Spring 2009, Volume 6

Fiction by Robert Medina

Memphis on the Mind

It was a Monday, the gloomiest of June Gloom days, made gloomier by a forecast of rain. For Susie Liesterg, the human resources director for Consumer Media’s Los Angeles office, the overcast sky reflected her mood perfectly.

Susie arrived at work that morning to find that her latest business proposal had been rejected. Instead of accolades for her brilliance, her initiatives were blown to smithereens in a tersely worded assessment, effectively rendering them useless. The scorching review shocked Susie, but she didn’t waste any time lamenting. Her top priority now was to salvage her proposal. Susie smoothed her kicky mini-skirt, fluffed her blonde frizz and made her way to the executive level, and the office of Helen Mushrush

Helen was the corporate head of business development. Like Susie, she was career driven, in her late forties, and divorced. However, they each possessed a different administrative style, and clashed often, leading to frequent and visible disagreements. Their ongoing enmity was the source of never ending office gossip.

Since her setback had probably already spread around the office, Susie didn’t want her movements to fuel more rumor-mill speculation. She decided to take the stairs up to Helen’s office rather than the more conspicuous elevators.

Approaching the executive level door in the stairwell, Susie saw that it was freshly painted and blocked off by generous lengths of yellow tape. With a sigh, she turned around and went onto the conference room level one floor below.

Susie threaded her way between meeting rooms down the main hall to the elevators. The hallway was beige like the rest of the office, and was covered with thin cushion-like panels with no windows or adornments; the air had a heavy feel despite being odorless. To Susie, it resembled a long padded cell, which made her claustrophobic. Upon reaching the hall’s center, she called for an elevator and waited. Alone, she heard muffled voices near her in the north conference room. As expected, Susie soon felt confined and uncomfortable. Before long, an “up” light flashed along with a curt ding. Susie walked toward the arriving elevator as its doors slid open. As she tried to step onto the elevator, Helen blocked her way as she was getting off.

Lithe and glacial, conveying severity and focus, Helen stood with a manila folder tucked under her arm. Her black hair flowed to a neat shoulder length pageboy that softened her look, but only just. She was a natural beauty and wore very little makeup that made even Susie, a bombshell all her life, envious. Unlike suede booted bangle-clad Susie, she wore a tailored dark blue suit and, with exception of a watch, no jewelry. As was her habit upon seeing Susie, Helen’s face contorted as if someone had just farted. It was as close to a greeting Helen ever gave Susie. With fluid ease, Helen stepped around Susie, and glided toward the north conference room.

“Helen!” Susie addressed the back of Helen’s head. “We need to talk.” Helen ignored Susie and kept walking. Susie sweetened the pot: “Off the record, Helen.”

Helen stopped and turned her head. “What?”

Susie was confident, but her stomach was uneasy. “I sent up a restructuring proposal last week, but it got killed. Did you do it?”

“Oh, you bet I did!” Helen turned around fully.

“May I ask how you got a hold of it?” Susie asked.

Helen shrugged her shoulders. “Chance.”

Chance?” Susie didn’t believe it.

“Bill Slocum,” Helen glared at Susie. “You know, your boss? He was swamped with real matters. I volunteered to ease the paper flow.”

“I knew you had something to do with this,” said Susie. “Why would Bill allow you to evaluate my work?”

“Rank has its privileges, Susie.” Helen cocked her head and pouted her lips. “Aw, did I pop your pretty balloon?”

Susie didn’t want to respond with anything regrettable. The pretty balloon was not only full of innovations to save the company millions in workforce expenses, it was also Susie’s ticket to the New York office and away from Helen.

“Well, you should be comforted about one thing, Susie,” said Helen.

“Comforted?” Susie said through her teeth. “By what?”

“There was absolutely no prejudice,” said Helen. “Your ideas failed on their own merits.”

“Baloney!” Susie’s voice resonated. “That proposal was a human resources matter, Helen! You had no business to involve yourself! No business!”

Helen arched her eyebrows, and answered coolly: “On the contrary, Susie. Everything here is my business.”

