She couldn’t explain how they did it. The company’s projected stock value had once again soared way over thirty million dollars, and the outlook for 2014 was good. It was as if they’d found their fairy godmother and suddenly their every wish was granted. Only four years ago, they’d been a small family-owned health store company struggling in a market that did not bode well for small companies or the investors they relied upon. Their most famous product was a protein bar and their primary marketing strategy was a futile search for a famous athlete to feature on its cover. Two years later, they no longer needed to hound athletes—they had finally gotten better distribution through whole-foods stores. They were able to go public, and in six months their stock prices had more than tripled. Myra’s former boss, who managed the company’s manufacturing plant, had just installed a swimming pool in his home. But her new boss, CFO Cal Michaels, made swimming pools look like animal troughs with the lagoon behind his Laguna Hills mansion and the three waterfalls gracefully diving into it.
Myra never begrudged her boss any of his luxuries. Not the eight hundred dollar suits or the company Camaro that usually lived in his parking space. Not even the genuine Kandinsky he kept facing his desk so that he could stare at it for long stretches with a mixture of pride and bemusement. He frequently joked about it with her, asking her things like “What does it look like today? A trash compactor? A robot from outer space chewing up those poor blob/circle things and spitting them out?” She would reply: “I think it’s somebody’s smashed computer and CDs. Maybe their Internet kept crashing on them like mine just did for the third time today. What? You don’t see that thing in the corner that looks like a desktop mouse?”
And every time, Myra could hear in her mind the word her father would have used: “Philistine.” But her father didn’t know anybody like Cal. He didn’t know anything about the real world, period. He was happy to toil away at his university professorship writing books only his students read and watching the news every night so that he could lecture his students every day about the evils of making any kind of living that actually grew the country’s economy. In his entire life he had never made more than the bare minimum their family needed to survive, so what did he know about success? If Myra wanted to discover how to be successful in this life, the perfect guru was sitting right there behind the CFO’s desk, and Myra, as his executive assistant, had endless opportunities for learning.
And really, when she thought about it, he didn’t seem that opposed to playing the guru role with his humble and grateful employee. She had openly expressed an interest in how the company’s stock was doing and what the sales numbers were, and he was always happy to spend twenty minutes explaining to her all his calculations and predictions. It made her feel favored, blessed really, to be privy to such a behind-the-scenes look at the magic he made. She could feel her whole face beam whenever she entered her boss’s office to find him casually perusing the morning paper, because she knew he’d make time to talk to her. And what’s more, she suspected he enjoyed their conversations, too. But she couldn’t put her finger on any hard proof. It was just his easy, friendly way, perhaps—the glint in his eye whenever she confessed she might like to be an accountant someday. Okay, so maybe he was laughing at her for sounding so silly and naive. How could she help herself, when Cal made accounting look so glamorous?
And was she totally mistaken to think that the object of her veneration sometimes found things to admire in her, too?
“Myra!” he’d say. “I’ve got a meeting with a big investor this afternoon and we’re going to be discussing stocks. Could you help me prepare my report? Meeting’s at four, so… I’ll need it by three. I’m counting on your keen eye for detail.”
“Of course,” she would reply, feeling the blood rise to her face as she thought to herself: He needs me. At least, he needs my “keen eye for detail.” That’s something.
When Cal first mentioned they were going to have an auditor visit the office and look over bank statements over the course of the next few days, Myra was so nervous for him she could hardly swallow food or water. But what disturbed her most was how little the news perturbed him. His face was the same wide, calm ocean, his attitude simply unflappable. “Auditors aren’t gods or supernatural beings, Myra. They’re just people,” he explained. “We’ll show them that this business was built by hardworking, run-of-the-mill people like you and me.”
The auditor’s name was Jason Cairns. He looked awfully young to be an auditor, and wore his hair in those soft, multidirectional spikes that were so popular among twenty-something men. He had a weak handshake. He was always looking around as though feeling himself a page boy in a king’s chamber. So he is, Myra thought. And she found herself beginning to relax around him.
He visited the office for four days. Cal asked Myra in advance to try to make sure he had no important investor meetings scheduled that week, and to hold all his calls. Each day, Myra entered the room frequently to inquire if he or Jason needed coffee, water, lunch, or anything printed or typed up. Every time she came in, Cal tried to involve her in their conversation, or start up a more fun conversation which usually had more to do with sports, television or movies than with money.
