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an island in your arms

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Joan peels back a corner of the foil-covered dish, and is immediately assaulted by the rank smells of spoiled milk and congealed grease. She winces, quickly re-covering the casserole, but not before she spies a large patch of dark green in the corner, peering through layers of cheese. It could be broccoli. It could also be mold. How the hell could anyone be expected to eat this?

“Who brought this?”

Lane's watching her movements, albeit with a flat, exhausted expression. After a moment, he clears his throat. “...Campbells. The—loud one.”

“Trudy,” Joan says automatically, staring briefly down at her distorted reflection in the foil. “Jesus. No wonder Pete's gotten fat.”

She's too exhausted to be anything but candid with him. Since he appreciates honesty at the best of times, Joan likes to think her lack of censure is better received than any vapid small talk she can muster, or answers she might demand. He just needs someone to keep him company, remind him that he isn't alone.

It's her fourth visit to the hospital in as many days, and today, she's attempting to be helpful instead of sitting in that chair like a lump on a log. So far, she's changed the water in his flowers, brought him his spare pair of frames (now fixed with superglue), and displayed his two get-well cards on the now-clean bedside table. One from the office – she had everyone sign it – and one from the 4As.

Joan picks up the casserole dish. “Do you know what day she brought this?”

Lane shrugs. She sighs. “Well, it's toxic. I'm throwing it out.”

She goes to toss the contents in the trash can by the second, still empty bed behind the curtain, tying off the garbage bag immediately to prevent its odor from permeating the room, and moving into the small adjoining bathroom to wash out what little residue is left.

His long-term memory is stable; Joan's gleaned this much. And he seems to remember broad stroke details. He can also answer most of the doctors' rote questions – or avoid answering them – but has trouble with finer points of memory: names, years, assorted specifics. It may improve with time. Or not. No one seems to know for sure.

Joan scrubs at the concave surface of the dish with a coarse hospital washcloth, using squirt after squirt of filmy green hand soap until the ceramic surface gleams under her hands. When she returns to the room, meaning to ask him a question about his medication, Lane is hunched over in bed, holding an open paper bag over his mouth with both hands. He's either hyperventilating or he's gotten sick. Judging by his greenish pallor and residual coughing, it's the latter.

Hovering over his bed, near his knees, is a lunch tray on a rolling metal table. The contents seem untouched except for a sandwich marred by a single bite, and pushed away in haste. Some unknown pink lunchmeat is sliding slowly out from between the bread.

“Are you all right?”

Lane shakes his head minutely, eyes still closed. After a moment, he blinks his eyes open, pulls the paper bag away from his mouth, and sinks back into the pillows. He looks exhausted. She picks up the trash can by the bed, proffers it in his direction so he can throw away the unclean paper bag. One of the nurses mentioned aversions as a possible side effect, new reactions to certain tastes or scents.

“Was it the meat?”

He makes a noise of disagreement, eyes still closed, and jabs a finger toward the floor.

She glances down. On the floor next to the dresser is an oozing mayonnaise packet, torn open at the corner. Picking this up with her finger and thumb, and throwing it into the garbage, Joan makes a mental note of this. No mayonnaise. She'll speak with the head nurse about having it omitted from future meals.

When she sets down the trash can and walks into the hallway, however, an unattended cart sits in the center of the corridor, filled with plastic trays. A female attendant talks cheerfully to a patient in the room across the hall – Joan can hear them laughing – and on an impulse, before the woman can return, Joan strides forward, swipes two paper cups of something from the top trays, and darts back into Lane's room, closing the door behind her.

On closer inspection, both of them turn out to be Jell-O. Red and green.

Lane doesn't look like he cares where she went, but she still feels like she should explain. She pushes the untouched tray aside, and sets her new bounty near the edge of the table. “I stole these from the lunch cart. You should try to eat.”

“All tastes awful,” he mumbles, after a long silence.

Joan tries not to dwell on how depressing that is. He can't even enjoy something as simple as a meal. Not that they make real food here. Maybe she should bring him lunch, next time. She pulls a pocket-size leather notebook from her purse—a new purchase as of two visits ago—and writes a single note in shorthand under today's date.

**

A knock on her door. Joan sets her papers aside, glances at her desk clock. 3PM. “Yes?”

Ken Cosgrove peers around the now-open door. “Hey. You got a minute?”

She lights a cigarette. “Have a seat.”

He closes the door behind him. She raises her eyebrows. So it's that kind of discussion.

“Look,” he says first, fidgeting in his chair. “I understand you've got a lot on your plate right now, but I—have a favor to ask you. It's important.”

