This is the first chapter of my novel, "Secretarial Wars."
CHAPTER ONE: DID SHE QUIT OR WAS SHE FIRED?
The best way for a secretary to let off steam is to walk long distances at a rapid pace during her lunch hour. Miriam, on days when she didn't have anyone to eat with, often attempted to explore the streets of Washington, D. C. Setting off from her Dupont Circle office, she dodged a multitude of midday shoppers on Connecticut Avenue and bypassed the crowded parks around Farragut Square, making for the freer spaces of Pennsylvania Avenue. Here she picked up the pace, determined to glimpse a few symbols of power before returning to her own puny responsibilities. She rushed past the White House, casting a penetrating glance at the mansion that nurtured what she believed to be a potential monster--a warrior adept at picking fights he could win. Moving a couple of blocks farther east, she sighted the Capitol building, looking serene in the distance but harboring, no doubt, mini-monsters of its own.
By now Miriam was huffing and puffing in the summer heat, with her time more than half spent. She paused before the building on Seventeenth Street that was home to the International Communications Agency, the government entity that funded her own small shop, the Grants for Peace Council. She lingered near headquarters for a moment, trying to get a sense of the power that emanated from this segment of the Great Bureaucracy. Succumbing to hunger pangs, she bought a bag of chocolate candies from a street vendor and used the sugar boost to begin retracing her steps. Someday, she vowed as she chewed the candy to a sweet pulp, I'll start eating better--once my life improves.
The return trip, which lacked any sense of adventure, proved arduous. It was ten minutes after one when Miriam returned to her cubicle, sweating and panting, to face the wrath of whatever secretary had been covering the phones. Today it was Sally the Whisperer who came by to give her the evil eye and remark, "It's about time," as she left for her own hour-long break. Some days it was Ginny the Giggler, or someone equally interchangeable with Sally. Miriam had divided all the women colleagues who were not her friends into "gigglers" and "whisperers." She had, in fact, only two friends in the office--Jocelyn and Cass, both dear girls but polar opposites.
She dropped into her seat, clutching her fiery head in her hands. How stupid, she berated herself as usual, to take such a long walk in the heat. She was tired and depressed when she returned from these excursions, not to mention thirsty as hell, and indisposed to drink the rusty water in the building. Coffee made her feel hotter, but she went for the coffee pot anyway.
She had used up her after-lunch bathroom time. Most of the women spent the last fifteen minutes of their lunch hours primping, as if they thought they were models as well as secretaries. Miriam often skipped this ritual, feeling the hopelessness of it. If she looked at herself in the full-length mirror, what encouragement could she get? She’d see shoulder-length dirty blonde hair with out-of-control curl, makeup smeared with perspiration, pale arms that seemed to resist tanning, a slight bulge at the waistline of her skirt that betrayed too many hurried, junk-filled meals. She stayed in her cubicle, smoothing down her unruly hair and straightening her skirt as best she could. No doubt any second the phone would ring and trigger a headache.
The very thought seemed to set the main line on her phone jangling. She picked it up, and barely got out the name of the office before an irate voice assailed her. "This is Dr. Philip Weston. I’m an applicant for a teaching grant in Paris. I was told the decisions were to be made by August first, so I want to know the status of my application right now."
Okay, Miriam told herself, you can handle this. You're a twenty-seven-year-old veteran of the secretarial wars. You've been known to juggle three surly calls like this at once. You're a professional; more so than Jocelyn, the twenty-four-year-old flower child, although not so much as Cass, the thirty-five-year-old secretary to the Deputy Director.
"We're not really supposed to give out that information over the phone," said Miriam, staring at the two asymmetrical piles of folders weighing down her desk. These represented two sets of applicants for European teaching grants, all awaiting letters announcing the decision of the selection committee; the rejection stack, naturally, was twice as tall as the acceptance stack.
"Listen, miss, I’ve waited long enough. If you can't give me the information I need, connect me with somebody who can."
"I guess I can give you the information. Just hold on a second." Dear God, she prayed, please let him be in the smaller pile. If I can just give him some good news, my life might be saved. She rifled through both piles, finally locating Dr. Weston's folder at the bottom of the rejects.
"Sir, I'm sorry to have to tell you this." She had developed no method for imparting bad news, other than to blurt it out. "I'm afraid your application hasn't been--favorably reviewed."
