It was a beautiful wedding. Everybody said so. The weather was perfect, sunny but not humid. The flowers in the church, all in white with pink baby roses, were beautiful. Dee thought the bride and groom made a handsome couple – Carl so tall and tan, muscular after his summer job, Marsha, tiny beside him, delicate, her wispy blonde hair escaping from the hairdresser’s best efforts. No one mentioned the bulge at Marsha’s waist or made snide comments about the white dress or the veil.
Dee frowned – the photographer was taking too long. The ice cream cake would melt. The fancy hors d’oeuvres would get spoilt in the summer sun, the guests would all get ptomaine poisoning. It wasn’t her responsibility, she told herself. She wasn’t the hostess – but she worried. Marsha’s parents were busy in the reception line. Should she say something, prod the photographer?
She tried to relax; afraid the photographer would snap his picture while she looked ‘funny.’ How aggravating it would be years later to see the photos – Marsha and Carl picture-perfect, with a frowning maid of honor, standing like a bad-tempered pink balloon beside the bride and groom.
” Peachy Pink” had been Marsha’s choice for Dee, who would have liked royal blue, but Marsha’s mom said it would be too much contrast, would somehow put the bride in the background. “You wouldn’t want that, would you, Dee”, somehow persuading and scolding at the same time. Mrs. Henderson was good at that. Dee, always the good sport, gave in. Of course not, better a pink balloon with a wide sash where her waist should be but wasn’t.
All through high school Dee – unsure of herself, overweight and shy – had envied Marsha, who had everything that counted- looks, popularity, brains. And now she’s caught in a nest, a mama bird, Dee thought. Never mind. Should Dee ever get married she would wear whatever she wanted. She would be perfect – thin and smart, sophisticated and successful, so successful she could pay her own way, and live somewhere else, far away from Manchester, New Hampshire. High school is over, she thought, the world is wide open.
The baby’s name would be Amy, less foreign than Amelia, Marsha had explained, but still close to Dee’s middle name. ” Who would ever name a baby Dolores Amelia Louise?” Marsha had asked.
“My mother would.” Dee sighed, remembering her mother – so full of ambition, hoping for drama in the nursery, a leading role as Mother. There was always a rehearsal to go to, more important than Dee’s school events, or an opening at the community theater. For Dee it became clear – in her mother’s life, she was an off- stage event. The Drama Club was the one club in high school Dee never joined, even after her mother died.
The accident had been a shock. Fourteen-year-old Dee had mourned – it seemed to be expected. As the months went on, she realized life was easier – no rehearsal schedule to observe, no performances requiring her applause, no one demanding attention. She acknowledged a gap that had always been there.
Carefully holding her godchild as the priest did his stuff, Dee nodded, thinking Amy is good, a short name, small like this tiny baby, not over-blown like my name. Standing beside Marsha at the christening, Dee felt happy for her friend. All through high school Dee had envied Marsha, the girl who was going to right the world’s wrongs, become a social worker, maybe a politician? Facing university, Dee didn’t know what she wanted, but she was sure it wasn’t what Marsha had chosen.
That summer she listened to the high-flying plans of her friends, most of them going out of state, going steady or engaged, excited, happy. It was 1952. She was stuck at the Manchester campus of N.H. University – no money for anything else. Dee hugged everyone, wished them luck, promised to be there for them when they came home for a weekend, only occasionally feeling like Cinderella waving good-by to her sisters on their way to the ball.
After her father passed away, Dee found the house belonged to her, free and clear. Was it the lawyer who suggested she sell it? “It’s just a suggestion. You could go away to school, use the money for tuition, for room and board. That way, you’d have no student debt when you graduate.” When the house finally sold, she worked out a budget to take her through graduation and maybe even beyond if she was careful. She moved to Durham, feeling she was going much further than the thirty-five miles registered on her old car’s odometer.
Her three years at UNH Durham were like life on a different planet, compared to freshman year when she lived at home, studying, working, caring for her dad. On campus, everyone seemed to know their way around, which courses to take, where the lectures were. Dee, feeling lost, stayed quiet, listening for hints of where to go, what to wear. She wasn’t used to eating in a cafeteria and found the noise and the crowds unpleasant. Her old car finally broke down. She sold it for parts, glad of the extra money She began to lose weight and took a job in the cafe of the student center, a way of meeting people. Everybody seemed to like Dee, a new experience for her. She was surprised how many confided in her, their worries, their fears. She would never be able to reveal what her deepest feelings were, what she feared. It would make her too vulnerable, give people ammunition – the way all her so-called friends in high school had made fun of her weight, the way Marsha’s mom had looked at the pink dress, knowing it made Dee look like a balloon, not caring about Dee as long as Marsha looked beautiful. And in a way, Dee had not cared either. Marsha was the important one at the wedding, not Dee, not the maid of honor.
Stan was one of the boys she saw most often. Stan was light-hearted, a basketball player, nice, not a jock like most of the boys in the athletic department. But Stan was worried. He would go into long periods of silence, staring at his shoes, seemingly miles away. Dee had seen this with other boys. They tried to work on her sympathy, rouse her maternal feelings hoping vulnerability would get them what they wanted. She remained friendly but resolute and usually never saw these boys again. Stan was different. They knew each other so well. She wondered if he had gotten a girl ‘in trouble’.
One Saturday they drove to a beach in Maine. They collected driftwood, built a fire, then sat on the beach and watched the waves roll in. Stan was quiet, watching the flames. Finally, Dee, in her gentlest voice, asked “What’s wrong, Stan?” Suddenly he buried his head in his arms and sobbed. Lifting a tear-stained face he mumbled “It’s the army. I don’t want to go. I’m afraid.” He buried his head again. His shoulders shook.
Dee moved in close, laid her arms across his shoulders. Putting her head next to his she murmured, “Hey, don’t worry. It’ll be alright. You won’t be sent out. Everyone goes through this.” She felt helpless. The words echoed in her head – useless phrases, dry comfort. Newspaper pictures – Taiwan, China, Korea – flashed through her mind.
