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“How can you say that?” she replied. “There’s no place in the world like this.”
“New York is full of itself,” he said.
Helen disagreed. It seemed, to her, to be emptying itself out.
For two days, she didn’t tell anyone about getting sacked. Virgil didn’t call. Maybe it was one of those kinds of friendships, the trauma-friendship, the kind that doesn’t last past the trauma. She toyed with the idea of calling the Help Desk to ask for some Help. But he was busy enough, processing all the firings, killing off permissions.
She sat around in her apartment, flipping through channels, unable to get up and turn on the computer and mess with her résumé. She didn’t even bother looking at her mail. Not until it was unavoidable. A messenger with six file boxes labeled MARKS PERSONAL EFFECTS, packed with care by one of the temps, each Happy Meal toy shrouded in bubble wrap. She cried as she unwrapped them and arranged them on her cramped desk. The phone rang.
“Helen? What’s going on?” It was Mom. “I called you at the office and there was some girl on a recording saying you were no longer at the firm. Did you quit?”
“No. I’m a statistic.”
“You’re what?” Pause. “Oh. Oh, Helen. Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“I’m fine. They gave me a package.” She tried her best to sound fine, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her sweatshirt. “I still get paid for six months.”
“Dick? Dick?” Mom shouted into the house. “Pick up the phone, it’s Helen.”
“Helen’s been laid off,” Mom said.
“Oh.” His disappointment struck Helen in the gut. She didn’t try to hide her tears anymore. She couldn’t, not from him.
One of her salient Singer Martin memories: waiting for a client lunch on the 33rd floor. The client was over a half hour late, and Helen had brought nothing to read. So she looked out the window. At the Hudson, filled with big chunks of ice, floating slowly to the Atlantic. The park along the shore, way, way below, dogs and children running like dots on the snow-covered grass. And inside, on one wall of the executive dining room, portraits of the CEO’s of the last fifty years, all authoritative, portly gentlemen in blue and gray suits. She inspected the portraits closely, noticed a slight evolution of style in the application of paint, a mini-art-history lesson for those who paid attention. In the earliest ones, the look was flat and no-nonsense, poses stiff but flattering, faces confident, the peaches and whites of skin blended seamlessly. But then, there came a gradual softening of the brushmarks as time passed and old artists were replaced. She put her face up close to the latest one, interesting for the dewiness of the man’s pink cheek, and for the glazed highlight in the corner of each blue eye, almost like a tear.
It was time to network, to put feelers out there, but Helen had no energy and no feelers. She finally gave in to Mom’s suggestion and went home for a little suburban R and R.
There, she found her twin bed, packed with stuffed animals, each with its own story and name and personality. The Dogs Playing Poker print still hung on the wall, a gift from Dad for her tenth birthday. She had forgotten the softness of her pink blanket, which she kept folded under her pillow and stroked as she went to sleep.
In New York, she hadn’t been sleeping well, but here, the dark, country quiet enveloped her and the dreams came, the ones she had been expecting. Some almost goofy, like one with her and Virgil getting on the elevator to go for drinks at Windows on the World. Halfway up, the elevator stops, and everyone gets out. “I’m sorry,” says a guard on the fiftieth floor. “The rest of the building is gone. This is as far as it goes.”
“They couldn’t tell us that in the lobby?” Virgil says.
“We are all on a need-to-know basis,” the guard says.
The worst dreams were nothing but memories, brought back into real time by sleep. Replaying that day, the endless trek down the crowded fire stairs, walking away from her office and wondering if she will ever go back. The smoke and papers flying and her hand turning Virgil’s head away, so he won’t see that thing, the thing Helen can’t unsee: a figure in a navy blue business suit, back first, then turning, flapping pink tie becoming closer and clearer.
Finally, she closes her eyes, shutting out the man, the suit, the thing. Shutting it out.
“So, what are you going to do while you’re here?” Mom asked over the breakfast table. Her cheeriness was grating sometimes, but not now. Now it was refreshing and restorative, like orange juice. “You know your painting stuff is still in the basement.”
“She should work on her résumé.” Dad put down his newspaper. “I can look it over for you, maybe show it to some of the guys at the club.”
“Dick, shush. The résumé can wait.” Even if Mom was wrong, Helen was relieved to have a spokesperson.
Dad gave one of his self-assured shrugs. “Maybe not, Marian. Gotta stay in the game while you still have some decent cards in your hand.”
“Cards!” Mom lit up. “What a great idea! Why don’t you come with me to my bridge club tomorrow? There’s bound to be room for you, Helly. Do you still play?”
“Not really.” Helen had learned when she was nine, much to her mother’s pride. Dad’s pride too, though he didn’t play. Bridge was a smart game, for smart girls, in his view.
Helen jabbed a toothpick between her two front teeth. They were crooked, crowded just enough to trap food at every meal. “I hate my teeth,” she muttered.
“What’s wrong with your teeth?” Dad said. “They’re perfect.”
“Look.” She bared them under the pendant kitchen light. Dad leaned in, the gray hairs of his nostrils huge. She could hear his wheezy breath as he studied her mouth. “They’re getting more crooked every year,” Helen said through frozen lips. “I can’t smile for photos anymore.”
“Let me see,” Mom said, leaning in too now, her floral perfume enveloping the trio. Something to focus on. A family barn raising, right here in Helen’s mouth. “Hm,” she said, and stood up. “I never noticed that before.”
“They look great,” Dad said, re-raising his shield of newspaper.
“You know, a lot of adults get braces now. Cindy, the church secretary, has them.”
“Mom, I’m thirty-four.”
“Why not?” Mom’s object was clear. Her mind made up. This would be Helen’s big project while she was home. “Isn’t your friend Jerry Steloff an orthodontist, hon?” Dad snapped his newspaper and hmmphed the affirmative. “Well, great. Good. Helen, we’ll get you an appointment.” Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. Come home, straighten her head, straighten her teeth. Go back to New York a new person.
Dr. Steloff’s assistant, Cheryl, was mixing putty in a little plastic dish. She was cute, pixie red hair and a Hello Kitty smock, probably worn for the younger patients, but Helen welcomed it. “Okay Helen, this stuff tastes nasty, but I can flavor it if you want. Do you want strawberry, mint, or piña colada?”
“Do you put rum in the piña colada?”
“That’s the best one, it covers up the plastic taste.”
“Make it a double.”
“Just taking an impression,” Cheryl murmured as she placed the curved cup over Helen’s upper teeth. “Bite down.” She put a suction tube in Helen’s mouth, which grew loud with her saliva, making her gums dry and uncomfortable. “Sorry, it’s disgusting, I know.”
“Mmmmhph.” Helen replied, trying not to gag. She let her mind drift while Cheryl pulled out the putty, then put another round on the lower teeth. There was a poster on the ceiling, an orange kitten hanging by his claws from a tree branch, the old saw caption below: Hang in there baby, Friday’s coming. The kitten looked scared. Helen had never noticed that before. Mortally terrified, like the fall from the tree was many stories, would be his last. It wasn’t funny at all. Friday’s coming. The kitten knew better than to count on that. Cheryl rinsed, asked her to spit. Helen obeyed.
“Well, Helen,” said Dr. Steloff, sweeping into the room with a big, perfect smile. He rode a rolling stool over next to her, focused a light on her face, and leaned in, his red beard showing hints of gray beneath his plastic face shield. “Let’s take a look. Open.” Helen obeyed again. His tie was dotted with tiny Elmer Fudds, mimicking the ruddy, round face inches from hers. “Okay, now bite down on this paper. Open again. Hmm. Bite again. Okay, I think we can help you.”