Rhea worked for the biggest polluter on the planet. Despite her appreciating this and not oblivious to the world jeopardy to which she contributed, its leader, owner, and patriarch, Peter Harper, was the one who signed her checks. When she cashed each one, she rationalized that the world would be no safer were she to resign in protest. The perspective of her replaceability comforted her.
Day in and day out, two cubicle mates punched in and punched out, twice, work segments separated by a one hour abeyance at the behest of lunchtime hunger. In the corporate cafeteria, she and Penny enjoyed the privacy afforded by a half-wall that was an architectural mistake; it hid their favorite table from all the gossippy patrons.
Penny wore her daily lunchtime look of disapproval, because Rhea again was eating too fast. But then, thin people could do that. Rhea already had completely soiled her napkin and reached for Penny's when she sensed someone staring at her. It was none other than Peter Harper himself, creator and owner of Ensley-Mix, Inc.
From over their short wall Harper struck his usual cliché—a pose—of his commanding vantage over the masses.
He was the discoverer of the miracle chemical, Ensley, that changed the world. The multibillionaire—the Überman himself—peered at the gauche Rhea who now tried to swallow not only an overambitious mouthful in one gulp, but her head, too, and with it, the rest of her humiliated body.
Penny sat frozen, her eyes darting from Harper to Rhea repeatedly. It would have been no more startling had the President of the United States strolled up to them. Peter Harper, the god of commerce, stamp-signer of paychecks of thousands, and with all his power, was god to them, also. Forcing onward every speck of food that had been in her mouth, Rhea dared to speak only when she felt every last calorie was well past the first set of sphincters somewhere.
“You’re Mr. Harper,” she announced needlessly to him, her nervousness evident in her tremulous voice. Penny peaked over the half wall to see the entire cafeteria mesmerized by this man’s presence.
“It’s really not fair that you know who I am, but that I do not know who you are,” Harper said, his mannerism twinkly, betraying the fact that of course he knew who she was. Was this a come-on, Rhea wondered in disbelief?
“You sign my check,” Rhea offered nervously and stupidly, her mind a blank for witty coyness which she so desperately wished for at this very moment. Penny recovered the fumble, and she did it for her team.
“I’m Penny Stenton,” she proclaimed, holding out her hand.
Harper turned his gaze to Penny, as if in distraction, almost as if in irritation. He focused intensely on her and his expression hardened. After an uncomfortable and protracted moment, she blinked first. His expression softened, but not in a friendly way. She couldn’t read it, but decided to withdraw her hand.
“I know who you are,” he answered Penny dryly. “I sign your check as well.” And this put to rest any notion on anyone’s part that he might be interested in anyone else but Rhea, whom he now regarded again with a look that baited her for an introduction. Rhea looked at Penny, then back at Harper.
“Rhea,” she said, “Rhea Rosalea Rainey.”
“How lovely,” he said, appraising the name with a fluttering of his eyelids. This temporary blindness afforded Rhea the opportunity to shoot Penny a perplexed look. Penny wished she could have answered the question in that look, but she was still somewhat unsettled by her own brush-off. He was to be forgiven, of course, because he was one of the world’s great human beings, and Penny stared at him expecting orders. She noted that he was exquisitely dressed. The continental double-breasted dark blue suit was silk. His tie had the smallest knot in it. It was so tiny and tight, Penny observed, that it couldn’t possibly be untied. Yes, she concluded, a man like Peter Harper never wears the same tie twice. His couture hung well on a person who could pilot past those who invoked the hardened expression Penny had just suffered.
Rhea observed nothing. She was so stunned that she wouldn’t be able to recall anything about the man later, even had he been on fire.
“Well, Miss Rainey,” Harper said, mischievously accenting the Miss, “I like to travel from center to center from time to time, and it is my custom to choose from the, ah, how do I put this, from the ‘non-executives’ a person to show me around, to give me the inside scoop...” He trailed off. “...give me the dirt on this place.”
“Where shall we all start?” Penny asked hopefully, trying once again to worm her way in. Peter Harper merely looked at her with total lack of amusement on his face. The mogul in him reared its ugly head as he spoke.
“We...are not going to start anywhere. You...are going to go back to your cubicle; the computers are up there, and so should you be.”
Penny snapped up immediately, an obedient movement; it was a continuum that followed through from a pivot away from her chair into a striding off without looking back.
