THE GENDER TRAP
The old man came out from behind his desk with hand extended.
The cherubic grin he wore seemed somehow out of place on his bulldog countenance.
"Well, now that all the details have been ironed out, welcome aboard Steve, welcome aboard!"
He seized my hand in a vise-like grip and pumped it, slapping me on the back with his free hand.
His bushy gray eyebrows rose and fell beneath his bristling, white crew-cut and his words came in excited spasms as he went on to extol the virtues of Tex-Fast, the huge corporation he had built from scratch.
"Lord knows the old girl can use some new blood, Steve."
He spoke of the company as if of some aging mistress. A mistress he had once loved with all the passion and fervor of raging youth. But now, as he approached his seventieth year, although the ardor had not cooled, it semed to have been replaced by a serene kind of admiration. A solemn respect for this thing he had created and indeed, was in awe of.
The company, it was evident, was his life. His heart beat and his blood coursed with every new deal that strengthened her and with every scheme that went awry, with every plan that proved a liability, he too was somehow diminished.
He finally released my hand and made his way back to his chair. He sank down slowly into the plush upholstery and when he looked up at me again the fire in his ice-blue eyes had gone and in its place, a kind of dull sadness.
"She's been stagnating lately Steve". He sighed and shook his head slowly. "She's been in the doldrums. Like a ship without a breeze."
He sat pensive for a moment, then smiled suddenly and lit another cigar.
"But with you and Atkins working together," he allowed himself a brief chuckle then reached for the intercom. Just before he pressed it he turned toward me.
"Steven, I think it's about time you met your new boss!"
There seemed to be conspiratorial tone to his voice tinged with just a trace of childish glee.
He punched the button and spoke.
"Miss Peters, ask Atkins to step in here for a few minutes, will you?"
"Certainly, Mr. Roush."
Roush leaned back in his chair, hands clasped in front of him, thumbs beating a slow tattoo on his chest. He beckoned to a chair and the cigar quavered in his teeth as he spoke.
"Sit down, my boy. Sit! Sit!"
I took the chair, crossed my legs, straightened my tie and looked at Roush. He was sitting there grinning and staring at me quite unabashedly through the cigar smoke.
I grinned back involuntarily and the two of us sat thusly for a few ponderous minutes grinning at each other. Like a pair of spastic hyenas.
And the silence was unbroken. Save for the ticking of the quartz clock on the wall.
The first trace of discomfort that I'd felt since entering this office almost an hour before was just beginning to wend its way up the back of my neck to manifest itself in a pair of hot, glowing ears when the door opened and I turned to see a figure step through.
And what a figure it was! Even the ghastly, square-cut of the business suit she wore to conceal it...couldn't!
My first reaction when I stood up to greet her was to think.
"Oh, wow! What a knockout! How fortunate I am to be working with a woman like this!"
She moved toward me. We exchanged greetings and then she walked past me to Roush's desk.
She didn't 'walk' actually. It was more a 'flow' as all her body parts moved in harmony with a kind of feline grace.
I was still standing there with a wistful look on my face, my nostrils drinking in her vapor trail of Chanel when Roush's voice pierced my reverie.
"Tamara, I'd like you to meet Steve Sherman. Steve, this is Tamara Atkins. She's the head of your department!"
It was only then that I realized that I'd used the wrong conjunction moments before. I wasn't going to be working WITH this woman. I was going to be working FOR her!
I took the chair beside her, nodded to her and smiled. A rather crooked smile I imagined, considering the severe trauma I was experiencing.
I sat there gazing at her flawless profile as Roush's words droned on unintelligible in my ear.
I heard him but fathomed not as my message center was filled and overflowing with visions of ivory skin, full, red lips, golden blonde hair and blue eyes with lashes so long she had to keep her eyes closed for a couple of seconds when she blinked 'till they floated down to catch up.
"Well, what do you say to that Steve?..Steve?"
Tamara had turned to regard me quizzically. I averted my eyes and looked at the old man.
"Pardon me," I stammered. "What did you say, Sir?"
Roush's brows dipped and he began puffing on his cigar. He glanced at Tamara who suddenly became engrossed with smoothing the wrinkles from her skirt.
"I said perhaps Tamara could show you around the office and then you could both go out to lunch. Get to know each other a little. Maybe bounce some ideas around."
He paused, leaned back and the sudden twinkle in his eye was not too difficult to detect. I'd seen it before when he asked his secretary to send in 'Atkins'.
His tone was positively paternal when he queried me next.
"Are you feeling alright Steve? Is there something wrong? You seem to be...ah, preoccupied this last little while."
"No Sir," I answered. "Nothing's wrong. I was just...I mean, I was..."
I looked from him to Tamara to the clock on the wall. The clock ticked on with infuriating self-assurance.
Tamara cleared her throat and asked impassively.
"Mr. Sherman, do you have a problem with the idea of working for a woman?"
She came on with all the subtlety of a hard right to the solar plexus. It was the first direct statement she had spoken to me and its bluntness, coupled with the icy monotone in which it was delivered made her 'Fairy Princess' facade which admittedly, had existed hitherto in my mind only, begin to crumble a whole lot.
The next passion that rose to engulf me and, in the next few minutes extricate me from this foot-in-the-mouth scenario was anger.
I was angry at Tamara's seeming arrogance and insensitivity. Although in retrospect I was so bedazzled by her beauty that it never occurred to me that the possessor of such pulchritude would also have to be one tough cookie to survive, let alone make it to the top of this MAN'S game of construction.
