For three years, lifetimes ago, I was an office manager at a credit agency. During those years, with one exception, I never fired anyone. Probably this was because everyone quit first. The pay was miserable, there was too much work for any person to do in any given position, and my superior was an aimless man who was slowly ruining us all. His office window looked out onto the street, and it was on the sill of this window, visible to every passerby, that he kept his balled-up hamburger wrapapers. It was from this man that I received orders to fire Paula.
I wasn’t supposed to fire Paula because she was lazy or in-competent. We kept on a lot of people who were lazy and in-competent. In fact, they tended to be the ones who got the most respect from the majority of us. I was to fire this young person, this twenty-one-year-old typist, because when she took her first vacation her replacement from the temp agency did an astonishingly better job and was willing to take over Paula’s job. The girl from the temp agency, Linda, typed at what was a phenomenal rate, according to my superior, although I had never been a witness to her fast finger work. Purportedly, she didn’t make mistakes either. She was prompt. To top it off, she brought my superior his hamburgers twice during the week that she served as Paula’s replacement.
Why I eventually agreed to fire Paula was not a mystery to me. My superior made it sound like a solid business practice to fire Paula. Besides, he so seldom made a demand that it seemed unthinkable to argue for too long with him—although I did express my opinion that we should keep Paula.
Paula had been with us for just over a year. She was quiet and did her work. She wasn’t late—except for a couple of times and then with good reasons. She sometimes got lost in details, that’s true, and once she handed in a document that was part gibberish. But when she was told about the problem she worked straight through her lunch hour to get the report straightened out. She was, I think, entirely unremarkable.
Except for her brother.
For years, even long after I fired Paula, I would think of her brother and feel a surge of longing and confusion—and even some envy of Paula. In fact, on a certain level those of us women who saw him (he stopped by at least once a week to take Paula out to lunch) felt almost proprietary toward him. He and Paula had the same dark coloring and slim, graceful build, although he was considerably taller. But more than his good looks, it was his manner that was touching. He remembered everyone’s name after the first visit. Without fail, he helped his sister put on her coat. He had a way of making his whole face smile, and then he’d turned to Paula with a wink, and for a moment you could see what they’d been like as a couple of little kids. It was obvious that he was the kind of brother who could manage a secret. It seemed certain that they had had secrets as children—silly little secrets that they kept and that drew them closer together. You just knew that he was the big brother who protected her. I imagined that he would protect her after she was fired too.
I suppose that seeing Paula’s brother was so refreshing because of some of the things I had to do and say. For instance: I had to tell a pretty young woman that she smelled funny—so funny that people couldn’t get their work done around her. Frequently, I listened to employees tell me about their gynecological problems because they knew that although I was also a woman I would never in a million years ask them follow-up questions, and so they could get the day off with only a small amount of self-humiliation. Along with that sort of thing I counseled someone with an ulcer who worked with a can of warm cola at her elbow on doctor’s orders. I think she got an ulcer because she was such a good listener—everyone confided in her. For a while two pregnant women kept falling asleep while talking to clients on the telephone. There were harrowing things too: I had to barricade the door three times when deranged husbands or boyfriends came for the women who worked in the agency, and one of the husbands was our security guard. Worst of all, I had to pretend that I didn’t notice when a woman from accounting came in with her newborn baby and the baby was missing a hand.
No one had warned me. It was a beautiful baby, and I said it was a beautiful baby. And there was the mother making hardly more than minimum wage, and there was her baby without a hand.
Presumably there is a way to fire people, but I didn’t know how to do it.
