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Three Weeks Earlier: The Day It Began
Before that day, our lives raced along an invisible roller-coaster track, a cart fastened to the rails through engineering and forces we couldn’t wholly grasp, despite our superabundance of academic degrees. We moved with a sense of controlled chaos.
We were connoisseurs of dry shampoo brands. It took us four days to watch a complete episode of The Bachelor on our DVRs. We fell asleep with the heat of laptops burning our thighs. We took two-hour breaks to read bedtime stories to toddlers and tried not to calculate the total number of hours spent working as mothers and employees, confused as to which came first. We were overqualified and underutilized, bossy and always right. We had firm handshakes and hefty credit card balances. We forgot our lunches on kitchen countertops.
Each day the same. Until it wasn’t. The morning that our CEO died, we looked up suddenly to realize the roller coaster had a faulty wheel and we were about to be thrown off the rails.
Ardie Valdez—a patient, stoical person, with practical, well-made Italian shoes—was the first to have an inkling of the crash ahead. She heard the news and decided to take cover. “Grace?” She stood in the hallway—sterile, but with unaffordable art—and knocked on a plain closet door with a cow magnet stuck to its front. “It’s me, Ardie. Can I come in?”
She waited, listening, until she heard a rustling behind the door. The legally mandated lock flipped out of place.
Ardie ducked into the small room and latched the door behind her. Grace was already settling back onto the leather sofa, her silk blouse hitched cockeyed over two plastic cones fastened to her breasts.
Ardie surveyed the room. A mini-fridge. The beat-up sofa on which Grace sat. A small television set playing Ellen. Outside, she could hear voices, quick steps, phones being answered and copies being made. She frowned, approvingly. “It’s like your own little hideout in here.”
Grace reached for the dial of the breast pump and it began its methodical, mechanic whir. “Or like my own little tomb,” she said lightly.
Grace’s dark sense of humor always managed to catch Ardie off guard. From the outside, Grace seemed so uncomplicated. She had teased, bleached blonde hair, was an active member of the TriDelta Alumni Club, and attended church at Preston Hollow Presbyterian with her tall, dark, and checkered shirt–wearing husband, Liam. They’d been on the personal invite list to the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and identified as “compassionate conservatives,” which Ardie took to mean that they wanted gay people to get married, but preferred to pay as little in taxes as possible. Also, they owned at least one handgun in a lock safe that they kept on a garment shelf in Grace’s walk-in closet, and the fact that Ardie liked Grace in spite of all that said something.
“How much should babies eat, anyway? I am always pumping. I mean, fuck, Ardie, look at me, I’m watching Ellen during the day.”
Grace didn’t usually say “fuck.”
Ardie remembered how long the days felt when her son, Michael, had slept only a few hours at a time. Her entire body had felt heavy and dirty, as if she had a thin layer of grime over her whole body, like unbrushed teeth.
She rummaged through her tote bag and pulled out two sweaty cans of La Croix. She handed one to Grace and dropped down on the floor in front of the couch. Ardie could do things like sit on floors at work because—and she’d be the first one to admit this—she had opted out. Years ago, actually. She slept in instead of spending an extra hour in the morning on hair and makeup. She went shopping almost never. She didn’t spend a minute of her precious time in Pilates. It was the most liberating thing she’d ever done.
She glanced down at her phone. Still nothing.
“So apparently,” Ardie said, “Bankole died. At home this morning when he was getting ready for work.” She delivered the news matter-of-factly. Ardie didn’t know another way to deliver news. It was always, My mother has cancer or Tony and I are getting a divorce.
“What? How?” Grace dropped the tubes she’d been busy trying to reinsert into the funnel-like contraptions poking out of her nursing bra.
“He had a heart attack. His wife found him in the bathroom.” Ardie propped her elbows on her knees, staring up at Grace. “I just found out.”
Ardie had met the company’s CEO, Desmond Bankole, only once, a handshake in the elevator because he’d made a point to meet every person who worked in his building, down to the cleaning staff, at least once. His teeth were very white. He was smaller than she thought he’d be, with birdlike wrists peeking out underneath his suit jacket.
