Not long after my boss separated from is wife, Darren showed up for work with an invisible ribbon of Calvin Klein cologne trailing him. He lingered, like a hungry pigeon near a park bench, at the desk of Arianna, our middle-aged, well-endowed bookkeeper.
Who could blame him? She was as bawdy and southern as a backwoods juke joint on Saturday night. She brought laughter into our otherwise stressful workplace. The combination of her accent and enormous bosoms made her a natural target for Dolly Parton jokes. But she didn’t carry quite as much poise as Dolly.
Once in the lunchroom she announced, “I haven’t been with a man in so long ya’ll, that the next time I drop my bloomers for somebody, I’ll have to sweep the cobwebs out of my privates.”
Arianna called me over to her desk one day, her purple-shaded eyes darted left and right. I assumed something tawdry was about to happen. When she said she had something to tell me that she wasn't sharing with everybody, I moved closer. I knew her propensity for pornographic proverbs, and I wasn't about to miss one.
But she surprised me when she told me to go cash my paycheck "raht quick." She made it clear she didn't mean deposit. Get cash. I shook my head and asked her why I'd want to carry around such a large wad of money.
She said nothing, but twisted her red-painted lips as if thinking. Now really curious, I leaned over her. From her toothy smile came the scent of Juicy Fruit gum and cigarettes. She whispered that there was a cash flow problem.
“That’s right," she said looking at my gaping mouth. "Now you get it.”
She assured me she was only telling her favorite employees so they could race to the bank first. Not everyone's check would clear.
I confessed to Arianna that it bothered me when the bosses of our floundering mom and pop business took so many ski trips, Alaskan cruises and tours of Greece. How could they possibly afford that?
She shook her head, and mumbled something about them throwing money around "like they got enough to burn a wet mule.”
Asking her to explain that analogy would only detour the conversation, so I pushed on. “This is the kind of stuff makes me want to tell them to stick it the next time they ask me to work overtime.”
“Now you just hush with that,” Arianna used her Mama’s going-to make-you-biscuits-and-gravy tone. The voice that oozed honey whenever angry clients called. Why isn’t my job finished? They’d demand. What do you mean this will cost twice the quoted price? Management relied upon Arianna to intercept those calls, deliver the bad news, and claim management was tied up. If the clients were men, she’d dollop on a sexy sigh at the end of the words “tied up.” After that, they usually forgot why they’d called in the first place.
She advised me not to go biting the hand that feeds me, and reminded me how much I'd been trying to save money to take my nephew somewhere for his birthday.
She was right. I needed that overtime. But after just seven months at the company, I saw a pattern. The owners promised clients the seasons, the weather, and all laws of physics, with lightning-fast turnaround times. When deadlines loomed, they snapped at the employees, acting surprised when we couldn’t finish jobs as fast as they’d promised. Then came their exchanged looks. One would jerk his head towards the office, and they'd scramble inside. When they emerged, one of them would suddenly remember an important “business conference” they’d bought tickets for in Hawaii, or Jamaica.
I was fed up making excuses to clients who wanted my head on a platter when Curly, Mo and Larry were nowhere to be found. And now they couldn’t even make payroll?
I knew Arianna could relate. The bookkeeping kept her busy. But she didn't deal with the public, so the owners didn't give her more clients than she could handle. I busted my butt for them, and they were spending money faster than it came in.
My gaze fell upon Arianna’s desk. A framed photo sat wedged in the corner half-hidden behind her phone. Arianna and Darren. Smiling the giddy intoxication of love, together on Darren’s new sailboat. Purchased used, but still a thirty-thousand dollar investment. Everyone knew this because his ex had screamed the amount over and over in their last shouting match.
The photo looked innocent on the surface, but something else caught my attention on the stern. Something small, in red letters. There, in flame-shaped font, was the boat's name: Hot Southern Lady.
That's when Arianna’s face froze, and turned her head to follow my gaze. I pretended to look the other direction at someone’s cough from the next room. But she’d seen what had stopped me mid-sentence.
No one blamed her for our boss's divorce. It was clear from day one they’d either split or kill each other first. But that photo—and the name on the boat—had somehow transformed Arianna in my eyes. From the ordinary working person she portrayed, to one of them. I cleared my throat, and wandered back to my department, with shoulders and spirits drooping. And wondered why exactly I felt so betrayed.