In Honor of Hurricane Irene …

I’d like to present “Hurricane Holly,” chapter 13 from my novel Life a la Mode. It features the mini hurricane we enjoyed when we lived in NY, and shows you can never really be prepared for what might blow your way.

CHAPTER 13

HURRICANE HOLLY

Last year brought us Hurricane Gabrielle, down by the Carolinas, which effortlessly toppled houses for miles. The year before that we had Hurricane Felicia, which managed to miss us way to the north. This time, they’re keeping an eye on Hurricane Hollis, just off the Atlantic coast. Of course everyone around me insists on calling it Hurricane Holly. She’s headed right for us.

I walk to work this morning guided by a cool wind that makes me feel almost weightless. There’s also an energetic crispness that for some reason makes me think about hopscotch. Another person might skip to work in such a delirious breeze, but I manage to keep one foot in front of the next in a fairly normal pace. Still, something tempting lurks in the distance–possibilities hide somewhere beyond the buildings, just off to the left, just where you can’t quite see.

“Such a fuss,” my boss Monique says, as we haul out the masking tape and prepare our office for Hollis. We have beautiful large windows that allow us to keep an eye on New York City, letting us note every possible form of snowflake or raindrop from above. We treasure our windows, marking them with big X’s of masking tape that supposedly strengthen them, the newscasters always say.

“Ridiculous,” Monique says, refusing to involve herself with the masking tape. “Besides, they’re always wrong about the hurricanes.”

“They’re often wrong,” I tell her. “I wouldn’t say always.”

“Please,” Monique says. “The weathermen don’t know anything. I saw one of them caught uptown in a downpour without an umbrella. Everyone was laughing.”

We tape the windows anyway, despite Monique’s grumbles, mostly because it’s such fun to stand on the desks in the middle of the day in our socks, stretching masking tape across the room, listening to the pleasing squawk it makes as you pull it from the roll. All around the city, people in offices run around on their desks, grab masking tape, and wrap it around their coworkers when no one in charge is looking.

“Let’s tape up Monique,” Carl has suggested more than once. We all ignore him.

“Let’s tape Carl to Monique,” Nina whispers to me.

“Maybe for her birthday,” I say. We go on with the windows.

Returning to my desk, I find that someone–the art department, no doubt–has made a new nameplate for my outside partition, renaming me “Hurricane Holly.” I’m official.

I get back to work late in the morning, getting ready for my appointment with the head of our proofreading department. Sondra, a tall chic woman who wraps herself in purple fabrics–I know there’s a dress under there somewhere–has intimidated her share of production editors. But I’ve always found her fascinating. She has that rare ability to create and re-create a new set of rules every six or seven months, I suspect whether they’re needed or not. It’s always difficult to see where she’s made any changes. Still, she insists upon meeting with each of us regularly, I guess to reinforce the importance of her revolving set of proofreading rules.

I don’t mind saying that I pride myself on how well I get along with my coworkers. It’s part of the job, dealing with everyone, and I hate tension. I know that as a child I got plenty of comments on report cards indicating that I didn’t always get along with others, and I guess I took this personally. I even get along with the proofreaders, who can be touchy because they have to read everybody’s scrawly writing all day. I try to print neatly. I also thank them for their work, which one of them confided to me that no one else ever does, not even Sondra.

Still, there’s something luxurious about these trips to Sondra’s purple majesty. Her office combines shades of lavender, grape and plum, what seem to me like all the relatives of the purple family. I head upstairs and knock at her door, watching Sondra turn, swishing her ruffly fabric around her. I enter the kingdom and inhale her scent (of lavender, naturally), as Sondra is an experience for all of the senses. The strong breeze from her open window forces her door shut behind me with a bang.

We examine her revised instructions for how to send galleys to proofreading. They look suspiciously like rules I’ve seen before.

“Have you been careful to label your galleys correctly on the top left-hand reverse side?” she asks me.

“Yes,” I say. “I try to be careful.”

“In nonrepro blue ink?” she asks.

“Whenever possible,” I say.

“No, Holly,” Sondra replies harshly, “always.”

“Always,” I repeat.

Sondra makes a note of something, then swishes back in my direction. I make a mental note that her fabrics seem synthetic to me. I wonder if they itch.

“Please take the new set of instructions with you and destroy the old ones,” she says, after we’ve examined every inch of the new rules.

