The bus was packed. With her laptop between her feet, Erica King stood, along with passengers in various states of exhaustion, attached to briefcases, shopping bags or sticky children and their awkward accoutrements. A woman with a cell phone in one ear and a finger in the other enriched the experience with timely news reports. “I’m on the bus,” she shouted. “We’re on 53rd Street. We’re on 52nd Street. We’re on 51st Street. No, 2nd Avenue . . .”
Erica had had another dust-up at the firm: a new accountant had come into her office to introduce himself. After shaking her hand and looking her over, he asked: “Jewish?”
“You look Jewish.”
“I could swear you were Jewish.”
“What does my religion, if I have one, have to do with anything?”
“So you’re not practicing, but you were born Jewish, right?”
Erica stared at this intrusion.
“But you’re something, right?”
It was not possible to raise her eyebrows any higher. “Something?”
“You’re Italian, Armenian, Russian, something like that? Greek? I can usually guess it right away. I’m always right.”
“You’re right, I am something. I’m running late. If you don’t mind.”
“Oh, I get it. I’m supposed to leave now, like I offended you?”
Who hired these people? Who raised these people? What were these people thinking? People bothered Erica. People were overrated.
A thin woman in her mid-seventies, with straight white hair in a pageboy, boarded the bus and, seeing no empty seats, stood holding on to a pole. A seated woman called loud, “Ma’am, would you like to sit?”
The thin white pageboy didn’t hear the offer.
“Ma’am!” She tugged on the jacket of the man standing above her. “Would you get that woman’s attention, please?”
“Who? That old lady?”
“Yes, the old lady.”
“Ma’am!” three people shouted at her.
The thin white pageboy turned around, startled, and acknowledged the gesture. Just then, a heavy, also elderly woman sitting in the first seat of the bus grabbed her wrist, and offered her seat. However, entering passengers blocked the way. In the meantime, the heavy lady was rapidly and elaborately shouting to the bus at large, in Italian.
The standing woman looked about her in studied bewilderment at the barrage. “What? What is she saying?”
What the woman was saying was this: “Look at me! I’m ninety years old, and I’m giving up my seat to that poor woman! I’m in good health, thank God! I didn’t give my seat to you, with the baby and the stroller and the screaming toddler, because you’re black, and you look so strong. But that woman there, she’s old and pathetic. She’s probably only in her seventies, but look at me, robust, and ninety years old! Giving up my seat!”
The parade of human beings making a spectacle of themselves on the M15 was revolting. Was it not possible for a human being to give something to another without insulting the recipient or praising herself?
The bus lurched, and Erica grabbed her laptop to prevent it from falling.
A seated man looked up past the visor of his Mets cap, and asked, “Are you pregnant?”
“Excuse me?” Erica said, with as much outrage as she could.
“I said, are you pregnant?”
“Do I know you?”
“Even if I did, that is never an appropriate question,” Erica said loudly.
“I mean, if you were pregnant, I’d offer you my seat.”
“And if I’m not, you’ll just insult me and let me stand? How gallant.”
He turned to the woman next to him. “Doesn’t she look pregnant?” The woman stared straight ahead, refusing to get involved in someone else’s bad day. Erica pushed through people to exit out the front door. She walked the rest of the way home.
In fact, she wasn’t Jewish, and she wasn’t pregnant. She was something. And why was it up for public discussion? She went to Marjorie’s apartment and ordered a chenille throw blanket in periwinkle for Marjorie from the Living Cove catalog. Erica was reveling lately in the proprietary interest.
Her first Christmas in the new job, Erica had arrived on the last day before the long holiday weekend and found a silver box from Bergdorf Goodman on her desk. Inside, a pair of tomato-red leather gloves with swanky gold buckles lay on a bed of smooth white tissue paper. The card, written in Mitch’s secretary’s left-leaning script, said, “Dear Erica, Happy Holidays, Mitch Greiff.”
She wrapped the gloves back up and went about her business.
At the end of the day, Mitch said, “Did you get your present?”
“I did. . . . One moment.” She darted back into her office to retrieve the gloves. “I appreciate the gesture, but I can’t accept the gift.” She handed him the box.
“I’m here to do a job,” she said evenly. “I expect to be paid for my time and effort. You don’t need to give me presents. You already gave me the vase with the company logo.”
“That was from the partners. The gloves are from me. I like to acknowledge the people who work for me. Don’t you like them?”
“You’re missing the point. Did you pick them out yourself?”
“No,” he admitted.
