The Ladies Room

Short Fiction for Guests of the Wordfeeder
Monday, October 17, 2011

“I don’t understand why everyone’s so upset.” Alisha, now Assistant to the new CEO, stood outside the outgoing CEO’s office, talking fast, the way she did, in a loud whisper to her girl friend, Mel, whose arms were full of supplies. By outgoing, in this case, we mean “dead.”

“I know.” Mel widened her eyes and tilted her head in agreement. “Sure, he founded the place. I get it, but the guy was like over 90 years old.”

“Even so, you know, he was in great shape, for his age I mean. You know Wendy in Accounting?”

“Sure. We used to chat when I was on her floor, until her hearing started to go.”

“Well she’s employee number eight or something, definitely less than 10, and she says the old man was never a day sick, not so much as a cold.”

“I’m no doctor, but I’m thinking you’re less likely to get sick if you never leave the office.”

“True. He did work hard, right ‘til the end. ..He may have been old, but he seemed fine to me, until his head hit the hardwood.” Alisha rolled her eyes in the direct of the bookcase inside the old man’s office where his body had been found.

“Shouldn’t there be a chalk outline or something?”

“That’s only if he’d been murdered.”

“I mean, the guy dies trying to power screw his bookcase to the floor? What the..” she stopped talking as soon as they saw him coming down the hall from the stairs he always took. John Chocks, the new CEO, grandson of the one who just retired, in a manner of speaking, was a man who didn’t waste time or appreciate chit chat, or recognize junior staff, at least not while his grandfather was around.

“John!” This was a voice that got his attention. It was Roberta Green, General Counsel, her three inch heels, the kind with the red soles, snapping on the shiny marble floors. The older suit trotting next to her was barely able to keep up.

“Mr. Chocks,” it was the suit talking, more than a little out of breath, “you can’t do this.”

“Do what?”

“Move into your grandfather’s office.”

“Who are you? And,” John looked at Roberta, “why do I care?”

“I’m Hedges, Donald Hedges, attorney for your grandfather’s estate.”

“So? Did he leave me anything?” John was kidding. He already knew.

“Virtually the entire company.”

“Virtually? Didn’t I get 100% of his stock?”

“Yes,” Mr. Hedges answered almost apologetically, the way John expected. Intimidation was, after all, something he’d learned from the best.

“That’s great, but also what he promised, what he told me he was doing, every day since I started working for him when I was in middle school. Other kids had lemonade stands. I was attending Board meetings with the old man.” It was his odd way of saying he missed him. “Other kids I knew went away to college. I stayed in town so I wouldn’t miss anything. ‘..It is, after all,’ he would tell me, ‘the family business.’ If he wasn’t building it for me, what was the point of my hanging around all this time?”

“I understand, Mr. Chocks, but..”

“But what? ..Roberta, I’m running behind. Help me out here.”

“But there’s a catch, John.”

“I read the will, I don’t remem..”

“Your grandfather insisted that you not..,” Roberta was only saying it for the record, in front of Mr. Hedges. “..that no one occupy his office. He wants it locked, and left that way…”

Mr. Hedges felt compelled to say something, and so he interrupted, before he missed his chance,“‘..for as long as the building stands.’ That’s precisely what he said. Even if you sell the building, this provision must be a condition of the sale. That was what the founder of this company asked that you do.”

“You’re kidding?” John really didn’t have the time for this. “I read it. It was a request, not a condition.”

“He could have made it a ‘condition,’ but he chose to leave it up to you.”

“Okay. Good. Thank you, Mr. Hedges.” He started to move, but Mr. Hedges reached out, grabbing John’s arm, only to pull it back as soon as he made contact.

“You’d disregard your grandfather’s final request?” Mr. Hedges was as stunned as a tight ass could be without seeming comical about it.

John just looked at him. “You’re kidding.” This time it wasn’t a question. “My grandfather once ordered me to switch all the restrooms from two ply to single ply toilet paper because he said we were throwing it out anyway, what difference did it make. I didn’t do that either.” That matter having been settled to John’s satisfaction, he turned toward the office door, propped open with a one of his grandfathers heavy eagle bookends. “Com’on, Mel.”

Mel looked at Alisha, lowering her head and scrunching her eyebrows together, as if to say, “He knows my name?!” to which Alisha responded with a mini-shrug.

“Put everything on the table for me. There,” he pointed to the small conference table in the corner, away from the windows.

