Meet the Old Boss



3rd Ave & E. 37th St, NY, NY 10016

Neighborhood: Midtown

I took the subway uptown to stop by my old boss’s townhouse. Drop by any time, she’d said. Just ring the bell. We were on good terms. I had quit that job to take something downtown. The new job paid a little bit more, but it hadn’t worked out. Now I was back working as a waitress. My old boss would need to give me a reference for something else. The waitress job made my feet ache.

I learned a lot from that old boss. The old boss spent a lot of her time getting her roots dyed golden blonde. She said that if you were going to color your hair blonde, you couldn’t have roots. It was against the rules. You wouldn’t get waited on in shops if you had black roots. You wouldn’t get any service. You had to go once a week to have those roots dyed the same color as the rest of the hair. It had to look expensive or people would think you were cheap. The boss said it wouldn’t do and that I should see Andre. Everyone saw Andre for blonding. Those were the correct terms to use.

She said that when she started out, it was very competitive. Like now, but with more taste. Now she was almost seventy. She liked to talk while I arranged her shoe closet. I had to keep track of which shoes she had worn with which dress and when this had taken place. I had to remember handbags and bracelets. She had a diary and I wrote in it the next day. Getting dressed was an exhausting competition and it had to be just right, every time. You couldn’t slip up. It was competitive. It was in the papers. The boss’s husband had been a philanthropist, but he had died. The boss had been disorganized until I started cataloguing everything. I didn’t know what to call that on my resume. I couldn’t just say organized things.

I poked at the bell and waited until someone came to the door. The boss usually had a lot of people running around. There were three types of staff there. If you didn’t know any better, it seemed like the boss was running a real tight ship. The people who worked there always looked busy, but this was because Cleopatra never left her barge of a bed. You’d think it would work the other way around. You’d think people would be reading magazines in the living room, putting their feet on the upholstery. Instead, the boss kept them scooting around, looking for a hair clip or a receipt from Bergdorf’s that had been thrown out two weeks before.

When the boss did get out of bed, it was like an opening night. She had parties there. The lights came on. This had to be planned a month in advance. That was another part of my job. I had to schedule things. I had to get just the right lavender roses flown in. The flowers had to match the walls. This is what I like about you, the boss had said. You know about things. I don’t have to explain like I do with Nancy or Carmelita. It makes my life easier not to have to explain the difference between a good rose and a bad one. You know.

Yes, I do, I said.

I went right into the living room and sat down like I owned the place. Someone should arrange the magazines and water the plants. Someone should take care of details. It’s not that hard. It’s not my job anymore, but I pinched off a dead bloom and stuck it in my pocket. Attention to detail is important when you have this kind of job. It’s what keeps people coming back with smiles on their faces. The boss’s house was like a hotel or an ocean liner. It was exhausting to keep it looking fresh. It was plain old hard work. Someone had to do it or it wouldn’t get done. This room was the lobby for the rest of the house and another part of my job had been to keep the curtains drawn relative to the amount of sunlight coming in. The sun would bleach the carpet if you let it. You had to keep the curtains drawn in the morning and then open them little by little during the day. Whoever was doing it now had gone too far and half of the carpet had faded. I shut them partway and sat back down with one of the magazines. I read an article about how not to overcook fish and then looked at some pictures of a vacation home out in the Hamptons. This home was unusual in that it only used organic materials inside. It sounded as if it might go up in flames and as if it might be irksome to spend the weekend there.

After twenty minutes I got up and took the elevator up to the third floor where the boss’s bedroom was. Walked right in and said hello. Even though the boss lived like Mrs. Astor’s pet horse, she herself was pretty casual. Informal. She said she the simpler things were, the better. She said most people didn’t understand that idea and paid the price later. I probably shouldn’t have quit this job. When I walked in, the boss was getting her hair styled. There was a dress form in the corner that had been modeled after the boss’s exact measurements and the dress form was wearing a bright red suit. It was headless, this torso, so someone had put a black straw hat on top of the neck.

What a surprise! she said. Would you bring me a hand mirror? I need to see the back. The back is never right.

I didn’t want to waste her time, so I spilled it. I need a job reference, if you don’t mind, I said. That’s why I’m here. I don’t want to disturb you, but you said to drop by any time.

Of course, Sally! Don’t you worry about that. I handed her the mirror. She clucked and picked at a curl. The hairdresser fussed with the hair near the ears, saying that the hair had gotten thinner since last time. This was a new hairdresser. Andre had died and this new one was called Franco. Franco had on black slacks and a pink shirt and he patted the old boss on the top of head like you’d pat a small dog.