I was angry at having been placed in the position I now found myself.
I had walked into the ivory tower of Tex-Fast, the most reputable architectural and engineering firm in the State and found it to be a man's realm. This was as it should be.
I had negotiated with its C.E.O. and found him to be tough,unbending and straight-out. All that you would expect from the top man in a man's realm.
And through these negotiations I had secured for myself the position of number two man in the most important department in the company.
All these events fell into the scheme of things and into the scope of my understanding. And then they had played their wild card and my own neat, symmetrical house of cards had promptly collapsed. They had brought in their number one'man' and he turned out to be a vision straight from the pages of Cosmo.
My anger now caused my confusion and awe to dissipate. I was once again in control of my senses. The methoical, logical mind that had aided me in advancing my career over the years was once again firing smoothly on all eight. I turned to Tamara and answered her, enunciating clearly and slowly.
"Miss Atkins, I don't know if I have a problem with the idea of working for a woman because I've never worked either with or for a woman in my life. Not in the jobs I held just after college and certainly not in construction. I don't believe I've evenSEEN a woman on a construction site."
"You don't think a woman should be allowed on site, then?" she asked.
Neither her expression nor composure had altered since we started our exchange. She remained impassive and aloof and I could sense that she thought she was in control of the situation, although her nostrils were beginning to flare just a tad and that ivory skin was acquiring a distinct, scarlet hue.
"I didn't say that," I answered. "As a matter of fact, I've never even thought about it. But now that I do, I'd have to say 'no'. I don't think a construction site is the place for a woman!"
She left her chair and stode purposefully to the window where she stood with arms folded, ostensibly admiring the view. But from the way her shoulders rose and fell rapidly and from the frequent tossing of her head it was obvious that she was becoming agitated if not downright testy.
I was sorry that my answer had had this effect on her. She looked almost pathetic standing there seemingly on the verge of tears.
My male, protective instincts asserted themselves and I plumbed the depths for some words to placate her.
I extended one arm, cocked my head to the side and, assuming a magnanimous if not downright chivalrous air, tried this on for size.
"Miss Atkins, let me qualify that, please! Perhaps there are certain women who would make it on-site. A certain type of woman, that is. A 'Tugboat Annie' type. A woman with little or no 'breeding', rough around the edges, who could dish it out and take it as well."
I glanced over at Roush to see how I was doing. He glared back at me over his cigar.
This caused my bravado to become somewhat diluted and I could feel the $85,000.00 job with perks and rapid chance for advancement slowly slipping away.
I soldiered on however but when I opened my mouth to speak again I found, to my consternation that my voice had risen an octave. No longer a strong, soothing baritone. I had become instead a panic-stricken mezzo-soprano!
"Miss Atkins," I continued soothingly. She was after all, my future boss and for Eighty-Five Grand a year I supposed I could live with it.
"But for a woman like you with your obvious background, your sophistication, your..."
I could have gone on. I really could have. But the object of my dissertation suddenly wheeled around, strode to where I was sitting and stood glaring down at me, feet apart, hands on hips. The flared nostrils of only moments before could now only be described as positively dilated!
"Listen, Bozo!" She began and my lower jaw fell and hung there. She continued and whether she was in or out of character I could not discern, I was so taken aback.
"You talk about breeding and background!" She shrieked. "What do you think we are? A bunch of broodmares to be paraded and judged? You...you hypocritical sonofabitch!" She paused to blow a wisp of blonde hair from where it had fallen on her forehead.
"Boy", I thought. "Talk about Tugboat Annie! This gal could not only hold her own with the boys. She could run the whole show!"
I'm six-foot two and weigh over two hundred pounds but she had me cowering in my seat concerned for my physical well-being.
"I was working on construction sites when you were a pimply-faced kid in high school!"
I took exception to this last remark because my parents had always assured me that I had great skin for my age.
Roush came out from behind his desk. He draped one arm around Tamara and removed the cigar from his mouth.
"She really has been working in the business since her early teens, Steve. Her father's business, that is. You've heard of Atkins-Chalmers, of course?"
Heard of Atkins-Chalmers! They were only the biggest construction company in the county! Schools, hospitals, bridges. They built all the big ones.
I'd heard that Les Atkins had a daughter. I'd also heard she was a real barracuda. 'Dragon Lady' his men called her, if I remembered. I thought of how condescending I'd been toward her and as I rose cautiously to my feet I opined as to how lucky I'd be to leave this office with my hide, let alone my job.
Her eyes were still blazing and they never left mine as I stood, then backed a few judicious feet from her.
"I want to apologize," I began. "Perhaps if I'd been apprised of the situation beforehand."
It was my turn to glare. This time at Roush. I could have sworn I heard his laugh-lines cracking!
"You still want to join me for lunch?" I asked her.
If we'd been standing on a sidewalk instead of carpet I probably would have looked down and kicked a stone with my toe. Her eyebrows rose. Her nose tilted slightly upward. Her lips straightlined before she opened them to answer. It was a proclamation. Not a suggestion.
"I'm buying!" and she moved past me to the door.
"You can choose the table, order the food and tell me not to talk with my mouth full," I thought as I fell into step behind her and we moved through the outer office.
"She must be wearing really high heels," I thought as I watched the blonde head bobbing in front of me." She's almost as tall as I am!"
I looked down at her feet...she was wearing flats.
We did a right-wheel at the door and marched down the hall to the elevators.
