Congratulations to Nita Walker Frazier for her outstanding entry’s First Place finish in the Summer of Fiction competition.
Harold Rollins’ Proper Wife
by Nita Walker Frazier
I know how I look to these frilly secretaries with their designer clothes and fat hair. I look what I am, an outgrown mother. A fat, outgrown mother bulging at the seams of her one good suit.
I smooth my hand over the taut surface of the skirt. When did my thighs get so round they pulled this skirt tight? Or had the skirt always been tight? I hate the brown serge skirt with its matching box jacket. I look like a cow in it, a fat, brown cow.
“Wear it,” Harold said that evening when he’d presented me the suit. We were due at the Anderson’s in less than an hour, but Harold insisted I put away my blue dinner dress and wear the brown serge suit.
“There,” he said, adjusting the fluffy tie of the polka-dot-sprinkled brown and white blouse he’d bought to round off the suit. “Now you look like a proper wife for Harold Rollins!”
I remember beaming. I always beamed when Harold tossed me one of his left-hand compliments. Those were the only kind he gave. There was never a “you look nice, dear,” or “You’re stunning Estelle.” It was always, “You look like a proper wife for Harold Rollins.”
Harold, always conscious of the sixteen year gap in our ages, was so anxious that both of us make proper appearances.
I suppose I look proper now in the brown serge with its matching blouse, sand colored hose, and brown pumps.
I twist my ankle, angling my toes upward. The leather of the left shoe is beginning to pull away from the sole. The binding whipped around the toe cutouts on both shoes is frayed. These are clearly not the best shoes I own, but they match the suit. Even Harold agreed, when the shoes were new, that they matched the suit.
I jiggle my foot in time to a melody only I hear. I love job interviews. They’re fun. So is making people think I am something I’m not. It’s the waiting I hate, waiting to impress someone who may or may not give me a job.
If I could make a living doing job interviews, I would. Interviews are a game. All you have to do is convince someone that you have already done the job he is offering and that doing his will be a cinch.
Interviews are not, as Harold would have me believe, life or death matters. “It’s just a job,” I told him when he fussed that I’d forget my lines. “A simple, little typing job.”
He smiled then. “Of course, it is, Estelle. A simple, little job to tide us over. When I get everything smoothed away, you can comeback home where you belong.”
I count on my fingers all the simple little jobs I’ve had in my thirty-five years with Harold. I run out of fingers and list them in my head. There are too many, too easy to lose track of them. I suppose there had been about fifteen of those simple, little jobs. Most of them lasted barely a year. Some held for two years, the last one almost three years.
I’d liked the last job, proofing type and running copy for the daily newspaper. Harold had hated it. “What do I tell Mr. Anderson,” he’d fumed, “when he asks me about your work? I can’t tell him you’re a copy boy.”
“Why not? That’s what I do.”
“It isn’t respectable, Estelle, for a woman your age and station to be hobnobbing with hairy newspapermen. You should be the executive secretary to the publisher, not some…some copy boy.”
“I never stayed in one place long enough to be executive secretary,” I reminded him.
“Yes, dear,” Harold said, patting my hand. “you’ve never had to. I’ve seen to that. I’ve always come through with a new client, more money, and brought you home.”
I examine my fingernails, all scrupulously whitened and rounded off. I like the new square nails, French white, that everyone seems to be wearing, yet when I filed my nails this morning, I rounded them into the trim caps Harold always insisted on.
Square white nails don’t go with brown serge suits.
I don’t remember my hands being so plump when I worked at the newspaper. Perhaps they hadn’t been. Perhaps, like my thighs, my hands and the rest of me got fat in the past two years sitting at home.
I glance at my watch. The hour hand is just hitting three. I’d arrived early; probably too early by the standards of this office. The older of the secretaries smiles. She doesn’t seem to be as frilly as I first thought. She has a glow about her, a confidence that she is secure in her job.
The younger one does not. She seems too nervous, too anxious to please, although there is no one in the lobby to please other than her companion secretary and myself. She’s either new or on the way out, I think. I’d been in enough jobs to recognize the signs.
I watch the girl reach for the ringing phone, watch the prim set of her mouth as she answers. The silver bangles on her arm clink against the desk as she punches buttons on the console. Catching my gaze, she frowns. Then dismissing me, she returns to the keyboard, narrowing her eyes at the terminal.
On the way out, I decide.
Is this the job I want this time? Answering phones and typing form letters? Another simple, little job?
Another simple little job with its simple little paycheck cannot bridge the gap between Jimmy’s grant and his tuition bills. It can’t make up for the credit life insurance Harold failed to take out on our home. It can’t pay off the funeral bills.
Mustn’t think about it, I tell myself. Watch the girl. Study her. Make her job yours.
Jimmy’s grant money and tuition bills I understand, for that was the reason I’d gone to work at the newspaper, to help him out; help him get a footing in his new, adult role. Jimmy’s a bright boy, majoring in electrical engineering. But all the scholarships and grant money in the world can’t keep up with tuition costs.