Jason always seemed relieved for the moment’s pause from his work. He would look up at her from his seat at Cal’s desk and through all the piles of paper he had made there, and say, “Hello—Myra, right?” with an almost puppy-like innocence. Meanwhile, Cal would try to pull her over to the armchair to which he had temporarily been exiled, and show her some funny or interesting or disgusting story in the paper.
She always wished she could get a closer look at what Jason was doing, however. Each time she entered the room, Myra found herself seized with a desperate curiosity to know what he was discovering about them. For several years now, no one besides Cal seemed to know anything about how this company really worked—but here was this young man, poring through the artifacts, piecing together the whole history. He was constantly requesting reports, invoices, statements, and each one seemed to puzzle him. He was obviously in over his head. Could he figure out the magic that made this small company suddenly successful? Could he solve the puzzle in a way that might explain all of the strangeness of it to her?
One day she poked in for practically no reason, to tell Cal that their receptionist was sick with a fever and going home. It wasn’t the sort of thing she usually kept him apprised of. Later, when she was getting ready to leave for lunch, she couldn’t find her keys. She stuck her head briefly in Cal’s door to ask if she could take a look around for them—perhaps she had dropped them in his desk when she brought in his paper in the morning? Cal looked surprised, and Jason too. She must have interrupted them mid-conversation, and she felt immediately guilty about it. She made up her mind to apologize to her boss later, and found an opportunity as they were getting ready to leave for the day.
“I know I come in a lot for stupid things… I’m so sorry.”
Again, Cal just had that surprised look. She went on: “Part of it, I think, is that I’m just so curious! You can’t possibly know how curious I am about how the audit is going—it’s like an itch that won’t go away!”
Cal smiled then. “You know, Myra, it doesn’t really bother me that you come in. That’s why I keep the door open a crack. In fact, I wish you’d come in more often. I was beginning to miss you. The others in the office can come in too—Barb and Sandra and Lucie. This auditor guy needs constant reminding that we are all people here.”
“It’s funny you should say that,” Myra said laughing.
“Oh, I just had one of my weird thoughts…”
“Ah. A Weird Myra Thought. Let’s hear it,” Cal said with a wide grin.
Myra giggled. “I was just thinking today…that he’s like an archaeologist. You know, digging through the ruins of an old civilization, looking for answers or something, when really all the people are still here. He could just talk to us.”
“An archaeologist. Interesting. Well…he’s no Indiana Jones!”
“No, he certainly isn’t!” she laughed. She didn’t quite know what she was laughing at. She never did. It didn’t matter.
The next day she relaxed and came in as often as she liked, and Cal never seemed to mind. He even encouraged Jason to be friendly with her. “Our Myra here, she wants to be an accountant someday,” Cal told him. Myra blushed.
“Oh really?” Jason asked.
“Maybe you can show her what you do,” Cal suggested.
“Oh, no, that’s not necessary,” Myra laughed. “I’m sure Mr. Cairns is very busy. Anyway, I have plenty of excellent teachers right here in the Financial Department. Especially Cal.”
“Well, I do declare, Myra’s giving out compliments today!” Cal laughed. “Better bring in the rest of the office staff for a morale-booster!”
Myra smiled, but her own morale was teetering, and at first she couldn’t figure out why. The audit was going fine, as far as she could tell, and Jason was a nice young man. But her work was a good deal less satisfying now. For days, there were no reports, there were no analyses, nothing financial for her to do, because their auditor was only interested in old reports. There were also no meetings for her to take notes for, no travel plans to book, no company paperwork for her to process. She was getting bored with fetching hot and cold beverages for the men.
She decided to delegate these duties to Lucie, her assistant, and tried not to notice how enthusiastically Cal and Jason responded to Lucie’s cheerful interruptions. When she overheard Cal openly complimenting Lucie on her newest hairstyle (she went through them roughly every four weeks) and Lucie laughed, “Oh, Cal, you’re such a sweetie,” Myra bristled. Sweetie? That was no way for Lucie to talk to her superior—and in front of a perfect stranger like Jason Cairns! She decided to jump in and put a stop to it. She stood up from her desk and poked her head in Cal’s door.