I start to leave, but something in the air, no doubt a gale wind, stops me.

“These look a little like the rules before the last rules,” I say. “I’m sure I have them somewhere.”

“Never,” Sondra says, her voice creeping higher, “keep an outdated set of instructions. They are to be destroyed per my request. To do otherwise is to violate the principles I’ve worked so hard to enforce. That is why I bother with these time-consuming meetings. So that you’ll know the correct way to proceed, and follow it.”

“Well, thank you,” I say, trying to smooth away any rumples in purple fabric I may have caused. “I just meant I feel familiar with these rules, and I’m sure I’ll be able to proceed correctly.”

She glares at me. Now feels like a good time to leave, so I thank her again. Then I sort of bow my way out of the kingdom. Once outside her office, I get as far as the stairs before I have to stop and sneeze a few times. This always happens–I blame her scent, which seems harmless enough at first. But these things can be deceiving.

I return to my cubicle, where someone has taped across the entrance with a huge X.

In the late afternoon, I suddenly have an urge for a cup of lemon tea. I keep tea bags in my drawer for such occasions–I think there are also some in my tote bag, although I haven’t actually gone through my bag in ages. I take my tea bag and mug to the frost room, our tiny kitchen, where we have an electric kettle that works sometimes. I’m also hoping to find sugar, the real craving, I suspect, behind my sudden interest in tea.

As an extra treat, I find Monique in the frost room, standing before the open refrigerator wearing electric yellow rubber gloves.

“No one ever cleans this out,” she says, removing something brown from the fridge.

“Maybe you should get a picture of that,” I say. It would fit perfectly into Monique’s collection of disgusting pictures.

She pulls out a Baggie of green mush. “This isn’t a scientific experiment,” she says, “this is a what’s wrong with people today.”

“I think it was just something from Carl’s lunch.”

“Same thing,” Monique says, slamming the fridge and leaving the room, still in her yellow gloves. She could walk around the whole place like that, and I know no one would dare ask about them.

I make my tea and turn to find Tom lurking behind me.

“Hello,” I say. “We’re out of sugar.”

“We had sugar?”

“I remember finding a cube once. I don’t remember what year that was.”

“I have honey,” Tom says, a little suggestively, I notice.

“I didn’t realize that,” I say. Tom’s hair has grown some since our one and only dinner date some months back. It gives him a more attractive, more relaxed look. I ask about the honey. “Is it in one of those bear-shaped bottles?”

Tom reaches around me for a coffee stirrer. We have lots of those, although I don’t see him holding any coffee. He smiles.

“Oh, yes,” he says, then gestures for me to go through the door first. I decide to take him up on his offer, partially because I’m intrigued by the idea of a man who keeps a honey bear stashed in his desk. When I squeeze some into my tea, I feel a little as if I’ve entered a dangerous but exciting fairy tale, something with bears and temptations in it. Tom offers me the stirrer, holding it just out of my reach.

• • •

That evening I tape my own small apartment windows, preparing for the storm as best I can. I spend the rest of the evening watching an unpleasant documentary on TV about how cats mate, which seems a little voyeuristic even for a nature special. The wind blows against the windows, making creaking noises that make me look up every minute and a half, distracting me from the cats. I pull out some mail I took home from work, and find one piece includes the missing photo from my mole book. The mole’s shape resembles an old-fashioned wall phone, the kind you’d have to ring the operator on, back in the days before computerized voices. I pick up the mole photo and compare it to the moles on my own body, two on my legs, one on my abdomen. My moles don’t have any special shapes, which disappoints me a little, even though I realize this is probably a good thing.

I turn off the cat show and fall asleep listening to the whistling sounds of increasing winds, the threatening but still soft tapping of Hurricane Holly.

• • •

At the office’s front steps the next morning I find our messenger Roy again, this time seated and talking away to the usually quiet Tom, who answers enthusiastically, waving his hands. The wind swirls their hair and scarves around. Something about them strikes me as an odd pair. Monique passes behind me and points in their direction.

“Boys,” she says, then keeps walking. I join Roy and Tom.

“Don’t let me interrupt,” I say, interrupting.

Roy hands me a large box of donuts. There must be thirty or so in there.

“One of the other offices I deliver to gave me these,” Roy explains. “They said they were all on diets.”

“How ridiculous,” I say.

