This story, written by Kathy Coogan was suggested by a Nine Words Prompt in which each of the regulars threw three words into the pot. We joked that the words represented a verbal Rorschach Test.The Nine Words are:
shoe, summer, selection, tired,
evaluation, computer, rain, gloom, shower.
Sophie stood under the awning watching for her bus through rain so constant that it stitched a diaphanous curtain which she had the impulse to push aside. The showers had begun again just as she was leaving the building, Mother Nature adding to her misery. Another failed interview in another thirty-five story building.
Sophie thought of last night’s entry in her journal, “Why do I even bother? If I manage to get the job, I’ll have to ride a stupid elevator every day. Twice. Up and down. Four times if I go out for lunch. Oh God. I’ll never go out for lunch!” This she had typed in a bold, underlined font since she kept her journal on her personal computer, safely filed under the heading Exterminator Warranty 2009.
Sophie was a great typist and organizer. She would be such a good employee for someone. She had mastered word processing at every level. The choices were so concrete: margins, fonts, formatting; decisions made that could be undone and redone with the tap of a key. But Sophie struggled with all of life’s other little decisions. Today’s Kleenex disaster the perfect example. What would Princess Diana have done? Or Laura Bush?
She hated interviews like this one that required her to travel up, up, up in an elevator, her clammy hands gripping the rail, her eyes watching the floor numbers light up, as if her will alone insured safe arrival at the thirtieth floor. The effort made her as tired as if she had taken the stairs.
The lobby loomed as unwelcoming as a tomb as she carefully stepped out of the elevator, hoping to look more composed than she felt. The requisite pretty receptionist, who wore clothing not purchased at TJ Maxx, asked, “May I help you?”After a false start, Sophie was able to state her name and her purpose, “Sophie Samuels for an interview with Marsha Whittaker.”
It was all downhill from there. She had a seat, please, as instructed. She waited, trying not to fidget or bite her lipstick off and had just successfully rummaged for a Kleenex to hurriedly blow her sniffly nose when Ms. Whittaker approached, hand outstretched for the authoritarian handshake.
Sophie had fumbled the moist tissue onto the carpet and had to decide whether to leave it or pick it up. She saw in Ms. Whittaker’s eyes that she had hesitated a second too long before stooping and gathering it into her palm. Then she had to decide what to do with it, and for want of a waste basket, had jammed it back into her purse.
But to see Ms. Whittaker withdraw the handshake was just too much, an omen if there ever was one. Sophie had never recovered after that. The interview had not gone well. She had boarded the down elevator, her usual fear enhanced with shame. That damn Kleenex.
Waiting for her bus, she day-dreamed for the thousandth time of a nice job in a nice one-story building, maybe one with a picture window and a flower box that people strolling by on the sidewalk would stop and admire. The boss would state in the interview that she would be responsible for the flowers, their selection and care, if she didn’t mind.
It would be her job to water and deadhead the geraniums and pinch off the petunias, a responsibility as important to him, a flower-lover, as error-free documents. Did such a boss even exist, Sophie wondered, her gloom as palpable as the rain.
Finally her bus had arrived. Sophie had stepped to the curb just as the bus’s giant wheels displaced a wave of water which splashed over her shoes: new, pretty café au lait leather with a Mary Jane strap, bought for summer but worn today, too early, for good luck and now possibly ruined like Sophie’s whole life.
She had one more interview lined up for this afternoon. No chance to go home and dry off first, fruitless anyway since it was still pouring. She’d just go early and wait or maybe find a coffee shop nearby. She read from the instructions she had written down when scheduling the interview. She didn’t know this part of town.
The lady she had spoken to had directed her to walk back a half block from the bus stop to the first street, turn right to the third building on the left. She couldn’t miss it:the Frederick Building. It sounded tall. Sophie wasn’t sure that she had another elevator ride in her today.
She huddled under her umbrella and half-ran the route that she now pictured in her mind. Half block back. First street, right, third building, left. She tipped back the umbrella and saw the name carved into the lintel, Frederick. She closed her umbrella as she stepped through the doors, big glass and brass doors that opened into a very large room. Sophie thought of the word rotunda.
Directly in front of her, ten paces, was a desk on a raised dais where an elderly lady sat, incongruously wearing a headset and typing away at a flat screened computer. Behind the desk was a marble stairway that began as one, then at a landing ten steps up, separated into two, one going ten steps up to the right, one going ten steps up to the left to a balcony that wrapped all the way around the inside of the building.
Sophie’s eyes followed the left-side stairway then she turned in a full circle looking all around the upper floor which had a series of doors with glass panes, each with a number or name painted on it.
The lady said, “Do you like our mezzanine?” Sophie spun back to her. Mezzanine? The lady said, “You must be Sophie Samuels, my interviewee? I am Esther Frederick Jacobs, the Major Domo of the Frederick Building. You may call me Esther.” Sophie thought, Major Domo?
Esther said, “Come up here with me and have a seat. I have to watch the phones while we chat.” She led Sophie up two steps to a guest chair in front of her sprawling modern desk. The phone bank looked like it might have served NASA.
Esther settled into her desk chair and turned to Sophie and said, “I need a replacement. For me. I have been here since my father built this building. Met my husband here.” She pointed up to an office on the mezzanine to her right. “That was his first and only office. When we were young, he used to pop his head out the door and blow me a kiss when he caught my eye. He’s gone five years. Our son’s got it now, with two other young lawyers.”
“There are fourteen offices side by side all around the mezzanine level, some with their own secretaries, some just use me to type their letters, run roughshod over their phone messages and do their billing. The more computer-savvy do their own.
I even water those giant philodendron there in the window. They're like dinosaurs. They’ve been here almost as long as I have. Plants soften things, don’t you agree?”
She turned and pointed to the stairway. “See how the marble stairs have worn down a path in the middle. I am proud to say that I did much of that wearing away. Must have gone up and down those stairs a hundred times a day. Kept me nimble. Of course we had to put in an elevator for our aged or disabled clients and I admit to using it nowadays, but I’ll always prefer the stairs. More direct, don’t you think?”
Sophie had yet to say a word but now she said, “Yes ma’am.”
“All right Sophie. Enough about us. The agency sent me all the facts about your office capabilities. Now you tell me a little about yourself and why you would be right for this job.”
Sophie looked at the beautiful stairway that led up to the single floor. The Mezzanine. She took a deep breath and felt the confidence in her abilities flow through her. She’d be a Major Domo with just a little of Princess Diana and Laura Bush thrown in. She looked at Esther Frederick Jacobs and began to speak.
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