By L.T. Fawkes
Lela sits at her seventh-floor window like a tweed-wrapped vulture looking down on the city. I watch her from the hall across half-a-ton of smooth off-white carpet. The building is corporate headquarters for Lela’s Bank and Tooth, or whatever it is she calls her power factory.
The window is the closest she usually comes to the city down there. She has a penthouse on the building’s top floor and there are gofers to run her errands for her. If things were different between us for five minutes, I would get her out in the sunshine, but I expect things between us will always be the same.
Lela’s short hair is the color of dried blood and her face is the color of a claw. Sometimes I love her and sometimes I wish she would jump out that window. She gives a little start, glances around, sees me. She smiles with her lips squeezed together.
“Ah, darling,’* she says, and I wonder if my name has escaped her for the moment. “When did you come back to town?”
Of course I haven’t been out of town. It’s just that I’ve been managing my life well enough that I haven’t needed to come and see Lela for awhile. I don’t tell her that. I don’t tell her anything. Lela doesn’t care if I don’t answer her questions.
She stands up slowly. “I assumed you were here to ask for a job,” she says. “That’s why I had my secretary send you down to the clinic for the physical. Have you brought the form?”
I have the long blue paper in my hands. At the top, in thick black letters, it says, “Medical Summary.” I hold it out and she snaps her bony fingers. People bring things to Lela. Lela does not come and get them.
It’s easy enough to feel strong watching her from the doorway, before she knows I’m there, but the power always flies over to perch on her shoulder when I have to walk across all that plush carpet to give her the form. She watches me coldly with licking, scavenger eyes. She takes the form and sits, examining it, while I stand awkwardly in front of her.
She finishes reading and smoothes the blue paper across the polished surface of her desk. “Very good, dear.” Her eyes run over me like steam rollers, mashing all the soft places so the harder parts become prominent lumps and bumps.
“And how is my dear sister?”
“Mother is ill,” I report. Mother is actually very well, but when I come to Lela, Aunt Lela, with my hat in my hand, I feel I should hold up my end of the bargain.
She smiles. The air around her red mouth is sulphurous.
“And your father?”
This is the big one. Lela wants me to invent yet another failure in the health or business of my father, who was Lela’s lover first, but left her for my mother. My father has been flourishing ever since like a greenhouse orchid through their long and steady marriage, but by this time, I know Lela wants a vivid memory-leveler.
This time, I’m ready for her.
“Drinking again.” I hang my head and use the opportunity to glance at my watch. Eleven-thirty. Lela will be knocking off for lunch soon.
“Drinking? Again? Oh, my.” I can almost smell the poison washing across her tongue. She analyzes my face. “I believe you are beginning to look like him.”
This is a new touch. I am caught off-guard for a minute and I have to scramble for a way to bounce us back on the track. “It’s odd you should say that, Aunt Lela, because . . . May I confide in you?”
“Of course. Dear.”
“I’m afraid . . . I’m worried that I’m beginning to develop some of his – ah – tendencies.”
Now I’ve got her, the witch. She stiffens with excitement and regards me, eyes glittering. “And so, you have come to me.”
Now we’re rolling.
“I need your help, Aunt Lela. There’s no one else I can ask.”
She stands, walks to her desk, shuffles papers. Sighs. It’s ritual. We’ve been through this several times before, but I always admire the way she does it. “I’ll see what I can do for you, dear . . . ”
She turns to face me. “In the meantime, why don’t you run down to Personnel and take a few aptitude tests? Then I’ll have a better idea of where I can fit you in.”
I act surprised. “Oh, thank you.” She offers a brittle hand and I shake it.
“Run along to Personnel, dear.”
In Personnel, the clerk gives me a test folder as she has done several times before. I finish with the tests in a few short minutes, randomly penciling in several little doodles and smiley faces. It doesn’t matter that I don’t answer any questions because the tests will never be graded. They will be shredded by the clerk the minute I return them to her.
She watches me curiously. She doesn’t know why she and I are doing this, but she has been told to do it, so she does it.
I stack the test papers and, on the face of the top one, I draw a sketch of a mangy dog licking himself. It’s quite a nice sketch. I sign it with a flourish and give the stack to the clerk.
