“And that’s the only way to make it at the Practice.” This is what Imogene Taylor said to Grace Hardison while smoothing a slip of shiny black hair down the side of her neck. It was Afterwork. The two were seated in stylish seats on a lime green lake of shag carpet. A thin female voice fluttered Portuguese over electronica. Silhouettes in neutral tones milled among the bright décor of the design hotel bar lounge.
Grace watched Imogene sip from the thin red straw in her mangotini. She actually thought it was sweet, how Imogene was trying to help her out, give her some advice—advice Grace didn’t doubt was hard won. Grace no longer bristled at unsolicited counsel, and had even come to feel warm grateful feelings blossom like anemone toward the loud proselytizers on the subway. She’d come to accept their slim pamphlets from a place of gratitude rather than empty politesse like before, or, before still, out of the mere convenience of not having to wave them away. She’d become truly thankful that someone, anyone, even angry men who shouted proverbs in one breath and threatened passersby with damnation in the next, took the time to extend what they saw as a lifeline to another person.
Her eyes trailed the mangotini’s descent from Imogene’s mouth onto the low frosted glass table. Imogene dusted off her palms, nestled the gold-buckled cream purse closer to her hip and leaned forward on the red velvet settee. Her three-quarter sleeved forearms came to rest longwise on her skirted lap. The lapels of her spanking white blazer outlined her martini glass.
“So,” Imogene began again, her gaze steady on Grace.
Grace fielded the look with a placid expression, even though she’d read Imogene’s face precisely. The mild spread of the lips. The watchful eyes. The regal lift of her jaw above poised shoulders. It was that same expression, the one that wavered between friendly authoritativeness and authoritative friendliness, the one to which Grace used to try to adjust her own response by fine-tuning its level of candor, brevity, or gravitas like the brightness of a television screen. But that was back when she actually kind of cared about the Practice.
“Tell me, what are you working on these days?” Imogene finally asked, punctuating her question with two rapid blinks.
Grace, perched low on her zebra-patterned tuffet, traced her finger down the hard slick cover of one of the art books arranged diagonally on the table. “You know,” she said, cocking her head toward a shrugged shoulder. “A lot of the same matters.”
Imogene glanced past Grace through the glass façade of the design hotel bar lounge. It was exactly this kind of cavalier attitude that was going to hold Grace back, Imogene thought, as a couple (a young woman with her temple cuddled in the crook of an older man’s armpit) strolled by outside. She fingered the long cold stem of her mangotini and peered through the low table’s glass top at Grace’s shoes, which undulated from the frost-effect as if below water. Flats again. And with a skirt, no less. Imogene sighed an amused and defeated and audible-only-to-herself sigh.
She wouldn’t have even bothered with this mentoring nonsense if Grace hadn’t reminded her so much of herself when she’d been coming up at the Practice. Grace was a smart girl, but she was a mess. Her hair was always pulled back into a rough ball at her nape; and her face, though pretty, was washed out with no color—no blush, no lipstick, no nothing. Not even a pair of earrings to brighten things up. Her clothes, at least, looked tailored but were nonetheless drab—a black pencil skirt and a black suit jacket, with, yes, a black chemise underneath. What was she, in mourning? And when Grace reached to pick up her vodka tonic from the table, Imogene swore she could see the spread of ashy webs between her fingers.
In any case, even though Imogene had more than enough on her plate that week, she had Gladys schedule Afterwork drinks with Grace. There weren’t too many of them at the Practice, hardly any in fact, and she really should, she thought, check in with Grace every once in a while. When the meeting request Gladys finally sent popped up in her inbox, Imogene had immediately opened it and clicked ‘Accept’.
For Grace, it had been a long progression up to that point, the point at which she genuinely appreciated offerings of guidance. She was approaching the summit of a subplot to her life, one she’d hardly bothered to follow. But she could see it, then, trailing behind her like an errant thread from a long forgotten spool.
From way back in her day as a latchkey kid, when she’d cautiously answer the door some late afternoons to find that same pair of women, two wary turtles whose tentative heads protruded from high-necked collars. The women bore stapled literature and stilted smiles. Grace would prop open the screen door with her knee, receive the latest issue of Atone! and nod in slow-motion throughout their long solicitous tidings.