“Now I have to write a thank-you note, and rush around in the Christmas crowds to get you a present, something you probably don’t need, and, from the looks of your wardrobe, probably nothing you’d ever wear.”
He smiled slightly. “I don’t expect a present from you.”
“Then can we just dispense with the seasonal niceties?”
He considered this. “Would you rather have cash?”
“What, in an envelope? Save it for your doorman. Pay me what I deserve, and let’s eliminate the bullshit.”
He sighed. “It’s not that big a deal.”
“I know I work for you; I like working for you. I don’t need the feudal rituals; they make me uncomfortable and distract me from my work. If it bothers you, tack on whatever you’d pay in gifts to my annual salary.”
He stood, head cocked. She was fascinated by his height, his authority, the thicknesses of his black-and-white curls, his heavy-lidded eyes. It was hard to tell what he was really thinking. This was also fascinating.
“Whatever you say,” he said, sounding tired and annoyed.
“Good. And if it’s okay with you,” she added on her way out, “I’d rather skip the Christmas party. I have work to do.”
She didn’t want to offend him, but she was no longer able to even pretend to be neutral about social ceremonies.
On January 3, Angie, the Office Manager, came by with her check.
“You’re in the majors, kid,” she said, handing Erica the envelope.
Mitch Greiff had given her a $5,000 raise.
Mitch Greiff wished that all his employees were as easy as Erica King. She perched there, with her clammy white face and coarse, nylon-looking hair, blinking, alert, no nonsense, no bullshit. She didn’t ask about his wife, his kids, his fish. She had no patience for gossip— office or celebrity—or fools of any kind. If he asked, “How was the weekend?” she would respond, “Did you get my e-mail about the McPhain entertainment deductions?” and the day was off and running. Erica was the only one in the office who actually read all twenty-five pages of the Daily Tax Report every single day.
Erica bit her nails and ripped her cuticles to the point of blood, and beyond. The parched-mouth intensity of her was just too much for some people on an average Tuesday at eleven, and every six months Marty Slavin brought up “letting her go” at a partners’ meeting.
“She does fine work,” Mitch insisted. “She practically lives here.”
“Exactly: she’s slow. She’s weird! She skulks through the halls.”
“She’s thorough, and deliberate, and this is not a personality contest.”
“A good thing it’s not a beauty contest, either.”
“I notice your qualifications for accountants include beauty, and blond hair, and twenty-six years or less,” Mitch turned to him. “Have any of your people stayed here for more than a year?” Marty’s hires left because he grew tired of their after-hours company, and found them employment elsewhere. “Erica King works for me and my clients, and no one has a bad thing to say about her. She stays.”
“Can we put a bag over her head?”
She was sharp; she could be dryly amusing. She enjoyed strategy, gamesmanship, outwitting the structure. Daily she came up with ways, small and large, clever and unusual, to gain advantage for the cli- ent, the department or the firm. Sometimes Mitch felt that Erica King was miscast, that she shouldn’t be wasted on mere bookkeeping and tax planning, that she should be using her talents in the service of something larger—straightening out the Pentagon, for example. But she was invaluable to him. A nerd, he thought, in a nerdy profession. So what? All she asked was to be left alone to work, and her work was terrific.
On the other hand, for someone so work-oriented, she had a lot of office problems. She was having skirmishes at least once a week.
“She’s so sensitive!” Glenn Friedman complained. “You can’t even say ‘Good morning’; she’s down your throat lecturing you for making fun of her.”
Marty Slavin pretended to be fascinated by her.
“What do you think she does on a Saturday night?” he asked Mitch at the urinal after they’d passed Erica in the hall, looking dour and humid. “I have it on authority that she’s stripping in a Russian nightclub on Ocean Parkway.”
The collective assumption was that the croaking voice, the dingy white tennis shoes and anklets and the dark, floor-sweeping skirts meant that she was a virgin and would die that way, just as they all assumed that she had thirty-seven cats and would end up ranting on a park bench, living on ketchup and sugar packets stolen from cafe- terias. Although Mitch disliked the reductive thinking, he did as- sume that Erica King didn’t have a personal life and had given up on romance. As a good accountant, she’d probably drawn up a cost-benefit analysis, and concluded that there was no future in it.
A meticulous person who trained herself to devote her full attention to details, Erica King nonetheless had a profound appreciation for the fresh air that sometimes flooded into her life when a slip on the keyboard opened up a whole new avenue she’d never even considered. Everyone makes mistakes, she thought. It’s how you handle them that distinguishes you.