She notices the drawing but doesn’t let it interfere with her efficiency. As she feeds the tests to the shredder beside her desk, she says to me, as if the idea had just occurred to her and she hadn’t said the same thing the same way a number of times before, “Why don’t you wait in the lunchroom? I’ll let you know when your aunt is ready to see you.”
“What a nice idea.”
The lunchroom has as wide a variety of vending machines as you’re ever likely to find anywhere. If you have enough change in your pockets you can buy five kinds of soup, five kinds of sandwiches, twelve kinds of soft drinks, six kinds of chewing gum, ten kinds of munchies, sixteen kinds of candy bars, five kinds of fruit, and eight kinds of hot plates such as pizza wedge, turkey slice w/gravy, or Salisbury steak. Not to mention three kinds of pie, three kinds of pudding, and three kinds of cake.
The person with change to spend could blossom into downright obesity within the off-white tile walls of Lela’s lunchroom.
Unfortunately, I have no change. A publisher has had my novel for four months and I haven’t heard a word about it since that first postcard where a typewriter acknowledged its receipt. Two magazines are holding two stories and not being communicative.
I have used up every cent of the money I got tending bar up until two months ago when the bar changed ownership and it wasn’t fun anymore. That is why I have come to Aunt Lela. Of course, there are other places I could go for money: friends, my mother who is not ill, or my father who definitely does not drink . . . but all those good people would make me a gift of the money. Lela, bless her browned-out soul, makes me earn it.
I have three more stories ready to mail when I have the price of postage, which will be at approximately four-thirty this afternoon. After I mail my stories I will go to the best restaurant I know and order the biggest steak they have.
Then I will go to my favorite office supply store and buy ink cartridges, a case of paper, pens, paper clips, and file folders – oh, and a six or two of MGD – take them back to my room and go on a three-week literary binge. All courtesy of my Aunt Lela. Who pays top dollar.
While I wait in the lunchroom for Lela’s summons, I make my plans and I watch Lela’s employees. They scamper in like mice, a few at a time, plunk their coins into the machine slots, fall onto chairs, put their elbows on the tables, nibble nibble, chatter chatter, look at the time and scamper out. In and out, like mice.
Sometimes one of them nods to me and smiles. I like that. They have families and mortgages and lawnmowers and you could count on them if you were their friend. They live right. They save five dollars a month and after awhile it amounts to something.
I wouldn’t mind working with these people and doing my writing in my spare time, comfortably, with a paycheck every Friday. Actually, the first time I came here to play Lela’s Game, I didn’t know it was a game. I thought I really was applying to Lela for a job.
When Lela sent me to Personnel that first time, I sweated over the tests and tried to get every answer right. I confidently handed my handiwork to the woman behind the desk and was all the way to the elevators before I thought of a question. When I breezed back into her office she was feeding my tests to her shredder.
We stared at each other in horror. I was horrified she was shredding my hard work and she was horrified I caught her at it. Back in Lela’s office, I didn’t rat out the Personnel woman and I was pretty confused when Lela discussed the results of my tests as if there had been some, other than a bag full of shredded paper.
Lela asked me to come back and try again, and I did that less than a year later, still not knowing we were playing a game. The second time, I didn’t work nearly as hard on the tests, and I waited a little longer before I popped back into the office, figuring the personnel woman would wait an extra minute before she fired up her shredder, not wanting to be busted again.
When I busted her, I shrugged and smiled, and she shrugged and smiled back.
Each time since then, I don’t bother with all the little boxes and blank lines on the tests. I just draw any funny cartoon that comes to mind and she doesn’t wait for me to leave the office. She shreds them right away.
I didn’t fully appreciate that it was Lela’s Game we were playing here until I’d been back another time or two, but I gradually began to understand that Lela didn’t want to hear that father was expanding his business and mother was learning macramé. Now I understand it perfectly well and I play the game the way Lela wants it played.
Time passes slowly as I sit in the cafeteria. I haven’t eaten much in the past few days and my stomach is beginning to talk to me. You might say my stomach is fed up with all this waiting. I chew my nails and bounce my foot and watch the mice until the hands on the clock on the wall finally wind their way around to four-thirty.
The clerk is in the doorway. “’Your aunt has called for you, Sir.”