That first year at the newspaper I worked for Jimmy’s dormitory expenses, then lab equipment, then books. Jimmy worked too, part-time, and paid for most of the extra expenses. I stayed at the newspaper because I liked the job. Harold forgot to tell me to quit. So, I stayed. I kept on proofing type. I liked that, working with the reporters, correcting their grammar mistakes, little things really: a misplaced comma here or a run-on sentence there. I liked knowing the news before it hit the streets. My job wasn’t one of the power-house career woman jobs, but those correctly placed commas and periods made a difference in how people read the world.
I stayed on. Then Harold’s heart slowed down. The first attack was minor. “Nothing but angina,” Harold told me. “Nothing for you to worry your little head about.”
“Will the insurance pay for this? The medicine? The hospital?”
“Certainly,” Harold said, waving me aside. “Anderson and Delany takes care of its people.” Then he disappeared into the spare bedroom he’d converted to an office ten years earlier.
The second attack forced Harold to half days at Anderson and Delany. He worked mornings and spent the afternoons waiting for me to come home.
“You didn’t leave any oranges out,” he would say the minute I stepped through the door.
“They’re in the refrigerator,” I answered.
“You always leave them on the table so I won’t have to strain,” he whined.
“I’ll leave them out tomorrow.”
Tomorrow would be a different complaint. “I can’t find my black socks. So I wore my slippers all afternoon. Just my slippers, no socks.”
“In the dryer,” I remember saying. In my memory, the words came from a tense mouth.
“You don’t expect me to go out to the garage and rumble through the dryer for socks, do you?” Harold said. “Really, this working full time is too much for you. You should be home with me.”
“The medical expenses . . . “I started.
A month or so later the newspaper computerized the editorial department and retired the ancient typesetting machines along with one or two of the typesetters. The editor promised to find something for me, possibly shuffle me to layout. He even offered a recommendation at Texas Publishing, thinking I could get on as a proofreader or copy editor. Harold would have none of it.
“Now is a good time to quit,” he said. “I need you at home, taking care of me.”
So, once again, I quit working. I stayed at home, wearing the brown suits and matching brown shoes, driving Harold to Anderson and Delany’s, driving Harold to the doctor, setting out oranges and laying fresh socks on the bed.
“I do appreciate this,” Harold crowed, cutting into a fresh orange. “You are certainly a proper wife for Harold Rollins!”
Jimmy quit that year, too. He dropped out of college to work full time to help with expenses. Jimmy drove that last trip to the hospital. I sat in the back seat, holding Harold’s clammy hand.
Harold leaned against my shoulder. His breathing was shallow, his face ashen. “You’re a good wife,” he whispered.
“A proper wife for Harold Rollins?” I asked. I remember begging him to smile, to say that I had certainly tried to be a proper wife. I think, too, that I begged him not to die, but I don’t clearly remember that.
I feel the frown stealing across my face so I examine my fingernails once again. The nails, unpainted, with artificially whitened caps are worthy of a proper secretary. I curl my fingers into tight fists and check my watch again. 3:05.
I’d hoped Jimmy would go back to college after a time. The mortgage would be paid off in a three years. In the meantime, I would take a simple little job to help him out.
That was before Ron Parten at the bank oh-so-politely told me, “Mr. Rollins didn’t have credit life insurance on the mortgage. You’ll have to continue making the full payments if you want to keep the house.”
Forty years Harold had worked at Anderson and Delany, CPA. He had a private office with a fancy nametag on the door and a matching nameplate on the desk. He had a cabinet full of clients and shared a secretary with one of the other accountants. He’d made it sound like he had a partnership, talking of “Mr. This and Mr. That” and the mess their finances were in.
Harold never had a partnership.
He thought I didn’t know, but I’ve seen the office letterhead too often not to know:
Anderson and Delany, PCCPA
Lloyd Anderson and Gavin Delany,
Certified Public Accountants, Senior Partners
Under that, staff accountants followed by seven names in alphabetical order. Harold’s name was next to last.
He thought I didn’t know.
I did know. I knew the same way I knew the blue dress was better for the Anderson’s dinner party than this brown suit. Instinct, I suppose. A woman knows.
I wonder if Harold’s name is still on the Anderson and Delany letterhead? He worked for that firm forty years. He should have some kind of honorarium for all those hours he put in.
I suppose I could invent some kind of excuse to see their letterhead. I could ask Lloyd Anderson. I won’t, though. I know I won’t. Seeing the letterhead without Harold’s name would be a betrayal of sorts. I can pretend that Harold’s name is still on the letterhead the same way I’d listened to Harold’s shop talk and pretended he was an Anderson and Delany partner.
The younger secretary grabs the ringing phone. I watch as her face changes from a tense scowl to a forced, fake smile.
No, I wouldn’t like her job: all the time smiling into a phone and typing letters to people I’d never see.
I glance at my watch again. I could leave–leave right now before the interview. Then I wouldn’t have to take this simple little job. I could find something I like, maybe even go back to the newspaper.
For once, Harold wouldn’t object.
