The Angry Man

Beth Everett

Friday, May 27, 2016

   

It was a time of optimism. Everyone in San Francisco was playing with money. A new term emerged—the Dot.com. The bubble was filled with SUVs and expensive wine and extravagant parties and excessive dinners, and as it rose, it changed the landscape of the gritty little city, which had once thrived on newspapermen and beatniks and tiny cups of fresh crabmeat.

Grace Monroe parked in the lot four hours before the Early Bird Special began. The attendant gave her a smile but did not break their code of predawn silence. His uniform was pressed and his thick black mane was perfectly groomed, reminding Grace of the snap-on hair from one of her son Henry’s Lego figurines.

            Grace reached for a long black overcoat and wrapped herself in it carefully. She gathered her backpack and locked the dinged Sentra, patting the door of her reliable old friend out of habit. She casually glanced at the camera as she walked through the hall that connected the garage to the elevators and rode up to the lobby of the prestigious office where Sanford and Co. hung its name over the doors.

            A bulky middle-aged man perched behind the security counter, working on yesterday’s crossword puzzle. He glanced up at the young woman, admiring her gazelle-like legs, which protruded from her overcoat.

            “Good morning, Harold,” Grace called as she passed him and pressed another button for the tenth floor. “Happy Friday.”

            “Good morning, Grace. Right on time as usual,” he called back, lifting his eyes to her face out of respect. She was one of the few that entered the building at that hour, and they were long past security checks. Grace was careful not to glance at the camera this time, tapping her foot anxiously as she was pulled to her floor.

The elevator doors opened to the tenth floor waiting area, which was stark white aside from the large pixelated portrait of an angry face that dominated the adjacent wall. Though the work had been skillfully painted, the less-than-cheery colors and the man’s expression disturbed Grace. She often found the empty floors of the office building eerie until the sun came up.

            She used her card to swipe into the accounting department, turned on lights, and quickly walked by two empty cubicles where a pair of programmers whom she privately referred to Beavis and Butthead would sit after nine. Grace glanced into a glass office that had, “Luke Anderson, VP Accounting” printed on the door. Out the windows sat a city at rest.

            Grace’s desk sat across from Luke’s; she’d spent more time in that small cubicle than she had at home. She untied the belt on her overcoat and carefully laid it out. Three long Velcro straps were sewn into the interior back, revealing a cardboard tube attached to the coat. Grace checked the straps to make sure they hadn’t separated on her walk up. She’d used upholstery thread, and when she gave them a tug, they held on tightly.

            She sat down at her computer and typed quickly, producing a report that would land on the desk of the firm’s ten partners by 7:00 a.m. While the machine calculated the company’s profits and loss reports, she took the tube and backpack and went back out to the waiting area, where the angry man hung in solitude. She pulled thin rubber gloves from her pocket and stretched them onto her trembling hands. She took her shoes off and stood on one of two chairs and lifted the frame off of the French cleat from which it had been secured.

            Grace worked quickly, ripping the brown paper dust jacket from the back of the frame. She carefully loosened the thick artist’s paper from the matting, laying it to one side of the carpeted lobby floor. She shook her cardboard tube until the rolled edges of paper appeared and then carefully pulled out a poster, spreading it out to expose tiny colored pixels in the shape of a displeased man. She ignored the tremors of her hands and pulled out a compact travel iron from her backpack and plugged it into the socket behind the chair.

While she waited for the iron to heat up, she turned her attentions to the work of art lying next to her.  She leaned in closely, which exposed the primitive shapes, then pulled back to see the bigger image, admiring how they each fit together perfectly to portrait a man’s face.

The first time she’d seen the Chuck Close portrait was on orientation day, just over a year ago. A puffy little woman from Human Resources had whispered the news that Sanford & Co.’s art curator was suffering from cancer. Grace had been wondering for some time who was keeping track of the firm’s prestigious art collection. Last week Grace received an email that the woman had died.

