It’s the space between Elle’s palms and her wrists that feel the cold. Though it is really autumn, mid-November, winter has started and she hasn’t gotten used to it. A large, fleece lined, flannel shirt that she ordered from L.L. Bean is draped over the back of her chair. She pulls it on and the long sleeves cover her wrists. The relief is instantaneous.
Elle returns to the computer in front of her and deletes a personal email that she isn’t supposed to be reading at work. Elle’s sister, Kat, wrote it. Her sister, who is her twin, is someone Elle usually ignores. Elle never tells her sister anything. And now she is reminded why.
An initial email from her sister had charmed Elle. She sent it to thank her twin for her birthday gift. The gift that Elle sent her sister was on sale, half price; a Lennox bowl that was originally fifty dollars. Kat had sent Elle a much more generous gift, this year, for their “milestone” birthday.
Elle bought a coat with her sister’s gift card. A coat! It was one hundred fifty dollars and she’d gotten change back.
Elle wore the coat when she met her sister for a glass of wine to celebrate their birthday. She did not tell her sister that her new coat -- quilted, navy blue with faux brown leather piping -- was bought with Kat’s gift card. They exchanged niceties, until the wine worked through their conversation. Elle watched the bartender, who probably wanted a nice tip. He would wink at Elle whenever he caught her eye and Kat noticed. Each time Elle exchanged a look with the bartender, her sister would repeat herself, talking and talking about her children, about her new grandchild, about the family celebration for her big birthday. A celebration to which Elle was not invited. Elle probably wouldn’t have gone if she had. Her sister’s family would be polite whenever she joined them, but no one in Kat’s family ever appeared glad to see her. Maybe it was just Elle, projecting her own thoughts on Kat’s clan. But she did not enjoy their company, either. She was relieved to have missed the family party. But at the same time, she was also hurt to not be invited.
At the wine bar, Elle responded to her sister with guarded comments, the ones she always used when she was with Kat; hmmm, oh really? that’s nice. When the bartender placed their tab between them, it was just over eighteen dollars. Elle pulled out a twenty and Kat gave her two fives.
Elle placed one of her sister’s fives on top of the twenty she had placed on the tab.
“No, no that’s too much!” Kat murmured, withdrawing the five and replacing it with a single dollar bill.
“That’s not enough,” Elle’s tone was sharp, though she had wanted to be civil. She placed the second five that Kat had given her on the tab and removed the dollar bill. Because of the wine she had drunk, Elle didn’t realize until the next day that Kat had contributed six dollars to Elle’s nineteen. Kat must have noticed, too.
Before they met for wine and she realized there had been a birthday party to which she’d been excluded, Elle had replied to Kat’s “thank you” email, mentioning that she was about to retire. It was something she should not have revealed and now she is reminded why.
What Kat emailed back was a list of what she does “now that she’s retired.” It’s not the mention of daily Mass each morning, or the time her sister has allotted for volunteer activities. All things that make Elle cringe and are typical of Kat’s “holier than thou” bullshit. It’s that Kat has never held a job. Her husband supports her.
Oh, why does Elle care? What difference does it make that Kat is saying she is retired when she really isn’t? Kat always does this. She is insufferable. Thirty years ago, Elle rode in Kat’s car, eight hours to their brother’s wedding. He got married on a boat in Salem Harbor. Massachusetts. Kat drove because she is afraid to fly. She doesn’t like to drive over bridges, either. So, Elle took the wheel for the Delaware Memorial Bridge and again for the Tappan Zee. And though they discussed expenses, Kat waved off Elle’s offer.
“I’ve got to drive up anyway,” she’d told Elle. “And you are doing me a favor by driving over the bridges for me.”
But Kat asked Elle for thirty-six dollars for gasoline when they pulled up to Elle’s apartment building at the end of the trip. “You told me I didn’t have to pay for anything,” she stammered, her hand on the passenger’s door latch.
“No! I didn’t. Fair is fair. And this trip cost me more than thirty-six dollars, by the way.”