“Yes, Mr. Chocks.”

“It’s my company now. We’re on a first name basis, all of us.”

“Of course, …” she paused for second, trying to remember his first name.

“John.” He filled in the blank for her. “Com’on. Let’s do this. You too, Alisha.”

But then John stopped, just inside the doorway, and turned back to look at Mr. Hedges. “Why?”

“Why what, Mr. Chocks?”

“What is it about his office that..”

“Excuse me, but your grandfather anticipated the question. I’m to quote: ‘Tell the kid it’s because that’s the way I want it. No questions asked. Do it, or he’s out.”

“Wow.” Alisha couldn’t help herself. “Sorry.”

“Sounds just like him. ..Thank you, Mr. Hedges. You too, Roberta. Now I’ve got work to do.”

Later that night, the office, the entire building was clear except for security in the lobby. It was an old structure, what passed for a high rise in the era when it was built, carefully and with style. His grandfather had moved in as a minor tenant, but grew the company until he eventually bought it when the original owner fell on hard times. It was shortly after John had been born. Since then, the entire interior had been refinished, not modernized, but refinished. Period architecture and furniture. State of the art in every other respect.

They had every one of the 12 floors, and yet his grandfather declined one of the executive suites on the top floor for a large, comfortable, but otherwise ordinary interior office two floors below.

“John,” Alisha said tentatively. It would take her a while to get used to this first names policy.

“Yes?” he responded, having walked around the desk to where his grandfather sat, looking at, but not yet touching the paper and unopened mail strewn about its surface.

“These last few months, whenever he borrowed me to work for him, he really was emphatic that no one should take over his office, that we should lock it up and leave it alone. For how long I asked him? Indefinitely, he told me, and he was serious. And no matter what, we were never to take out any of the furniture.” Worried that she’d overstepped, she thought she’d better add, “I just though you should know.”

“I hear you,” he said, looking up and around the office, out the windows along the wall to his right, at the open door to the office and small conference table across from where he was standing, and at the hardwood floors his grandfather chose not to cover.

“I want to make sure I can hear them coming,” his grandfather would joke, “even after I’m gone.”

There was a bookcase on the wall to his left – the one his grandfather had been working on when he died – and a red leather arm chair in that corner. “We’ll see. ..This guy, my grandfather,” John thought out loud, “led every major innovation this company has undertaken, right up until the end, but never remodeled this office. Never so much as changed or, I don’t think, rearrange the furniture in the more than 30 years since he bought this building. What kind of mind that creative never changes anything in his own office?”

Later that night, he sat, not in his grandfather’s chair.. He hadn’t done that yet. ..but in one of the two wooden guest chairs on the other side, the finish long ago worn off the arms and seats. He sat there for almost an hour, waiting for the image of his grandfather and the sound of his voice to fade, but it didn’t. It would have been different if his father were around, now and for the past almost 30 years since he walked, maybe ran from his family and the business that would have been his. He left not long after John was born, just after he tried to oust his own father. He’d come to work one night, late, the only one on the floor, broken in to his father’s office which was always kept locked, and never came home. “Never called. Never so much as a note,” John thought to himself.

The detectives they hired, the way people with money do, then and several times since, turned up nothing. He came in past the guards, the same guards that never saw him leave, but then who knows if they were paying attention. “Dad was a big tipper, when it mattered. Didn’t give a shit,” so John had been told, “when it didn’t, matter that is, which was most of the time.” Precisely when he left, no one’s sure. There were no cameras that long ago. All they knew was that he had time to trash the office that would have been his. “The old man,” John leaned back, watching images of his grandfather, feeling the fear colored respect that had characterized their relationship, “just wasn’t ready to call it day, even if it meant going up against his own son. And Dad, wherever you are, I guess it was your way, or the.. “ He was too bitter to finish, and didn’t like the trite sound of an expression that didn’t do the history justice.

Getting up, John stretched, tucked his shirt which wasn’t out, but wasn’t just right either, and then looked around, his eyes drawn to the orange plastic handle of the power screwdriver still resting on the bottom shelf of the bookcase against the wall. Walking over, he knelt down and picked it up. “What the hell, Amos?” his grandfather’s first name. “What were you doing? What couldn’t wait until the morning for someone in Maintenance to handle?”

