Authors: Marie Turner
copyright © 2014
Table of Contents
“Nunca es tarde cuando la dicha es buena.”
It’s never too late for joy.
My great grandmother, who lived
to be 94 years old and drove a stick shift until the last week of her life, used
to say, “It’s never too late to make your life what you want it to be.” I’m
thinking about this while rushing down the stairs of my apartment. I pass my
neighbor. He’s handsome in that serial killer kind of way. He looks like Ted
Bundy: dark wavy hair, somewhat pointy nose, blue eyes. All that’s missing is
the bludgeon in his hand and the white turtleneck sweater.
“Hi, Ted,” I interrupt him. It's an unfortunate twist of fate that
his name is also Ted. He’s sitting on a chair on his porch wearing a t-shirt
and shorts, drinking his coffee, and reading something on his iPad. He’s a law
student at Hastings and poor as dirt like me. I doubt he hears me over the
freeway noise—the background music to our luxurious San Francisco apartment
complex, but there’s no trace of poverty in the rich smile he offers me back.
“Wearing pants and long sleeves today?” he asks as if I’m at the
beach wearing a trench coat. “You’ll roast. It’s supposed to hit ninety-seven,
a record breaking day.”
And for a moment I wonder what he would look like if he had a
beanie cap on his head and was strapped to the electric chair. He’s got to be
just a little older than my twenty-three years. If it weren’t for the Bundy
thing, I think I might have nursed a crush by now. As it is, I don’t know
whether to fantasize about him knocking on my apartment door one night or be
terrified by the thought.
I don’t bother explaining to Ted that my boss is the anti-Christ
in a fancy suit who won’t let me wear what I want. Instead, I wave and say,
“I’ll roast, most definitely. See you later.”
I pick up my pace down the block, knowing I’ll need to catch the
7:47 a.m. bus to catch the 8:20 BART train. I pass more apartments that look
like mine: barred windows, dirt covered plaster exteriors, dingy curtains on
the windows, sounds of televisions blaring inside as if they seek escape. Not a
tree among the forest of concrete. Fences I pass are spray painted with mostly
indecipherable graffiti, which on some days really drives me crazy. (Who is
Feliz and what did he do in 1984?) A police siren screams nearby.
One bus and train ride later, I disembark with the throngs. On the
sidewalk I spot my fellow workers walking like wooden planks turned upright for
the day. They look as excited as I am to suck at the teat of the heartless
conglomerate that is one of the nation’s 100 most prestigious law firms: Benson
& McKinley. I eye their sleepy faces while we sway in formation into the
elevator and press our respective buttons. My nose is met with a mix of shampoo
and coffee smells.
Shouldering his way toward me, my coworker Todd slides through
Nancy from Human Resources and Debbie from Accounting to chat with me. He’s
tall and lean and gay as a tight pair of pants. In his dream world, he would
walk around everyday wearing a tight t-shirt that proclaimed
Kill your ass
, just for the fun
of the looks on people’s faces.
“You sport’n some Prozac today, Caroline?” he whispers above the
whistling elevator noise. “I think you’re gonna need it. After you left last
night, Robert was a rabid hot squirrel.”
I can feel the steady sucking of blood out of my face as I
contemplate my boss being mad at me. Todd and I exit and walk around the corner
past other cubicles. We glide silently past closed office doors towards our
joined cubicles, where lawyers swarm the halls like buzzards all day long.
“Why?” I whisper, my mind racing but coming up empty.
“Something about timesheets.” Todd waves his hand in the air.
“Can’t believe he makes you do them for him. You know you’re the last assistant
around here who enters a timesheet anymore. And why’re you wearing those horrid
pants and button-up shirts all the time? You see any other lackies dressed like
that?” He points at Maria, another office worker, who’s wearing a short-sleeved
pink sundress. Maria nods at us. Her eyes offer silent condolence that another
weekday has just begun.
“You don’t have to dress how he wants you to. He can’t force you.
If I were you, I’d complain or quit.” Todd raises his eyebrows at me and
hustles to his cubicle. Opening his desk drawer, he places his neat knapsack
inside before sitting down at his desk. A glitter-framed photo of James Dean
sits next to his computer.