Lunch went rather well considering the rocky start we'd gotten off to.
She drove us there in her Porsche and the little, out-of-the-way place she chose was delightful. Charming and well appointed without being ostentatious. The food was superb and the conversation, if strained at times, was at least civil.
I managed to glean bits of information about her background, her philosophy on life and her thoughts on how we could get Tex-Fast back into high gear again.
It turned out that we had a few things in common. Weboth came from small, midwestern cities. We both majored in the same subject at college. We were both active in athletics. I was captain of the senior men's volleyball team and she was first-string fullback on the senior ladies tackle football squad.
"Probably how she developed such a fantastic body," I thought.
"Working on construction in the summer and playing football in the fall."
I paused in the middle of a forkful of fettucini. That still left winter and spring.
"Probably pumps iron at some health club," I shrugged.
At that instant she got up and walked to the salad bar. I watched her derriere sway and the perfectly-defined calf muscles flex and relax with each stride.
"Hell! She's probably the instructor!"
I swallowed the fettucini in one gulp!
She held the door for me as we departed the restaurant and I felt a warm glow as we climbed into the Porsche. At least I had accomplished one thing over lunch. We were now on a unilateral first-name basis. She called me Steve and said that I could call her Ms. Atkins.
Things were going swimmingly!
The next few weeks were full ones for Tamara and I. Our days were ten or twelve hours long but we were kept so busy that they just seemed to fly by.
We had meetings with Roush and his senior V.P.'s about every other day. We met with our own department heads at least once a week and we inspected job sites. Boy! Did we inspect job sites! It was always the same scenario. We'd pull up in the Porsche and she'd disembark wearing blue pants, jacket, safety boots and with her hair tucked under a gold hard-hat.
She'd stand there briefly, surveying the whole scene until slowly but surely all work ground to a halt and all machines were shut down. And as a collective whole, the men stood motionless. Some leaning on shovels. Some standing transfixed. All of them staring at the woman in blue..
And the wind would swirl around her, pressing the fabric of her pants tight against her body revealing the lush outline of now one thigh and seconds later, the other.
Her jacket, hanging unbuttoned, would be caught up by a breeze eager to unveil the sweater beneath that was stretched to its limit by her beautiful breasts.
It was hard for me to believe that she was unaware of the spectacle she was making of herself but she always seemed to be oblivious to her captive audience and after a time would turn and motion for me to follow.
"Come on, Steve. Let's have a look at those footings!"
She loved to inspect footings! It involved climbing down a wooden ladder into a hole and sloshing about the muck and water at its bottom to get a close look at concrete columns and rebar.
It was one of the dirtiest aspects of our job and I suspected she did it to prove a point.
"Women don't belong on a job site, huh? Well, follow me, Lad! If you can!" She seemed to be thinking.
And I really didn't mind inspecting footings. In fact, I rather looked forward to the culmination of the task at which point the 'Ascent of Tamara' took place. She always insisted on being the first up the ladder out of the hole. The Job Foreman and I were only too happy to oblige and we would stand at the bottom with arms folded watching Tamara rise.
In this all too mundane world of ours a sight as exhilarating as this was rare indeed.
As exciting and euphoric as the moment was, and it did truly stir a man. From the heart knocking in his breast to the toes tingling beneath his steel caps and all points in between. I was only grateful that all our job foremen were youngish, strong men. The effect on an older man might have been disastrous. I would not have enjoyed giving C.P.R. at the bottom of that mudhole!
As always, Tamara would reach the top then turn to see the two of us still standing there.
"Come on, you two! Get moving! We have other things to look at!"
After that, 'other things' always seemed so anti-climactic.
I'd been at Tex-Fast for about two months when I was summoned to Roush' office.
I took a seat and sat quietly while he studied some papers he had before him.
Finally, he set his glasses aside, folded his hands on the desk, looked at me and smiled. He seemed to be more relaxed than I'd seen him since I began working for him.
"You're doing a great job, my boy!" he enthused. "We're meeting deadlines. Labor costs are down. And we're maintaining quality in materials and workmanship!"
"I've been watching you closely." he went on. "You're not only knowledgeable in all aspects of the job. You seem to have a talent for motivating people. I walk through the office. I tour job sites and I can sense it. The people are happier and I've always said that a happy ship is an efficient ship. You don't have them working harder, Steve. You've got them working smarter!"
I knew that the old war-horse didn't dole out praise all that often and I felt flattered and tremendously proud.
I responded thusly;
"I believe that if you're fair and honest with people that sooner or later they'll trust you and eventually respect you. You can force a man to do a job even if he hates your guts but if you have his respect he'll do it because he wants to and he'll do it a hell of a lot better.
Roush lit up the perennial cigar and nodded his agreement. He threw the match in the ashtray and looked at me again.
"Maybe we'll give you that salary review a couple of months early. Would that be okay with you?"
"That would be great, Sir!"
The intercom buzzed. Roush pressed the button.
"Yes? What is it?"
"Ms Atkins to see you, Mr. Roush."
"Send her right in!"
He leaned toward me and asked in a low voice. "How are you two getting along?"
I really didn't know how to answer that directly because I didn't know if we were getting along or not.
She'd shown me that she knew her job inside out. She'd also shown me that she could be as tough as nails one minute yet be consoling and almost motherly the next.
She was liked and respected by all the men. She may have got silent stares of admiration as she walked through a site but I had yet to hear one wolf whistle or off-color remark.
