BY YVONNE JAYNE
This is a rewrite, based on reader feedback posted on CL, of a previously posted story of the same title. Copyright is held by the author.
I DID not want to walk into the room. She was in there directing a meeting and talking in her high pitched screw you voice. When I opened the door, I could feel her perfectionism splattered across the walls. I quietly slipped onto a chair. I never knew when she would put the spotlight on me and arrogantly twist me to shreds.
Today it was Charlene’s turn to bask in the spotlight. Poor Charlene. She was shy. She was like a turtle that lost its shell and was desperate to hide under anything; her table, her chair, her purse. Such a sweet woman, bringing cakes and flowers to everyone at work, now shifting uneasily in her seat, her shoulders slumped, as she braced for the assault. I wanted to comfort her, put my hands around her shoulders and protect her. Instead, I sat quietly like everyone else in the room, feeling unsteady at our annual meeting.
“Charlene, what did you say your figures are?” she asked in a high pitched voice.
“Um,” Charlene replied.
“Speak up, so everyone can hear you.”
“I said, 50,000 for the year.”
“Fifty thousand? What the . . .?” She walked over and grabbed the papers from the table in front of Charlene. She studied the papers intently.
There was a stiff silence, the kind of silence that harbors shame and fear, rolled into one starched professional meeting.
“I uh, couldn’t find, I mean, I tried…”
“Oh here it is,” the she queen shrieked. “This column is completely wrong. Payouts were much larger, and you forgot to include the professional expenses for last August. Where did you say you went to school?’
She threw down the papers as Charlene whimpered. No one said a word. All these professionals: social workers, department of human service workers, counselors gathered together in one room. All of them let her carry on like this at each meeting. Their silence revved her cruelty up a notch at each meeting.
We were gathering to go over budgets, the cut-backs and the readjustments so our agencies could move forward with less money. It happened every fiscal year, less money, more cuts, less services. I hated these meetings. They were tense and they were hostile , coated with a veneer of politeness; they were agonizing.
She was the spear-head for the agencies in our town. She went to congress and lobbied for social services money. She was not afraid to knock on senators’ doors, to rally, to attend parties and roll her eyes around with flattery to get what she wanted. Because of her, our demographics showed more families getting services than other places in the country.. Still, the cut-backs kept coming.
She was connected and she came from old money. She paid her employees well. She gave her employees payday advances when they had hard times. She loaned people her personal money when they were in marriage break- ups or in health crises.
She wore designer clothes and expensive hats. She invited people over to her fancy mansion for luncheons. When everyone arrived, they were nervous. They were supposed to have fun, but her tenseness permeated everything. She sat like a queen ready to decapitate heads as she pointed to her fancy cakes and catered plates of pricey foods. She sat quietly. She was at her worst when it was time to have fun. She could not play and it annoyed her when others could. Everyone sat and made small talk, counting the hours until it was time to go.
I sat in the meeting eyeing her warily. Her dark pants suit matched her dark hair and eyes. She appeared shadowy on this particular morning; something was off about her. She paced across the room and interrupted herself, changing course in the middle of her sentences several times. I never heard her stutter like this. She was usually well-spoken, impeccable with her citified educated speech.
Everyone cleared their throats and waited. The room felt hot and stuffy. There was a guardedness in the room, a stiff “at attention” feeling behind casual smiles.
“Where is the air conditioner?” she cried out. “Someone get it turned up.”
She accidentally knocked a book from the podium onto the floor.
“Someone come pick this up!” Several men jumped up and ran to get the book from the floor. “Hey Rick, you stay right where you are,” she cried out as one of the men stood up.
“What did you tell me last night Rick?”
“Yes, tell the group here what you told me last night.”
“I told you that you were at risk if you got audited.”
Rick nervously patted his balding spot, and his eyes flickered like a snake lying in wait for the shovel moving towards its head. Rick, the smartest accountant in town, faultless with his figures, was being lambasted by her. I could not believe my ears.. Rick was the one person she never harassed; he was her quiet, behind-the-scenes accountant, ready with the figures, always eager to please her.
“Stand here,” she said. She pulled him around to face the room. He nervously grinned at the audience.
“Now tell the people here what you said to me last night.”
“I’ve already told you.”
“What did you say is wrong with my figures?” she screamed.
“The traveling expenses do not line up. You know, the out of town expenses.”
“No, I do not know what you are talking about.”
“Kara, get up here right now. Tell the group what is wrong. What did you fail to report? Aren’t you supposed to be my assistant?’ she bellowed.