Wanting to help somehow, she hugged him with both arms and suddenly they were lying in the sand, holding each other. He raised his head, looked at her – so miserable, so unhappy, so hopeless. Not knowing what else to do, she kissed him. He responded. They rolled in the sand, unbuckling, pulling off, grasping at each other.
Thinking about it afterward as they lay in the sand, looking at the stars, Dee wondered. It hadn’t been earth-shaking, not what she’d heard about. Was everybody exaggerating or was it her. Maybe she was under-sexed. Stan seemed happy. He suddenly smiled a one-sided grin and asked if the stars looked the same in Southeast Asia. She punched him in the side, they began rolling, fake fighting, laughing. Finally, arm in arm they returned to campus.
The last months on campus were melancholy for Dee. She was nervous, not sure what she should do after graduation. Maybe it was her nervousness that delayed her period. As she counted the days, she suddenly realized how foolish she’d been, sleeping with Stan so impulsively, with no protection. Of course, it was her fault. She’d made it easy and now she was being punished – and for the rest of her life. After a few days, she was relieved to find she wasn’t pregnant after all. Relief flooded over her; a weight lifted - saved. From then on, she always carried a package of rubbers with her.
Dee felt unsettled, the routine of college life about to end, no sure alternative in the offing. Maybe Marsha, who had known her so long, would have an idea for Dee. With her degree almost in hand, Dee took a weekend to visit her old ‘very best friend’ in Cambridge. There were now three children, crawling around the crowded living room when Auntie Dee arrived. After exclaiming over their growth and distributing the gifts she settled in the small kitchen with Marsha for coffee.
The tiny apartment on Inman Square didn’t seem so much better than their ramshackle house in Manchester, but Marsha insisted that Cambridge was bigger and better than it looked. There were so many opportunities here. Dee should try to get a job in Boston, maybe in government. They were always looking for people. It would be security, a civil service job, more exciting in Boston than in Manchester. “Just think of all the students, the social life, ….” Marsha’s voice trailed off. Dee smiled and said “No. There’s no one holding me in Durham or in Manchester.” They knew each other so well, she could hear the unspoken question. “And if you get a job, you can sleep here until you find a place.” Marsha went on enthusiastically.
Dee smiled, looked around. “Share a crib with one of the kids, you mean? I don’t think so.”
Pushing away the suspicion that Marsha envied Dee her freedom, her choice of jobs and friends, she changed the subject, asking about the kids and Carl ‘s job. But Dee continued to think about Marsha’s suggestion. Maybe she could get a job in Boston, working with people. Something with variety. She would research the possibilities when she got back to Durham.
Marsha was chattering, Dee listening with half an ear, not really interested. The pediatrician was pretty good, not as thorough as she wished. Carl was not happy either. He was applying for a job in Chicago, but the competition was fierce. Although they chatted about schoolmates, Dee felt Marsha wasn’t really interested. Had she changed or was it Dee? Marsha’s life was full, different now.
As if to prove her right, there was a commotion from the living room. The baby appeared, trying to crawl with a long shawl twisted around his ankle. Marsha jumped, scooping up the screaming baby. Dee was up, out of the kitchen and into her coat by the time the screaming stopped. Smiling, Dee reached around the baby to hug her old friend, promised to stay in touch and fled the chaos.
As she made her way to the Greyhound bus station, she glimpsed the golden dome of the state house. It might be nice to work there, in a real city – the Hub. She decided to explore job offers.
Dee took the civil service exam, more out of a sense of duty than expectation. Again, thinking she should, she interviewed for the jobs in Manchester and Durham but either the job descriptions (dull repetitive work, no chance for advancement), the personality of the interviewer, (bored or cynical after years of ‘public service’) or the offices themselves (badly in need of paint and newer furniture) were discouraging. She began to scour the help wanted pages in the Boston Globe.
Her eye was caught by an ad. “Gal Friday needed for young, dynamic firm in the PR sector. Applicants must be self-motivated and well-organized. Previous work experience unnecessary.” She wasn’t sure what the PR sector was but, liking the sound of “young and dynamic”, she sent in her application. She found herself hoping for an interview, if only to find out what a Gal Friday did, and Boston of course, was better than Durham and Manchester. Whatever happened, it was something new, and the bus trip to Boston was well within her budget.
There was no golden globe on top of the building that housed EDC Communications in the landmarked building near Boston Common. It was Mr. Shapiro, the director – a round energetic little man, shorter than Dee, middle-aged with a receding hairline – who interviewed her. He described the advantages of working in public relations, the opportunities for advancement, the room for growth. Mr. Shapiro seemed less a slick salesman, which would have frightened her, than a guidance counselor at high school. Dee wondered how good he was at his job. PR, it turned out, was public relations and a Gal Friday was expected to be able to do everything. Noticing her raised eyebrows, he quickly said ” Of course, not everything.”
Dee found his enthusiasm encouraging, just the opposite of the bored and tired interviewers she had encountered before. The idea of independence and responsibility intrigued her. She imagined herself bringing in new clients, earning admiration and bonuses.
Mr. Shapiro wasn’t discouraged by Dee’s lack of experience and assured her he knew what it was like to start something new. After all, the company itself was new and already had more clients than it could handle.
Dee liked the company’s slogan “We shape conversations that matter.” She wasn’t sure what it meant but found it somehow dynamic, young, enthusiastic. Despite the low salary, it was Mr. Shapiro and the future possibilities, that convinced her to take the job.
In the first year she filed and typed (not very well), kept the accounts receivable file, fended off clients deemed ‘dead end’ by Mr. Shapiro and developed what he called a ‘phone personality’ – courteous, patient but firm. “You’re the first voice they hear from our company.” Dee liked the ‘our’ and felt she had made the right decision. She started spending her lunch hours in Filene’s Basement, searching for the right business clothes.
Marsha, however, when Dee found time to visit the little house on Inman Square, had many doubts and questions. “Has he made a pass? How many others are there in the office? How can you meet anyone? When do you get a raise?” Nor did she approve of Dee’s living situation. “After all, Dee, a furnished room – as if you were still in college.” Dee shrugged. What did Marsha know about furnished rooms, about college or for that matter about working? Wondering why she took the time, she soon let weeks pass without a trip to Cambridge.