Standing, he walked to the side and pressed his face against the wall. It was a large, wooden, standalone bookcase, pushed back as far against the paneled wall as it could be, flush up against the molding along the floor. That left maybe three quarters of an inch between the back of the case and wall behind it. “Nothing,” not that he could see anyway. But then he looked down. “What?” It didn’t make sense, but there was faint, barely noticeable light at the bottom, along the floor.

“Let’s find out.” There was no one there for him to talk to, but it was somehow comforting to hear the sound of his own voice. Getting down on his knees, John threw the switch on the screwdriver to the unscrew position, pulled the trigger once to make sure he had power, and got to work. The screws were the heavy duty kind, placed in pre-drilled holes, and they weren’t new. Wooden plugs stained to match the shelves had made them inconspicuous among the papers and notebooks that were around and over them, now strewn on the floor, still lying where his grandfather must have thrown them. “Wait a minute.” The power screwdriver was turning the wrong way, John just realized. “He wasn’t screwing them in. He was unscrewing them, maybe for the same reason I want to.”

One at a time, John took out the six remaining screws, his grandfather having taken two out himself before he died. Done with the unscrewing, John stood up, thinking he’d slide the bookcase along the hardwood floors, and see what was behind it. He growled, struggling to move it, but it didn’t budge. “Hm.” I was obvious. He’d have to take everything off the shelves. “Lighten the load.” He did and, a few minutes later, tried again, growling louder than before, but with the same result. “No more screws. ..Nothing. ..I know. It probably just hasn’t been moved in while. It’s probably just stuck.”

Picking up a couple of the plastic covered reports from the floor, he hurriedly took the covers off and walked with them to the end of the bookcase. Dropping one on the floor, he put he palms of both his hands against the side and pushed up this time, as hard as he could. And it worked. He couldn’t slide it forward, not yet, but what he did do is lift his end up just enough to slide one of the covers under the edge. Same deal on the other side. “Okay, Amos, watch this. ..Ehhh,” and this time it moved, slowly at first, and then faster until he’d pushed it well past where it had been standing toward the red chair in the corner.

And there it was. A door, with molding, hinges, the works – even light coming from under it. And a sign, “Ladies.”

John just stood there, maybe six feet in front of the door, looking at the light and then at the brass panel you’d push to open it. “This is an interior office,” he whispered slowly,” and then he moved. Running into the hallway, he stopped at the door to the adjacent space, a conference room, the double doors to which were always kept open when it wasn’t in use. It was empty, right to the windows, no interior walls other than the one that backed up to his grandfather’s office, and he didn’t bother to go in.

Outside, he marked the end of the conference room with the heel of his left foot and, heel-toe, paced his way back to office door, and then did the same thing inside to the wall. “Plus or minus a couple of inches,” he said to himself, “there’s nothing between here and conference room. But then I already knew that. ..I must be dreaming. Of course. I’m dreaming. It doesn’t feel like a dream. I must have fallen asleep at his desk. It’s late, and I must have been really tired, probably more upset than I’m willing to admit. ..It’s a really, really good dream, but a dream nevertheless. …So why don’t I feel better about this? ..Because it’s a scary dream. I probably won’t even remember it in the morning.”

“What the hell. It’s late and I could stand to go to the bathroom,” and he giggled because he knew there wasn’t anything on the other side. “Probably just something left over from when they did the remodeling. “Although,” he thought, “the light coming from under the door is… Well, that’s the great thing about dreams.” Walking up to the door, John put his left hand on the brass panel on the right and pushed the door inward, wide open until it stopped and stayed that way. The light and noise were unexpected, but didn’t stop him from walking inside, into what couldn’t be there. To his surprise, it appeared to be a lounge, not a rest room, but a bar, and a not at all sleazy or weird one, but the nice neighborhood kind he figured he’d open one day. “Figures.”

“Oh, hi!” A very attractive woman greeted him, foaming beer glasses in each hand, on her way to her table. “Stay right there..” She put the glassed down and came back to John who hadn’t moved and inch. “Hi.”

“You said that.”

“But then I didn’t say it right.” And she reached out, grabbed his shoulders and pulled him toward her, kissing him just barely first, and then not so barely after that, pressing her chest against his, their arms sliding around each other’s back. And when they were done, when she had let herself down to where her feet were flat on the floor, she looked up, wiped some saliva off the corner of her mouth and told him, “There. It’s been a while, but worth..”

“Do I know you?”