"I waited four months to hear that? Tell me, are you the incompetent who's responsible for my not hearing until now?"
"Listen, sir, I'm not paid enough to take abuse."
Miriam's "professionalism" was on the ropes as emotion shook her telephone voice.
"I want to speak to your superior."
"Fine," snapped Miriam. "Please hold." Before transferring the call, she punched in an intercom number and waited for her boss to come on the line. She was supposed to screen all calls, so that the Program Officer for Western Europe could be protected as much as possible from routine inquiries or annoying clients. In this case, Miriam had failed at one of the principal duties entrusted to secretaries--seeing that her boss was not disturbed. Besides, interrupting Renee when her office door was closed was a delicate matter; she might be on her private line.
"A Dr. Weston is calling. He wants to know why he was rejected for the teaching post in Paris."
"Can't you handle it?" Renee was annoyed, as expected. "I'm on the phone with the Director right now. Just tell him it was the Committee's decision."
"He says he wants to speak to my superior."
"Oh, all right. Send it in."
She's mad, thought Miriam, but to hell with it. She's paid enough to take abuse. Let's see how well she handles a disappointed applicant who isn't gonna make it to Paris. With her own French background, she's the perfect person to console him. In fact, with her connections, her looks and her apparent friendship with the Director, she should be able to handle anything.
Connections, thought Miriam resentfully. That's what success in government, or quasi-government, is all about. Look at Renee, only two years older than I am, and all set in life with a husband in a powerful position at headquarters, a mansion in McLean, and an office of her own with a private pipeline to the Director. I mean, come on, that was no business call I interrupted. I don't know how much her husband knows about her little flirtation, but he's way downtown, out of the way. And the farther he climbs, the greater use she can make of his position--even if she’s in love with somebody else.
If marriage is the way to promotion, expanded Miriam, what in hell can I do? There are only two male Program Officers in this office, and I suspect they're both gay. Jocelyn and Cass insist they're bound to connect with each other sooner or later. No, there's no chance of marrying up in this office. Remember, Renee got it done early. She married her college French professor and spent an extended honeymoon, lasting two years, in Paris. As soon as they got home, the ICA hired them both, conveniently ignoring its own rules about nepotism. Meanwhile, what did I do? Married a powerless mid-level bureaucrat at the National Archives. You know, Jeff and I didn’t split up because we hated each other. We just bored each other.
Maybe this Dr. Weston will get me fired. Hell, maybe that's the answer--the quickest route to a new life. I kind of like the romantic possibilities in wiping the slate clean and starting over from scratch. Since my personal life is already empty, why not match it with the cataclysmic loss of my so-called career? That double whammy might reduce me to creative desperation, forcing radical life changes. What might I do? Go to graduate school to study investigative journalism, then write a prize-winning series of articles exposing the Peace Council as a sham? Toss all my belongings into my car and drive to California on a madcap adventure, spending my life savings? Move in with my parents and work temporary typing jobs until the Council relents and takes me back?
Miriam was diverted from her plans by the sound of Renee's voice raised in anger. She got up and tiptoed toward the office door; eavesdropping was a practical art around here. Without discerning exact words, she knew Renee was being taken apart by the disappointed applicant. Then Miriam's intercom rang, driving her back to her desk.
"Miriam,” ordered Renee, “kindly transfer this call to Mrs. Broadwater. He wants to go all the way to the top, but I told him he'd have to settle for the Deputy Director. I can't do a thing with him myself."
"Okay, sure." Miriam couldn't wait to send the lethal call out of her area. Mrs. Broadwater was tacitly recognized as the brains and guts of the organization, and rumored to be an intimate friend of the President. She was the logical choice to handle a rampaging client. Putting the hot potato on hold again, Miriam buzzed the front office, which Jocelyn was supposed to be covering while Cass was at lunch.
"Jo, be careful how you handle this one. He's been rejected, and he's mean as a hornet."
"Thanks for the warning, but I can handle it. Nobody messes with me."
After completing the transfer, Miriam sat back uneasily. It was all too true that nobody messed with Jocelyn. How would the most volatile of secretaries handle a call that seemed destined to ricochet through the office until it took down at least one scapegoat?