“Bye, Rhea,” were her only trailing last words, launched into her own forward direction which, if Rhea had not been ignoring them, would have been hard to hear anyway.
“Rhea Rosalea Rainey,” he said to Rhea, the music of her name and the charm of his voice complementing each other. “Trochaic, isn’t it?” he asked, more to himself. “Like what is so common in children’s rhymes.”
“English,” she responded. “Except for the Rosalea. That’s Italian.”
“It sings to all languages,” he said with a flattering admiration. Rhea blushed. “Please,” he now said with a slightly more business-like tone, “meet me for a private lunch in the CEO’s conference room at noon. And please, take off the rest of the morning until then.”
And with that plus a smile he removed himself from the architectural mistake. This left Rhea Rosalea Rainey alone in the solitude that the little round table, protected from the come-ons of “the little people.” Their eyes, en masse, tried in the hardest of ways to see through the half-wall to the focus of Peter Harper’s attention.
Rhea felt that her one-to-one with Harper was a denial of Penny before the cock crowed. Was she wrong not to have begged Penny in when it was clear she was not invited? She had fielded her position brainlessly star-struck, solo by default, being the right person at the right time. But had she handled it clumsily by not hooking Penny for the ride on her coattails? And coattails for what? Career brownie points? Her rational mind told her she had no reason to feel the rat, but the rat nevertheless she felt. And within this indictment she arose to slither back to her cubicle to assess any damage done to the relationship she had with her friend.
Penny, on the other hand, had felt no such betrayal. She sat at her squeaky, wheeled chair at her terminal, entering the volumes, weights, and other parameters that certified the cash flow for the company. She entered the data via format-by-rote while thinking about the recent episode on another level altogether.
What a break! she thought. She admitted that it would have been better had she been the one, or had she been even included, but still this was a break of unprecedented proportions. And it was a perfectly natural sequence of events: she was always the also-ran when compared to Rhea. Socially, the attention without exception always went to Rhea. Penny always figured she got more than would be her fair share were she alone. She always fared better with Rhea there, just from the spillover. And even though she was gay, she liked the attention that anyone would like.
And she certainly could be patient for whatever spill-over might come this time.
Thinking it through, being the best friend of the one selected by Peter Harper was the second best career-enhancer she could expect—that is, if he just happened to befriend Rhea on his bureaucratic mission, and he just happened to think so much of her that he would not limit his liaison to business only, and he just happened to feel that any friend of Rhea was a friend of his, worthy of the most expedient of promotions. Rhea was the logical choice because Rhea liked men. Her Pollyannaish daydream went on until she heard the muffled painstaking footsteps on the blue carpet.
Rhea approached cautiously. Penny sensed her guilt and was determined to take advantage of it just for the fun of it. “Hey, thanks a lot,” she told her friend. Rhea slinked into the cubicle with all of the phantom pain that a missing tail between the legs induced. “Come on in, join the party,” Penny continued. “We’re having chopped liver. I’m the main course.”
“Penelope?” Rhea crooned, cajoling forgiveness.
“No problem, my so-called friend,” Penny snapped, firing away at her keyboard.
“Penelope?” Rhea repeated, forming the widest of smiles she could flash into her friend’s peripheral vision.
Penny lost. She suddenly jumped at her friend and hugged her vigorously.
“This is so great,” she said, squeezing her tighter. “So great, so fabulous.” And they both started jumping in place with each other, shrieking in their excitement like two cheerleaders who had just made it past the cut. Soon the unwelcome head of Dwayne Cody peered around the opening of the cubicle to investigate, as was the responsibility of his job. His tenor voice tried its best to take charge.
“Girls, girls, tone down. This is a business.” He was his usual repressive self, his sparse eyebrows wrinkling together in disapproval. It was his usual expression, and it was just another thing about him that made both Penny and Rhea hate him. He didn’t let up. “Mr. Harper himself is coming in from Atlanta this week to check out this center. I make out the report, and if you want to figure favorably then you’d better shape up.” He had a magazine rolled up in his right hand, and he tapped his thigh with it emphatically as he spoke.
“Well, we just happen to know Peter Harper’s here already,” Penny said in a tone she had always wanted to use with Mr. Cody.
