Only one thing stopped me from punching her. My hands were clenched into fists, my heart pumping. But I knew the other girls would probably call the cops so I managed to control my rage.
Lexi tossed her sparkling blonde hair and sneered at me with her hands on her slender hips. Her long manicured nails were painted vampire red.
“Now, don’t be so fussy, Emily!” She scolded me like a naughty two-year-old. “We all have to pitch in. Get busy!”
I choked and managed to stammer, “Lexi, I was hired to sell art, not to wash the toilets. It’s not in my job description!”
I didn’t call her a bitch, though the word was on the tip of my tongue.
She sniffed to show her disappointment. “Well of course, darling, but sometimes we must…rally for the cause! Don’t be silly now, there are some very big clients on the way over. Girls!” Lexi called to my sisters-in-pain, the other two Gladstone Gallery employees. They were standing in the doorway of the storage room, their eyes bugging out of their heads. “Quickly! Dust all the sculpture and pull this list of paintings out of the storage area. Emily can empty the trash.” She looked over at me and nodded imperiously. She was sending me the message that the case was closed and I had better obey.
I’d like to see her down on her knees on the gritty floor in front of the porcelain throne, I thought. Being treated like a servant instead of a colleague was just not tolerable. My heart was pounding in my ears and my breath was ragged, panting. I’d have to lash out or get out.
“Goodbye, Lexi. It’s obvious this isn’t working,” I said shakily, grabbing my jacket and bag from the office and heading for the front door. I walked across the floor quickly, flinging the door open. Everyone spun around in surprise.
“Oh no you don’t!” Lexi screamed, running across the gallery to clutch at me as I slipped out into the fresh air. “You can’t leave at a time like this!” She caught my arm with her claws and twirled me around to face her.
“Forget it, Lexi. Sorry about the short notice, but…” I looked down at her nails cutting into my arm, “…it’s over. I quit!”
Sheer fury shone from her flashing blue eyes. She started to open her mouth to say something, but I never heard it. I yanked my arm away and strode down the sidewalk, stopping at the corner where I turned to look back. She was still standing there in the doorway, staring at me with her mouth hanging open and an ugly scowl on her face.
As a matter of fact, she looked ridiculous. The whole scene suddenly seemed ridiculous. I started to giggle.
She saw me grinning and got even angrier, stamping her foot. Then I totally lost it and laughed outright, it was such a cartoon-character thing for her to do. I turned and scurried to my car, giggling madly all the way. People on the sidewalk gave me odd looks and a wide berth.
I felt overwhelming relief and sort of floated home to my apartment. I honestly don’t even remember driving, but somehow I arrived there and parked the car. There were better things in store for me. I would be fine. The bills weren’t due for another few weeks, anyhow.
I had avoided a huge screaming fight today. Getting my anger under control without smacking her was a very positive step. My former therapist would approve. Now I could leave the whole humiliating episode behind me in the past, where it belonged.
It had been nearly a month since I'd quit my job. When that “fight or fly” instinct had kicked in I flew, right out the door. But now I was watching my bank balance dwindle, penny by penny. The true cost of impulsivity, I suppose. The great new job I was so certain to find had still not appeared and financial anxiety was wearing me down.
The night before answering the ad in the newspaper I had one of my dreams. The last thing I did before turning out the light was to update my checkbook. I should have known better. When I finally dozed off, the nightmare came.
At the end of a long dark hallway was a closed door. A twinge of dread flickered over me when I saw it. My chest tightened and the urge to run hit me with a swelling rush, but I was pulled along like a hooked fish on a line.
A scrabbling noise came from behind the door, and a dark shadow appeared in the gap at the bottom. My uncontrollable dream-hand reached out to turn the knob and push, revealing a winding stairway that led up into a tower. I looked down to see my wavering foot move toward the first step, and tried desperately to wake up. I moaned and my eyes fluttered open for an instant, but I was quickly sucked back down into the vision.
Drawn up that stairway one excruciating step at a time, I emerged at the top to peer into a little round room. It was filled with dusty shadows. Big low windows looked out on three sides. Something about the windows made me nervous and I realized they contained no glass or screens, but were wide open.
Another compelling tug drew me further into the room. I tried to resist, but an invisible hand pushed the middle of my back and I lurched forward. Shadows swirled, wisping up against my ankles like a cat.