It shouldn’t be done right before Christmas or New Year’s, I reasoned. I decided that the right time to fire Paula was three weeks after New Year’s. If I had to do it over again I wouldn’t have done it at that time because that’s the time, at least in Ohio, when few people have anything to live for. The snow has been around for a long time and has a used, particularly defeated look. It begins to look unnatural, even though nothing could be more natural. And then you have Valentine’s Day looming around the corner, like some sort of mean mockery of everybody. But, as I said, the snow is the worst part. It isn’t even a color anymore—but an unreflective, dead, noncolor. When I had to confront my superior again to see if he still meant that I ought to fire Paula, I stared out the plate-glass window behind him, past the hamburger wrappers wadded on the windowsill. The snowbanks looked as if an occasional canon shot landed in them. That sort of bleak snow makes you think that nothing will change. Things will just break down and wear away at best.
“Are you all right?” That was Paula’s question to me. She put her hand on my forearm. Her touch was gentle and hesitant, and I noticed for the first time how broad her face was, like a child’s.
She had touched my arm after I asked her to come into the restroom with me. When I realized that she thought I must be ill and was asking for her help, blood shot into my head.
Of course I thought it would be best to fire Paula first thing in the morning, so that she would have the whole day to herself and so that her brother couldn’t accuse us of getting the most possible work out of her before letting her go. I also thought it would be best to fire her in the restroom so that we would have some privacy. My own desk was at the head of an office of eight desks. Certainly there was no privacy there. In particular, I didn’t want any men to see her being fired. It would be too humiliating to be fired in front of a man—even some of the kinder men. And of course there were men in the credit agency who had hardened their hearts long ago to women in trouble.
I thought that my firing of Paula should be swift too.
But this is the truth: although I had rehearsed ways to break the news to Paula, I can’t remember a word I said to her. I was trying to keep my balance so that I wouldn’t plunge my head into the sink.
I must have said something to the effect that she was being replaced because of the accelerating demands of the position she was filling (i.e., typist).
I braced myself for angry words—because even a quiet, passive sort of person like Paula can let you have it.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the way Paula cried. Never before and never since have I seen anything like it.
There was no prologue. Seemingly no beginning. No snuffle or slow moistening of the eyes or blushing of the cheek.
Her crying was instantaneous and silent. It was as if water were spurting soundlessly out of her head.
If I hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have believed it: it was as if she had to be made of tears. Her blouse—a violet-colored flimsy blouse that showed the outlines of her bra—was wet with tears. As if she had to cry not only out of her eyes but out of her cheeks and out of her eyebrows and out of her chest.
I count it as a miracle that no one came into the restroom during all this.
I myself was ready to run from the restroom. I couldn’t even see her eyes for her tears; her eyes were that puffy and her tears were that profuse.
And then I started.
I was crying—and I wasn’t even feeling sympathetic toward poor Paula during those moments. I was only feeling physically sympathetic, I suppose. I was lurching and crying. I was in my tears, inside them, swimming in them, and all my sadnesses came up—things I can’t mention here and would rather not dwell on. They came up not as discrete names or memories but as substances of some sort without features, as if my sadnesses had turned to liquid inside me.
When I finally gathered myself, when I could see again, Paula had left the restroom.
I walked through the back door to her desk. She wasn’t there. Her coat was not in the cloak room. I ventured back to her desk, in case somehow I had missed her, and the big beige typewriter—we used electric typewriters in those days—seemed to be resting by itself, just waiting for Linda, the remarkable replacement for Paula.
Now I am going to move swiftly to another part of the story, the part where I come to see that I have been party to something like a murder. But of course it took me a good long time to figure it out, and once more something strange happened in the agency’s restroom.
The next week when I saw Linda seated at Paula’s typewriter I felt guilty. I hadn’t paid much attention to Linda during the week she was temping, but now I looked at her closely. She had Paula’s coloring, that was true, but not Paula’s smile. Paula had a shy, embarrassed smile—as if she were apologetic just for being Paula. Linda’s smile was a challenge. It was a smile that practically spoke. Her smile said: You are so stupid. When she smiled one of her teeth stuck to her lower lip.
On the very first day she only typed in the necessary information on three of the forms that we use for garnishing wages.