As for our personal relationship. That was still a conundrum to me. She could be almost warm one minute and yet in the next she'd don that icy veneer and become just as distant as the first day I met her.
The only thing I knew for certain was that I'd fallen in love with her, but I didn't think that Roush wanted to hear about that. At least not at this particular moment.
I had gained some ground in one area. She now allowed me to call her 'Tamara'.
"Oh, we're getting along fine, Sir. She's been a tremendous help to me."
"You know, Steve?" he said, still leaning toward me. "There's been a lot of different men held that job in this company's forty-odd years. She's equal to the best of them and better than most."
"You know?" he continued. "There's probably been women around like her right down through the ages. Women capable of running companies, cities, countries. But no one knew they existed because they weren't given a chance. They were stifled. Until now, that is."
He watched me as I studied my fingernails.
"Oh, I know it's hard to adjust, Steve. Working for a woman seems just as foreign to you now as anything could possibly be. Give it time, Son. One day women bosses are going to be commonplace. People won't give it a second thought."
There was a brief knock on the door and I turned to see Tamara step into the office.
She was more animated than I'd ever known her to be. She wore a broad smile.
Her face was flushed and she was just bursting to tell us the news. Whatever it was. She didn't bother to sit. She just stood there and came right out with it.
"Mr. Roush. I've just heard from Dad. His project is nearing completion and he wants us all to come down to see it, then meet at the house after for a few drinks!"
"That sounds great, Tamara!" Roush replied. "I'll just finish up this paperwork and meet you down there."
He studied the papers on his desk for a moment then opened his top drawer and shoveled them in unceremoniously. He slammed the drawer shut then leaned back smiling.
"Hell! This is an occasion! Let's knock off early and go down and see what Les has wrought!"
Since up to now this had been a two-way conversation I thought it prudent at this point to interject. I turned to Tamara and asked. "Am I included in all this?"
She looked down at me, frowned and shook her head in exasperation.
"Of course you are, Steven! What an absurb thing to ask!"
"Thanks, Boss." I shrugged and crawled back into my cocoon.
"Everyone will be there, Mr. Roush." she bubbled on. "Mother's coming with Aunt Dora..."
"Ah, yes. Your mother." Roush broke in. "Wonderful woman! Haven't seen her in some time."
"And Alvin's coming. All the way from his downtown office. He's supposed to be preparing for a case tomorrow but he says he's putting that aside to come help Dad celebrate. Isn't that sweet?"
"Ah, yes, Alvin." Roush answered in a rather strained voice.
"Well, I'd better be going. I'm going to stop off at home and freshen up a bit." And with that, he donned his hat and coat and walked out of the office.
Tamara began to follow him but stopped in the doorway with her back to me. She turned her head to one side and called back over her shoulder.
"You can bring your girl if you want."
My eyes were wandering up and down the length of her body.
"I don't have a girl."
She seemed genuinely surprised. Her face registered puzzlement for a bit then she turned and left the office.
I went to my own office to get my coat. I was about to put it on when I suddenly chuckled to myself. I sat down in the chair and put my feet up on the desk.
Roush's reaction when Tamara informed him that Alvin Cranston would be there had struck me as funny.
I had only met Alvin twice and had already formed an opinion of him.
The first time I saw him Tamara and I were just leaving a site. We were about to get in her car when this hot, little sports job with the top down smoked up and stopped beside us.
Behind the wheel, wrapped in a huge fur coat sat a young man about thirty. He had short, sandy hair, saucer-eyes and a dusting of freckles across his cheeks and nose. He looked like a young Rudy Vallee.
He waved at Tamara and his broad smile revealed two rows of perfect teeth.
"Well! Fancy meeting you here!" he yelled.
I cringed inwardly and leaned against the Porsche. Tamara walked over to Alvin and asked.
"What on earth are you doing in this part of town?"
"Well, I was sitting in my office looking out the window at this glorious fall day and decided it was just too nice to spend another minute indoors. So I took the rest of the day off and decided to track down my Honey so we could enjoy it together. I phoned Old Man Roush and he told me you were out here. I should have been a detective instead of a lawyer, eh Dumpling? Come on! Jump in and we'll take a drive through the mountains!"
Tamara glanced back at me with a pained look on her face.
"I don't know, Alvin. We have a lot of work to do back at the office."
"Oh, pshaw!" said Alvin. "Your man here can handle it can't he?"
My teeth started grinding at about the same time I saw Tamara's spine stiffen.
"Oh, I'm sorry! she blurted. "Alvin, this is Steve Sherman. Steve, I'd like you to meet Alvin Cranston. He's...He's an old friend of mine."
I walked toward his car with my hand extended. He ignored me completely and continued talking to Tamara.
An old friend, am I?" His smile had become positively leering.
"Oh, I think I count for a bit more than that, eh Dumpling? Maybe when we lose your man and get up in those mountains you can show me just how much more!"
Tamara's cheeks were scarlet and she couldn't bring herself to look at me when she dropped her car keys in my hand that was still extended toward Alvin and to which I'd given much thought of turning into a fist!
"You don't mind, do you Steve?" It was almost a plea. Then, as if she couldn't get out of there fast enough, she scrambled
round Alvin's car and jumped in the passenger seat.
"I'll wrap it up back at the office, Tamara!" I yelled. "Don't worry about a thing!"
Alvin had revved the little engine up to full bore and still not looking at me, yelled over his shoulder;
"Mind how you drive now, Lad! That Porsche is a bit more car than you're used to handling!"
