Saturday, December 19, 2009

Pearls and Roses, chapter 13

Pearls and Roses, chapter 12

Psalm 39 begins:

“I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me. I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred. My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue, Lord, make me to know mine end ....”

But when a few weeks after their vote Trish and Pat asked Alice to join the crew travelling to France, first in December and then probably in the spring, this angry psalm no longer seemed an appropriate one to read. How kind, how decent of them to think of her yet again. Never mind thresholds. No doubt they had guessed her surprise at the check-canceling business and sought to make amends in a small way. “Keep me from imagined hurts,” Alice read happily in Bethany’s prayer book. A trip to France, to help interview a mysterious European man, and create a new film which might at last win a Peabody in time for Monique’s birthday next June, month of roses and pearls – how nice it would be Alice was thrilled, and said how glad she would be to go. (Glad, honestly, to go with Trish and Pat, to go under their wing. They were fearless. Alice would never have dreamed of going abroad on her own, on vacation for example. It was far easier to read about foreign things. The mere prospect of not knowing the language, not knowing what to do or what to eat, would have been too much for her. Suppose you did something stupid? Suppose you had some sort of minor emergency, and were forced to wander through a French drugstore, trying to puzzle out what French women did under the circumstances? But Trish and Pat were quite different. They would do anything, ask anything, go anywhere, buy anything, and they would no doubt have a wonderful time and return home with wonderful souvenirs.) She felt a rush of gratitude, of confidence, that could scarcely be called anything else but love. This more than made up for any thwarted autonomy of her own involving a flooded town in Missouri. No doubt they were right to abandon that. She must be fair. People with real authority sometimes had to use it quickly and that was that.

She told her parents and brothers about it and this time they were very pleased. A business trip overseas was something they understood, exciting and temporary. It was not like the responsibility of an official position, which was disturbing and might go on forever. She told her friends at Bethany about it, after giving a short talk there on Daniel. Her good mood had prompted her to begin her talk in a new way. Of course she always mouthed modesty – and frequently enough felt it – but this time she took more pains to usher them into her topic as fetchingly as possible. “You know the book of Daniel,” she said. “You’ve read, probably this week, phrases like ‘writing on the wall,’ ‘feet of clay,’ or ‘to be weighed in the balance.’” And her tiny audience was duly intrigued and flattered. Afterward she sheepishly confided she was going to France on business in December and they congratulated her heartily. “How marvelous ” someone exclaimed.

So encouraged, reveling in inclusion in such an important function also inspired Alice, one otherwise idle and rainy Sunday afternoon in October, to rummage about in her old things for a copy of the bylaws that Trish and Pat had mentioned at the last Board meeting. If she was to be included among the serious people who knew serious things, then she ought to do her homework and know what they knew. Gratitude alone told her that. Her career at Monique-Boyd had started way back, over sixteen years ago now, when everybody got a copy of the bylaws and the mission statement upon hire. She remembered that now. The odds of her having kept them seemed extremely slim, but perhaps she had.

And there they were, rough and typewritten – to think that a typescript once looked polished – folded in among important papers, along with her best schoolgirl poems and Hunter’s birth certificate. How incredible that she had saved the bylaws. But then, this was her first job. She was nineteen and divorced, and this was her baby’s livelihood. What if there was a test?

And the word had such a nice sound. ‘Bylaws.’ It sounded so select and complicated, like a secret society. Ever since she heard Pat say the word, she wanted to be able to say it meaningfully herself. Doesn’t every child, at some point in the fourth grade, form a club with his little friends? With rules? Hadn’t she? she asked herself. Yes, she had. What is it that makes that so thrilling? For Alice all these thrills returned now, only twice as potent because they were all adults. She sat in her bedroom with the rain and wind pattering on the roof of the old farmhouse, forgetting to put the other things away, rapt in her reading.

Well, well. Calling the place “Monique-Boyd” was wrong, for a start. The bylaws emphasized that the two halves of the company were to be kept separate in every way. The Foundation’s business meetings were to be held twice a month, “on the clock” – during working hours of course. Of course. What company does not hold its meetings during office hours? So the same eight elite people making decisions at Pie Night was totally irregular. What else? Robert’s Rules of Order ... the chair recognizing speakers ...non-profit corporations may not show a profit and may not spend money on themselves, therefore no parties ... good Lord. She thought of the summer picnics, of Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day. How she had enjoyed them.

