It was almost five-thirty by the time they pulled out of their driveway and onto the boulevard. The roads were already glassy and slick, and a white crystalline fog draped from the line of streetlamps. Gil held tightly to the wheel, his back inches from the seat as he hunched forward. The car floated down Firdale as if it were flying through space.
“I’m only going to say this once,” Beverly said. “Don’t you dare embarrass me tonight.” She thumbed the cigarette lighter into the dash and reached into her purse for her cigarettes. It was hot in the car. The heater was forcing air over the dashboard and drying out her face. She leaned forward and worked herself free of her wrap. “I swear to God I couldn’t take it.”
“I mean it, Gil.” She tamped the pack of Pall Malls against her palm then drew one out like it was a knife. “If she’s there, I better not see you anywhere near her.”
They were coming up to the highway interchange and the traffic light was turning. A Buick punched hard to make the yellow and shot through, fishtailing as it rounded the corner, shark fins leaving a streak of read light as it disappeared. Another car, waiting at the cross street, laid on its horn. Gil tapped the brakes and came to a slow and steady stop.
“It’s a goddamned party,” he said. He turned to her, a half-cocked grin smeared over his face. It was the same look he’d given when faced with the discovered note, the note she’d carefully taped together and laid out on the kitchen table next to his morning coffee.
“I might have to exchange small talk with her,” he said, “but that’s it. I won’t embarrass you.”
The lighter emerged and she took it, pressing it to the cigarette that was already waiting in her pursed lips. Her cheeks collapsed, hungry, the cherry tip blazing the dashboard in an orange glow.
“You better hadn’t,” she said, filling the space with blue smoke. “You better hadn’t slip up or so help me.”
Gil pulled the Pontiac Bonneville next to the front steps, the headlights washing over the brick and illuminating the slim, copper lettering of his name. G. E. Weaver, Office Supply. The frosted window adjacent the door blinked red and green and as Gil climbed out of the car he could hear the waves of laughter already happening inside. He looked at his watch. He was not twenty minutes late and yet they had begun without him.
He swung open the front door like a king entering his castle. With the constellation of lights draped from the ceiling and the fat tree taking up the corner near the filing cabinets, and the spread of hors d’oeuvres and liquor lining the wall outside the conference room, it was almost easy to pretend that this place was different from the one he had to force himself to embrace each day. These people—these revelers who stood oblivious to his entrance as they clutched glass tumblers rattling with ice and whiskey, heads thrown back in throaty laughter—lived their daytime hours hovered over silent telephones or pecking at typewriters that had been purchased with borrowed money, or lurking at the leased water cooler, only to scatter like pigeons whenever he came into the room. Tonight, though, it was as if he didn’t exist.
“And the general has arrived!” At last Frank McNeil broke from a cluster of accountants and crossed the room to Gil. He carried his drink with him like Lady Liberty’s torch, high over his head as he weaved through the small crowd. “I thought I’d be the only one coming stag.”
Gil looked to the closed door behind him. Beverly was nowhere in sight. The wreath hung from the hook, a ring of cedar springs that his secretary Doris had so carefully braided the week before. It had already begun to curl at the tips.
“Beverly must be taking one last look in the mirror,” he quipped. Frank had chosen to wear a polo shirt to a Christmas party, the kind of attire that might have been appropriate for a summer picnic. It was the kind of thing that got under Gil’s skin, the lack of spirit around these kinds of things.
“So she came with you.” Frank said through that horsey smile of his, the glint of gold in his molars caught by the ceiling lights.
Frank looked back over his shoulder then, to the group that was crowded near the tree. They were the younger salespeople, Tom Connelly, Clarence White and Charlie somebody, the guy with the last name Gil could never remember.
Standing with them as well, facing away from Gil, was Ellie.
The tree had been dressed with a long string of red lights, and it cast a tawdry glow over the two-dozen silver balls that Doris had procured from the bargain shelf at the local drugstore and Ellie was there, her back to Gil, dressed in a mid-length skirt that almost reached the tops of her naked calves. She stood with her knee bent slightly as if her stopping to talk with the salesmen had been an afterthought, or a mere pause on her way to someplace else. In one had she gripped a slender glass, tilted almost imperceptive, her other hand cupped beneath her elbow. Her hair fell to her collar like spun gold.