After many arranged blind dates with someone’s nephew, roommate, or cousin, she found herself going out steadily with Fred, a young lawyer at one of the larger law firms in Boston. Fred was nice, unsurprising, even-tempered, reliable – and fairly dull she admitted to herself – but always ready to take her where she wanted to go, unlike some of the opinionated, determined, aggressive men she’d met, their hands flying all over, with their own ideas of a blind date.
When Mr. Shapiro told her about his plan to move the company to New York, her first thought had been to search for another job, the help wanted pages again, but after five years at EDC she realized that changing jobs, bosses, all of it, would be worse than moving to a different city. Besides she liked Mr. Shapiro. He was an easy-going boss. She liked the work. Who knew what she would find instead? The work, the contacts, her boss would all be the same, just in a different place. There was really nothing holding her in Boston.
Fred promised to drive down as often as possible. He wasn’t as shocked as he might have been. Maybe he’d seen it coming or only tried to echo her own coolness. She was convinced his visits – if they happened at all – would become less and less frequent and that was fine with her.
It was one of those dark, rainy Sundays. Sunday had always been a problem for her. So dull. She stared out at the deserted streets. Her birthday soon, ahead of her like the mouth of a dark, endless tunnel. Thirty-one – ten years since graduation; the excitement – gone; the adventure – gone. Boston had become like Manchester. Bars, students in one place the same as in another – only more of them. Even the job – admitting it against her will – had become boring – even in New York.
The move and a new title – Head of Human Resources- had sounded so promising. She hadn’t known how tough the city could be and neither had Mr. Shapiro. Head of Human Resources – big title, small salary.
She’d moved three times that first year; the rents higher each time, the price for living in Manhattan. Finally, she ended up in Canarsie, over the river and beside the bay in Brooklyn. No glamour in Canarsie, no promise of coming gentrification, no atmosphere, no energy.
Canarsie had been different once. She knew about the sewage plant still spewing garbage into Jamaica Bay, the Quonset huts from the Forties left standing empty on burned-out lots, the dilapidated ruins of the amusement pier. Her apartment, two rooms carved out of a once-grand mansion on the beach, was ramshackle and depressing; the kitchen, a hot plate and a sink in a closet – dark even when the lights were on – often smelled more of garbage than of ocean.
She got used to the hour- long train ride to Manhattan, told herself it was worth the sacrifice, hoped she would learn to love her neighborhood: the echoing emptiness of its streets, the way the broken pavements glistened in the rain, the hum of life beneath the surface, a glimpse of rat’s tail, roaches scurrying when the lights in the hall were switched on. She hated it all.
The rain wasn’t stopping. It was still Sunday. She decided to clean her desk. Rummaging in the drawers she came across a mailbox-stuffer, this one from a travel agency. The pictures on the front were highly colored. Impossibly blue waves met golden sand, beautiful bodies, smiles. Everything was a fake, and boring, boring, boring. She shook her head, bad PR. She threw it aside.
The travel brochure landed on the floor, face down. On its back she read Only $19.95 one way, in block letters and slightly smaller underneath and only $35.00 round trip if you act now. She picked it up, wondering where you could go for such a small amount. Montauk maybe?
She opened the three pages so that the brochure lay flat. Los Angeles screamed at her in red. ”The sunshine capitol, see glamourous movie stars in their homes! Share beaches with the stars of tomorrow. Including a side trip to Las Vegas – try your luck in sophisticated Vegas, gambling capitol of the world! She snorted in disgust. For that price it must be a scam. She looked at the fine print at the bottom.
Valid only from New York to Los Angeles. Booking must be made by 30 January, travel completed by June 1st.
She sat back, looked out the window. Rain, fog, a dreary Sunday in what felt like the suburbs of hell – Canarsie – the only place she could afford. Could anything be worse? Well, cheap California motels might be. Dee, even depressed, remained realistic. On the other hand, she’d never been to California. If she could get there for that price, she could probably get a job, she didn’t have to do what the brochure suggested. That was for the adventure-starved tourists. She wasn’t like that – naive and google-eyed. She had skills, experience.
A little threatened by the thought of change, she checked her bank balance – enough for the flight with just enough left over to stake her till she found a job. She wouldn’t quit. Just ask Mr. Shapiro for vacation. And if it didn’t work out, she could use the return flight back to New York. She turned on her computer, found the travel agency’s website and, a little short of breath, booked, leaving New York on February 14th – Valentine’s Day, that should be lucky this time at least. “Returning on___”, that stopped her. She checked to see the latest possible date, filled in the blank, completed her bank details. Suddenly the day was less dreary. She was excited, confident that this could be a really great thing, something new at last!
When she asked Mr. Shapiro for time off for a short break, he agreed but, hearing the price, was shocked and warned Dee. “It’s a scam for sure. Just try to book the flight – you’ll see.”
He was right. The airline had never heard of the travel agency. When she told Mr. Shapiro she wouldn’t be taking time off, he asked about her deposit. In the excitement she’ d forgotten it. He shook his head, shrugged. “You live, you learn.” Dee was embarrassed. She’d thought she knew her way around. It took her many hours on the phone and online to get her deposit back.
The theater was dark, the rows of seats, empty. Still a little nervous, Dee stood beside the dusty stage curtains, watching Mr. Shapiro arguing with a stagehand – or was it the stage manager? Must be, he was dressed better. Mr. Shapiro giving up, motioned her over, told her to make a note – add crew to the budget – then running off, vanishing in the gloom. The man shrugged at her – “Union wages, kid. You can’t cut ‘em, even for a special.” and walked away.
It was Mr. Shapiro’s first PR job in theater, a benefit performance for unemployed artists, a step up for him. Better than pushing soft drinks in Boston, he’d said. Her boss’s voice came out of the cavernous space, calling her again. This time the lighting man was asking Mr. Shapiro questions. Dee had the answers on her clipboard, with copies, and gave one to the lighting man.