And further on to the afternoon spent with her Uncle Roscoe, when he’d tried to save her on the N train. They’d sat in hard plastic orange seats, knees angled toward each other. The train rumbled out from the tunnel and snaked up to a plateau of aboveground track. Mid-rise co-ops glided past the window and in the lenses of her uncle’s bifocals as he advised her that being saved was only a matter of submitting her heart to Jesus—something that she could do right then, right there, on the subway. Grace smiled flatly and squinted at him in the sunbathed car.
The expanse of time between the sent meeting request and Grace’s response had been, for Imogene, tension-filled. After eighteen minutes, Imogene’s mild anticipation shifted into mild impatience, which, by about minute thirty-two, morphed into subtle indignation, and, at forty-four, crystallized into ice-cold fury. Who the hell, exactly, did this bitch think she was?
Unable, in her uncharacteristically ruffled state, to settle upon any of the stacks of documents that formed a bar chart along the front edge of her mahogany desk, Imogene got up, closed her office door and kicked off her heels. The air is better down here, she smirked to herself while considering the five-inch stilettos hooked onto her fingertips.
Imogene’s girlfriends always teased her about her Fuck Me shoes; but what they didn’t get was that they were actually Fuck You shoes. She was the very First One, to become a manager at the Practice that was. Each assured clack of heel on the lobby’s porcelain tile announced more than her entry, it announced her Arrival. Though her Arrival would be muted, soon enough, by the low hard carpeting of the tower’s upper floors, Imogene would still glow in the reflected pride of some of the maintenance guys and selected secretaries. But not everyone got it. Only the day before, she’d had Gladys deliver an important file to the bi-weekly manager’s meeting in the conference room. Gladys eventually walked in, wearing that day’s floral buttoned down blouse, rolled in tight cuffs at the sleeves to reveal thin gold chain bracelets on each wrist. Gladys did have the requested manila folder in one hand, but, in the other, held a large steaming styrofoam cup of soup that stunk of seafood.
With the two turtles and her uncle, though outwardly receptive Grace had been inwardly aggravated. But she no longer prickled with bored irritation when accosted by would-be saviors, had instead come to regard them with light interest, as if they were part of a television show she’d happened upon.
Imogene slid out the new edition of City Styles from the mound in her inbox. She had all her magazine subscriptions sent to her office ever since she came to be in a position to no longer care about the mistaken impression they might leave. Before, they’d just make uncertain piles in the corners of her under-furnished condo, her vows to read any of them weakening the more precarious their structures became. But since she’d finally impressed upon Gladys to hold all calls and generally not bother her when her door was closed, (which it was more often than not), Imogene stole moments to scan them.
Grace started to elicit casual laughter from her acquaintances when she’d quip (in a manner she thought sophisticated) that she would be offended if Jehovah’s Witnesses, born-again Christians, Scientologists and the like didn’t take a crack at saving her soul.
Imogene eased into her black mesh chair, swiveled to face the view of the steel and glass tower outside her window and considered the cover story about the latest pop music sensation—some white girl who dressed like a drag queen. Imogene flipped to the feature, where the pop music sensation spread across both pages, her limbs stiff and bent into unnatural positions like a discarded Barbie doll. The pop star wore a skin-tight metallic suit that ruffled out taffeta-like at her waist into a tutu, and her blond hair spiraled out from both sides of her head into two large conical shapes. But what really captured Imogene’s attention were the shoes—two dense, bulbous deformities that extended seamlessly from the pop star’s ankles like giant lobster claws.
And then there was that one morning during her subway commute, when Grace had breezed through another one of those sermonizing booklets disguised, until its definitive final panel, as an existential cartoon: the morning that her bemusement was eclipsed by something else.
Imogene read on, figuring she might as well see for herself what all the hype was about. She didn’t expect much, but soon found herself absorbed in the pop music sensation’s coming of age tale. The first hook: the sensation’s account of struggling artists she’d met during her short but apparently tenacious ascent to international superstardom. “They all want to be famous but they refuse to play the game,” the pop star said. Then: “I don’t get it. I’d kill to get what I want.”
On that morning, Grace hadn’t simply tossed the evangelizing faux-comic into a garbage can on the subway platform, and stalked towards the turnstiles with breezy arrogance. The illustrated pamphlet hadn’t, for a change, simply supplied a quaint foil to her broad-mindedness.
Lips screwed to one side, Imogene nodded gravely. Pulled further in, she discovered the sensation’s early foray into acting, (her lead roles in school plays), and the pop star’s refusal, to the puzzlement of her teen peers, to come out of character off-stage. She learned of the sensation’s tireless re-creation and perfection of her musical performances, from the vocal training to the dieting to the conceptual costuming. And, of course, the dramatic make-up, the lack of which had once caused the pop star to shriek (Get out! My face isn’t on yet!) while driving out a club manager who’d entered her dressing room unannounced.
