I recognize the black balloons, the same kind used at the office party for my fiftieth birthday. Now sixty, I expected something more creative: black homburgs, melanistic leopards, caviar. I would have settled for farfalla schwarz (black bowtie pasta). Instead, I got first pick from a six-foot sub, Black Forest Ham, and a swig of black punch with Titanic-sized icebergs of orange sherbet. And of course a cake. No candles. Just cake, sweet and winsome as each preceding fifty-nine.
I must admit, turning fifty turned my stomach. Half a century and what did I have to show for it? For thirty-one years I worked for the same company, outlived two husbands, and felt like my life didn’t amount to a hill of beans. Black beans.
Sure, I made it to the top, if you consider being first secretary like you would consider first violinist in a symphony orchestra. The first violin leads not only the string section, but the entire orchestra, subordinate only to the conductor. Or you can consider it in a more plebian way. At work, I’m the bull goose loony subordinate only to Ms. Brandt, the Nurse Ratched of Brandt and Sons Imports. Mr. Brandt died of testicular cancer three years ago. His two sons had their testicles removed by their mother when she took over the company. My testicles ascended in utero.
Turning sixty doesn’t feel like anything. The ancient Chinese didn’t have a continuous year count. When a new Emperor assumed power, they started counting from one again. If I was an ancient Chinese, I would be three years old in Ms. Brandt’s fledgling dynasty.
Bernie in sales, who wears too much self-tanner for February, or any month, pats me on the tush. His accomplishments in philandering put Casanova to shame. Casanova got kicked out of the seminary for his dalliances. Bernie makes his best moves at temple.
“Oh, if I was ten years younger . . . ” he whispers in my ear, his spittle spraying my ear.
“. . . you’d be patting the new secretary’s tush,” I say.
“Who’s to say I haven’t,” he says smiling, already too far away to flood my ear canal again.
Bernie is one of the old fighters, or as Ms. Brandt likes to say in German lingo, Alte Kampfer. Or should I say Nazi German lingo? The term refers to members of the Nazi party when Hitler was just a scrawny little fellow with a funny moustache. Ms. Brandt sports a mostache but uses her Nazi German only around Alte Kampfer, like Bernie and me and Sol.
Sol, our accountant, knows more numbers than God. Or should I say Gott? He talks numbers night and day. His wife once told me that he shouts out numbers while they have sex. The higher the number, the better the orgasm. When they first married, the numbers outscored the GNP. Of late, she says it’s more like a hockey score.
Sol approaches me from the rear, tapping me on the shoulder.
“Have you ever thought about infinity?” he asks.
I turn toward his good ear and say, “Only when I’m in church.”
Sol looks around as if he’s Alger Hiss about to spill the black beans to the Communists. He leans in close but falls short of spittle range.
“You know that there are an infinite number of numbers. Right?
I nod my head.
“They go on and on and on into . . . well, into infinity. And there’s no end to infinity.”
I nod my head again.
“Well, that means there are an infinite number of fractions. Will you give me that?” he asks.
I would give Sol a double sawbuck and three black balloons if he would change the subject.
“I’ll give you that, Sol,” I say.
“Then this will blow your mind,” he says, breathless as a lover’s first kiss. “There’s an infinite set of fractions between one and two. So there can be an end to infinity. Explain that,” he says.
On a good day, if I was Einstein, I couldn’t explain that. But I know that if I don’t extricate myself from the conversation, I’ll be chatting with Sol for an infinitely long time. Luckily, Ms. Brandt calls me from across the room.
“Betty,” she says just above the party murmur.For the first time, Ms. Brandt uses my first name. To make sure it’s her, I squint my eyes. When the woman crooks her finger at me, I’m reassured. The crook of her finger is Ms. Brandt’s German sign language for kommen. When Ms.Brandt crooks her finger, whether it’s across a boardroom table or across a crowded room, you’d better haul ass. In this case, she has decided to have a word with me. In private. She has already slipped into her office.I kommen boss.
Ms. Brandt’s office lacks any personal accoutrements. The walls are naked, the mahogany desk wiped clean as a blackboard, except for a writhing piece of white driftwood. She mixes me a Rusty Nail on the rocks with a twist of lemon. As I look out the window, I notice that my birthday party is over, everyone having scurried back into their holes, the black balloons gone for another ten years.
