A Suitable Poison by Linda Boroff
It wasn’t her I noticed, that first time; it was the car. Shockingly red, it flashed in the corner of my eye like a spurt of blood as it pulled into the parking lot outside my office. A Porsche.
Almost before it had spun to a stop, the driver’s side door flew open and legs emerged: long, slender, tanned. Naked.
Oh hell, I thought. My rigid posture and jealous, tracking stare must have alerted my office mate, Brian the proofreader, because he got up from his desk and came around to look out my window, leaning against me as if I were a wall.
“Oh, it’s just Alexis,” he said, feigning indifference, but his voice was raspy, as if his mouth had dried. The skirt of her gleaming white tennis dress lifted in a sudden gust of wind, and a slender arm swept aside a mane of varicolored blonde hair, revealing a straight nose, full lips barely parted and gleaming teeth.
“That’s a ‘just’?” I was trying for detached.
“Ted’s daughter. Age 22. Stanford, Pebble Beach, dressage, the whole enchilada. She works here every summer.”
“Aren’t we lucky. What does she do?”
He shrugged. “Whatever she wants to, I guess. Ted is a doting father.”
“As are many tyrants.”
I watched Alexis glide down the petunia-lined entranceway with an odd and queasy sense of audience, a suspicion that the movie running was not the one I had bought a ticket for. When she passed my window, our eyes met briefly — mine brown, sunken and smudged beneath after a night out from which I had barely returned in time for work; hers as blue and white as the Carmel winter sky. A shy smile wavered on her rosy lips, crashed against my stolid gawk, and fled.
Her father and our boss was Ted Braddock, a self-made millionaire turned publisher, a choleric perfectionist who dominated our waking and sleeping hours, which he insisted were essentially the same state. Ted was convinced that his dream of creating a global publishing empire had foundered on the incompetence and laziness of his staff. His monthly magazine, The Business Express, advertised itself as “a finger on the pulse of commerce.” It was actually a boiler-room hell whose employee turnover nearly matched its subscriber base.
To me, the reason for Ted’s ire was simple: He was living in modern-day California when he really belonged in 14th century Florence, where he could have indulged his whims and rages through war, vendetta and artistic excess. His wife, Lillian (nicknamed Librium) worked part time, staggering under some massive title like Executive Vice President of Operations. She had the bland coloring of a creature whose defense is camouflage. Somehow, her nondescript features had tamed Ted’s blazing blue eyes and powerful bones to produce the balanced elegance of Alexis.
“What am I running here, a remedial class for Neanderthals?” It was our weekly editorial staff meeting. Ted hurled the galleys onto the table, and we drew back snarling, a tribe of paleolithic untermenschen, skulking, deceitful, brutal and dull. As usual, the magazine was behind schedule; Ted was simply impossible to satisfy. Articles were written and rewritten until words become only symbols in an arcane code that must be sequenced flawlessly in order to unlock the secret of his approval. After a few weeks, I began to doubt that I could read or write at all. I was also learning that the English language, manipulated beyond endurance, can run amok like a genetic experiment and produce linguistic monstrosities.
“Ted’s obsessive-compulsive,” Brian said blandly. “like that lady who built the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. She was afraid that if she ever stopped building, she would die. I think Ted worries that if he ever just signs off an issue, and we go to press on time, something terrible will happen, like ‘How the erection of Bush changed the business landscape.’ And he’ll be a laughingstock and lose everything.”
“How do you stand him?”
“Are you kidding? How could I stand this job without Ted for comic relief?” I glanced at the article he was proofreading, “Thirty Seconds Over Oakland.” The subhead: “Suddenly, a flame from our number one engine illuminated the whole fiscal year.”
“Those are the sane ones,” Brian said, indicating a new hire who was gathering his belongings to leave after only an hour. “You’ve got to have something wrong with you to stay here.”
In fact, most of us did have some overriding reason for enduring Ted’s abuse — massive credit-card debt, a strict Catholic upbringing, or the misguided sense of duty of the Light Brigade. There were, of course, plenty of sycophants who would flourish under Stalin or Idi Amin, and some, like Brian, that I mentally termed euglenas. These were easily pushed around and gave way when prodded, but a tough outer membrane usually preserved the creature intact.
I hung on because my husband had recently left me, and I couldn’t even consider the ordeal of interviewing. My hands shook, and I often stared into space in a stupor of conquering or suffering hero fantasy.
Early in life, I realized that our merciful lack of precognition exacts its price on the other end in shock. Looking back, of course, we can revisit any scenario and see the killer lurking plain as day; the car veering from its lane; the metal fatigue on the jumbo jet. The leopard crouching in the sedge.