“I’m hiding, by the way,” Ardie said—and before Grace could ask—“from Ames. He keeps asking where Sloane is. I told him she was probably out for lunch. He said that he hadn’t approved her leaving for lunch today. I said she’s the Senior Vice President of North American Legal Affairs and she doesn’t need his approval to go to lunch and—”
“You said that to him?” Grace sat up. Sloane was their friend, but also technically their boss, which made Ames their boss’s boss.
“Of course, I didn’t really say that to him. Are you crazy?”
“Oh,” Grace said, blinking. She toyed with the small diamond cross dangling from her necklace. The electric whir of her pump counted off time between them.
“So I’m hiding in here like a coward,” Ardie continued. “Waiting for Sloane to call me back.” As a rule, men like Ames didn’t care for Ardie. He hated having to listen to someone he didn’t enjoy looking at. When he asked her where Sloane was, his eyes skirted over and around her and he moved on as soon as he could. She didn’t mention this part to Grace.
Ardie cringed. Grace’s breasts could not be ignored in this small room. “It just sucks them up so that they looked like torpedoes. Doesn’t that hurt?” Ardie’s son, Michael, was adopted almost four years ago, a happy end to years of infertility struggles. She’d never done any breastfeeding herself, but she’d always imagined serene suckling, coveted skin-to-skin contact, a loosely draped handwoven scarf to conceal those who were too modest. Not this violent yanking that she was now witnessing up close.
“Not as much as Emma Kate’s mouth, to be honest.” (Breastfeeding was supposed to be painless they told us. Breastfeeding was beautiful, they said. Well, we would like to drag their nipples over asphalt and see how painless and beautiful they thought it was.)
“God, we can invent smart toothbrushes,” said Ardie. “My robotic vacuum can find its home and put itself to bed at the end of the night and we can’t invent a thingamajig to suck out milk that works a little better than that?” The machine was sort of grotesquely mesmerizing.
“Men have teeth.” Grace raised her eyebrows. “And floors.”
Ardie took a long swig of grapefruit-flavored sparkling water as, on screen, Ellen DeGeneres welcomed a young man on stage. He looked like a teenager and Ardie didn’t have the slightest clue who he was. She tapped her phone screen again: nothing new.
“I just had a scary thought,” she said, after a beat. “Ames could be the next CEO.”
“No. You think?”
“He looks like a CEO. He’s tall. People like tall.” Ardie clenched and unclenched her fist, stretching out the carpal tunnel that was a constant threat to her wrist. “I’m telling you,” she said. “That son of a bitch could run this company and then where will we be?”
It wasn’t just the rumors involving an intern. Or what had happened with his executive assistant two years earlier at the Byron Nelson golf tournament, after which guess who had been fired? Spoiler alert: not Ames. It wasn’t even the idea that corporate culture started at the top and a Truviv with Ames at its helm would be like announcing open season.
It was that Ames Garrett hated Ardie.
“I don’t know,” said Grace. “He’s always been nice to me.”
Ardie let the issue sit. Grace was a few years younger than Ardie and Sloane and still clung to the notion that someone could be a “good person” despite their actions, as though actions weren’t the very indicator of one’s person. And Ardie had seen Ames Garrett in action.
Still, there were issues one didn’t discuss, even among friends—religion, money, and, perhaps, Ames.
Grace turned the dial on her pump to increase the intensity. One of the tubes popped out of place and quivered along the floor. A white drop spilled onto Grace’s skirt. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back, her nostrils caving. When she opened them, her eyes shone. She rubbed her wrist into her nose and picked up the errant tube with purposeful calm. She missed the hole twice when she attempted to reconnect the attachments. The third try was a success. She gingerly sat back into the couch. “That really is depressing about Bankole, though.” She trained her glassy gaze on the TV screen. “Is it wrong that we’re not more sad?”
Ardie didn’t reply because Grace actually did seem very sad.
Ardie checked her phone again. A single bar of service.
Where the hell was Sloane?
Copyright © 2019 by Chandler Baker