“Yea, sport,” Rhea added, “and I think I’ll just take a lunch with him to report on you, O.K.?” Mr. Cody suddenly laughed out loud in a forced way, an outburst of mocking disbelief. A little spit flew and hit Penny. She rubbed her cheek vigorously. Dwayne composed himself for effect and spoke firmly.
“Not only is there more of a chance of you going bowling with the Pope than there is of taking a lunch," he emphasized with air quotes, "with a man who is the planet’s industrial icon, but you should fear that you’re in big trouble right here and now—in-danger-of-losing-your-job trouble.” He smirked a victor’s smirk.
“Well, you can laugh if you want, Coody,” Rhea said nonchalantly, breezing past him on her way out of the cubicle.
“It’s Cody and where do you think you’re going!” he shouted at her. His voice cracked under the strain. “Get back to your terminal!” Rhea stopped abruptly, visibly irritated with this torment. She turned slowly back around to address her supervisor.
“If I’m going to do lunch with Peter,” she boasted, dropping names, first names at that, “then I had better freshen up.”
“First of all, your self-destructive joke had better stop right now,” he warned her. “Secondly, if making yourself presentable is your goal, you had better take a sabbatical.” He was pert and spoke with invulnerability as he stared her down. “A lengthy sabbatical.” And with that Rhea did something she had never done before in her life. Cody was unprepared and didn’t avoid her fist, and he recoiled in pain and astonishment. He clutched his nose with both hands struggling to muffle the pain. The prairie dogs of the whole floor popped above the dividers, then snapped back unseen.
“You...struck me? What? Is it that time of the month for you?” he seethed. Penny bristled. “You’re fired!” he said to Rhea sternly and hatefully through his fingers. “Unless, of course, lunch turns this around for you. Collect your things.” He snapped around and stormed off.
“Time of the month?” Penny asked angrily for all of the women of the world. “You don’t know,” Penny said to her hero, “how I’d love to do what you just did to him.”
“I heard that!” he shouted from over several cubicle walls.
“What did I do? Shit on me, Penny. God, this lunch thing better not be an hallucination,” Rhea said with a strained expression, visibly subduing herself to over-compensate for her assault.
“It isn’t an hallucination, Miss Right,” Penny encouraged her. “But you better figure out a way to cram that foot of yours into his glass slipper, or you’ll have to remove it from your mouth.”
“This isn’t a date, you know; it’s business. Just what are you expecting, anyway?”
“One shot, Rhea,” Penny warned, raising her fist to present an upright thumb.
“Well, if lunch doesn’t make this Cody thing the most unimportant concern this company has ever had, I think I’ll be walking out of there with that foot firmly swallowed. But I promise you this—I will leave with him knowing I’m normal and worth keeping. I’m not worried that I can’t get a word in edgewise to clear me.”
“Rhea, he wants the dirt. You’re good at that. I don’t know how he was able to perceive that—”
“Hey, it’s me, after all,” Rhea interrupted.
“Well, he did pick you, and the dirt in this company is in good hands.”
“Wish me luck.”
“At ya, Rhea.”
“Thanks,” Rhea said back and smiled at her friend. She looked at her watch. “It’s a little after ten. I’m going to run down to KwikKlips and get them to do me up. I think I’ve got time.”
“It’s daytime, Rhea; fluorescent lights. Easy on the make-up. Harper’s got class, O.K.?”
“I’ll hit you, too, Penny—I swear,” Rhea warned her, still facing her as she drifted backwards. “It wouldn’t hurt for you to use a little make-up yourself, Earth-Mother.”
Rhea looked good from the front; when she snapped around, she also looked good from the back. Penny admired the female form in her. But then she sighed. She was daydraming rags-to-riches success stories for Rhea until Cody re-entered. Her eyes slowly refocused on the real world and on a real problem. Cody stood in front of her, his arms folded.
“Do you have anything to say?” He had a wad of toilet paper shoved up his left nostril that looked ridiculous.
“No, sir,” she answered. Not yet, she thought. She tried not to regard his stuffed nostril.
“You had better watch your step, too, Miss Stenton,” he told her, as if he were doing her a favor. Penny stifled her laughter when a wisp of toilet paper shot out of his nose when he spoke, only to rock back and forth on an invisible seesaw of air as it fell. He quickly replaced it with a new, pristine wad of toilet paper he fished from his pocket.