Instead, Grace kept the abnormally inoffensive literature rolled in her fist as she strode out from the subway exit toward the tall beehive of an office building where the Practice was stationed, stirred by a zealotry that went unremunerated.
And what did the pop star, after all her hard work and dedication, say of her success in the end? That everybody could do it, could access the “greatest part of themselves” and, could too, “rule the world.”
And, so, after the source of Grace’s urbane witticisms became something else, a piece inside her ruptured and shifted. And she’d been, for some time, like an ice floe, cracked off and drifting.
By the time Imogene had finished the article, she felt a sort of nurturance. The consummate satisfaction that arises from having your inchoate yet somehow deeply felt tenets articulated and, to boot, embodied. Also, her fury had thawed in the meantime, so she felt charitable once again, rededicated to leading by demeanor. If she didn’t do it for Grace, who would? At the end of the day, they were all in it together. And the ‘it’ was deep shit. If everyone was going to get dirty, why not come out on top?
So, then, everything around Grace, including the ultra-competent and impeccably composed Imogene Taylor, was always becoming smaller. And she was enjoying the view as if from the window of a plane taking off.
Imogene slid the magazine into the recycling bin, turned back to her desktop and checked her e-mail. She saw, among other things, that Grace had, about fifty-eight minutes after the invitation had been sent, responded twice—at first with ‘Tentative’, and then one minute later with ‘Accept’.
The background music drifted into another version of itself. Grace watched Imogene re-cross her legs so that, in one deft movement, her shins were stacked at the sleek incline only seen in panty hose commercials.
Grace hooked her thumb under the edge of the coffee table art book’s cover, which creaked at the spine when she lifted it open. She slid her knuckles under the hard cover and briskly ran the pad of her thumb up the book’s pages; in so doing, she inadvertently animated a series of figure drawings whose subject jerked in stilted movements simulated by flip books.
She slipped out her hand. She was tired. Her gratitude notwithstanding, it had still taken all the energy she could muster to not hit the ‘Reject’ button on the electronic meeting request Imogene sent that afternoon. But, due to the insistent forces that had been working on her, she’d been made to understand that such a response would be akin to her outstretched hand materializing from Imogene’s computer screen and backslapping her in the face.
With lifted finger, Imogene twisted in her seat and summoned one of the waitstaff who was passing behind her, sprite and lean in all-black, skinny tie and all. He paused and raised his eyebrows, an idle silver tray resting on his palm.
Imogene handed him her empty glass. “I’d like another one.”
“Ahhh . . .” he stalled, eyebrows suspended higher. “Another what?”
When the waiter, disinterested but affable enough, turned on his heel toward the bar, Grace sent a faint smile in his direction. She was sure he hadn’t heard the subtle edge in Imogene’s voice, the irritation that flattened the high note at the end of her question. Unfamiliar, as the waiter likely was, with the Response Stated as Inquiry, whose tone asks that which is meant though never said, i.e. shouldn’t you know, as it is your job to know, the answer to your own dumb, stupid question?
“Unbelievable,” Imogene said with a lilt of her eyes. Grace poked at her vodka tonic with a tall straw while Imogene snapped open her purse. When Imogene shifted in her settee, Grace glimpsed the bright red soles that lapped under her heels, which, set against the green shag carpet, brought to Grace’s mind a bloodied creature lay slain in grass.
Then Imogene stopped: “He didn’t even ask you if you wanted anything. Did you want another drink?”
Imogene did a mental tally: she was about to be on her third and Grace was still on her first vodka tonic, a watery slosh in a small tumbler that refreshed itself on the sly as ice continued to melt inside. She slipped her personal digital assistant from her purse and took note of the twenty or so new messages in her inbox, but was really looking to check the time. She wasn’t going to drag this on for too much longer. She could be doing work or getting a massage.
“So, Grace, as I was saying before . . . you really need to keep your eye on the big picture. I know that’s not always easy to do, especially from your standpoint . . . I’ve been there . . . but, the bottom line is that . . . it’s important that people understand what you’re bringing to the table. No one can really advocate for you unless they can see you’re committed.”