On the second day it occurred to me that there was something vicious about the way she looked at me. And then I realized the obvious: she felt pity for Paula—and anxiety. She was afraid that she would suffer Paula’s fate. She thought of me as the sort of office manager who fired people easily and often and thoughtlessly.
As I recall it now, I made a point on the third and fourth days of her first week to stop by her desk. I even brought her coffee twice to show her that there was nothing to worry about.
Once, I watched her when she couldn’t see me. She was looking into a compact of facial powder with such concentration that I wondered what she could be seeing. She squinted at her reflection. She actually licked her lips. And then she smiled at herself—a beautiful, dazzling, full-toothed smile that lit up her eyes, a smile I had never seen her use for any of us.
At the end of the week I actually found myself staring into the restroom mirror and wondering why I appeared to be a person who is easy to disdain. I washed my hands, pulled off one of the manila papers to dry my fingers, and when I was about to toss the paper into the wastebasket I saw something that made my heart skip: mailing addresses. Lists and lists and lists of mailing addresses. Linda’s mailing addresses. They had cost us a fortune to obtain, and she was supposed to affix those addresses to envelopes for our new advertising brochures. She had dumped them here. There could be no mistake.
It had been a long day, and suddenly I was close to tears. Linda had left early, and so I retrieved the mailing labels from the waste basket and put them on the top of her typewriter. I knew that I wouldn’t even have to talk to her about them on Monday. She would see the mailing labels and know that I knew what she was up to. That ugly smirk would dissolve back into her face, and she would have to contend with the labels and my knowledge of her perfidy—and her knowledge that I couldn’t be viewed as an imbecile quite so easily anymore.
As it turns out, Linda had picked up her check earlier that afternoon (it had been processed because we were at the end of the month). We never saw her at the agency again.
One of the women in our office, the one nursing an ulcer, informed me that Linda told her just before she left us that Paula had contracted gonorrhea. Furthermore, this was due to the fact that Linda had seduced Paula’s boyfriend after she her¬self contracted gonorrhea from her dentist during a checkup that turned passionate following a routine cleaning.
“But why,” I asked, “why did Linda want to hurt Paula?”
About two weeks later I was able to figure something out again thanks to the woman with the ulcer.
“Did you know that Linda used to live with Paula’s brother?” the woman asked.
I felt my breath knocked right out of me. With that information I could see that I understood everything. How better to harm Paula’s brother than to harm Paula?
“He must have dumped Linda in some spectacular way, and poor Paula was the sacrificial lamb,” I told the woman with the ulcer. “I bet he was polite about dumping Linda. He used his politeness like a weapon. That would make Linda want to kill him, at the least.”
And then my friend with the ulcer said: “Guess who else is walking funny these days?”
Of course I found out that she meant my superior.
It was all miserable—and more trouble for Linda than it should have been worth.
This all happened so long ago, but parts of it are very fresh to me. Especially the firing and the way Paula cried. And her brother. Sometimes I felt guilty about Paula and her brother although I never tried to contact either of them to apologize.
Just this past year, believe it or not, I saw Linda again, and I still recognized her after all this time. I was visiting with my cousin who asked me to stop with her at a yarn shop. This was about ten miles outside of Cincinnati at one of those little malls. I recognized Linda immediately. She was standing under rows and rows of knitting needles of all sizes, most in bright metallic colors—blues and greens and magenta. A line of hand-knitted sweaters dangled from the wall behind her. She had a kind of washed-out look. Instantly it occurred to me that if she were a sweater she would look nice until you turned her inside out and saw all the loose knots and clumped spots.
She tried to sell me some angora yarn but backed off immediately when she sensed my lack of interest. She had a superior air, and so it was likely that she owned the shop. It occurred to me too that she must have been a fabulous knitter and had successfully changed her avocation into a vocation. I tried to imagine her reputedly fast fingers clicking the needles, but of course she didn’t give me a demonstration. Her smile was much the same; one little tooth kept getting caught on her lip. At one point her hand fluttered up to hide it—even from me, an old nobody.