“Well then.” Frank’s eyes carved into Gil, the same, stupid grin still plastered over his face. He raised his glass. “Merry Christmas.”
Beverly held her cigarette between her teeth as she entered, the platter of deviled eggs weighing down her arms. Johnny Mathis trilled from a Hi Fi that somebody had set up against the wall. It was too loud; people were shouting just to be heard over the music. Reams of crepe paper sagged from the walls and ceiling, layered in and over lights that dropped a glow of red and green onto the Aqua Net and Brylcreem-molded heads of everyone in the room. The cardboard cutouts of snowmen and reindeer and gold bells were the same ones that Beverly had bought from Woolworth’s almost two decades earlier, when she and Gil had put together the business with nothing but a hundred thirty dollars and a penciled plan. There were no kids to get in the way, though it was certainly not for lack of trying, and as such there was no reason to do up the house in baubles and festive gaudiness. She played the part when she needed to, though. The first dozen years she’d come in the day after Thanksgiving to drag the decorations out from the back storage room by herself. She thumbtacked each one to the walls, and then she strung the miles of garland and lights from the ceiling and when it was time for the Christmas party, she prepared every bit of food that was eaten. Now, she couldn’t care less who put the whole damned thing together.
Doris suddenly appeared and reached out for the platter. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Weaver,” she said. “I can take that from you.”
Doris Sanford was a small woman who always struck Beverly as something of a squirrel, her tiny hands always snatching up things needing to be filed away or tossed or sent out with the morning mail, constantly brushing surfaces clean, straightening out clutter with the kind of nervous energy that Beverly found exhausting but admirable. She liked Doris. She had always liked her, and believed with all her heart that if it had not been for Gil’s secretary the business would have been swallowed up years ago. In fact, it was not too odd of a supposition that Gil himself might have expired years ago if it had not been for Doris and her keen ability to keep both her boss and the office in tidy order.
Beverly handed over the eggs and thanked her, then slid her wrap from her shoulders and looked around for a place she could leave it without having to worry about a spilled drink or the sticky fingers of one of the younger wives. At various turns the faces in the room looked to her, some full on, others only slightly, as if she were a bird that had flown in by mistake and had perched itself upon a desk. They glanced at her and then some of them, almost as if on cue, looked over at the clique of young people clustered around the red Christmas tree as if warming themselves by a fire.
That girl was there with them, all twenty-two years or so of her. In a schoolgirl dress cropped just above the knees, sipping a drink that she was surely barely old enough to have. She did not look back at Beverly though, even when one of the boys leaned in and whispered something in her ear. She just shook her head ever so gently and tipped the glass to her lips.
Gil was halfway through his second scotch when he felt a hand on his arm.
“Mr. Weaver, the checks.” He turned to see the grimace and worry lines of Bud Clifton, his payroll manager. In his hand Bud clutched a large manila envelope, and he leaned in uncomfortably close to Gil as he spoke. “Are you certain?”
Gil looked at the envelope, at the sharp edge of the sealed lip and the smooth paper so clean and promising in Bud’s chapped red fingers. Around him, people continued to talk over one another, and take their Zippos from their pockets to light a colleague’s smoke, and rattle ice-filled glasses as they rebalanced their weight from one foot to the other. He nodded his chin toward his office and the two of them slipped from the crowd, past the food table where Beverly stood with a couple of the wives, each of them with a streaming cigarette in her fingers. She glanced in his direction as he went by, but did not linger on him for more than a few seconds.
Behind the door of his office the suspension of noise was immediate. He snapped on the lamp and took a seat behind his desk, and leaned back in the chair with his hands clasped behind his neck. He tightened his brow, that mask of irritation that he worked so well. It was funny to him how easily he slid into that role, the exasperated boss, so inconvenienced at having to hear news that was unpleasant, especially from a man who had no business judging him for his shortcomings. His failings. Bud stood opposite him, hands clasped in front of him, envelope draped at his lap like it was a loincloth.
