A Great Send Off
Ellen Davis Sullivan
On the twenty-ninth floor of a Boston high rise, at a financial services company known as First Funds, a woman stands outside the door of an office that should be hers. Rita Cooper waits for the Senior Vice President in charge of Corporate Communications because she needs his permission to bend a Company rule. If she’d been promoted into his job a year ago when the last SVP retired, she could make the exception with a keystroke. Instead, the CEO hired a man from outside the Company. Now, Rita waits like a supplicant for approval to host a retirement party for an employee who isn’t exactly retiring.
Jason should return any minute from his lunchtime run, the time of day Rita guesses he’s most relaxed and, therefore, she hopes, most vulnerable. When he arrives, his hair is slicked back, still wet from a shower. They stand in the hall outside his office by the fabric wall of his secretary‘s cube. With no greeting other than “Hello,” Rita asks her question. Can she give a retirement party for Harry Mayfield?
“The guy’s been on disability for, like, forever,“ Jason says. “Who remembers him?“
Rita swallows the first two responses that come to mind: “everyone” and “me.” She’s prepared for this harsh view of a long-serving co-worker she admires and loves like a cool older brother. “Harry’s a legend,” she says. “He devoted himself to the Company for years, even when he was weak from chemo.” The current bout is a recurrence of cancer with a grim prognosis.
Jason shakes his wrist, adjusting his black rubber dive watch. “Maybe you should have let him go sooner.”
This sparks a guilty flush at Rita’s throat. Recent budget cuts are forcing her to shift Harry from disabled status to retired. She’d kept him on the active list as long as she could as a form of psychic compensation for his misery, letting him indulge in the fantasy he could recover and come back to the office some day. Rita knows hope can’t be doled out that easily, but she’s trying to manage the staff her way, with a touch of mercy. Harry had been the best kind of colleague: witty, talented and not interested in her job. But what had she really done for him? Kept his name on a record that floated in the electronic void. She wants to make it up to him by giving him a great send off.
“Harry took on the worst projects,” Rita says. “He wrote Wendell’s speeches; he’s never asked for anything.” This isn’t completely true. Harry enjoyed writing the CEO’s speeches and, though he didn’t care about titles, Harry did like recognition. Rita had instituted a Best-Ad-Line-of-the-Month coffee for her staff of writers. Harry kept the blue slips with his nominations fanned like a floral spray on a shelf near his door.
“I don’t know,” Jason says. “He’s the guy who does those imitations of Wendell with the Kleenex bow tie, right?”
Rita hoped Jason wouldn’t remember that. She always found Harry’s willingness to say what he thought of upper management refreshing. If he occasionally stepped over the line, so what? At times she wishes she had Harry‘s nerve, like the day Jason assigned her to write the CEO’s announcement to employees that the Company holiday party was being eliminated to save money. A droplet of sarcasm would have let employees know people on both sides of the management divide felt relief at the end of the annual fake-smileathon.
“He’s finely attuned to the absurd,” Rita says.
Jason squints into the near distance. “I always wonder how he does me.”
A snort from behind the wall of Jason’s secretary’s cube causes Rita to duck her head for a second.
“Where’s the money coming from?” Jason asks.
“There’s plenty in the Department entertainment account.”
“You want to waste it on this?”
“Morale’s terrible. Everyone’s expecting layoffs. The rumors about Vogel leaving won’t die.” Vogel is the Company’s star money manager, an icon in the fund world. If he leaves, it will trigger the corporate equivalent of thermonuclear meltdown.
Jason shakes his head. Clearly, in his view, Rita doesn’t get it. The staff needs to get used to the rock and roll of company titans striding the earth for better deals.
“I’ll take care of everything,” Rita says. “I’ll even write your speech.”
“Not me,” Jason says. “This is all on you.”
Back in her office, Rita’s prepared to give Harry a great tribute, though after twenty minutes at her computer trying to write an ode to Harry, she’s stumped. It’s tough to commemorate the service of a man who took pride in two things: his irreverence and his impeccable ear for the right word. Rita still bristles at the memory of the first time Harry corrected her in front of Jason. She’d dismissed a consultant’s logo design as hieroglyphics.