Then I saw it. Yellow eyes smoldered in a fanged face as it oozed toward me with a sucking, scraping sound. Long shadowy arms reached out. Talons glinted, deadly sharp.
My heart pounded and I was sweating, flinging myself back and forth as I tried again to wake up. The open windows beckoned. Far below, a brick wall was topped by vicious wrought iron spikes. I would surely be killed if I fell on them, but for some reason it didn't bother me. The scraping noise came closer and I felt a tiny movement against the back of my hair. Sheer terror overcame me.
All at once, I gave in to the pull and ran straight ahead, right out the window. My back tingled from the imminent slashes of those terrible claws as I launched myself out onto the wind.
Down through the soft air, drifting in a slow-motion spiral like the swollen pink petal that drops from the climbing rose on the garden gate, I fell.
It was terrifying and ecstatic at the same time.
I didn’t rush toward the ground but simply floated. Leisurely, down and around, with the sun on my face and the soft air buoyant under my back, an effortless, peaceful feeling similar to swimming in warm salt water on a balmy day.
Just before I could hit bottom and be ripped to shreds, I woke up.
There were tears in my eyes. I stroked my purring cat, Tree, and looked around the room with relief. The point seemed to be that I should stop stressing so much and let fate take its course. There was certainly no going back. I must be brave and soldier on, as Dad used to say. Sunlight was pouring in through the blue skylight overhead and it looked to be a glorious summer day.
Perfect weather for job hunting!
I dressed conservatively in a black and white checked skirt and crisp white blouse. I blow-dried my wavy brown hair until it looked straight and serious. My face in the mirror seemed a bit grim, so I painted on some blusher and lipstick. Now I looked and felt more self-confident. Calm blue-gray eyes stared back at me with an expression of resolve.
It was a new day and I was going to find a new job. I was upbeat and looking good. I was going with the flow. Slinging my black bag over my shoulder, I tucked the folder of resumés and newspaper clippings under my arm and headed out.
I stood on the sidewalk and looked up at the shabby brick building on the corner of Market Street, then glanced down again at the scrap of paper in my hand. Yes, this was definitely the right address. I surveyed the building uneasily.
Ancient ivy snaked up the exterior, parting over the closed front door to show a peek of stonework underneath. Wide steps with wrought-iron railings led up to the door. The number 33 was just visible, the second “3” missing a nail and hanging askew. The small faded sign said, “Books & Etc., H. Paradis.”
At ten o’clock on a Monday morning the street bustled with people out and about their business. Trucks braked loudly and double-parked to unload goods. A gaggle of small children dodged between the pedestrians, giggling and hooting, while a stately Indian woman wearing a sari pursued them at a more sedate pace, pushing a stroller containing two fat-cheeked babies, one with dark skin and one fair.
The ad in the newspaper said, “Manager Wanted. Retail store with established customers. Library experience a blessing.”
The building looked utterly deserted. The front door was coated with grime. With a loud clack, the brass door handle suddenly moved and the door swung inwards. I instinctively took a step backwards, as an aged man with white, shaggy hair appeared. He beckoned to me and chuckled.
“No, no...sorry to startle you! We spoke on the telephone? Emily Ross?” He cocked one ragged white eyebrow at me.
I nodded and swallowed, waving the newspaper clipping in my hand. “Mister... um…Paradis?” I said hesitantly. I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it, so I tried “Para-deece,” and that seemed to work.
“Yes, yes, come in.” He stepped back into the shadowy interior.
I peered inside nervously but could make out little in the darkness. I slowly entered and the heavy door slammed shut behind me. The light from outside was abruptly cut off and I was blinded for a moment.
As my eyes gradually adjusted I looked around the large room where we stood. Cluttered with stacks of boxes, little tables and other odd pieces of furniture, it stretched deep and long with a very high ceiling, like a giant shoebox. Glass cases filled with mysterious objects (the “& Etc.?”) lined the interior walls. At the very back of the room, a large brass samovar sat on a curving counter of dark wood. Several large shipping crates sat on the floor directly in front of the entrance.
On the right-hand wall were two wide windows. Both were covered now by heavy dark curtains. A slit between two of these admitted a single bar of light that shot across the room revealing motes of dust in swirls caused by our passing.
“Right in here,” he said, leading the way.