I tap my right foot, up and down, then grind the heel into the carpet. Maybe the person I’m to see will take one look at my too-tight brown suit and frayed brown shoes and decide he doesn’t want me working in his office.
I should have worn the good shoes, the two-tone leather, white with navy toes and heels. I should have worn the navy shell and my one strand of pearls to pull the outfit together. In navy and pearls I would look like I could do more than answer phones and type letters.
I should go now, go home, and change. No one will stop me. Harold certainly won’t.
The connecting door separating the lobby from the rest of the office swings back. “Mrs. Rollins?” a young thirty-something man calls.
I stand up, smiling, assessing him as he is me. He’s the kind of man Harold would say carries authority well: dark hair, trim beard, black glasses, slim, younger than I am.
If I take this job, I’d be working for a younger boss for the first time in my life.
“I’m Larry Harms,” he says, as he ushers me into a comfortably cluttered office and waves me into an upholstered chair.
I sit, gingerly at first, and then I try to ease against the back of the chair.
“Comfortable?” Harms asks.
The polite answer, of course, is “yes.”
I don’t want to be here in my brown suit and brown shoes interviewing for what can only be another simple little brown job, a job that would fit Harold’s ideas of me.
“No,” I answer
“No?” Larry Harms asks.
“I should have worn a different blouse and different shoes. Definitely different shoes.”
Harms leans forward to see over the desk. I angle my foot, showing the loose binding, the frayed wrappings.
“These are not my best shoes, you know,” I ramble. “But they match the suit.”
“So they do,” Harms agrees. He smiles. His eyes, too smile. “If I ask you to return in your best shoes, what would they be?”
White leather with one-inch navy heels. I’d change my blouse, too, maybe even the entire outfit.”
“This suit,” I begin, “is what a woman wears to get a job answering phones and typing letters.”
Harms eased back into his wide, executive chair. “Did someone tell you which position we have open?”
I shake my head.
“Then how did you know we have a receptionist opening?”
“I watched the girl, the way she answered the phone. Her movements are too precise, as if she isn’t comfortable at her desk. She answers the phone with too much politeness, as if she is straining to feel the words she’s saying. So, I guessed she must be leaving the firm.”
Not by her choice, I add to myself.
“Very observant,” Harms says. “The receptionist is a temporary. She’ll be leaving at the end of the month.”
“Very observant,” the same words Sig Atcheson, editor at the Daily Herald, used when he suggested I try writing a column. “People watchers are usually excellent writers,” he said. I was flattered and tempted by his words, but I stayed with what I knew: proof reading and running copy.
Harms picks up my resume and scans it. Without looking up, he asks, “Do you know anything about this firm?’
I tell him what little I do know, that Harms Law Office is a three attorney firm specializing in personal injury and family law .
“You have a spotty work record,” Harms says. “One year with Plains Insurance, two years as a teacher’s aid, a year at Payless Shoes, eighteen months at the Federal Land Bank, then three years at the Daily Herald. How do you explain such inconsistency?”
I should tell Harms that I’ve never had a burning desire to be one type of person so I’ve tried out several different jobs, trying to find one that fits. I should tell him that my varied background qualifies me to work with people, not to answer phones and type letters.
I should tell him that I’ve put my family first and worked around Harold’s and Jimmy’s needs.
I should tell him that I put Harold first and Estelle second. I’ve spent years answering phones. Years sitting all day at a brown desk in my brown suit and brown shoes. Years at at a proper job for Harold Rollins’ wife.
“These are not my best shoes,” I mumble.
“You mentioned that,” Harms says
His friendly smile vanishes. His eyes are cold, suddenly courtroom eyes.
“No, that isn’t what I meant,” I say. I stand and tug the wrinkles out of my skirt. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life answering phones and typing form letters. I want people buzzing by, full of life. I want to know that I’ve made a difference in their lives, a tiny comma of a difference.
I hold out my hand. “Thank you for the interview.”
Harms stands and shakes my hand. I leave him standing behind his desk, staring after me, probably wondering what kind of demented creature walked out on him.
Demented, perhaps, to Larry Harms, but not to Estelle Rollins.
At home, I strip off the brown suit and pull on a navy pleated skirt and a cotton short sleeve navy colored sweater. The skirt swings loose from the hips and the sweater covers the roll of fat I didn’t have two years ago. The skirt and sweater are comfortable, though nothing that Harold would have approved of for a job interview. I pull out the white and navy two-tone heels. They’re comfortable, too, a fit for my feet.
I crumple the brown suit into a ball, and gathering the brown shoes, throw both into the trash.
I’ll sell the house, I think as I head for the Daily Herald, and get a one-bedroom apartment.
With no bedroom to live in Jimmy will have to return to college. There will surely be a little money from the house to get him through this last year of college. In the meantime, I’ll sell Harold’s desk and clear out his study. I’ll buy a computer and make the study my writing room. I’ll write under my maiden name with Harold’s name hyphenated onto it: Estelle Browning-Rollins.
I’ll keep Harold’s fancy nameplate, though. He would approve of that touch.