I am always happy to help, Sally, she said. Now, tell me, what did you do here? It is Sally, isn’t it? She motioned for me to sit down next to her.

Guess, I said.

She thought this over a bit, and then sat back and smiled. Yes, it’s Sally. You worked with Isabelle in the kitchen. Yes, I remember now. You are the girl who brought in that wonderful recipe for trout. You made an appetizer that everyone said was superb. I remember that party. That was your trout, wasn’t it?


Now don’t fib, Sally. It was delicious. You’re not in catering any longer? Oh, dear. What are you doing now?

I was a waitress at a steakhouse, but I wanted something better this time around. It was better forked over plain. The boss would appreciate my asking for a reference directly. You couldn’t be mistaken for weak that way. That was another thing I learned on that job. I reached over and took one of the boss’s cigarettes and fired it up. I wasn’t used to smoking in anyone’s bedroom.

Sally, you were very good help. That steakhouse will be sorry to lose you, I can just tell. I always know when a waitress is good or not. It’s all about eye contact. Always look people right in the eye, Sally. I do understand, though, that you probably feel more at home in the kitchen. I think you have some real talent there.

We got a lot of Japanese tourists at the restaurant. They liked to drink and they liked to tell you that you reminded them of some mermaid painted on a sushi platter. They didn’t speak enough English to say mermaid, so instead they made the shape of a mermaid with their hands and then they laughed. When they paid the bill they left a key to their hotel room. The wrong person could get one of those keys and rob those businessmen blind so at the end of my shift I’d put the keys into an envelope and mail them to the hotel. I didn’t put a return address on the envelope.

I was used to addressing envelopes. I used to sit at this table every morning, listening to the boss dictate invitations and thank you notes. These all had to be done by hand, my hand, because I had won a penmanship award in the sixth grade. I did this well, better than most. You don’t realize how difficult it is to get it just right. It can be slow going. It has to do with geometry above all and then you worry about the thickness of the letters and how hard you have to bear down on the paper to get the right effect. Fat or thin, it made all the difference in the world.

The boss motioned at the dress form and asked what anyone thought about that red suit. Exquisite, Franco said. What can I say? Just exquisite. He asked the boss to shut her eyes while he shellacked her with a can of hairspray. He waved the fumes away by flipping his hands like he was going after a fly.

Where are you wearing that? I asked. It looked like one of her uptown suits. The red was too bright.

I am going home, she said. It was too hot in the city. The haze gave her a headache. She hated sitting in her town car while the heat throbbed off the asphalt. The city was a sweat-soaked mirror. You couldn’t bear to see your own reflection. Everyone went out of town in August anyway. People would think something about her if she didn’t go herself. They’d think she had money problems and they’d yammer it raw. Franco agreed with this. He had clients at Sag Harbor already and they’d be talking. The boss didn’t like Sag Harbor but had gone there anyway. Her husband had said it was expected. When the boss saw her picture in the papers, she’d use the word “dreadful.” There I am with that dreadful neighbor. And look at this, the dreadful Miller beach house. What a dreadful chore it all is. I am dreading this summer already, and it hasn’t even started.

I am very tired, she said.

She was going upstate. Her family had a summer house on the St .Lawrence river. She inherited the house and she despised it. It nagged her like a bad tooth, but she wouldn’t sell it. It just sat there waiting and nagging. The house was built of stone and it sat on a bank overlooking the river. It had thirty rooms all paneled in wood. There was a circular turret at the top of three flights of stairs. This turret had a view all the way into Canada. You could sit up there like a sentinel, alone as can be, and watch autumn creep over the border. The shadows would take a long time to fall, but when they did it was as if they’d never left in the first place. You’d find yourself back in the city, waiting out winter.

So why go? Franco asked. I, he said, would go in a heartbeat. I’d take Dennis and stay the whole month. Some people, he said, and he rolled his eyes. Some people don’t know when they have it good.

The stone house had been shut up like a mausoleum for the past thirty years. The boss said it cost a fortune to run, that’s why it was easier to lock it up and forget about it. There were no children. There was no one to take on the responsibility. Who’d want that anyway? There was more that came with it. She said the house reminded her of what it was like to be twenty and pretty. She’d been twenty and pretty in a straw hat and then she was not. She said what was the point of remembering something like that? When she was twenty, she had run off in the woods and had lost her hat and had not come home for two days. There was something out there she wanted to see.

She had heard about a girl who had drowned in the river. If she ran as fast as she could, she could almost pace the currents and imagine where the girl had flushed out into the sea. Even though she couldn’t see that far, she knew the girl had gone as far as the mouth and probably much farther.

She knew that the water was cool. She knew that much.

