Let That Be a Lesson
by Linda Boroff
A couple of scenic, twisting mountain roads link Santa Cruz with Silicon Valley, one maddeningly slow; the other lethally fast. People believe that this difficult commute is all that stands between us and the Valley’s ravening technology guargantuae, straining to spread south and plant their sarmak-campuses amid our beaches and redwoods.
We’re often mocked as throwbacks—Birkenstock-wearing, patchouli-reeking tree-huggers; clove-smoking dietary wackos. But decades ago, a rash of serial killings turned us into the “murder capital of the world.” Even now, suspicions linger that our ferny forests and riverbeds conceal yet more quicklimed horrors. Beneath our vintage hippie brand, a collective neurosis hums like background noise.
I returned here to heal, but that wasn’t happening. When you flunk out of law school, the consequences waste no time in manifesting. My deferred student loans awoke like the Spanish flu virus in that corpse frozen since 1918. A torrent of demand letters found me huddled weepily in my childhood bedroom, watching sitcom reruns. Like bricks, their paragraphs walled me into ruinous debt.
Ghosts of my aborted legal education trailed in my wake. Wherever I went, I spotted “tortious” conduct. Contracts shook its knotty head at every agreement I made. I couldn’t stop spouting half-baked legal advice to friends.
My childhood home soon became more prison than refuge. My parents’ tentative queries about future plans sounded like the mind games of the Spanish inquisitors. My boyfriend requested some space.
Yet, further humbling was in order: my frantic job search yielded just one tepid offer, and that from a law firm. I was to be an “admin trainee;” a serf, performing the most grueling and menial chores in the office. So much for my conquering hero courtroom fantasies.
Demand letter threats playing in my head like a repeating tune, I arrived for my first day. The firm occupied a hacienda style building with a low-pitched, glowering solar roof. In place of a lawn, water-sparing sedge grass with razorlike sawteeth undulated thirstily. A door the color of dried blood proclaimed Holland & Sklar, Attorneys at Law, in haughty gold cursive.
In the waiting room, a lighted case displayed a stuffed owl lashed to a gnarled tree limb, its eyes realistically desperate beneath the taxidermist’s glaze.
At last, a tiny woman nearly buried in a black turtleneck sweater opened a door and cocked her beaky little head at me, sharp obsidian eyes blinking rapidly. I followed her into a large cubicled room whose mushy gray carpet grabbed the soles of my shoes.
“That’s you,” she said, indicating a wooden table and chair wedged between a pillar and the wall. A flat, dusty computer monitor lay inert on the floor, as if injured.
“I’m Edie,” the woman said. “I work for Mr. Sklar. Mr. Holland recently died, and we’re disorganizing I mean reorganizing the office.” She cut off my understanding nod with a knifish glare and turned away.
I hung my jacket on the chair and hoisted the monitor onto the desk. Something about the place reminded me of the aftermath of an earthquake, the wrenched ground shuddering and spasming above broken strata, the air reverberating.
“It’s a pity you’ll never know Harv.” A tall woman in her late fifties was wheeling over an office chair. “I’m Eleanor,” she said, and sat down in it beside me. “I was Harv’s secretary.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, my voice hoarse with disuse.
“He was on borrowed time, poor thing. A heart infection. They cleared it up finally, but the damage was done.” Eleanor tipped her chair back alarmingly to grab a magazine from a file cabinet. “Here he is, the way I like to remember him.”
The magazine was at least twenty years old, judging from its garish colors and wacky typeface. On the cover, Harv as a youthful visionary gazed into the future from eyes of blue agate. Streaked blond hair tumbled to his collar. His smooth, regular features radiated a complacent moral purity.
“He had a golden aura, didn’t he?” Eleanor said fondly, stroking his magazine-
hair. I surveyed the auric Harv and nodded, wondering how he had looked at the end.
A man suddenly loomed above Eleanor, who mugged fear and straightened her back.