Joan blinks, waiting for clarification. Must be a personal problem.

“I need you to be in on Friday's meeting. With Bird's Eye.”

She takes a long drag of her cigarette. Not what she expected.

He rubs a hand along the back of his neck. “I don't know if it's—creative—”

(Don, she thinks acidly, has breathed nothing but Jaguar for months)

“–or maybe it's something I did—but they won't commit to new work, and they're barely returning my phone calls. I mean, I know what that means, but—”

Five million in billings. Not essential in the grand scheme of things, but until this point, still an easy company to manage. She puts her cigarette in her ashtray. “Why do you need me?”

She doesn't want to feign interest in the lives of executives and sit in on what's basically a single-account traffic meeting while she could be doing a million other useful things.

Ken shifts in his chair, edging forward. “It's hard for me to get a read on them. And you're good at that. Hell, you're the best.”

Acerbic words are already flying to her lips – that's it?– but he seems to have already realized one compliment isn't a selling point, because he continues speaking, in a rush.

“They've been asking a lot of budget questions, too. I think it'd be helpful for them to meet you.” Gesturing in her direction with an open palm, inclining his head as if in a bow. “You can talk to them about their money, draw them out, put 'em at ease.”

When she'd first begun to assist Lane with the books, years ago, he'd once gone on a long tangent about his personal job philosophy. It had probably started life as an explanation for the task at hand, which was introducing her to the fiscal year budget. A financier is the curator of a company's bounty. We are meant to improve upon the capital given to us by accounts—to preserve and increase our collection's net worth over the coming years.

You make us sound like Egyptologists, she'd replied, with an upward quirk of her mouth that was almost a smile. Trying to get him to warm up to her, for god's sake. But he obviously hadn't expected her to make light of his speech—and hadn't liked it. She remembers the way his eyes had narrowed behind his glasses. But he hadn't said a word, had just changed the subject and walked her through the spreadsheets with a brisk attitude that bordered on impatience.

Joan blinks, returning to herself, and stubs out her cigarette with a sudden angry sharpness. Determination surges inside her chest. Lane's philosophy isn't law; skilled financiers don't have to be invisible. Hiding in the shadows drove him to a suicide attempt, for god's sake.

She fixes her stare on Ken, who is obviously waiting for her to speak, and clears her throat. “What time is the meeting?”

**

Half an hour in, and it isn't going well. Jerry and Mitch – Bird's Eye founders, two brothers who look about as similar as Abbott and Costello – are pleasant enough. More than willing to make small talk about the city. But they are jittery. They don't want to change creative, and they shy away from speaking about their current fiscal year, or their expenses at the agency. Ken even tried to initiate a discussion about last year's budget, but getting them to answer questions has been like pulling teeth.

They're having money problems. Joan can't believe she's about to have this conversation again, especially with a client, but there's no point in tiptoeing around. If they're bankrupt, or going bankrupt, or even just in the red, they'll have to talk about it eventually. Why not now?

She scribbles a note to Scarlett in shorthand: leave the room for 20 minutes; complete typing in my outbox while you're gone. When she hands this to the young secretary, paper-clipped to several spreadsheets they won't need again, the girl startles with visible surprise as she reads it, but obeys without protest.

“I'll—um—make some copies of these for our guests,” she says awkwardly, picking up the stack of spreadsheets and swiftly leaving the room. Once the door swings shut behind her, Joan deems it safe to speak again, and directs her question to Jerry.

“How long have you been in the red?”

She feels the toe of Ken's shoe nudge her sharply in the ankle, but she kicks him right back, probably harder than necessary.

Mitch jumps to his feet, face reddening in blotches as he stares at Joan with poorly disguised anger. His jacket cinches tightly around his expansive middle as he points a finger at her. “Who the hell do you think—listen, I don't need some stranger—”

“Jesus,” Jerry blurts, half-standing, obviously panicking. “You can't just yell at her—”

“For god's sake, Jerry, this is what I told you in the goddamn elevator—”

Ken is on his feet, his hands extended in a gesture of supplication as he tries to calm Mitch's tantrum. Joan stays seated, locking eyes with Jerry as she waits for the initial storm to blow over.

He's staring back at her with a haggard, worn look that suggests her first comment stuck a bull's eye. And after another moment, he sinks back into his seat, as if his legs will hardly hold him. The chair rolls away from the table as he sits, his hands clenched in fists. Although he speaks in a voice just above a whisper, he's already drawn the room's attention.

