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Alice’s new office faced south, overlooking the public library and Fifth Avenue. From the window she saw her favorite lion, Fortitude, guarding the library’s north steps. The office wasn’t large but that first day following her promotion, it was perfect. The furniture was new. Gone was the scratched wood desk with its modesty panel. The dingy walls, scarred by thumbtacks, were gone, too. Instead there was a sleek steel desk with elegant red enameled drawers; pale grey walls (a color called seashell); an aura of competence and calm.
Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street: Rainy Day, a gift from her boss, graced one wall. You bring kindness and patience to every interview, Philip Massie said when he promoted her, in her seventh year with the company. Her door was always open – another hallmark, Massie said. You share information. You don’t hoard it. The agency Massie founded in 1985, Career Builders, placed temps to fill in for employees on leave. Career Builders vetted and interviewed applicants so companies didn’t have to.
For Alice’s clients, those temporary positions often became permanent.
“Nice digs, huh?” Massie’s white shirt was patched with sweat, his brown curls sodden. The a/c was on, but low – an energy-saving measure, emblem of the times. Massie looked at his watch. “Your first intake is in fifteen minutes. Liana Broder.”
“I’m ready,” Alice said brightly.
“Don’t forget, party at three.” They were celebrating both the move to 500 Fifth and her promotion. Alice had a full day of meetings until then.
“So, who you rooting for, Venus or Serena?”
“I’m an older sister. Venus, for sure.”
“117 years ago – Wimbledon women’s final, 1884 –Maud Williams beat her kid sister Lilian. Maybe you’re right.”
Fifteen minutes later, Liana Broder stood before the painting. “Where is that? Wait! It’s Paris, right?”
“Paris in the rain. Have a seat, Liana. I’m Alice.”
“This is weird, but it reminds me of a sepia photograph. I love photography, love art – all sorts. Sorry, I’m jabbering. I should be quiet so you can read my stuff.”
“Not a problem,” Alice had already read Liana’s application but reviewed it again, to let Liana get settled. To see how she handled silence. Liana – slender and petite, with curly black hair, intense blue eyes, and a strong handshake — wore a rust-colored tweed suit, a white top, a tear-shaped brooch on her lapel: topaz, her birthstone. She was among Alice’s best applicants in her age group (early 20s): high school valedictorian, 3.6 GPA from Stonybrook, English major. Glowing references. Only a few gaps on the application. In response to Where do see yourself in five years? she had typed unsure. Dream job, she left blank.
The interview lasted an hour. Alice pressed Liana on her goals. Travel – to Paris, to London, to India — was one of Liana’s dreams. But her dream job eluded her. “Something creative. Perhaps everyone says that. Acting or film-making or even writing.”
Liana and applicants like her were the reason Alice’s work mattered. Liana could tell Alice the truth. She didn’t have to feign enthusiasm for a company or business she knew nothing about. Maybe she’d learn to love it – much as Alice found her own niche in career placement.
Not much glamour there. But satisfaction of a kind, so long as you didn’t want too much.
“My sister’s an actress,” Alice said to Liana. Sharing personal details encouraged applicants to open up. Knowledge – about the applicant, the jobs, hiring trends – was key. “Unless you hit it big, it’s not easy. I’m sure you know that. My sister keeps trying but it’s been hard.” Alice’s parents had supported her sister financially for years, dazzled by the notion of Beth’s acting career. “In the meantime, you’re making the right decision to explore other options. And make some dough.”
Liana laughed and seemed to relax. Alice’s screen displayed two jobs: a low-paying three-week gig in publicity at a midtown publishing house, and one downtown, in the financial district, at Cantor Fitzgerald.
“Which do you recommend?” Liana asked.
Although the publishing house was more in Liana’s field of interest, Alice found herself pushing Cantor Fitzgerald. “The offices are beautiful, the people more down-to-earth than you might expect from financial services. The location is amazing. 105th floor of the World Trade Center. That in itself is special. They’re looking for someone super organized. A decent writer.”
“I love making order out of chaos and I love to write.”
Alice dialed Cantor HR. She rattled off Liana’s strengths. It was arranged. Liana would begin a month-long stint there the next week. Her first day would be Monday, September 10th.
‘Let me know how it goes.”
“You mean Monday?”
“Not necessarily Monday – only if there’s a problem. But later in the week, give me a call. I’d love to hear from you.”
Before she left, Liana stood in front of the Caillebotte. “It’s funny how all the umbrellas are identical. And the cobblestones look like they’re floating.”