Cliff had come home early that afternoon. He popped a beer and faced me on the sofa, as if ready to propose a plea bargain.
“Roberta, there’s no easy way to say this. I’ve been seeing someone.” He took a pull on the beer, his gray eyes narrowing to assess my response, as if I were an uncommitted juror. Even confessing this duplicity, he still looked as if he represented truth and justice.
Which he did, in a way. I, whose high school nickname had been Olive Oyl, had somehow been allowed to marry a former football captain and student body president. These cosmic illegalities, if not set right, can fracture the fundamental architecture of the universe and bring it careening back to its primordial soup.
The following scene has taken place so often in human history that I believe it is neurologically scripted. I knew what to say next for the same reason that I knew how to point or throw a rock.
“Who is she?”
“You don’t know her.”
“That’s not important.”
“Does this mean you’re leaving me?”
Cliff sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know.” He rose and left the room, shoulders bowed with the responsibility of recalibrating the universe. “Probably,” he called from the safety of the kitchen. I heard him take another beer from the refrigerator, although I would not have been surprised to see him reenter with a gun or come back as Dracula. All rules of probability seemed to be suspended.
Cliff moved out that night, and my life soon became regulated by legal precedent. I had “fallen into the system,” as he used to say of first-time offenders. It means that you always have the power to make things worse.
Soon afterwards, I became the object of gossip and pity at work, radiating marital failure the way Renaissance Madonnas radiate sanctity. My situation was actually an ice-breaker, like the cast I had worn on my broken leg one summer: painful but a little comical, inspiring of commiseration. Just as strangers had once shared their own broken limb stories, I now heard tales of marital duplicity and sexual incompatibility from chance restroom acquaintances.
“I have a confession to make,” Brian said suddenly one afternoon. When I did not reply, he blurted, “I’d give ten years of my life for a date with her.” So this explained his long silences; his hyperawareness of her location in the office, his color change and averted gaze whenever she passed.
He and I were lunching in the courtyard behind the magazine offices, surrounded by bougainvillea, rose bushes, azaleas, and begonias. The place belonged in a Graham Greene novel, its atmosphere of dictatorial menace framed in lush, exotic foliage. Across from us, Alexis chatted with our managing editor, a large-eyed young man with the face of a Byzantine mosaic, whom we had nicknamed Saint Will for his patience; a rare employee able to get along with Ted.
Now I looked at Brian as if for the first time: dark, intelligent eyes, a fragile thinning hairline and a slack, disillusioned mouth that held a certain sensual promise. He was of medium height, with a slight but not weak build. Alexis could do worse, I thought.
“Go for it, Brian,” I said, feeling like an old DeSoto with four flat whitewalls. What good was it? Even though I was tall, not too heavy in the thighs, and sported a skillfully reconfigured nose, I remained the wisecracking gal Friday; the loveable, leavable confidante. I understood why Dorothy Parker had felt the need to reduce her anguish to ditty.
Alexis held herself apart from the employees, probably because she was embarrassed by her father. Sometimes I noticed her hanging out with our new assistant editor, Thea, a thin, lizardly young woman of flat, flaxen hair and bad skin. Thea’s managerial style of unctuousness toward superiors and offhand cruelty to those beneath her had made her a favorite of Ted. Alexis must be extremely lonely, to spend time with Thea. I shared this observation with Brian, who hung on my words as if I spoke in the tongues of the forefathers.
“I’m nobody to Thea.” He frowned, calculating his chances at joining her inner circle. “I’m a stage prop.”
“I wish I could say the same,” I replied. At a meeting that morning, Thea’s casual executioner’s gaze had lingered on me for a fraction of a second too long. “I’m history,” I said.
“Don’t be silly. Who’d do your job?”
“Alexis, of course. She’s too smart to just hang around adorning the place. I’ll bet she thinks she can get the copy past her father on schedule and rescue the magazine.”
“If anybody could do it, she could,” Brian said, fatuous as a sitcom swain.
“Maybe you’ll get to share an office with her after I’m gone,” I said nastily.
“You think so?”
“Fuck you, Brian.”
That evening, I was to interview the concierge of a Cannery Row luxury hotel for an article. Commercialized and defiled as she is, Cannery Row still recalls for me an era when it was honorable to be a failed writer and hard drinker; to have bitter memories and self-inflicted wounds. Still, I could not help envying the lovers on the hotel balcony overlooking the water, for whom Cannery Row was a place to sip wine, shiver in the dark wind, and awaken warm together to the cries of gulls.