And they looked for that girl for weeks that summer. They thought she’d gotten lost and maybe was hurt, maybe had fallen and broken her ankle on a rock. She might sit out there in the woods until deer season. She might not know the way home.

And with everyone looking, the boss said, they forgot about the dancing. They forgot about the rowboats and the picnics and the fireflies. The girl’s mother thought the girl had been snatched away in the night. There had been a search party and then a mob. No one thought the girl had gone out on the tide.

The boss said that it had taken a while to see where the girl had gone into the water, but that she knew when she had found the exact spot. She had followed the shore for half a day when she came upon it. It was a little sandy dent that the river had lapped out of the bank. The water was clear there and very shallow, but there were some rocks that poked out of deeper water. Some of these rocks were quite smooth and others were larger and sharp. The boss sat on one of the rocks for a while and listened to the river nudge the bank. She trailed her fingers through the water and touched them to her lips. It was a place where you could watch the boats go by. She said she thought the girl had tripped and fallen, but you couldn’t be sure. It would have been easy to step out onto one of the rocks and slip. Or it might have been just as easy to step on one of those rocks and let yourself slip away like an otter. You could float on your back for a while, just staring at sky or nothing in particular, and then you could roll over onto your belly, flip your tail and be gone.

The boss said that she had taken her straw hat and had placed it where the water met the bank. At first the hat had dipped back towards the shore, but then it moved away. It stalled for a minute and then decided on its course. The boss watched it sail and then went home through the woods.

I wanted to know how the boss knew this was a pivotal moment in her life. What we were looking at here. That idea excited me. How you could tell those moments and when not to go back the way you came in. What it felt like to disappear from the shore like you never existed, like you had no weight in the world. How a boat couldn’t rescue that girl even though there were plenty of boats on the water that afternoon. How there was some delicacy to this, even though it was plenty appalling.

The water is very cold there, even in summer, was what the boss had to say. There’s a current. She put on her red jacket and frowned at herself in the mirror.

I don’t think I like this, Franco, she said. Her hair was rigid as aluminum. She touched it and pushed the sides towards her ears. I don’t think I’m going to tip you today. In fact, I think I’m going to wash it out. She hurried into her bathroom and turned on the taps. She bent over the sink while Franco watched. He stood there staring at her in her red jacket. It was how she had always had her hair done. It was or it wasn’t his fault. Water ran down her shirt and dripped on the floor at her feet.

That’s enough, Franco. That’s all. You can go. He paused. Her checkbook was on the desk. I said you could go now, Franco.

The boss sat on the edge of her bed and asked me if I didn’t think some of this stuff was ridiculous. Like what? I asked. Blowouts?

Oh, most of it. All of it, she said, motioning around the room. The spoils.. She pointed. The chaise longue. A Chinese screen with herons against a white background. A bloated gilt clock and most particularly the contents of a cedar closet that had its own thermostat.

Isn’t it silly, she said. A wine cellar for coats.

She said that I should take it all down to the street and leave it there. Someone would take it away. Someone always did. There’d be jackals before sunrise, after she’d left. You could count on that no matter where you were. It was maybe the one thing in life that was dependable. If there was anything remaining in the morning I was to put it into the dumpster and not leave it for people to trip over. We had to avoid attractive nuisance. And the birds? The boss had a cage of society finches, maybe twenty of them on little wooden perches. She told me to ask Hans to let the birds fly out the front door. Those finches were going to sing regardless, that was their job, even if it was only the males that made any music. The hens were tuneless. Hans would probably be smoking a cigarette in the pantry, his back turned towards the door, and I’d ask him to let those finches free. The boss said that Hans could take a coat for his wife if he wanted to. The black one was probably the best. His wife could wear it to bingo night and tie a scarf over her curlers.

You could auction it at Sotheby’s instead, I suggested. I could call them for you. I could call them and let them take the stuff off her hands. It was more dignified and ladylike. She ran her hand up my arm and stopped at the elbow. When she stopped, she clutched and I could feel her in my muscle.

She said that was what she was trying to avoid. Dignity. Dignity drowned in the river. Her hair was soaking wet and she mashed her straw hat down on top of it and stood up. She draped her red jacket across her shoulders and said it was time to go. I had come on that day. I didn’t want to bother about that reference. I was the one with good penmanship. That always impressed people. They thought you paid good money for something that with that much class. There were engraved note cards with her name inked across the top. I had practiced her signature until it was perfect. I could say that I had worked for her for two years, smoked in bedrooms, and that I was most often honest and reliable. Most of the time. I asked if she didn’t want me to drive with her, ride with her, just a little bit of the way. Not all the way there, but far enough.

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