Amber wore a lemon-yellow pantsuit her first day at University Student Services. On her way to Mr. Leeds's office, she smiled nervously at the packs of high-heeled women standing around desks and coffee makers and in the doorways of offices and cubicles, and they smiled back at her without revealing their teeth. Their whispering stopped when she approached and then began again as she passed, a sound like the wind through the trees that lined the streets on campus.
It took Mr. Leeds two hours to introduce her to everyone. Each time they approached a new "team," he had to find out how everyone's weekend had gone and then describe the barbeque he had attended on Saturday.
"Have you had a bratwurst yet this summer?" Mr. Leeds said to each team, although they had likely heard him say it to the previous team on the other side of the cubicle wall. "Well, I suggest you do!" He laughed merrily, and everyone laughed along with him, like the laugh track on a sitcom.
Amber was exhausted by the time he led her to a room across the hall from his office. Inside, a woman sat with her back to the door.
"You'll share your space with Peg, my other assistant," Mr. Leeds said.
Peg swung around in her chair. Her feet dangled several inches above the carpet, and under a nest of wiry gray-brown hair her forehead slumped onto the bridge of her bulbous nose. Small eyes peered out from the caves formed by her brows and fleshy cheeks. She smiled, and her full, purplish lips pulled back to reveal small gapped teeth. She was wearing a red and purple plaid polyester blazer.
"Nice to meet you, Amber," she said in a throaty voice and held out a hand the size of a baseball glove, and as Amber's slender fingers disappeared in her grasp, Amber wondered if Peg was technically a large dwarf or just an extremely short person with large hands and stubby limbs.
Mr. Leeds pulled a chair up to Amber's desk and began to explain her daily duties. Amber sat next to him and nodded and stifled yawns as he expounded on long-distance fax codes and Windows, how he couldn't believe he had forgotten to tell everyone that at the barbeque his dog had jumped into the pool, the password for this, the code for that, Excel something-or-other, blah, blah, blah.
When he finally left Amber alone, it was lunchtime. She eased back in her ergonomic chair and smoothed the lap of her yellow pants. The door to the office was open, and beyond it, she could hear a woman's voice whispering, but no matter how hard she concentrated, she couldn't catch a word of it. She squinted at the dark computer screen. She didn't even remember how Leeds had said to turn it on.
"Hi, Amber! How's it going so far?"
Amber swiveled toward the door and saw a perky, dark-haired woman leaning in the doorway. She couldn't remember the woman's name or what team she was on.
"Mr. Leeds just left," Amber said, "so I haven't really—"
"It'll be a breeze." The woman lifted her chin and shook her head as if to shake back her hair, only her chin-length bob didn't move at all. "Say," the woman said, "I don't know if anyone mentioned this, but the last person in this position was a real piece of work. She could not tell her head from her hinder, if you know what I mean, and because she was so, well, how should I say it, incompetent, Leeds pawned off some of her work on me—just the mailing list for alumni surveys, no big deal—so I was thinking since you seem like a capable gal, I'd just bring that over, show you the database, and you could take that over again, since it is in your job description."
"Well," Amber said, "if it's in my job description."
"Great!" the perky woman said. As she turned to leave, she nearly ran into Peg, who was returning from the bathroom.
"What evil mission are you on, Jean?" Peg growled. "Trying to dump your work on unsuspecting newbies again?"
Jean fake-laughed. "Oh, Peg, you're such a card," she said and walked away.
Peg raised a shaggy eyebrow at Amber. "I hope you said no. These bitches'll get you coming and going unless you learn to say no."
Amber chewed her upper lip. What had she been thinking taking this job and then charging five hundred dollars' worth of clothes on her Visa? When Mr. Leeds had called to offer her the position, she'd felt only a slight twinge of guilt accepting it. Sure she'd doctored her résumé a little, but she was sick of waiting tables at Lance's Kitchen, kissing up to the cranky regulars to try to make up in tips for the crappy wage. And the cute cook, Barry, had dumped her for the new hostess, making every day a new adventure in humiliation. Mr. Leeds obviously hadn't checked all her references, since the second and third ones were completely made up. The office job paid double what she made as a waitress, plus benefits, and, really, how difficult could office work be?