“Cuneiform,“ Harry said, giving it a four-syllable treatment that sounded a bit British. His scholarly precision intimidated Rita, though she’d had a perfectly good education. She was relieved when Jason dismissed the whole thing with a plangent “Whatever.“
Now, at her desk, she finds she’s resorting to platitudes: hardworking, diligent, dedicated. As her fingers slide from key to key, she pushes aside the image of Harry’s lips curving in a catlike smile. He could write a funnier, more apt toast to his career than she’d ever get on the page. He’d do it if she asked, but Rita won’t allow herself to become another corporate ventriloquist’s dummy, a boss who lets her staff write every word that comes out of her mouth, even their own performance reviews. Rita has standards.
Telling Harry is easier than Rita expects. They meet in a bistro near his home in the South End. Inside, she glances around at the tables, looking past Harry who slowly raises two fingers. They last had lunch together three, maybe four months ago, or is it longer? Rita can‘t remember. His appearance unsettles her, both pricking and firming her resolve. He’s a man who’s clearly ill. The lush gray hair that had fallen over his ears is now a stubby brush cut. He’s thinner, much thinner, with a darkness she doesn‘t recall around his eyes. As she gently embraces him, a rough patch he missed while shaving scrapes her cheek. Rita can’t help comparing this Harry to the way he looked the day they met: ice blue eyes, sculpted jaw, and rangy physique. That day he sported one of his trademark ties, a field of black emblazoned with the faces of Sylvester and Tweety Bird. He favored comic characters, hand-painted phantasmagorias, weird Escher prints, as if he needed them to offset his stunning beauty.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of this outing?” he asks, once they’re seated.
When she called to suggest lunch, Rita had only said it had been too long since they’d seen each other. Now she fumbles with the menu, unsure how to begin.
“Time for me to move on and give you breathing room in your budget?“ Harry says.
Rita shouldn’t be surprised. Harry knows how things work. He was editor of a national magazine before he ended up at First Funds. Besides, he still has friends at the Company, including Jason’s secretary Maggie, she of the well-timed snort.
“Are you OK?“ Rita leans closer.
“You can’t keep me on the payroll forever.”
“I tried.” Rita flushes with warmth. She could have done more and Harry knows it. She could have routed piecework to him, projects he could contribute to from home, keeping him in the loop. She could have, but it would have taken too much effort, and she had to focus on the needs of the staff in the office every day.
Harry pats her hand. “I appreciate having had this long to hold onto my last hope.“ Though he smiles, Rita hears a hint of anger in his voice, anger he chooses not to aim at her.
The waitress arrives and they order. When she leaves, Rita doesn’t know what to say.
“You know the talk is all wrong,” Harry says. “Vogel isn’t going anywhere. He just got them to install a remote set-up that lets him trade from his house on Nantucket.”
“You’re still working the phones, even now.”
This brings a satisfied glint to Harry’s eyes. “I have my sources.”
She doesn’t admit it, but she’s grateful for this info. She’ll mention it “off the record” to a couple direct reports, letting it ripple through the Department and out into the Company. Most employees will hear it with a swirl of relief mixed with a dollop of envy.
Two days later Rita waits outside Jason’s office after lunch with the notes she’s made for the tribute to Harry. The rest of the plans are set, so Harry will be off the payroll by the end of the month. If she’s going to start recognizing savings, she might as well do it now. And Harry didn’t seem to mind, so why put it off?
When Jason appears, damp and sloe-eyed, Rita holds out the clipped pages of the talk. “If you’d just say a few words about Harry,” she says. “It would mean so much to him, coming from you. You have a way with these things.”
Jason purses his lips. He’s not immune to flattery, even though he uses it regularly, or maybe because he does he no longer recognizes it for what it is. But now he seems even more preoccupied than usual when she mentions a personnel issue.
“I’ll think about it.” He takes the papers and heads to his door.
When the pages appear on Rita’s desk with Jason’s revisions marked in red, she allows herself a subdued fist pump. Jason wouldn’t bother with editing unless he were going to speak. Despite Harry’s outward disdain for management, Rita’s sure he will appreciate Jason at the helm of his party. The hierarchy can be ridiculed, but when it comes time to go, everyone wants the full treatment.
On the day of the party, Rita wears her new red suit. She used the excuse of having to stand in front of a crowd next to a style maven like Harry to buy the outfit she‘s admired for days in a window on Newbury Street. It fit with no alterations, draping gracefully over the soft bulge at her waist that hours on the treadmill can’t excise.