“Bud,” Gil said. “Let’s not do this all over again.”
“Of course, Mr. Weaver,” he said. “It’s just that—“ He ran his fingers along the edge of the envelope. “You know I have the utmost respect for you and for this company. It’s taken good care of me, and my family, for over ten years now.”
“Yes it has. I have.”
“Yes.” He tapped the envelope against his leg. “You are a generous man, sometimes to a fault, if I might say so. I only hope that you know what you’re doing with these.”
Gil listened to the words as they swirled in the room, and to the swaying music that still managed to find its way under the door. They were having a fine time out there getting oiled on gin and vodka and scotch that he had bought, that he had carried in on his own the day before. And they would be even more grateful when they opened their checks. It was Christmas and though only about half of them really deserved it, bonuses were part of the deal.
“I know the numbers have slid a bit lately,” he said, though he knew full well it was more than just lately. The entire year things had been spiraling, one more piece of fallout from the Vietnamese and their goddamn war. Offices everywhere were tightening their belts to the point of suffocation. Nobody was purchasing a single sheet of paper if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. “We can deal with it after the New Year.”
“With all due respect Mr. Weaver,” he said. “It’s not a matter of sliding—“
Gil stood up from his seat and held his hands in front of him. He said nothing, but closed his eyes. They stood there, neither of them talking or even looking at one another. Finally Gil opened his eyes and took the envelope.
She had overheard them talking about the bonuses, debating whether or not they might get them after all. The longtime employees, the older ones, carried a roll of thunderous doubt in their words. “It’s been a lean year,” they said. “Tough times call for tough decisions.” The younger ones had neither the experience nor the common sense to be so pragmatic. “Weaver’s a good guy,” they said. “He’ll come through.”
So when Gil came out from his office with that big envelope in his hand, Beverly expected he would very soon get hold of a glass, and he did. He poured himself a tall scotch—at least a double—and downed it like he was about to charge into battle. Immediately he took on another one, this time tossing in a few ice cubes before heading off across the room, to the small crowd against the Christmas tree.
Beverly found herself looking for the door, an escape before he could do anything that would make it impossible for her to leave with the smallest shred of dignity. Just as she turned to retreat to the kitchen, a woman Beverly had never seen before in her life stepped in front of her. She had one of those cheap, nylon scarves that she’d knotted at her throat and she reeked of whiskey, and her lipstick bled past the edges, creeping like tree branches into her skin. Holding an ice-filled glass in each hand, she shoved one toward Beverly.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you have one drink since you’ve been here,” she said.
Beverly pulled back. “I’m not partaking tonight,” she said.
“Come on, now,” the woman insisted. “A woman deserves to let her hair down once in awhile.” She pushed the glass on her again. “Have a little fun.”
Beverly stepped back again. She didn’t want a drink and she certainly didn’t want one from this woman, who was probably only positioning herself between Gil and that girl to create a distraction, a barrier that would allow the boss to sneak a comment or a ridiculous peck on cheek underneath whatever sprig of mistletoe had been taped to the doorjamb. Beverly put her hands out as a defensive gesture, certainly not something meant to be rude or aggressive. But in doing so she must have been too eager. Her hand caught the woman’s wrist, sending one of the glasses skyward. Liquid splashed over the both of them, most of it falling down onto the front of Beverly’s dress, ice cold and jolting, the glass hardly making a sound as it came to rest on the carpet.
“And there we are,” Beverly said. “Perfect.” She looked around for something to daub at herself with, but there was nothing.
“You didn’t have to take a swing at me, lady,” the woman said.
“If I’d taken a swing at you honey, you’d know it.” Beverly looked down at her dress to try and see the damage through the stuttering lights. The woman kept talking but the words seemed to be slipping under the music’s surface.
“Is everything all right here, Mrs. Weaver?” It was Doris. She huddled closely to the woman, worry creased over her brow as she glanced from Beverly’s chest to the carpet.