“God. I don't—understand how you knew.”

“Listen to me.” Joan feels it's safe for her to speak, looking calmly between the two men and Ken, holding up a hand. If she can hook Jerry, and keep the room calm, Mitch will gradually become receptive to what she has to say. “Ken and I are not here to make judgments, or to put you through the wringer. But we, as an agency, can't be useful unless you trust us with the truth.”

She pauses, closes her job folder.

“We've represented several companies who have gone through dire straits. And, since you've already paid for this meeting, I propose we use the rest of our time to everyone's advantage. Tell us what services are essential to you, what financial changes your situation might warrant, and we can start formulating a new business plan with those figures in mind.”

Joan glances to Ken, indicating that he can jump in when ready. He glances to Mitch, who's still poised in a standing position.

“Come on. It can't hurt,” Ken says, gesturing for him to sit. “We're just talking. All right?”

Mitch mumbles a streak of curses Joan can't hear, but he blows out a breath and takes his seat next to Jerry, who looks visibly relieved, and cuffs him briefly on the shoulder.

Joan exhales a quiet breath through her nose, feeling the chaos of the room start to come under finer control. “I assume you haven't broken the news to your staff.”

Mitch is silent, arms crossed, looking pointedly at the conference table. Jerry rubs a nervous hand over the back of his neck, speaking in a rasp. “We couldn't figure out how to tell 'em. I mean, we'll have to—but it kills me to think about it, you know? God. I don't even know how this happened.”

“I understand,” Joan says. She glances at Mitch to see if he's ready to participate. He looks up suddenly, and meets her unspoken question with a glare. “How the hell do we admit to our boys that we're losing money? Got any thoughts on that?”

Ken makes a warning noise in the back of his throat, but Joan does not break Mitch's gaze.

“Typically, it begins with downsizing.”

Mitch shakes his head, with a loud scoff. The men look nervously at each other, but Jerry speaks first. “Look. We start making layoffs, people start talking.”

“Let them. It's better than doing nothing.” She pauses, deciding empathy is the best tactic in this situation. “Two years ago, our largest account walked out of here with very little warning.”

“I remember,” Mitch says gruffly, with a nod to Ken. “I said we ought to dump you, but, uh, Kenny here persuaded us to wait it out.”

Joan inclines her head in a nod, indicating that she's grateful. “What Ken may not have mentioned was that at the time, that account took up sixty percent of our operating budget.”

Jerry gives a low whistle, while Mitch swears loudly. After a furtive look at Joan, the latter man clears his throat, reddening around the collar. “Sorry.”

“We know exactly what it's like to struggle,” Joan says in response. “And it's very painful. But when it happened to us, we executed necessary measures in order to keep this company in the black.”

She pauses, lets that sink in before continuing. “Given your situation, you'll probably have to do the same. Trim the fat from all sectors: personnel, expenses, production, distribution. This isn't the time for caution. You are decisive men, and you have difficult decisions ahead.”

Mitch winces and slumps in his seat, like the words are a death blow, but he doesn't protest.

“You're right. God. You're right,” Jerry says quietly, multiple times, almost as if he's trying to reassure himself out loud.

Joan doesn't speak for a moment, gauging their reactions to this pronouncement.

“Look. Your best clients, the ones who really matter, will see you through the hard times,” Ken adds, glancing quickly at Joan with wide eyes, as if this is the point she should be making. She keeps her expression carefully receptive, trying not to show how annoyed she is by his tangent.

“Bird's Eye stuck with us two years ago,” Ken's saying now, getting sentimental of all things, “and because of your faith—your loyalty—look at where we are now. We're reaping new success.” He lets out a small, short breath which is probably meant to be a laugh. “Plus, I haven't smoked a Lucky in years.”

Joan gives the joke a perfunctory smile, but there is an awkward silence, broken only when Mitch pulls out his handkerchief from his jacket pocket, mops his forehead and neck, and puts it away again. When he speaks again, in a low grumble, he can't quite meet Joan's eyes. “Think you said you had some, ah—numbers for this. Like an outline.”

She reaches for her notepad, writing a quick, neat heading at the top of the margin. “I do.” After a pause. “Though I'll need you to confirm your current budget.”

**

Handshakes are exchanged, Ken's walking them out to the elevator, and it's over—thank god, it's over for now. They're putting all creative on hold indefinitely, but they're still a paying account, and that's what matters.

Jesus, her head is pounding. Joan pinches the bridge of her nose. She needs a drink, but shouldn't have one until the portfolio work is done. Which will be hours from now.