About an hour before the guests are scheduled to arrive, Maggie appears at Rita’s door. She’s the one perplexing element in Jason’s world, a bronze-haired holdover from the last generation of secretaries. Rita had been sure Jason would sweep Maggie out, but she’d held on somehow. Rita suspects she’s ferreted out Jason’s dirty secret, though the only dirt floating around about him is the speculation that he’s sleeping with Jennifer, the intern he’d brought in and assigned to Rita. Since they’re both single, it’s hardly a sin.
“You have to do the talk for Harry,” Maggie says. “His eminence has been called to an emergency meeting with Wendell.”
Rita doesn’t believe this for one second. The CEO just happens to have a public relations crisis now? Still, she has to admire the blunt way Jason outfoxed her. If he showed up in person or even called, she might have been able to coax him into doing his duty. Sending his stalwart assistant with an impregnable excuse leaves Rita no option. She doesn’t want to be Jason, but she can’t help seeing how much easier work would be if she were more like him.
When Maggie’s gone, Rita becomes aware of a flutter under her ribs. There’s no reason for her to be nervous. She’s an experienced public speaker, but the staff is totally on edge. Spreading Harry’s tidbit about Vogel did nothing to quell the rumors especially since the next day he was seen having lunch with the CEO of a rival fund company. The electronic devices went crazy: massive layoffs are in the work, a stock price plunge will tank employees‘ 401ks. No one in management wants to face a crowd that’s spent the past week marinating in anxiety.
Besides, the party guests will all be Harry’s friends and colleagues, each one convinced Rita’s forcing a loyal, respected, and very ill employee onto the street. She’ll be the heartless bitch. Rita was raised to keep the surface calm at all times, a manner that propelled her into management at First Funds. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if actual feelings erupt.
Collecting her notes, Rita heads downstairs. Receptions for non-officers are held in a space created by clearing the furniture from a quadrant of the cafeteria and replacing it with large tables draped in white cloths. Screens upholstered in gray fabric hide the conveyer belt that leads to the dishwasher. Rita insisted on that. Once, during a department staff meeting in this space, the belt cranked into action, spewing a cloud of steam with a noxious stench. Harry will be spared a party reeking of old chicken fingers and decaying pizza.
A line of cafeteria workers carries chafing dishes out of the kitchen. Rita smiles at the familiar faces dressed in their white-and-black party uniforms. A man whose usual job is moving computers around the building stands in white shirt, black pants and crooked bow tie behind a curved table set up as a bar. Surrounded by rows of glasses, bottles, and stacks of napkins, he leans against the windowsill with his eyes closed. Rita guesses he’s heard a lifetime’s worth of hyped up praise.
Maggie appears at the other end of the room carrying a shopping bag, her hefty hips rocking from side to side as she approaches.
Rita strides toward her and reaches for the bag. “I thought someone was going to do this for you.”
“It’s not heavy.” Maggie rubs her acorn-sized knuckles. “You act like I’m old.”
Maggie is old. Old and irritated. Her specific source of irritation seems to be that she was widowed young and had to work well into her sixties and that, in the midst of her career as a faithful secretary, someone decided women could become managers and then executives. She’d been cheated out of opportunities she hadn’t guessed would exist. Rita’s convinced that she blames her woes on women just like Rita.
Maggie is in her pink dress, a confection trimmed in gold buttons above a knife-pleated skirt. She has on her sparkly cardigan, which only partly veils her fleshy backside. Rita recognizes this as Maggie’s special occasion outfit.
“You look very nice,” she says. She hopes the older woman doesn’t view this as sucking up. She hates having to think like this about a few kind words, then she pictures Jason, who might at this very moment be outside Wendell’s office, letting his boss’s secretary believe he finds her irresistible.
Rita couldn’t offer Harry an official retirement gift. That would have required cutting more red tape than she had patience for. Instead she asked Maggie to see if the staff wanted to contribute to, as Rita put it, “a modest going away present.” Maggie had seemed pleased to take on the job of collecting money, and picking out a silver picture frame, which she showed Rita before she wrapped it. Rita didn’t know how many pictures Harry had left that he’d want to frame, but at least they’d avoided the proverbial clock with all that could imply.