Susie tried to stay focused. “My idea deserves a more thorough evaluation than you can ever provide Helen! I offered valuable and practical solutions in that proposal!”

Helen grimaced. “Bullshit!” She leaned forward and pointed her manila folder at Susie. “It was a load of mumbo-jumbo and ten dollar words. Where’d you steal it from, Susie? A night school textbook?”

Textbook! Susie moved closer to Helen, but the elevator chimed. She held her tongue as a couple of junior executives, one female, one male, both bigmouths, stepped around the women and, after curt nods were exchanged by all, went into the north conference room.

“I worked hard on that proposal,” said Susie.

“Your proposal would only benefit you, Susie,” said Helen. “Not the company, just you!”

“That’s your opinion, Helen,” said Susie, crossing her arms. “There nothing wrong with ambition if it benefits the company.”

“Ambition, huh?” Helen strummed her chin with her fingers and gave Susie the once over. “Well, Susie, guess what? They’re looking for someone with ambition for the Memphis office.”

“Memphis!” Susie gasped.

“That’s right,” said Helen smoothly.

Susie was stunned. Memphis! It was the largest and least prestigious of all Consumer Media offices, and the dumping ground for failed executives and mediocre managers. Once transferred there, no one ever left, except upon retirement or death. It was aptly nicknamed “The Bone Yard.”

“I’m not going to Memphis, Helen,” Susie said, trying to seem calm. Helen’s suggestion and the padded hallway combined were making her nausea worse. “Anyway, that would be up to Bill, not you.”

“Oh, but you’d love it there, Susie. It so laid back,” said Helen gleefully. “You can walk around, pretend you’re topless, flash everyone with your tattoos.”

“Enough, Helen!” said Susie.

“It’s right across the river from Arkansas!” said Helen. She gazed upward as if recalling something fond. “In a jiffy, you can go home to Chicken Twig, or wherever you’re from, and show the townsfolk you still have all you’re teeth,” Helen leaned forward and inspected Susie’s mouth, “or at least some of them.”

That’s it! “Kiss my ass, Helen!”

“I wouldn’t be the first, now would I, Susie?” said Helen.

“Then go to hell!” Susie said.

Helen started to swoon and fan herself with the manila folder. “Oh, goodness me!” she said breathlessly. “Little Susie is actually swearing!” Helen stopped her performance, then laughed. “Kiss you ass? Go to hell? That’s the best you can do?” Still laughing, Helen checked her watch. “Well, I’d love keep talking Susie, but I think it’s time we go back on the record, and do what we’re paid to do─you know, our jobs?”

Susie watched Helen turn and head to the north conference room. As she opened the door, the conversation inside stopped with the abruptness of a record needle scratching across an album.

“Okay, assholes! Let’s make this short and sweet!” Helen said, closing the door.

“Fuck you, Helen,” Susie said. “You heard me, fuck you, you fucking hag!” Susie got no response because there was no one around. She was alone, walking down a side street near the Consumer Media building, and soused.

A calming walk down Wilshire Boulevard to soothe her nerves had turned into a three-drink pit stop at The Shamrock Room so Susie could lick her wounds. It wasn’t her first time at the bar before lunch.

The last time was when Susie was notified she could no longer use the executive women’s washroom. A new policy simply stated that directors such as Susie had insufficient rank to warrant such a perk. The memorandum explaining the change originated in New York, but it had Helen’s fingerprints all over it. West of Chicago, the only person affected was Susie.

From a corner stool, surrounded by mid-morning drunks, Susie replayed her encounter with Helen, replacing her own anemic responses to Helen’s remarks with strongly worded retorts. At first, she played out her dialogue revisions in her head, but on the walk back to the office, Susie started uttering her increasingly profane words out loud. Now, on the side street shortcut back to the office, Susie didn’t care who saw or heard her. She tried not to wobble as she walked along, and avoided looking up. The gray skies confined Susie, which gave her the impression of being in a large box. As she neared the rear of her office building, the predicted rain started to fall. Even in her altered state, Susie knew that she wouldn’t make it to the main entrance without getting soaked. As the rain started to drop harder and faster, Susie changed course, and stumbled as best she could to the shelter of the office’s parking structure.