Elle couldn’t understand why. They had not paid for a hotel, staying instead, in their girlhood bedroom. It was on the top floor of their parents’ house on Lafayette Street, near what used to be an old church that has been converted into the Salem Witch Museum.
Growing up in the large, shingled, four story house, Elle and Kat had the entire single room in the attic to themselves. Their brother was on the second floor, in a smaller bedroom near their parents.
Their mom and dad, who frowned at her brother’s refusal to marry in a church, no longer slept together. Their father had taken over their brother’s old bedroom.
Neither parent appeared to care that their new sleeping arrangements were obvious to their daughters. It was the first Elle knew of it. Had her sister already known?
Her brother had.
“Oh, they’re ridiculous, Elle,” he’d told her when she’d sought him out after the ceremony. “They’ve been sleeping in separate rooms for a while.”
She’d also asked him if they’d changed their minds about his marriage; about their disapproval.
“Who cares?” he’d shaken his head, adding that someone like his bride would probably only come along once in his life. He couldn’t let her get away.
Elle remembered that. She believed that she had just met the man she couldn’t let go. They married three years later.
Both her brother and her sister have now been married for more than thirty years. They are lucky. The shame Elle feels each time she encounters either of her siblings and their spouses never fades.
Elle is alone. A failure.
Her marriage ended badly. She has been single for twenty-seven years. Exactly the same number of years she has worked for the government.
There is a knock on Elle’s office door.
A man Elle recognizes from the investigative division, stands in her doorway. She interviewed him for a story she wrote for the employee newsletter, which she edited for twenty-five years. Twenty-five years as the publication’s editor-in-chief and now the asshole tells her, “Hey, I have a flat tire.”
She wants to tell him to fuck off, that they have a maintenance contract, that he should just call them. But she doesn’t, instead she asks, “Don’t you know how to change a tire?”
“I have a heart condition.”
Right. Elle shakes her head, “Call the number on your maintenance card. You have it, don’t you?” It is hard for Elle to hide her annoyance. The guy must recognize her. He knows she doesn’t belong here, in the garage. That she does not change flat tires.
“So, you’re not going to change my tire?”
Elle swallows. She takes as deep a breath as she can, filling up her chest. When she has let out the air, she shakes her head and says, “No.”
Her hand rises as she speaks and pushes the door shut. He is knocking again as she clicks the door’s lock.
“Call the number. I’m busy,” she shouts through the closed door.
The phone rings and Elle ignores it. When its red message light comes on, she plays the message. A woman complains about the relatively new car assigned to her. The hand brake sticks and the car feels like it is going to “conk out.” There is a slight “ding” on the passenger side of the windshield and the rubber lining the door frame is loose. Elle’s impulse to delete the message is strong.
For the last two of Elle’s twenty-seven-year career, her office has been in a corner of the government facility’s garage. It is a drafty, mouse infested shell of concrete, built more than a half century ago. Elle hates it. She shares a toilet with the maintenance crew.
She is too old to apply for another job. No one wants a government employee who is
over sixty. What she produced during her career is no longer perceived as valuable.
Along with the employee newsletter, every marketing piece, the annual report and all the speeches anyone was asked to give were once her responsibility. Elle wrote feature articles for local news outlets and the language for the web pages, once the facility embraced the World Wide Web. Since she’s been sent to the garage, Elle parks cars. Pumps gas. She oversees the maintenance contract.
Elle retires tomorrow, therefore, she does not answer the message. She doesn’t delete it, either. Someone else can deal with it.
Kat’s lie about retiring haunts Elle. It reminds her of the one Kat told about being in the National Honor Society in high school.
Kat’s academic record was so bad, she had to repeat a grade and graduated the year after Elle did. Yet she stood at a holiday party, several decades after the fact, and proclaimed that she was in the National Honor Society.
Elle attributes Kat’s fiction to jealousy. They are not identical twins; Elizabeth and Katherine. Kat, who was born first, is shorter than Elle. Elle is also slimmer than her sister. Kat had four pregnancies and is now the grandmother of six. Elle has no children.