“Welcome, Melissa, I’m Tom Sklar.” He grinned at me with perfect but feral teeth. “I’m officially senior partner here now, though of course, Eleanor will never buy that.” He winked at her, and she lifted her chin in mock indignation, exposing a deeply corded neck.
Tom Sklar was one of those men who gets better-looking as he ages; his clipped graying hair flattered him more than the tousled brown mop in the law school picture on his desk. The years had chiseled the youthful pudginess from his face, and his brown eyes were now a steely gray-blue in their tinted contacts.
“Eleanor will welcome another tall gal here,” Tom said.
“Tom loves tall girls,” Eleanor smiled archly. I looked reflexively at the ring on his finger, and he followed my glance, and our eyes bumped and bounced apart.
“I’m sorry to hear about Mr. Holland,” I said, and Tom’s face morphed instantly into practiced sadness. “We go very far back, Harv and I. Eleanor will fill you in on the whole saga.”
“Maybe not the whole saga,” Eleanor replied, and something crackled between them like water hitting hot oil in a frying pan. I felt a sudden urge to run, but the carpet held my feet, and the mantra, “avoid further legal action” recurred in my brain.
Eleanor soon took to hanging out at my desk on the pretext of “training” me, but really for an excuse to talk. She was an encyclopedic authority on all matters Harv, fiercely possessive even of his wraith. The syllables of his name summoned her like a pheromone; so that people across the room had to whisper or cover their mouths when they mentioned him, or else she would arrive and hijack the conversation.
The law was woven through Eleanor’s life like a weft. She had grown up in Live Oak, an anomalous blue-collar neighborhood nicknamed “Live Okie.” Shy and coltishly tall, she grew her auburn hair long; somebody had once called it a river of fire she said proudly. The river was dammed now into a brassy bouffant cone, sprayed stiff and secured with a plastic tortoiseshell dagger.
Her eyes, large and greenish-gray, were still arresting in their iridescent eyeshadow and false lashes, despite the wrinkles. Decades of hurrying from desk to lawyer’s office, to kitchen, waiting and file rooms had given her a stretch-necked, giraffelike gait. As the day wore on, her lipstick would migrate into the vertical creases around her mouth.
Desperate to escape her brawling, hard-drinking parents, young Eleanor studied office skills in high school, winning awards for her shorthand and typing. After graduation, she endured interviews with grim, Dickensian office managers and lordly attorneys—until one banner day, she had broken through, a legal secretary at last.
I suddenly flashed on a disruptive young office beauty: on the gleaming hair and long limbs and riveted gaze; the silky blouses above the sternly fitted pencil skirts; the awe, the vulnerability, and the utter, unquestioning fealty. A wife’s perfect nightmare.
I could guess at the various jobs, the inevitable affairs, the getaways and lingerie and baubles and tears and scenes and abortions. The decades had marched past, and the lovers had aged and retired and some had even died. None had kept their promises. Now she was growing old, cast up like flood detritus on the banks of a river after the storm subsides.
Already a veteran when she joined the staff here, Eleanor had promptly seized the helm; within a couple of months, any competitors or challengers had resigned, retreated or been fired. “I whipped us into shape,” she said. “It wasn’t pretty, but I did what I had to. Harv could never assert himself the way he should have.”
Now, her boss gone, the once office queen was reduced to a ”floater.” Former subordinates ordered her to make copies or coffee, sent her on errands, and pointedly excluded her from smoking breaks and party planning.
I soon realized that the friendless Eleanor had laid claim to me. She hovered with fierce solicitude, herding others away like some secretarial sheepdog. I suspected that she was grooming me to summit the office hierarchy on her behalf. Armed with my college degree, and (nearly) year of law school, I would take power, restore office hegemony, and dispense retribution, while she guided me like some Lord Protector.
But this victory would require the toppling and vanquishing of Edie, the fierce tiny avian who had opened the door for me on my first day. As Tom Sklar’s secretary, Edie had been Eleanor’s chief rival. Harv’s death had catapulted Eleanor from her throne but hardly settled the feud.
