From time to time I write stories. Not that often anymore…but I harbor mental love affairs with the idea I’ll win some fabulous Reader’s Digest contest and be the next Updike. Here’s hopin’. Still.
Hollie changed her shoes in elevator when she thought no one was looking. Pressed into a corner in the far right she dropped her head and let the shoes fall one at a time to the carpeted floor. Each gave a light thump, but if the other passengers heard, none reacted.
Without bending over she struggled to snake her slick, stockinged foot into the shoes, biting her lips with frustration as her toes dusted the opening and slipped out again. Two tries and still the shoe dropped back to the elevator floor just when she thought she had it—Thump. Thump. It could have been anything, she thought, even the subtle, everyday tremor of an older elevator.
No one was looking. The other passengers ignored her entirely or weren’t aware of her to begin with. She worked her feet in, at last, feeling like a ghost.
Outside it was raining, long, wet slashes against a slate colored sky. The sidewalks were puddled and skeletoned with the broken cages of inside out umbrellas. She’d woken that morning feeling forlorn and heavy, throwing back the curtains had felt like validation: a gloomy, muddled mess.
She hated temp work—the mixture of new and unknown terrain mingled with a routine so old and worn she was left feeling like a twister inside a shot glass. Perfunctory habits done with a sense of nervous nausea; HopStopping her route, counting down street numbers, revolving doors and bearing a photo ID all before she could even get to a desk.
Everyone limply shook her hand. “And are you permanent, or a temp?”
She felt them internally draw up the rug. Why remember the name of someone who is introduced into your life as a temporary acquaintance? I am Hollie, she thought, and I won’t be here long.
It saddened her, like the rain outside, but also left her feeling slightly untouchable, scrubbed clean of the rigors and rules required by those more permanent with expectations and direct deposit.
“This is Mike, and this is Mark,” introduced the HR representative in her sagging pants suit. “You’ll answer phones for Mark, but not for Mike, and there’s also Patrick,” she continued, “but you won’t need to do anything for him unless he asks or leaves the office.”
Hollie nodded and tried to make a note, but realized, staring at the lined paper, she had already lumped Mike and Mark into the same person, and there was no way to separate them now.
“You’re filling in for Margaret,” the rep continued. “She retired yesterday.”
“After how many years?” she asked, trying to sound enthusiastic, awake and human.
“42, if you can believe it!” She couldn’t. Having been alive less than half of that time such a number was unfathomable. Hollie conjured images of bright islands with typical birds, canopies and jungle blooms, as equally impossible, in her mind, as 42 years of administrative support.
Administrative support sounded like something boasted on the outside of a cardboard egg of pantyhose—not a career. Although, career was a term just as unlikely, reserved for lifestyle magazines geared toward women in their thirties or television shows catering to the same demographic.
No, the word retired was more appealing. Margaret might be at home watching icy chunks as they drifted silently toward the sea—a more pleasant sort of ticking than anything associated with a clock or wrist watch.
Hollie, in turn, settled into a foreign desk, struggling with lumbar supports and height adjustments, Margaret’s digital signature still written across the bottom left of her emails.
Her own closing was a much less formal—“ Hollie”, she added, just above Margaret’s closing, which she left, as a sort of monument or a shrine. The very least she could do, she thought, after 42 years.
In the beginning she’d used “best,” thinking it sounded adult, until she’d grown to hate the sight of it, glaring up, pretentious and curt from her uninterested correspondence.
Emails rolled in, several each hour, popping up in the corner of her screen, like tiny thoughts. Each message was addressed to Margaret. How extraordinary Margaret wouldn’t get a single one of them. She hoped Margaret hadn’t informed a single person she was leaving forever at five p.m. and had crept out like a bandit, murdering 42 years of file work by shredding it and dumping it in an unmarked garbage bag.
Just before lunch the drab HR rep stopped back by. “And you’re doing well?” she demurred, her eyes skipping over Hollie’s face entirely, taking in the piles of paperwork and useless accordion folders lining the desk top, Hollie’s bored expression and personal email.
With a painted fingernail the woman tapped the giant phone. “Looks like there’s a message for you to check.” she said. “Don’t forget,” she added, rounding the corner in a cloud of rosy perfume.
Maybe it was Margaret, leaving a fair well message to be found after her departure. “Now my life begins,” it would say. “I’ll travel and sleep late and drink too much wine with dinner. And one more thing—I’m never wearing a pants suit again.”
Instead it was someone at an office in Michigan asking about an invoice for a soil study. To console herself, Hollie made a glass of instant hot chocolate in the office kitchen, dry bubbles of unmixed chocolate powder sticking to her lips and ate one of the tiny, red apples Margaret had left on the desk top in a Ziploc baggy.
At 3:30 she momentarily rejoiced, thinking of the hour and a half she had until she, too, left, but then grew gloomy again, thinking of her unavoidable return in the morning and watching the winter sky darken, too early, for evening. And then at 4:30 she watched the rain start again in the now black sky and cursed herself for forgetting an umbrella that morning.
Remembering the leftover apples, she began to open drawers in the hopes of a forgotten umbrella. One drawer contained chocolates, several others held more files and binder clips, balls of rubber bands and a lint roller, but it seemed Margaret had remembered her umbrella, unlike her apples.
Defeated, Hollie gave a little sigh and resigned herself to the notion of walking to the subway in the rain. In an effort to be optimistic, she catalogued the few positives she could invent for the situation: the rain might be brisk and cool, waking her from the fatigue of a wasted office day. The blustery winds would catch and toss her hair, which might be somewhat nice, for a bit, and the air would howl in her ears while she walked. And, of couse, she wouldn’t have to worry about an umbrella turning inside out while she walked and always made her walk with both hands on the stem of the umbrella, praying she might avoid the Victorian-esque disgrace of an upturned umbrella.
She belted her coat and zipped her purse, closed out her email and scribbled her out time onto the time card the temporary staffing agency mailed to her house every week with her paychecks. She moved to twist her scarf around her neck and she remembered a scene from life, several years earlier, when she was still a girl, walking down the Champs Elysees in Paris.
A long-legged, beautiful Parisian woman, a heavy bag in fashionably in tow and an airy scarf lightly twisted at her throat and turned her head to hail a cab and her shawl had gone floating like spirit down the crowded street. The woman had not noticed, and Hollie, awake, alive and in love with the city—the tree tops and faces, all bathed in the light and made fantastic with fog, had throw up her her hand and caught the rogue garment.
“Votre cravat!” She had called, and the woman had turned, smiled and called her “très charmante.”
Now, feeling terribly thick and out of step, Hollie watched her own scarf flutter to the floor. Bending to pick it up she saw a flash of red, bright and deep, a thread propped against the side of the desk, just behind her trashcan.
On her hands and knees she retrieved Magaret’s umbrella with the same quick ease in which she clasped the runaway scarf all those years before. It felt solid in her hands.
Of course she couldn’t say why, exactly, it mattered so much that Margaret had left it behind by mistake. She only knew it was tremendously important to have some artifact that had belonged to Margaret. Margaret, who’d weathered the storm for 42 years and come out on the other side, relaxed and calm, to watch the ice flows instead of clocks, joining the ranks for the Parisian woman on the Champs Elysees.
And when the elevator gave its ding she almost ran into the doors, down to the street and towards the train, hoping Margaret had left it for her to find.