It was his first day. He had no idea what to expect. He'd been told by the lady at A Temp for All Seasons that he'd be working at a greeting card company, and had been handed an address, and then dropped. He hadn't expected to be given another job so quickly, so he hadn't asked any questions. He made his way up the elevator to the office, and spoke to the receptionist. "Ah, yeah. Hi. I'm from A Temp for All Seasons, you're expecting me?"
One of the employees walked past and smirked at him. "First day? You won't stay."
Bert watched him go with a sense of foreboding. "What was that about?"
"Don't worry about it," the receptionist said. "I'll send you to Sean. He's the one who'll make you belong. Sean!" she called out.
One of the men came over, and the receptionist handed Herbert's papers over without a word. There seemed to be a lot of silent communication between the people in this office, as if they didn't want to have to actually speak. Sean perused the papers and then looked Herbert over. "Name?" he asked.
"Herbert Viola," Bert said. "Is there some problem?"
"No problem. You'll get used to us. There's not much fun, but not much fuss. All righty then, things you should know. Or else we'll have to let you go."
Sean glared at him. "What's so funny, I ask you? Is that a polite thing to do?"
Herbert blinked. "Do you always talk in rhymes?"
"You will too, don't worry so. You get used to it you know. It's company policy for Rhymes for the Times. You don't need perfection, near rhymes are just fine."
"I have to learn how to talk in rhyme?"
"In tandem a lot of the time."
Herbert rubbed his eyes. His life had been getting more and more surreal, but this one took the cake.
Three hours later, Herbert's head was hurting. His skill at rhyming was negligible at best. He knew a lot about poetry and meter, but fast pace, top of his head attack rhymes made his brain ache. Almost everyone else went off to lunch, but Bert was utterly broke, and didn't have a car. He'd been thrilled to be given this job, he really needed the money, but at this point, he was beginning to think it wasn't worth it.
He rummaged in his wallet until he found a couple of aspirins cashed in the bottom of one of the pockets. They had been there for a long time, and had turned brown from the leather, and were starting to crumble. He didn't care. Holding them in his hand he made his way to the water cooler, put the pills down atop the bottle while he tried to disengage a cup. "You're actually going to take those pills?" a voice asked him. "Aren't you afraid they'll make you ill?"
Bert winced. "Please, no more rhymes! I thought it was lunch time." Then he squawked in shock. He looked up at the woman who had spoken to him. "Look what this place is doing to me!" he breathed. "Pills," he said. "Aspirin. Aspirin, quickly." He grappled with the cup holder until he finally got one released.
"This your first day?" she asked. "You get used to it."
He interrupted her. "If you turn that into a rhyming couplet, I'm going to cry." He filled the cup.
"You really have problems with this, don't you?"
Bert held up the ancient aspirin and nodded.
"Those don't look heathy."
"With this headache, to me they look like pieces of ambrosia." Bert swallowed them with no difficulty. The woman smiled at him. It was a rather sly smile, predatory, in a way. Herbert decided it was only the blood red lipstick the woman was wearing. "You know," he said. "I really needed this temp job, but I can't do this day in and day out. I've got my sanity to think on." He looked down at the cup in his hand. "Such as it is," he added.
The woman chuckled and Bert grinned at her. "Herbert Viola," he said, sticking out his hand. "Bert."
The woman took it, but made no response other than that. She looked down at him. This was a regular occurrence, almost everyone looked down at Herbert, but Bert realized the real reason she was so tall was the five inch heels on her shoes. She held onto his hand rather longer than usual, and Bert finally pulled away. She kept staring at him...
"You're a temp?" she finally asked. She leaned against the wall, sticking out one nyloned knee as she stared at him like some chinchilla at the zoo.
"Yeah, just started this morning," he said.
The woman's eyes flickered. "I mean it when I say you get used to it," she said. "If you just stay awhile. We have some problems keeping temps, they get frustrated and quit too quickly."
"Ah. So that's it. I should have expected something weird. When the woman at the office gave me this assignment, she'd mentioned something about maybe they'd keep me, for once. That didn't exactly bode well. Since I don't switch jobs all that regularly. What is with all this rhyming?"
"Keeps our skills honed rapier keen. The business a well oiled machine. Needed for us to reach the top. Nothing you say can make us stop."
Herbert smiled. "I didn't think I could," he said. For all she was predatory, and indignant, he kind of liked her. "Who's idea was this ridiculous, brain frying policy?"
The woman hesitated and lit a cigarette in a delicate holder. "The president," she finally said, looking past him and out the window. She drew in a breath of smoke and watched him sidelong. "You like it here?"
"Not really, no," Bert answered frankly. Then he shrugged. "But the truth is, I need the dough."
She giggled. She had a nice laugh. Bert grinned wickedly at her and looked her over. She was neat and trim, wearing a precisely tailored lady's business suit in forest green. Her long black hair was pinned neatly atop her head, and behind the makeup, Herbert read weariness.
"Good thing I love to work," Herbert said, still eyeing her up. "I have to tell you, whoever was handling those files needed a bit of professional help. The truth is, P does not precede F in the alphabet."
"I know," she said. "I've been a file clerk in my day. And receptionist. And secretary. The way this office is run is criminal, but not even I can do everything."
"Oh, I know what that's like. I've seen so many places with no organization, no protocol... Though admittedly, I could always stand to see more of them."
"Are you always so contradictory?" she asked him.
"Constantly," Bert grinned.
"So what have you done today, besides gotten a headache over rhymes?"
"It's not the rhymes, exactly," Herbert said. "I've a great head for poetry. It's just... there's no art to all this. Anyway, I finished half of this list that, ah, Wendy gave me. Up to number seven." He pulled a crumpled memo out of his pocket and handed it to her.
She looked at the paper and then looked down at him. "You did all this? This morning?"
Bert nodded, filling the cup again and taking another drink.
"With a headache?"
Bert shrugged in affirmation. "I'm a fast worker."