Rita was pleased that in addition to the gift, several of the creatives on staff had put together a poster of Harry’s greatest hits: ads, speeches, even a few Power Point slides surrounded by logos from various projects. It would probably mean more to him than the frame.
Rita flicks the switch of the light clipped to the lectern. Nothing. She motions to Jennifer since it seems ludicrous to text the intern when she’s only across the room. As the young woman strides confidently toward her, Rita watches a series of men level their eyes at the young woman’s chest, prominent in her close-fitting dress. The rumor is that Jason took Jennifer on in the midst of the most extreme expense controls anyone can remember because he wanted his girlfriend nearby. Rita keeps this in mind, approaching the young woman as if she has a back channel to the boss. She’s grateful the girl is going back to college in the fall.
“Would you please call Building Services and get this fixed?” Rita toggles the useless switch.
“Got it,” Jennifer says, reaching for her phone.
At the back of the room, guests appear in a rush as if all the elevator doors opened at once. Advancing from the throng is Ardis Mayer, Senior Vice President of Human Resources. A few years older than Rita, Ardis wears a mustard-colored suit with matching shoes. Her hair sweeps across her forehead revealing brows tweezed into tiny tadpoles. When she’s close enough to shake hands, Ardis wags a finger. “No tears,” she says, which fits Ardis who’s known to repress every human emotion while at work, causing speculation that she’s actually a bot in human form.
“I know,” Rita says. “Like a man.”
Ardis touches fingers to her brow in a quick salute.
A peal of laughter from the other end of the room floods Rita with dismay. A joke. She‘d forgotten that. She didn’t write a laugh line for Jason because he wouldn’t use it. Instead he’d start with some squirm-inducing remark that was intended to be self-deprecating, like the time he said: “I don’t bother with a joke. If I were funny, I wouldn’t work here.” Rita could come up with a decent line if she had a few minutes alone, but standing here as the room fills, she’d got nothing. She’ll just have to plunge ahead.
She scans the crowd, counting heads, stopping at fifty-five, a substantial turnout. A man in a khaki uniform comes up to repair the light. While he works, the crowd suddenly clumps together. Rita expects to see Harry when the crowd thins. Instead, a cafeteria worker emerges hoisting a tray of shrimp. More guests swarm around, hands reaching over shoulders to grab toothpicks.
As the shrimp-eating machine moves on, Rita spots Harry near the back of the room, moving from one group of co-workers to another, shaking hands, offering his cheek for kisses, like a politician working the room. He cants to one side, leaning on a cane, a burnished wooden stick capped with a silver handle. So much is being taken from Harry: his looks, his job, Rita’s glad to see he isn’t giving up his fashion sense.
A dark-suited man clasps Harry to him, the man’s hands flapping against Harry’s shoulders. Though his face is hidden, Rita recognizes Vogel’s splayed nimbus of curly hair. The men part laughing. Shocked the fund guru is Harry’s friend, Rita considers a joking reference to Vogel to start her talk, when the man himself waves to the guest of honor and pivots in the direction of the food. Scooping up a fistful of canapés, Vogel heads for the elevators. At the sight of him chewing lustily as he departs, Rita decides there’s nothing she can say about him that couldn’t be taken wrong.
She goes to greet Harry, and guides him toward the podium, motioning for his partner, Leon to join them. Leon shakes his head, eyes down. At First Funds only immediate family members gather beside retiring employees, something Rita, single and childless at forty-seven, resents, picturing herself standing alone if she survives to retirement. She waves Leon to come forward again, but he sinks into the crowd.
At the podium, Maggie helps Harry into a chair, leaning his cane against the arm. Rita’s ready to begin, but no one seems to notice until Jennifer, who stayed close since being called on for a task, lets out a loud whistle. Silence ensues, but the piercing sound puts Rita off kilter. She starts talking before she has her notes under the light. Too vain to wear her reading specs, she printed the speech in 18-point Garamond, which at this moment doesn’t look all that big. She improvises. “Harry worked under me for a long time,” Rita says. The crowd laughs.