For example, by some fluke, she’d dialed into the internal e-mail of Sunshine, a corporate travel agency on lower Fifth Avenue. It was a sticky Sunday night in September, and the idea of going out for food made no sense. She was offended by every channel on the television. Ordering in for Chinese, she descended into the petty inter-office sniping among the Sunshine travel agents.
Heidi would be out for a week touring convention facilities in Marina del Rey. While she was gone, she wanted Cecile to authorize hiring a temp to switch her database over to the new software, as Cecile had promised her eight months ago. In a different e-mail, Erica learned that Cecile was going on vacation for a week starting on Monday. A general bulletin: Since their recent move to the third floor, the Information Technology department was having a backlog on computer repairs. A quick note to Heidi: Her laptop would be fixed and available on Tuesday morning. A nasty response from Heidi: A lot of good that would do her in Marina del Rey.
Tuesday morning at nine-thirty, Erica’s first stop was the Sunshine IT Department, in their new offices on the third floor.
“I’m here to pick up Heidi’s laptop,” she announced.
She was ready for all kinds of objections, but all she had to do was sign on a clipboard. She waited at the elevator with Heidi’s laptop.
A woman in her early twenties, bare-legged in a short skirt, turned to Erica and sang, “I feel soooo good. When I woke up this morning, I was feeling so cruddy and premenstrual. But I just went to the chiropractor, and now I feel fantastic! I am sooo relaxed!” She smiled at Erica in a beatified way.
“And you feel you need to tell me this because . . . ?”
A look of bovine density seeped into this woman’s face. “Ex- cuse me?”
“I am standing here, minding my own business, waiting for an elevator. Why are you talking to me about your menstruation?”
“I saw you, you’re a woman, I thought you’d understand.”
“You talk to every woman you see about your menstruation? How much understanding do you need? Is it very bad?”
“It’s awful!” she agreed, holding her hand out to touch Erica. “Don’t you hate it?”
Erica looked at the hand wrapped around her wrist and said firmly, “I will not bond with you.”
“What?” The hand was removed.
“You want me to bond with you, and I am telling you, I will not bond. It is inappropriate to discuss menstruation with strangers, in public. It is inappropriate to touch people you do not know. I think you should go back to your chiropractor to be readjusted. You may be a little too relaxed.”
“What a bitch!” the woman howled in surprise. “I was having a perfectly fine day,” she backtracked self-righteously.
“So was I,” Erica inserted.
“And here you are, totally shattering my peace of mind.”
“Exactly my point.”
“Well, fuck you!” shrieked the formerly relaxed woman, and stalked back down the hall to her chiropractor.
Erica took the elevator up to six with her new laptop, found Sunshine at the end of the hall and was intercepted by a middle-aged woman in navy blue.
“I’m a temp,” Erica said blandly. “I’m supposed to be working for Heidi Somebody—am I in the wrong place?”
“Not at all, but Cecile is on vacation. I have to have you sign something. . . . Now, where would she keep it?” She rummaged around Cecile’s cubicle and came up with a clipboard. “What agency?”
“Oh, I use several. When you’re new, they don’t necessarily give you enough work, never mind the jobs you want.”
A look of pity passed across the woman’s face as she presented the clipboard. Erica wrote the name of the agency that the previous temp had listed. She handed the clipboard back, and they went to Heidi’s cubicle.
The woman sat her down at Heidi’s desk, opened up the system for her and gave her Heidi’s password, which was Heidi. As the office awakened, Erica spent an hour or so managing Marjorie’s accounts, using Heidi’s desktop. Then she booted up Heidi’s laptop and reached a password screen. Any residual guilt Erica might have felt vanished in a wave of disdain when she typed Heidi in the password box, and the overture to Windows began to unfold.
When she’d finished with her own work, she wiped the keyboard and desk area down with a handkerchief she found in one of Heidi’s drawers. She walked out with the lunchtime throngs, carrying Heidi’s laptop in a shopping bag under a newspaper. This was not the first computer that Erica had acquired through a combination of chance and design.
When she’d started work at Friedman, Greiff and Slavin, Erica was released into a rabbit warren of four-foot-high carpeted cubicles in the middle of the floor. Everybody could hear everybody else; there was nothing to prevent anyone from popping up behind the partition to look down on you, or looming up behind you at your desk.