Kara, a flaxen- haired, petite, middle-aged woman who recently divorced, edged slowly towards Rick. She was pale and pinched. “I uh, I uh, reported everything. There is nothing wrong. There can’t be. I’ve double checked the books.”
“Ha! Rick, what do you think? Has she worked the books?” The she queen turned towards Rick with a look of disdain on her face.
“Well, I’m sure she —”
“Did you or did you not see her work the books Rick?”
Rick looked stricken. He had an outstanding reputation; he was married for 20 years with two children in high school, both accepted for college. He was a smiling, well- mannered man, never one to make a crisis or a fuss. Now he stood in front of a room full of professionals, looking stiff and uneasy. I was amazed how quickly his easy-going demeanour turned to a look of confusion. Kara stood next to him twisting her fingers, and looking at the floor. They both looked like they were about to be hung without a jury or a judge or a second chance.
“So,” she said, as she looked at them both, “did either of you work the books with the other?”
“Together?” Rick meekly asked.
“Not exactly,” Kara replied in a soft breathless voice.
“We talked about the books together.”
“Yes,” Kara replied as she twisted the edges of her collar and rubbed her hands together.
“During our late night meetings.” Kara said. She began to cry.
The she queen edged closer to them. “Late night meetings?”
“Yes,” Rick replied nervously, “ Kara wanted to update her abilities. I agreed to teach —”
Rick froze. Kara sobbed uncontrollably. Words flew out between her sobs. Words like “in love with Rick” “couldn’t help my feelings” “thought he would leave her for me” “thought he was bored in the marriage.”
There was a stunned silence in the room. The she queen moved away from them and gloated at the audience. Charlene ran up to Kara and pulled on her. “He did the same thing to me. The truth is, he will never leave his life. Never!”
Rick turned to them both. He said: “now girls” in a condescending tone. The colour was gone from his face. His career and reputation were flushing into the sewer. He looked rumpled in a pathetic way, as if he got caught stealing, as if he was unable to breathe in this moment, the worst moment of his soon-to-be-gone-work history. I was sure of it.
“Go sit down, Charlene. Since when were you invited up here?”she yelled.
“I’m warning her, that’s all.” Charlene’s dark frightened eyes turned bold with her inflamed passion. Her turtle shell flew across the room as she walked up to Rick and spat at him. There was a long sucked in silence as Charlene walked back to her seat with her air of indignation and self-righteous rage.
“What about our trip to . . .?” Rick burst out as he turned to the she queen.
She looked nonplussed. What are you accusing me of, Rick?”
“Remember how you and I . . . ?”
“What exactly are you saying Rick? Why don’t you tell the audience?”
“I’m not sure.” Rick looked down at his shoes. He was like a balloon trying to soar, and instead, remained deflated and leaky on the floor. I stared, feeling pity, feeling ashamed, hating her, needing her, feeling relief Rick wasn’t me.
I saw her ruin other employees, reveal their innermost shameful secrets in public, then call them in for a pay raise. Sometimes I wondered if she added her own money to the agency till. She was a huntress, a cat playing with her prey, pouncing and pouncing without mercy.
Today was different. Usually she was stealthy. Usually she pounced with an eerie calmness and her attack came out of nowhere. Today she was agitated, murderous; in a rage before she did her dirty deed.
She smiled and called out to the audience. “What do you say everyone? Shall we get on with business? My, what a day it has been. Okay, everyone sit down. We have lots of financial business to attend to.”
I watched the duo of clowns climb down from the stage. Kara and Rick. She worked them into her hands like obedient pigeons. And of course, she was crowing as usual. No one could touch her. If they tried, it was their ruination.
I heard her say to Rick as she passed him at the end of the meeting, “ You will get our books in proper order won’t you?”
“Right away,” he replied as he nervously tried to move away from her. She pulled on his suit and said, “Rick, you need to be in my office at eight sharp tomorrow. Be prepared to pay for travel expenses. Remember, I was on business. You weren’t. What did you think? All that room service was on the company? Think again, Rick. Bring your cheque book. You have six years of expenses to pay for. We’ll tally up the other costs tomorrow morning, won’t we?”
“Of course,” Rick replied in a dejected tone.
I saw the edges of her eyes crinkle as she smiled large and wide. She turned and began shaking hands and hugging everyone in the room. I looked down at my feet and scurried past her, afraid she would notice me. I felt her eyes boring into the back of my skull as I headed out the door.
I climbed into my car as quickly as I could and got on the fast lane of the freeway. As I fell asleep later that night, I saw her huge claws ripping into Rick’s suit. She drew blood and he was speechless as his mouth gaped open in horror. I closed my eyes to shut out he image, but his blood kept coming and coming. Nothing could stop it, not even my sleep.