“Mrs. Weaver?” the woman said. Her crude lips parted, as if she might suddenly start wailing right there. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry.” She reached up and pulled the scarf from her neck, then began frantically pawing at Beverly’s chest. “I had no idea who you were, no idea whatsoever.”
“It’s fine,” Beverly said, taking the cheap scarf. “It was a misunderstanding, that’s all.”
“Are you all right, Mrs. Weaver?” Doris asked again. Now she dropped her arm between the women.
“I said I was fine, Doris.” Her tone was hard, not what she had intended. She reached out in a kind reassurance to both women, taking each of their wrists gently in her hands. “Everything is just fine. Please. Enjoy the party. It’s Christmas.”
The woman ducked away and Beverly scanned the room. Gil was near the Christmas tree now, talking with the group of youngsters. The girl wasn’t there, at least not that Beverly could see.
Gil stood on swaying bowlegs, a hand clasped to the shoulder of one of the men, surely half his age. Beverly decided they were over there cracking off-color jokes and spewing out the latest lingo, Gil trying desperately to keep up, showing all the grace of a cripple. If it had been any other night or place she would have been over there in five strides, her fingernails sunk to the quick into his arm as she dragged him from the place.
Doris put a hand gently on Beverly’s shoulder and guided her through the crowd to the small kitchen, through the side door. The lights inside the room were harsh, and Beverly could finally see that the spot down the front of her blue dress was ample but thankfully clear.
“Thank goodness for gin and tonic water.”
Gil emptied his glass, the ice cubes stinging as he held it to his lips. He’d lost track of Bob Callahan’s story some minutes earlier. He felt as though there must be a point coming soon and he fought to stay focused on his voice, struggling to keep from breaking eye contact and looking around the room. Where was Ellie? It was funny, he thought, how the mere glow of red and green lights and good scotch, and the placement of time in the after hours could make the room so sexy. Ellie had almost driven him mad when he’d laid eyes on her in that skirt and in the hour since he walked in it had taken every ounce of reserve to keep from seeking her out, Beverly or no Beverly. He could see the mood in the other men’s eyes as well in the way they looked at their wives and the women who were not their wives. It was in the tight manner in which they touched each other’s elbows and gripped shoulders when they leaned in to talk. They felt it, too. Surprisingly even Beverly, bound so tightly in her own skin, gave him a kind of stir in his legs that he hadn’t felt around her in ages.
Ellie done something real for him on those first days, something in the way she hooked her finger through her hair as she talked to him, as she read off the new account numbers then somehow managed to insert a remark about the thickness of his arms against his shirtsleeves. She expressed genuine shock that he might be old enough to be her father. “That’s not possible,” she said, and even an obvious eye roll from Doris couldn’t deflate his turgid ego.
His head was swimming. It had been a good ten minutes since he’d seen either Beverly or Ellie and a swell of nausea overtook him as he imagined they must be alone somewhere, maybe outside in the parking lot or in one of the storerooms. Would they be engaged in a vicious fight over him? Would Ellie come stumbling through a door any minute, hand to her mouth, her swollen cheeks soaked with tears? Or worse. Maybe they were off in the kitchen, leaned back against opposite shelving and laughing hysterically over shared stories of him, two women finding that shared connection to a louse that was worthy of neither.
“She’s gone out the back door.” A man’s breath, thick with the smell of whiskey, brushed against Gil’s ear like a passing suitor’s. And yet as jolted as he was, Gil—liquor-soaked to the skull—could not turn himself in time to see who had offered up this sweetest bit of news.
“I’m really very sorry, Mrs. Weaver,” Doris said. She ran a handful of paper towels under the faucet. “She’s not been here very long, but she should know better.”
“I suppose so,” Beverly said. “I was about to call a taxi to take me home, anyway.”
“I could call for one if you like,” Doris said. “It would be a shame, though. You and Mr. Weaver just arrived.”
“I hope nothing unseemly happened.” She handed the towels to Beverly, leaned back against the counter and clasped her hands together at her waist. “Did someone say something to upset you?”