Imogene sighed slightly through her nose: “Listen, I know it can be a challenging environment. And as you . . . as we’re both aware, there are some difficult personalities. But you really do make an awful lot of money. We all do. That’s why nothing less than excellence is expected from us . . . and it’s also why we get to do some of the most interesting, top of the line work out there.”
She blinked quickly, her eyes darting upward then back: “Well, it’s not like we’re curing cancer or anything, but we do get to work with some very smart people. So, really, what I’m saying is that it’s important to step it up. Take ownership. And that means doing more than the usual, like, you know, exercising good judgment and producing good work product . . . which is all, as you know, absolutely essential . . . but it also means adding value.”
Imogene paused, took a small sip of her mangotini, then: “I mean, it’s not like we’re performing brain surgery or anything . . . but it is what it is. And you are paid an awful lot of money to do it. So, going forward, it’s important that you take it to the next level . . . you know, take initiative. And once you can demonstrate that you’re really on board, then a compelling case can be made for you.”
Imogene paused, her attention drawn past the glass façade to a neon pink glow that dawned above Grace’s head, likely from the new roof top bar of the other design hotel up the street. “Also,” she continued, “my door is always open, so don’t hesitate to reach out, k?”
There, Imogene thought as Grace nodded with a look both alert and distant, as if she were being told something that had absolutely nothing to do with her. At least now no one could say she didn’t try.
Grace reached for an olive in the small leaf-shaped serving bowl next to one of the art books. She had absolutely nothing to say. Nothing. And Imogene was still looking at her from across the table with her fingers in a patient clasp, like a news anchor. Grace poked the largish olive stuffed with red pepper into her mouth and licked its oily residue from her fingers.
The waiter reappeared with Imogene’s mangotini.
“Thank you,” Imogene said definitively.
The waiter shrugged and was off. Grace suddenly envied his nonchalance, the ad hoc joie de vivre she kept forgetting she’d lost. Her gaze lingered on the waiter as he skirted around a guy who’d just slapped a man holding a dark green beer bottle on the back. The waiter turned, caught her looking, and winked before dashing out of view.
And then she got it. Slowly but surely, steadily yet subtly, the subject of erosive powers endowed to water or wind, something had been stripped from her. Or, rather, the Practice had stripped something from her. What she’d always taken to be the exercise of her will was often perceived, as she had been made aware, to be the exercise of her whim. It was a situation that was, at best, untenable.
So, then, conscious of having been acted upon, and irrevocably robbed, Grace nonetheless found herself in a bind. She didn’t want to come off as rude. Not in particular to someone who was trying to lend a hand, even if in the form of the effectively obligatory Afterwork outing.
Weren’t they all, in the end, in it together? Weren’t they all (even the devastatingly well-groomed Imogene Taylor whose gaze scanned Grace up and down like a security wand) just small creatures in a vast world who, yearning for genuine contact, unfurled toward one another hesitantly, like tentacles?
Imogene lifted her glass watchfully, lest the orange mixture slip out of its angled rim. She pressed her parted mouth to its sweaty lip and took a long sip. The mangotini went down smooth but it had some spice, as if it stoked and extinguished a fire at the back of her throat.
If she weren’t out with such a clueless killjoy, Imogene would suggest that they hit the new roof top bar nearby after she picked up the tab. It was definitely open; she could already see faint shadows looming in the pink light. It was a shame, Imogene thought, because she had a lot of cash left to burn in her junior development budget for the quarter, but she’d be damned if she would spend anymore of it on someone who was so ungrateful.
Anyway, she’d better keep it moving. She didn’t have time for crabs that slummed it at the bottom of the basket.
“So,” Imogene said, smoothing her skirt and leaning back on her settee. “What sort of work do you want to do?”
She saw a smile creep on Grace’s lips and her eyes slant up and to the side.
“I don’t know,” Grace said.
Grace, then, looked directly at Imogene with an already-lifted expression.
“I said, I don’t know.”
Imogene didn’t know whether Grace was fucking with her or just fucking nuts. She stiffened, tried to control the snarl that was overtaking her upper lip; then she summoned the faux-inquisitive voice she used to take back control on conference calls. “Well, then, what are you interested in?”
Back when Grace actually kind of cared about the Practice, she would have frozen and then backtracked, responded with something vague and robotic, her voice taking on the flat reassuring hum of a built-in air conditioner. But, instead, thoroughly relaxed, she just held Imogene’s gaze like a butterfly in her hand. She picked up her drink and sucked until its remnants clotted loudly through the tall straw.
Photograph by Marcus Hansson.