Page 10, elections to the Executive Board: what a mess. Now this was fascinating. You did not ‘sign up’ in a green park in July. The Nominating Committee formed, of volunteers, at a January business meeting. The committee then presented a list of officer candidates at a February meeting, and they could include potential candidates without asking their permission first, if they thought such people might serve for the good of the company. My God. Trish would never stand for that. At a March meeting the committee then took nominations for the Executive Board in writing from the entire staff. In April the committee took nominations ‘from the floor,’ for example from people who had been sick for four months and had not participated in anything, or from those who had just overcome their shyness and gotten the nerve to nominate themselves that very minute. Then the Nominating Committee drew up the ballot of officer candidates and everyone voted in May. Results were announced in June and the new Board took over in July, at the beginning of the fiscal year, naturally. Here was a whole universe of masculine government where rules mattered and things got done. Things like the creation, from nothing, of a legal entity that they all ‘loved’ and wanted to win Peabodys for. Shouldn’t it follow, then (and the thought did not so much form coherently in her mind, as it pulsed with her blood), that the Foundation did not belong to them and they had no right to tamper with it? What an extraordinary point of view. It was fascinating.

What else – she flipped through the rest – Annual Reports due in August, executive meetings closed to all but the five members of the Board themselves. So they should not be meeting – and this was new – at Connie’s house, nor at the Plush Horse and have milkshakes with Nancy and Becky and their friends. “This is distracting to the officers,” the bylaws said. And how. The treasurer to cast the deciding vote, if necessary. This last appeared to be a later amendment. Well, well. And back on page one, the Mission Statement. The Boyd Foundation and Monique Productions Incorporated were to research, preserve on film, and publicize worthy architectural restoration projects in the continental United States, with a particular emphasis on the Midwest. Where on earth had the phrase “American connection” come from, a phrase they had for years been interpreting as meaning connections to European vacation spots, to an obscure historian here or an old robber baron investment there? How do rules change? By virtue of people being human? She flipped over the pages again. The question was inevitable now. Her blood slowed down. What to do about the delicious-sounding abbey of Fontevrault, to which she herself had been invited? It really was not right to go, was it?

She sat there thinking in joy and fear. What to do? Did it matter? For once her imagination failed her. No one who had wanted a prie-dieu in her room at fifteen could fail to be impressed with order – old laws, old ways. In a way there is nothing more romantic. And she was well-meaning and conscientious besides. Here she had just learned all sorts of ways in which she could help her excellent employer, which had just promoted her, become even more true to itself, become what its great founder – and how many people go around in life founding things? – had intended. If she walked into work tomorrow trumpeting the bylaws she might also start the process of rescuing it from the arm of the law, which in the shape of the Internal Revenue Service ought to have reached out and caught the place long ago. She opened to the page which read “we are registered as a 501 (c) (3) corporation” and absorbed it all again, horrified and roused. Wouldn’t the IRS having a say in their operations be a shock to all the staff? Imagine if the place were closed down because of all the money they had spent on parties, and all the business meetings they had held at restaurants, and all the election procedures they had ignored, and all the film projects they had undertaken which were as far from the mission statement as possible? Why shouldn’t they know all this? Their safety, their jobs, the company’s reputation, most importantly their integrity, had been hanging by a thread. Alice vibrated, bled, with the thought that perhaps she could do her part to bring things back into line, simply as an act of common sense and service, and of love. All it would take would be for everyone else to be as horrified as she was. That was a given. They were all so kind.

Early that Sunday night she got ready for bed, and was just managing to fall asleep much later – much too excited to rest – when she heard Hunter return from work and go into his bedroom. We’re both going to be dead on our feet tomorrow morning, she thought. A few seconds later, her room was light and the alarm clock was beeping sickeningly. It was six o’clock, Monday.