During this time, she’d wasted a lot of energy dealing with Charlie Tierney, one of the accountants, who commented on her phone conversations while she was having them, and moved her things around the minute she left her desk. She’d complained to Angie, the Office Manager. How did she know that he’d done it? Because when she’d gone to the ladies’ room, she told Angie, her banana was at twelve o’clock, and her yogurt was at three o’clock. When she returned, her banana was at nine o’clock, and her yogurt was at six o’clock. She saw the Look, and realized that Angie and Charlie would be laughing about her over a beer later that evening.
But Charlie was small change, time-wise, compared to the female office members, who saturated the air with incessant chatter, and frequently arrived in her small space to offer inappropriate glimpses into their personal lives and demand that she furnish intimate details in return.
One average Thursday, while minding her own business, Erica was nabbed by Heather on her way back from the ladies’ room, and bombarded with a hard sell: What she really needed to do was to get rid of that old-fashioned hairstyle. A little eyeliner and a health club membership—well within her abilities. Suddenly there would be self-confidence in her aura, and a flood of suitors would wash over her shores.
“Heather, what gave you the impression that I wanted you to improve me?”
“I just thought, you know, you might want some advice.”
“Advice on what?”
“Oh, what to wear, how to do your hair, that stuff. Makeup. Jewelry. Girl stuff. You know.”
“So you’re telling me that I don’t know how to dress, how to do my hair, how to wear makeup.”
“I’m just saying, maybe you want to update your style.”
“Why would I want to update my style?”
“I mean, just for a change.”
“A change that would make you feel better?”
“Look, forget it.”
“You know, Heather, I think I will.” And she went back to work.
“God,” Heather honked two cubicles away. “I mean, you’d think she’d be grateful for a little advice.”
“I’d be grateful for a little quiet,” Erica said. “I can hear everything you say, Heather, and if you think insulting a coworker behind her back yet within her earshot is something she should be grateful for, why don’t you come around here and say it to my face, so I can express my gratitude to you in person?”
Silence rose from the surrounding cubicles, followed by muffled, gleeful consternation.
“She has an integrity,” Charlie said with a grudging irony, and was roundly shushed.
During the hellish cubicle period, Erica only got work done after hours.
Erica had been working for the firm for ten years now, and she’d seen everybody age. She found herself enthralled by Mitch’s tallness (it was all legs: when he sat down with her, they were on the same level), the way he folded himself into a chair or tossed aside a 1099. She considered joining the health club in order to see him. But she rejected this idea before it was even fully formed. He must never know. And what on earth could she even pretend to do in a health club?
When she left the office, she saw the black-and-white bus ad that stretched the length of the bus. It featured a young man lying on his stomach. Other than tight white underpants, the only thing he was wearing was an expression of desire and discomfort, as if to say: Look what you’re doing to me.
On Marjorie’s new chaise longue, from the Living Cove, Erica considered Marjorie’s life, in transit between one hotel and another, the forced chumminess of sales, the endless hours in her car. Did Marjorie eat alone at each stop along the way, or did she schedule dinner with business contacts?
Erica decided that even if Marjorie had a man in every port, none of them would be work-related. And, after an exhausting day selling and driving, room service and TV was probably all she was fit for. Marjorie must really love her car, Erica decided, and considered, for the sake of verisimilitude, whether she should be seen in the vicinity of Marjorie’s apartment with a car.
Not that Erica could drive, a sore spot of long standing.
“Why? Where are you going?” Erica’s mother had demanded when Erica begged again to take driver’s education in twelfth grade. “When are you ever going to drive?” she teased, reducing Erica’s horizons to the size of the five boroughs and the reach of the MTA.
Years later, the presumption still irritated her.
As the sky thickened from a clear sunset to the dense orange glow of urban night, Erica packed a few of Marjorie’s accessories into her tote bag, and left the apartment wearing her own clothes and hair beneath a rain hat and poncho. On her way home she picked up the mail in Maria’s mailbox, and a file in Maria’s apartment. A twenty-three-year-old couple in the two-and-a-half-foot-square elevator in Maria’s building were kissing and fondling as if Erica were not standing there, an inch away from their hot rushing blood.
“This is rude,” she announced.
“Oh, really?” the boyfriend murmured, almost rhetorically, moving his hand up and down his girlfriend’s ass.
Was it not possible to walk through a day without having your nose rubbed in somebody else’s pleasure? Every time she came here, she was offended anew in this elevator; perhaps this was why she so rarely used Maria’s apartment. Erica felt weary as she walked back home from Maria’s, but consoled herself by remembering that few productive assets maintained themselves automatically.