Elle’s distrust of Kat has lasted fifty-two years; since they were thirteen. Elle remembers her teacher, Mr. Williams, as the catalyst. Mr. Williams had an ugly first name; Walter. And he wore black framed glasses.
Elle should never have told her sister what he did. Never.
Kat told their mother, who slapped Elle; across the face, her chest, her arms. The slaps stung and Elle could not catch her breath. She couldn’t speak, except to scream, NO!
She should have screamed that at Mr. Williams.
Elle was alarmed at the end of class when Mr. Williams said, “Elizabeth, stay for a moment, won’t you?”
Certain that she’d done something wrong, something awful, she stood next to her desk while everyone around her filed out of the room.
“Sit, sit,” Mr. Williams had said, lifting the top of the desk beside her and bending into the seat. The plywood desktops were attached to the seats. Elle’s lap was hidden under hers. She’d folded her hands, cold with fright, keeping them out of sight in her lap.
Mr. Williams placed his hand on her thigh, hidden also, under her plywood desktop. She remembers her heart beating. Her mouth was dry.
He mentioned her work. Her excellent work. She cannot recall the words that he spoke because she was focused on his hand. Her thigh burned beneath his grasp. He kept it there and she wanted to rise, to leave. To get away from him.
Mr. Williams stopped talking and moved his hand to hers, still folded under the desk. He pulled her hands apart and placed Elle’s right palm between his legs. Pressing down her fingers, his hand on hers, she felt the spine of what she later realized was his penis.
Elle was selected for the National Junior Honor Society that year, with Walter Williams support. He stood at the podium, on a stage that Elle had to walk across to accept her National Junior Honor Society pin from him. She wanted to feel pride. To own her achievement. But Mr. Williams scared her. She ground her teeth before she took the pin from him. Relieved that he did not try to pierce the material of her blouse with the pin, Elle couldn’t look at him when he placed it in her palm. She held her breath until she was back in the row of chairs, facing the stage.
Elle did not know if her mother realized that the man on the stage was the same man who had placed her daughter’s hand on his penis. Her mother sat in the audience and watched Elle, a smile soft on her face.
Elle moved on to high school, a new life. A new school. She was free of her fear of Mr. Williams and kept her distance from all her teachers. Pushing herself, she was selected for the National Honor Society for high schoolers. Then, when she graduated, Elle won a full merit scholarship to a local woman’s college. The college has since admitted men, but there were none in Elle’s class. And she had no male professors.
But her mother told her she didn’t need to go to college. That some man would take care of her. Elle was the first woman in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Elle has stopped caring about any of it. She is rude, now. It’s as though she was never a scholar, a college graduate. Someone who had earned a spot in the executive suite. Elle had carpet on her office floor. A window that overlooked pear trees and the facility’s wide lawn. A receptionist screened her visitors and escorted them to her office. Now, she is treated like she is the lowest employee in the entire government facility.
Elle is angry. She knows she is angry.
So many former colleagues with whom she had to work now treat her like a servant.
Elle will certainly not miss her hellish, hour-long commute through a tunnel for which she pays one dollar and forty cents each way – first south, then north. The north bound tunnel has just shut down for repairs and she has had to find another way. Baltimore has a bridge and another, wider tunnel from which she can also choose, but neither of them lead directly to her office. For the first two days of this week, she has driven over the bridge and then through the other tunnel, and her commute has been longer and more congested.
Recently, Elle had to have a tooth pulled. It had a fifty-year-old stem in it, from her first root canal. The stem that replaced the root had abscessed and she was concerned that the bacteria would infect her brain and kill her.
It would have taken a year for the bacteria to reach her brain, the dentist told her. Nevertheless, the tooth, or what was left of it, had to come out. What was pulled was probably an expensive crown, but she couldn’t remember.
Now she has a hole in her smile. It looks bad. The dentist sold her on a partial, for which she has spent $800, since it was not covered by her dental insurance.