            Time was precious, and Grace reminded herself to move. She began at one end of the original piece and carefully rolled it tightly, like she’d practiced so many times at home, and then slid the work into a cardboard tube.


            She glanced at her watch. 5:15 a.m. It wasn’t impossible for some dedicated insomniac to stroll through the doors before six. She covered the imposter with a towel and applied heat until it was flat. Then she used masking tape to secure the print back onto the matting.

Once she returned the frame to the the wall, Grace exhaled deeply. She chose to ignore a slight bow in the lower corner. The poster paper wasn’t nearly as thick as the original and was glossier than she’d have preferred. But the floor was full of corporate zombies more concerned with swiping their security card so they wouldn’t be recorded as late than stopping to admire a painting they’d seen for hundreds of days.

            While her morning reports were printing, Grace used her trembling fingers to tear up the craft paper dust jacket she’d removed from the frame. She distributed small pieces into pockets of her backpack. The the tube was fastened inside her coat, which she buttoned and tied and hung in the closet behind two coats that had long been forgotten by their owners. She could feel the heat of his indignity radiating in the small space.

            When the printer stopped, she bundled the P&L documents into ten neat packages and headed to the upper floors. She got into the elevator and stared across reception at the imposter poster on the wall as the doors closed, praying no one would notice its benign new nature.

            On the twentieth floor, a Chippendale secretary and a small but prestigious painting by Matisse greeted her like old friends. Grace attempted not to look at the canvas, but she couldn’t help a quick glace. It was worth more money than she’d ever dreamed of having. She wondered if anyone even noticed it was there.

She walked glass outer offices that were larger than her cottage and had views that could still make her gasp. Across the city, windows were beginning to light up as early risers brought their departments to life.

            On the interior side of the aisle sat a row of desks facing outward. It was where the high-healed tight-skirts screened phone calls from angry investors and even angrier wives. One such desk was empty, as its occupant had recently graduated to third wife after a small scandal. She’d been replaced by an uptight boob job who had given Grace a head-to-toe appraisal and decided she wasn’t important enough to matter.

She passed the small office of Matthew Taylor, who’d pursued her like a tiger stalking an antelope until he’d found out she had a child. It was Matthew who had told Grace about Chuck Close, the artist who’d painted the pulsing hot work that hung in the lowly lobby of the non-revenue generators. He’d explained how the determined artist had continued his work even after an event had left him paralyzed.

            “It’s worth at least a hundred and fifty,” he’d said, wondering out loud why it was hanging “down there.” The tenth floor was home to the operations supervisor whose wife shared the minivan when the trains were delayed, the self-taught programmer that sometimes slept at his desk, the accounting clerk whose husband couldn’t keep a job, and the disappointed finance manager from a state college.

            The upper floors were mostly recruits from Ivy League schools, the son of Joseph Sanford’s cardiologist, a partner’s nephew fresh out of Cornell, and the former professional ball player from the same fraternity as the CEO. The elites. Their birthrights were their tickets into the big tent, where annual bonuses were used to purchase second homes in ski towns.

            Grace had looked at the painting differently after that, examining each pixel, overwhelmed by the patience it had taken to connect them to a singular expression. There it hung, so undignified, like aging wallpaper, on a floor of non-revenue generators, who felt the same anger day after day.

            She’d been planning to “rescue” the work since the firm was purchased by a large retail bank two months ago. The “boutique” investment company was disappearing, thanks to the repeal of the Glass–Steagall Act. Sanford and Co. had brought some of the Internet’s giants to the public market. Money flowed down on the investment bank like Oregon rain, but not all employees were dampened by the shower. The partners had all made tens of millions of dollars each on the merger. To celebrate, Grace and the others on her floor were given a Tiffany paperweights inscribed with the new employer’s name.