She turned back to the theater, silent, except for a tall woman pacing up and down the stage, a phone to her ear, listening intently. She stopped suddenly and began talking, all her energy focused into the phone as if she could convince whoever was on the line. Quiet, she began to pace again, stopped, laughed, and, nodding, snapped the phone closed.
Mr. Shapiro, taking Dee’s elbow from behind, led her towards the woman. “Alice, this is my right hand, Dee.” Dee smiled.
“Dee, meet Alice Taylor, the famous agent. Without her, we wouldn’t be here now.” Alice Taylor said hello to Dee, turned to Mr. Shapiro and said “Sam, we’ve got trouble.” She pulled him off to the side and murmured in his ear. Surprised, then catching himself, he said soothingly “Well, Dee can fix that.”
Alice looked at Dee, who in turn, looked at Mr. Shapiro. He pulled her over to one side and whispered, gesturing with his chin as he talked towards the back of the theater, then to the stage. “You see?” he said finally.
Dee nodded, slightly intimidated. “Of course.”
Alice Taylor took over. “You see those people standing at the back of the house?” she said. Mr. Shapiro stepped back. She pointed over the edge of the stage to the back of the theater. Dee could just make out some shadowy figures. Dee nodded. “I need you to go and get the women in that group to come down to the stage and sit, down there in the front row. Just the ladies, not their interfering managers.”
Dee nodded again. Alice Taylor made a small shooing movement with both hands. Dee quickly found her way down the stairs and up the aisle toward the group.
As she came closer, she heard arguing. “If you think I came all the way over here to be in some shitty little Oscar imitation with God knows who…” A man’s voice interrupted. “Listen, Mike’s gonna be here. You know you’ve been dying to talk to him. Be smart for once. Just relax and do this thing.” Another woman’s voice: “Mary, darling, we’re all in the same boat here.” “Don’t try to… ” the man again, louder: “For God’s Sake, why is everything “Death of a Salesman” with you?” Another man “Listen, let’s all…” They noticed Dee. There was a sudden silence.
“Miss Taylor asks if the ladies could come down and sit in the first row.” The group looked at each other, then at Dee, who looked carefully at her shoes. She stepped back then followed the women down the aisle, feeling like a sheep dog. Once the women were seated, Alice Taylor looked at Dee with a small smile. Dee hurried up the steps to the stage to take her place behind the curtains, wondering what kind of power the agent had over these people and why there was such tension in the air. Was it the actors or Miss Taylor?
The event came off with only a minimum of flareups, both Alice and Mr. Shapiro using Dee as a peacemaker/errand girl/messenger (“Tell her we’ll get it soon.” “Tell him I won’t until….” ” Tell her I’m doing my best.”) Dee, keeping her temper down and her profile low, managed to fly below the tension – Dee the fixer.
Dee noticed Alice Taylor was ‘Alice’ for her clients, never Miss Taylor. Dee began to call Mr. Shapiro ‘Mr. S’ too. It’s show business, she thought, it’s New York. But it would never happen in Boston. Mr. S, often stressed, seemed not to notice.
In the next few months, Dee spoke to Alice or to her assistant about several events in the New York area involving actors or wannabees under contract with her. Mr. S. often spent weekends in Boston with his family, leaving Dee to cope with problems. Even when he was in the office, he was more irascible and less patient. Over the next years, Dee, concerned for her boss and wanting to help, took over as many responsibilities as possible, often working late and on weekends. She thought the business seemed to be doing well.
It was a Monday when Mr. S told her he was giving up his position, New York and “…the whole damned Big Apple adventure. I’m just not cut out for it. What about you?” She was surprised but not shocked. She’d seen it coming but thought for a minute before answering. No, she wouldn’t go back. Mr. S. had family back in Boston. She had no one there. She would stay in the city, wind up their part of the business. She’d find something. She knew so many people now.
The bonus Mr. S. gave her as a farewell gesture allowed her to move back to Manhattan – only Inwood, very far north, but still better than Canarsie. She didn’t mind the long subway ride downtown, shorter than to Canarsie – at least she wasn’t crossing over or under water. Strangely enough, she felt by living in Manhattan – even only at its northern tip and probably soon unemployed – she had reached safety. She left her old bed in Canarsie, sure it was infested, the rickety desk too, bought a new bed and mattress, picked up the rest second-hand at block sales in the neighborhood. It was as if she was starting over, older and wiser – but would that help?
Dee called several contacts, people she’d met with Mr. S. Most of them were surprised she was looking for ” a change” as she put it. No-one seemed to have an opening for someone with her experience. There were moments when she doubted herself. Should she have gone back – to Boston or even to Manchester? What would she gain? She loved New York – the feeling of excitement coming from the crowds, the urgency of everyone rushing to do something important – everyone had to meet a deadline. Boston, so stolid, was nothing like it, Manchester a sleepy backwater, static. No, she would stay in New York and find work somehow.
Maybe she should widen her search, look beyond public relations. She thought about Alice Taylor. Should she ask her for help? Dee had the sneaking feeling that asking for help was not the way to do it. Alice was high-powered, famous – and tough – something she’d always made Mr. S. feel in their collaborations. Alice was the opposite of Mr. S. – tough where he was soft, stubborn when he was compliant – and very demanding. Dee was fine for the Mr. S.s of this world but was she good enough for a high-powered agent? Was she ready for life in the fast lane?
When Dee finally called Alice, she was welcomed like an old friend. After listening to the news about Mr. Shapiro, she asked Dee what she’d be doing now. It turned out Alice’s assistant Lili had given notice. She was going to marry “some actor “. Alice didn’t keep the disgust out of her voice. Would Dee be interested, maybe on a trial basis?
‘Trial for both of us.’ Dee thought to herself. ‘And I didn’t even have to ask.’
Years later, thinking about it, Dee was sure Alice had been waiting for her call, knew about Mr. Shapiro, but didn’t want to be the one to start negotiations. It would have been typical.
