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
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.