They sat together at the breakfast table of the same old farmhouse apartment that had been their home for years, the same home they had returned to after all Hunter’s half-birthday dinners, and after summer days of swimming and winter days of sledding long ago. Alice looked at him, smiling with the professional ether of last night’s discoveries, quaking a little but ready for anything the day might bring. When Hunter was a baby she used to look at his face as he lay in her arms, his sleeping face, and try to imagine what that face would grow into to make a five-year-old boy, or a ten-year-old. She thought she could see its outline then, and she could. The small circle of personality just about the nose and eyes never entirely changes. She thought she could see it still, the baby-face, though he was eighteen. Her only baby; never again. It was wonderful and in a way terrible to have a good kid, a terrific kid. They were so little trouble that you could almost afford to ignore them, and think exclusively of yourself.

“Good Lord,” she blurted, “does your second quarter start today?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“What’s your schedule like?” Hard to believe he attended her old high school, hers and Tim’s. She wondered if any of his classmates were having babies now. Probably it was no large matter. Four full cohorts of graduates had passed through the school since her own tumultuous day.

“Not bad,” he answered. “I get out at noon. It’s all electives. I’m going back to Eads on Mondays and Wednesdays.”

“Eads?” Eads was his old elementary school.

“Child development. It’s a blow-off. You have to help out with the kindergartners.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say that about schooling.”

“I want to be a CPA.”

“Then why take Child Development?”

“You can’t have less than four classes.”

“Oh. That sounds familiar. This is just this quarter?”

“One semester. I can split up the quarters so we get to see how kindergarten deals with the different holidays. I’m going again next spring.”

“Okay. And what else?”

“Accounting. All math.” He mumbled through mouthfuls of breakfast.

She smiled at him, one adult to another. “So you still want to be a CPA.”


“It’s a great profession, for security and – “ what was it great for? She could not imagine chaining herself to such boredom, but he had always liked math, and then of course Tim was a CPA. It was most fortunate that he desired a profession which was, she seemed to understand, highly remunerative.

“Can you do all this, plus your job?” She had asked that every school year since he started working at fifteen. “You got in awfully late last night.”

“Sure, Mom. I can do it all.” He got up, wiping his mouth on the back if his hand. “I gotta go.” He leaned down and tried to peck her cheek with a kiss – a far cry from the slobber kisses of his toddlerhood, which she would wipe off with great shows of gruesome disgust while he squealed with laughter – but he was so tall he missed and kissed the air. “Have a good day. Love you,” she called, and he threw back, “Okay.”

“How’s Catherine?” she shouted. “Good” – and then the door shut and the kitchen table shook with his heavy tread on the old wooden porch steps. Alice returned happily and, it must be admitted, a little selfishly to her own problem.

She took the bylaws to work with her, thinking hard as to when she could best bring them to Trish’s or Pat’s attention. Everyone really should know what she had found. Of course she was not in a position to lecture anyone. Perhaps she could just hint politely that these rules had been forgotten (as with Daniel, “You know all this”). I am at fault too, she pictured herself admitting. And she could very humbly take a sort of lead in reminding everyone of the way Mr. Boyd had wanted things done and the way, indeed, the IRS insisted things be done. Perhaps she could write something about this in the company newsletter that she was still responsible for, although, honestly, she must give up that task. That was for the Secretary to do.

There were so many things to think about. As she waited at a stoplight the thought, unwelcome for the umpteenth time, struck her. This trip to the abbey in France was really wrong. What a pity. The excuse they had been operating with, that it was the last project Mr. Boyd investigated before he died, and that an American historian was on the spot to be interviewed, held no water. They really should grit their teeth and drop it. Some of the neglected projects on the old list might prove genuinely interesting anyway. The fort in Kansas, the tycoon’s home in Iowa City, who knows what might be unearthed there? That Peabody award might still be in their grasp, and Monique could still have her retrospective film and party next June. And what about Luxor after all? Alice imagined herself loftily signing new checks.

She pulled into the parking lot and in a few minutes walked into the building in a state of great anticipation. It was not at all that she wanted to control people. Like an evangelist, she merely wanted to give them the good news. As soon as she punched in and said hello and Trish – the first person she encountered – asked her how she was, she sighed, cocked her head, and began to speak as though something really important had happened: as if she had been robbed, or diagnosed with cancer.