Now she stared at the stacks of tapes for transcription, data to be entered, and papers to be prioritized, copied, sorted, and filed. She wished she hadn't said she could type fifty words a minute when it was really more like twenty-five—while looking at the keys. A feeling of panic rose into her chest like heartburn. She hunched over her desk and began to weep quietly, and when a stream of snot began running from her nose, she used the heel of one hand to stem it.
Peg rose and closed the office door. "There, there," she said. She offered Amber some Kleenex and then patted her on the shoulder with one huge hand. "We'll get it done."
Amber's tears ceased abruptly. "We will?" she asked. "But how?"
"I'll help you," Peg said. "But first, why don't you run down and see if there are any of those nice pastries left in the cafeteria?"
Amber raced downstairs and returned with two apricot Danish, which Peg gobbled down, scattering crumbs all over her chest and stomach. She burped softly and with her plump pinkie wiped blobs of icing from the corners of her mouth. She unfastened the gold plastic buttons on her blazer.
"Bring me that stack of tapes," she said, pointing. "You can answer the phones while I type."
"East Central Illinois University Undergraduate Student Services Center Office," Amber said into the phone all day with a forced enthusiasm that made her head ache. "This is Amber speaking. How may I help you?"
She had some trouble transferring people properly, and once, a man interrupted her by saying, "Yeah, yeah, I heard it before, babe. Gimme Dean White." But Amber chewed her lip and forged on, spurred by the sound of Peg's furious typing. By four-thirty, her throat ached, but her desk was clear. What truly amazed her was that Peg's own desk was also empty of work.
At four-thirty, Mr. Leeds checked in on Amber.
"My God," he said, leafing through a file folder stuffed with what was supposedly Amber's transcription. "It's unbelievable!"
The next day, Amber wore a spring-green skirt-and-vest ensemble that accented the red highlights in her dark blonde hair. After stopping to chat with Jean in Records, she entered her office only to find her desk piled even higher than the previous day. Mr. Leeds stuck his head in.
"I hope you don't mind, Amber," he said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "Dr. Boone's secretary is gone today, and he needs those orientation materials copied, those tapes transcribed, and that booklet proofread, copied, and bound. The spiral binder is out here near the mailboxes."
Amber nodded vaguely.
"That's a girl!" Mr. Leeds gave her a thumbs-up.
Once he was gone, Amber closed the door and burst into tears. Hadn't she loved the greasy-grill smell of Lance's Kitchen? Hadn't she been secretly flattered just a little bit when the perverted bartender's arm "accidentally" brushed against her breasts? She felt pricks of grateful love in her heart just thinking about the overweight local businessmen who had come in every Monday and Wednesday for lunch, slaves to her fake smile.
Amber's crying intensified when the door opened and Peg appeared wearing orange polyester pants and a puffy-sleeved floral smock. Peg stroked Amber's naturally wavy hair with one of her big mitts, and Amber found herself wondering if dwarfism ran in Peg's family. Was dwarfism even a word?
"Don't cry, Amber," Peg crooned. "Peg's here. Peg's your friend."
"There's no way I could get this all done today," Amber said in a small voice, "even if I was a good secretary like you."
"You poor kid." Peg smashed Amber's head to her chest. "Shhh," she whispered close to Amber's ear. Her breath smelled like Band-Aids. "I'll help you."
"I don't know how to thank you, Peg."
Wasn't it just an expression? Something a person said when she was feeling grateful? Amber hadn't really meant that she was looking for a way to thank Peg, but when she said it, Peg stepped back and eyed her in a wistful way.
"Well, there is one thing," she said.
Amber's stomach clenched a little.
"You could call me later, after supper, to keep me company. And maybe we could go out to eat together sometime after work. I get so lonely at night, what with the kids gone and all. My neighbors are useless. The lady on the one side is so old, it takes her all day to get out of bed and most of the night to get back in, and the couple on the other side doesn't get home until nine-thirty at night, and my friend Elizabeth used to live across the—"
"All right!" Amber agreed brightly, although she was beginning to think just being stuck in the office with Peg was a pretty fair trade, what with her answering the phones and beautifying the place and all.