“I mean we worked together,” she says, “In rhythm.” This, too, provokes chuckles, so she starts reading what she’s written. She makes eye contact with people in the first few rows, smiling at latecomers who edge in from the back of the room. She’s feeling the pleasure of a responsive audience when she looks out on the bold stare of the deeply pouched eyes of Wendell Hankin. The CEO cuts between employees who glance at him, then draw back as if he breathes the Black Death. By protocol, the CEO only attends retirement parties for officers and the exceptional lower-ranked staffer who’s left an indelible impression on him. Obviously Jason underestimated Wendell’s respect for Harry when he invented his excuse.
Rita finishes to perfunctory applause. Maggie hands her the gift bag. Rita pulls out the poster. “On behalf of your friends and colleagues throughout the years who’ve worked with you in the Department,” (What she can she say that won’t repeat what she just said in her talk?) “I want to thank you for your years of dedicated service,” (she’d used these exact words two minutes ago), and unable to think of anything new to say, she stops, despite having ended on a vocal upswing.
Harry accepts the board, looks admiringly at its contents and says, “Thanks to all my Communications friends. It’s been a pleasure working with every one of you.”
Maggie hands Rita a box wrapped in dusky brown paper dotted with scenes of peasants in a medieval town suggested by turrets and plazas and fountains and horse carts. It looks like Maggie tried to find something arty, which wouldn’t have been Rita’s choice, but Maggie may know Harry’s taste better than she does.
“This,” Rita says, “is from everyone in the Department. We’ve enjoyed the privilege of working with you. On behalf of all of us at First Funds, we want to wish you,” she falters. What can you wish someone who’s dying? Time to enjoy his hobbies? A long and happy retirement? Slowly her silence stifles every sound in the room.
She takes a deep breath. “We all wish you the very best of, the very best.” Her finish is so indefinite no one except Harry realizes she’s through. He bows his head. The crowd obediently claps.
Accepting the box, Harry holds it close, scrunching his nose as if he’s reading very small print. “Ah,” he says. “Brueghal’s Slaughter of the Innocents.”
The silence in the room is a pre-dawn quiet. Rita stares at the wrapping paper. Laughter bubbles across the room, swelling into a tidal wave of nervously expelled air that can’t be reigned in. Rita would like to shove her fist into every chortling mouth.
She can’t think of anything to say as her brain reels. The echo of Harry’s words, the practiced way he said the “oy” in Brueghal, makes hair rise on Rita’s neck. Did he and Maggie scheme to make Rita look bad? As he unwraps the gift, she stands tall, arms crossed over her jacket. She realizes she’d told Harry Jason would be handling this. If his jab had been planned, it wasn’t meant for her. Then she realizes, with Jason absent, Harry didn’t have to use his laugh line. But he did.
The straight-backed demeanor that got her through a thousand patronizing indignities during her career leaves her standing here looking like a stiff. Harry raises the silver frame from its tissue paper nest. He thanks Rita, who forces a practiced smile.
Since the crowd hangs back as Wendell comes forward, he’s first to reach Harry and shake his hand. “Thanks for making me sound smarter than I am in those talks you wrote,” Wendell says.
“You made it easy.” Harry’s eyes glint under the neon light.
Rita detects a slight inflection that could mean Harry didn’t have to work hard to make Wendell sound smarter than he is. She doesn’t allow a single face muscle to move.
Wendell nods to Rita. “Could you come to my office, please?”
The CEO’s silence suggests there had been no temporal uncertainty in his question. She follows him through the crowd, keeping pace with his long-legged stride as the ranks open a path.
Climbing the stairs to the Executive suite, she watches the vent of his perfectly tailored suit coat open and close in tempo with her heels clopping on the granite. Is he going to chastise her for Harry’s joke? Surely he knows there was nothing wrong with the wrapping paper. It was only the nervous laughter of stressed employees that made it seem like the Company was being cruel. Actually she’d done them a favor, giving the guests the release of a good laugh. She has her defense ready.
In his reception area, Wendell glances at his inbox, walks past, then goes back and retrieves a small envelope. He holds open his office door.
“Nice job with the presentation,“ he says.
The CEO’s office is a cavernous space softened by a thick Chinese rug, a dark blue field trimmed with red vines. Wendell leans against his desk, a slab of mahogany, opening the envelope as if Rita weren’t there. Though he’s tall, he dominates the space not by his height, but by the stillness of his carriage, upright and assured, without a tic or tremor. Rita stands beside the glass conference table, unsure whether she’ll be there long enough to sit. She’s aware of her heels pressing into the rug.