Trish did not care. Alice realized it almost at once but it still gave her, thus far, the shock of her life. Trish looked at her in a blank, friendly way, waiting for the real revelation to come, the cancer or the robbery, something that other women could commiserate with at Pie Night. It took her a long time to realize that all Alice was upset about was the bylaws. She had found an old copy of the bylaws, and was concerned that they, that everyone at Monique-Boyd, were not obeying them. How strange.

Alice felt like someone who has just squandered a fortune, or confided in an enemy agent, or lost control of her functions in public. She had misjudged something, had made a serious mistake. Simply backing out of this conversation gracefully now would be a challenge, never mind all her expectations being in tatters and having to repair them before she pursued anything further – for shocked though she was, she was still on her feet. Still ready to pursue.

Trish with her flaxen cap of hair and her years of experience thwarting the admissions policy of the School of the Art Institute did not care about anything that might disturb the status quo, and she was not about to give Alice the slightest help in exiting gracefully from anything. She would offer pity but that was all, and even that would be expressed in her body language and her flute-like voice, not in comradely thoughts.

“Well,” Alice tried to speak as if she was not foundering, “why don’t I go over them again before the next Exec meeting and then we can all discuss them then. I was really shocked, I have to tell you.”

Trish tilted her head, squinting in puzzlement. “What do you mean, shocked? I don’t understand. We’re all good people. This is not something you’ve done.”

“Just shocked at how much I had forgotten, I suppose. We all got copies of this, you know, a thousand years ago when we were first hired. I was just surprised at how screwy our operations are in comparison to what they should be.”

Screwy, comparison, should – all negatives, all obscenities to Trish. “I don’t think any of us are screwy,” she said.

“No, we personally are not screwy,” Alice agreed, “but we are employees of a corporation that we did not invent and that does have rules about its operation, its finances. You know the IRS might have an opinion about some of the things we do with our 501(c)(3) status. With our money. Like Pie Night for example,” she pressed on. “Is this supposed to be a real business meeting? There are so many staff who don’t come.”

“Pie Night is posted on the tech board continually. We’re very open about it. They know they can come.”

“Yes, but the same ones never do. That doesn’t strike me as very democratic. If meetings were all held during business hours, everyone could come without conflict. Those who weren’t busy with work, I mean.”

“Yeah, no kidding. At night, no one’s busy with work. Q.E.D.”

“Okay, but the workplace is for work. Those who can’t come to meetings then, okay, they’re working. I don’t think work is meant to cut into people’s leisure time.”

Trish was still smiling her puzzled smile. “Okay ....”

“And I would lay odds that those who don’t come to Pie Night won’t have a say in the trip to Europe and wouldn’t dream of signing up for it.”

“Okay, that’s their choice. Everyone is free to make choices.”

Alice had a response to this but thought she had better save it for a more congenial field of battle. Before she could speak anymore Trish sighed, “Anyway, if you want to bring this up at an Exec meeting you can. But I think we’ve pretty much solved it here.” She smiled, tightly. Alice gaped at her and was on the point of asking her what on earth they had solved. But she held her tongue again and in another minute they both went off, superficially friendly, to their workday.

Alice thought all day about what she had done. She had no wish to agitate anyone, and as she reflected on it she realized how badly she had prepared the ground. Poor Trish. Perhaps it was an error to raise the issue first thing in the morning, before they had even had coffee. And then again, when was the last time she had so much as asked Trish the time of day, or asked after her children or her mother-in-law’s health, or how she had liked her most recent play? Alice’s excitement at discovering the accoutrements of clubbiness, of thick binders full of tabbed papers and Roman-numeraled secrets, had catapulted her indeed back to fourth grade, blinding her to the understanding that adult women have other lives.
Fourth grade ... how true. Suddenly she saw that she had grown up – slowly – emotionally pummeling and being pummeled by life. Maybe it had to do with being raised by brothers. She assumed that everyone could take a comment in the chops. Even as a little girl she had more than once laughed at a friend’s mother’s new baby, and said something like, “Look at those huge ears ” assuming that everyone understood babies were adorable and that everything said about them was a compliment regardless of tone. The friend and her mother and father would look at each other in stunned hurt, and Alice would find herself curiously uninvited back to that house. Now with Trish she assumed, as usual, that everyone also understood all comments were meant, in self-abnegating style, to apply to oneself most of all.