"Apparently." She perused the list again. "Are you planning to leave us?" she asked him.
"I don't know," he said, surveying the office. "It's a little unorthodox, but I can always use more surreality in my life." He downed the cup, crumpled it up and threw it in the wastebasket. "Besides," he added. "I'm swimming in debt."
"Are you," she said. It wasn't a question. Her eyes narrowed. "Herbert Viola," she mused, and she stalked across the office and out to the hall.
Herbert gazed after her a moment. That was very odd... But his head hurt too much to think about it. He went back to his desk and lay his head on his arms until the rest of the office returned from lunch.
When he came in the second day, Nancy, the second receptionist, waved him over. She handed him an envelope. "Look out, you've caught the Demon's eye. You'll either rise, or she'll see you fry." Herbert didn't have a rhyme ready to reply, so he took the envelope wordlessly. Inside he found a check for twice as much as his temp job paid, plus a memo, pronouncing him a full time employee, should he want the position.
"How did this happen?" he asked, too surprised to remember to rhyme.
"You were talking to Dipesto," Nancy muttered under her breath.
"The president?" Herbert said, looking at his check. "When? Who?"
"Yesterday, presumably," Nancy whispered. When Herbert only looked blank she said, "Tall, predatory, something of a smoldering personality."
"Oh, her," Bert said. He couldn't help but smile.
"Yeah. The Demon Dipesto. She's sharp as a tack and holds on twice as hard. But she's brought this business up from the dregs of the greeting card corps. We're a million dollar business now, and growing, always growing. She has us selling rhymes to Hallmark now." She would have continued, but the door to the office opened, and the smoldering woman from yesterday's lunch stalked into the room.
"Nancy, don't you have a job? I don't pay you to flap your gob."
"Yes, Ms. Dipesto, sir. I'll get right back to this..." she gestured to the pile of disorganized papers on her desk. "Disaster," she finished.
When Nancy turned away the Demon Dipesto turned her smoldering glare on Herbert. "Herbert Viola. Do you accept?" she asked.
Bert shrugged, to give him time to rhyme. "I can't promise I'll be very adept," he said. He paused, searching for a way to say he agreed. "However that said, I take pride in my work. If I didn't accept, I'd be some silly jerk." He blushed. That stunk!
All she did was smile at him. She went into her office.
Nancy glanced at him sidelong. "She seems to have taken a liking to you. She might just approve of whatever you do."
Herbert stared at his desk. "Why would she take a liking to me?" He looked up at Nancy.
Nancy shrugged. "I only work here, don't ask me."
For a month Herbert worked diligently at his job. Dipesto rarely spoke to him. He didn't get any better at rhyming, but for some reason, Dipesto never called him on it when he lapsed into regular speech, for all she jumped all over anyone else.
Herbert didn't think twice about Nancy's insinuation that Dipesto liked him until something very surreal happened.
He was walking back from the bathroom, humming a tune from Fiddler on the Roof. Ms. Dipesto was heading down the hallway herself, presumably to the same place, when she stared at him. Herbert stopped in mid hum and froze, looking at her. He was about to ask what the problem was when she had both his arms pinned to the wall. He was about a second from panicking when he discovered that her mouth was on his. She was kissing him! He stood there wild eyed for a moment. What on earth was this! Some part of him wanted to struggle away, but truth to tell, it was a very small part. Her kiss was passionate, practiced, yet tender in it's way, for all of it's sudden and unexpected beginning. After a moment he closed his eyes and kissed her back.
The elevator dinged, and Ms. Dipesto all but vanished, walking casually back into the office, leaving Herbert stunned upon the wall.
The job became a tightrope walk. He liked the job, he liked the responsibility placed upon his shoulders, he liked the jokes he made with the other employees (mostly concerning how horrible it was to have to rhyme all the time... In rhyme, of course) he even liked Dipesto and her knock down, drag out approach to business... sort of. She was dedicated as he was, and it was easy to see that.
Yet at the same time, he began to be a little frightened. If he stayed in for lunch alone, he couldn’t be there for more than two minutes before he was jumped from behind and thrown across a desk, passionately accosted by Agnes Dipesto. He couldn’t stay late. He couldn’t come in early. He could hardly go to the bathroom without Dipesto attempting to deflower him. Or devour him, he could never tell. In a way he realized this was sexual harassment, but... He knew she had never done anything remotely like this to any of the other employees. He’d asked, subtly, and there had never been any known previous cases of Agnes Attacks. At least, not like these.
It was confusing. She was amazingly seductive, in her way, but... he hadn’t asked for this... He hadn’t wanted this... But he didn’t really want it to stop...
The wages he was earning weren’t worth this mental and emotional whirlpool Dipesto had thrown him into. He had just made up his mind to quit, and was in fact composing his resignation, when the envelope was delivered to his desk.
He opened it. He stared at the private memo inside. It was not signed, but he knew... He knew it was from Dipesto.
He stood up. He approached the door to Dipesto’s office. He knocked on the door.
The entire office looked up from their desks and stared at him. What was he doing entering Dipesto’s office? She hadn’t called him! You never interrupted the Demon Dipesto when she was working!
“Come on in, it’s a day to win,” Dipesto called.
Herbert opened the door and then closed it on the many pairs of eyes which had followed him inside.
Dipesto smiled her predatory smile. “Ah, Viola. I thought it’d be you. So. What are you going to do?”
“You have got to be kidding,” he said, brandishing the memo at her.
“Of course I’m not,” Dipesto said. Her face softened, but only a very little. “I like you a lot.”
He didn’t trust it. “You really think you can buy me like this? That I would... sell... myself...” then he realized that he was, in fact, closing the door on this possibility, which he wasn’t exactly sure he wanted to do... He was so confused... Outside this office, away from her, his choices were clear. But there was something about her... something which made him want to do things for her.
"Viola, you need this raise. You know sexuality pays."
"Stop that!" Herbert snapped. "Stop rhyming. What you are proposing goes far beyond business!"