And with that he popped the clutch and moved off the shoulder onto the pavement in a cloud of dust and gravel.
I stood there, so livid I was shaking, as the stones bounced off my pant legs and the dust assailed my eyes.
My second meeting with Alvin didn't even go as well as the first. He barged into our office in the middle of a meeting. Disrupted everything and embarrassed everybody. Went on and on with his inane babblings until our people, bewildered and disgusted, got up one by one and left the room.
Left Tamara and I alone with this pompous, puffed-up little raccoon in the fur coat and plaid scarf.
I sat there rubbing my eyes with thumb and forefingers while Alvin begged, pleaded, cajoled. Did everything short of holding his breath til he turned blue trying to persuade Tamara to leave work and go for a drive with him.
But my boss was in her 'immoveable object' mode and Alvin, finally realizing it was futile, turned and stormed from the office with his scarf trailing behind him. He looked, for all the world, like the Red Baron off on another mission.
"I hope someone shoots the little bastard down!" I muttered under my breath.
"What did you say, Steve?"
I looked over to see Tamara glaring at me, lips pursed and jaw set.
"Oh, nothing." I answered. " I was just talking to myself."
"Well, see that you keep it to yourself!" she fumed.
With that, I could contain myself no longer. My anger at and revulsion of Alvin, my jealousy every time I saw him around this woman I loved and my complete bewilderment at this relationship between two such diverse people finally caused my emotions to boil over.
I stood up and stamped up and down the office , arms flapping in frustration.
"What do you SEE in a little creep like that? How can a beautiful, intelligent creature like you allow herself to be humiliated and embarrassed by such a spoiled brat?"
I stood in front of her and sank down on one knee. I took both her hands in mine and held them.
"Tamara... Tamara." My voice was choking.
She was looking at me now with an expression that I'd never seen before. Her eyes were moist. Her mouth had softened and was partly open and the delicate blue vein in her neck was fluttering with each pulse of her heart.
We gazed at each other in silence until finally, her lashes moved and she looked down at her hands, still firmly held by mine.
"Yes?" I whispered.
"Please let go of my hands."
I stood and walked to the window. I looked at the panorama below and saw nothing. I comprehended nothing save the tremulous beating of my heart in my breast. I had come so close to telling her , to taking her in my arms and professing my love for her. A love so strong, so passionate that it smoldered at the vortex of my soul, threatening to consume my very being.
I had done none of these things and yet I could sense it. I could feel it... She knew!
Her voice came from behind me, soft and low.
"Alvin and I have known each other since we were little. His father and mine were the best of friends. They each had their own business. Over the years my Dad prospered but Mr. Cranston did not. He suffered a lot of reversals. I don't know if it was bad business sense, bad luck or a combination of the two. Anyway, eventually he declared bankruptcy. Shortly after that, he killed himself
"Alvin was in high school. He had his heart set on becoming a lawyer. My Dad got Mrs. Cranston a job in his company but she didn't have the money to send Alvin to college. So Dad set up a trust fund for him. He told him it was money his father had left him. To this day Alvin believes it was HIS father that put him through school.
"Okay." I said. "That's fine. That's great. What your Dad did for Alvin was terrific. But Alvin's a successful lawyer now. With a very lucrative practice, I hear. Alvin's quite capable of taking care of himself. Why do you still pamper him? Cater to his every whim? He thinks you're his girl. Hell! He thinks you're his property!"
With that she stood up and began to walk to the door.
"ARE you his girl?" I yelled.
She whirled to face me. Lower jaw jutting out and eyes spitting fire!
"That! Mr. Sherman, is none of your goddam business!"
I ran up to her and took her by the shoulders.
"Tamara, can't you see him for what he is? Or are you still feeling sorry for that poor, little kid you once knew? Alvin's been pampered so much all his life that he thinks the world owes him a living. Especially the Atkins. You think he loves you? He's incapable of loving anyone but himself! He looks at you and he sees your Dad and he just KNOWS there's gold in them thar hills!"
She screwed up her face, grabbed my forearms and pushed my hands from her shoulders.
"Let GO of me! You're sick!"
I stepped back. She was shaking and tears were welling in her eyes.
"So! You think he's after my money!" she sobbed.
"Tamara." I said gently. "You're a beautiful woman that any man would be proud to have as his own. But this Alvin.... he... he's twisted somehow. I think he may even be a borderline psychotic!"
She tossed her head and her blonde locks ruffled. She laughed with the tears streaming down her face.
"I think YOU'RE the psychotic and I think you can go straight to hell!"
She turned and ran from the room.
That had all happened a couple of weeks ago but her words still echoed in my head as I headed west on the interstate out of the city. My top-of-the-line Mercury purred along at a steady 70 MPH.
"You may not be a Porsche or a Mercedes but I still love ya baby!"
"I should be coming up on Atkins' 'project' any time now." I thought. And then, just as I crested a hill, there it was!
A beautiful, domed stadium nestled in a valley just to the right of the highway. The valley sloped from the road's edge to the stadium and then rose again, its verdant green exploding into reds, orange and yellows on the side of the mountains to the north.
I thought of how the whole valley must have been lush with foliage before construction began two and a half years ago but now most of the bottomland was asphalt. One huge parking lot!
"What a strange business we're in." I thought. "To create beauty we have to destroy something that was even more beautiful."
I drove through the gate. Then swung onto the parking lot.