“How’s everything going?” Myra asked.
“Fine, fine!” Cal said, grinning.
“Okay. Lucie, I need your help with something when you have a minute,” Myra said.
“And then send her right back in. She and Jason were just getting acquainted!”
At last the final day of the audit had come, and Myra could look forward once again to doing some real work around here. She opened her email to find some sales numbers she’d been waiting for had just come in from their Henderson, Nevada store, and Myra could feel valuable again. She was still learning how to prepare the sales reports for Cal, but she wasted no time in starting. She was about halfway into it when Jason stepped out of the office.
“Cal have you hard at work?” Jason asked casually—but still with a nervous tension in his voice.
“Oh—no. If there’s something you need I can help you…”
“Nah. Whatcha working on?”
“Just a sales report. I like helping Cal crunch the numbers. I guess I’m a numbers girl.”
“A numbers girl.” Jason smiled but stared at her computer screen. “So how are you guys doing?”
“Great. It looks like, nationwide, this past month saw a four percent increase in profits.”
Jason looked dumbfounded. “Four percent.”
“Yeah. That’s pretty good, right? In this economy, too!”
“Oh, yeah, definitely. That’s great. Great.” Jason’s pupils became tiny dots focused on a pixel of light on her computer screen.
“Well… it was nice talking to you, Myra,” he said finally and left her desk.
When Jason re-entered Cal’s office, he closed the door all the way shut.
She could hear him talking to Cal. It wasn’t a heated conversation, but not as casual or friendly as their previous conversations had been. A feeling of dread came over Myra—the same dread she had felt on Monday when Jason first arrived. She couldn’t help herself. She rolled her desk chair inch by inch, trying not to make a sound on the carpet, until she could get her ear closer to the crack in the door.
“Four?” Cal was saying. “Maybe she meant fourteen. Our projections were actually closer to thirteen percent, but maybe we did a little better than we thought.”
Myra was dumbstruck. She didn’t remember anything about a projected thirteen percent increase. Had she been reading them wrong?
“She said four.”
“You must have heard her wrong.”
“The numbers she was working with on her computer screen seemed consistent with that.”
Cal snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it. Oh, man. She hasn’t seen the numbers from our North Carolina stores yet. And then there’s the Connecticut and Massachusetts ones. There’s always a bit of a lag working with our offices on the East Coast, because we’ll need something from them in the afternoon but have to wait ‘til the next morning to get in touch. And then by the time we get in, they’re already at lunch!”
Jason didn’t say anything for a minute. “Um… Where’s your store in North Carolina?”
“Well, we have a store in Wilmington, Raleigh, and just opened one in Charlotte Didn’t you say you were raised out there? Where was it…”
“Charlotte,” Jason confessed. “My mom still lives out there.”
“That’s right, you mentioned that. Just your mom?”
“And her fiance… She’s actually getting married next week. One of those ‘winter of our lives’ romances or whatever they call it.”
“Dude, that is awesome! I wish my parents would find that kind of happiness again. They can barely stand each other.”
“Yeah… I guess.”
“I know what I’m going to do,” said Cal. He was now pulling open his heavy desk drawer and rummaging for something.
“Okay,” Cal said, “what’s her address? I am going to send her a wedding gift she will love. She’ll get it probably in a week, just in time for the big day.”
“Oh, no, that’s not necessary…” the young auditor said.
“Nonsense! I’m going to send her a $100 store gift card. What, it’s a hundred bucks. Drop in the bucket compared to our executive bonuses. Personal gift from yours truly. Now, you’re not going to do your mother out of a great wedding present! Think about it. Your mother who was in labor with you. Good. Now write down her address for me, right there.”
Myra heard nervous laughter for a second, and then she didn’t hear anything for a while. She guessed the young man was sheepishly writing something down.
“There you go!” Cal said, with far more than his usual level of confidence. “Tell her to expect a surprise in the mail. And don’t worry about it. This comes out of my personal bonus. You do realize CFO’s get bonuses, right?”
There was a pause.