"On the contrary," Ms. Dipesto replied. "This is business. Maybe not this business, but it's business nonetheless. I wish you to perform a service for me. You will be compensated for your services. Whether it's answering phones, sorting through paperwork, or sharing my bed, all of these are services which will be rewarded in kind."
Herbert was very confused. This was sexual harassment, this was... no... but... who would believe a woman would do this to one of her male employees? A male employee who looked like him no less. Some football player, some body builder, but not some short, dumpy romantic with a penchant for exaggeration and a fondness for detective novels. "Why do you want this?" he asked her.
Her face cleared. It seemed to loose the mask of aggression and self assurance which he had always seen until now. "I'm really not sure," she said, almost to herself. Suddenly, he saw her as very alone. "Maybe I'll only tire of you," she added, her face closing up again.
Herbert couldn't take that. "I don't get boring so quickly," he smirked, his eyes narrowing.
"Then you'll do it?" she asked. Her face was closed, but her voice was quiet. And her eyes... her eyes were hungry. Yearning.
Maybe it wasn't just some dominance game. Maybe she really wanted him, him, Herbert Viola, and just didn't have any idea how to go about it. And the truth of the matter was, he badly needed the money. He had credit card debts up to his eyeballs, not to mention a three thousand dollar debt in parking tickets. He'd already sold his car, and he was still swimming in debt. There was a long, long silence while he pondered the implications of this form of relationship. They stared at each other, neither breaking their gaze. "This wasn't in the job description," Herbert said. "What if I don't agree?"
Ms. Dipesto shrugged. "The raise is for services above your current involvement. No services, no raise."
"But you aren't going to fire me."
"Come now, Mr. Viola. That would be professional sexual harassment." There was silence as Herbert pondered this. "Besides," she added. "I'd never get you then."
Herbert was surprised, then pleased. She wanted him around. This wasn't some stupid initiation or a deal to sell his soul. She really did like him. He smiled. "Okay," he said. He could hardly believe what he was agreeing to, but then... how different was this from the various attacks during office hours?
Sharing her bed was amazing. The Demon Dipesto became a magnificent angel in the bedroom. She held him and kissed him and coaxed him and begged him to touch her. Her sexual appetite seemed all but inexhaustible. The more time he spent with her, the hungrier she became. And the more she wanted him, the more he wanted to please her.
At work she was a demon again, unwilling to show any emotion, unable to say anything kind. But at night, she stared adoringly into his face and settled down in his arms to sleep. He liked watching her sleep. She snored a tiny bit, but it was the only time her face was open and calm. She looked very sweet like that.
Except there were times when she had nightmares, and she woke up, clutching herself, shivering. He had asked her what caused it. She wouldn’t tell him. Only curled up in his arms and snuggled up to his chest, almost hiding from a danger he could not perceive.
After a month of sharing her bed about every two to three days, she awoke again, shivering, breathing hard. He knew what to do. He opened his arms and she fell into them, quietly, gratefully. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she whispered.
“Are you?” Herbert asked. He brushed the long dark hair from her face and stared down into her eyes in the half light from the streetlights. She seemed so vulnerable at times. “You need me, don’t you,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“I need no one,” Dipesto said quietly. But it was no denial and no attack. She seemed resigned.
“I guess not,” Herbert said, suddenly feeling ashamed of himself. “You’re rich. You’re president of a fast growing company in a steadily more demanding industry. You brought the company up from the dregs of the paper product trades. How could you ever need anything but yourself?” He paused. “How could you ever need me,” he added. He shook his head. “How could anyone? Never been worth much of anything. Can’t get a real job... or even a real girl. What am I? Just a temp, a temp in everything. You don’t need me.” He felt very alone.
She stared at him, and lifted one hand to touch his forehead, his eyebrows, gently with her fingertips. He felt better instantly, it was an odd fact that her touch could do that. Even if she didn’t need him, she wanted him. Wasn’t that good enough? “I wasn’t always rich,” she told him. “I lived hand to mouth for most of my life. As did my mother and father before me.”
“What did they do?”
“They were telephone operators,” Agnes told him. “My mother still is. She doesn’t approve of my running a business.”
Agnes laughed a bit. “She says I’ve corrupted the family rhymes, selling them like I do. Anyway.” She sighed and settled down in Herbert’s arm. “I had to sell something,” she said. “I was starving.”
“Starving?” Herbert asked. He realized she was half asleep, which was why her defenses were down.
“I’d lost my job,” she said. “Had no savings. For six months I lived off of nothing. Lost my apartment, ate from garbage cans and rescue services, because the company completely folded and I couldn’t get unemployment. When I got the job of receptionist at Rhymes for the Times,” she yawned, then went on, “I was living out of my car.” The last words were a sleepy murmur. “I swore I’d never go through any of that again,” she said, snuggled further into Herbert’s arms and fell asleep.
Herbert lay awake a long while, thinking about what she had said. If it was true, it explained so much about her. Her ruthlessness, her way of taking what could, though might not be, freely given. She wasn’t evil. She was terrified. He wondered if those months of near starvation were what sparked those anguished dreams.
I could love her, he realized. Then he shook that thought off and went to sleep himself.
One month later, he wasn’t so sure. He hated her. Despite her professional gifts of several further raises and a steady rise up the corporate ladder, he hated her with a passion he’d never thought he could feel. Nine days before Christmas, Herbert got a memo. It instructed him to fire three of the sweetest, kindest workers in the company. Himself.
The night before, Dipesto had seemed gloomy. Right before Christmas was the busiest time for the greeting card business. She had started taking work home with her, and making him work there too, before taking him to bed. There, she hadn’t even always had the energy to make him make love to her. She would just curl up in his arms, exhausted and worn.
“You shouldn’t bring your work home with you,” he told her. “It makes you very irritable.”
“Just because you’re too lazy to work on your off hours,” she told him, “doesn’t mean that I should resort to poverty.”