"You won't get a chance to do this again." I thought as I looked out on what seemed like miles of empty pavement ahead of me. I put it to the mat and she was approaching 85 when I either had to ease off or hit the stadium wall. I eased off. I was running late so I knew there had to be someone here but I saw no cars parked at the main entrance so I continued driving. When I rounded the west side of the building I saw them. They were parked in front of a smaller door. There was a sign above it that read 'To Private Boxes'.
I saw Tamara's porsche, Roush's Mercedes, another Mercedes, a strange-looking foreign job and Alvin Cranston's sports car. With the top down, of course.
"All we need now is a little snow." I thought, rather maliciously. I parked beside Alvin's car, got out and walked to the door. A staircase inside took me up to a hallway that stretched off into the distance, curving gracefully with the configuration of the dome. Its outer wall was made up almost entirely of glass while the inner wall was resplendent with a multitude of doors. The doors were spaced about fifteen feet apart and they were identical, each being crafted of hand-carved oak with brass hardware and inlaid, brass numbers.
I had forgotten to ask for the number of Atkins' box so I had no idea which way to go. I stopped, intent on listening for a sound of some kind when, all of a sudden, I saw Roush step out of a doorway about fifty-feet ahead of me.
"Steve! I THOUGHT I heard a car pull up. Come on in and join the party!"
He escorted me inside with his hand resting lightly on my back. He made a point of introducing me to everyone in the room.
Tamara's mother was a rather diminutive woman but possessed of a regal, almost haughty bearing that itself seemed to augment her physical stature. She was dripping jewelry and swathed in a fur the species of which I was unsure. I could only conclude with certainty that it was of the genus 'dear', as in 'expensive'. She extended her hand in such a manner that I was almost tempted to kiss it. I opted for a hearty shake instead.
Aunt Dora turned out to be a taller woman, leaning more toward Tamara's stature. She strode over quickly when Roush called her.
She was holding a drink in one hand but gave me the other one and looked directly into my eyes as we squeezed hands warmly. Her face broke into a broad smile and you could tell that she had once been a classic beauty herself and not too long ago. She took a sip of her drink and regarded me coquettishly.
"Just what the party needed. Welcome, Tall, Dark and Handsome!"
I searched for some witty, self-effacing reply but on coming up empty I had to settle for what I hoped was a modest grin.
"I've always liked you, Aunt Dora."
She threw back her head and laughed. Then took me by the arm and steered me toward the bar.
"We're going to get along famously, you and I." she bubbled.
"But right now we've got to get you a drink!"
We each climbed up onto a high-backed, padded bar stool and Dora called to the man behind the bar.
"Les! This young man needs a drink and you can hit me again!"
Les Atkins moved over to us, Took Dora's glass and refilled it, all the while regarding me deadpan. I could now see where Tamara got her height. Her father had to be six-foot-six at least! He turned around to get the beer that I requested and his broad expanse of back and shoulders completely obliterated the rows of glasses resting on translucent shelves against the back of the bar. Almost as if an eclipse had occurred within the confines of the room.
He placed the beer in front of me and rested his huge hands on the bar. He continued to stare at me deadpan.
Even under his suit jacket one could see that the muscles between his shoulders and neck had been developed to such an extent that they rose to just below his earlobes making it appear that he had no neck at all. Just a head stuck on a plane of swollen muscle that ran from one shoulder to the other.
Dora took a sip of her drink, set it down and when she looked up at Atkins she assumed a rather perturbed look.
"Lester." She began in mock reproach. "If you don't stop staring at this young man in that grizzled manner of yours, you'll scare him off!"
Atkins swung his withering stare over to Dora and locked on.
"The way you moved in on him like a predator the minute he walked in the door it's a wonder he hasn't been scared off already!"
"Why, Lester. Have you been keeping tabs on me?"
"I know you, little sister!"
"Oh, for pity's sake, Lester! This is Steve Sherman. He works with Tamara over at Tex-Fast!"
I saw the recognition dawn in Atkins' face and he reached his hand across the bar. I felt relief surge through my body and discarded the desperate notion of chug-a-lugging my beer and asking for a double scotch.
"Of course!" he grinned, pumping my hand til my fingers turned white. "You're Bob Sherman's boy. Used to work for Orrie Manning at Pitt Engineering. Orrie was very high on you, boy. He was really sorry to see you move to Tex-Fast."
"I was sorry to leave Orrie, Mr. Atkins. But Mr. Roush made me an offer I just couldn't refuse."
Atkins splashed a couple fingers of bourbon in his glass, swirled it around and nodded in agreement.
"When opportunity knocks, Steve, you've got to open that door and walk on through!"
He knocked his bourbon back in one throw then reached back, plucked another glass off a shelf and set it on the bar beside his. He dropped some ice in each one and filled them both to the brim. He picked his up and pushed the other across the bar to me.
"Try a man's drink, Steve! You could suck on that beer all afternoon and wind up with nothing but a bloated gut! Bourbon kind of sneaks up on you but that warm glow it brings makes it like greeting an old friend every time!"
He stepped from behind the bar and winked at me.
"Sides, you may need it. Let's go over and talk to Tamara. She's in the corner, there with Alvin."
It was strange, but when he spoke the name 'Alvin' he seemed to use the same, strained voice and take on the same, pained expression as Roush had done back at the office.
I looked back at Dora and shrugged. She raised her glass high and smiled. I then fell in beside Atkins and we wended our way across the room to Alvin and Tamara.