“It’s Kathy, John. We dated in high school. Well, you wanted to ask me out, but didn’t have the balls. ..No longer a problem, not from where I was standing,” she smiled at him, clearly pleased. “I’ll see you later.”

He’d have watched her walk away and did, just long enough to see her look back for second chance to check him out, if it weren’t for the sound of a familiar voice coming from behind the bar ahead of him, but it was noisy and crowded and he wasn’t sure, until he got there. “Roberta?!”

“Hey, John. Thanks for stopping by. We’ve got some important business to..”

“Heck of dream, isn’t it?”

“What makes you think you’re dreaming?”

“Yeah, right.”

“You know, John, there are dreams, and then there are dreams. This is one of the latter kind.”

“Roberta.. You don’t mind if I call you ‘Roberta,’ do you?”

“It’s my name. Why would I?”

“Roberta, is it my imagination or do I really know all these women?” There were no men in bar.

“No, it’s not your imagination. They’re all women you dated, wanted to date or dreamed about.”

“So that one, the blonde that just waived to me a second time, she doesn’t just look a lot like Scarlett Johansson?”

“Yes and no. What difference does it make if she’s real or a perfect replica. The point is, she’s yours for the taking, as are they all.”

“Alright! When I dream, I dream big.” He sighed and took a stool at the counter, his back turned to the bar while continued to survey the room.

“John.”

“What?”

“You know, we had a relationship with your grandfather.”

“We,” John turned around.

“Yeah, ‘We.’ Think about, John. What was your grandfather like? A visionary predictor of trends? A man blessed with genes impervious to everything that, despite a diet of mostly saturated fats, he never missed a day’s work in the more than 40 years I’ve known him.”

“Roberta, you’re barely forty yourself.”

“Okay, John. That’s nice, but you can cut the crap. I’m older, much older than I look.”

“Heyyy, John.” A gorgeous brunette leaned in and gave him a kiss on his cheek.”

“Jennifer?” John turned to Roberta who was pouring the new girl a beer, mouthing the name, “Jennifer Connelly?!” and then out loud, “Are you kidding? God, she looks even better in person.”

“Believe me, God had nothing to do with it.”

“How did you know.. ..Of course. Man,” he took a swallow of, you guessed it, his favorite beer, “this is like the best dream ever.”

“You think so?” Roberta smiled while she poured a glass of wine to go for one of John’s college dorm-mates, the one across the hall he fantasized about their entire freshman year.

“Hey, John.” She blew him an air kiss, reaching over and squeezing his arm. “Thanks, Roberta,” and then to John, “Talk to you later, babe.”

Jennifer was as polite and friendly as he’d imagined. “I know you’ve got stuff to talk to Roberta about, but would you mind if I sat here?”

“Of course not.” And she wrapped her arm around his, rubbing the top of his hand, taking a swallow of her beer with the other, putting it down, wiping the foam off her mouth in the middle of laugh that no man could resist. He couldn’t take his eyes off her lips.

“John. Let’s take care of business, and then you stay as long as you like, comeback whenever you want.”

“Sure.”

Jennifer lifted her herself off her stool, pulling it toward John’s until they hit, pulling her arm and laying on his shoulder where she could play with the back of his neck, smiling while she enjoyed being such a distraction.

“I over here, John. Across the bar.”

“You know, Roberta, this is my dream, I’ll..”

“Not really.” There was something about her voice that made him pay attention. “As I was saying, didn’t you ever question how your grandfather, despite zero knowledge of business and marketing, turned out to make the fortune he did?”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying, John, that your grandfather and I had an agreement and, to his credit, he delivered – although, to be honest, and I’m honest to a fault if only you pay attention to what I say, I think he may have been having second thoughts toward the end there. ..Anyway, he delivered.”

“Delivered what?”

“Well, you John. He delivered you.”

John was quiet. For the moment, Roberta was the only person in bar that counted. The sounds of laughter and voices, the beautiful faces that were his for the asking, even Jennifer, all faded for the moment – so that what happened next would be uninterrupted and perfectly clear.

“The deal, John, was that he would raise you in the business, prepare your naturally superior intellect for what we have in mind, and he did. Your father, when he discovered what your grandfather was up to, fought him for you. Fought hard, put everything he had on the table, but lost. Collateral damage,” she said, matter of fact. “..As it turns out, the lack of your father’s love and influence may have made you a better man, more able to accomplish our objectives.”

