Copyright is held by the author.
THERE IS Lucille, always Lucille in my mind whenever autumn floats in on the smell of burning leaves and lazy afternoons haunt me with memories of my first professional job. How has she aged, I wonder? And how have I?
My first work after graduating from a small college in Massachusetts was to edit city descriptions and write text for new editions of the Go America guides. I had my own desk and telephone, and was only a few steps from the coffee station. They gave me a proprietary feel that my college debt could be called an investment in a career.
I had traveled the country as a kid with my family, so many of the cities and states were familiar names. But my northern New Jersey home was such a cocoon of self-satisfied suburbanites that I had the quiet conceit that my coworkers were provincials for whom the other side of the Delaware River was terra incognita.
I magnified these guides as the lens through which the country was microscopically focused in very dry, succinct descriptions. I particularly threw my soul into my work after my boss passed along a letter from a woman who said, “I cannot get out of the house much, but I read Go America and the descriptions take me on journeys across the U.S.”
She was my audience, the one person who would read my précis of some place like Buckeye, Indiana, its radio station, population, altitude, the museum devoted to antique farm machinery. As an English major, I fancied I could twist words to make the hardest heart cry with longing for open fields, black asphalt pavement and little vernacular farmsteads.
Within weeks of my starting, Alden, the publisher, gave me a key so I could open the office in Bloomfield. I could begin at eight o’clock, arriving ahead of traffic on the roads. Even making the first pot of coffee provided me with feelings of domestic husbandry. In an hour, a dozen women would enter, put down their pocketbooks, arrange their desks, and begin typing listings of hotels, motels, resorts and restaurants. Endlessly typing listings. The women came from the half dozen surrounding towns, women just reaching the cusp of middle age, standing on the mountaintop of mortality and knowing it was a long drop down the other side. Working at Go America was an alternative to their playing bridge or hanging out at a country club. Besides, it paid a marginal wage and validated their existence.
At Go America, our routines devolved into an easy-going camaraderie as summer heat kicked in. There was a youngish woman, Marie, who I remembered from having worked at Montclair High School. I wondered if I might seek a date, but was intimidated by her being at least a decade older than me. Several others spent an inordinate time refilling their coffee cups or hitting the bathrooms. Two were raucous and shocked me out of sophisticated pose by making off-colour jokes, usually having to do with someone — or something — going into a bedroom. And then there was Lucille.
It took me awhile, glancing often at her through my office doorway, but I figured Lucille for about 45 years old. I don’t know why 45, but it seemed about right for someone just shy of middle age. Her hair wasn’t bleached, but lightened unnaturally, and where her eyebrows should have been were two painted brows looking over her lavender eye shadow. I could have wished she had a more voluptuous body, but Lucille was okay for a very thin woman since, to be honest, I was a skinny 21-year-old. Then we found mutual respect through the medium of our both liking jazz and Agatha Christie mysteries.
One of the typists who told off-colour jokes to embarrass me announced in September she was quitting. No reason, but none was needed. She left a small vacuum only because of the attention she lavished on making me uncomfortable. I wouldn’t miss having Lucille raise one painted-on eyebrow to see if I coloured hearing a punch line like, “Well, can’t you take a licking on this job?”
By custom, we put away work on Friday afternoons when the joker — or any of the other typists — made it their last day of work. A tray of sandwiches or pizza would come out and someone — Lucille? — would find a bottle of gin to lace our glasses of Sprite or 7-Up.
Must have been after two or three glasses when Lucille sidled up and said, “Are you ready to take a licking on this job?” The eyebrow went up and the lavender eyelids glowed.
Seized with inspiration, I said, “Well, I went in the hole on the last assignment.”
Lucille guffawed and tipped her glass so her drink splashed on my shirt.
“Oh, damn, I’m sorry,” she said, still laughing while patting me on the chest with a handkerchief.
My hand went over hers to indicate that there was no problem. Her hand was just beginning to show a loosening of taut skin, but it was soft and I hadn’t felt any hand of compassion except for my mother’s in a very long time.
“Party’s over,” she said softly. “Work’s over. Want to come to my place for a drink? Valley Road, Upper Montclair.”
“Okay.” I smiled. I gulped. I was elated that this mature woman was interested in my cosmopolitan companionship. I had the foreplay part of relations down pretty pat. Entertaining quips and wild stories, the sincere look as I probed for more information about the woman of the moment. Girl, really. Problem was I was a virgin, so the actual play part was still something of a mystery.
Her garden apartment was shared with her husband and a daughter. That much I knew. A bit disturbing was the discovery that her husband had been a Marine. I had visions of him walking in at the very moment of my fantasy as I took Lucille in my arms and gave her a passionate kiss. I knew he would kill me, or worse, maim me in some strange military way so I’d never be the same again.
I draped myself casually on Lucille’s sofa while she made martinis at the bar. My parents being near teetotallers, I’d never seen a home bar before. “Got a girlfriend?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Well, no,” I said, “I’m not going steady, or even seeing anyone regularly.”
“A guy like you should have no problem finding young ladies. You have a car, a job. What more?”
“Well, there’s one girl. We had our first date last weekend. She’s African-American.”
She turned, stood holding the martinis, and the eyebrow went up. A moment went by before she said, “Okay. Okay, I get that.”
I probably shouldn’t have said that in Upper Montclair, home of more than a few closeted Nazis and Nativists. “Good martini,” I said to fill the conversational emptiness as she sat down. “Where’s everyone? Your family.”
“Out,” she said, shrugging. “Left me all alone.”
And then, before even sipping her drink, Lucille put her arms around my neck and smothered my mouth. The last thing I saw before closing my eyes were her glowing lavender eyelids. Things moved quickly then and — glory be! — in five minutes we had made love and I had successfully carried out my responsibilities as a man. The epiphany was like church confirmation, making the team, and being admitted to a fraternity all rolled into one defining celebration.
“Don’t move,” she whispered. “I’ll be right back.”
While she got up and disappeared into the bathroom, I realized I was different now. I had crossed a threshold and discovered feelings I could never describe. My world had changed as I stepped over the border from yesterday to the rest of my life.
Cinching up my pants, I slurped my drink and wandered through her dining room and kitchen and then peeked into her bedroom, wanting to see where she presumably made love to her Marine. And I saw him, lying on the bed. Instinctively, I realized this nameless husband wasn’t napping. He was dead. There was a hole in his broad forehead and a tiny amount of blood had dripped down over one eye.
“Yep, he’s gone,” she said coming up behind me. “Sorry you had to see it.”
“Why, Lucille?” I was aghast seeing my first corpse.
“He abused me. Hit me. Remember when I wasn’t at work for a week? Broken rib. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I shot him this morning. With his own .38, the fucker.”
I stood speechless.
“Want another drink? Guess I should call the cops.”
She waved her hand. “At school in Connecticut. Maybe I should call her before the police do. What do you think?”
There was a trial and the state put Lucille away for 10 years, but she’d be out sooner if she showed sincere contrition for her sin and was paroled. I spent a couple of hours at the Montclair Police Department, but that was simply to fill in gaps in their report. No one suggested I was a correspondent to her love nest murder, and my name didn’t appear in the news story. My parents were understanding, knowing that being invited home by a co-worker for a drink isn’t wise, but it’s not a sin of commission.
“Nothing happened between you and that woman, did it?” Dad asked.
“Dad, she’s old enough to be my mother,” I exploded. And I did Lucille a deep disservice with that accusation after all she did for me that autumn afternoon. She was one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38.