Assistants*

"Office At Night" Edward Hopper, 1940  Oil on Canvas
“Office At Night” Edward Hopper, 1940 Oil on Canvas

*The following is fiction. Or vague facts blended with vivid fiction.

At work, I’ve been finding ways to inject my personality into things. My work space, for one. I cleaned out my desk in the first three days, which, if you can’t see my desk (which none of you can), doesn’t sound that impressive, but trust me, my coworkers were impressed.  

“Wow, you really tidied up around here,” they said.

I brought a pot of lavender colored flowers (but not Lavender) to place on my desk (though they have since wilted and I am now searching for a fall-appropriate replacement), and a stunning pot of orchids from Trader Joe’s for my boss’s office, which up until my arrival, had one hideous fake plant hiding in the corner. As I cleaned out my desk, I found an old TV mock-up that had been converted into a white board. Now, every morning, after the boss’s coffee has been brewed and his desk tidied, I return to my desk, dry-erase marker in hand and ask myself, “Whom would I like to quote from today?” And upon the small white board, I write the “quote of the day.”

He was amused on the morning I brought the flowers in, and even more amused on the first Friday I began writing the quote of the day – “Only Robinson Crusoe had everything done by Friday,” – Anonymous. And I took his amusement to signify, I hope, a thought that the new assistant would do things a little bit differently and put a bit more pride in her work than the last three.
First, there had been Gina, who was with him for three years and a fearless hammer when it came to getting things done and keeping rowdy, spendthrift executives in line. “I don’t care if you can get miles for that flight,” I imagine her saying, “Company policy means I’m booking you the cheapest flight and you’re gonna have to deal with it, window seat or not.”

“Gina was good,” my boss said, “She was very…(and here he made a motion with his hand, as though he was chopping a carrot).” The other ladies in the office (still youngish, but dinosaurs by company standards because they’ve been around longer than two years) confirmed this. “If your boss had to take a pill but was in the middle of a huge meeting, she would storm in with the pill, not even waiting for whoever was talking to pause, and say, “Take your pill.” And my boss would take the pill, a bemused expression on his face that broadcast to the other executives, “You wish your assistant cared this much.”

As far as my boss was concerned, Gina had her style. She had her system. Part of this system, I found out during my spring cleaning, consisted of a bulging filing cabinet that had a manila envelope for almost every individual document that came her way. But of course my boss wasn’t aware of this. As long as she got things done, and by the sound of it, she did. But like all living, breathing human beings with a mind of their own, Gina had plans that didn’t involve my boss or being his assistant for the rest of her life. One day, abruptly and out of the blue, she quit.

How she quit, considering what a thorough person she was perceived to be, left much to be desired. My boss came to work that morning with his usual smug smile. He came up the stairs, thinking what, I haven’t yet figured out. He walked past the accounting and finance cubicles, saying hello to whomever happened to meet his eye, and then past the President’s office, where Greg, my boss’s fit, handsome and adamantly independent (no assistant for him!) right-hand man sat typing furiously (one finger at a time) various housekeeping emails (your ladies are talking too much, coming in too late, spending too much money…) to this executive or that. All seemed well – there was the hum of productivity in the air and on top of that, the pointed clacking of a hundred keyboards at work because millions of dollars were being tallied up to amount to billions because of the the unmistakable fact that Consumer Electronics were being sold. Except he failed, through his smugness, to detect the wary glances the accounting ladies were casting his way. He mistook their apprehension for fear. In a way, it was…but it was for him rather than of him.

A few more steps brought him to Gina’s empty desk. Strange, he must have thought. In the microprocessors of his engineer’s brain, something began to whir. Gina’s computer was off. Another oddity. In the three years that she had worked for him, she had never not been there before him. Not – he checked his watch – at 9:30AM! He had never seen her at the desk without the computer’s glow cast upon her face, unless she had her backed turned to him searching for a file. Her purse, a battered black satchel with fraying straps and massive discoloration about its bottom from having been thrown from car to car, event to event, was not in its usual place.