I stood beside the concierge in the lobby of Italian marble and Brazilian teakwood, gazing out onto the ocean. The fog had cleared to make way for an impressive brass-and-coral sunset now fading into pale magentas. Panoramic windows spanned the beach, and wavelets rolled in all the way from Asia just to charm the guests. Out toward Seaside and Del Rey Oaks, jeweled lights followed the curve of the Bay. Here and there, the skeletal remains of defunct sardine canneries, preserved as quaint nostalgia, jutted disturbingly into view.
A small group approached; with a start, I recognized Ted, Lillian and Alexis. They were with another family, talking and laughing. I quickly melted behind a pillar; I had no standing to be greeted by them, nor did I wish for them to have to snub me.
“You know these people?” asked the Italian concierge.
“My boss. And his family.”
“Then it is a coincidence,” the concierge said. “This too is my boss and his family. The owners, the Rinieris.” We watched the two families seat themselves by the window. Drinks arrived. “The girl is very beautiful,” said the concierge. Alexis wore a clinging black dress that fell to just below her knees, the neckline cut like a diamond. A bracelet that looked like platinum clasped her upper arm.
It was a few moments before I noticed the young man beside Alexis. He was handsome in a precise-featured way, with dark hair that kept falling over one eye and slender hands that drummed and roamed over the tabletop as if impatient with visibility. Alexis stole a glance at this boy, but he seemed preoccupied with something beyond the horizon. My heart sank for Brian.
“Who’s that?” I asked, and the concierge knew who I meant. He frowned and shook his head slightly.
“The younger son, Peter.” An understanding passed between us that we would say nothing more about the families.
Since only those in dire financial need would work for Ted, our office parking lot was the scene of frequent vehicle repossessions. Which is what I assumed was happening the next morning when I heard shouting behind me in the lot as I arrived. “That bastard. That bastard.”
I peered discreetly over the top of my car. To my shock, I saw Alexis standing behind her Porsche in impossibly white pants and a red tank top. She stomped her foot in its flat red dance slipper. Her long fingers with their unpolished nails covered her face. When she removed them, she was looking at me.
“I’m sorry,” I said stupidly.
“What am I supposed to do now?” She shouted.
`”You could always quit,” I said, and at her blank look, I realized that she was referring not to her father, but to some other man.
“You think my father is a bastard.” She laughed with mischievous relish. But a moment later, her face clouded and she stomped her foot again. “Why are men like that?”
“Oldest question in the world.”
“With some bimbo he met at Doc Ricketts’ lounge.” She said, answering my unasked question. The stupefying unfairness of existence suddenly crashed upon me; the ceaseless march of outrage: every caterpillar infested with its Ichneumon larva; every abandoned infant; every stock swindle, every sneak attack.
“Join the betrayal club, I’m president.” I said. She looked at me with sudden recognition.
“Oh, you’re the one whose husband left her.”
I have never been able to resist making people feel better at my own expense: “Yes, I am the said rejectee.” She walked over and hugged me. I glimpsed an artifact of the spirited, gawky child who must have been tamed and channeled very early in life.
“Your ex is a D.A.,” she said, “didn’t he just try that murder case?”
“Brennie Harlowe,” I said. “He strangled his girlfriend and stuffed ... ”
She shuddered and made a motion to stop me. “We were afraid he might get off.”
“Not a chance. That was one of Cliff’s easier cases.”
“He’s very attractive, your ex,” said Alexis. “Of course what he did to you was awful.”
An idea wafted into my mind like a spore and instantly took root, sending its devious tendrils spiraling. “How would you like to meet him?” I said. “After all, he’s single now.”
Alexis threw her head back and laughed too hard, the magnificent hair rippling.
“I thought he left you for another woman. Why would you ... .” I smiled at her with my lips shut. “Oh. You’d like me to break them up.”
“I’d like you to try.”
“But that’s just ... sowing discord,” Alexis said.
“Sweet discord.” She laughed again, lips curving with relish. “It would serve Peter right.”
“It’s a perfect way for both of us to get even,” I said. “Cliff is coming here at two to drop off some divorce papers; you could just casually stop by my office.”
She paused. “I’ll think about it. Not out of vengeance, but ... “
“Out of curiosity,” I supplied, knowing how irresistible to Cliff the curiosity of a girl like Alexis would be. She put her keys into her purse and kicked a pebble away from her car tire. We walked in together, I smirking at the effect this news would have on Brian.
