Friday, May 1, 2009

Pearls and Roses, chapter 8

Pearls and Roses, chapter 7

Pat, who had at the very first sulfurously telephoned Alice about the horrifying letter, Pat who had been quite upset even before Trish had called upon Alice to explain how important it was to be positive – Pat had been the last employee personally hired by Frank Boyd. He hired her, among other things, to keep her eyes peeled for Peter Shepstone, his name, his work, Fontevrault, any connection or excuse to "catch him on site," as he explained. But he also liked Pat for herself. She was a woman after his own heart, another daughter with her great height and her great laugh, and her ringing metallic voice.

To Alice, she was a great stentor of a woman (almost six feet tall), blocky and rectangular. They had started their workplace acquaintance on a poor footing. Alice much regretted it. Probably both were at fault. Pat was a little nervous and not looking her best that day. She was growing out a dyed permanent, her hair was a bowl of thin overworked yellow straw, her clothes were gauzy and unflattering on her big body. Alice had an obnoxious habit of staring unthinkingly at people, especially at their hair, without noticing or complimenting the things that mattered to them, like weight loss or health or pallor. So when Pat had had enough of the stare, within what seemed like two minutes of their introduction, she suddenly said, "Well, it was nice meeting you," and turned aside, even though there was no one in the room within twenty feet of her to turn aside to, not with much grace. She simply walked away. It was an escape, and a dismissal.

Alice was hurt. If their positions had been reversed, she with the manners of her dark patient father, and of her putatively aristocratic mother, would have stayed rooted to the spot to make someone comfortable, even if no one had relieved her of her company for an hour.

Alice sensed it must be her fault and she very much wanted to make amends, but for a long time afterwards Pat’s image in her mind was a hard one. She pictured her as made of rectangular metal blocks beneath her clothes, gauzy in summer, dark blue, green, and black in winter. Her ringing metallic voice seemed to accost the world, her small brown eyes to survey it from behind fashionable glasses. She was eternally cheerful, God knew. Her whisky laugh lay ever poised at the top of her throat to burst out any time, particularly at the stories she loved to tell about herself, or about the foolishness her family did because they would not consult her.

When Alice caught herself unfairly prejudging Pat she remembered what she had heard. Pat had had a troubled life which few of her colleagues knew about at first except Alice herself, who listened carefully, more carefully than Trish, as it happened. Pat came from a family broken in some way. She was one of those people who speak quietly about "my dad’s wife," or "my stepmother’s son," leaving all the rest of that history and its implications unexplained. And she had been married before, had even once had a small brood of step-children which divorce – her first, their second at least – had scooped up and whirled out of her life. Alice could sympathize with that. And at length she had found Joe. She bore babies, thankfully, late in life, girls. But no sons. Pat could not have any more. They were exploring the possibilities of adoption.

For her part, the awkwardness of a first meeting was the sort of thing that Pat forgot about the day it occurred. Her joy upon hire at "Monique-Boyd" was in discovering Trish. They ran into each other in a bathroom. Coincidentally they were well on their way to being good friends already, having met at a series of art lectures the month before. "Oh my God!" they exclaimed, and embraced happily. They already had so much in common, it was eerie – same name (Patrice Irene, Diana Patrice ("Trish"), both married, both mothers of girls, both with enough experience in their working lives to be hired for positions of authority right away – that to work together now seemed a heavenly arrangement. And Pat was a rule-flouter, too, like Trish, or perhaps even more powerfully, a rule-ignorer. If she had lived in Indiana and attended the School of the Art Institute but not paid the exorbitant out-of-state tuition, she would simply have made no bones about it. "Oh. Okay. Well, I don’t live in Illinois," she would have drawled out, laughing, and the bursar or the dean or whoever it was would have had to solve his problem some other way.

When the time came for it, Pat was also a great supporter of Pie Night. A few years before, Trish had had the idea of holding a routine Boyd Foundation subcommittee meeting, just once, at a little cafe in the evening. Trish was head of the committee, but she had a Girl Scout function to supervise that night, and was leaving town on a business trip the next morning, plus planning her husband’s surprise birthday party and a cousin’s bridal shower that weekend. The little cafe was near all the other four committee members’ homes in Naperville and was convenient to the expressway for her own impending, nightly commute. It would have been the most sensible thing in the world for her if, just this once, they could take off work early, hold one meeting at a place where she could grab a bite to eat in the midst of her appallingly busy day, and then they could all go straight home.