And the way Doris looked at her, with her stretched, penciled brow, cherry-red lips drawn down at the edges, Beverly knew she was talking about the girl. That apple-cheeked bobbysoxer who liked to drink her cocktails with cola, and write notes with loopy penmanship, with words like “handsome” and “smart” underlined, who tossed her hair over her shoulders while the men around her circled like wolves.
“I don’t know how you do it, Doris,” Beverly said, daubing the towel over her dress. “All these years.”
“Put up with him. This place. You get no credit, as far as I can see. He takes it all. But that’s all fine and good, because it won’t be much longer before he’ll be taking all the blame as well.”
Doris bowed her head, and Beverly could see the curl of a smile forming. She drew in a breath as if she was might say something, but she stopped.
“What is it, Doris?” Beverly put a hand on her shoulder.
“Nothing, Mrs. Weaver.”
“Tell me,” she said. “You know, don’t you?”
Doris looked up at Beverly. “Know what?” she said. “About the girl?”
Beverly waved her off. “Oh please,” she said. “Everyone out there knows about that. They’re all just pretending it’s the biggest secret in the room, when they haven’t the slightest idea what you and I know.”
“It’s the last one.”
Doris nodded, her smile one that struck Beverly strangely as one of relief. “I thought as much,” she said. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure this one was even going to happen.”
“It shouldn’t have,” Beverly said. “But here we are.” And when Doris bowed her head again Beverly said, “I don’t want you to worry, though. We’ll make sure you’re taken care of, somehow.”
“Oh, I’m not worried, Mrs. Weaver,” Doris smiled. “I’ve been working since I was old enough to vote. I’ll land on my feet.”
“Of course you will. I envy that about you. Your independence. You could walk out that door and keep right on going if you wanted. You have the whole world.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“It’s true. Anyone would be a fool not to hire you right off.”
Doris shook her head. “In that case there’s nothing standing in your way, either.”
Beverly laughed. “I’m a forty five year-old woman who hasn’t held a job since the counter at a soda fountain. What have I got to offer?”
“Everything. This isn’t 1920, you know. The world is a big place.”
She laughed again. “That would be something, wouldn’t it?” And it was then that Beverly noticed on the far countertop, beside the shared refrigerator, a sizable manila envelope, precariously hanging over the edge as if it had been hastily set down and carelessly left behind.
He didn’t think of the temperature when he slipped out the door to the back alley steps. It had been cold when he and Beverly arrived, of course, but he’d been wearing his overcoat. Now he’d somehow reduced himself to shirtsleeves, and the still December air took hold of him like it had been waiting for him all along. He took the ice-encased stairs slowly, gripping the iron railing as his mind swam, his body swaying like he was a marionette.
The parking lot for his employees lay on the other side of 4th Street, kitty corner from the building. It was a lot shared with a neighboring attorney’s office and it was fairly well hidden behind a row of junipers. Still, he could see that the space was half as full as it was during the day, and the windshields were chalky and sparkling under the high moon. He slid across the street and slipped through a pair of trees, moving down the open center as the ice crunched under his heels, each step carefully and meticulously put down.
The previous July, Ellie had bought a used Volkswagen from Atlas Autos down on Highway 99. It was one of those little bugs that the California surfers and college kids were always driving around. At first Gil had tried to talk her out of it, encouraging her to get into something sturdier, safer. But she’d been so eager about it so he instead decided he’d go with her to look it over and to manage the deal for her. He knew how salesmen were with girls like her. Things had been more or less over between them by then, at least the heaviest of it had subsided. “Let me do this for you,” he’d told her. “No strings.”
“There’s always strings,” she said in return. But by three o’clock she was standing at his office door with her handbag and that look that always made him want to give her his entire world and then some.
He moved to the far end of the lot, keeping his body close to the cars and touching the cold, hard edges of fenders as he went. Each pass between them was a treacherous divide, his shoes unable to find a single ounce of traction and it was only when he sat hard on the bumper of an Impala, his pants leg catching against the rusted exhaust, that he had to admit to himself that that little blue Beetle with the Mexican blanket draped over the backseat was nowhere in sight.