As he was the hardest worker in her office, that was quite unfair. “I don’t see how keeping your sanity, such as it is, is hard on your pocket book,” he retorted, stung. “I thought you wanted me here tonight.”
“You’re nice to have around, Herbert,” Dipesto said, staring at her papers. “Don’t make me have to replace you.”
A shiver went up Herbert’s spine. “You wouldn’t do that,” he said.
“Don’t give yourself airs,” she told him. “Everyone is replaceable.” She looked up. “Even you.”
He blinked at her. “You don’t care for me at all, do you,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“On the contrary,” Dipesto said, turning back to her papers. “I consider you one of my more enjoyable possessions.”
Herbert stared at her, fury and disillusionment bubbling in his throat. “I am a human being,” he snarled.
“Yes. Mine,” Dipesto said absently.
Herbert lost his cool. “You are so incredibly selfish. If you can’t think of me, think of your employees. When you don’t get enough sleep, it’s them that suffers.”
“Get out, Viola,” she had snapped, pointing with one blood red nail at the door of her study. “Go to my bed. I’ll meet you there when I’m done.”
Herbert had obeyed the direct order. He fell asleep waiting for her, and only had a moment of hazy, sleep tainted recollection of her entering the room. She hadn’t come to bed that night.
He’d awoken alone in the morning. She had already gone to work.
He hadn’t realized that the latest promotion would carry with it responsibilities like firing people. People had noticed that he’d risen in the company faster than seemed possible. Now... he didn’t know what they’d think. And so close to Christmas...
He looked up from the memo to see four employees leaving Ms. Dipesto’s office as if they were running from the devil herself.
He stood up and went to the door. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Nancy told him. She had been in Dipesto’s office an hour earlier and come out looking like a whipped dog. “She’s liable to bite and snap and chew.”
“I can’t let her control me like this,” he said absentmindedly. “Not for mere money and a soft kiss.”
Nancy looked at him. “Herbert, what is she doing to you?” she put her hand on his arm. “I can’t understand, I don’t have a clue.”
Herbert stared at Nancy’s hand. He took it and held it for a moment, for strength. Nancy was one of those on the lay off list.“I can’t understand it myself, you see,” he told her. “But she’s
set out her bait... and she has trapped me. Wish me luck, I’m going to need it.”
“I’d offer advice, but you’d never heed it,” Nancy told him.
“What would the advice be?”
“Run away and make yourself free,” Nancy said. “Good luck.”
Herbert sighed and knocked on Dipesto’s door.
“Don’t just stand there, open the door. Come on in and pull up some floor,” Dipesto yelled at him.
Herbert steeled himself and entered her office. He stared at her, frustrated. She didn’t look at him. “What is it you have to say?” she asked him. “Hurry, I haven’t got all day.”
“It’s about this memo,” he told her, dropping it in her face. She stared at him pointedly. “Sorry, I don’t feel like rhyming just now,” he informed her.
“And just what is it about this memo which has you so upset?” she asked him innocently.
“I can’t fire those people, it’s nine days till Christmas!”
“Fine,” she said. “I’ll fire them.” She reached out one clawed hand to her phone.
He reached out and took it. “Ms. Dipesto.... Sir,” he added, to make the point. “Have a heart.” He wasn’t just talking about them. Some part of him was desperate for her to see him, just see him, as a human being for once.
“I don’t,” she said.
They stared at each other. He wouldn’t let her make that phone call. He couldn’t. She just sat there, gazing at him. There was a seriously pregnant silence, and he knew she could feel the sweat on his palm. “Remove your hand,” she said. Quiet. Collected. Deadly.
“Why?” he retorted. “So you can pick up that phone and fire those people?”
“Yes,” she said, enjoying the word.
“No,” he said softly, begging her with his eyes.
She pulled her hands to her chin. “Okay, fine,” she said. “And what would you have me do? Call our stock holders and say ‘There’s not going to be any profits this year because everyone here has visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads.”
“That’s what I’d do!” he snapped.
She glowered at him, disapproving. “You would,” she said grimly, “wouldn’t you.”
He pulled away. He was fooling himself. She was heartless, cruel, inherently selfish. He stared into her face and hated to see his reflection in her eyes. To think that he could let himself believe that he could ever, ever even begin to love...
“Fire them Viola,” she demanded. “Fire them, or I fire you.”
“I hate you,” he growled. There was no other way to express what he was feeling just then. Hate was almost too small a word. The tension between them was thick as clotted blood, and twice as painful. He wanted to kill her, or kill himself, or tear the office apart or something. But his way was to suffer and dream, and outbursts weren’t really in his nature, unless he was lost in a dream. She lit a cigarette in her delicate holder, a self-satisfied smirk on her face. She had won. And she knew it.
He knew it too. Resignedly, he turned away and toward her door.
“Oh, Mr. Viola.” He stopped as if she’d pulled on a cord. It was as if he couldn’t help it. But he wouldn’t look at her.
“My house. Tonight. Around ten thirty.”
He froze. She couldn’t still expect him to sleep with her.
“I didn’t hear you...” she continued, “Mr. Vice President.”
Vice President. Vice... Hating himself as he said it he opened his mouth. “Ten thirty?” He hesitated. Then he let the title take him. “I’ll be there.” And he left her office.
He felt nauseous. He felt disgusting. He felt like a worm.
He was about to be made Vice President. Wasn’t that worth a little self respect?
Burying his self loathing, he went to find the first person on the list.
"Edgar," Herbert said.
"Oh, Mr. Viola. Sir. I... uh..." his face became lost. "Nice to see you, as it were!" he finished, lamely.
"Don't worry about it, Edgar," Bert said, and he pulled over another chair and sat down. Edgar had been with the business for nearly twenty years, long before Dipesto joined the company. Herbert felt guilty just looking at him. "I'm sorry to have to break this to you," he went on.