“Jason’s gone,” Wendell says, eyes still riveted on the page he extracted from the envelope.
In the moment before Rita understands what he means, she pictures Jason fleeing, running out of the building’s front door, glancing over his shoulder as if in a movie bank heist.
“We’re outsourcing Advertising.” Wendell gazes past Rita to the windows overlooking the river. “Starting now, the rest of Communications reports to you.”
“Thank you,” Rita says, too bewildered to know what she’s thanking him for. Additional responsibilities? He didn’t mention a title change.
“And of course, you’ll report to me.”
This is it. She’s finally made it to Department head, the goal she gave up on after Wendell hired Jason.
“This is good for you,” Wendell says, finally looking at her. “Not that it isn’t well-deserved.”
Rita thanks him again. She’s heard he has trouble giving praise. She decides his last remark qualifies as a compliment.
“Staff meetings are every other Monday, 7:45 to 8:20,” Wendell says. “Corinne will give your assistant the agenda. You’ll take over all of Jason’s projects, except for the new logo. I’ve de-funded that.”
“Do the consultants know?”
The look in Wendell’s eyes serves as a reminder that grubby details are her job.
Trying to recover, Rita asks where Jason is going.
“He left to pursue other opportunities.”
It doesn’t get any worse than that. Jason’s flying without a net, except for whatever severance Wendell bestowed on him. Did Jason known this was coming when she pressed him to give a party for Harry?
“Jason’s office?” Rita manages to draw the words into a question.
“All yours. He’ll be out by the close of business today.”
Rita glances at the clock on the mantel: 6:30. Jason must be packing.
Wendell reaches for a leather-bound folder. “Anything else?” he says.
Rita guesses the right answer is no.
Heading to Jason’s office, Rita steels herself. Jason is going out as he came in, by CEO fiat. Wendell plucked a hungry up-and-comer from a local ad agency because he‘d been enticed by his smooth patter. Now, he’s pulling the plug on that experiment and trying something new. Rita feels as pink and tiny as a lab rat.
She peers into Jason’s office. He’s standing behind his desk mechanically lifting framed photos, trophies and plaques from the shelf then burying them in the cardboard boxes covering his desk.
“Need a hand?” she asks.
He pivots toward her. “I won‘t be much longer.”
“I’m not here to rush you. I wanted to wish you luck and thank you for not hammering me when I was less than supportive of your ideas.”
Jason’s hand lingers on the flap of an open box. “You win.”
Rita hadn’t come to gloat, at least not consciously. “I had no idea this was coming,” she says.
Jason surveys the nearly bare shelf. “Me either.” He takes down a pink papier maché shell one of his children must have made after a beach vacation.
“What should I tell the staff?”
Jason stops and turns to Rita. “There’s no way to spin this.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s what we do.”
He leans against the credenza behind his desk, stretching his legs, still gripping the shell.
Rita considers what she‘d like people to hear if she were in his shoes. “Any lifelong ambitions you’re leaving to pursue?”
“Other than feeding myself and my kids?”
In that moment Rita loses her disdain for Jason. “Maybe your ex is forcing you to move closer for the childrens‘ sake. She can‘t cope. I don‘t know.”
A look of respect seeps into Jason’s eyes. “That’s not bad. As long as the kids don‘t come off like monsters.”
“I’ll make sure of it.“
Jason carefully puts the shell into a box. “I don’t know why you’re doing this, but thanks. Don’t let the bastards get to you.”
“I’ll try,” Rita says.
“I thought I was man enough–” Jason hesitates. “Not that you need to be a man.”
“It wouldn’t hurt.“
He approximates a smile as they shake hands.
In the cafeteria the crowd has thinned. The appearance makers are long gone. Those who drank more than they intended are tottering home or gathering similarly afflicted souls for a jumpstart on the weekend. The remaining few are Harry’s true friends.
Rita is surprised to see Ardis among them. She greets Rita with, “Congratulations.” Ardis gives her hand a sharp shake.
Rita looks around. “I guess it was a successful party.”
“I meant your new responsibilities.” Rita shouldn’t be taken aback. Ardis would know what the CEO planned to do to replace Jason. “Welcome,” Ardis continues. “We executive women are a select, but growing group.”