Overcome by fear and curiosity, Miriam took the rash step of leaving her post. She inched down the corridor, passing cubicles and storage cabinets on both sides, then paused at the threshold of the Deputy Director's suite. Trying to keep one ear trained toward the phone in her own cubicle, she awaited an outburst on this end.
What could Miriam do to protect Jocelyn from herself? She knew that the flower child had two official reprimands in her personnel file, and that three were grounds for dismissal. Firings for incompetence were rare, but Mrs. Broadwater was just the type of supervisor to make one stick. Besides, Miriam believed the issue was more personal than professional. It was clear that the very sight and sound of Jocelyn drove Old Prune Face mad.
What traits of Jocelyn were most calculated to needle a sixty-year-old career bureaucrat? Was it the mini-skirts, the multiple bracelets on her tanned arms, the punkish, bleached hairstyle? Or maybe the long, confident strides in boots that almost reached her knees? Those, Miriam had decided, were only symptoms of rebellion and not the real thing. Jocelyn's main weapon of self-destruction would be her big mouth. A college dropout, she was articulate in ways that Miriam, a college graduate with honors, could envy. Miriam wished she possessed one-fifth of Jocelyn's honesty and directness. Any more than that, she feared, would be dangerous.
If a firing were in the works at the Peace Council, it would be politically motivated. That was something that Cass, a model of competence, couldn't understand. Cass, who kept the personnel records, had been so alarmed by the two reprimands in Jocelyn's file that she had invited both Jocelyn and Miriam to lunch last week to discuss the issue. That occasion reverberated in Miriam's mind as she awaited the outcome of the call.
Cass had admitted to the sin of “ratting” on her young colleague. To make up, she had offered to pay for a meal at a restaurant of Jocelyn's choosing--only to recoil at the choice. "That Kramerkeller is the very thing that's dragging you down," she had admonished in her maternal way. "You already spend half your lunch hours in that nightclub, and probably all your evenings too."
"It happens to be my real career," said Jocelyn. "Now that I've been promoted to assistant manager, I have nonstop business to attend to."
"What does an assistant manager of a nightclub do, anyway?" demanded Cass. Jocelyn seemed reluctant to give specifics--she did "whatever needs to be done." Miriam suspected that this mainly involved keeping her boss, Heinz Kramer, happy.
Despite her outward disapproval, Cass rarely turned down a chance to visit the Kramerkeller. As the three women crossed Dupont Circle on their way to the club on Eighteenth Street, she had a girlish bounce in her step. To get to the restaurant (actually the opposite of a cellar), they ascended a long stairway with pictures of local rock stars adorning the sides. Once at the top, they took in the seedy, hungover look of a nightclub struggling to recover from its last bender. Echoes of past parties seemed to fill the deserted room.
As the trio of blondes seated themselves in a booth, it was natural for each to relive some scene or encounter that once had set a Kramerkeller night aglow for her. Cass glanced with affection at the dance floor where she had enjoyed a few brief but sensuous encounters. Miriam remembered gazing with admiration at the editor of an underground newspaper who held court here whenever he managed to put out an issue. But Jocelyn was the one who had truly loved and lost at the Kramerkeller. She focused on the bandstand, as if trying to conjure up the guitarist she had lost to fame.
Snapping out of her spell, Jocelyn called to the bartender and lone waiter on duty, "Eric! Bring us three glasses of red wine, pronto."
"Heavens, Jocelyn," exclaimed Cass. "Wine in the middle of the day? I'll fall right asleep."
"We'll have coffee before we leave. Our coffee's brewed for the purpose of getting drunken secretaries back on their feet and back to their stupid jobs."
This remark goaded Cass to begin her lecture. "It's that attitude that's so disturbing, Jocelyn. It may be a 'stupid job' but it pays the bills, doesn't it? And I've got to tell you¾I overheard the Deputy Director talking to the Director about you. If you don't straighten up, you might be in real trouble."
"In the first place, I wouldn't be in ‘real trouble’ if you hadn't blabbed about my private business to Old Prune Face. And in the second place, they can fire my ass if they want. I'll survive."
"How will you survive? By moving in here?" Miriam thought she was being humorous. "I guess you could live with Heinz in his office over there, behind the bar. I always thought it looked like a cozy little love nest."
