Charlotte always arrived at work half an hour early. She left her apartment at 7:15 each morning, brown bag in hand, to wait beside a car rental agency for the 7:22 Wilshire Boulevard bus, a tall, broad-beamed secretary with plump knees in miniskirt and high heels. Her conical beehive hairdo was sprayed stiff, a tortoiseshell dagger angled radically into its mass.
She stood dumbly, squinting against the glare from the polished derrieres of the rental cars, lapping beads of sweat from her upper lip as timed gushes of traffic buffeted her, powdering her face with tiny flakes of carbon soot.
When her bus arrived, Charlotte mounted commandingly and took her accustomed seat, greeting the other regulars with a nod, or a roll of the eyes if the weather was hot. She pulled out her latest Mafia novel and read absorbedly as the bus labored west, past high rises, boutiques and short order franchises.
But when she entered Beverly Hills, Charlotte closed her book to gape at the pagan facades of mosaic and gold and the arrogant, lissome window mannequins, supernally beautiful empresses of this exotic parallel universe where she, Charlotte, was privileged to work. Before her eyes, exotic greenery sprang from solid stone; fountains gushed water of impossible, iridescent blue.
As the bus neared her stop, Charlotte felt a surge of adrenaline. “Comin’ through!” she shouted out and lunged sideways into the aisle. There was a general shifting and grunting in the now packed bus, a peristalsis toward the door, and Charlotte was expelled at last onto the curb, damp and rumpled.
She smoothed her clothes, blew a gust of air at her forehead, and sauntered toward the light, thrilling in the crush of smart people; immersing herself in their subtle noises and costly scents. To her left stood a silver-topped executive in a navy blazer, his nails buffed to a sheen, his groomed brows symmetrical above keen, analytical eyes that surveyed his world. Beside him, a beautiful young woman with cropped blonde hair murmured into his ear. They laughed richly, eyes closed, faces sunward. Charlotte tossed her own face up and closed her eyes. When she opened them, the light was green, and she strode purposefully toward the day’s quota of pleadings, subpoenas, and gummed labels.
The law offices of Lewey, Rhodes & Hork were always eerily quiet after the street’s cacophony; cool, dry and bright. Giant turbines deep in the building’s foundation circulated the sterile air imperceptibly, so that odors never lingered. Charlotte felt that if she ever cut herself, her own blood would be miraculously absorbed and cycled away before it could even drip.
She brewed herself a cup of coffee, noting with pleasure that the silky teakwood desks had been freshly oiled. Elves, she thought, smoothing our carpets, scrubbing our sinks. She sipped her coffee and reached into her purse to pluck out a small plastic compact. Blinking and grimacing, she dabbed with the puff, licking her index finger from time to time and rubbing her nose.
When she heard the swipe of a card key in the outer office, she clicked the compact shut and dropped it into her lap, groping quickly for a stack of subpoenas and a felt tip pen.
“Hi, Herb, what are you doing here so early?” Herbert Hork did not respond, but stood watching her intently, chewing his lower lip. At last he sighed and ran a hand through his thinning gray hair.
“You get Phil Greer served? I think Mashimoto is going tomorrow.”
“No, I didn’t. Remember you said to hold off until we found out if he was still in L.A.? But I’ll get right on it.”
“No don’t. I forgot. Never mind.” Herb pulled at his tie and exhaled noisily. “Listen, Char, come in my office a minute. We need to talk.”
“Well, shoot,” said Charlotte. “Nobody’s here. Would you like some coffee?”
Herb dropped his briefcase. “Will you come in my goddamn office? Jesus Christ, what does a man have to do?” He snatched up the briefcase and stormed away.
“Okay, okay. Sheesh.” Charlotte jolted to her feet. The compact hit the floor and rolled and settled like a coin.
Herb was jerking at his locked office door. “Son of a bitch.”
“Hey, slow down.” Charlotte jogged toward him with the key. “What in the hell’s the matter with you?”
“Fight with my wife. A biggie. I was up all night.” Herb closed his eyes and shuddered.
They were inside his office now, the air thick and cold and dark. Charlotte groped toward a wall and opened the curtains to reveal the uninspiring Los Angeles skyline in its smoggy umber matrix. A helicopter was landing on the roof of a building two blocks away. Tiny cars zipped along the Santa Monica Freeway.