            She swiped her card to enter the trading floor, which would not sit quiet for long. A light was on in the far corner, where a cluster of desks sat waiting for the sales team. Sandra Matthews held a phone to one ear and scribbled notes feverishly with her free hand. Grace waved as she passed, feeling a kindred spirit with the early riser and a slight pang of jealousy for the position Sandra had landed.

            Luke Anderson was sitting in his office when she returned from delivering her reports. It was unusual for him to be in so early. He was on the phone but waved her in. He motioned for her to sit down, and she waited with trembling hands on her knees while he assured the person on the line that he would take care of the problem.

Grace wondered if she’d missed a camera. Luke was watching her while, on the other end of the line, someone spoke rapidly. She wiped her palms on her skirt and sat up a little straighter, taking a deep breath.

            Luke Anderson could have been attractive, but his neck was too thick and his shoulders too large for his small head. His blue eyes were smothered in thick dark lashes, and he had a perfect nose that was too small for his face. His tie appeared to be keeping his collar from busting open.

             She thought again of her tiny boy, curled up in her bed. Grace’s mother never failed to tell her it was a mistake to let him sleep with her, but at night, while they fell asleep, he would put his little hands on her face and tell her he loved her, and everything was perfect.

Grace hired a college girl named Amber to sleep on her sofa during the weeknights. She treated the boy like puppy, running with him to preschool and smothering him in treats. Grace worried that he wouldn’t eat his breakfast or that Amber would forget to make him brush his teeth. She worried about cars hitting him and not having enough money to pay the rent on their cottage.

Who would pick him up from daycare if she were arrested?

Luke Anderson hung up the phone, opened a drawer, and pulled out an envelope. He tossed it across the desk toward his employee. “It’s a bonus. Five thousand dollars. For helping with the merger,” he explained in monotone. “Everyone is getting one, but you are not to discuss the amount,” he warned. “I fought hard for you.”

 “Thank you,” she said. She would pay off the two thousand dollars in dental bills, her car insurance. She’d get new tires and see why the check engine light was on in the Sentra, and then she would hope something was left over for her dwindling savings account.

            “You okay?” he asked.

            “Yeah, why?”

            “I just handed you five thousand dollars, and you look like your cat just died.”

            “I’m tired. I didn’t sleep much last night,” she said, which was true.

            “Go get some breakfast,” he suggested.

            “Yeah, I think I will.”

            He was on the phone again before Grace sat at her desk. She would go straight to the bank to deposit the bonus. She’d been worried about the check she’d written to daycare bouncing, and this would fix it. She took a deep breath and looked at the backpack, which sat full of incriminating evidence, and remembered that there was still work to do.

            She heard Luke say, “Yeah, well, it keeps them off the streets,” to whomever he was speaking to, and her fist tightened. She’d heard it before, when he’d thrown a bag of leftover chips from his lunch at her as if she were a hungry servant.

            Charlie Walker stepped out of the elevator.

“Grace,” he said, lengthening her name like a moan and running his eyes up and down her body. It was the same as a catcall on the street. His round face was pockmarked. His large frame was wrapped in yellow and black nylon cycling clothes. Sweat poured from under his helmet, which was still strapped to his balding head.

            She could hear him laugh like Beavis as the lift went down: “huh huh huh.” She hated his Burger King belches and the unsolicited advice that he gave her every time she needed him to do something. He never stopped hitting on her, even when she was cruel, which she’d mastered in the past year.

            He’d been hired six months after Grace. She had applied for his position but had been turned down because, “she had a kid and wouldn’t have the resources for overtime,” according to Luke. She would have been making ten thousand dollars more a year—enough for her to save a little money each month and would have been able to wake up with Henry each day.

            She left the building as more people entered. Her plan was to throw the entire backpack away, but she’d seen too many people she knew, and she was afraid they would ask her where it had gone. Instead, she ducked into Starbucks, where she rid herself of the travel iron, gloves, and scraps of dust cover and entombed them in layer of wrinkled paper towels.