Watch my step? she thought. I’m going to watch the step of my foot up your ass. She masked her thinking through a conciliatory expression, knowing she would most likely laugh before showing any anger. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t keep from looking at his plugged nose, which forced him to keep lowering his head to re-establish line of sight with her eyes. Finally an impish metaphor won out and a comment with a life of its own rolled out of her mouth before she knew it.
“What?” she said, pointing at his nose and the bloody smear below his plugged nostril, “Is it that time of the month for you, too?” Her conciliatory expression had collapsed into one of indignation, and she wore it for all her gender.
Rhea’s own expression, moments later, was one of ecstasy which the beautician incorrectly assumed was due to the massaging of her wet scalp. Her hair was short and slightly darker than auburn. Being as short as it was, it was easy to have it done by lunch.
“Don’t cut anything,” Rhea directed the obese woman, Francesca, who had done her hair dozens of times before. She turned herself around in the swivel chair. “Just style it like this.” She handed Francesca the picture she had cut out of a magazine which she was keeping in her purse for times like this. It wasn’t that this was to be a new look for her; she just wanted Francesca to do her hair right yet again, just like the way she had been doing it since the day she had chopped it all off seven months earlier.
“This again?” Francesca asked. “Rhea, try something different. You like different. Let’s have some fun, O.K.?”
“Not today. Just do it this way and get me going. I’m meeting a VIP for lunch.”
“Oh, really? Who?”
“Only Peter Harper, that’s who,” Rhea beamed.
“So who’s Peter Harper, anyway?”
“Oh, just this multi-multi-balillionaire who’s really cute and wants me to have lunch with him and just gossip and then I hope dinner and then dates and then rendezvouses and then his first child and then his third child when I marry him a second time after partying away my fortune from the pre-nup agreement on the first marriage that ended in divorce, that’s who.”
“Then I guess you want make-up, too,” Francesca offered.
“Yes, ma’am. I do. And I’d like that done perfectly, if you would.”
“That will be extra,” Francesca laughed.
“Our accountants will take lunch,” Rhea responded. She was getting quite used to the idea of taking lunch here and there, as desired.
In the CEO foyer and reception area, Peter Harper swung open the giant brass door and entered to find Rhea already there. She stood up as if awaiting her directions. She felt so stupid just standing there with him, but she didn’t know what to do next, so just standing was the plan until something better cropped up. How many people got to go through that brass door? she wondered. Thos anteroom served as an air lock that opened for the very few into the pressure flux of the inner sanctum.
“Rhea,” he offered, opening the door through which he had entered. His left arm gently aimed its outstretched palm in the direction of a hallway beyond it. She graciously accepted his invitation past him into this hallway. She walked down its beautifully paneled path, extending a finger along the wood at times, to feel it.
“Sequoiadendron giganteum,” he announced. “Giant Sequoia. A secret gift from Robert Redford.”
“Who?” she asked. He didn’t answer.
From his voice, she knew he was right behind her, and she knew she was looking good from behind in her short black skirt. Soon, however, the rearview scrutiny she sensed eroded her self-esteem, perverting into a self-conscious anxiety. She wondered just how long this hall was. In a moment, unable to tell how far behind her he was, she slowed her stride and turned her head around toward him.
He was only an inch away!
She jumped with a little gasp, and he chuckled at her surprise.
“Keep going, Rhea,” he warmly and charmingly instructed her, so she turned her head back and continued her pace as before, feeling studied as before. Certainly this hall was so long, she thought, that it must jut out the side of the building. He was obviously feeling much more comfortable than she, and she laughed when she caught herself thinking that he was walking around up here like he owned the place. The very sweep of this hall was symbolic of his strength and authority, and he smoothly graced its length as they walked; and if the effortless disregard for Penny was Rhea’s foreplay to power, then this hallway was her tunnel of love.
“Now stop,” he said abruptly.
They were in a part of the hall whose walls had shed their sequoia for granite. Art deco sconces appointed the area. The heavy brass motif was back, and golden metal planters with inset, hand-painted tiles held impeccably radiant plants. She leaned down to smell the fragrance of the large bloom.
“Oh,” she recoiled. The unpleasant bouquet was unexpected.
“Rafflesia Flower,” he pointed out. It’s from Indonesia. The malodorous fragrance is easily offset by the fact that it is the world’s most endangered plant. And we have a pair of them. Secret gifts from the Sierra Club. Enjoy, but don’t tell anyone.”