Miriam's reminiscence was suspended momentarily as Jocelyn told the irate scholar that Mrs. Broadwater was not in. So far, so good. Maybe he would believe that, and ring off without inflicting further damage--although it would be a first for Jo to manage such a task without ruffling someone's feathers.
Miriam recalled the main issue they had discussed at that luncheon, the incident that had caused Cass's accidental betrayal of Jocelyn. One afternoon, a stack of urgent letters had descended upon Cass, and she had sought Jocelyn’s help. She had checked on the youngster's progress after two hours, only to discover that not one letter had been prepared for the Deputy Director's signature. Jocelyn had been busy at her computer the whole time, working on personal business. Worse, there had been no way to avoid telling Mrs. Broadwater, who was demanding to know the status of her letters.
"You understand, don't you, why I couldn't take all the heat for that mess-up? Even if those letters were really my responsibility?" asked Cass. She had an airtight case, thought Miriam, and should not be apologizing. "I simply had no choice. I had to let Mrs. Broadwater know what was going on."
"You didn't have to tell her my personal business," responded Jocelyn. "Christ, everybody does some of their personal stuff at work. And part of it was during my lunch hour." True enough, conceded Miriam silently.
"But that's just it, Jo. You shouldn't be doing any of that sort of thing on office time, or using office equipment. I’m sorry, but that even goes for lunchtime." Cass broke off as the wine arrived. The three women began sipping while they ordered the standard Kramerkeller meal of cheeseburgers and potato chips. When Eric departed, Cass tried to take up her argument, but the wine muted her efforts. This sweet, strong Kramerkeller brand, reflected Miriam, was renowned for its power to promote sisterhood as it reduced stress.
"What was so all-fired important about that--that management proposal, or whatever it was, that you couldn't do it on your own time?"
"None of your business," responded Jocelyn, mildly for her.
"It is her business," interjected Miriam, searching for common ground, "but you both have a point. Cass should have gotten the help she needed since she was so busy. But Jocelyn's work was important to her too, even if it wasn't official¾urgent enough to get done right away. Jo would have gotten around to those silly letters, even if later in the day."
Maybe Miriam was wasting her time trying to strike a compromise between her two friends, when one was so irresponsible and the other so unimaginative. Still, she had an inclination, being closer in age to Jocelyn, to try to broaden Cass's outlook. She turned to her almost middle-aged colleague: "You know, Jo's project really is exciting. It's a proposal for her and Heinz to manage bands that play here regularly. Just think how great it would be if one of them made it big. It's happened before, you know. Nichols, Powers and Judd got their start right here."
"Big deal." Cass's mood, after she had drained half her glass, was turning sour.
"Big deal?" repeated Jocelyn. "I suppose you know what it's like to be with the leader of a famous rock band?"
"I wouldn't want to know," said Cass.
Liar, taunted Miriam silently. She'd give anything to know, and so would I. What do we two divorcees think we're doing, sitting in judgment of Jocelyn because she couldn't get her musician lover to marry her? Especially Cass, who was divorced twelve years ago after a very brief marriage, and gives the impression of never having had a serious relationship since?
"What is so all-fired wonderful about being used and discarded by Nick Nichols?” asked Cass. “Do you think that makes you special? Groupies are a dime a dozen, Jo."
"It's better than being a dried-up celibate,” responded Jocelyn.
"Ladies, ladies." Miriam was shocked by the exaggeration on both sides. It seemed the wine tranquilizer wasn't working so well today. Luckily the food arrived, and they began digging to find the tiny cheeseburgers buried in mountains of potato chips.
"You know, I just talk that way out of concern for you," said Cass in a maternal tone, once her hunger was appeased. "I think Nick was a total rat to refuse to marry you when you were pregnant."
"You seem to have forgotten, he was married already," said Miriam.
"It was an honor to have his child," said Jocelyn, her voice shaking, "even if I had to give her up for adoption."
Cass and Miriam waited respectfully while Jocelyn buried her face in her napkin and shed the automatic tears that this subject aroused. But when Jocelyn raised her eyes, they were more steely than red.
"I’m not the only one at this table with a soft spot,” she said. “When is somebody gonna point out to Mrs. B that you spend half your mornings discussing football with the stock room guys?"
"That's not true ," said Cass. "It's only a few minutes a day at most, and it helps relieve the tension in the office. Besides, it also helps to stay on the good side of those guys."