He shrugged it off. Car trouble, he told himself. Though this seemed unlikely. Gina’s car had broken down once before, but she had arrived early as usual. My boss later found out she had called one of the hundred people in the company who owed her one favor or another, or were simply too afraid of her to say no, to chauffeur her to work and back. No, car trouble was about as likely as Gina showing up drunk. Perhaps her parents? She had once alluded to her parents’ being retired. Perhaps they were aging (though who wasn’t?) and had fallen ill… My boss realized then how little he knew of Gina. He knew that she knew plenty if not everything there was to know about him, yet he had not the slightest sliver of information regarding her needs and wants. Was she married? Single? Did she have children? No, of course not – that much my boss could be sure of. No woman could have children and still do the job as well as Gina did – but then she assisted nearly all the other executives in the company on a regular basis, many of whom were more petulant or demanding than any child – what was it to Gina if she had some young ones at home to look after as well? They were probably the most well-behaved and independent children in the neighborhood if not the state of California, if he had to guess. And now, my boss reeled his imagination in – he had made it a habit not to inquire after his assistants, or anyone, really, as it often led to unwanted conversations, invitations, solicitations – things he had little time for, and Gina was the consummate professional, letting no part of her personal life escape from the seamless orchestrations of his days.

Whatever it is that’s keeping her, Gina will have an explanation. The smug smile struggled slightly as pushed back the sliding glass door that led to his office, though surely, the slightest splinter of uncertainty had lodged itself. He strolled into his office and turned on the lights. Nothing was immediately different, though there was something missing…ah yes, the smell of fresh brewed coffee. Perhaps she bought new, less fragrant beans…but closer inspection revealed that the coffee maker was off – the pot alarmingly cool to the touch. My boss shuddered unexpectedly. The cool metal reminded him of hospitals and – he shuddered once again – urns.

Suddenly, he could feel a presence in the room. Gina was there. Or had been there, very recently. He considered himself an imaginative man and at that moment, his back to his desk, his face bent towards the cold coffee pot, he thought she might be sitting at his desk. A woman in control, she had always projected – Gina would not have seemed out of place at that desk with her arms crossed.

Slowly, he turned around, wondering if he’d just missed her on the way in, if she had been sitting there expecting him to greet her the whole time, tapping her foot impatiently with that stern look of hers, because it was time for a raise. A raise! Of course! Of course he would give her a raise. Was that it, Gina? Was that what the empty desk, the dormant computer, the cold coffee pot was all about? He turned around, hoping his face wasn’t as worried as he felt…but of course the chair was empty. And the desk, everything was in its place, having been organized and cleared the night before.

But there was a note. A post-it, placed lightly on his keyboard.

“I’m sorry,” it said in Gina’s forceful, capital letters, “I cannot do this anymore.”

Whether he was hurt by this, my boss didn’t say (likely, he was not), but Gina later wrote him a long email about her unexpected love affair with someone quite high up in the company – I was astonished to find out who, because the guy walks around as though an invisible skunk is taped beneath his nose – and it was getting too hard to be both his lover AND his boss’s (and on occasion, his) assistant. The story however, has a happy ending. Last my boss checked, Gina is still with Mr. Sourpuss, who is actually just a huge softy inside.

“Sourpuss?” My boss chortled, when I questioned Gina’s taste in men, “He’s not mean, he’s actually one of the nicest guys here. His face just looks like that. Inside he’s a yes man. He wants to make everyone happy.”

I wonder what Sourpuss thinks every time he walks by Gina’s old desk and sees me sitting there instead: “My you’ve got some big shoes to fill…”
I think, “Damn Gina’s probably still in bed, laughing about her employee “benefits.”

(And now I’m going to do that thing again where I finish this another time. But really, I will. And “Kindness too,” which strangely, is a little more complicated than writing about forebears whom I’ve never met.)

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