On The Train – By Melonie Magruder
Editors Note: This story contains adult references and adult language.
At the Metro station Barbes-Rochouart, a group of perhaps twenty teenagers boarded the train; thankfully in the front section of the car, so I didn’t have to move from my seat. It being after midnight, I wasn’t keen to stand for another eight stops before I got off. But they were unconscious of being crowded together, giddy with the fullness of their evening, hungry for whatever came next, hormones nowhere near ready to call it a day.
They were dressed in jeans, serious boots. The girls all with three inches of belly showing below their shirts, their skin so smooth you could forgive them the hint of baby fat still clinging to them. How old were they? Fifteen? Sixteen? The luckier boys shaved a shadow of a demi-barbe onto their chins – what was known in the old days as a goatée – and you wondered if their parents had objected when they came home for dinner some Sunday evening with their eyebrows pierced.
The girls sat in each other’s laps, draped themselves over one another, vaguely stroked each other’s shiny hair or shoulder, giggled unceasingly. The boys didn’t laugh. They tried to keep themselves from staring at the smooth skin below the girls’ shirts or the breasts swelling toward them. They chattered emphatically in English – a student trip abroad – cried “Oh, my Gaaaad!” every third sentence, banged on the windows. One girl wore fuzzy pink gloves and a scarf tied, French-style, around her throat and her cheeks were pink like her hands. Twenty or thirty thousand years ago, these boys would be f**king these girls without so much as a by-your-leave because, at the Dawn of Man, there didn’t exist a society to frown on immediate sexual gratification and that is what boys this age have always wanted.
The girl with pink gloves abruptly got up and came down the aisle toward me, plonking into the seat opposite me, her face a firestorm. Another girl detached herself from the group and followed, sliding into the seat next to her. This girl’s hair was carelessly braided into impossible, thick plaits and she stuck the end of one in her mouth as she put her arm around her friend’s shoulder. The first girl started to cry, her tears rolling off her chin and landing on her pink gloves, beading up on the fuzz. The other girl rubbed them in. I studied my Figaro.
“I really don’t care, anymore,” said the gloved one, “I really don’t. I’m, like, so over it.” Her friend murmured soothingly.
“I mean, it’s his choice, I don’t care. Forget Normandie.”
“You don’t need him, anyway.”
“And he’s always so… you know?”
“I know, you’re right. You’re absolutely right.”
“And, I can just see him there, like, soooo N’yah this and N’yah that.”
“Yeah, whatever. Like, who cares? I sure don’t!” She heaved a wet sigh, sniffed defiantly and stared out the window.
The other girl spat out her braid and dug in her bag, producing a box of Petits Écoliers. They sat quietly, munching the cookies.
“These are good,” said the first girl.
“Yeah,” said her friend. “I wonder if we can get them at home?”
“They’re much better than those coconut things this morning.”
“Oh, my Gaaaaad!”
“Those were gross.”
“Yeah. Totally useless.”
The train pulled into my station and the doors clanged open, but I sat there, not wanting to leave them. The buzzer sounded and I barely made it out the doors, before they banged shut, and I walked back to my apartment in the darkness.
When the woman walked into the lobby, her footsteps echoed so loudly in the vast, glassed-in space that she almost tiptoed to the bank of elevators. But the first set of elevators only went to the twelfth floor.
She looked around the gigantic steel sculptures that resembled nothing so much as giant dental apparatus and didn’t see anything that indicated a passage to higher floors. Skirting around the first set of elevators, she spied a second set, that took you from the twelfth to the twenty-ninth floor and she wondered how the architect had come to settle on those particular floors as way stations.
There was also an express elevator to the penthouse, but you obviously had to employ an electronic pass card to use that one. She didn’t see the elevator that took you to the penthouse.
As she waited for her elevator to arrive, two young men in slick gray suits and soft leather shoes hurried up. They couldn’t have been more than twenty-eight or thirty years and their faces had the unlined features of similarly unlined lives. One of them jangled his keys in his pocket while waiting for the elevator to arrive.
“I would have had that contract, man. I nailed it! But that bitch in accounting wouldn’t approve my budget.”
“Nailed it. They were like jello over my power points.”
“You goin’ to the game tonight?”
“Nah, I’m meeting Sharon.”
“They’re three and one!”
“I know. What can I say? Boogie, woogie.”
“Shit, man. Can I have your tickets?”
“What the f**k have you done for me lately?”
The elevator whispered open and the woman stepped in ahead of the young men. She stepped to the back of the elevator, turned around and stood looking at the floor. One of the guys pushed a button and the doors whispered shut.