Once under the cover of the garage, Susie was a little damp, but grateful to be out of the rain. The sound of the downpour echoed through structure as she made her way to the elevator lobby. Susie’s pace slowed as she passed an impressive collection of company cars. They were backed into their spaces evenly, as if a straight edge lined them to ensure uniformity. They were almost all gray or metallic in color, and almost all foreign makes, except for one: Helen’s Cadillac.

It was a black late model STS. As Susie passed the car, she stopped to look at it. Susie was certain the paint job was custom; she had never seen anything like it. The black had a lacquered quality with a subtle but distinct blood red highlight. Although the car was parked in a fairly dim spot, the sheen of the paint glistened. As Susie moved around the Cadillac, the red highlight moved along with her. It was an eerie feature that gave her the impression she was being watched.

The interior wasn’t clear to Susie. It seemed to be enclosed by a blue filter. As Susie leaned in for a closer look, she stumbled, and her arm swiped the front passenger door. “Oops!” she slurred. After she corrected herself, Susie realized her bracelet had scratched the paint. It was a white diagonal hairline that was almost unnoticeable. Susie stared at the scratch, frozen, but not with remorse. Instead, she was overcome by pleasant warmth. It was a weirdly cathartic sensation. With bravado in her heart and a buzz in her head, Susie pulled her bracelet over her knuckles, and took a swipe at the car door.

“Memphis my ass!” Susie panted. She was intently focused as she struck the car door, leaving a deep gash. Puffing, she snarled, “Night school textbook!” followed by a backhanded swing. Another forceful blow left her winded. “I hate you, Helen Mushrush! I hate you, I hate you!” A second backhand was in the offering, but Susie’s ecstasy was broken by the sound of a car’s screeching tires coming down a ramp. Her panic was subdued by liquor; she ducked low until the passing car was gone. Without looking at her handiwork, Susie got up and woozily made her way to a side entrance, and back to her office.

For the rest of the day, Susie felt smugly justified for gouging Helen’s car. It came from a certain false confidence Susie knew could only be sustained by more cocktails. She went to lunch with friends from accounting and surprised everyone with her joyful demeanor. As she downed margaritas, she refused to engage in any gossip about Helen. Instead, she uncharacteristically stated to have no ill will toward her nemesis, and declared her proposal’s failure a closed matter. The liquid lunch and a visit to the Shamrock Room happy hour prolonged Susie’s euphoria well into the night. It wasn’t until four o’clock in the morning that the gravity of her actions hit Susie.

Her guilt was amplified by a painful, tequila-fueled hangover. In the fetal position, Susie laid in her bed, repeating the events of the previous day over and over in her head. She tried to rationalize her actions, but each replay made Susie feel worse. She was besieged by shame, and an overwhelming uncertainty of what awaited her when she returned to work. Humiliation? Condemnation? It was a catastrophe of her own making.

Although debilitated by a queasy headache, Susie made it to the office on Tuesday. As she drove into work, Susie noticed Helen’s parking space was vacant. Helen was always in the office before her. She knows! Susie played out worst-case scenarios in her mind: demotion, termination, jail! If confronted, Susie would just say she scratched the car by accident. Accidents happen, Susie thought. One blessing was that Helen’s office was two floors above, and there was no likelihood of Susie running into Helen. The day passed uneventfully and she heard nothing. Even the rumor-mill was mercifully silent. But Susie was far from relieved.

The next couple of days were excruciating for Susie. The effects of wakeful nights and lingering disgrace took a physical toll. Her nerves seized up and made her anxious. It was as if each of her organs, bones, and joints were made of glass, and she would shatter into pieces at any moment. Any sound made her jump; she had to be scraped off the ceiling if the telephone rang or if someone suddenly called out her name.