He reached down to his leg and slid the fabric over his calf. A stripe of blood glared back at him, the shock of cold air giving a healthy sting. “Gil Weaver you are the punchline to one big, fat joke,” he said aloud. Across the street the flicker of red and green blurred over the side window as, inside, people laughed and raised drinks, probably to him and the hopes of another year. God willing, he’d make it happen but in the meantime he needed to get his head together because he had a part to play. For his employees, for his wife. And he had to find where he’d put that damned envelope.
He stood and shook the snow from his hands and made his way across the street to the rear entrance. He seemed surer of himself now than he had earlier, as if he’d finally figured out the correct placement of rubber soles on ice, the distribution of his body’s weight. He imagined reappearing from the back hallway, most everyone not even noticing he’d been gone. Perhaps there would be a few—Beverly included—who would mention how they’d lost track of him. But he’d have been in his office, or splashing some water on his face in the lavatory.
So when he took to the stairs this time he failed to recall how important the iron railing had been on his way out. He forgot the way the frozen steps had seemed to roll beneath his feet and how his arms had operated more or less as stands to prop his unstable body up. His foot landed fully on the third step, the weight of his body and the complete absence of any reasonable level of traction causing his legs to yank back as if pulled by a rope. His body lunged forward, his forehead squarely striking the step’s edge with a crack that began and ended with a glorious white flash of light.
He awoke to the sound of a horn blasting somewhere in the distance. The cold ache of gravel pressed his back as he lay flat at the base of the stairs, one leg curled beneath the other. He pressed his hands to the ground and attempted to push himself upward but there was not enough strength to make it happen. It was like all the wires inside had been cut. His head throbbed and he had the keen sensation of warmth streaming from his hairline down to his ear. At the same time a cold burn rolled over his groin and he glanced down to see that he had in fact pissed himself. He reached to his forehead. Just over his eyebrow was the wet, deep chasm of a clean slice, viscous and flowing.
“Help!” He lay on his back and shouted up into the sky. He sucked in a deep breath that laid fire to his throat, coughed until his chest pinched back and tried again. He continued that way, clouds of steam billowing from his face and quickly dissipating, vanishing into the bitter night air.
“I honestly don’t know where he’s gone Mrs. Weaver.” They stood just outside Gil’s office, Doris holding Beverly’s eyes, face like stone, refusing to give up anything more than the obvious. Of course the girl hadn’t been seen either, not for well over an hour.
“Please don’t, Doris.” Beverly held the envelope against her breasts. “We might not know where he is, but we know what he’s doing while he’s there.”
Doris’ shoulders dropped. She looked down at the manila envelope then back to Beverly. “What do you want done with those?”
“Hand them out,” she said, passing the packet to Doris.
“Are you certain?”
“Absolutely,” she said. “I want you to hand over every single one with a smile and a ‘Merry Christmas from Mr. and Mrs. Weaver’ personally. And then I want you to turn up that music and make sure that they have the best, damned Christmas party this place has ever seen.”
Doris straightened up and smiled and nodded, just as she always did when given an impossible task. Then she cocked her head. “Are you sure you don’t want to do it yourself?” she asked. “It would sure mean a lot to them.”
Beverly took her wrap from the coat rack and circled it over her shoulders. “I’ve a taxi waiting,” she said. “When and if he comes back just tell Mr. Weaver that I suddenly developed a splitting headache. Tell him I said, ‘Have a wonderful time,’ and that I made my way home on my own.”
With that, Mrs. Weaver disappeared out the front door, and Doris did as she was told, making the rounds from partygoer to partygoer, thumbing envelopes and rewarding each person with his or her personal gift and greetings, as well as a stern warning against using the back door to the alley. It was dangerous on a night like this, she insisted. And besides, there was an abundance of food and drink, and many hours left in the night.
About the Author: Warren Read is the author of a memoir, The Lyncher in Me (2008, Borealis Books) and his fiction has appeared in Hot Metal Bridge, Mud Season Review, Sliver of Stone, Inklette, and Switchback. He received his MFA in 2015 from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.
Artwork: Sean McCollum