I couldn't help but notice when I first entered the room that Tamara had been sitting at the bar talking to her father. As soon as she caught sight of me she slid from the stool, walked quickly across the room to where Alvin was standing and sidled up to him real close.
She had her back to us as we approached. She had eased herself even closer to Alvin and was now positively draped all over him. The little beggar was standing there, glassy-eyed and rubber-legged. One couldn't tell whether these afflictions had been brought on by all the drinks he had obviously consumed or by the fact that his head came to a level just even with her breasts and while she was conversing with the top of his head, his replies were hardly audible, muffled as they were by that divine pair of pointed protuberances!
Atkins reached out and placed a hand on his daughter's shoulder.
"Tamara! I believe this fellow is an associate of yours!"
I raised my glass and downed half the bourbon. I hoped that Atkins was right when he spoke of its warm and friendly glow because what I was feeling now was neither. Tamara turned and feigned surprise when she saw me.
"Why, Steve! Glad you could make it. I see you've met my father."
"Yes." I croaked. Her little charade had me seething.
I saw Atkins' craggy features arrange themselves in storm formation as he watched Alvin extract his face from his daughter's bosom. The muscle in his cheek twitched spasmodically and he spoke through clenched teeth when he addressed Cranston.
"Alvin. I don't know if you've met Steve Sherman."
It was the first time that Alvin had actually looked directly at me. Then a look of disgust crossed his face and he raised his glass and drained it.
An icy silence had descended on our little corner of the room. I actually felt embarrassed. Not for myself or Alvin, but for Atkins. He had practically raised Cranston as a son after Alvin's father died. He'd put him through school and given him as much of his time as he could over the years in an effort to mold him into a man of character.
Now, after seeing him literally drooling over his daughter publicly, he was watching him contemptuously snubbing one of her associates. In an effort to save the situation I steeled myself and thrust out my hand as I had done once before, on another occasion.
"How are you, Alvin? Good to see you again."
Alvin's head didn't move but his eyes snaked around and down. His glassy stare was fixed on my hand and I could feel the skin on the back of it begin to crawl. I knew then what a rat must feel like, caught in the hypnotic gaze of a cobra, waiting for the strike.
It never came, however as Alvin, glass in hand, pushed past Tamara and started for the bar.
Atkins' arm was a blur as it reached out and his fingers wrapped themselves around the back of Alvin's collar.
Whoosh! And Alvin was deposited back to where he had been standing as neatly and effortlessly as one would deposit a garbage bag on the curb! It was rather comical in one aspect. While he was airborne, Alvin's teeth made much the same jangling sound as did the ice cubes in the glass he was clutching.
At this point Atkins was just about as perturbed as I'd ever want to see the big man get!
"You don't walk away from a man when he offers you his hand!" He roared.
Tamara's eyes were like saucers as she looked from her Dad to Alvin and back again.
Alvin was standing there, a dishevelled lump. Hands hanging straight down at his sides. One of them still clutching his glass. One side of his jacket was pulled up revealing eight inches of white shirt beneath. His jacket collar stood straight up by his right ear. His mouth was open and his eyes bugged out, staring at Atkins.
"Shake his hand!" Atkins bellowed.
"Dad! Leave him alone!" Tamara pleaded.
"You keep out of this!"
By this time everyone in the room had stopped talking and had turned to watch the drama unfold.
Amazingly, Alvin now began to straighten his jacket and pull himself together. Whether it was the booze that gave him fool's courage or whether he was indeed made of sterner stuff I couldn't say but he now began to speak and slurred though his words may have been, his point came across loud and clear.
"I won't shake the hand of a goldigger!"
His words came at me like a knee in the crotch. For even though I thought 'goldigger' was a term applied to a certain type of female, I knew it could only be me that he was maligning. I took a step toward him.
"What did you say? You... You little nerd!"
He raised his arm and pointed at me. The glass fell from his hand and landed on the carpet with a soft 'thunk'.
"You!" he shrieked. "I've seen the way you sniff around Tamara like some cur dog! You'd like to get into her pants!"
His face darkened and a positively evil smile crossed it.
"But you don't love her like I do! You're just after her money!"
Before I lost control completely I glanced at Tamara. Her hands covered her face and she was swaying back and forth. She looked about ready to swoon on the spot!
I charged at Alvin and grabbed him by both lapels. Boy! That jacket of his took a beating that day!
I lifted him staight off the ground til his head was above mine. I backed him up toward a row of coat-hooks on the wall. I took aim and, all in one smooth motion, arced his body up, then down. His collar caught on one of the hooks and I released my grip, leaving him dangle.
Tamara came on me like a windmill in a hurricane. Pummelling me about the head and shoulders with her fists.
"Leave him alone, you brute!"
Roush and Atkins pulled her off me. I turned back to Alvin, still hanging on the wall. His arms were sticking up at weird angles. He was making high-pitched squeaking sounds. His face was turning purple and he was slowly disappearing down inside his jacket.
I drew back my right fist and lined up a spot just above his belt buckle.
Suddenly I felt a big hand grab my forearm and a voice spoke softly into my ear.
"Forget it, Son. He isn't worth it."
I froze for an instant then took a couple deep breaths and nodded my head. Atkins released my arm. I saw him walk to the bar and fill a glass with bourbon. He brought it back to me and held it out. I took a couple swallows then looked around at the people in the room. They were all staring at me in silence. Tamara's hair was hanging in her eyes. Mascara running down her cheeks. I could almost feel the hatred emanating from those eyes. My spine grew cold and I set the glass down on a table.