They did it and it was a big success. All the Foundation’s meetings were always, in theory, open not only to the relevant staff but to all who cared to and were able to attend given the other responsibilities of the workday. This time, when word got out about an after-hours session at the Muse, Trish’s routine committee of five was joined by six delighted others, which gave it far more input from the staff than it had ever been blessed with before, and made everything seem far more democratic. They did a lot of brainstorming, got a lot done, and had fun. Trish was almost late for the Girl Scouts.

It became a settled thing. Frank Boyd was very ill and Monique was grieving and busy. The Muse was famous for its pastries, and so the meetings there began to be called simply "Pie Night." The committee began to meet two nights a month there, more often than it had ever done at work before, and work and friendship flowered. Someone joked that this meeting was also becoming "PMS Night" thanks to the howlingly funny therapeutic revelations voiced there. Sometimes the cafe staff, usually patient, placed the women at the back of the restaurant or in the smoking section on sight, having learned that as the night wore on they tended to intersperse, with shop talk, blow by blow descriptions of childbirth, or to announce what movies "sucked" in front of other patrons and their children. Once Mill, another near six-footer with bright maroon hair, blurted to a new young hire, "Oh Katie, promise him oral sex, he’ll do anything!" Then she called out "Sorry," to the other patrons, completely unfazed.

The regular attendees at Pie Night never looked back, and afterward rarely conducted important business in any other way. Everything came up for discussion there. Whatever business did not come to the table there, apart from actual Executive Board meetings, was relegated to the day-to-day office grind. Trish and Pat, or Pat and Lily, could decide something sufficiently minor at the water cooler if need be. But under Trish’s and Pat’s burgeoning leadership, Pie Night became settled and rowdy and, most of all, exclusive. Everyone at Monique-Boyd remained, officially, as welcome to join in as ever, but it quickly became obvious who would be there and who would not. The elites, the friends, the attractive and the confident, went. The little people, the churchmice, did not. Nor did the few men.

Alice went. She was thrilled to feel she fit in. She of all people, the pointless child bride, the amateur Bible lecturer, the mother of a giant, she fit in with the women who had modeled in Greece and negotiated the Los Angeles freeway system, and laughed at Pie Night. Time passed, passes, is passing; she had been twenty-six and Hunter nine, and soon she was thirty and Hunter thirteen, and then she was thirty-two and he was fifteen. In not much more time, she was elite enough to be invited, by Trish and Pat themselves, to do something special.

"How long have you worked here?" Trish asked pleasantly one day, and was shocked when Alice replied, "Fourteen – close to fifteen years." Longer by far than she had guessed. "Really?" she said.

"Well, what better person to write the company newsletter?" Pat laughed her big, raspy laugh. Alice’s heart leaped. Surely they were joking. "The newsletter?’ she asked, her voice curious and calm.

"Yes, I’ve cleared this with Monique Boyd and she has no problem with it. Well, actually we do have a problem," Trish laughed too, and her laugh was bell-like, echoing against her teeth. She was sitting on Alice’s desk. "Our secretary quit very suddenly and we are parceling out her jobs while we figure out who should take her place," she explained. "We were thinking you might like to write the newsletter. You’d be very good."

"Your secretary quit, personally? Or the Foundation’s Secretary?"
"The Foundation’s. Caroline."
"Good grief. I had no idea."
"It was very sudden," Trish agreed. "But she normally takes care of the newsletter and we thought you could do that. It wouldn’t involve a lot of time. And you’re creative. One side of one page is enough. I mean, whatever happens except that we get a new person now and then? Obviously we don’t write about people quitting. And it wouldn’t mean you’re now on the Board, of course."
"No, thank God," Alice nodded. "I don’t know if I’m quite cut out for that."
"But the newsletter might be right up your alley," Pat put in.

Alice was delighted at the invitation and accepted it. "As long as it’s temporary," she said, making a pretence of modesty but reasoning that if she liked the task she could probably find a way to keep it even after they found a new Board secretary. She remembered being handed a copy of the bylaws with all its official job descriptions at nineteen, certainly, but she also knew things had loosened up a bit and if it meant she was moving among the elites, and being given elite tasks, she was all for it. It was just like Bethany. You were asked to do things because they trusted and respected you. Why not? I deserve it, she thought. It was another way for her, the amateur lecturer, to reach people – Pindar in the newsletter? – and she was flattered to be singled out.