But Cass's washed-out face flushed with embarrassment. It could not be denied that she was obsessed with football. Whenever Darrell and Joe raised the subject with her, she could get carried away. Their discussions, Miriam noticed, could go on for as long as thirty minutes. Not only that, but Cass often snuck a look at the sports page of The Washington Post during working hours. What intrigued her most was the quarterback controversy that invariably swirled around the Washington Redskins, especially at this time of year when summer training camp was at its height. Cass's position in this season's battle was well known. She preferred the venerable Larry Longford over the brash young upstart, Pete Spencer.
"I'll bet your whole goal in life is to have Larry Longford's child," taunted Jocelyn.
"Really, Jocelyn," exclaimed Cass. The suggestion was outrageous, yet titillating. Within seconds she succumbed to giggles, the others joined in, and any wild thing seemed possible. The luncheon ended on that hilarious note, with Cass picturing herself seducing a footloose quarterback and Jocelyn envisioning the return of Nick Nichols to the Kramerkeller stage, and subsequently to her bed. Only Miriam, the peacemaker, had failed to expose the dream of her life. She acknowledged to herself that she hadn't played fair.
Jocelyn's too-sharp telephone voice snapped Miriam back to the present. "So what if I'm lying? So what if Mrs. Broadwater’s really there and just doesn’t like talking to rejects? That’s standard operating procedure for this stupid program."
Where could Jocelyn be going with this? Miriam, stricken with guilt, dreaded to hear some of her own rhetoric unfolding on Jocelyn's tongue. Yes, it was coming, fast and furious: "Does anybody honestly believe this crap about Peace grants? A right-wing administration isn't even capable of thinking about peace. They should rename this place something like the--the Overseas Spy Council or the Covert War Council. Everyone knows there’ve been grantees in every cycle that are really recruited to spy on and infiltrate their host governments. You mean to tell me that you, the great Dr. Weston, a hotshot expert in urban politics, don’t know the ugly secrets of the Peace Council? You should be proud to be a reject."
Oh, God, Jocelyn had spilled it all--those half-formed theories of Council corruption and malfeasance that she and Miriam had floated, without a shred of solid evidence, in many whimsical conversations. What a way to have my life dream exposed, thought Miriam--through the ranting of a confused friend. Miriam knew in her heart that the grant selection process was politicized and prone to abuses of power. Knowing it, however, was not the same as proving it. She longed to get her hands on a piece of evidence suitable for a newspaper expose. She planned to write an article with enough gunpowder in it to blast the Council cretins out of their complacency. She would feed it to Calvin Martinez, editor of The Free Paper, during one of his rap sessions at the Kramerkeller. More importantly, she would impress him as someone who could use words as weapons. He would turn those deep, dark eyes on her with fascination, anointing her as one of his reporters.
But in the meantime, there was an emergency brewing here. What if Jocelyn's diatribe were overheard by management, and somehow traced to Miriam? She might get fired before she had a chance to expose anybody. Miriam rushed into Jocelyn's line of vision, shaking her head, trying to stem the flow of anti-Council venom. But Jocelyn plunged ahead in her take-no-prisoners style.
"On second thought, you should speak to my superior immediately. We both know she's really here, hiding in that ritzy office of hers. I hope you’ll repeat to her everything I said. And yes, tell your Congressman too. It's about time the world found out that this Peace Council doesn't fool anybody except half-wits."
With breathtaking matter-of-factness, Jocelyn transferred the call to Mrs. Broadwater. Then she leaned back in her seat and grinned at Miriam, as if she had accomplished a good day's work.
"Jo, what have you done?" pleaded Miriam, half hoping that her friend would get back on the line and retract her remarks before Mrs. Broadwater got an earful of them. But it was too late; the call had reached its ultimate target. Behind her closed door, the Deputy Director was getting a secretary's unique view of the organization via a dissatisfied customer.
"Miriam, what's the matter? What’s she done now?" Cass materialized, having returned from lunch fifteen minutes early like the conscientious secretary she was. Surveying the office that she had left in perfect order forty-five minutes before, Cass sniffed carnage.
"Gawd, what's happening?" Sally the Whisperer, whose radar could pick up discordant tones a good fifty feet away, rushed in to check out the scene.