Those first months in Alice’s office had been easy. Dee shadowed Lili, listening to conversations, collecting information. Lili was nice, reminding Dee of her high school friend Marsha, but tougher somehow, as if being born in New York automatically brought sophistication with it. The two often traveled together on errands for Alice, grabbing lunch at some convenient deli, sharing office gossip. It was Lili who told her Alice had not been born with that name. It was something with a lot of consonants, something foreign. She’d changed it a long time ago. Dee was astonished.
Lili quizzed Dee on her social life, wanted to know who she was going out with, where they’d gone, how serious it was. It was Lili who started to categorize Dee’s dates into ‘Toms, Dicks or Harry’s’. The Toms were possibly serious about Dee, the Dicks were interested but unable to commit, the Harrys, like the Charlys, a later addition, were a waste of time. The Toms were a problem for Dee – too insistant, too impatient. It was the opposite with the Dicks – waiting was boring. She felt most relaxed with the Harrys – amusing company with no problems.
The Charlys, according to Lili, were the worst. Where did Lili’s fiancé fit into this scheme, Dee asked. “Oh, Roger’s definitely a serious one, otherwise we wouldn’t be engaged,” laughed Lili.
As she got to know Lili better, she realized how complicated she was. A spoiled only child of wealthy parents, Lili confessed she’d never worked before she became Alice’s PA. Lili’s father, an investor in several Broadway shows, had convinced Alice she needed a personal assistant. Lili, however, was too smart to be fobbed off with an empty job title and, on her own initiative, took over many duties that Alice found onerous – making travel reservations, dealing with unwelcome calls, traveling through the city. By the time she got engaged, Lilli had become indispensable to Alice.
Dee knew her as fun-loving, always ready with a joke or a juicy piece of gossip, like the hints that Alice occasionally used cocaine. “She’s the only one in the office who can afford it.” Dee tried to hide her shock. Lili shrugged, as if everybody used it.
Roger, Lili’s fiancé, was waiting for his ‘big break’. Lili was patient, but her parents weren’t. They insisted on an engagement party. Dee was invited “plus one”. She decided to take Eric along. The party would be at Lili’s parents’ place, on the Upper West Side.
Dee was dating Eric Samson, an ‘accountant with ambition’ as he called himself. They’d met at an office business lunch. Always well-dressed, Eric knew his way around the New York arts scene – who was influential, who was ‘on the way out’, where to eat and where to drink. Dee went along as an observer, amused at Eric’s addiction to gossip, but glad there was no talk of a possible long-term relationship. He was, according to Lili, a ‘Harry’. Dee considered it part of her learning curve.
“Just tell the doorman apartment 6A” Lili had said. Even Eric was impressed with the entrance, the marble columns, the liveried doorman. “There’s money somewhere.” he said with raised eyebrows.
Upstairs, the party was in full swing, awash with wine and champagne. The apartment was huge, filled with guests. Both Dee and Eric saw friends and were soon separated. Dee threaded her way through the crowd, looking for Lili.
Pushing open a door, she found herself in the kitchen. Lili was standing close to a man Dee recognized as Jake, one of Alice’s favorite clients. “Here you are, Lili” she said, feeling like an intruder. Jake smiled at Lili and made a fast exit behind Dee. “I was looking for you.” she said, to cover her own embarrassment. “Oh, that was just Roger’s friend Jake, telling me all about the ‘theatuh’ – as if I didn’t know.” Lili took Dee’s arm and led her back to the party. Much later, on their way out, Dee saw Jake again, leaning against a wall chatting with a very young woman. He looked up as friends called “Bye, Eric. Bye, Dee.” and nodded to her, a mute acknowledgement of their non-meeting. Dee wondered to herself how long Lili’s marriage would last.
By the time Lili left the office to get married, a year later, Dee felt confident she could do Lili’s job. Lili, always bubbling about news of the wedding plans, explained why Dee was not invited to the wedding. “It’s going to be a huge affair out at the country club, mainly family, hundreds. Too far away and boring for you and most of our friends. It’s mainly for my parents.” Dee, busy at work, was not disappointed. Weddings were not her favorite kind of party.
Dee knew little of the actual business at first. With Mr. S. it had all been very tangible – which media to use for which client, how and when. This was very different. As time went on, she learned about the details involved in making movies, television and theater. The office was swamped with manuscripts from writers, hoping for a production and calls from producers interested in getting one of Alice’s clients into new show. Alice read most offers from established writers herself, but gave the unknowns to Dee to summarize. It wasn’t just nine to five, the hours were seemingly endless. Phone calls came in at all hours from clients who were either in a different time zone or in a different zone all together because of drugs or alcohol or both. Dee had an extension of the office’s number and eventually her own line. She was discrete about it, but Alice would often give Dee’s number to difficult clients.
Final decisions were always left up to Alice – whether to accept an offer or not. Often, Alice would continue to bargain, taking over negotiations from Dee the way she had often taken over from Mr. S. She usually ended up with a contract which was more favorable to her clients.
Dee learned that Alice carried a grudge. She had her favorites too, clients she tried to nudge into success, more like an attentive teacher than an agent. Roger was not one, but Jake Seidell was. Dee remembered the man who flirted with Lili at the engagement party. “I’ve known him a long time,” Alice said. “He’s talented. He just has to find the right part.” She paused, then, as if thinking out loud, she mumbled. “Maybe he needs to go to LA.”
With her employees, Alice was generous. After several years in the office, Dee’s salary had almost doubled, allowing her to move from Inwood to a one-bedroom apartment on 68th Street off West End Avenue. The neighborhood was convenient, and she liked the view of the Hudson from her windows. Signing the lease, she felt proud. She had chosen this place; it was hers – at least for the length of the lease. It certainly was far from Canarsie, but still a long way from Alice’s condo on Central Park West. Not that Dee was envious. When she had to bring papers to Alice for signature she registered the difference – impressive entrance, doorman, terrace overlooking Central Park. It was typical – like the big, dramatic jewelry Alice wore, and the designer clothes. Alice, who felt she had to have new outfits often (“To be successful, you have to dress that way.”), would offer once-worn outfits to Dee, two sizes smaller than Alice. Dee took some; most she gave to friends who were closer to Alice’s size and quietly continued shopping at Lord & Taylor, already a big step up from Filene’s Basement.