At the next Pie Night she accepted everyone’s congratulations. Louisa asked her if she planned to do anything new with the newsletter, which for years had been very plain, still only typewritten in this modern age. Yes, she said, she thought it was about time the thing was jazzed up. She asked if anyone had one of those calendars which show birthstones and flowers of the month. She had it in mind to add staff birthdays and interesting quotes to the monthly sheet. "Wow!" Trish said, looking at her. "That’s great."

The very first quote Alice added to the bottom of her newsletter, in a pretty, flowing font, was indeed her favorite from Pindar about life being sweet as honey. In truth there wasn’t much to write about, otherwise, except personal milestones in the employees’ lives, and announcements of upcoming projects, or invitations to volunteer for this or that blood drive or 5K walk. The newsletter had not included, for some time, items like the mission statement or copies of the budget figured to the last penny. Alice dutifully inquired of Trish whether she ought to restore that information, but Trish advised her not to bother.

She didn’t. Things had become streamlined: maybe that is the nature of women. The place was run by efficient, good women, women who had a lot to do in life besides work. The newsletter and Pie Night were the proverbial tips of a newly efficient iceberg.

Frank Boyd died. The business fell to the Boyds’ son Bob, who neither liked nor disliked inheriting his profession, but merely knew it through and through. He was a practical man, a plain and plain-looking man, and did not, for example, think many of his employees read the copy of the bylaws they were always given, by his father’s orders, immediately upon hire. That was the first custom to go. You are always told that if a thing is static, it is dead, which is not good. Yet for a thing not to be static, for it to change, something of it must die, a little. And the people around it must not care, not in quite the same way.

Old distinctions between tasks and responsibilities blurred. It would have been a ridiculous aberration of good nature for these women working at a double headed non-profit corporation not to chat, and exchange ideas, and do favors, and borrow pencils, and share equipment and rooms, and socialize after hours. Members of the Foundation, who were only supposed to do research and sign checks for travel expenses, began to handle cameras and go on recruiting trips to the film school of the Art Institute of Chicago. A pleasant hour at the gift shop and lunch downtown was also fun. And employees of Monique Productions drifted into the Foundation’s meetings – or simply enjoyed Pie Night – contributing their thoughts to the debate on future assignments, or in time even "signing up" quietly, at company picnics, for Executive Board positions which Mr. Boyd’s bylaws, now available for perusal in Bob Boyd’s office, had insisted should be filled strictly through the most complex election processes. Even Alice learned to use a real camera. It was black, clicky, exciting.

Eventually, of course, the inevitable happened. The last pier fell, just as it would have in a muddy church that someone like Peter was not there to prop up. It took a year or two, but Mr. Boyd’s precious interests in American architecture lost their pride of place. Old forts in Kansas sagged, whipped by the prairie winds, while the women at Monique-Boyd explored Vancouver or Montreal , and then once or twice Europe. There was always "an American connection," but it was frequently a stretch to find it. Sometimes it was just that a robber baron had tried to buy the place, or something. They laughed behind their hands about it. Everyone was cheerful and happy. It was a great place to work. The answer given to any newcomer who had any questions (few did) was a bright smile and an Oh, I wouldn’t worry – we don’t do that.

And they won awards. Monique found herself interviewed on television news programs all in her gray and pink and pearls, on documentaries about documentaries. She was given the keys to Naperville on the fourth of July. Her company’s endorsement could now help launch other young filmmakers’, other non-profits’ careers, and could bring unaccustomed notice to the dry work of preservationists and historians. Her birthday, too, went into the newsletter. It seemed very appropriate that she should be a June baby. June, Alice noted, albeit tastefully, is the month of pearls and roses, beautiful things, classic and rich. What Alice did not realize was that there were still some things that did not go into her newsletter because she, elite as she was and fairly well-liked, did not know of them. Some of the prioresses of the rich abbey of Fontevrault must have been in a similar position almost a thousand years ago. Prioress, but not abbess: elite, aware of a lot, but not of everything.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 9

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