A Sparkling Vintage Life

Flash Fiction

secretary2The Girl from Back East

by Jennifer Lamont Leo


She came from back East somewhere. New York, maybe, or New Jersey, one of those places with “New” in the name that were nonetheless old and established and sophisticated, as she regularly reminded all within earshot which, this being a small office in a small city, meant most of us. Came out on the train, she said, and on that very train was Bix Beiderbecke, en route to some glittering engagement at The Davenport Hotel in Spokane. She saw him with her own two eyes. Our boss, Mr. Peters, supposedly hired her on account of her typewriting skills, though we suspected it might have more to do with her flaxen hair or shapely legs since she never seemed to do much typewriting and my workload continued on, heavy as ever.

We called her Genevieve, in the ordinary way, ignoring her preferred pronunciation of “Jon-vee-ev” which didn’t flow easily from our Idaho tongues. I didn’t even try to pronounce her last name, which was spelled Villiers but sounded nothing like that when she said it. Sam in the shipping room liked to provoke her by calling her Genny, for which she rewarded him with a snort of disgust. We girls tended to steer clear. At first we invited her to share a sandwich and soda with us at lunchtime, or go to the pictures after work, but she always declined as if she had something better to do. After a while, we stopped asking.

Her father, she implied, was some bigwig in the big Eastern town, and he’d given her the best of everything–the finest clothes, a shiny automobile, a fancy school. But she’d been obliged to come West on the train, she hinted, to escape a Tragic Romance–capital T, capital R–about which she spoke in hushed tones indicative of great suffering. My friend Margie, the bookkeeper, suspected it had something to do with a married man, though I thought it was more likely the man in question had died, an event not uncommon given the Great War and the flu epidemic, both so fresh in our minds. I had some experience with loss, having lost my own brother in the war. In any case, we didn’t know for sure, because Genevieve maintained an air of mystery about her. But whenever I acted friendly and tried to get to know her better, she’d shut down my overtures with some haughty comment about backwater towns or girls with little fashion sense, which made me wonder what she was doing here at all, if Back East was so much more to her liking.

After not too many weeks Mr. Peters took Genevieve off of typewriting and put her on answering the telephone, which disgruntled Doris Cox something awful. Doris liked to answer the telephone, but her voice was gruff, and she tended to grill the clients in a way that made them think twice about calling Mr. Peters with their business. Genevieve had a silken voice that wrapped itself around the clients’ imaginations, which meant the telephone rang twice as often, which made Mr. Peters happy, but not me. I hate the blasted instrument and escaped into the file room as often as I could.

It was there that Margie found me one day. “Psst! Esther!” she whispered, peering around the doorway. “Jimmy Wheeler’s here.”

I slammed the M-N-O drawer shut, narrowly missing my finger, and patted my hair, grateful it was freshly bobbed. Jimmy Wheeler worked as a salesman for the company. He spent most of his time out on the road, but stopped into the office whenever he was in town. He and I weren’t exactly an item, but sometimes if he stayed in town long enough, we had dinner together at the cafe or saw a movie. He had wavy brown hair and dark eyes that crinkled at the corners when he smiled.

But when I went out to the front and said, “Hi, Jimmy,” he was directing his crinkly-eyed smile at Genevieve. She was laughing her throaty laugh and he was hanging on her every word, twirling his hat in his hand. And come closing time it was Genevieve he invited to the Rosebud Cafe, though he said I could come along if I wanted to, which I didn’t. My heart ached, even though Margie said “Never mind” and took me to the drugstore for hot chocolate. The Christmas lights strung along First Avenue were pretty, but I kept thinking about how last year I’d admired them with Jimmy, and this year it was Genevieve simpering on his arm.

The next day, still stung by the green-eyed monster, I could barely look at Genevieve. Jimmy was in the office briefly, and he even stopped by the file room to say hello and give me a wink, but I gave him the cold shoulder.

“What’s eating you?” he said, leaning against the door jamb.

I didn’t answer, just turned my back and concentrated on my filing.

“Hey,” he said. “There’s a Charlie Chaplin at the Gem. Know anybody who might like to go?”

“Why don’t you ask Genevieve?” I snapped, and the file drawer banged shut so loudly that we both jumped.