"I want to apologize." I began. "Hell, what can I say? I'd better just go."
Aunt Dora and Roush were grinning at me. Roush gave me the thumbs-up sign.
Tamara took a couple steps toward me.
"Yes! I guess you'd better go, Steve Sherman! I guess you'd better just get the hell out!"
My temper flared again. Despite myself.
"Yeah. I'm going, alright. But whatever that creep tells you just remember this. I love you! I'm crazy about you! And that's the truth!"
She just stood there. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
I glanced over their heads to where Alvin still hung on the wall. Then I realized that something had changed. I couldn't see his face anymore. It had disappeared. Then it struck me. He had been slipping downward out of his jacket slowly but in the last couple of minutes his rate of descent had accelerated drastically. I pointed to him and opened my mouth to shout a warning.
Too late! Alvin slipped through the bottom of his jacket, hit the carpet and lay in a crumpled heap on the floor!
I walked to the exit, stopped and turned for one, last look. All the occupants of the room were gathered in the corner bending over, ministering to Alvin. All the occupants save one, that is.
Tamara, never moving, still stood staring at me. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
"That's odd." I thought as I stepped into the hall and headed for the staircase.
I arrived back at my apartment at six-thirty. I was hungry but my flowing adrenalin and churning stomach precluded any thoughts of eating.
I went straight to the shower and stood under its warm cascade for about fifteen minutes in an effort to cleanse myself of the shame and revulsion that had clung to me like a blue funk ever since I left the stadium.
Shame for the childish way I had reacted to the situation. Revulsion, knowing I had actually touched Alvin, manhandled him. Felt his foul breath on my face. For I now knew he was borderline insanity. He was the embodiment of all that is perverse and evil in this life.
I scrubbed and rinsed. Then scrubbed and rinsed again. When I stepped from the shower, toweled dry and donned a fresh robe, I still felt I might throw up.
I poured myself a scotch, put on some soft jazz and sank into my favorite chair sipping the drink, desperately seeking solace from my own version of 'Balm from Gilead'.
Two drinks later my mind was now thinking practical thoughts. I was certain that I had destroyed my chances with Tamara. I saw her beautiful visage floating before me. Just out of reach. As always! A sudden sense of loss...a pulsating void of emptiness arose in my loins. My eyes misted and I almost cried out in anguish.
I clenched my teeth and ran a hand through my hair. I struggled to regain control of my shattered emotions. She would never be my girl but was she still my boss? Did I have a job in the morning?
I thought of Roush grinning and giving me the thumbs-up sign as I left the room at the Dome. Perhaps I DID still have a job! The intercom buzzed raucously. I got up from my chair.
"Yes? Who is it?"
There was a short silence. Then she spoke.
"Tamara..Tamara Atkins. May I come up?"
"Yes. Certainly!" I pressed the button.
I stood waiting at the door. In my head a veritable montage of different thoughts whirled. Each one more incredible than the last.
"She's come to fire me. She can't wait til morning!"
"She's going to tell me that Alvin's bringing assault charges against me!"
"She's going to tell me Alvin took a heart attack and died. I'm a murdere
"She's got a gun and she's come to avenge Alvin's death. I'm dead!"
My panic was reaching a crescendo when I opened the door. She stepped inside. She turned to face me. She raised her arm and leveled an object at my chest. My thoughts turned liquid and ran down the walls of my brain!
I closed my eyes and we stood silent. It seemed an eternity til she spoke.
"I brought this so we could celebrate after."
I opened my eyes and saw her beautiful face. She was smiling at me! A warm, serene smile. Her eyes were all shimmering and dreamy.
I took the bottle of champagne from her hand.
"I'll put this on ice." I offered.
She nodded and, still smiling, walked to the sofa and arranged herself at one end. She had to be the most magnificent-looking woman I'd ever seen!
"You mentioned something about celebrating. What do we have to celebrate?" I asked, bewildered.
She leaned back and extended both arms to me.
I dropped the bottle where I stood and in six microseconds I was in her arms. And all my daydreams, all my fantasies of this moment were as nothing as I tasted the nectar of her lips, drank in the fragrance of her skin and felt the softness of her cheek caressing mine.
I kissed her, then drew back and looked down at her.
"But what about Alvin?"
"Alvin who?" she grinned and pulled me to her.
I kissed her, then drew back again.
"What is it now, Steven?"
"This is marvellous. Honey. But I can't possibly make love to you at night and take orders from you in the morning!"
She folded her arms behind her head and lay back on the cushion.
"No problem, Dear. I`m sure Dad can find a place for me somewhere in his organization."
"You'd quit Tex-Fast?"
"Sure. I only took the job to spite Dad. I had to assert myself. Show him I could be independent."
I nodded, kissed her again then whispered softly in her ear;
"What about when the babies come?"
She sat bolt upright and regarded me rather sternly.
"Yes, babies! What with both of us working one of us will have to...
"Steven! Is this a proposal?"
"Well, I hadn't really... I mean, I didn't think a proposal was nec... I mean, I just took it for..."
She drew me back down to her. A few moments passed then she turned her head to one side and put a finger to her lips. She lay pensive for a time as I traced the delicate curve of her neck with my lips. Finally she spoke.
"Yes, babies." I mumbled.
She turned her face to mine, placed her forefinger on the tip of my nose and grinned. It was a proclamation. Not a suggestion.
"No problem, Dear. You can take maternity leave and stay home with the babies!"
"You know?... I think she meant it!!