When Dee mentioned where she’d been, who she’d seen, to her boss, Alice would ask “With Eric?” then, lift her eyebrows, shrug her shoulders. Dee assumed it was her way of approving – at least not an actor. But it wasn’t always easy to know with Alice. She was impatient with actors, (who, she said, couldn’t remember their own phone numbers or bank balance without an agent’s help.), always judgmental, sometimes generous. But, beyond ambition and a definite gift for making a profit, Dee had no idea what made Alice tick.
By 1977 most of the deals at the office were concerning movies. Alice, who was spending more and more time in Los Angeles tending these deals, decided to establish a more permanent base there. She bought a small house in the wealthy Westwood district. More and more people were moving out of New York, tired of dirt and icy winters, lured by the weather, the California lifestyle. In Dee’s eyes Alice, as usual, had caught the mood of the times, the same way she could tell which actor would fit what role. She seemed to have an instinct for it.
When Alice was on the west coast, the New York office was quieter. Dee missed the energetic tension Alice radiated and, feeling more like a caretaker, wondered what a personal assistant actually was if the person she was assisting was so far away. Soon after the office in Westwood officially opened, Alice told Dee to get new stationery printed: Alice Taylor Associates, Offices in New York and Los Angeles. Dee was promoted from PA to Associate. Dee was proud of the new letterhead and used the entire title whenever she could. She even had calling cards printed with her name and her own extension number included, and of course a set for Alice with the Westwood information. They were almost partners, but not quite. Both women knew the difference.
Increasingly, Alice’s calls and mails to Dee were filled with rants about the influence of multi-national corporations on the movie business – on casting, choice of directors, designers, writers, even scripts. She called them ‘the suits’. When she was in New York, she would complain “It’s not the same as it used to be. I can’t figure it out.” Alice felt her influence diminishing, the firm’s reputation – it’s ability to get clients what they wanted – gradually chipped away by the anonymous “suits”.
Alice stayed on California time when she came east, saying it was easier for her than switching. Dee found it confusing, never knowing when to call. Was Alice awake or asleep, suffering from jet lag or insomnia? Alice was irritated when she arrived at noon to find most of the staff out to lunch. She was nervous and found fault for the smallest things, losing patience at the drop of a hat. It was as if her fur was constantly being rubbed the wrong way. Dee, who’d heard of this kind of erratic behavior from Lili, worried that Alice was using again. But there were no highs, just permanent irritation. It couldn’t be money. Dee knew the firm was on firm financial footing. There were no men in Alice’s life (she was almost fifty-five). In Dee’s experience, this was a typical source of irritation.
When Alice summoned her to Los Angeles “for an important meeting”, Dee hoped she would find out what was bothering her boss. “And don’t get a hotel room this time. You can stay in the guest room here.” This was a first. Was she saving money? Dee wondered. What is going on?
On her first day in L.A., they went to Alice’s favorite seafood restaurant for lunch. After taking pills for her allergies, Alice took a breath. “So – what do you think, Dee – how do you like this business?”
Dee was nonplussed. How should she answer? Her usual answer to strangers when they asked how she liked her work was ‘It’s fine’. But for Alice she felt she should be more exact. What was Alice looking for? Dee decided to try out the standard answer. “It’s been a good ten – no, eleven years.”
Alice nodded. ”Uh-huh. So would you ever think of running it yourself, without me?” Dee must have looked as shocked as she felt. Alice held up a hand and went on. “I’m fifty-five now. I have all the money I need. It’s time to indulge myself a little before the end.”
Dee, her mind racing, wondered what Alice’s indulgences would look like. Would she go back to cocaine? It had been years. Had she found a man somewhere along the line willing to let her be boss?
Where was Dee in all of this – no drugs and no man, at least no one special- and now possibly more business than she ever wanted. “But what about the clients?” Alice shrugged. “Most of them will find someone else. I’ll keep my favorites. There’s only a couple. I hate this town. I’m only here for the business and I don’t have to be here for that. I can do everything online or on the phone.”
“Where will you go? What will you do?” Dee was sure Alice had thought this out. She wasn’t that impulsive and fifty-five wasn’t that old. Maybe Alice was ill after all?
But Alice’s next words seemed to prove otherwise. “I’m going to move out to Nevada, where it’s dry. Better for my sinuses. Maybe buy a horse, play cowgirl for a while. Some quiet town close to Reno. I can go over there to gamble – a little excitement if a cowgirl’s life gets dull.” Alice was looking off into the distance.
Alice – whimsical? Dee was sure there was something else. “But…”
“Besides, I’m not closing shop tomorrow. It will take me time to find a house out there, furnish it etc.” Alice broke off and looked at Dee. ” Will you take over the business – buy me out – or find something else?”
Alice, as usual, sounded demanding. Dee frowned. “I’ll have to think it over. I need some time.” “Well, don’t take too long.”
Before Dee left for New York, Alice had one more thing to talk over with her ‘associate’. “You remember Jake Seidell?” One of Alice’s favorites, Dee remembered – Seidell, with the accent in the wrong place. Alice had always corrected her. “He came out here on my recommendation, had one good role in a movie, more bad ones, then he broke off contact. I’ve known him a long time. Can you find out where he is? See if he’s all right?”
The next day Dee tried, starting with his last known address, and found that Jake had sold his condo and left no forwarding address. With contracts pending in New York, Dee had no time to explore further. Alice shrugged. She was busy with plans for Nevada, and apparently had forgotten Jake.
On the flight east, Dee considered: should she buy Alice’s part of the business? “Alice Taylor Associates” was basically Alice Taylor. The longer she thought about it Dee was sure that, without Alice, “Alice Taylor Associates” would fade quietly from the scene, mourned by no one except their lawyers and accountants. “Dee Brumback Associates”? And who were the associates? In addition to the big problems – money, decisions about her future – she realized she wouldn’t like her name out there like that. She didn’t have Alice’s ego, her aggression. She could be just as stubborn but was more patient. Maybe that’s why they had gotten along for so many years. Dee wondered for a brief second – if Mr. S. had not moved to New York, if she had not met Alice – where would she be now? Back in Manchester, a mousy, frustrated civil servant? She shrugged the thought away.