The glass door squeaks slightly on its hinges as it's pushed open. Joan looks up to see Ken standing a few feet away from her. He waits until the door falls closed before he speaks, phrasing his next words as a statement rather than a question. “Why aren't you at all accounts meetings.”

Joan gives a shrug, exhausted. “Why would I be? It's not my department.”

He huffs out a frustrated noise, running a hand through his hair. “You accused a client of being bankrupt, talked them down from firing us, and then laid out their next two steps. They walked out of here as relaxed as I've seen them in weeks. Tell me you get how impressive that is.”

She shrugs. It's a Pyrrhic victory. “Well, you wanted diplomacy.”

“Come on,” Ken replies, voice quiet. “Joan, you had them in the palm of your hand. And I think we make a good team. We could tailor this strategy to other accounts.”

Her voice is flat. “You mean the ones that aren't bleeding money?”

“Don't do that. I'm not kidding around.” Ken exhales a deep breath. “You don't need me to tell you how good you are, but this is your chance to prove it. Not just as a financial director. You could strengthen your position in the entire agency. Isn't that what you want?”

She bristles visibly at the words. “I don't have to prove anything in order to deliver excellent work.”

Ken puts up his hands in surrender. “All I'm saying is that going to meetings like this one—being visible to people, and knowledgeable—it's an opportunity to expand your professional influence.” A pause. “Which, honestly, I kind of thought you'd appreciate.”

“Jesus,” she huffs, frustrated by the earnestness of his hard sell. Why does he suddenly care about her career trajectory? Does he feel guilty because of the way she became partner? Is he doing this because he wants to be a partner?

“Just--consider it. All right?"

Joan sighs. She just wants ten minutes alone, for god's sake. “Fine.”

“Okay.” He's almost cheerful. The glass door closes in his wake as he ambles out into the hall. Joan glances out at him through the windows, wishes the curtains were closed so she could put her head down and close her eyes without anyone noticing.

**

She's already made one phone call home to tell her mother she'll be late, and that was after four o'clock. Joan sets aside her paperwork and checks her watch. 7PM. She presses her fingers to her throbbing temples. Aspirin hasn't been able to touch it. It's probably from the eye strain. She really should have brought her glasses; she'll have to start wearing them more often.

“Joan?”

She opens her eyes and lowers her hands to see Michael Ginsberg peering into her doorway. He hovers about a foot from the door, not coming in, but his worried expression is still visible despite the residual blurriness in her vision.

Joan's been taking extra time each night to look over sections of the company portfolio, re-visiting holdings and savings and dividends, making sure she knows every portion of it, in case someone asks. She doesn't have to explain herself to creative, though, and so she just stares back at Ginsberg, eyes narrowed. “What?”

“No—I was just gonna ask—you want a soda or something? Or a beer? Or—”

Her voice is icy. “I don't drink beer.”

She heaves out a sigh, gets up from her chair and leaves her office through the back door in order to visit the restroom and splash some cold water on her face. When she returns, she finds Ginsberg now inside her office, kneeling on the ground next to her desk and surrounded by an avalanche of paper. A full, bright-green bottle of Mountain Dew sits on the tabletop next to her ashtray.

He's gathering up a haphazard armful of paper. “Sorry—I was—I brought you that, and then it almost fell, and I went to catch it and then a bunch of papers went over the side.” Placing stacks back onto her desk in messy, toppling piles that refuse to stay put. “Shit! Jesus, I swear I'm not a snoop. I'll get out of your hair.”

The only thing he's been able to wrangle back onto her desk is a large white envelope. Watching him try to pick up the mess makes her imagine what he must have been like as a little boy. For a split second, she thinks of Kevin, at home with her mother, wriggling through the living room and grabbing everything he can get his chubby fists on. They had to take the tablecloth off the end table last month because he kept tugging it down.

She swallows the tirade that hovers on the edge of her tongue, shooing Ginsberg out of the way. “Just—stop flailing around, for god's sake. I'll get it. Move.”

In response, he staggers to his feet, and practically runs out of the room. Joan rolls her eyes, stepping over the mess and eyeing the white folder now on the seat of her chair. Part of the last stack of papers she's examining; it's been at the bottom of the pile. She opens it, and grabs the first deposit slip her fingers touch, scanning it with a critical eye to confirm it's able to be thrown out before her mind registers the last four digits of the account number: four seven two eight.

That's not right.