The porcelain-appointed pots bookended another brass door, very similar to the massive entrance door from before, and although reduced proportionately to a standard size, it still presented the same formidable impression.
Mr. Harper reached across her waist to turn the central brass doorknob, and as he did, this heavy threshold was easily open to them as hinges obeyed with silent and effortless rotation. His movement allowed his forearm to caress her belly as he grasped the knob, causing her to draw in her abdominal muscles involuntarily. Now he retracted his arm and urged her silently into the room.
Some conference room, Rhea thought as she entered. There were real oil paintings on the walls that by their frames alone she just knew they were by famous people. A large, immaculate salt water aquarium displayed a group of seahorses. Rhea walked over to the tank.
“The Knysna seahorse,” Harper boasted. “The most endangered seahorse in the world. From Africa. A gift from the Cousteau Society.”
“A secret gift, I suppose?” Rhea asked.
“Yes,” Harper answered. Rhea turned back around toward him.
“So I shouldn’t tell anybody, right?” she teased. He smiled.
A rectangular conference table—of brass, of course, with three brass pedestals of support—was the center of the room. Inlaid in the brass frame-like design of the table surface was a solid black marble slab that had white and green veins. The table, she figured, was probably large enough for about ten people. It was set for dinner, but with eight less people than it could handle. The two dwarfed place settings were next to each other, one at what was the head, the other to its right.
He gallantly pulled out the chair for her to sit upon, which she did, and he perfectly allowed for the perfect slide of it under her, with her, so as to have her at just the right position one would like for eating over a plate. He then attended to himself with the same fluid elegance. He was the one at the head of the table, a presumption that went without saying.
Strangely enough, her nervousness had given way to a spectator's anticipation. She couldn’t believe she was a common tool in this company and that she was eating with the very man who ruled over it. So she was somewhat interested, in this spectator sort of way, in what would happen next. Slowly, she felt poise descend upon her, and her nervousness waned, which made her feel like she was on his level. He apparently sensed this too, for he, now for the first time, appeared a little nervous.
On a server whose black marble matched their table sat a small wooden box. It was a symmetrical cube of some unknown wood, for it was coated in a thick, highly glossy black paint. She guessed it was probably a secret gift from someone.
“What’s in the black box?” she asked him innocently.
“Leave the box alone!” he blurted nervously.
“I wasn’t going to handle it. I was just curious.” Harper, realizing how abrupt he had been, toned down.
“It’s something very important that I need.”
“Like corporate strategies or secrets?”
“Yes. Something like that.”
“Why is it here, then, if I can’t touch it.”
“It rarely leaves my sight,” he answered. “You ask a lot of questions.” This was a burp in her poise, a faltering in her feeling of being on his level, and she cast her eyes downward. Once again, he caught himself. “It’s so important, it goes everywhere I go.”
“It’s not the formula for Coke, is it?” she asked, raising her eyes to his, resealing the rent in her poise, laughing. He paused, then shared the laugh, but he was faking.
“Better than the formula for Coke,” he answered with a tone of finality that officially and irretrievably closed the subject. He lifted a bottle of red wine that was in an iceless silver bucket. “And so is this.” It was already open at the ready and she noticed a slight shake in his hands as he poured her a glass.
“I own the vineyard,” he said to her in a debonair manner that was antithesis to his hand tremors. He likewise poured himself a glass, the slight shaking continuing.
“Thank you,” Rhea said to him as she reached for her glass to drink.
“No wait,” he spoke, “a toast.” And as he reached for his glass to catch up with her lifting of her own, he clumsily toppled it in her direction, the unforgiving red wine flooding her way.
So perfectly had she and her chair been tucked into the table that there was no escape, as her silk blouse, her favorite silk blouse, the white one which had been on layaway for three months, clashed with the splash that attacked her. Clumsiness upon clumsiness compounded the damage as his napkin smeared the stain’s borders.
Since she was with the god, however, she laughed it off as nothing really, and laughed again when he reached for the matching cooler with the white wine, offering the explanation that white wine removes red wine. And she also suffered this surprise splash with mirthful aplomb, for this, too, was nothing really.
The fiasco continued until he ran out of corrective overtures. Her continued nonplussed charade had withstood the entire onslaught with a passing grade.