That evening Amber stalled as long as she could. She ate her Lean Cuisine pasta primavera so slowly it was cold before she finished. She watched an old rerun of Friends and then read Glamour while soaking in the tub. Finally, she picked up the phone to call Peg, although her throat was still sore from work. It hardly mattered, she soon discovered, since Peg yakked nonstop. She apparently had been dying to tell Amber about how her marriage had fallen apart and how her grown kids never called.
Peg talked with her lips pressed against the mouthpiece of the phone, making her frequent sighs so loud that Amber was forced to yank the receiver away from her ear. "But I don't really miss him," Peg said. "Except for the sex."
Amber gagged silently.
The next morning, Dean Boone's petite blond secretary, Debbie, stopped by Amber's desk to thank her for covering the day before.
"No problem," Amber said weakly.
"Do you want to have lunch with me and some of the other girls today?" Debbie asked.
"Sure!" Amber said.
"Anything to escape the troll's clutches, right?" Debbie leaned across Amber's desk in a way that made her blouse part so that Amber could see her breasts overflowing her tiny black bra.
"Good morning, Amber," Peg said from the doorway. "Debbie. You're looking like a streetwalker this morning, as usual. I think I hear Dean Boone clamoring for his morning blow job."
Debbie's mouth opened wide, but no sound came out, and she huffed silently out of the office. The whispering just beyond the doorway seemed to rise in Debbie's wake and then die down again as Peg took off her windbreaker and hung it on the coat tree. She settled into her chair and grinned at Amber over the mounds of work that had appeared on their desks overnight.
"Ready?" she said, and Amber couldn't help but smile back at her.
"Ready," she said.
Weeks passed, and soon Amber had finished her three-month probation and was awarded a raise. She got a letter of special recognition from Dean Boone for a grant proposal she had supposedly written for his office. And two evenings a week, she dialed Peg's number and mumbled "Uh huh," and "Really," at what seemed appropriate times, reading magazines or watching television as Peg rambled on.
One Tuesday morning shortly after Amber's six month anniversary at Student Services, Mr. Leeds asked her to come into his office and close the door. He had been very friendly toward Amber since she'd started working for him, and they'd lunched together several times, but she'd kept a certain distance, lest he discover her true incompetence. Not to mention that his head was too big for his thin body and that from the back he looked like a skinny old man in his baggy dress pants.
In all honesty, she had her eye on the tall brown-eyed Dean Boone, Debbie's boss. She just hadn't been able to get away from her office enough to even flirt with him yet.
"Most of us have done him already," Debbie had said when Amber mentioned him over lunch, "and I'm sure his wife appreciates not getting poked in the back every night."
The other girls tittered.
"Amber," Byron Leeds said to her that morning. "It's been a pleasure getting to know you. Maybe I flatter myself to think that the special appreciation I feel for you is mutual, but I'm going to go out on a limb here. Would you like to have dinner with me?"
"I would enjoy that, Byron, very much," Amber said softly, hoping her shy sincerity seemed genuine.
Mr. Leeds clapped his hands like a boy at his own birthday party. Then he sobered. "As I'm sure you know," he said, "part five, section C of the employee handbook states that it is against policy for a supervisor to fraternize with his employees."
Amber nodded as though she knew what the word fraternize meant while Byron fingered his thin lower lip. He leaned toward her conspiratorially. "What I'd like to propose is a little risqué," he continued. "I have a friend in the engineering department who has informed me that they need a new receptionist. If you transfer, the pay scale will be the same."
Transfer? Receptionist? Amber knew how to greet people. She knew how to answer a telephone. And Peg had even showed her how to turn on a computer.
"I am worried about one thing," Byron said. "They don't have half the work in a week in Engineering that we get here every day. I'm afraid you might be terribly bored."
"Hmm." Amber pretended to weigh her options. She might even sleep with Byron for this. "I guess we all have to make sacrifices," she said, "when we want something badly enough." It was a line she might have gleaned from an old episode of Little House on the Prairie, and it seemed to please Byron, who got busy filling out the paperwork for her transfer. In less than two weeks, she would begin her new job.