That was a mistake. Yes, she had been hard, over-eager. When was the last time she had asked Hunter about Catherine? When had she last asked one of the elderly gentlemen at Bethany about his aches and pains and his golf? It was fine to be concerned about grand things, but she must be human too. She would try again in a better way.

But then nobody cared at the Exec meeting either. They were all women with lives. Not everyone likes the accoutrements of clubbiness, not everyone likes binders, papers, and tabs. As long as they were doing their jobs, as long as they were kind and pleasant and were there to support each other nor only for the workday, but for the hunt for expensive concert tickets, and cramps, and next week’s child-care problems, what was the matter? Alice had steeled herself to the possibility that her bringing up the bylaws at the next executive Board meeting might prove the end of their planned trip to France, to film the restoration of the abbey. She still half-expected that they would all agree, with chastened regret, not to go and do a project that was so obviously out of keeping with the Boyd Foundation’s mandate. But that was a foolish misjudgment. Everyone still wanted to go. All they ended up discussing, even by implication, or sheer avoidance of the idea, was whether she should go.

“If this trip to Chinon is what Mr. Boyd wanted to do, why wouldn’t we keep to that?” Pat asked in her big, slow, raspy drawl. Even sitting down she was capable of turning her full height on those who disagreed with her.

“Because the bylaws that he also created say we should not. That’s what bylaws are for. They are there to provide guidance in situations where new things have been suggested that may not be correct. This is not our foundation, we didn’t make it.”

“But he was interested in this project ”

“Yes, he was, but he didn’t go through with it.”

“Well, no, he got sick and died,” Pat cut in, and they all laughed with relief. “It’s hard to finish projects when you’re dead.” Alice grinned too, in growing fury.

“We know that he was interested,” she resumed when she could, “but if he had wanted this done without question, I would think it would have been done years ago, while he was still well – “

“It wasn’t happening while he was well Peter Shepstone just called me this summer. ”

“Okay, but Frank Boyd didn’t also say, ‘Do this without question as soon as you hear that it’s happening.’ Maybe he didn’t pursue it sight unseen because he knew himself that it conflicted with the bylaws.”

“He hired me to pursue it.”

“Yes, he hired you to pursue it. If he had been sure it was legal, he would have said to all of us, ‘Go do this,’ and you wouldn’t have needed to work here.”

There was a hissing intake of breath around the table. “But I do work here.” They all laughed, a little.

“I know.”

“Anyway you’re just speculating,” Trish said. “I know that this abbey restoration project was not happening when he was well, but I know he was interested after he got sick.”

“Who cares – who cares?” Mill blurted.

“Yeah, that’s not the point, when he got sick or didn’t,” Lily said.

“I agree,” Pat said.

“Okay,” Trish went on, “Peter Shepstone only called me a few months ago to tell me that it was underway if we were still interested. Frank Boyd knew this guy. That’s why he called. He cared.”

“Okay, so I would say that indicates a high level of interest on Frank Boyd’s part,” Pat said, facing Alice. “I would say it is not our mandate to ignore that.”

“Yes,” Alice said slowly, “and we also have a set of bylaws which Frank Boyd set up for his company years before that. This is the Boyd Foundation and Monique Productions. It’s not our creation, it was theirs. And it’s not ‘Monique-Boyd,’ by the way.” Alice faced Trish in her turn. “The employees really don’t have the authority to change the corporation’s name before the public eye. But the bylaws do say that this company will deal with architectural restoration projects within the continental United States, emphasizing the Midwest. Not even the pretty west, you know, California and what not. The Midwest. Iowa City. I don’t think a French abbey counts as within the United States.”

Trish was already more hurt than angry. “But we’ve always, you know, sort of expanded that to take in projects with an American connection,” she said. “That’s just the way we’ve always worked. I see no reason to open a whole can of worms now. I can recall projects with only an American connection being done while he was still alive. What about that set of houses near Niagara Falls? Weren’t half of them in Canada technically?”

