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"Mysterious Lover"

by Cynthia J. Thompson



Vol. 2, No. 8, 1958

     LILA STROLLED across the huge room, past row after row of desks, ignoring the lascivious stares of the men and the envious gazes of the women. She stopped at her desk, going slowly through the ritual of hanging her shoulder bag on a hat rack, removing the typewriter cover and folding it, checking the arrow-straight stocking seams, and making a careful inspection of coiffure, makeup, and fingernails. Though she was troubled this morning, the ritual did not change or accelerate in any way; she was just as aware of the men's fascinated scrutiny, and just as nonchalant about it as ever.
     The rest of the stenographers and file clerks and bookkeepers in the pool gritted their teeth in hatred as she brushed invisible wrinkles and stray hairs from her skin-tight but demure red sheath and daintily traced the straps of black patent leather sandals with a Kleenex. A jet curl on her forehead had to be coaxed into just the right fillip; the heart-shaped mouth became a little more exaggerated. When she finally began arranging her work materials for the day, the girls turned away and began to type or fidget busily, but the men still watched.
     Behind his glass cage, Mr. Herbert W. Fitzgerald coughed importantly to himself and shifted slightly to the right, allowing him a better view of Lila Harrison's slim legs. Marvin Jonson pulled a rumpled handkerchief from a trousers pocket and wiped his damp brow, nervously licking his upper lip.
     Robert MacIntosh guiltily tried to convince himself he was above comparing Lila Harrison's sheath with the faded seersucker housecoat his wife had worn to breakfast. She could at least sew a button on the damn thing, he thought, wincing at his family's clamorous oatmeal breakfasts. The eight or nine other men in the room swallowed, cleared their throats, or headed for the water cooler. When tight-lipped, carved-grayiron-haired Miss Anderson had distributed the first of the day's work to the preoccupied personnel, work finally dragged itself toward the beginning of the day.
     Most days, Lila began to type immediately with an amazing speed that in no way ever seemed to disturb the lacquer of her long red fingernails. But this morning, the men, at least, noticed that her first attempts all ended in crumpled paper tossed casually in the vicinity of a nearby wastebasket. With a blatant disregard for efficiency, Lila rose and walked back down the aisle toward the ladies lounge. Work stopped abruptly, and she was accorded the hushed admiration until the lounge door sighed behind her. The men in the office echoed the sigh of the door, and turned their attention back to their letters and accounts.
     Inside the lounge, Lila inspected her appearance minutely from force of habit. Sinking into a plastic armchair, she stared unseeingly at the murals of Paris along the wall. She lit a cigarette and began to review the night before.
     The bus had been crowded as usual, but she had been given a seat as soon as she got on and she rode home with the bored blankness that captured her most of the time. She had stopped at the grocery for two pork chops, a can of peas, a dozen eggs and a box of soap. She tapped her way up the uncarpeted stairs, putting the groceries on the floor while she fumbled in her purse for the key. The door swung open, and she carried the groceries inside, pushing the door closed with a push of her bottom (she never kicked it--she had just once and had snagged her nylons). She put the groceries away quickly. There was a note from Willie on the scarred wooden table:
     Lila baby. Miss you tonight. How about quitting so we can get together sometimes? Working overtime tonight, so won't see you in the morning. Love, Willie.
     Lila read the message and flipped it into the trashcan without emotion. She would have been better off if she had stayed single, she often reflected bitterly. She had found her job purposely, so that the long ride to and from work would make her working hours so long she only saw Willie in the mornings.
     Then there was just time to say hello and ask how things were at the plant before she started to work. He griped about it constantly, especially when she turned aside from his kisses so he wouldn't smear her face. Lila hid her relief at being away from the little dark apartment with dingy paper drapes and the girls next door having coffeeklatches with their screaming babies, and Willie's anxious fumbling caresses, under a pretense of "saving money for a home of our own."