“They’re uptown,” Roy explains. Tom and I nod.

“No one here ever diets,” I say. “We get enough exercise walking up and down the stairs, since the elevator doesn’t usually work.”

“It’s the key to the cracking foundation of our generation,” Roy says. “Calorie counting.”

“Not to mention broken elevators,” I say.

“Someday we’ll learn,” Roy says.

“So what were you guys talking about? Rotting environment? Malnutrition? The younger generation’s malaise?”

“Basketball,” they both answer.

“Ah, basketball. I think it’s at the heart of the cracking foundation between men and women,” I say.

“You’re only pretending you don’t like basketball because you’re a girl. Social pressure toward femininity,” Roy says.

“We know that in secret you go home and indulge your masculine side,” Tom says. “Drinking beer, yelling at your TV, and burping loudly.”

“I thought that was my feminine side,” I say.

“It’s what men really want from women,” Tom says.

“Good to know,” I say, heading off. I turn to see they’ve resumed their active conversation, gesturing wildly with their crullers.

Inside, I nearly crash into Carl, who looks at me as if he’s very afraid, then whispers “Sorry,” getting out of my way quickly. Everyone’s going nuts, I think, with storm fever.

I settle into work as the wind pushes against our X-marked windows, making sounds like a slow heartbeat pounding. The lights flash a few times quickly, giving the office a Halloween-like eeriness. Something electric is in the air, and there’s more activity, more chattering than usual all around me.

My friend Nina comes into my cubicle and sits down.

“I’ve heard a rumor,” she says.

“It’s true. I really do like basketball.”

“What?”

“Nothing,” I say. “What have you heard this time? I’ll dispel it for you.” Our rumor mill works so badly.

“I heard you had a bad time with Sondra yesterday,” Nina says. “Carl heard it.”

I’d forgotten about Sondra after filing away her new set of rules. I never did destroy the old ones. I just don’t like throwing things away.

“It went okay,” I say. “You know how those meetings go. I might have said a little something, I guess.”

“I never say anything to Sondra, except yes and thank you, of course.”

“What else did you hear?” I ask.

“It gets a little fuzzy after that.”

“There’s more?”

“I think so, you better check,” Nina says, then starts to leave.

“Sorry,” she says on her way out.

I’m not a great one for gossip, and I dislike being talked about, so I’m both worried and angered by Nina’s hearsay. I storm over to Monique’s cubicle and sit down next to her.

“Want to see something putrid?” Monique asks, holding a slide up to the light.

“People are talking about me,” I say. “Something about Sondra.”

“Oh, the memo,” Monique says, turning her slide one hundred and eighty degrees.

“What memo?”

Monique puts down her slide. “She wrote a memo, something about your meeting. I put it away.” Monique looks through her trash. She finds the paper beneath a pile of torn galleys, damp from something.

The memo, from Sondra to all the vice-presidents and supervisors, insists that I have “failed to grasp the basic tenets of the editor-proofreader relationship,” that I have “not followed the standardized rules set forth by the head of proofreading,” and that I have “challenged her authority by minimalizing the importance of crucial standards.”

“I’ve challenged her authority by minimalizing the importance of crucial standards?”

“I like that one, too,” Monique says.

I suddenly feel like everyone’s watching me, even though I’m fairly hidden in Monique’s cubicle. Still, I’m beginning to feel blustery, unreasonable, panicky, as if some uncontrollable force inside me desperately wants out.

“It’s nothing,” Monique says.

“But this memo went to everyone,” I say.

“So now it’s gone in everyone’s trash.” Monique rolls it into a ball and throws it, banking it off my shoulder and into the trash can.

“Go take a walk,” Monique says. “Enjoy the hurricane.”

I rush outside still angry and stand on the front steps, winds circling around me. The wind brushes my hair against my face, which tickles my cheeks. This may be as bad as the storm plans to get, just wind that lifts your hair, rattles your windows and slaps at your knees, teasing you, taunting you. But it’s still a forceful wind, and may be about to play harder.

Roy comes back up the steps with more galleys. He stops and looks at me, then stands next to me, waiting. I hold my hair off my face and we watch the wind push a large silver-studded leather collar down the street, the kind of thing I guess punk rockers wear, if there are still punk rockers.

“There is much to learn from a hurricane with a good sense of humor,” Roy says. He goes inside, and I follow. I answer the ringing phone at my desk.