“Betty,” she says, “I’ll cut to the chase.”
Cut to the chase, a silent film term, moving from romance to the excitement of a chase scene. For months, rumors of layoffs have been buzzing the office air space like Stuka dive bombers. I’m guessing the love affair is over, and I’m being chased out of the company, the Rusty Nail an analgesic to numb me before my coffin is nailed shut.
“To save the company,” she says, “we’re getting rid of deadwood.”
The Nazis coined a term for that, nutlos esser, useless eaters. Bernie and Sol are both children of concentration camp survivors, so I’ve picked up some German and some Yiddish. Ms. Brandt is unaware of their heritage. Ms. Brandt is unaware of political correctness in lieu of manners. Ms. Brandt is unaware of infinity. When she offers me a knish, I motion I’m full.
“Here’s a roster of loose cannons,” she says, handing me a black list on white paper. I scan the names. In all, there are twenty-one. Sol and Bernie top the list. Sol just had one bummer of an orgasm. When I don’t see my name, I take a swallow of my drink. Obviously, I am not one of the armaments running amuck. The new secretary, pretty as Snow White, lies at the bottom of the list. The aging Ms. Brandt must have looked in the mirror once too often.
Most of these people have been with the company for an infinity. If Mr. Brandt was alive, this wouldn’t be happening. If his sons had the stones, this wouldn’t be happening. Now their stones will lie on top of the graves of Bernie and Sol. The other nineteen will have to settle for black balloons.
“Issue pink slips,” I am ordered.
In France I would send le cartouche jaune, in Germany, den blauen brief. In the USA, I send e-mauls, poisoned keypad strokes explaining their options: severance, early retirement, COBRA . . .
In one swallow, I finish my drink.
“When do you want this done?” I ask.
“Today,” she says, quicker than a firing squad.
I leave my empty glass on the small bar, my hands cold from the ice. I am the company hangman . . . hangwoman. I play the violin music as the victims climb the gallows. Then I place the black sacks over their heads and pull the trap doors.
As I leave Ms. Brandt’s office, she says, “Oh, yes, your birthday. Sixty.” She lowers her voice. “Just between us girls, I’ll be turning fifty next month. What was that like?” she asks.
I guess when you fire a twenty-one gun salute over the lives you just eviscerated, you want some sense of kinship with the survivors.
Without turning around, I say, “A piece of cake.”
I’m glad it’s Friday. After I pull the trap doors, I leave. In the cab ride home, I divide the world into two halves, the employed and the unemployed: the guy driving the cab and the guy hitch hiking; the suit in an Armani and the dude in the do-rag; the prostitute on the corner, and the bag lady warming herself on a steam grate.
That evening, I can’t sleep. I look through the want ads. There are no jobs for overly self-tanned philanderers. No jobs for men in love with numbers. But I notice a movie theater ad: Vintage Film Night at the Bijou: The Letter. The unemployed have a lot of time on their hands. Where better to place a movie advertisement?
I’ve seen The Letter before. Bette Davis, cold-blooded as Lady Macbeth, pumps six rounds into her ex-lover whom she accuses of attempted rape, the empty gun continuing to click like the typewriter keys of a Dear John Letter. Her husband, a handsome chap and trusting as mother’s milk, consoles his wife, saying, “You did what every woman would have done in your place, only nine-tenths of them wouldn’t have had the courage.”
I go and watch the movie, knowing that, in the end, Bette Davis gets exactly what she deserves. She’s kaput, which derives from the German kaputt, which derives from the Yiddish kaput, meaning lost, dead.
When the movie is over, like a Hemmingway character who doesn’t want to go home, I sit and watch the cleaning crew. When I smile at the aging boss man, I see the glint of his gold tooth, my free ticket to the midnight showing, To Have and Have Not. For thirty-eight years my smile worked on Mr. Brandt, just like Bacall worked on Bogie.
I sat there wondering what worked on Ms. Brandt. Why wasn’t I standing in a soup line? Why weren’t pennies tap dancing in my tin cup? Why wasn’t my number up? Did it stretch into infinity? And where did I get the balls?
As I sat there, I knew the cleaning boss would hail a cab for me after the show. I knew he would ask for my number. But I planned to walk the nine blocks alone, maybe even sing a song from the second feature. Sing out loud:
“Am I blue? Am I blue?
Ain’t these tears
in my eyes telling you?”