What were her alternatives? She had many contacts. True, most of them were in Alice’s business, but there were others. She’d had offers. Her even-tempered persistence – Dee the fixer – had evidently impressed many people. She wouldn’t mind getting out of the entertainment business. The constant ‘me-me-me’ got on her nerves. She’d drifted into it anyway. Maybe it was time to see what turned up, go freelance? By the time the plane landed at JFK, Dee had decided to take the risk. She had money in the bank and over twenty years’ experience. It was time for her to make her own way.
Her first ‘job’ had been a favor for a friend. Involved in a nasty divorce, she had asked Dee to come along and ‘stick up for her’ at a hearing with her husband’s attorney. The lawyer was visibly impressed with Dee’s unflappability and quiet persistence. After the divorce became final, Dee received a call from the lawyer, asking if she were available for other ‘contentious cases’. Regretfully – her savings were getting thin – Dee refused. A future in divorce courts was unimaginable. Slowly, inquiries began to come in – could Dee help with stalled negotiations, copyright struggles, conflicts of interest – recommendations from lawyers or friends of friends who knew she was ‘available’.
The opportunities were rare at first but by 1986 Dee was a well-known troubleshooter for merging corporations with personnel problems and companies with destructive boards. She traveled often and was well-paid for her efforts. She was in the process of buying a condo for herself in one of the new towers on Manhattan’s Westside.
Walking down Seventy-second Street for another apartment viewing, she heard her name called. Turning, she saw a short, round man with a grey goatee. She looked again and recognized her first boss, Mr. Shapiro.
“It is you,” he said. “I thought so.” Dee smiled and reached out, ready to shake hands. His arms encircled her.
Scanning her business suit, the leather attaché case in her hand, he said “How are you? You’re looking very well.” “You too, Mr. S. Are you back in New York?” “No, no. Just on a visit.” “Is the family with you?” Dee couldn’t for the life of her remember Mrs. Shapiro’s first name. “Mr. S. looked vaguely embarrassed. “We’re actually divorced.” He admitted sheepishly. “I’m sorry.” Dee said, wondering at the same time if Mr. S. was sorry too. “Did you reopen the business.?” Mr. S. looked relieved to leave the subject of his family. “No. I’m in-house publicist for the Boston Ballet, together with my partner Jeffrey.” He seemed slightly embarrassed. Dee just nodded politely while her memory of Mr. S was turned upside down and shaken. Mr. S. ran on. “Jeffrey was a dancer, so he really knows the business. And you? What are you up to now that Alice has retired.” He smiled. “I still keep up, read the trade papers.”
It was Dee’s turn to be uncomfortable. Unwilling be involved in more questions, she said she was late for an appointment, an apartment viewing, had to run.
“Of course, of course, I understand. Well, good luck.”
She shook her head as she walked. You just never know, she thought. Mr. S. – divorced? Gay? She’d always thought he was a family man, so solid, the one who knew the business, who taught her everything. Fresh out of college, had she been that naïve?
Dee, busy with her hew apartment, was surprised by a call from Alice. They hadn’t really spoken since they finished winding up the business in 1985. At that point Alice seemed happy with her choice – the house in Nevada, her life “in the sticks” as she
herself called it. Now, it seemed, Alice had a piece of ‘left-over business’ she needed Dee to take care of. “When is this supposed to happen?” Dee asked. Alice replied,
“As soon as possible, of course.” Of course, Dee echoed in her mind. Explaining she had some business to wind up herself, she said she’d get there in a week.
Dee looked around the u-shaped courtyard – stucco, stunted palm trees, crab grass sprouting along the cracked concrete paths, the doors to the ‘units’ each painted - long ago – a different color, towels and bathing suits hung over the railing on the upper floor. “I’ve told them and told them.” The wrinkled manageress scolded. “Makes the place look like hell.” She mumbled as she shifted the cigarette to the corner of her mouth, squinting through the smoke, peered at the visitor. “You a friend?” “Just a friend of a friend.” Dee answered. “Because if you are, you should really talk to the police. I can give you the number.” “That won’t be necessary.” Dee
answered. “It’s a while ago now.” Something in her tone discouraged further suggestions from the old woman. “Well, anyway, would be good if you cleaned the place out so’s I could rent it.” And handed the key to Dee. “It’s upstairs.”
The room was musty and murky, the curtains closed tight. Not much better after she opened them. Narrow bed, the chenille bedspread pulled up, tucked in, neat. Posters tacked on the wall, yellowed with age “Casablanca”, “La Dolce Vita”, “To Have and , Have Not” – the classics. A pullman kitchen in the corner, immaculate, a dented kettle on the stove. She sat on the bed, sighed. As usual Alice had asked a lot, said she couldn’t ‘close shop’ without knowing what had happened to this one-time client. Who knew Alice had such a soft spot for a has-been? Still, she’d promised.
The trail led from Jake’s last address, a condo, to a rented apartment, then finally to the Hollywood Arms, a ramshackle place, a refuge for lost souls. The police had discovered who had been with him that night. The group of young men, hangers-on at the local bar, were eager to answer her questions about their friend. Well, not a friend exactly, Jake was older, around, fifty- an actor, well not really an actor, not anymore, or anyway, not for a long time. He’d teased them, challenged them really, as if he’d planned it all along. She’d listened, let them run on, hoping there was a different end to the story. He’d lured them up into the Hollywood Hills on a dare. Boasting he knew the way to a special place only he knew about where all Los Angeles would spread out below them. They’d gone along, maybe not entirely sober, but curious. Then, just when they got there, right in front of their eyes, he jumped. Like a movie, they said.
