Beulah knew it was over when she returned from lunch to find her desk cleared and a little box placed on the seat of her chair, like a gift.
PINKMAN HOSIERY, read the foil stamping. THREE DOZEN ASSORTED. It was the very style of box that Beulah had been hired to paste together when she started at the factory six months earlier, before she was promoted to office girl. She didn’t have to look inside to know that it held the contents of her desk drawer: her comb, her lip-stick, her extra handkerchiefs, and a subway token, along with the silk sheers that Mr. Pinkman bestowed upon every girl he fired as a final, guilty, lily-livered parting gift.
Beulah lifted the box slowly, as if in a dream, and looked around at the rows of desks surrounding hers. Mr. Pinkman employed a dozen office girls in a high-ceilinged but nevertheless cramped room, so that they were obliged to push their desks together and work elbow to elbow. There were no secrets among the typists and billing clerks.
Every eye in the room darted briefly up to Beulah and away again. Typewriters clattered, order forms shuffled, and chairs squeaked and groaned as the girls went about their business. Beulah knew that the dignified course of action was to clutch her little box to her chest and to skitter away quietly, blinking back a few repentant tears as she went out the door for the last time.
That’s how she used to do it, back when she first arrived in New York. She thought it was a requirement of the job to behave politely as she was being put out on the street. But then it occurred to her that once she’d been dismissed, she was free to do as she pleased.
What pleased her at that moment was to have a word with Mr. Theodore Pinkman, who was peeking out at her from behind the blinds in his office, like the petty and spineless man that he was. He loved to hide away in that wallpapered den of his, and pretend not to watch the girls in the next room.
He drew away when she caught him staring at her. Of course he did. He could never own up to anything. He was already fumbling to lock the door as she marched over, but he couldn’t manage it. For a man who manufactured ladies’ undergarments, he was utterly inept with handles, knobs, buttons, clasps, and other small fittings. Beulah had found it endearing at first, but lately she’d come to believe that there was something deficient in a man who couldn’t properly undress a woman—or fire one.
She gave the still-rattling doorknob a hard turn and shouldered her way in. Mr. Pinkman fell back against his desk, all two hundred and fifty pounds of him, blushing, sweating, his curly hair resisting his daily efforts to slick it down, those blue eyes, round as a child’s, registering a look of perpetual surprise.
He stumbled to his feet and tugged at his vest. “Ah—hello. I—”
“A little box on my chair, Teddy? Like I’m any other girl? I fixed your dinner last night. I made those damn little French potatoes that take an hour to peel because you won’t eat the skins. I ironed your collar ?— ?the one you’re wearing right now! And you send me away with a box of stockings?”
She tossed it down and it fell open. The contents were exactly as she’d expected, except for a folded bill on top. To her parting gift he’d added ten dollars.
Did Mr. Pinkman honestly think that would satisfy her?
He did. “There, you see? It’s not only stockings. You?.?.?. you’ve been so much more to me?.?.?. you know that?.?.?. only, it seems that Mrs. Pinkman?.?.?.”
He trailed off, finding himself unable to make the simplest of explanations for a circumstance that was as old as marriage itself.
“Mrs. Pinkman need never have found out, if you knew one thing about keeping a secret, which you don’t,” Beulah said. “What’d you do, leave a coat-check tag in your pocket? Come home with perfume on your handkerchief?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. It was always one or the other, the ticket or the handkerchief.
Beulah crossed her arms and paced around his office in a circle, as if she owned it, which she did, in that moment. “Well. What are we going to do now? You’ve dismissed me, because she insisted on it, and she’ll know if I’m still working here. She’ll come around and check. But she doesn’t know about our flat, does she? And you signed a lease through December.