Swinging over to my desk, I place my backpack inside my drawer. At
my computer, I exhale and try not to think about my 40-hour-per-week
post-apocalyptic, dead-end, phosphorescent purgatory.
Of course, the second I sit down I see the little red light on my
phone blinking. The light indicates that my boss is calling me on the intercom.
He doesn’t like the intercom to make noise. Basically, he doesn’t want to alert
everyone that he’s summoning me. He likes it to be silent and stealthy in his
daily shattering of my self-worth.
For a moment, I organize my organized desk. I move the stapler to
the other side near my cup full of pencils and ballpoints. I tuck the yellow
Post-its next to the phone. I press the power button on my computer. It wheezes.
But the damn red light keeps blinking.
I pick up the phone.
“I’ll be right in,” I say and hang up.
Standing steady and tall, I remind myself that I sound like a cow
sucking its tongue when I cry.
I walk the four paces from my desk across the blue-carpeted
hallway. For a second I stand at my boss’s big white door. With my hand barely
on the handle, it clicks open as if by magic.
My twenty-eight-year-old boss Robert looks up from a binder so
full of pages that it would frighten schoolchildren. Closing the door behind
me, I wait. I’m suddenly very aware of my posture, my clothing, the shape of my
body, the state of my hair.
Meanwhile my boss looks as if he woke up and walked outside to the
sound of singing birds and harp-playing angels. If any woman saw him from afar,
she would automatically picture the white picket fence, her children playing in
the yard with smile-plastered faces while Robert pulls up in the driveway,
steps out of his sedan, and proclaims, “Honey, I’m home.” His blackish-brown
hair is parted on the side, perfectly coifed. His navy blue suit looks as if
mud or dirt would be repelled from it, like same-side magnets. His crisp white
shirt and yellow tie remind me of hotels with Gatsby-esque lobbies, where
everyone makes so much money that they eat chocolate-covered croissants from
room service all day. If that isn’t enough, his dark eyelashes are thick and
curly. So much so that regularly I have an urge to reach out and try to pull
them off, just to test if they’re real.
With eyes the color of pure blue spring water, Robert looks up at
me and growls, “Where the hell are my timesheets?!”
“I put them on your desk, last night, before I left,” I mumble. I
remember perfectly clearly that I walked over to the printer, picked up the
printed timesheets, and brought them to his desk last night. Then I grabbed my
backpack and ran like an antelope to the elevator.
He holds up white pieces of paper, partially smudged with ink, the ghostly
imprints of timesheets on their faces.
“Oh. The printer must’ve run out of ink,” I conclude. With a
swallow, I lean toward him to take the timesheets out of his hand, but he jerks
away from me as if my stupidity is contagious. Huffing, he tosses the paper
into the recycle bin behind him.
A cow sucking its tongue, a cow sucking its tongue...
“I’ll print them again. I’m sorry.”
His pretty mouth twists, and I swear his fist almost clenches.
“You might want to make sure the printer is working so you don’t
leave me useless documents before you race out of here every night. You’d think
the building was on fire the way you fly out the door every evening at 5:30.”
The truth is I have a 5:35 train to catch. If I miss it, I have to
wait an extra forty minutes for the next bus to take me home from the train
station. This means a one-hour commute would turn into a two-hour commute. But
I don’t bother to tell him this. His perfect face might turn purple and
“Sorry,” I say again. Sucking cow…
“I have to be in court this morning, and I need you to pick up my dry
cleaning.” He hands me the dry cleaning tickets without looking at me.
Apparently I’m the last assistant on earth who still picks up dry cleaning,
coffee, and lunches for her boss. This is apparently an outdated practice no
longer deemed acceptable once women stopped letting men walk all over
“And this time, make sure they put my shirts in boxes.
I don’t even want the shirts if
they’re hung up on a hanger. Just tell the cleaners I’ll wait.”
I glance briefly out Robert’s office window. It’s like a painting
on a museum wall. The tops of the Bay Bridge are peaking out from the fog,
which has opened in patches showing the blue waters of the bay. Seagulls fly
over a boat in a distant patch of water. Sometimes if I look out the window, I
can pretend my life isn’t this post-apocalyptic, demon-dominated, horrific—
“Did you hear me?” Robert asks.