“Twenty-six, please,” the woman said. The guy pushed the button without turning around to look at her. Nobody said a word as the elevator shot upward.
In the offices of Delaney, Webber and Potts, the woman gave her name to the infant at the front desk. The girl spoke into her mouthpiece, then turned to the woman. “Mr. Shapiro’s secretary will be out to get you in a moment.”
After admiring the view of the Hollywood sign above a layer of brown haze, the woman sat in the spacious waiting room and checked her portfolio. Its contents were admittedly thin: two copies of a resume, a five by seven portrait photo that had been taken five years earlier (and which she desperately hoped still looked like her), a three-year-old issue of a literary magazine she had published in a former life. The infant looked over at her and smiled brightly.
“Would you like some coffee or tea or anything?”
With a reciprocally pleasant expression, the woman shook her head. “No, thank you.”
She managed to get through the entire October issue of Advertising Today and an article on genetic engineering in brown rats from a six-month-old copy of National Geographic (disdaining the stack of People magazines) before Mr. Shapiro’s secretary showed up.
“Good-morning-sorry-to-keep-you-waiting.” Brief, firm handshake. “Please follow me.”
The woman did so down a maze of hallways, past the office kitchen where the odor of microwaved burritos wafted. They arrived at an outer office with good and business-like furniture, two lit-up computer screens, two telephones and piles of paper all over the desk.
Indicating that the woman should have a seat opposite her, the secretary arrayed herself behind her desk and introduced herself. “I’m Angela Morris and I’ve been Mr. Shapiro’s personal assistant for six years. He asked me to fill you in a bit on the routine here and how he works before you go in to see him.” The woman nodded her understanding.
“We run all Mr. Shapiro’s personal correspondence on Word and both computers are programmed with the latest Mac software. Accounting is on a new program – Thalys – but it shouldn’t be too hard to learn. You can do a spread sheet, I assume?”
The woman couldn’t, but she nodded vigorously. The secretary went on, opening drawers in a heavy oaken filing cabinet behind her.
“Client profiles are here. Sales data here. Past correspondence here. But most everything is on this computer or in back up discs down here. I usually find that he’ll give me any correspondence first thing in the morning, after I’ve confirmed his appointments. So, I advise you to know exactly where he is going all day before you go in to see him. Oh, and he likes his coffee black, no sugar. Any questions?”
The woman nodded. “What does Mr. Shapiro like?”
The secretary rolled her eyes. “What’s he like? Well…”
“No,” the woman interrupted. “What does he like? I’m sure that anybody who shows up here can run an office. What will get me the job?”
Angela appraised the woman coolly, then half smirked. “He doesn’t like to be wrong, honey. Just remember that.”
The woman remembered to pull in her stomach and to walk not too eagerly, but briskly enough into the room. Mr. Shapiro rose and met her just as she arrived at his desk, hand extended. He was on the darker side of fifty, with receding hair carefully coiffed and a stomach that spoke of too many martinis after his Wednesday and Saturday afternoon golf matches. He was dressed in soft, camel-colored Gianfranco Ferré trousers and a white cashmere turtleneck. She could see his jacket hanging across the back of his leather desk chair. Versace. His gold rings pressed uncomfortably into her flesh when they shook hands.
“Melinda Harrow, is it? Nice to meet you. Great. May I call you Melinda?”
“Of course, Mr. Shapiro.”
“Please have a seat. I assume Angela gave you the run down? Don’t believe anything she said. I’m not as bad as that.”
Another man’s barking laughter made Melinda jump and she turned to see that someone else was sitting in the office, a man she had not noticed when she first came in. He was dressed similarly to Mr. Shapiro. He did not get up.
“Oh, don’t mind him, he just likes to check out the new blood I bring in,” Shapiro said.
She went to shake hands. “Melinda Harrow. Nice to meet you.” He took her hand and nodded, but said nothing further, so she returned to sit in the chair in front of the desk. She held her portfolio on her lap, unsure whether she should pull out her small treasures now or later.
“So,” said Shapiro, returning to his own chair. It creaked in a leathery way when he sat. “Tom Forrest spoke very highly of you. Very highly. Said you had run your own business, so you were on top of the curve.”
The woman wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but nodded self deprecatingly.
“Thank you, Mr. Shapiro. It’s true. I published a literary magazine for five years. I have a copy here.” She pulled it out of her portfolio, regretfully noting that it was a little more dog eared than she would have liked, and handed it to him. He flipped through it disinterestedly.