“And especially when the company’s doing well. We’re doing great. You’re sure my secretary told you it was a four percent profit increase? That’s like the understatement of the decade. Don’t worry. I’m not sure we’ll have this month’s report ready before you leave here, but we’ve given you everything else you’ve needed, haven’t we? And it all checks out?”
“Well, there’s still the store receipts—I haven’t had a chance yet to compare the store receipts to the bank statements—”
“Myra’s working on it. Could take a while.”
“Well, I have to be out of here tonight…”
“Really? That’s too bad. We should take you out just once before you leave town. Show you the real Orange County, you know?”
“You don’t think your secretary could just make some calls… I can’t finish the audit without seeing those numbers.”
“Well, with Myra… You gotta be patient with her—that’s what I’ve learned. You know, Myra…” he said with slightly lowered voice, “she’s good people, I mean really great, but she can also be kind of slow at times, even for a secretary. Walks around here in a daze, forgets her keys, forgets her purse…I used to think she had more common sense, but I don’t know. Great girl, though. You seemed to make an impression on her with your accounting experience and all that. She loves numbers guys. Calls herself a ‘numbers girl’! Imagine that. And she’s single. I’m just saying!”
Great girl. Ditzy. Understatement. Daze.
“Maybe I can arrange for us all to go out tonight. I’ll invite her along. And you guys can trade information, and maybe she can get back to you with those store receipts at a later date. That way, you can get back to North Carolina and help your mother out with her wedding. Be a good son. What do you say?”
“Well, I don’t know…” Jason said thoughtfully.
“And you know, we can also invite Myra’s assistant, Lucie. Lucie-Goosie. What? Girl’s a ton of laughs. She likes the nicknames. She might be single too, but I think she’s seeing someone. Nothing serious though. Come on, brother, you’re in L.A.! Live a little!”
Jason gave a brief nervous laugh. “Okay,” he said. “Dinner, or drinks?”
“Dinner, whatever you want, man. There’s a great steakhouse around the corner. We’ll show you around.”
“I haven’t had a decent bite to eat since I’ve been here,” said Jason. “I don’t know why, but it’s like everything’s so expensive in California.”
“That’s awful, bro,” Cal said with genuine empathy. “That’s terrible. Let’s make it up to you with some steak. You down?”
“Okay, I’m down,” said Jason.
“All right, I’ll go tell Lucie. Myra…On second thought, maybe not Myra,” Cal said, lowering his voice again. Myra wished she couldn’t really hear him, but she could, and the whole conversation was making her stomach turn itself in knots. “She’s Lucie’s boss and everything. I’ll just see if Lucie’s doing anything today.”
Jason didn’t seem to mind this. “Sure, whatever,” he said.
Myra had only four seconds before Cal opened his door. Hurriedly, she picked up her roller-ball chair and carried it back to her desk. Once her behind was in it, she stared hard at her monitor, trying to look busy. When Cal came out, she found she couldn’t look at him. Fourteen percent. No wonder the company’s profits had more than tripled. Just what was he doing with the reports she gave him each month? What was he adding to them? And the whole story about it taking forever to get store receipts was a lie. She kept files on them every month—she could have a year’s worth of receipts ready to view in two minutes flat. There was something missing here, something she was not understanding. She was not in fact privy to the magic after all—she was on the outside.
And there was Cal, watching her uncomfortably as he passed her on his way to Lucie’s desk at the front office, asking a casual but phony “What’s up, Myra?” without pausing for her reply.
Maybe she could ask to be transferred to another office. If there was really any funny business going on with the company’s financials, Cal wasn’t likely to trust her with any of the money analysis or reporting anymore. Maybe her old boss in R & D would take her back. She could return to watching people make something out of real, actual materials, and leave the world of magic behind.
Cal’s friendly face was back on once he arrived at Lucie’s desk, hailing her loudly, “Lucie Goosie!” and then dropping his volume to invite her out with him and Jason. Myra looked back at the numbers on her screen. She just didn’t know what was up anymore.
Copyright © AnnMarie Hurtado
AnnMarie Hurtado is a youth services librarian at the Pasadena Public Library. She writes in her spare time and has been published in a few online journals. She’s challenging herself to write one story a week for an entire year. You can follow her progress at 52storiesin52weeks.