“And precisely what objectives are those?”

“You know, the usual. World peace. Wall Street. Dominance of the small home appliance marketplace. Whatever.”

“I don’t know, Roberta,” John tried to was philosophically, “they say ‘The Devil is in the details.’ Maybe we should discuss…”

“And now you know where that expression came from.”

“So what? I’ll play. It’s only a dream. You’ve got something you want to sign?”

“Nah. We’ll take your word for it.”

“And if I don’t agree to help you in, in unspecified ways?”

“Well, then, you’re on your own. Financing. Technology. Corporate intelligence. Marketing. It’s all on you. Maybe you’ll be okay. Maybe you’ll lose everything. Life, without us, is pretty much a crap shoot.”

“You know, I don’t believe in you, and I’m beat. I’m dreaming. Like nothing I’ve ever dreamed before, but dreaming.”

“Then you won’t have a problem agreeing to our terms.”

“My grandfather taught me to run anything important by counsel.”

“But wait,” Roberta responded with a snide confidence, “that’s me. ..John? ….John??”

“How convenient,” he mumbled, just a touch of drool starting to roll out the corner of his mouth onto the old fashioned leather blotter his grandfather used and he would be trashing as soon as possible – because John didn’t like the way it defined his workspace and because drool stains are impossible to get out.

“You okay” Roberta asked, not entirely sure he was up. “You smell like beer?”

“Do you see any beer? I haven’t left the office,” John snapped back, and then apologized. “Sorry. It’s nothing. I just passed out and, uh, I guess I had a bad dream.” He turned his head sharply to this left, closing his eyes and sighing with relief to see that the bookcase was back where it always had been.”

“Oh yeah, so how did it end?”

He thought for a moment. “I’m not sure.”

“So what’s ‘convenient’?” Roberta had come in early to get a head start on what was promising to be one hell of a day, and really didn’t care whether John had had a good night’s sleep or not. “No. Don’t tell me. I’ll tell you what’s NOT convenient. What’s not convenient is getting a call from our investment banker in the middle of the first good sex I’ve had in months to tell me he wants you and me, especially you, at his offices at 10 AM sharp to tell him and his board why, pursuant to the passing of your grandfather, they shouldn’t call off the second round of our refinancing which, if they do, he was kind enough to point out, could force us sell off one of our flagship product lines.”

“Okay, I get it.” John was sitting up now, rubbing his face with his hands. “For the record, they’ve been after our holdings in the vacuum cleaner business for sometime now. Amos’ death is just an excuse.”

“I know, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have to put on a convincing show.”

“Agreed. Make sure Wallace and Edie are there. I want it clear that my grandfather’s entire executive team is still in place.” John was picking up speed, and was standing now. “Alisha!”

“I’m right her.” She’d been standing just inside his office door the whole time.

“Hi. I’m taking a cab over to my place to shower and change. I want a car out front of my building at 9:30 sharp.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Just ‘Yes’ will do. ..Roberta, I’ll meet the three of you there, in their conference room, at ten of. Bring what you want, but I don’t want to give them numbers or charts, and I want to be done there in 30 minutes. We’ve got work to do. If they’re not interested, there are other people out there with money. …And we’re damn sure not selling anything.”

“John,” Alisha had noticed the mess on the floor in front of the bookcase just as John was walking around the desk, heading for the door. “Do you want me to clean this up and call maintenance to have someone finish screwing down the bookcase?”

John stopped for a second, looked at the bookcase and, in his head, at the wall behind it. “No. …No, I’ll take care of it later. Just lock the door behind me. Have the name and number of the best locksmith in the city and our ADT security rep waiting for me when I get back.”

“Got it.”

Roughly two hours later…

“Hey.” It was Mel, walking up to Alisha’s desk, carrying a small, but very nicely done vase of fresh flowers.

“Hey,” Alisha looked up from something she’d been writing. “For me?!” she said, hopefully.

“You wish. They’re for John, but his office is locked. I’ll put them on your table.”

“What does the note say?”

“I don’t know,” Mel whispered, not even pretending that it was none of their business. “Let’s see.” She opened the small envelope held up by the plastic stake. “Hey, John. It’s Kathy Reynolds. It was great seeing you last night. Really great. Give me a call. –Kate.”

“So who’s Kate?” Alisha was curious.

“How the hell do I know?”

A Chocks Family Company

-wf

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