When I reached my office, Thea was standing at my desk. “Roberta, we regret,” she said in front of Brian, who was indeed a stage prop to her, “that your work has failed to live up to our expectations. Consistently.”
“Is that so?” I said, my stomach dropping. “The only consistent thing about this place is the abu — ”
“Ted and I truly hope you find a position that’s a better fit for your ... talents.” Thea flapped my final check at me, and I seized it nimbly on the down flap, telling myself that being the victim of petty office scheming does not diminish one.
Nevertheless, I felt a cloud of asininity cover and conceal me like octopus ink. So now I was desexed and dejobbed. With as much dignity as I could muster, I retraced my steps out to the parking lot. Only in my ongoing internal movie did Brian burst from the building to pursue me in slow motion, whirl me around, and kiss me passionately to the accompaniment of Schumann’s Träumerei. In fact, he barely said goodbye.
Early that evening, Cliff called. “Thanks a lot,” he said, “for not telling me you were canned. Did you forget I was bringing down that addendum for you to sign?”
“I must have.”
“I drove all the way down there for nothing.”
“I’m sorry. Really.”
“I’m giving you the piano. Don’t you even want it?”
“I do,” I said.
“It took me over an hour to draft that up.”
“I believe you.”
“And another two hours on the road, all uncompensated.” I said nothing. “Well you can just come to my office yourself now and sign it. I’m not going out of my way again.”
“I’m trying to be fair about this whole thing, Roberta.”
“I know. Who did you talk to?”
“At the office. Did you speak with anybody while you were there?”
“Only the receptionist. She told me you were let go. Why?”
“Are you asking why was I let go?”
“I can guess that. Why do you want to know who I talked to?”
When I received a call from Saint Will the next day, I had an irrational moment of hope: perhaps Ted had come to his senses after all and wanted me back. I would now have the pleasure of delivering the scathing farewell speech I had given to my rear view mirror as I left the parking lot.
“‘Berta, Alexis died last night at Community Hospital. Her car hit a tree.” A silence opened between us, a widening abyss that I could not reach across. “Peter was driving.” Will finally said. “Nobody knows why she let him drive, he was drunk as a skunk. They were doing about sixty.”
“Oh, you know how it always is. He walked away with a few bruises.”
“Oh no,” I finally got out.
“It’s weird, but Peter apparently told the police they were having some sort of a fight. And ... well, your name came up.”
“I can’t imagine.” I said.
“It’s all very hazy, he doesn’t remember much. I just wanted to tell you that Alexis had nothing to do with your being let go.”
“I know that.”
“It was me,” said Will. “I was the one who suggested you might be happier ... working somewhere else.” He was breathing rapidly.
“You? I thought it was Thea.”
“Thea didn’t exactly go to the wall for you. But Ted actually argued for keeping you. He liked you in his own odd way, you know.” He paused. “I feel like hell.”
“Don’t on my account.”
“People are being very cruel. They’re saying Ted’s karma came around and got him.” An image that I had been fighting for the last several minutes finally bullied its way into my consciousness: that hair, soaked with blood.
“How’s Brian?” I asked.
“Inconsolable. They can’t get him to leave the hospital. Who knew he was so devoted to her?” Will paused. “Maybe it would have changed things if ... ”
“Nothing could have changed things.”
Peter Rinieri was initially charged with vehicular manslaughter, but in the following months, the criminal case receded into the back pages of the paper, dwindled and finally vanished. There must have been a civil suit too, quietly settled.
Last week, Clifford and his girlfriend were married at a church called The Little Congregation of the Human Spirit in the Redwoods. I have not seen Brian since I left the magazine, but for some reason, I keep running into Thea in downtown Monterey. She always greets me warmly, like a long lost friend.
Fluttering in the Remains
The Imperfect Patsy
A Suitable Poison
[ Back to August ]
Linda Boroff - Linda Boroff graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in English. Her fiction has been published in Epoch (Cornell University), Prism International (University of British Columbia, Vancouver), Cimarron Review, Hobart, Word Riot, In Posse Review, Storyglossia, The Summerset Review, JMWW, and other journals. Her novella, A Season of Turbulence, was published in print in The Conium Review. Her short story was a winner of the Eric Hoffer Prose Competition and appeared in the anthology, Best New Writing 2011. She adapted the biography, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story, by John O'Dowd, into a screenplay currently in development with producers Ira Besserman and Barrett Stuart. She was hired to write the film, Murder in Fashion, which played at festivals and theaters in 2010. Her short story, "Light Fingers," and the adapted screenplay are under option to director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer). Her articles have appeared on McSweeney’s, Gawker and other online publications.