“Hello, dear,” my mother says. “Would you like an armoire?”

“Mom,” I greet her. “I just couldn’t say right now.”

“Well, I have all this furniture to deal with,” she says. “We don’t need it all at Ronny’s, and I hate it to sit in storage somewhere in New Jersey.”

“I’m having a little trouble here at work,” I say. “Can we talk later?”

“Problem? You know you can always tell your mother.”

“Just something I have to work out,” I say.

“I’m sure it will all blow over, dear,” my mother says.

After I hang up, a secretary from upstairs, Lily, comes by.

“You’re wanted in Cheryl’s office,” she says.

Cheryl, our vice president in charge of production, always says hello to us when she passes by in the hall. Not all the VP’s do this. She’s a little older than Monique and sometimes brings a small Collie dog to work with her. You can hear its nails clicking on the floor as it walks. Although I’m always happy to see Cheryl, I can’t say I’m happy to be called upstairs. I try to smooth my hair back down and follow Lily, although I get a shock when I rub against the hallway wall.

It turns out Monique’s in Cheryl’s office waiting for me, too. Monique closes the door behind me.

“Hi, Holly, good to see you,” Cheryl says. “Have a seat.” I sit next to Monique, who has crossed her legs and swings the top one a little too wildly.

“I’ve learned that you’ve seen the memo from Sondra,” Cheryl says.

“Yes,” I start to babble, “I’m sorry if my meeting with Sondra didn’t go well this time. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.”

“Well, you certainly set her off,” Cheryl says.

“She was fairly insulting,” I say. “And I did ask some questions. But I didn’t mean to set her off.”

“Well, that’s the difference between you and Monique, I guess,” Cheryl says. Monique just swings her leg.

“Sorry?” I say.

“The difference,” Monique says, “is that I always go in there intending to disturb Sondra. It’s a quest of mine.”

“Right,” Cheryl says. “Although between us, Sondra’s a little disturbed to begin with.”

“A little,” Monique says.

“She is?” I ask. “I mean, you know she is?”

They laugh. “She’s cracked,” Cheryl says. “Oh, look,” Cheryl goes through her desk, pulling out some files. “Here’s a pile of Sondra’s memos about Monique. And here are the memos she wrote about me, when I was a production editor.” She and Monique grab at them and read, laughing all the while.

“‘A snooty and uppity attitude not conducive to the responsibilities of a production editor,'” Monique reads. “Uppity, that’s you all right,” she says to Cheryl. Cheryl picks up another. “Yeah, here’s one about Monique: ‘Blatant refusal to appreciate the seriousness of the editor’s role in the handling of proofreader’s rules. Her tendency to trivialize and her disgruntled approach add to her incompetence.'” Cheryl shakes her head. “Can you imagine anyone trying to insult Monique by calling her disgruntled?” They both laugh.

“It’s my best feature,” Monique says. They’ve spread the memos out all over Cheryl’s desk, and keep pointing and laughing.

“Anyway,” Cheryl says, “welcome to the club, as it were. You certainly have nothing to worry about with this memo. I’d be more worried if she didn’t write one about you.”

“It’s your first,” Monique says, “you know, the first time’s a little painful. It gets better.”

“Why do you keep her working here?” I ask.

“She’s good at some of her job, and it’s a hard post to fill. She’s been here years. I think the higher-ups feel a little sorry for her,” Cheryl says.

“Once you get used to the idea,” Monique says, “she’s really very entertaining.” They start laughing again.

“Go take a long lunch or something,” Monique says. “Go minimalize someone’s crucial standards with a drink.”

I leave them laughing, shuffling through papers, Cheryl saying something like, “Where’s that one that called me pernicious?”

I return to the production editor floor below, where Jan and Nina lift open the windows a crack. The winds seem to have died down. When I get to my cubicle, I see someone has made me a little basketball net and attached it to the modular wall in front of my desk. I pick up an eraser and dunk it. A crumpled piece of paper comes flying from Tom’s side of the wall, falling smoothly through the center of the net. We play this way for a while, invisible to one another, paper balls and erasers sailing through the air. The breeze from the open windows gives me a sense of having escaped, having beaten something even, taken control. People begin to peel the X’s of masking tape off the windows, dancing around on the desks, and sticking balls of used tape to one another’s backs, as we all revel in the aftereffects of Hurricane Holly.

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