She can’t speak plainly with the damn thing and it covers the roof of her mouth. The very thing still left to her that gives her joy. The roof of the mouth is where flavors are savored. Wine. Oh, how Elle loves to let the first sip of wine stay there between her tongue and the roof of her mouth. The taste is exquisite. Something to which she looks forward.
Because sex is nonexistent for her, now. Food and wine are all that are left.
Sex, she remembers as a secret she shared with someone else. Her husband, for example. When she thinks of him -- his face, reddened with effort -- hovers over her. Did he realize how angry he looked when he fucked her?
Elle’s connection to him, their shared bond, was a lie.
The next time the phone rings, it is Elle’s supervisor; she can tell by the name on the caller ID. She answers, of course. He tells her he is coming to see her, that he wants to check, to be sure she is there. Where else would she be, she wants to say, but she doesn’t. Elle stands in the garage’s open doorway, watching the employee parking lot that stretches between her and the main building where she used to work and where her supervisor sits behind a big, mahogany desk on a carpeted floor. The walk takes five minutes, but it is a half hour before he appears. When she finally sees him, he is carrying a large package, wrapped in Styrofoam.
Fifteen years younger than she is, her supervisor continues to taunt her about leaving, “It must be nice.” His voice is sarcastic. He does not sound friendly.
“I was in high school when you were born. I’m done.” She retorts. But she does pull out a pair of scissors and slices the tape holding the Styrofoam wrapping. It is her proclamation. She manages an appreciative, “Ah.” What looks like a real signature from the governor, for whom she did not vote, is in the lower right corner. Next to it is a large, gold plated seal for the state. She guesses that the seal is about three inches in diameter. Impressive.
At the end of the workday, Elle carries the proclamation to her car, laying it on the back seat. By the time she gets home, she has forgotten it. The night is so dark, she cannot see it on the back seat.
The next morning, she discovers it when she gets back in the car. Sighing, she ignores it as she maneuvers her last commute through miserable traffic. Elle selects the wide tunnel and a goddamn extra-long black limousine cuts in front of her from a double lined lane. The vehicle is prohibited in the tunnel, but she does not press on her horn to show the driver that he is wrong and she is proud of herself.
When she gets to the facility’s garage, the maintenance men are unloading snow blowers. They are pulling them out of a shed directly opposite the last parking spot which she takes.
She does not acknowledge the maintenance crew as she walks -- she thinks with glee for the last time – over the cracked asphalt, the broken patches of crumbled stones, to the garage.
She isn’t in her office long when the noise begins. The men have turned on all of the snow blowers. And they have placed them near the corner of the garage where her office is located. The noise is deafening. The exhaust seeps through the gaps that surround her window and office door.
Soon, she has a headache. The phone rings and she does not answer it.
She opens the door and yells, “TURN THOSE OFF!”
She pulls the L.L. Bean fleece shirt from the back of her chair and storms out of the office, back over the asphalt. She passes her parked car, taking big gulps of clear, cold air.
Her head pounds. She is angry.
Elle believes that Kat has had a better life than she has. That Kat has “retired” is galling. Kat’s husband was the only man she ever dated. He is kind, too. Elle has always liked him and does not think that Kat appreciates him. Her twin does not understand how much her husband has enriched her life. Elle’s mother treated her father the same way. She thinks her mother may have kicked him out of their bedroom. She stayed in their queen-sized bed while her father slept in the twin bed her brother abandoned when he left home.
Her mother called her a slut when Kat told her about Mr. Williams. What Elle had done was sinful. Serious.
But Walter Williams had manipulated her. She was not the one to blame. Oh, Elle’s anger was dark. Her mother told her that she was worthless and she had wanted to run away. To be someone else. But Elle was thirteen. What could she do?
Elle would retreat to her side of the large, attic bedroom she shared with Kat, and read. Blocking her sister out, she’d turn her back on Kat and find solace in books. Elle read Louisa May Alcott, Lucy Maude Montgomery, Marguerite Henry and eventually Fitzgerald, Cather, Updike, Munro. Their work revealed things that Elle would never have known. What a girl with a reputation does at a party, according to Fitzgerald. How to survive unfairness and hardship as Cather’s Ántonia had done. And Updike, oh, Updike showed Elle what men really thought of women.