The partners were former assistant district attorneys, tough competitors who had teamed up to prosecute one of the county’s emblematic serial killers. The ordeal had forged a bond. They left the DA’s office soon after to form a partnership, fueled by Harv’s popularity and Tom’s slick aggressiveness.
But the competition that the partners had resolved now played out by proxy in their secretaries, and the friction heated up like magma. Eleanor insisted that Harv was the “brains” of the firm, while Edie called Tom the “engine.” Their debates turned into screaming matches. I could imagine Eleanor looming like a T-Rex above the agile, ferocious Edie, feinting and darting and dodging to counter Eleanor’s verbal bludgeons.
Edie, because mere bad luck had taken down her rival, was denied a decisive victory. Even now in her triumphal role of “Administrative Director,” she couldn’t avoid Eleanor skulking on the periphery, watching for an opening. Edie responded by shrinking Eleanor’s duties to the most demeaning, below even mine.
“How can you stand this?” I asked after Edie had set her to cleaning the office refrigerator. Kneeling before a glass shelf encrusted with ancient yogurt smears and desiccated veggies, Eleanor looked up at me, her hands in rubber gauntlets, a damp bronze curl dangling from her forehead.
“Things will change,” Eleanor replied. “They always do, in time. Besides, I know something very damaging about Edie, and she knows I know.”
“She’s a witch.”
“Edie’s a witch?”
“She let it slip once; it explains everything. I realized that she’d been casting spells on all of us for a long time. How could I have missed it? I just didn’t put it all together until it was too late.”
“Eleanor,” I said, “witchcraft isn’t real. People pretend to have power…”
“Oh they have power all right, if they’re good. And Edie is good, oh my, so very good. In Harv’s case though, she went too far. And she knows it. She killed him.” Eleanor pried a tiny dried carrot from the glass shelf and examined it, turning it over and over.
I reminded myself that in Santa Cruz, no belief system was too exotic or outrageous to have its devotees; witchcraft was actually quite mainstream compared to some of them. A wave of dismay washed over me: how had I ended up here, babysitting a crazy, superstitious old woman rather than lighting up the law review?
“She leaves things for me,” Eleanor was saying. “Little twisted pieces of hair and scraps of paper with strange words written on them. She plants herbs on the property to use in her spells, so her husband doesn’t find them around the house. She knows I know. She tried to make me drink some yarrow tea once. That would have made me vulnerable. I threw it in the toilet, of course.” I shook my head. “She casts on everybody in the office—not you, not yet. But she’ll try, just watch her, because she knows you’re on my side.”
After this, I did my best to tamp down Eleanor’s obsession, changing the subject or even ignoring her when she presented “evidence.” She showed me a two-inch length of coiled black yarn she had found on the carpet that had not been there the night before. She searched her file drawers each morning and threw out items she swore were new, even an expensive scissors once. A stray push pin, a piece of thread—anything that could bind or immobilize was proof of Edie’s mischief. Eleanor checked the kitchen thoroughly for suspect spices, leaves or roots. She would walk past Edie’s cubicle, catch my eye and point surreptitiously inside, or motion her head to alert me that Edie was concocting spells rather than working on office business.
The magazine with Harv’s picture came to rest permanently in my inbox. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to return it to the dark obscurity of the file cabinet. There was something reassuring in his benign, clueless presence. I would look into the optimistic blue gaze and wonder what he now must know.
Whenever I hear people talking of how children enrich one’s life, it sets me thinking in just the opposite direction—how thoroughly children can destroy a life. The local wisdom was that Harv’s endocarditis was only a secondary cause of his death. The true mortal blow had been struck by Harv’s delinquent son, Erik, age 15.
Harv’s fate was proof that a life well and ethically lived can veer off to an outcome so rotten as to turn people into deep and bitter cynics. Nothing you did mattered because if there could be Erik, then there was no justice, no order. Harv’s fate became a rationale for impulsively ditching a spouse, buying a sports car, or acting on a grudge.