"I know, Mr. Viola. I'm not very good at this rhyming thing. Ever since the stroke, I just haven't been able to grab words fast enough. I'm just as fast with the papers, though, sir!"
"You don't have to worry about rhyming, Edgar," Herbert said. He couldn't look at that poor, sweet old man. He looked at his own knees. "You've been fired."
"Fired... You fired me?"
"No, it wasn't me. As far as I'm concerned, you should be able to keep working here, rhymes or no rhymes. Your work record is exemplary. But it wasn't my decision."
They both knew it was the Demon Dipesto, but somehow, Herbert felt like it was all his fault.
Sylvia was even worse, because she rhymed impeccably and her work was superb. But she was a single mother with three young children, and as a result, a lot of personal phone calls were made, and there were many days when she was late or absent from work. She burst into tears, and started talking about the doll she had wanted to get her little girl, Sarah, for Christmas. Herbert couldn't stand it. He knew she wouldn't take money from him, she was too proud, and he, at that point, was the enemy. As she started loading her desk, Herbert stuffed a hundred dollars into her coin purse, went back, stuffed another hundred into Edgar’s jacket, and went to the last person on the lay off list.
As he went to fire Nancy, he was surprised to find that she wasn't there. She had been there...
He went to talk to Dipesto.
She lolled behind her desk, rhyming on the phone at one of their clients, not even acknowledging his presence until she was finished. When she finally asked why he was there, he asked about Nancy. "Nancy?"she said. "I did that one for you. Seemed to be getting close, you two."
Herbert's mouth came open. "You fired her because of me?" he blurted.
"I fired her for many reasons, not that you could understand. Do you think I care enough that you'd be cause to get her canned?"
Herbert was shaking. "I can't even begin to hate you enough," he muttered. He turned to go.
"Ten thirty. Remember?" she told his retreating back.
He rounded on her. "Do you genuinely imagine that I could continue to sleep with you after today?"
Her eyes lit on fire. She drew in a breath, and he knew he was about to be fired on the spot. She stood and glared down at him. Her face angry as stone, she grabbed his arm and pulled him to the door.
Ah. He understood now. Finally, she was going to fire him, and she was going to put him out the door without even letting him clear his desk. Well, he'd seen it coming.
She opened the door to her office and marched him out with her. "Listen everyone," she announced. "Pay attention. This isn't some fan convention." She pulled Bert in front of her and presented him to the office. "You all know this man. For three months he's been here. I intend to make changes now it’s a new year. Though for a while I was a bit hesitant, as of today, he's our new vice president." There was stunned silence as everyone stared at Herbert. He looked at the floor, and wished he could shrink right down into it. What was she doing? She was making him stay with her, that's what she was doing. He felt sick. He felt no pride in this position. "Well, why are you gaping? What is this here? He just got a promotion, so give him a cheer!" That was a command. The office opened their mouths and gave her a dutiful cheer. She nodded, satisfied. "Now get back to work. There's no time to shirk." And she turned around and headed back to her office, slamming the door behind her.
Edgar and Sylvia stared at him. The hatred in their eyes burned him. His face red, he vanished out the door and went home.
That night he drove his new car to her house and sat in her driveway for half an hour, wondering what he was doing there. "Vice president," he whispered. He'd never been even vice anything of anything. It had felt really wonderful to imagine calling his father, and telling him that he, Herbert Viola, had just been promoted to Vice President after less than a year with the company. But how he was paying for the title he could never tell his father.
He didn't love her. She couldn't love him. She was using him, he was her personal whore. Not only that, but he couldn't have any other relationships either, so long as she owned him. He should walk away, he shouldn't let this woman manipulate his professional and private life too. But how could he face his dad, if the next time he called he had to admit that he had walked away from a vice presidency in a million dollar company?
He opened her door at eleven. The house was dimly lit, and the room was warm. Dipesto lounged on her couch in a white silk dressing gown, sipping a big glass of brandy and listening to music from Les Miserables. There was something different about the room. Dipesto had had a decorator create a tree for her livingroom, a cold, quiet, unassuming tree, elegant to a fault, with bows and angels all in silver and only white lights. It glittered in the corner like the eyes of some predatory insect. It, and the flickering fire in the fireplace were the only sources of light.
"Glad you could make it," Dipesto said quietly, setting down her wine glass. She picked up a remote at her side and pressed a button. The music grew quieter. "Seems to me your usual punctuality has been lacking these days." She stared into the fire.
Herbert stared at her, dead faced.
"I'm quite honestly beginning to wonder how I could make this job more... pleasant for you," she added. "Would it help if I got you an assistant? That new guy, MacGillicuddy. He could help you along."
"Can we skip the personal abuse and get this over with, please?" Herbert said.
Had she flinched? "If you don't want to be here," she said evenly, "why have you come?"
"Does it matter?" he replied. "You've bought my time and my body, my motivations are not your concern."
She stared into the fire. Didn't he like being with her at all? Didn't he care at all? She felt cold and vulnerable alone on that couch. She reached over and sipped her brandy, but it was a poor substitute for Herbert. She wanted his arms around her, she wanted to feel his warmth. "I'm this close to telling you to get out," she said precisely, lifting one hand and holding her fingers a centimeter apart.
"Why don't you," he said.
Because she wanted him, that's why. Because if he went out that door, she would be alone for the rest of the night, alone and cold, and it was so much easier if she could pretend he loved her.
"You've let everyone else go today," he continued.
Agnes smiled. "Is that all that's bothering you?"
"Isn't it enough?"
She put down her glass and stood. She stared at him, and he took a breath. Her hair was loose and her make up was off and she looked good in white. She looked like an angel, back lit by the fire. Herbert realized that she had brought down the big, white pillows from her bed, and that the polar bear carpet by the fireplace was new. And thick. And probably very soft....
He hated her. How could she play with his emotions like this? Because just then he wanted her so badly he was starting to sweat, but he also wanted to wring her neck. He swallowed, and prayed she wouldn't notice him shaking.