“I am so sorry, my dear,” he apologized, his tone once again being that of the industrial giant that he was.
Send me the bill would be nice, Rhea thought through the charmed smile she sported, and she was content to sport it all afternoon long if she had to.
She had to.
Some anonymous server, the kind from the best of restaurants that you’re not supposed to notice, served the appetizer. Peter Harper signaled to her and he picked up his smaller fork.
“Grace?” she asked glibly.
“You’re at the head of the table. Are you going to say Grace?” He chuckled away the suggestion. She had invited the prayer with a tone that made it impossible to know that she was teasing. She was a teaser, but it didn’t matter.
“And give thanks to whom?” he said, smiling, gazing intently at her. “No, I’m not.”
An uncomfortable silence ended when he returned to his fork and began without her. She smiled back and reached for her own fork. She remembered her mouthful from the cafeteria, determined to keep the food out of sight when she spoke.
She needn’t have worried.
Peter Harper was an animated conversationalist while he spoke, spitting pieces of Oysters Rockefeller dressing as he spoke, these very minute specks which she hardly noticed, so she tried to make it seem. His slice of tomato slid off of his fork at salad, plopping into his plate, droplets arcing her way, adding a touch of dressing to her blouse. The lemon, of course, was squeezed right into her eye instead of onto his fish at the entree.
And Rhea, for the life of her, could not figure how he managed to drop the whole fish onto the carpet between their shoes, seeing the incident out of the corner of her eye. She wondered if she was being pranked on some reality show. She pretended not to notice, but this whole scene was becoming surreal. He forced her to notice, staring at his empty plate with a refusal to remedy the situation.
“Here,” she offered, “let me get that for you.” But she was too slow. The unheard, unseen attendant had already scooped it up, rolling it with a napkin, and then unwrapped it back onto his plate. Harper glared at him as he did.
“Get out,” he told the attendant sternly. He seemed to be inspecting the fish, but then lifted his eyes to Rhea.
“Do you mind?” he asked her, then resumed staring uncomfortably at his dinner, now sitting once again on his plate after its retrieval from the floor.
“Do I mind what?” she asked back, having no idea what he was getting at.
“Would you mind switching plates?”
“Excuse me?” Rhea asked in disbelief.
“Would you mind switching plates with me? You haven’t touched yours, so I don’t mind eating yours.”
“But you mind eating yours now that it has fallen on the floor.”
“Exactly,” he said. “You see, I have this thing with dirt and germs and the like. I would suppose it’s a rich man’s neurosis,” he chuckled again. She complied, privately suffering the indignity. This had better get me some alimony in the future, she thought, distancing her skeptical self from her enthusiastic self.
They spent the entire time having her try on dinner. There was no talk of business. No dirt at all was bantered. The only conversation that came close was when he sensed that she was upset at how he had treated Penny, which surprised her as an uncommon and un-Harper-like sensitivity.
“It’s obvious you’re a creature of harmony. Say the word, Miss Rainey,” he offered, “and I’ll get your friend to come, in your place, and dismiss you.” His tender smile soothed despite the message that came with it. But this had put an end to shop talk. The rest of the lunch revolved around catastrophes that occurred at each course, some of which he noticed, some he did not. All of them, she wore.
So she couldn’t figure why the lunch. With her. Therefore, maybe he’s a letch, the god on the prowl at the easy pickings that were his drones. But that was OK, she thought, if it were for truly meeting and wanting to get to know unassuming women as a refreshing change of pace. After all, there was letching and then there was letching. It was a shot for her, certainly, so she could allow herself to be letched upon by a billionaire. And if she were explored and then not selected to favor his romantic life, it was still the shot.
Hmm, she thought, how is this not like prostitution?
What she didn’t want was to be used as a spare tire. She didn’t want to be a pro temps whore while he dallied at this, one of his many centers. She didn’t mind him letching after her affection, for that can always lead to appreciating her affection. Yes, she thought, she’d take her best shot at a romance, but not as a masturbation machine. Then she realized she wouldn’t know the difference until after it was over. When one considers a rapport with billionaires, she decided, there are worse things to do than giving him the benefit of the doubt. She had done this with a politician once and had lost. Politicians were now on her pariah list. She would be willing to put billionaires on the list as well, should today make such a blanket condemnation necessary.
