their rods and lay in a tattered heap across the television and stereo. The peaceful pastels of the sitting room were spattered and stained with what looked to be cranberry juice. Janey must have spilled the entire bottle before passing out in a drunken stupor. Janey’s naked form was in the middle of the stain, legs splayed and arms outstretched. Paula could not see her face. Her entire head and shoulders were covered with the broken casing of the peach and pear clock. Janey had never appreciated that clock the way Paula did.
Paula turned over on her back from her position on the carpet where she had fallen. It was then that her eyes met Ken’s. Standing over her, Ken held up a single finger in front of his lips the way one might have held a candle in the darkness. Paula heard a shushing sound—or was it a groan? Did it come from Ken’s lips or was it Janey from under the clock? Distress at the disorder apparent in the room heightened her senses to such a degree that she could have sworn she could hear the ceramic peach fall from the clock face onto the kitchen floor, twirl in place on the tile and finally fall over on its side. Glue, glue would do the trick. She hoped the pear was not likewise compromised.
Paula closed her eyes as she always did when confronted with unpleasantness. Though she could not see Ken, she could sense him kneeling down beside her, could smell his sweat mixed with an after-shave that probably was advertised with someone doing karate.
“Paula,” he said in almost a whisper, “you never come home early. Why today?”
As she kept her eyes tightly shut, she couldn’t help but appreciate the hint of regret in his voice. Despite what Janey had said, Ken obviously was a man refined enough to appreciate order, routine and predictability as much as she did.
With her eyes closed, Paula found it easy to begin the process of reconstruction that her gracious apartment would require. Within seconds, she had already repainted in her imagination and reupholstered the stained couch fabric. What could not be erased could be hidden with a tasteful throw pillow—perhaps purchased from an Amish store upstate? Curtains were rehung, the beloved clock repaired and righted so that peach and pear would mark the hours of her days as faithfully as before.
She thought she could hear a quiet sobbing coming from Ken, still kneeling beside her. Perhaps he was as upset as she at the state of the room.
“It’s okay,” she wanted to say to comfort him. “It’s okay. I know exactly how you feel.”