Agnes smiled. Herbert. He was easily seduced. She knew it had worked. She'd won him again. He seemed paralyzed by indecision, however, so she took two steps and took his hand, sliding it around her waist.
Herbert couldn't stand it. He let her take him.
Later, lying beside her on the thick polar bear carpet, Herbert stared into the dying embers of the fire. He felt warm and comfortable and secure in the beauty of Ms. Dipesto’s livingroom. And he hated himself, easily as much as he hated her. As if hatred was as powerful a binding force as love, he squeezed her to his side. She murmured in her sleep and her own grip on him tightened. At that intimate gesture he closed his eyes. A few of the tears he always denied dripped out of his eyes and onto the polar bear fur. Fighting the lump in his throat, he peeled himself away from her warmth and went home, feeling sick.
Back in her livingroom Ms. Dipesto flipped over and stared into the fire. She didn’t notice that her own lonely tears fell beside Herbert’s.
By the next day, the hatred, like a cancer, had spread through the office. Clearly Edgar and Sylvia had told. He was addressed with terse, precise rhymes when he was addressed at all. He, Herbert Viola, to whom people had begun to warm because he allowed them to stay lax on the rhyming policy, was now spoken to only in pure verse, and every rhyming couplet stabbed.
Wednesday. Thursday. The hatred did not ease. Dipesto hardly looked at him.
He endured Friday with a sense of hitting the home stretch, the last twenty yards for a marathon runner. Saturday was the first day of the Christmas vacation. A week of freedom.
Or so he thought.
He found a personal memo on his desk. All it had were dates and times. Attached, in an envelope, was his new check, his new salary as Vice President. Along, apparently, with a Christmas bonus. Herbert stared at it. He was staggered. His debts were paid off and he had a car, and he had already saved thousands of dollars. That was all he'd needed in money, but this... This was...
The first date was the twenty third, eleven o'clock.
He went home.
Home to what? he realized, as he opened the door to his brown striped barren apartment. There was no warmth to his life. There was no Christmas tree in the corner, not even an icy, impersonal one like Dipesto's. He went over his finances in his head. He had thousands of dollars in savings, money he hadn't even touched, didn't even know what to do with. Hadn't had time to do anything with. Hadn't had time to dream about what he would do with it.
Hadn't had time? He'd had time! Dipesto didn't commandeer him every night. No, he'd had time.
He just hadn't had the will.
He no longer had the will to dream...? Astonished, he sat down at his table. His whole life had been one big dream, broke he might have been, but his mind was always soaring. But that life had turned into a nightmare. A cold, useless, endless nightmare, which was real, bordered in by rhymes and money and the Demon Dipesto.
He couldn't do it anymore. This was it. He simply couldn't do it anymore.
The twenty third... He couldn't break up with her at Christmas!
How could he stand to be with her at Christmas? Even getting quietly drunk at the Metropolis, even there, he wouldn't be steeping in self loathing. And if that wasn't a Christmas present, he didn't know what was!
He made up his mind. He'd break it to her gently... though why, he was sure he didn't know. She had never been gentle with him, in anything but their lovemaking. He'd just tell her. He had to break it off.
The house was dark when he drove up, except for a dim light in her bedroom. He wondered if he shouldn't have called, or perhaps come and told her during the day, but somehow, she still owned him. He couldn't come to her without her invitation. He strode purposefully through the house. By now, he knew where everything was.
Ms. Dipesto ambushed him at the door to her bedroom. The moment he stepped into the room she had him against the wall, pulling off his jacket, covering him with her mouth.
He pulled away. "If you don't mind!" he growled.
Agnes smiled. As always, her predatory, self satisfied smirk. She shrugged. "Fine, we can wait a bit," she said. She slinked her way into her bed and pulled the covers over her bare legs. The nightie she wore only reached to her mid thigh.
Herbert panted. As always, he'd let her get the upper hand, first step inside. He tried to compose himself, but this wasn't working. He paced back and forth trying to figure out what to say.
"Calm down, tiger," she said. "You look ruffled."
"And you sound so concerned."
There was a moment of silence, and then Dipesto shot off another one of her cool, collected, calculated responses. "Is there a reason why you think I wouldn't be?"
He stopped pacing and stared at her. "Yes," he said. "Because you've never been concerned about anyone but yourself. It's time I took a leaf from your book, Ms. Dipesto. I'm looking out for myself."
Ms. Dipesto did not look impressed. "Indeed. That's good, Mr. Viola. But we both know there's a reason you're here. You are looking out for yourself. Your financial security. That it comes from me and not from you is...."
"Precisely," Herbert interrupted her. "I have to take care of myself. I can't do this anymore, Ms. Dipesto. I can't come here anymore, I can't be with you."
"Has the job grown so distasteful? Come now, you didn't always act like this was such a chore."
"You're right," he said, walking across the room again. He stared at the top of her chest of drawers. "There was a time when all this wasn't so distasteful. Because I was living in a dream, Ms. Dipesto." He picked up one of the framed pictures from atop the bureau. "But I've come out of that dream, and I've realized, you can never... never be the woman I wanted to believe you could be."
Agnes scoffed. "And what, pray tell, could you possibly have believed me to be besides me?" she asked.
"Her," Herbert said, and he brandished the photo he had taken from off of her bureau. She saw which one he had picked up. It was a picture from before she had joined Rhymes for the Times. A smiling, quirky eyed woman grinned from behind a desk, with a phone in her hand, while a man with a mischievous grin held bunny ears behind her head. The man was David Addison, who had just been all over the society pages for marrying Cheryl Tieges, and the women, the amused curly haired girl in white and pastel blue, with a series of beads around her neck, was a younger Agnes Dipesto.
She looked much younger than she was now. That had only been two, three years before, but she seemed to have aged a decade.
She pulled the blankets up to her chest. "What has that got to do with anything?" she asked. She sounded like a stubborn little girl. Her eyes glittered like gems in the dim light.