On Friday, Susie eased up when she heard Helen had been called to the New York office for consultations, and would be away for an indeterminate length of time. By that afternoon, she was visibly in better spirits, and actively participated in the weekly staff meeting. After it ended, Susie crossed the padded hallway of the conference level, and called for a down elevator. As she waited, she went through her meeting notes, and read a flyer about the company coffee club. An obnoxious guffaw caught Susie’s attention, and she looked toward the main conference room at the far end of the hallway. Coming out was Bill Slocum, West Coast Operations vice-president, accompanied by Helen who had her arm through his.

Bill was a rotund sloppy-looking man who reminded Susie of a movie village idiot. Helen, who was a good two inches taller than Bill, leaned her head on his shoulder, laughing at whatever he had said. She was dressed simply in a white blouse and dark skirt, and bore none of her usual frost. As they got closer to Susie, her tension returned. She quickly busied herself with the coffee club membership roster.

“Going my way, Susie?” Bill said with a wink. He pressed the up button.

“No, Bill. Going down,” Susie said with a weak smile. She looked at back the roster with deep concentration. Bill stepped back to be with Helen behind Susie, out of her eyesight.

“How long with you be there, Sport?” said Bill.

“Too long,” said Helen. “At least I’ll get some descent food while I’m there.”

“Ah, food!” Bill said cheerfully. “It’s your call. Where do you want to eat?”

“Oh, Billy!” said Helen. “Anywhere you choose is fine. You know I’m not particular.”

Oh, Jesus! Susie thought. Billy?

“Where to go,” Bill said quietly. “Where to go…”

“Just make sure it’s no place foreign,” said Helen.

“How about The Chop Grill?” said Bill. “Manhattans?


“Oh, Billy, it’s like you read my mind.” Helen purred.

“I knew you’d like it, Sport,” said Bill.

Susie finished with the coffee roster, and became very engrossed by a memo about unwashed mugs in the pantries.

“You’ll have to drive, Billy,” said Helen. “You know.”

Susie stared intently at the elevators. Her stomach gurgled.

“That’s right, your car,” said Bill. “Geez, Sport, if anyone did that to my car, I’d find him and cut his balls off.”

“Or cut off her tits!” said Helen clearly.

“Sport?” said Bill.

“Could have been a woman,” said Helen. “Anyway, Who cares? Whoever the fucker is, I have no hard feelings.”

“No?” said Bill.

“Nope,” said Helen. “I just say, ‘Touché! Until we meet another day!’”

What the hell? Touché? Susie wanted to run screaming to the stairs. She could feel perspiration forming on her neck, and feared it was visible from behind.

“Your tops, Sport!” said Bill loudly. “Tops!”

Susie’s elevator arrived simultaneously with Bill and Helen’s elevator. Bill came from behind Susie, and walked to the up elevator. Susie exhaled deeply with relief and started for the down elevator as the doors slid open. As she got onto the empty car, Susie felt her foot catch something. She jerked forward violently and fell on the elevator floor. Startled, Susie looked at her foot to see what tripped her. Wedged between the sole and heel of her shoe was the toe of Helen’s pump.

“Susie!” Helen cried out. “Be careful!” Helen swooped down and hooked her hand behind Susie’s elbow, and in one motion, and yanked Susie up. As Susie stood, Helen pulled her close, and whispered in her ear: “Touché.” Susie turned to look at Helen, but she didn’t look back. With a brusque push, Helen released Susie, and stood outside the elevator.

“Sport!” Bill shouted. “Elevator!”

“Hold the door, Billy!” Helen yelled. “I’m coming!”

Helen stood before Susie in profile, and thrust out her bosom to strike an exaggerated cheesecake pose. With a broad hand gesture, Helen blew Susie an air kiss.

As the mirrored doors closed, Susie looked at her reflection, but all she could see was Memphis.

BIO:  "I am a native of Los Angeles and a dedicated participant in the Long Beach City College Creative Writing Program. In 2008, I received the Richard Scott Handley Memorial Award for Poetry in Pasadena for a poem I wrote in the entry-level writing workshop at LBCC."