     She began making a rye and cheese sandwich. No more bread. Willie would have to have the heels for breakfast, or go out and get a doughnut. She shrugged. Before she ate the sandwich, she went into her room, took off her shoes and dress, and hung them up carefully. She put a blue negligee over the lacy slip (for which she had spent last month's "house" money). Curling up on the couch with a romance magazine, she ate absent-mindedly.
     The evening was as luxurious as most of her evenings. She turned down the neighborhood movie and half-heartedly dusted the house. Then she spent two hours preparing for work the next day. She washed her hair and doused it in a dye bath, pinning up the jet curls and hiding them under a rather becoming turban. Then she soaked in a long hot bath, fixed her nails, pressed two dresses, and rinsed out her underwear. Before she curled up with the magazines again, she put a beauty mask on her face, rinsing it off and applying cold cream after ten carefully timed minutes.
     When she had finished the novelette in the magazine, she downed a sleeping pill and slipped into bed, sighing with pleasure at the cool expanse of sheets against her black nightgown.
     Lila fell asleep quickly. It was a long time later when she was awakened gradually, feeling the body next to her curl against her. She smiled happily and slid over onto her back. Lila never really came completely awake, though she returned the kisses whole-heartedly. Wonder how Willie ever found out love could be this good, she thought; he sure learned how in a hurry. Afterward, she sighed and fell asleep again almost immediately, happy and exhausted. She was only dimly aware of the bedroom door shutting quietly be-hind a silhouetted body.
     She awoke before the alarm clock rang the next morning, and yawned and stretched to rouse herself slowly. The cheap alarm clock clicked off obediently at her push. As she became more alert, she remembered the night before.
     "Willie, I believe you've talked me into quitting my job," she whispered as she groped for her slippers. She slid into the satin mules and the sheer negligee, heading for the bathroom. At the bathroom door, she stopped with a gasp. Willie was working overtime last night!
     Her mind repeated the idea for moments before it progressed to the next idea. Then who was it?
     She deliberately closed her mind to thought while she showered, made up, and fixed her hair. Knowing that thinking made a tiny wrinkle between her eyes, she pushed the problem out of her mind during the bus ride, but the question grew and grew so that she was unable to concentrate during the first few moments of work.
     Now she sat in the lounge, trying to name her lover. She rejected Mr. Herbert W. Fitzgerald almost immediately; his idea of fun would be to have her sit on his knee while he patted her bottom. Marvin Jonson? He wouldn't have the nerve. Mr. MacIntosh? He wouldn't be able to get away from his wife? She skimmed through the rest of the office workers. Somebody on the bus? Driver? Regular riders? They wouldn't know Willie worked nights or that she took sleeping pills. The grocer? Oh, surely (with a slight shudder) not. Someone in the apartment house? The only other man was Mr. Wittletby, on the first floor, and he had arthritis. Last night's man wasn't arthritic, she knew.
     Miss Anderson came into the lounge. "Are you ill, Lila?" she inquired. No, but you wish I was, don't you, old biddy, thought Lila with sudden anger as she smiled and replied, "I think I'll be all right now." She rose and put out her cigarette, then promenaded back to her desk.
     The rest of the day Lila worked efficiently as ever, and the attention she got caused the usual inefficiency in the rest of the office. At 5, she stood up, checked her makeup, hair, dress, shoes, and stockings, and slung her patent leather bag over her arm. The men in the office clustered behind her in a log jam at the time clock, and scrambled to follow her down the stairs.
     Lila went from the bus to a corner cafe, and dined on a ham sandwich and coffee. She had seen the movie, but went in anyway, losing herself in the flickering shadows. It was after 10 when she got home, and she cut her beauty regime short, merely brushing out her hair and smoothing a film of cold cream on her face. As she turned off the bathroom light and started to bed, she hesitated at the front door. For a full minute she stared at the latch. Then, shivering a little in the sheer nightgown, she gave a tiny smile, and reached out with a carmine fingernail and carefully unlocked the door.

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