“I’m not sure I’m there yet. He didn’t mention a promotion.”
“It takes about three months for him to get comfortable with a new woman. He likes to make sure you don‘t get hysterical and bleed on the rug every twenty eight days.“
“Only men get a new title on day one of their new job? That doesn’t sound legal.“
“Did you ask for an immediate title change?“
“I was in shock.”
“Too bad. Guys always ask.”
Maggie’s shrill laugh rises above the low thrum of conversation. A man Rita doesn’t know holds Maggie at the waist, demonstrating a dance step. The older woman moves her bulky, arthritic body in a motion as graceful as that of her slender, young companion. Rita has never seen anyone dance to faint Muzak.
“Last call,” Ardis says, lifting her empty glass. Rita follow Ardis to the bar, accepting a glass of wine from the bartender. Ardis bends her head toward Rita who inhales Ardis’s musky perfume. “You think Wendell found out Jason was doing Jennifer?”
“Why would Wendell care?”
“You don‘t believe she’s actually Wendell’s niece, do you?”
Caught off guard, Rita can’t believe she never heard Jennifer was the CEO ‘s niece. Now she had to consider the possibility that’s a lie to cover Wendell bringing her in for his own illicit purpose. Could Jason have been too dumb to see she was off-limits? Rita takes a deep breath. “It’s nothing like that,” she says. “He has to relocate. His ex can‘t cope with the kids. They’re great kids, but she’s a whack job and he has no choice, but to move closer.”
Ardis’s tadpole brows squat. She offered up a Wendell-Jennifer romance and in return got a dull family story with no trading value.
Across the room Harry rises from his chair, struggling with his cane. Leon moves close to help. Maggie stops dancing and offers her arm, but Harry shoos her away with a wriggle of his fingers. For a moment, Maggie looks chastened then she turns to the gifts, hoisting the bag from the table. The young dancer takes it from her, lifting it like a barbell.
“Let’s get together for lunch,“ Ardis says. “I’m sure we have lots to talk about.”
“Any time,” Rita says.
Ardis hands Rita her empty glass and heads to Harry’s side. Anger rips through Rita like an electric shiver. Is she expected to serve a term toting trays before Ardis accepts her as a peer? Her rage ebbs quickly, pulled under by a wavelet of self-satisfaction. Ardis’s need to put Rita in her place means she considers her a threat. The Company still lacks a female Executive Vice President. If it’s a race, Rita could beat Ardis to that title.
She ducks behind the screen and sets the glasses on the conveyor belt. From the other side, she hears Leon, gentle and encouraging, “Just a few steps,” he says. “Not that many.”
Alone in the presence of a loving couple, Rita’s isolation is a coat of ice around her heart. She has her promotion, but no one to share it with. Her friends and family will make the appropriate noises when she tells them, but none will understand what it means to her, the way someone would who lived with her day by day.
Coming out from the shelter of the screen, Harry and Leon are ahead of her with Maggie and the dancer just reaching her. The young man turns. “Lovely party,“ he says.
Rita thanks him and accelerates her pace until she’s beside the two men. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you how much I’ll miss you,“ she says.
Harry rotates his head slowly as if to minimize pain. “I’ve been gone a long time.“
“I know,“ Rita says. “But until today I always thought you’d come back.“
“Me, too.” Harry’s wistfulness, which she expected earlier, is her only glimpse behind his brave face.
Rita hugs Harry and the men move on. She surveys the room, empty, except for a man who extinguishes a burning cup of Sterno with a flick of its silver lid. In her new position, Rita feels obliged to call out her thanks. He looks up, started, but doesn’t answer, his eyes wary. Rita wonders if he speaks English. She waves her hand in a way she means to be approving. The man hesitates then continues what he’d been doing. As if at her command, the blue flames disappear one by one.
About the writer:
Ellen Davis Sullivan’s stories have been published in Stonecoast Review, Clarion, 94 Creations and other journals. Her essay “The Perfect Height for Kissing” won the 2014 Columbia University Non-Fiction Prize and appeared in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. Ellen’s one-act plays have been produced in festivals around the country.
Image: “City Noise” by Justin Gelinas. Experimental mixed media. @justgelinas