“And slippery,” Alice said. “Conveyed with a mere brush-stroke.”
In the hour they were together, she’d grown fond of Liana Broder.
Tuesday came. Alice was in her office by 8:30. Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang. When she picked it up was no one was there. “Hello?” she asked. “Hello?” Whoever it was, was cut off. Then Massie appeared at the threshold of her office, his face ashen, eyes glassy. “Come, Alice. We’re in the conference room. The TV is on there.” When she arrived, 15-odd staffers were gathered. Some were crying.
It was Liana’s second day at Cantor Fitzgerald. She would have arrived early to get her boss’s files in shape. Organizing them so he’d be ready for his meetings.
At that moment, Alice still hoped for the best. Surely the girl would be fine. Surely, she would be.
Fifteen years later, Philip Massie stood in the doorway of Alice’s stripped-down office. “One more intake?” he asked. “Please?” His smile was as beguiling as ever; his gray curls spiraled over his shirt collar. On Alice’s desk sat a blue vase of yellow roses. “Good-bye and good luck!” read the card. Alice’s belongings were in boxes. Her desk, except for the computer terminal, was bare.
Next door, in the conference room, balloons floated, tied to a red plastic bucket and shovel. Alice was moving to Southern California, where her parents, sister, and teen-aged nephew lived. There was prosecco on ice, strawberries, brie, a sheet cake. But the party wouldn’t start for 90 minutes. “Okay, hand it over.”
Massie leaned over her desk, sniffed the roses. Alice inhaled, instead of roses, the faint scent of Old Spice the man always wore. Like Alice, Massie was a dinosaur. “Her name is Amy Lawrence. I think you’ll like her. She’s what? 23 or 24. Only a few years younger than you when you started here. She’s interested in executive assistant spots, something financial.” Alice’s mind was so bound up with leaving it was difficult to imagine giving the spiel one more time.
When Amy Lawrence walked into Alice’s office, Alice was sorry she said yes. It was no fault of Ms. Lawrence. Her voice was soft but confident. She had smooth, honey-colored skin, light hazel eyes, and slightly coarse black hair that curled neatly to her shoulders. Her tweed suit brought out her eyes. But Alice found it hard to focus. She knew she wasn’t imagining the resemblance between Amy Lawrence and the other young woman, Liana Broder – only the eye color was different.
“Sorry about my office. Mr. Massie might have told you – after 22 years, I’m heading out west.”
“He said you’re the best, that I was lucky to meet with you.”
“You get credit for knowing what you want. Executive assistant in the financial sector. That makes it easier.” Amy’s resume included BMCC associate degree, Spanish, Maria in Clara Barton High School’s West Side Story. The Spanish might be helpful, and her skills were good. “You’ve got Microsoft Office, PowerPoint, Excel. Just what you need.”
When Alice saw the three openings on her screen, she couldn’t speak at first.
Finally, she said: “Why don’t you come take a look.”
Amy stood behind her. “Is any of them a hedge fund? I’ve heard they’re the place to go if you want to make money.” She gave a slight, self-deprecating laugh.
“Albrecht is. The other two are brokerage houses, Morgan Stanley and Cantor Fitzgerald. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. The positions are long-term temporary and roughly equivalent – administrative assistant to a midlevel manager. Covering for someone on maternity leave. Actually,” she paused, “at Albrecht it’s to replace somebody on paternity leave.”
“That’s cool. Replacing a guy.”
With Liana, Alice spent more time getting to know her. Then, as now, it was a Friday and there was a party that afternoon. Unlike Amy, Liana hadn’t listed anything under dream job on her application. Unlike Amy, she had no answer for where you want to be in five years.
“If it’s Albrecht you want,” Alice told Amy Lawrence, “I should call right away. They close early on Fridays.”
Amy said, “Go ahead.” After a brief phone conversation, it was set. Before Amy left, Alice handed her a business card. Her own name was blacked out; the contact information for her two most experienced colleagues was handwritten below. “Call either one if you have questions.”
Whatever you do, she thought, don’t call me.
Before the party, Alice went to freshen up. While she was in the stall, two women entered the ladies’ room. “Are you staying for Alice’s party?” she heard Marie (who placed medical assistants) ask Patricia, whom Alice had trained.
“I wanted to but I have a big date. Getting my hair blown out, makeup done, the works. I’ll miss her, though.”
“Well,” said Marie, “with Alice gone there’ll be more commissions for the rest of us.”