Elle’s parents are now dead. She never trusted her sister after the incident with Mr. Williams. Kat does not know that Elle has spent the last two years of her life working in a filthy garage.
She will never tell Kat, of course. She never tells her anything. Not that she was pregnant when she married, or that she miscarried seven weeks later. The water in the toilet bowl was pink. Not even red. But she knew what had happened. The panic is still vivid.
Elle’s life would change when she lost the baby. She was sure of that. She knew he didn’t love her. She had always known.
Elle’s husband had told her that she had gotten pregnant on purpose. That she’d wanted to be married, like her twin, Kat.
Walking across the employee parking lot, Elle tries to clear her head, but the ache in her skull is stubborn. She heads for the front door of the facility’s main building where she used to work on the top floor. She opens the glass door and does not climb the stairs to the executive floor. She heads toward the restroom near the print shop on the basement floor. It is much cleaner than the one she shares with all the maintenance men in the garage.
A woman in the restroom smiles at her. “Good morning,” she says when she comes out of the stall. Elle mumbles something back. Gibberish. She doesn’t care if she appears rude. Or what the woman must think.
Elle leaves the restroom and someone she knows vaguely is walking toward her in the long corridor that runs from one end of the building to the other. He has obviously just arrived for work. He says, “Hi, how are you?”
And she murmurs, “Morning,” before turning to a side entrance and escaping him. She opens the glass door and walks around the parking lot again, trying to calm down.
She hums “Scotland the Brave,” dum dum de dum dum dum dum. Her tongue roves back and forth on the surface of the partial affixed to the roof of her mouth. Her head continues to throb.
Elle can still smell exhaust in her office in the garage. So she grabs her purse and heads back out again. This time, she walks through the gate in the fence that surrounds a shopping center next door.
She heads for the Panera Bread on the far side of the shopping center’s property. Elle doesn’t want coffee. That may increase her headache. But the walk helps and she continues to breathe cold, clean air.
Opening the Panera Bread’s side door, she remembers that she has not been inside since she was sent to work in the garage, two years before.
She waits in line and searches the glass display case for the one item she always craved; the orange scones. There are several on a large, white platter. Each is glazed with light orange frosting. She buys one and carries it back to the garage in a paper bag.
Elle thinks of the monthly annuity she will receive because she is retiring on the comfortable salary she earned when she worked in the executive suite. It is tens of thousands of dollars more than the job in the garage pays. She knows because she looked it up in the former employee’s file that was left in the garage office, probably by mistake.
Elle’s panic when she was told she was being transferred to the garage was slightly alleviated when she heard the words, “Your salary will remain the same.”
She immediately began calculating her escape. Her retirement. She has no one with whom she must share her pension, no one who tells her how to spend it. She is going to travel to all the places she has wanted to see; Ireland, Yellowstone National Park, Bermuda.
The snow blowers are gone and she cannot smell exhaust when she pulls off her L. L. Bean fleece. She opens the paper bag, pulls out the orange scone and realizes she has the partial in her mouth. She places the scone back in the bag and plucks at the partial’s wire that encircles the tooth next to the one that is missing.
The phone rings. Elle can tell it is the head of the maintenance crew, because his name appears on the telephone’s screen. She sucks the partial back in place, affixing it with the tip of her tongue.
“I have something for you, stay put,” he says when she picks up the phone’s receiver.
A few seconds later she hears his “shave and a haircut, two bits” knock on her door.
She opens it. He is carrying red roses in a clear, plastic cone and a card.
“It’s supposed to snow this weekend. I told the crew to prep the snow blowers, get them out of storage. They’re sorry.” He hands her the card.
When she opens it, she sees that every one of the maintenance men have signed it.
Tears form. Ducking her head, Elle turns away from him and quickly wipes her eyes. Smiling, she cannot feel the partial in her mouth as she looks at him, his shaved head, mustache, gray teeth. She accepts the roses he places in her hands.