“Nice day, anyway.”
“Gorgeous.” Herb opened the liquor cabinet and poured two scotches. “Here.” He shoved the drink at Charlotte, who took the glass and sniffed it, head to one side. Eyes narrow, she handed it back.
“Here yourself. You know I drink gin.” Herb shrugged and poured her a shot of gin, throwing in a red swizzle stick.
“Well,” he said brightly. “It seems we’ve been found out.” He watched Charlotte closely for a moment, then turned away. “Barb.” At the name, Charlotte stood as if paralyzed, her mouth open and brow furrowed with disbelief. “Well? Aren’t you going to say something?”
Charlotte jerked as if emerging from a hypnotic trance. “Say what? My God, Herb, what are you talking about? It’s gotta be six years since we…”
“I know, I know. I feel like the biggest jerk in the world. Of all the things to get caught on.”
“Of all what things?”
“Not your business. Look, Char, I feel like hell about this. You’ve meant more to me than you know. I’m talking real affection. Secretaries like you don’t grow on trees.”
Staring steadily ahead, Charlotte drank off her gin at a gulp. “I see.” She had been trying to picture Barb Hork in a rage, rending her Pucci scarf, snatching at her tawny hairdo with long, bronze fingernails. Or maybe all ice, the slick, mauve mouth narrow with contempt, the nares wide, white spots on the tanned cheekbones. “I had no idea she was like that.”
“Not much she’s not vindictive. I still don’t know how she found out. Maybe Stan’s wife. For ten years Barb and Carol hate each other’s guts. Now suddenly they’re bosom buddies. They sit around the club all afternoon comparing tummy tucks and shredding everybody they know.”
“And now she wants you to fire me?”
“Not ‘wants.’ Commands.” And as Charlotte continued to stare, blinking rapidly, “even though it was just a few times, you and me. But don’t forget that was the year Bridget joined that cult. Everything was going to hell for Barb. And now to find out I was, uh…”
“Oh no.” Charlotte put down her glass and took her head in her hands, moaning softly.
“Well what choice do I have? You tell me, Char. She’ll fuck me good, and I’m too old to start over. I already had to clone my assets to pay off my first wife.”
“She wouldn’t divorce you over this. Over me.” Charlotte surveyed herself desperately. “She’d have to be nuts.”
“Oh she’s nuts all right. Ahhhh, why keep up the pretense? She doesn’t give a shit about the marriage anymore, she just wants her bundle. For the last ten years she’s hated my guts, and I deserve it. I’ve been a stinker.” Herb sniffed at his scotch.
“Couldn’t you have waited till tonight? The whole staff is going to be here in two minutes.” Charlotte began to cry, her lips twitching uncontrollably.
“I’m sorry, Char. You saw the shape I was in. Besides, she’s coming in at noon.”
“Where can I get another job at my age, you bum? All they hire now are young chicks.”
“They do not. Calm down.”
“I’ll give you a month’s severance, it’s all I can manage. She goes over the books now.” Charlotte continued to cry and Herb waited, checking his watch once. At last, she plucked a tissue from the box on his desk and blew her nose.
“God. People like me never get away with anything in this life.”
“Atta girl. Get past it. I swear, you’re gonna be fine. I promise. Listen I have to be in court by nine-thirty this morning or we lose Dawson Buick. That Orner kid is screwing it up but good.” Herb perched on his maroon leather tuxedo sofa, closed his eyes, and jiggled his foot. After a moment, he opened one eye.
“So are you going home right this minute?”
“What the hell do you expect me to do?”
“Well, on your way out could you get me the Dawson file? One last favor?” Charlotte hesitated, then nodded. Herb sighed. “How am I ever going to get along without you?”
Tissue to nose, Charlotte trotted briskly from Herb’s office into the file room, where Dawson Buick, fat with years of litigation, bulged from its own cabinet. Panting, she scooped the rust-brown accordion folders into her arms, walked out to the hallway, and emptied them down the garbage chute, one after another, cocking her head to listen as the torrent of paper plummeted twenty-one stories. When the cabinet was empty, she dusted her dress and entered the ladies’ room, where three primping secretaries were squeezed in front of the narrow mirror. Ignoring their greetings, Charlotte jerked open the door of a stall, slammed it shut behind her, and collapsed with a wail onto the john.