And then a month later—this is the way life is, some version of reality will always come to get you, let no one tell you otherwise—I was at a wedding reception when I met a woman who appeared vaguely familiar. When I told her my name she laughed and said she knew something she bet I didn’t know: “You fired my niece twenty years ago.”
This particular woman was about my age, heavy-set, sloppily drunk, and extremely talkative. She was laughing as she spoke. She looked, I could see now, a lot like Paula and her brother. And apparently she knew my name because I was a family legend of some sort.
I found out from that woman what I could about Paula’s life.
Paula—get ready for this—is a chief executive officer of a major marketing company. I felt disoriented for a moment. Who could have predicted it? Paula must fire people all the time. You can’t be in a position like that without ruining people’s lives. Paula, I learned, was also married and the mother of a teenage daughter. A powerful person. Our Paula.
But I didn’t think I would drop Paula a line of congratulations for her good fortune and hard work even if her family laughed about her first job now. I knew what it had cost her.
“Don’t feel bad about firing her,” Paula’s aunt said, looking right into my eyes. “It was nothing to her. It was amusing. Given everything she had to deal with it was nothing.”
I was sure then that Paula must have made the firing incident into a family joke. She was fired from her first job, but look at her now.
“What about your nephew—Paula’s brother?” I asked the woman. Truth be told, I had wanted to ask her about him as soon as I knew she was his aunt. I had thought of him for years really. I had even tried to imagine having someone like Paula’s brother to comfort me on the two occasions when I got fired.
The wedding reception was virtually over. People were getting their coats. The roads were likely to be icy, and there was a sense of urgency in the air amid all the white and silver wedding decorations.
“What about your nephew—Paula’s brother?” I asked again.
“Oh dear,” the woman said. “You didn’t know? Paula doesn’t have a brother. You must mean Michael.” She paused and then I felt her determination—she would be swift, and she would lower her voice so we would have our privacy.
“I don’t like to speak ill of Michael, but he enjoyed fooling people. Paula didn’t like to do that, but he liked to go around pretending they were brother and sister.”
She must have registered the look on my face because she went on speaking even more quickly. “I know. I know,” she said. “It was strange. He liked to call Paula his sister. It was his strange joke—a kind of compulsion. He did it even in front of me. But I shouldn’t talk ill of the dead.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t know. Hodgkin’s disease. He must have been fighting it when Paula worked for you. I thought everybody knew. I thought you knew. You hired his sister.”
“Lynn was his sister’s name, I think. No, Linda. Linda was his actual sister.”
I was swimming in confusion. “The only person I ever fired in my entire life was Paula,” I said, “and I shouldn’t have.”
In my mind’s eye I saw Linda with all those knitting needles hanging over her head, and I felt what people used to call Holy Fear, the fear of a jealous God’s revenge.
Already I have had a long life, filled to the hilt with mistakes, but I’ll say this: it is a terrible perversion to harm the living just because you want to injure the dying.
It’s not that I’m bragging about, at last, knowing what I know. Or pretending in some mealy-mouthed way that I should have known more than I knew years ago. He took my breath away, I used to think of the beautiful young man who said he was Paula’s brother.
Why wouldn’t I have believed whatever he said: the man I thought was Paula’s brother? If I had known the truth I wouldn’t have said anything anyway. That’s what beauty and politeness do. When you see those two possibilities together in one person that person can lie to your face. You don’t say: Your real sister believes she’s the love of your life, not Paula. And you play your little game with Paula because your sister is right. You let Paula go, I didn’t. Would I have said that? It’s only family members who can correct one another that thoroughly and ruin each other in the process. Like anyone, even the bravest of the lot, it’s cowardice I understand.
*Lee Upton, “Let Go” from The Tao of Humilation. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.