“There you go. Case closed, Alice,” Mill said, not unfriendly.

Alice shook her head. “I was probably still in data entry then. I can’t help – none of us can help what may have slipped over the border one day when he was losing his grip – “

Pat groaned, and so did the others. “Oh come on, you can’t say that.”

“Can’t say what? Anything?”

There were more soft groans and Alice kept quickly on. “Look at this list of things we have not done, while we were busy in Canada and other places. Waterfront restoration in Missouri, here’s something about Fort Leavenworth, here’s something in Wyoming – “

“Yes, and all those projects were voted down democratically in committee. We do things properly.”

“They should not have been voted down very quietly in committee. That’s easy to do when we’ve seen to it that the staff are unaware of the corporation’s rules. We’re all at fault there.” Alice tried to keep her voice soft. “And I’d love to know who the committee was. Three people, over drinks one night?”

“No, it was not three people over drinks one night. We know the company’s ‘rules,’ as you call them – “

“They are them.”

“We’ve done all this We have committees, we follow procedures, we don’t drink every night.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“We are all fine. We’re fine. This is a nice group of people, we get along, we do things in a nice way, we’re providing a wonderful service to our public television audience – “

“That’s true,” Alice nodded, but it came out, to her hearers, with a smirk.

“Okay. So. Well, what do you want us to do?”

This was exactly what Trish had a gift for. She would do it again on the Saturday before New Year’s Eve, when she came to berate Alice in her home. “What change do you want?” If she could not subdue people through pre-emptive actions – such as canceling their checks for them – or through her flute-like voice, she turned to them mildly as if they wanted all power, and held a noose around her humble neck. Among women, there was no decent course to take then except to deny one wanted power, which was true of Alice in any case. She just loved binders and notebooks, and wanted to be part of a club. She thought that by talking she could infuse everybody else with her feelings. The women were not interested. She may as well have been a talking ape for all they really heard her. All they heard was criticism. And by denying she wanted power she would serve to give Trish back hers.

“I don’t have the authority to want us to do anything,” Alice said, equally humble. “All I’m saying is that this corporation is being run in a way that I found very startling when I came across the bylaws a few weeks ago. I think it could be more efficient and democratic and I think we should be worried about the IRS, too.”

“What made you look for them?” Mill asked.

“Curiosity. I wanted to have a definition of the words ‘American connection,’ which I couldn’t find at all, and I wanted to know more about my job as treasurer. The candle-lighting ceremony was very nice, but I wanted to know exactly what I’m supposed to do.” Alice knew even as these words were leaving her mouth that she had erred again. She had denigrated a pleasant ceremony and she had implied that her not knowing her responsibilities was someone else’s fault – Trish’s and Pat’s fault – because they had replaced knowledge with ceremony. She could also be construed to have said that the rest of them didn’t know their jobs either. Trish made no further eye contact with her.

Pat spoke. “Bob Boyd has been running this corporation for years. He’s their son. He has never made an issue of the projects we’ve been doing I was hired specifically to research this abbey.”

“Bingo,” Trish said, grimacing at the table.

“Monique has never made an issue of them. Why should there be a problem now?”
“Because the bylaws exist,” Alice was prepared to start all over again, but they surprised her by all bursting out laughing. “Yes, that’s why the bylaws exist, to cause problems ” someone sang out.

Alice tried to smile but lacked the heart for it. “No, they exist so that a corporation founded under them stays the same regardless of who is in charge or whether the founder gets sick, or if the widow maybe loses interest or the son maybe would rather be fishing than running a non-profit-architectural-film-restoration company. This is our responsibility. This isn’t me talking, this could be the IRS talking. What if we get audited one day?”

There was a little silence. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” Lily said gently.

“I’m not ‘worried.’”

A more difficult silence attended this. “Well, let’s get on to new business, shall we?” Pat suggested, and they all agreed. New business. That was the first time Alice had heard such formal language at one of their jocular Exec meetings. Maybe she was making progress, if only by the tiniest steps.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 14

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