“And your resume?” She pulled it out as well and handed it to him.
“I know you will see that I don’t have a huge recent employment history, Mr. Shapiro, but Tom said that you were looking for someone who could… well, think independently. I believe I qualify. And I certainly know how to, well, how to get things done. Tom told me how your firm was on the cutting edge of industry advertising.”
“Hmmm.” He was quiet a moment, studying her resume and she inwardly cringed, realizing how pathetic its entries looked.
“Of course, I had a lot of experience on both sides there,” she rattled on. “When you run your own literary magazine, you learn everything, from layout to sales.”
“Why did you stop?”
“Basically…I guess I got tired of chasing my accounts receivables to satisfy my accounts payables.”
She was very aware of the man sitting silently behind her and not sure if she should include him in any of her comments.
Shapiro went on. “And you’ve been here in L.A. for how long?”
“About six months.”
“And what brought you here? Southern California isn’t exactly le Rive Gauche.” He pronounced it with a very American accent.
She hesitated a fraction of a second too long. “Personal reasons.” Kicked herself inwardly.
“Melinda, may I ask how old you are? It doesn’t say here on your resume.”
The woman was surprised that he asked so bluntly the question she knew was coming. She took a breath and looked him in the eye.
“I’m old enough to know better than to answer a question like that, Mr. Shapiro.”
His small, but perceptible frown confirmed her guess that he was unaccustomed to negative responses. She hastened to recover.
“But I have two children aged twelve and sixteen. You may draw your own conclusions.”
He looked past her to the man sitting behind and chuckled. The intercom buzzed and Angela’s voice came floating through.
“Mr. Shapiro, Frank Werther is on line one.”
“Werther?” Shapiro looked startled. “Take a message. Wait a minute. Let’s let Melinda speak to him. Give us a chance to see how she does.”
The last thing Melinda wanted to do was to speak to Frank Werther, but she dutifully went out to Angela’s desk to take the call, leaving the door open to Shapiro’s office. Clearing her throat, she mentally cleared the decks and smiled before she picked up the receiver.
“Good morning, Mr. Shapiro’s office.”
“Lemme speak to David. Now.” The woman could hear Werther’s voice faintly from the speaker phone in Shapiro’s office.
“I’m afraid Mr. Shapiro is unavailable at the moment. May I ask who is calling?”
“Lissen, I know that bastard is sitting behind that desk in his Guccis. Lemme speak to him.”
“Perhaps I can give Mr. Shapiro a message for you.”
“O.K. I got it. I got it. You tell that motherf**ker to call Frank Werther now. Not before the end of the day, not before his 4 o’ clock blow job, not before lunch. Now!”
“I assume Mr. Shapiro has your number, Mr. Werther?”
“You better believe that c*ck sucking asshole has my number, honey. You tell him that I don’t have the Deloitte issue TODAY, I’m gonna come over and pull his balls up through his asshole so far he’s smelling his own shit. You got that? You got that exactly?”
“Yes, Mr. Werther. I will give him your message with all the fervor you intend.” The line was abruptly disconnected. Angela was studying her with raised eyebrows.
“Not bad, dear, not bad.”
Shapiro and the other man were laughing like hyenas when she came in.
“Well, Melinda, you can see we step lively around here.”
The other man was actually sniggering in his chair. She was about to sit down again, when Shapiro stopped her with a cutting gesture of his hand.
“No need, Melinda. I see you can handle yourself. I’m speaking with another couple of candidates today and we should get back to you within the week.”
The woman was a bit non-plussed. “If there is anything else I can do for you, Mr. Shapiro. Um, I have several references, if you like…”
“Just leave them with Angela. Thank you.”
She held out her hand awkwardly over his desk. “Well, thank you again, Mr. Shapiro. It was nice meeting you. I look forward to your call.”
She nodded to the other man on her way out, closing the door behind her.
The two men looked at each other for a silent moment after she left.
“Nice t*ts,” said the other man.
Shapiro grunted. “Come on,” he said, “We’ll be late for our tee off.”
The woman hurried quickly out of the glassed-in edifice toward the covered garage. She hesitated as she pulled the ticket out of her bag and then abruptly turned toward the street. She left her car in the parking lot – at $8.50 an hour – and caught the bus at the corner. She rode for a long time, in whatever direction, before she got off again and strolled up the street, which was bounded on both sides by Nail Salons and leather shops and Gap boutiques. She saw a pair of pink gloves in the window of one of the shops and went in to buy them.