A shadow crossed his face, and I felt a little bad. After all, we didn’t have any sort of understanding between us, that I was his girl or anything like that. Much as I hated to admit it, he was free to go to the movies with anybody he pleased, even Genevieve. But before I could say anything else, he left with Mr. Peters to call customers, and I didn’t get a chance to talk to him for the rest of the day. If he did take Genevieve to watch Charlie Chaplin, it would serve me right.

Late that afternoon, Genevieve and I left work at the same time. The early winter darkness had already fallen. She headed down the street toward the Gem, and I was so sure she was going to meet Jimmy that I did the unthinkable–I followed her. Bundled in my scarf against the cold, my feet crunching on the freshly fallen snow, I trailed her down the street, hanging back a half-block or so, so she wouldn’t suspect. Her fancy cardinal-red coat was easy to keep an eye on. But instead of turning in at the Gem or the cafe, Genevieve walked right past them and turned in at the county building, where all the lawyers had their offices.

Now my curiosity was really piqued. What business did she have at the county building? My heart started beating faster and I forgot about Jimmy. Was she seeing a lawyer? It was none of my business, but I couldn’t help speculating. Was she in some kind of legal hot water? And if she was, shouldn’t Mr. Peters know about it? After all, as the company receptionist, she was in charge of dispensing petty cash from the box with the tiny key that was kept in her desk drawer. What did anybody know about her background, anyway? Only what she told us, which frankly seemed too outrageous to be true. Why would a fancy girl like her come to work at a dusty little no-account office like ours?

And if she was in some kind of trouble, and Mr. Peters found out about it, she’d probably be fired, and then she’d leave town, and leave Jimmy alone. What a tantalizing prospect.

There was one way to find out. I turned and walked quickly back up First Avenue and over to the public library. I shrugged off my wet coat and placed it on the back of my chair. The steam radiators hissed as I combed through back issues of the newspaper, looking for any mention of Genevieve’s name.

I was about to abandoned the quest when suddenly the name “Villiers” jumped off the page of a months-old newspaper. The article said that this man Jacques Villiers had robbed another man in a lumber camp outside of town, and from what I could gather, he would be lodging at the jail for quite a while. Considering the man’s age and other scant details mentioned in the article, I figured out he must be Genevieve’s father.

Reality settled over me with a clammy chill. The illustrious father , the supposed bigwig in a big town Back East, was in reality a common lumberjack, and a jailbird at that.

I’d caught Genevieve in a lie. Who knew what else she had lied about? Wait until I told Mr. Peters. She’d be out of a job faster than you could say “Jack Robinson.” Or Jacques Villiers. And then she’d be out of our town, and out of our lives.

It wasn’t until the library was closing that I realized I had skipped supper entirely. The thought of heating up a can of soup in my own lonely kitchen didn’t appeal, so I ducked into the Rosebud to ask Myrtle to make me a sandwich while I planned out what I’d say the next day to Mr. Peters.

The cafe was practically empty of customers. Myrtle was wiping down the counter. From a corner of the room corner, I heard someone say, “Hello, Esther.”

I turned, and in the shadowy corner, all by herself, sat Genevieve, warming her hands around a mug of coffee.

The first thing I felt was relief that Jimmy wasn’t with her. Then the next thing I felt was the smug knowledge that I knew her shameful secret.

“Hello, Genevieve,” I said in my most dignified voice.

“Can you sit for a minute?” she said. “I could use some company.”

I felt myself blink in surprise. “Me? Um, sure. Of course.” I asked Myrtle to serve my sandwich at the table instead of wrapping it up.

I slid into the seat across from her. I glanced at her fancy red wool coat, and for the first time I noticed that a button was missing, and the lapels were frayed. Just like her stories, I thought unraveling at the seams. But somehow the thought that I was about to turn her entire life upside-down wasn’t as gratifying as I thought it would be.

I wanted to see her as a liar, a cheat. But suddenly, at a shabby table in the Rosebud Cafe with the snow swirling outside, all I could see was a daughter who’d traveled across the country to be near her father, and the stories she’d woven to protect them both from our judgment.

And all at once, I knew I wasn’t going to say anything to Mr. Peters–not tomorrow. Not ever.

Because it wasn’t any of my business.

Because she’d already been through enough.

And because sometimes, it’s when we’re at our most unlikable that we most need a friend.