I wondered about the wording of the newspaper ad. This was probably a wild goose chase. Oh, well. I didn’t want to be rude, but glanced at my watch and started to plan where to go for an early lunch. It had better be somewhere cheap.
He went into the front hallway, where a wide staircase curved up to the second floor. He crossed the hall entered a much smaller room where bright sunlight poured in through tall casement windows. In contrast with the larger room, this one was very neat and clean.
“Lapsang Souchong?” He had laid out some tea things on the beautiful old mahogany table, with a shiny electric kettle on a tray. Steam was rising from the spout.
“It’s my favorite kind!” I blurted, warming to the man.
I decided to stay for a quick cup of tea, then to claim that my parking meter needed feeding.
“Most people don’t like the strong smoky flavor, but I love it.” He filled the round white teapot with hot water.
“I do too,” I said with a nostalgic twinge, thinking again of my beloved Dad, who died a few years back. “It reminds me of camping as a child.”
I smiled at him tentatively, feeling unexpectedly vulnerable and a little teary.
“The stronger the better, I always say.” He smiled at me. “Do have a seat, won’t you?”
He pulled out a chair and motioned for me to do likewise. As the tea steeped he launched into a rambling tale of his travels in “tea country” as he called it, i.e. the Orient, as a “young lad.” He was a good storyteller and had obviously lived an interesting life. I realized he had been trying to put me at ease.
“My resumé, by the way,” I murmured, pushing this document toward him across the table.
He began to fumble in various pockets, eventually coming up with a pair of tortoise shell reading glasses. I tried to be patient while he perused my credentials.
“Very good.” He whipped the glasses off and peered at me sharply. “You seem fully qualified for the retail aspect. But we were really hoping for someone who knows how to organize books. You see, we have rather a lot of them. Though they do come and go, as it were.”
He gestured with his glasses toward the other room, nd the mountain of crates that stood in front of the door. Incoming, or outgoing? I wondered. It occurred to me that he might have a thriving book business via the Internet though signs of a computer were not in evidence. Maybe there was something to this opportunity, after all. I began to hope.
“Well, I worked in the library for one semester as a work-study job in college,” I said, thinking this would never be enough.
He brightened and sat up taller.
“Excellent! Just as I suspected!” he exclaimed happily. “And, what else? Other talents? Useful skills?”
“I am a voracious reader.” I leaned toward him, spinning a tale as I went along. “Have been all my life. I go through, at least, four or five books every week. Well, maybe three or four.”
I thought of the paperback Romance and Mystery novels stacked on my bedside table with a guilty twinge. I lowered my eyes.
“Yes.” He regarded me with a knowing smile. “About what?”
He leaned over to pour the tea. I took advantage of his distraction to stretch the truth a bit more.
“I am very interested in certain, ah, esoteric topics, “ I prevaricated boldly. “I read a lot of philosophy and psychology, and um…quantum physics, that kind of thing. I have fairly eclectic taste.” I let out the breath I’d been holding with an uncomfortable sigh.
I am not really a liar, but I had bills to pay and the Louvre wasn’t exactly knocking on my door offering to move me to Paris and hire me on as curator. I still wasn’t convinced the old boy was totally legit either, for that matter. In my experience, men seldom say exactly what they mean, even on the rare occasions when they are actually trying to tell the truth.
“Very good,” Mr. Paradis repeated, with a thoughtful expression that made me nervous.
He served the tea in two stout white mugs. It smelled fantastic. I was immediately transported back to campfires in the Maine woods, and felt like I had been trying to con my father. I hadn’t exactly lied, but exaggeration is almost as bad. And he was a nice old guy. I tried to set things right.
“Actually,” I sipped the tea, “I read a lot of novels as well.” I hoped the confession would balance my precarious karma.
“I do love a good mystery, don’t you?” he said confidingly and I nodded. We smiled like two conspirators. We sipped our tea and observed each other appraisingly.
“What kind of books do you sell?” I asked, trying to get him talking again. “And, what other merchandise?”
“Many things, whatever we come across. If it’s remarkable.” He replaced his mug on the table, and glanced at my resumé again. “We deal in curiosities, art, antiques and rare books. Much of it is acquired and sold through private connections, more so in recent years. Not getting out as much as I used to.” He appeared to make a decision. “I’d like to liquidate some of my inventory. The showroom there, it used to be my store. I want to open it again. Turn some of these dust-catchers into cash!”