Herbert turned the photo so that he could look at it. "I can tell you used to smile once," he said. "Genuinely smile. So did I," he added. "But that's my own fault. I thought, maybe, if you became at ease with me, whoever this woman is would come to the surface.
"I have an imagination, Ms. Dipesto. Some part of me spent a long time imagining out of you someone who doesn't really exist. Someone warm, someone who really cared, someone buried deep beneath this cruel, callus bladed armor you have learned to attack this world with. I thought I saw in you someone I could... maybe one day..." He trailed off and shook his head. "But that woman is dead. The woman in this picture has been killed by whatever angry and manipulative demon you have become."
She tossed her carefully straightened hair. "I have not," she announced.
Herbert only shook his head.
"That woman... that girl. She was a fool, Viola. A trusting, simplistic fool who thought little of the future, and saw everything through a rose colored haze. I've grown up. Finally. And I was twenty years late doing it."
Astonishment crossed Bert's face. "How can you say that?" he asked. "I've been all but living with you for the last two months. I thought my life was sparse, but yours is empty. You think of nothing but yourself and your business. You strive always for more and more money. You yell at and belittle the members of your staff, offering no job security. None of them like you, or respect you. They only fear you. You've no friends. You've ostracized your mother, who seems like a very sweet person." He turned away and put the picture down. "And look at me," he said. There was shame and disgust in his voice. "I'm little more than your whore."
"You're right!" she snapped. "I own you, Viola."
"My name is Herbert," he growled at her. "After two months in your bed, you should know that by now."
"Fine. Herbert. If you walk out that door, you are fired, do you hear me?"
"Don't you get it? I quit!" Herbert snapped. "I have just resigned from your business, as opposed to resigning myself to being used by you."
"How dare you," she said casually, leaning back in the bed. "You were nothing but a temp before you came to me. How could you keep yourself in the manner to which you have become accustomed?"
"Like I've had time or energy to spend any of that money. It's been gathering dust, just as my apartment, and all of my dreams have. I hate it," he answered. "I hate everything that comes from you, as I hate you, as I hate myself for ever allowing myself to get mixed up with you. You've drained me. Now I'm going to try and bring myself back." He picked up his jacket and turned to leave.
"If you stay," she said, her voice softened, "I'll make you my partner."
He stared at her in disbelief. "Your partner?" he asked.
"Forty percent share of the entire business, free of charge, I'll have the papers made up tomorrow," she said. Her voice was quick. Desperate.
. "If I prostitute myself to you. That's not free of charge, Ms. Dipesto. That's in exchange for my dignity, my self respect and my sanity." He shook his head. "I don't want your business. Agnes," he added. "I want nothing to do with you. I want my life back. And you aren't willing to give me that. So now I'm taking my freedom, and you don't own me anymore."
He turned to leave.
"Don't go, Viola," she said. It was a warning demand, and he walked through it like so much wind.
"Herbert, don't." Her voice was so low he barely heard it. There was no demand in this order. There was pleading in her voice
He didn't answer. He kept on walking towards the door.
Her voice shook. He paused. Then he put his hand on the door. He opened it.
"Please, I love you!" It was an anguished whisper.
Herbert paused in the dark door way. She didn't mean it. It was a way to manipulate him again, to keep what she thought of as hers. She couldn't mean it. "You don't know what love is, Ms. Dipesto," he said into the darkness. Then he stepped through the door and closed it behind him.
It was amazing how hard those steps were. He felt like he should be elated, like he should feel free. All he felt was like a cad. He made it to the stairs, hating himself almost as much as he had during the affair.
Then, from the door behind him came a cry. A tortured scream, with tears behind it. "Noooooooooo!!!" Herbert's hand gripped the bannister, expecting Ms. Dipesto to come flying out after him, rage in her face, beating on his chest, forbidding him to go. He wished she would. It would make this so much easier.
But no. The door didn't open. Ms. Dipesto didn't come out, and she didn't come out, and he heard her sobbing and she didn't come out. He sank onto the steps, literally torn between desire to walk down those steps and out that front door, and a sudden, unexpected desire to go back in there and comfort her. The conflicting desires held him stagnant.
She couldn't believe it. He'd left. He'd gone. He went out that door and away from her and she'd never see him again. She sobbed into her pillow, listening to his footsteps walk down the stairs, for the front door to close, for his car to start up and drive away, hating herself for driving him off.
She hadn't been lying. She loved him. Oh, how she loved him. She loved his hazel eyes and his kindness and his dreams and his loyalty, and she loved all those things which she realized she had been slowly killing ever since she had bought him for her bed. She hadn't seen the grin she had fallen in love with in months. Why was she so cruel to him? Because she hated loving him, that’s why. She hated herself for that weakness. If she hated herself for loving him, she could never love him properly. And he could never love her. It was never meant to be.
She had to let him go. That was all. He was right, she was draining him, and she couldn't, couldn't take it if the man she loved died before her eyes.
So he was right. He had stood up to her, he'd made the right decision. Very well.
Her sobs softened at this train of thought. She stood to wash her face, turning on the bathroom light and letting the water run. Where was the cloth? She couldn't see very well, her heavy eye make up, which she hadn't taken off properly, was running into her eyes and they stung more than the tears alone would have caused. She found the cloth and cleaned her still streaming eyes of their mascara. Why couldn't she stop crying? He had made the right decision. She'd do fine without him, she'd done fine before he came along. She didn't need him. He needed her, except, she was wrong about that, he hadn't needed her after all. Broke and lost and friendless, and he still didn't need her.
She cleaned off her eyes and stared into her reflection. An angry, exhausted, broken woman looked back at her. She wailed in anguish. No wonder he couldn't stay with her! She was disgusting! She opened the mirror to search for something, anything, a sedative, something so she wouldn’t have to think about this right now. She didn’t believe in sedatives. Even the last drop of night time cold medicine was gone. What was this? Was she about to take to drugs? In a fury she slammed the door to the medicine cabinet shut, to start pacing the room like a lion in a cage. The mirror shattered at the impact, falling into the sink. A shard sliced her knuckle.