“Tell me about it! But if it wasn’t for those commissions, she’d still be here, plugging away.”
“Don’t you think she’ll get a job out there? If I know Alice, she will. I can’t imagine her not working.”
“Then why is she leaving?”
“I always thought she was half in love with Massie. Not that she’d ever have an affair. But admiring him, putting him on a pedestal. But then Mrs. Massie goes and dies and he’s single. The fantasy evaporates. At least that’s one theory.”
Alice stayed in the stall until they left. Given her longevity at the company, gossip was inevitable, she reasoned. They didn’t know the truth. They didn’t know she had placed Liana Broder. They didn’t know Philip Massie helped her through it. Alice looked at the mirror over the trio of sinks as she washed her hands. It was cracked and mottled in the lower right-hand corner. Distressed. She’d read a review in the Times the night before of a restaurant where the walls were flanked by distressed mirrors. This was now a much-emulated style – folks sought it in their furniture, like teen-agers (her sixteen-year-old nephew, for example), who purchased ripped and faded jeans. Occasionally a job candidate came to interview with Alice dressed that way, or with three earrings in each ear, or heavily tattooed. Alice would gently explain that, when it came to the jobs in her book, the applicant had to present something different – even if it meant being untrue to one’s true self. Years before, she would speak about the value of working in and experiencing an environment that, at first glance, was outside your comfort zone. She would explain the difference between style and substance; how you could love Shakespeare or Bach or Brecht but still find a home in a corporate environment – even find like-minded colleagues.
Now, she would simply say, “You’re going to need to work on your image before we send you out on a job.”
The crack in the mirror had been there for years. It was strange to think she wouldn’t be seeing it every day, as strange as taking the subway to work that morning for the last time. Every weekday since she started at the firm, she’d taken the 1 train to 42nd Street and then the shuttle. Often, she arrived at Grand Central without being able to remember boarding the two trains that got her there. If someone asked her directions as she exited the train, she couldn’t even say where she was for the moment.
Her body had memorized the route. It was in her blood. Now she was cutting the bloodline.
Then Alice did something she rarely did during all her years at the firm. She closed her office door. She sat on the floor and opened one of the boxes, leafed through several red-welds. But she didn’t find the photograph, not right away. First, she found the letter Philip Massie wrote to her, a few weeks after September 11, when she tried to resign. By then Liana’s presence in the North Tower, and her death there, had been confirmed. Alice had stopped going to work. She stopped going anywhere.
His letter asked her to stay on. Eventually, she did. At the time she thought it wasn’t because of his letter or even out of loyalty. Rather, it was the prospect of having to explain to a prospective employer why she left. She couldn’t lie. And so she returned to the new office, to the view from her window of Fortitude, to the Caillebotte, to the color known as seashell.
For a while she went to a counselor, paid for by Philip Massie. But the counselor couldn’t help with the dreams. Funny enough, these were dreams, not nightmares. In the dreams, she interviewed Liana and sent her to a different job. Sometimes the job was the publishing house stint that had been available that Friday. Sometimes it was in a real estate office, which weren’t even jobs Alice handled. Once she got a part for Liana in a play. Liana came by to thank her. Alice cupped her hand over her phone receiver, said it was Liana’s own qualities that got her the role, not anything Alice did.
Once she dreamed they were in Paris together. It was raining. Liana slipped on wet cobblestones. Alice caught her.
The dreams lasted for months.
The clipping from the Times, when Alice found it, was neatly folded. It had a paragraph about Liana as well as a photo. It said September 11th was her second day, that she was a temp employee. Alice’s 17-year-old brother was quoted. He spoke about Liana’s optimism. How she always looked forward to September. Even when it rained, she loved the excitement in the air. Something new about to happen.
Fifteen years after the Friday she interviewed Liana Broder, on her last day at work, Alice folded the Times clipping in an envelope. When she took her suit jacket to the dry cleaner that weekend, she found it.
Always after that she would put it somewhere safe, and find it unexpectedly.
Nancy Ludmerer has stories in Kenyon Review, Cimarron Review, Green Mountains Review, North American Review, Sou’wester, New Orleans Review, and Masters Review’s “New Voices” series. Her essay “Kritios Boy” (Literal Latte) was named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2014 and her flash fiction “First Night” (River Styx) is reprinted in Best Small Fictions 2016. She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. She practices law and lives in New York City with her husband Malcolm and cat Sandy, a rescue from Superstorm Sandy.