            When Grace returned, Charlie Walker was tossing his gym bag into the coat closet after having changed into a cheap short-sleeved dress shirt and slacks just as Grace came back. An aura of deep disgust circled her when she thought about his sweaty bike clothes sharing a space with the painting, and she turned away to avoid conversation.

            Grace was sure that day was the longest in her life. Longer than the two days she’d once spent homeless. Longer than the lonely day she’d driven herself to the hospital to give birth to Henry. Even longer than the day—before she’d been turned down for the promotion—when she had arrived to work at 4:30 a.m. and helped Luke Anderson meet an end-of-the-year deadline until 8:00 p.m., while Henry lay sick in bed with strep throat and a high fever.

            At noon, when Luke disappeared for a two-hour lunch, Grace made calls to the trading floor to get their numbers. She chatted casually with Tom the Trader, who had a wife and kids but wanted very much to get to know Grace better. She let him believe he had a chance, because she needed his kindness on some days. They’d gone out for drinks once. He’d sat too close and tried to kiss her when they’d said goodbye. It was hard to get the traders to answer her calls. Tom’s affections made it easier for her to get what she wanted.

            The traders were a rowdy and sometimes impatient group, but most of the time Grace could handle it, although there was one bond trader that was downright villainous. Her stomach hurt every time she had to call him. Once, he’d called her uppity for demanding his numbers. When she complained to Luke, he told her to be more diplomatic.

            “Did you hear the news?” Tom told her now. “Sandra Matthews got fired today.”

            “What? I just saw her this morning. What did she do?”

            “I’ll bet you saw her. She was coming in before all of the other sales traders and grabbing the messages from the lead box and deleting them,” he said. “Can you believe it? She was stealing. Then she threatened to file a sexual harassment suit because she’s been sleeping with the old man.”

‘The old man’ would be Morgan Nichols, the head of the sales trading team. He was tall and silver-haired with a voice like Alan Alda. He was too old to be Sandra’s father.

            “Eww,” Grace said.

            Grace thought back to seeing her on so many mornings, two thieves chatting before dawn, in the casino in the sky, where traders and bankers made enormous fees and commissions from the ideas of men fortunate enough to get an audience. Fund managers bet on these notions (good or bad), and if the stocks failed, only the teacher’s and sheet metal worker’s retirement funds felt the loss. The banker, he made his fees no matter what. And they were all he’s—there were no female investment bankers at Sanford & Co. The women were home giving birth to Lily Pulitzer-clad babies and making sure they looked good in evening gowns. And they didn’t complain when he didn’t come home, because he’d bought them that house in Nantucket, where she could spend the summer without him while he made love to his assistant in the back of his jaguar after one too many martinis.

After she hung up the phone, her thoughts were about leaving the painting in the closet. It wouldn’t be found for years, until some office do-gooder decided to donate the coats to charity.

Grace was angry as she packed her things up that afternoon. She was mad at Sandra for bringing women back another notch in the business world. She’d had the opportunity to work a bit harder, to show the world that they could handle the pressure. But instead she’d used her sexuality, which turned her into a soap opera villainess whom everyone talked about.

She wasn’t stealing. The painting didn’t even belong to anyone anymore, she told herself for the third time that day.

The pressure. Grace was sure that she would die of a heart attack, like a middle-aged man. The child, the rent, the car, the dog, the daycare expenses. Sometimes when she looked in the mirror she could see the lines already forming around her eyes, the bags darkening beneath them, life being drained by the squeeze to keep up.


She took her coat from the closet and carefully hung it on her thin frame, and walked out of the office and into a crowded elevator, which seemed to move in slow motion, stopping at every floor while the painting burned from her backside. Once in the garage, she waited patiently in line to pay her ticket. The coat was placed carefully in the trunk of the Sentra, where the heat from the man warmed her on the long drive home.

She thought of her weekend. Henry would go to a birthday party on Saturday. On Sunday they would have dinner at her parent’s house. Monday she would return wearing the same coat with a small copy of the Matisse strapped safely inside.