After dessert, they retired, at his suggestion, to a soft blue leather sofa at an end of this very large room. The inconspicuous servant made sure that the wine followed them. Red for spilling, white for the solvent. They passed the buffet which held the little black box. Rhea was tempted to slide her finger along it as she passed, but resisted.
“Now, my dear,” he spoke softly, reaching to hold her hand.
Here it comes, she realized, either a letch after my body, or a suitor after my soul.
“Tell me what I can do to make this company more personable to its employees.”
He really was being the prudent mogul for his enterprise! She was so blown away by the letchlessness that she sighed dreamily. He appeared to find great beauty in her reverie, which she felt was a positive attractant, and she fantasized her lips gravitating toward his in a path of least resistance.
“Tell me what I can do to make this company more personable to its employees,” he repeated in a gentle, close whisper, as she made herself, his employee, more personable immediately. Just who had cozied up to whom on the sofa was a moot point and to her utter astonishment, fantasy led to reality as one thing led to another, and ultimately they provided for themselves dessert that was much more rewarding than, but not as messy as, the exquisite caramel cup custard, some of which sat on the tie-dye silk blouse which had come to lay on the floor before the sofa. So expert was the technique of each of them, that each felt the other had been lured dreamily into the situation.
It was all over very quickly. Rhea hid her surprise. They lay collapsed on the sofa, cologne and perfume spoiling the delicate animal hide—a secret gift, perhaps. Just when she expected it was time for him to speak, perhaps to invite her to Sun Valley or Monte Carlo, he spoke as predicted.
“Could you please lift up, Rhea,” he requested.
“Oh, sure, why? Am I hurting your arm?”
“No,” he answered. “I’d like you to get back to work.”
Rhea laughed at his joke. Certainly a joke.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said teasingly, “I know the boss.”
“Well then did you know the boss fires people without the slightest of hesitation.”
Now she was not so sure. She suddenly felt ashamed; she suddenly felt very naked with him. What was previously intimate now had ushered in exposure and helplessness. She was on top of him and she reflexly arched up above him to look into his face. She involuntarily crossed arms to cover her chest, some spinal reflex that attempted to make her feel safe. She reached down to grasp the condom, to hold it tight against him for his withdrawal, but he grabbed her hand and moved it away. He slipped out of her.
Without any type of signal she could notice, the unseen, unheard waiter came in with a small covered silver dish sitting on an open palm. The waiter unhinged the silver tray’s cover open, allowing Harper to discard the condom. The lid fell closed with a dainty clink and just as quickly and quietly the waiter was again unseen. She was defenseless against this unwelcome audience that came and went so quickly.
“You’re kidding, aren’t you, about the firing?” she asked with the type of nervous smile that, while displaying worry, also invited the undoing of any awkward feelings with the simplest of replies. A simple of-course-I-am-silly or gotcha-didn’t-I would do. But his expression became suddenly cold and business-like. She remembered how he had looked at Penny. With nothing but naked people in the room, all had suddenly become asexual.
“I could have your severance check ready in an hour,” he said, lifting himself up, and her with him, almost as if he were shaking her off like some dirt and germs and the like that had gotten onto his own clothing. Like a piece of fish sullied with carpet fibers.
She dressed quickly and was up and ready to walk in no time, and he did or said nothing to deter her. She gave him one last look to redeem the situation, but he passed by avoiding eye contact. Then again, he was Peter Harper, extremely rich tycoon of the age. He just lay there on his sofa, his forefront knee appropriately drawn up so as to block any vision of his sex organs. He had the black box in his hand. The servant must have slipped it to him. Harper opened the box a crack and was inspecting and shuffling some cards that it held.
And so Rhea Rosalea Rainey departed. She left the man who had managed to soil her as well as soil what she was wearing with every course of the meal. Like the silk of her blouse, she knew she could never rid herself of the soiling of this day; her fabric was too delicate, too precious to withstand such squalor.
She took the elevator back to her floor, her cubicle, and walked toward her friend. She stopped and looked down at her blouse that presented the culinary review for anyone who cared to read it. She considered turning around and leaving instead. For an instant she thought she might go to Human Resources, file a statement, resign, and then take the elevator down to the street so as to leave this place forever.
But she had a better idea. A man like Peter Harper deserved so much more.