Every night she pretty much did the same thing once she got home and bolted all the locks on the front door.
She’d pour herself a large tumbler of scotch, sit in her mother’s favorite chair in front of the TV, and watch the news. After Huntley and Brinkley, she would wander into the kitchen and make a simple dinner — usually scrambled eggs, crispy white toast, and a rasher of bacon or sometimes a side of Taylor ham. After, she’d have a mug of coffee, read the paper, take a sleeping pill, and find herself sleeping somewhere other than her bed at 3 a.m.
At age 49, she was the youngest person in the whole company, counting every single employee from the janitors to the president . . . most were in their late 60s; a couple she guessed were even 70. There was one young exception, a blond, blue-eyed, slightly heavyset fellow, very handsome, of about 22. He had the right personality for sales, a tiny bit of the con artist mixed with the right proportions of good looks, sincerity, sense of humor, and, above all, knowing one’s place. He had it all, but he was Jewish, a fact that the personnel manager seemed to miss during his interview.
Once he was hired, of course, there was nothing to be done —- a reasonable amount of time would have to pass before they could think of firing him. But over the last two years, every time the subject came up, the head of the sales department would read off his total sales for the last quarter, and all would agree they would be getting rid of a total asset. As far as Ellen could tell, she was practically the only one who didn’t care that he was Jewish.
Suddenly, Ellen turned 55; the Jewish salesman married one of the Italian seamstresses in the tailoring department and they both left to start their own haberdashery in Brooklyn; several salesmen retired, and her boss was thinking of doing the same. Some of the people she had worked with left for other jobs, and one of them died. New salespeople started ... for the first time in the nearly 100-year history of the company, a woman was hired to work on the main floor, selling ties. Ellen didn’t realize how much she disliked this young, attractive, smart, personable, engaging woman until they had a huge fight on the main floor, right before the doors opened to the public.
It was a stupid thing, Ellen knew it was, but she couldn’t help herself. A couple of the old-timers tried to intervene, but Ellen was on a roll . . . and all the anger, frustration, fear, and sense of loss that had been building over the last six years exploded onto the main floor, her voice bouncing off the cherry wood walls. When the chime rang to indicate that the store was open, Ellen turned and walked away from a very dumbfounded young lady.
The saleswoman did very well; for some of the salesmen, their infatuation with her turned into resentment as their customers forgot their loyalty and were drawn to her good looks and flirtations. A few more women were hired, all young, busty, full of themselves, and practiced in the art of turning men’s heads and opening their wallets.
One Monday morning the office manager told Ellen that she would be getting a new typewriter on Tuesday. She explained that she was fine with the one she had; the office manager replied that she was going to love the new one better. She didn’t. It was an electric typewriter and keys hit the paper before she wanted them to and she made more mistakes in two days than she had in all the years she was a secretary.
Then there was a new way to make copies of letters — no more carbon paper, but a machine that you put your original into and out came a copy of it. She hated that, too.
Ellen’s daily ritual was changed — those aggressive young women came in earlier than the salesmen, and they didn’t care about bringing her coffee or doughnuts, and certainly, no one was kissing her cheek.
On her 60th birthday, her boss announced his retirement. He was very kind, taking her to lunch (something he had only done twice in all the years she worked for him), telling her the news before anyone else. He suggested she consider doing the same — he had spoken with the personnel department and Ellen was more than eligible for a pension because she had over 40 years of service.
In fact, she had 43 years of employment and if she agreed to retire when he did, they would give her a bonus of two years, making her a 45-year employee, entitled to the highest benefits — even more than he was getting. Not in dollars, he quickly added, but in service time. Ellen was shocked. Not at his retirement plans, but at the suggestion that she retire as well.
She had always planned to die at her desk. And not more than two weeks ago, she wrote her will: any money she had left she wanted to go to the Jewish salesman and his Italian wife in Brooklyn; her furniture and contents in her apartment were to be donated, and she wanted to be buried next to her mother, father, and sister. And to be dressed in a custom-made suit, appropriate shirt, tie, shoes, and straw hat.
What was she going to do? She was in a spin. She told her boss she didn’t think she could respond to his suggestion at that time. He understood and reassured her that she had a job for as long as she wanted; that no one was thinking of letting her go after he was gone. She wasn’t convinced he was telling the truth, or maybe he didn’t know what the truth would be.
That night Ellen sat in her mother’s favorite chair and didn’t turn on the TV, didn’t have her tumbler of scotch, she just sat and stared at her surroundings. Everything looked shabby and old. The paint was peeling from the ceiling and the walls and the radiators.
She began to cry and then she began to moan and wail and continued to do so for hours, moving from the chair to her bed to the couch with the plastic cover still on it. She poured a tumbler of scotch; went into the bathroom and looked at all the pills in the medicine cabinet — her mother’s painkillers; her sister’s sedatives.
Closing the medicine cabinet she came face to face with herself.
She started to pour another tumbler of scotch and decided to drink straight from the bottle. She was sick and tired of washing that damn tumbler.
In the living room she ripped the plastic cover off the couch and, for the first time in 60 years, sat on fabric. It was 4 a.m. Saturday morning. When she woke up, the scotch bottle was empty, spilled on the couch when she fell asleep. Oh, God, she thought, Mother is going to kill me.
On Sunday she decided to go to church. She used to go regularly with her mother and sister. She even continued for a while after they died, but she couldn’t take the sympathetic looks or patronizing smiles from the members of the congregation. She knew they were thinking she was a pathetic old maid. Alone and lonely she imagined what they imagined.
Walking up the steps to the church, Ellen was trying to convince herself this was something she wanted to do. Maybe she’d get some sign —- retire or not retire. It had been a long time since she’d sat in a pew; as she neared the front door, she turned and left.
There was no way Ellen wanted to retire. She’d have to break in her boss’s replacement; who knew the business better than she did? She was practically the most senior of employees, no one knew more than she did.
On the other hand, everything was changing. Women selling men’s clothing; electric typewriters, copying machines; new phones; women executives. She hated it all — retiring could be a good thing.
And then of course was the realization that she might not have a choice at all.
Without consciously setting off in a direction, Ellen wound up in Washington Square Park. Like church, she hadn’t been there in years. She never really did hang out there, her mother forbidding her and her sister from hanging around with beatniks and drug-crazed hippies.
The park was alive with people . . . people with guitars and folksy voices, kids riding bikes or falling off of roller skates; magic acts and political speakers with clusters of people surrounding them; some people screaming at other people while other people played checkers and chess.
There were people reading under trees and dogs chasing balls and babies crying and a couple having a fight and two men kissing each other and two women holding hands and a tall man dressed in women’s clothing and people selling balloons and others selling drugs.
The late morning turned into the early evening, which turned into dusk, and only then did Ellen think of walking the long blocks home. This was the most fabulous day of her life. She saw life. She was exhilarated. This wasn’t like watching a movie and getting all caught up in the lives of others, these were real lives playing out before her. She could feel the energy of the people around her.
When she got home, she was glad she was home. The couch looked so nice, stripped of its plastic, the scotch stain hidden under a pillow. She poured her tumbler of scotch and sat down to watch the final broadcast of the Ed Sullivan Show. Another great loss.
On Monday morning, Ellen stood in front of the mirror hanging over her dresser and thought she looked terrific. Her hair was just like she liked it . . . the curls bouncing and framing her face perfectly, the little wave at the end of her bangs dancing right above the frames of her glasses. If pressed, she would have said she looked absolutely stunning.
Adrienne Kitaeff, an East Hampton resident, has previously published work in The Star. “Ellen Aspumante” is part of a series of short stories and memoirs.