Dee, unsure of Alice’s feelings, thought the news might be too sad for a phone call. Maybe she should fly out to Nevada, tell Alice personally. Then, reviewing her own schedule, decided to call first, not with the news, but to find out if Alice would welcome a visit. To her surprise, Alice would not be happy to have her in Nevada. “Just tell me what you found out about Jake,” she said in her abrupt way. Dee told her what she knew. Alice was silent for a moment, “Well, that’s that then. I guess he just didn’t have it. Thanks for letting me know.” and hung up.
Dee was shocked. She must be ill, she thought, remembering her suspicions when Alice first announced her retirement. Alice sounded resigned and relieved, unfinished business taken care of. Dee found it hard to dismiss so easily. The whole Jake business was unsettling for her, as if she had somehow inherited a ghost from Alice, to be forgotten as soon as possible.
But, as Dee went through the motions of checking in and boarding the flight home - automatically refusing the glass of champagne, accepting the newspaper - she kept seeing that murky room, in her mind imagining the man who cleaned up before jumping, polished the stove, pulled the cover tight on the bed, closed the curtains. How long had he stared at the posters, comparing his career to Humphrey Bogart’s, his contact on no one’s rolodex, not even Alice’s. Why had Alice suddenly remembered this one-time client? Why was it so important to her to find out what had become of him? Alice was either bored or she was ill. It wasn’t like her. It was her rule never to get involved with clients personally. She’d cautioned Dee against it too.
Dee’s thoughts jumped to the men she’d dated while she worked with Alice, most of them were ‘Harrys’; some of them even ‘Charleys’, but amusing – someone to have dinner with, to see the new shows, perfectly happy with an older woman. Not like the CFOs and CEOs she met as a consultant. They were neither amusing nor interested in her and preferred (from what she saw at dinners) younger women. She was fifty- two and single, single like Alice, like Jake – but not bored, not tired, not hopeless.
Dee was almost sixty. It was amazing. Alice would have been sixty-five, if she had lived. Sixty was old, but Dee didn’t feel old, didn’t look old. People said her silvered hair was distinguished. Her walk was still springy – most of the time. But there was a limit, she’d discovered – a limit to her patience, to her toleration. Although she was in demand as a mediator, she found she was – after nine years – tired of mediating. The “Queen of Compromise”, she thought after particularly difficult sessions, sticking out her tongue at her bathroom mirror.
Maybe she needed a change. Maybe it was burnout? She should stop working for a while, take a month off, go somewhere relaxing – Hawaii, the Bahamas? She had to laugh. The last time she’d had thoughts like this was years ago in that hovel in Canarsie.
No, this time not a plane – and not California. It seemed she was always flying somewhere, couldn’t remember the last time she’d traveled without a goal, without reservations. What would happen if she just took off? Rented a car and just drove? There was nothing stopping her. She had enough money. The sudden inheritance from Alice had boosted her into favored client status at her bank. Her thoughts ran on – Alice saying almost the same thing. Was this part of getting old – wanting to break out, to escape?
As if to remind her of her age, a message arrived from her old friend Marsha. She left it unread for a week. She was too busy, she thought, for a nostalgia trip. She had enough real business waiting.
When she finally opened the mail, she was shocked. Marsha’s mail started “I guess you’re shocked to hear from me.” It was as if Marsha were in the room – the cramped kitchen back in Cambridge, Marsha double- guessing her. “Our last Christmas letter was years ago.” (She couldn’t remember when she’d stopped answering. It seemed so pointless. Marsha’s letters full of their new life in Oregon. How to describe her life in New York?). Dee scanned the rest. It seemed Marsha was coming to New York. Maybe we can meet up, she’d written, it would be fun after all these years. Dee wasn’t sure. Marsha had had such a full life. What would they talk about? In the end she agreed to meet in the lobby of the big hotel where Marsha would be staying.
Dee was nervous, picked an armchair opposite the elevator, hoping to have a minute to hide her surprise before Marsha spotted her. In the event, it was Marsha who looked shocked. “I just saw this tall, slim woman, rise out of a chair, like a vision or something.” Marsha paused, looking for words. “You look so different. Were you always this tall?” Dee smiled. “Let’s go for coffee,” she said, taking Marsha’s arm. “Is the cafe here okay for you?” (As if Marsha might have a favorite café in New York.) It was true, she was tall, and looked even taller, walking beside Marsha, so much rounder now.
It took almost an hour to cover the years. Dee asked the right questions, at least Marsha seemed to enjoy answering them. “And you?” The moment Dee had dreaded.
“Oh, not so much. No husband, no children.” She described the job in advertising, the move to New York. They laughed over Mr. Shapiro, coming out of the closet. Marsha asked about the job with Alice, wanted to know what the work was like.
“Isn’t it funny?” she said when Dee got to Alice’s retirement. “There you were with all these famous people – actors, fame, theater, everything your mom wanted so much for herself – and it all happened to you.”
“I guess. But it was really just chance.” “And you’ve really done well. At least it looks that way.” Marsha checking out her old friend, a little envious. “And now?” “Oh, it’s just a lot of traveling, listening to people, helping.” Marsha sighed. It was time to go. They hugged, made promises to stay in touch both knew they would not keep.
Dee, back in her apartment, was exhausted, as if the meeting with her old friend had taken her on a long, unwelcome trip. Marsha moving through life, wrapped in the cocoon of her family. Dee, alone, vulnerable, stumbling from one job, from one man to another. Would she end like Jake, alone? Unmourned? Unremembered?
She shook herself, took a shower, made a stiff drink, looked out at the river, the lights of New Jersey reflected in dark water. She remembered her idea – just rent a car and go. Maybe she should do that – try it, at least.
Stepping out of the rental car she breathed in. Ocean air. Funny, she never thought of it, never consciously missed it. Now, it was as if her nose gave her memory a push: that night with Stan on the Maine beach, trips to the Cape, fish dinners with Fred on the Boston piers, Mr. S, talking up a client at Jones Beach. Even Canarsie smelling more of ocean than garbage when the wind was blowing the right way. ‘Those few times.’ she thought ruefully. So long ago, so much in between, but always the ocean. Maybe she should buy a place here – a getaway or a return – a place of her own, something new.