He looked me up and down and I felt a tingle of excitement. “Would you be interested in getting things up and running for me again?”
“As the store manager?” I asked tentatively.
He nodded, and relief shot through me.
“Just you and me, to start,” he said, “Someone else to help us when we know what we need. Eventually I’d want you to run the whole shebang, while I do what I do, upstairs.” He pointed at the ceiling.
“You mean…the private connections?” I asked, thinking he must have an office on the second floor. Unless of course, I worried reflexively, the whole thing was bogus and this guy was a nut, which was still a distinct possibility. I wondered about his repeated use of the word “we,” since there did not seem to be anyone else present.
He nodded again, confirming his private sales activities.
“Well?” he asked and named a salary figure. Though not exorbitant, it was large enough to pay my living expenses and keep my Honda Civic on the road. In fact, it was more than I had been making at my last job. My interest was now fully engaged.
I hesitated briefly, hovering between trust and fear, then I plunged ahead and accepted his offer. We shook hands and he seemed very pleased. I was too, considering my rent was due and I had saved barely enough to survive beyond then.
We chatted amiably about what time I should appear in the mornings and leave at night, when I was to start (tomorrow), days off (Sunday and Monday plus holidays), and he took me on a brief tour of the first floor.
What I’d thought from a distance was a brass samovar turned out to be an elaborate espresso machine. The wooden counter was referred to as “the coffee bar.” I peered into one of the glass cases and saw the glint of sparkling crystals and an enormous geode, amethyst perhaps. A stack of framed Redouté rose prints and small oil paintings leaned against the wall. Feeling very excited, I could sense potential. There was plenty of space and some real treasures to display. Also, he seemed like a very amiable fellow, if somewhat eccentric. My future definitely looked exciting.
And, I would be the manager. A step up for me. Best of all, it appeared that I would have quite a bit of autonomy, which I have always found both fruitful in terms of the success of the enterprise and necessary for the longevity of the arrangement. I am self-motivated, to say the least. (Lexi would call it “bossy!”)
Which reminded me. I wondered if Mr. Paradis would call the previous employers I had listed and talk to her. Legally, she was only supposed to confirm that I had worked at the Gladstone Gallery.
Stop it right now Emily, I said to myself sternly. You are going to jinx it! I deliberately imagined a smooth road ahead, mentally smoothing out any stumbling blocks.
At the back of the showroom a door led into a hallway at the rear of the building. Narrow stairs went up from here and the closed door next to them was secured with a heavy bolt, probably the entrance to the basement. I thought I heard a noise below, and wondered if there might be someone else in the building after all. A skinny door under the stairs revealed a teeny bathroom with a slanted ceiling and pull-chain light fixture. Across the hall was the entrance to a huge old-fashioned kitchen. There was also a back door that led outside to a little covered porch. This opened onto a narrow alley behind the building, occupied by a row of dumpsters and recycling bins.
We ended up back at the front door, which Mr. Paradis opened for me in the manner of a host showing out an honored guest.
“Knock here at ten,” he said. “I will have a key made for you directly.”
We shook hands again.
“Thank you so much.” I was filled with emotion for a moment. “I am really looking forward to it!”
“Looking forward is a very good thing!” he exclaimed and waggled his shaggy eyebrows humorously.
Then he leaned closer for a moment and said something odd.
“I knew I was right about you, my dear, ” he murmured.
He stepped back again and waved his right arm vigorously, exclaiming in a very loud voice that could easily have been heard down the street.
“Farewell! Adieu! Until tomorrow!”
He closed the door and the latch snapped.
I stared at the door feeling almost as though I had imagined the whole interlude. Then I turned and noticed a small man wearing a white apron who stood with a broom in his hands in front of the Italian market across the street. He was looking over at me curiously. We made brief eye contact and I smiled, thinking that I would buy my breakfast from him in the morning, my future neighbor. He nodded his head very slightly in acknowledgment and returned to his sweeping.
I couldn’t wait until Lexi heard I already had a new job, and a promotion at that. My angry feelings came flooding back, with a large dose of I-told-you-so satisfaction. Take that, you creep, I thought.
I sailed off down the sidewalk into the buzzing activity of my new neighborhood, a fresh breeze blowing the lank hair back from my face, uplifted by the possibilities of my fascinating new future.
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