"Looks like I've really done it this time, kiddies." Spurred by an awestruck audience, Jocelyn jumped up from Cass's desk and seized the oversized purse that she carried everywhere. She rushed out of the suite, parting the group as she went. She strode down the hall to her own cubicle, where she set to work emptying the drawers. Many un-businesslike items, such as sunglasses, suntan oil, curlers, photographic equipment, and personal correspondence, were packed hastily. Then she slung the full purse over her shoulder, returned to Cass’s desk, and posted herself in front of it, waiting for Old Prune Face to emerge from her office.
"It's not too late to apologize, you know." Miriam realized, even as she spoke, that this was a ludicrous suggestion. The approaching confrontation was as inevitable as a midsummer thunderstorm that erupts when the pressure reaches its limit.
The door opened, and Mrs. Broadwater stepped out. She looked more like a prune than ever, with her tanned skin breaking out in wrinkles, her squat body, her rounded shoulders. She stood there, trying to freeze Jocelyn in her grim shadow. But Jocelyn faced her without a quiver, exuding youth and energy. How could she be so brazen--and so brainless?
"Please step into my office, Jocelyn. I'd like a word with you."
That cold politeness could stop an ordinary secretary's heart. Miriam would have obeyed her like a sheep. Jocelyn, by contrast, set herself up as a heroine and a legend for the ages by tossing her shaggy blonde head and stating, "Whatever you have to say to me can be said right here, out in the open."
"In that case, explain to us where you came up with your fascinating ideas about the Council's true mission."
Miriam's heart lurched; she knew she was done for. Jocelyn, in this honest mode of hers, would not hesitate to finger Miriam as the source of many such theories. But incredibly, Jocelyn covered Miriam with: "It's common knowledge, to anyone with half a brain."
"It's not common knowledge to me, and I've got considerably more than half a brain."
The Deputy Director seemed awkward and off-balance, which prompted Jocelyn to seize the day: “Mrs. Broadwater, I might as well tell you something right now. Whatever you’re about to say to me is moot."
"Moot?" snorted Mrs. B.
"Yes, moot," repeated Jocelyn, liking the word. "Because I'm resigning from this place, effective immediately."
Gasps went up from the other secretaries. No one tried to intercede, to turn Jocelyn back from this perilous course. How could you dissuade someone who believed she had won the battle? She had quit before she could be fired.
The Deputy Director straightened her stooped shoulders. In the voice of a judge passing sentence, she intoned, "Well, Jocelyn, if you're convinced your employment here is 'moot,' then it is. Kindly stop by the personnel office on your way out, and fill out the necessary forms." She turned on her heel, more gracefully than seemed possible for Old Prune Face, and disappeared into her office.
Jocelyn strode toward the personnel office to make her resignation official. Only this seemed to convince her more bureaucratic colleagues that she was in earnest. Sally peeled off to spread the news, while Miriam and Cass waited outside the office for her to emerge, carrying on a belated debate as to whether they could have done something to save the foolish girl. When Jocelyn had concluded her business, they followed her out to the street, afraid to let her go.
"What are you gonna do, Jo?" asked Miriam. "I mean, what are your immediate plans?"
"Maybe moving in with your parents?" asked Cass.
Jocelyn tossed back her head and roared with laughter. "Christ, you kill me. I'll be at the Kramerkeller for the time being. Call me at Heinz's office later this week, and we'll have lunch."
"Jo, we've got to discuss this some more," said Miriam. But Jocelyn, hell-bent for her "real" job, waved over her shoulder.
Miriam and Cass did not return immediately to their office. They stood together in Jocelyn's wake for several moments, exchanging perplexed glances. Finally Cass said, "Can you believe it? That girl will be practically homeless."
There were many things Miriam couldn't believe--for instance, that anyone as vital as Jocelyn had survived at the Council as long as she had. Miriam regarded Cass, the quintessentially ordinary secretary, with silent scorn. She would rather be homeless herself than become Cass in a few years.
Her disdain evaporated as she beheld a transformed face. Cass's cheeks were as flushed as they had been that day at the Kramerkeller when Larry Longford's name came up. Her eyes had grown positively starry. What was going on? Miriam perceived that Cass's mind, like her own, had been set aglow with glimpses of alternative lifestyles, of beyond-the-pale vistas. Both secretaries, still employed, had begun to contemplate escapes as dramatic as Jocelyn's.