At the steps, Herbert winced at the sound of shattering glass. His eyes closed, and he gripped the bannister tighter. Her footsteps were pacing back and forth in the room now, and he could still hear her sobbing, and any moment that door would open and she would find him, sitting there, without the strength to leave.
Why hadn't he the strength to leave? He had no desire to go back to work the next day and beg to be returned to his old position. The hold she had over him, this job, was gone. So why was he still there? Why didn't he just get up and leave, as he had been imagining doing for so bloody long?
She paced her bedroom in a passion, shaking her head, trying to come to grips with reality. She barely registered the cut on her hand which dripped blood onto the carpet. How had she gotten like this? How could she have ever been like that! She stared at the picture of the quirky eyed woman on her bureau. Her hair was naturally curly and her face was laughing, and she was at ease with the man who was teasing her mercilessly behind her. David Addison had been her friend. Was he the last friend she'd had? He had been...
It was all the closing of her old job and months of near starvation and loss of all hope, but why had that happened to her? Why had that happened? With no thought to the future, when the business closed, she'd had no savings, and that childlike woman needed to be taken care of, and so she had taken care of herself, and that child, that girl...
She lifted her arm and swept the picture off the bureau, along with everything else. Perfume and brickabrack crashed to the ground, and Agnes realized she had screamed. "Why," she said, over and over. "Why, why." She walked across the room again and tried to calm herself, but calm didn't come. What had she done? To herself, to Herbert, to her mother, to everyone in her business, who she was supposed to take care of, what had she done? A pure, animal howl issued from her throat as she sank to the ground. "What have I done?!?" she wailed.
He realized he had stood when that last phrase washed over him. He didn't remember standing, but he was standing now. The bannister was gripped tightly in his hand, and he was standing at the head of the stairs, half turned between the door to her bedroom, and the way out. He turned away from her, and looked back down into the darkness beneath her stairs. He meant to leave. He actually intended to walk down the stairs.
He found himself at the door to her room. His hand was on the door. The sobs had grown quiet and hopeless now. He took his hand off the door knob to turn back down the hall, and leave.
The door opened under his hand and he swept into the half ruined room and down upon the woman who had crumpled on the floor in despair. He crouched over her and took her up in his arms. Suddenly it felt so good to just hold her. Some part of him wanted to comfort her, to make her promises, call her endearments, tell her everything would be all right. But he knew this was Ms. Dipesto, and she was conniving and manipulative, and this whole show might just be playing on his sensitivity and his sense of honor, expecting him to come back. He crouched over her, his arms around her, his head by her ear.
He came back... He'd come back! She couldn't believe it. In fact, she didn't believe it. This was not Herbert, she was imagining him, she was alone, he had gone, he hated her. It couldn't be him. He couldn't be this kind and this loyal and this willing to accept even her... She felt so safe in his arms, so protected, so... loved.... He shouldn't be this nice to her! Her tears did not abate. In fact, if anything, they grew worse. He lifted her and pulled her to his lap, where she buried her head in his shoulder and wept as though the world had come to an end. He made no promises. He murmured no endearments. "Shhh," he said, just the once.
They stayed that way for a long while, Herbert holding her, rocking her while she wept. Eventually, her sobs slowed, and she stopped shaking, though her tears did not cease flowing. When she could control her breath, she said, "You left."
Herbert didn't say anything. He didn't even move. Was this an accusation? An explanation? A murmur in disbelief?
"You came back," she continued. "Why did you?"
Herbert lifted one hand and pulled her face away from his wet shirt. He looked down into her face, which no longer held a trace of the woman he had hated for so long. Just an angry, frightened, lonely child, who was dead tired. He lifted a thumb and brushed a tear from her eye, which was soon replaced by another one. "I don't know," he said after a moment. She closed her eyes and her head sunk back to his chest. He squeezed her once. "This isn't how I thought you would react," he whispered.
She shook her head in disbelief. "I heard you go, I heard the door close, your car start, I heard you leave," she said to his shirt buttons.
Herbert wondered. City streets, lots of noises... But he had left. In his mind he'd walked down those stairs and out that door and started up that car, at least three times since he'd found himself stagnated on the steps. He almost felt disconnected, as if he had gone, was in that car, driving to that tiny, Spartan, brown apartment he supposedly lived in. As if he was imagining holding this woman whom he had been sure did not exist.
"It never occurred to me that you'd leave," she whispered.
It had never occurred to her? "You thought you could oppress me forever?" he said.
She couldn't bear it. "I meant it," she said. "I mean it, I love you. Oh, it's such a relief to say it, I love you, I love you, I love you."
Herbert made a sound which was halfway between a laugh and a scoff.
"You don't believe me," she whispered.
"I haven't seen much proof," Herbert told her, without judgement. Her shoulders began to shake again, and Bert eased out from beneath her and picked her up, an act of dominance he had never before dared to try. He lifted her and lay her on her brass bed and then, in one last wave of defiance, turned to leave her behind and walk out that door and out of her life forever.
He found himself in the bathroom, wetting a cloth, opening the medicine chest with the broken mirror and picking out a band-aid for the still oozing slice on her hand.
She had been sure he was about to leave again, but back to her bed he came, and washed the blood off her hand with a gentleness which stunned her. He bandaged the wound and then turned the cloth around and washed the tears off of her face. Thank you she wanted to say. How amazing you are. How can you be so kind to me, even to me, of all people? She stared at him in helpless disbelief, her voice dead in her throat.
He gave up trying to tell himself to leave. He took off his damp shirt and lay down beside her, and she turned and held onto him like a life preserver, and more tears leaked out onto his chest.
"You're going to run out of saline," he told her gently. And she laughed.
It was a weak, helpless, hopeless, near hysterical laugh, but she had laughed. He had made her laugh... And not at anyone but herself.