The last four digits of the company account are zero six nine seven. Joan's had that memorized ever since she started helping Lane with the books. She flips quickly through the other pages. There are a few more loose deposit slips in the envelope, along with quarterly summaries spanning the last two years, portfolio statements, and some type of fiscal projection, dated March 1965.

Jesus. It's an investment account. Established June of that same year, by Lane, and with a starting sum of fifty thousand dollars. Joan recognizes the firm name, but not the broker's. Anthony M. Blake, M.B.A., M.D.

She starts collating and organizing these papers into a file folder as fast as she can, making sure to include all relevant documents. Unbelievable. Unbelievable.

**

“He didn't put the lump sum into savings. He invested it.”

10AM. They're in Lane's office. Mr. Cooper is on the sofa, glancing over the documents in question, which are laid out across the coffee table in neat stacks, next to the ledger. Joan sits across from him, in the rolling chair swiped from behind the desk. She's written the bullet points on her open stenography pad, but doesn't even have to consult it while speaking.

“Four hundred thousand dollars was collected from the partners in May of '65. Three hundred and fifty thousand was distributed among the company over the next year as recorded in the books—dispersed to the bank as collateral, or paid out to clients, vendors, and employees. But the remaining fifty thousand was invested into a separate portfolio. Mostly growth funds.”

The stock summary reads like a spec sheet of profitable, high-risk companies: IBM, Dow, ConocoPhillips. For whatever skill Lane lacks in reading a room, at reading people, his ability to spot financial trends in a volatile market is...impressive. Joan's wavered between feeling offended that he kept this a secret and admiring the sheer nerve of this decision. This was a bold move for someone who's convinced he can't do anything right. But Lane must have felt extremely confident in order to do this. He must have been certain that it would work. How could that be the same person who's in the hospital after a failed suicide attempt?

Cooper, meanwhile, is examining the papers with calm detachment. “Lane believed we could increase our overall return through speculation, as opposed to earning interest on a transactional account.” He glances at Joan, one corner of his mouth lifting in amusement. “The other partners disagreed.”

She doesn't doubt it. Don would have been anxious to put that much cash out of reach. And Pete probably said no out of spite. Maybe Roger, too, if Lane caught him in a bad mood.

She presses the older man about his imprecision. “Did you ask him to invest it?”

“Mrs. Harris.” The bemused look Mr. Cooper gives her is so close to patronizing it makes Joan want to throw one of those folders at him. “Current situation notwithstanding, I don't spend my days course-correcting the work of senior partners.”

Bullshit, she thinks, cutting him a glare. Cooper lives to know everything that's going on in this agency. Maybe he suggested the investment to Lane, or maybe he didn't, but he clearly suspected something. It's written all over his face. He's so self-satisfied there might as well be canary feathers sticking out of his mouth.

“Well,” she begins, voice crisp, “you may be interested to know that I spoke with the broker this morning—Tony Blake.” She tilts her head slightly, holds Cooper's steady gaze. “Since this account's inception, they've more than doubled Lane's original investment.”

He lets out a chuckle. “Meaning you'd like to put the surplus to better use.”

Joan closes her steno pad with one hand, so quickly it makes a snapping sound, mimicking his carefree tone. “Don't you miss having a door with your name on it?”

Cooper's eyes widen almost imperceptibly. Joan's mouth twitches, but she stops herself from looking too pleased. “The office space above us is empty, and available for lease.”

**

10PM.

“Joanie?” Her mother's voice is shrill as she calls through the bedroom door. The doorknob rattles in its frame, but stays locked. “Oh, for god's sake. What's the matter with you?”

Joan's lying on top of her bed in her work clothes, has been staring at the ceiling of her bedroom ever since she got back from the hospital. Her red acetate dress is wrinkled across her stomach from staying seated all day: first at the office and then in that stupid wooden chair. She can feel the elastic of her garters and foundation garments digging into her skin, leaving deep red welts, but doesn't want to move. She just wants to be alone for ten minutes, she wants to think about absolutely nothing.

Lane must have had another oxygen treatment before she arrived, or taken medicine, or something, because he said more to her tonight than he has in two weeks. Most of it upsetting. She's trying not to dwell on it. Next to her bed, Kevin sleeps peacefully in his crib, breathing tiny snuffling snores. She turns on her side to look at him.

“Joanie. Are you drunk?”

A particle of dust flutters through Joan's field of vision, and she blinks. Feels the threat of tears prick the corners of her eyes. God. She is so sick of crying. She is so exhausted she can't think straight.

“No.”

“Fine,” her mother sniffs, from the other side of the door. “Keep brooding. It ages you.”

She closes her eyes.