She left Byron's office and met the girls in the back corner of the cafeteria, where they were plotting to find out what size pants the Social Activities intern really wore. Gail from Social Activities, who had straight black hair and a permanent suntan like Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra, imitated the intern in a Minnie Mouse voice. "I love Banana Republic," she said, "because I can wear a six there when I wear an eight everywhere else."
"If she wears an eight," Debbie said grimly, "I'll fuck my husband twice tonight."
"Tell you what," Jean said, "next time she goes to the bathroom, I'll burst into her stall and see what I can see."
"You might need help," Gail said. "I'll buzz you and Debbie on the intercom when she heads for the bathroom, then meet you there." She tossed her black hair over her shoulder and eyed Amber. "You in?"
Amber smiled uncertainly. Sure, she and the other waitresses at Lance's had spit in the drinks and food of certain customers who had treated them badly, and sure, they complained behind each other's backs and even conspired sometimes to get someone fired, but Amber had never seen anything like what went on in Student Services. The good secretaries sabotaged the better ones, the admissions staff told financial-aid jokes, career services undermined undergraduate advising, and Byron Leeds and the deans floated above it all, oblivious of the jockeying in the lower ranks. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the students, who were universally hated. The Social Activities intern was a student in the department of recreation and physical education. Amber reconsidered sharing the news of her transfer with the girls. If they thought Byron had done her a special favor, they might rip her to pieces.
"Well?" Debbie said. They were all staring at her.
"Sure," Amber said, "I'm in."
By the time Amber got back to her office, she was bursting from holding her good news in for so long. She should have known better than to tell Peg about it, though. The short woman was furious.
"What am I supposed to do, Peg," Amber finally asked, desperate to quell Peg's throaty ranting about loyalty and friendship, "give up a job I might really be able to do just so you won't be lonely?"
"I won't give up the job, Peg," Amber said.
"Then I'll have to tell them the truth about you!" Peg's voice became uncharacteristically high and thin. "I'll even tell Byron you pick your nose and wipe it under the desk."
Amber's blood sank and pooled suddenly in her feet, making her light-headed. She put her head between her knees. She'd thought Peg was too busy to notice the nasty habit that had carried over from childhood.
"Just because I'll be over in Engineering doesn't mean we won't still be friends," Amber said, her voice muffled by her lavender linen skirt. "I'll still call you."
But Peg ignored her. Amber had to copy a whole packet of orientation materials by herself that afternoon, and the Xerox machine kept jamming. Peg didn't even turn around when Amber invited her along to the bathroom when Gail called. As Amber, Debbie, and Gail stood at the sinks pretending to wash their hands, the intern ran from the bathroom sobbing and clutching her unfastened khakis while Jean screamed after her, "Size twelve! I knew it! You wear a twelve!"
Peg continued to give Amber the silent treatment and play solitaire on her computer for the rest of the day. Amber thought hard but unsuccessfully about how to keep Peg working on her behalf until she left for Engineering, how to keep her from blabbing to Byron—although Byron might not even believe a word of it.
"To put it bluntly," he'd told Amber when they were chatting one day in his office after lunch, "I find Peg an extremely unattractive person. In a word, Peg has a bad attitude."
"Has she done something wrong?" Amber had asked, digging for something Peg might have neglected to tell her, a detail that might come in handy should she ever need some leverage.
Byron picked up a pen from his blotter and tapped his chin with it, an annoying habit that, when he had the pen point up as he did now, resulted in a sparse black beard of staccato ink marks on his clean-shaven skin.
"Curiously," he said, "I can't think of anything specific she's done wrong. No one's ever complained directly about her, and I've never caught her in a lie exactly, but she goes through another office mate about every six months. I get the feeling she's always up to something, but I never can figure out what it is."
"But she does good work, right?" Amber prodded. Strangely, the more Byron insulted Peg, the more defensive Amber felt. After all, wasn't Peg's work Amber's work? "I mean, she's so organized, and her transcription's great, and she knows all the computer programs backward and—"
"I've never had any major complaints about her work."
"Is it as good as mine?"
"Doesn't come close." Byron smiled at her across his desk. He looked hungry, although they'd just returned from the cafeteria—in fact, he had a piece of dark green lettuce stuck between his two front teeth.