“Yes. Yes. You mean, you don’t want the shirts at all if they’re
not boxed—you’ll wait, but how long?” I inquire. I must always clarify
instructions from Robert. I have learned this from experience.
“A few days, whatever, just no hangers.”
“Okay.” I turn to go—always like an escaping convict--but I can
feel him mentally pulling me back, as he always does. It feels like the weight
of a tanker stopping in front of me, only there’s no tanker, just that
“Wait,” he says.
“Are you—” he hesitates. The tone of his voice suggests that what
he wants to say is so awful he can’t let it out.
“Are you wearing …
he asks, his face scrunched. His tone is so accusing that I can picture the
wooden box I’m going to be buried in after he kills me. It would be cheap,
maybe knotty pine, with unfinished edges, a little graffiti sprayed on the
sides perhaps. Did I mention my boss hates perfume? He’s allergic or something.
I’m not sure.
His head cocks and he has that look, as if he isn’t sure what to
do. The flames stoke just inside his ears. Suddenly I wish I had a glass of
tall vodka, four tranquilizers, and several burly men. We’d hold him down so I
could fill his gullet with so much alcohol and pills that he’d fall into a coma
and wake up having forgotten whatever he thinks he smells right now.
“No.” I feel my heart sweating. “You know I don’t wear perfume,
and I—I wouldn’t wear perfume after you said not to.” I touch my neck
defensively. Meanwhile I stand there, like a pile of sheep dung. I don’t know
what else to say.
He leans back in his chair and looks out the window as though he
wants to lambaste something. Although he’s never physically hurt me or anyone
as far as I know, I sense there’s a dragon deep inside him. It’s just waiting
to rear its scaly head and bite someone in half.
While he thinks about what to do, I hear nothing but his small
clock ticking on the shelf. The little brass secondhand darts in a sharp
circle. He takes the end of the fancy black and gold pen he’s holding and
brings it to his lips. Then he points the end of the pen in my direction.
“I smell perfume. That’s definitely perfume.” His eyes darken as
he leans over his desk.
“Robert,” I say gently. “On my life, Girl-Scout’s honor, I swear,
I’m not wearing any perfume. I don’t even like perfume.” And I don’t. It
totally gives me headaches.
And then it dawns on me. My shampoo. He must be smelling my
shampoo. See, I found this vanilla-scented conditioning brand at the Dollar
Store last night. It smelled so good that I bought ten of them. So that’ll be
ten dollars down the drain. I suppose I can always use dish soap to wash my
“Unless …” I say, deciding to confess, even though I am so
close to escaping. The doorknob is just within reach. I wring my hands
defensively as I begin. “Unless it’s my shampoo.”
“I bought this vanilla scented shampoo at the Dollar Store last
night.” I pat my hair, which at the moment hangs down over the front of my
plain purple button-up shirt.
“You know how I feel about perfume, scented anything,” he
chastises. He puts his hand over his mouth and then looks at my hair. Just
looks at it! And I want to pry my eyeballs out and hand them to him just to get
him to stop.
“But it’s not perfume. It’s shampoo, a totally unintentional use
of scent.” I’m edging towards the door in microscopic steps. My black flats are
silent on the carpet. “And I won’t use it again. I promise.” My hand is on the
“That would be appreciated,” Robert says. “And one more thing,” he
adds while I partially open the door. “I appreciate your not wearing
inappropriate attire today, in light of the weather. Everyone else is wearing
sundresses and short-sleeves. I think it’s important we be dressed for court,
for whatever comes up.” He’s gesturing with his hands as if he’s pleading a
case in court. It’s an unusual tone for Robert to use with me. He usually
doesn’t try to convince me of anything. His word is law. Even so, he’s never
explained why he won’t let me wear dresses or skirts. That part of his dress
code I never understand. One would think skirts would be professional enough,
but he always wants me to wear dress pants and button up shirts. Asking him
now, however, would be beckoning hellfire. Suddenly, I wonder if he heard Todd
and me talking in the hallway about his stupid dress code. Lawyers have bionic
ears, you know. They hear all, see all, know all, like an omniscient narrator.