Lela is leaning back in her chair when I come around the corner. She pulls a long face and it would mislead you unless you look closely at her eyes, which are giggling with pleasure. Other people go to the Bahamas or Lake Tahoe for their fun. Lela imports it.
“Sit down, dear.”
I sit across the desk from her. She will wait for me to speak, but I am supposed to squirm uneasily first. After all, I am supposed to be waiting breathlessly for her to offer me a job, based on the results of the aptitude tests over which I am supposed to have spent the afternoon laboring.
My entire future is supposed to be riding on the coming minutes, remember? That’s the way the game goes. So I squirm. Then I ask, timidly,
“Well, Aunt Lela? Can you help me?”
She chews on the side of her mouth. “You didn’t do very well on the aptitude tests, dear.”
“I didn’t?” You mean that dog drawing didn’t qualify me for management training?
“Not very well at all. Perhaps you aren’t feeling your best.”
“I feel all right . . . ”
“You know that I want very much to help my dear sister’s only son . . . ” She loves this, “but I do have a business to run . . . ” She always does this so beautifully. “. . . so I can’t very well give free reign to sentiment. I hope you understand my difficult position.”
She plays with a jeweled letter opener, idly pushing it around on her desk with one very long, very red finger nail. This is the part of the game where the nephew, sitting across from her, is quietly suffocating as the weighty ramifications of his dashed career wrap themselves around his chest.
I play it just as she wants it.
“I don’t know what to say, Aunt Lela.” There’s a nice throaty tone in my voice.
Lela looks up. Our eyes meet. For an instant the game is suspended and with a blink we tell each other, “I know exactly what you’re doing.” Then she tilts her head and curls her lower lip out in a fairly good simulation of sympathy.
Of course her bird eyes are filled with joy, but I don’t suppose she can do anything about that.
“You know, even an insignificant little headache can throw a person off for those tests. Perhaps that accounts for your low score.”
I look off, as if I were pondering the possibility.
“Let’s do this,” Lela says, standing up. “I can’t offer you anything right now, but you come back when you’re feeling tip-top and take the tests again. Then we’ll see. How does that sound, dear?”
“Oh, it’s very generous, Aunt Lela.” It’s nearly over now. I can almost taste that strip steak.
“In the meantime,” she says, coming around her desk, taking my hand, leading me to her office door, “stop by the cashier’s office downstairs. I gave instructions for them to have a little something ready for you.”
“Thank you, Aunt Lela.” Humbled. Confused. What could possibly be waiting for me, down at the cashier’s office? Could it possibly be a check for a thousand dollars, like it’s been each of the other times I’ve come in here over the past three-plus years and given Aunt Lela the pleasure of telling me, the son of her lost lover and the sister he married, that I fall short of her tests, I just don’t have what it takes to be one of her mice?
She holds my hand between hers. It is all she can do to coat the naked triumph in her voice with thin solicitation. “You’ll come back soon, dear, and have another go at those silly tests, won’t you.”
“Yes, I will.” Who wouldn’t, who was struggling along, trying to write and pay rent and eat, all at the same time, and was offered the opportunity to make a thousand dollars in one afternoon?
“Thank you.” I add the one last touch: I kiss her papery cheek, lightly, because it is expected. Then she releases me.
Lela watches me walk tightly, carefully down the hall, exactly like a young man who has just had his spine beaked out. Exactly like a young man who wonders what other people trust on a bad day.
In the elevator with Lela closed away, it occurs to me to wonder for the first time who or what this game satisfies. I got what I wanted but I don’t feel victorious. Lela got what she wanted but I don’t see how she can celebrate, either. It suddenly occurs to me that we’re both victims, with a shared vulnerability to some predator that neither of us can name.
I wonder if Lela and I will ever find a better way to know each other. She’s on a super-highway and she’s been hammering down it for a long time. I still haven’t found the road that suits me. I still flip a coin at every intersection. But I think I’m looking for just the right country lane – one that rambles up and down hills, in and out of the shadows of trees, and is rutted by my neighbors’ wheels.
Maybe there’ll come a day when I’ll find my country lane. And maybe, when I know my lane so well that I can find it again from any direction, I can find a way to detour Lela. Bring her onto my lane. Walk her along in the sunshine. Ladle water for her from a natural spring. Talk with her.