Erik’s latest run-in with the law was an assault on the high school boys’ locker room. He and his accomplice, Fred Pettingast, a judge’s son, were caught in the act by the janitor.
This wasn’t mere drunken teenage vandalism, but an orgy of demolition. Swastikas were etched and painted everywhere, along with anti-Semitic phrases in Gothic blackletter and caricatures of Jews, blacks and Mexicans. They had pulverized the lockers, crumpling and piercing the metal beyond repair. Benches were splintered. They destroyed the plumbing in the showers with corrosive acid, and shattered the tiles into powder. The paint they used in the graffiti was so toxic that it required professional disposal of everything it had touched.
Fred insisted that Erik had been the instigator, while Erik, of course, claimed otherwise. Judge Pettingast must have leaned hard on somebody so that both boys would be undercharged and given probation, and the incident downplayed in local press.
Erik’s locker room exploit was not an isolated incident, though. He invaded, rather than attended school; entrepreneurial talent had made him a drug dealer by his junior year. His grades were good, shored up by cheating, bribery and intimidation.
When it all became too much to take, Harv would drop into Tom’s office and open his heart to the only person he could trust with his anguish.
“The kid’s sowing a few wild oats, so what?” Tom Sklar would comfort his partner. “Hey, I could tell you things I did at his age, you probably wouldn’t want to live in the same town with me let alone practice with me.”
“I couldn’t make it without you, brother,” Harv would choke up.
“Hang in there; you’ll get through this just fine, all of you will.” Tom would come around his desk to give Harv a hug, with a few mutual thwacks on their Barney’s jackets.
Eleanor’s adoration of Harv had spawned a proportional hatred for Harv’s German-born wife, Helga. Her digging into Helga’s background revealed a relative who had been a Nazi official in Bavaria, prominent enough to be hanged by the British after the war. Now, although Helga was a dedicated vegan, grammar school teacher, and Democratic party worker, in Eleanor’s eyes she was the Beast of Belsen.
Helga must have been beautiful once, but life’s stresses were aging her. Her skin was taut over her cheekbones. Her eyes, like Eric’s, which Eleanor described as “Hitler blue,” sometimes widened alarmingly when she spoke, a sort of tic.
“Come with me,” Eleanor said, leading me to the closet of cleaning supplies behind the restroom. She showed me that if you stood in just the right place, you could hear everything going on in Tom’s office. She had also used an ice pick to create herself a neat pinhole for discreet peeping.
“Some hot stuff goes on in there,” Eleanor said, fanning her face. “Helga and Tom. Yes, right under Harv’s nose. For years. They do their nasty here in the office. Tom the big family man. And Helga with her animal rights and eco-activism. Sometimes I was sure they knew I was here. It was like they were daring me to tell Harv.”
“I had to. I finally couldn’t stand it any more.” A vision of Harv at the end suddenly invaded, the face gaunt with disillusionment and betrayal, the eyes now riddled with bitter self-doubt.
“He got sick right afterwards, one of Edie’s spells I’m sure. She went too far that time. They were all jealous because Harv was a great man. I was the only one who really tried to protect him.”
For months, Harv battled every complication his disease could throw at him. He surfaced at last from an ocean of antibiotics, weakened and wearied. His eyes had gone dull and pale, with brownish hollows beneath; his legs, once firm and tanned from the tennis he loved, were now thin and unsteady. The first thing he did was to file for divorce from Helga. The second was to retire.
To everyone’s surprise, the sickly, divorced Harv took on a sexual allure that the healthy, monogamous version had lacked. Women began to flock, stalk, and proposition him; even women he had once sent to jail offered themselves. Everybody wanted to care for him, to heal him from the inside out. Lock up your daughters, friends would rib him when Harv entered a room. But this stage could not last: like an incandescent bulb, Harv flared into a bright, final burn and then blinked out.
Late last Friday night, the phone rang. I was having a stiff scotch from the bottle of Glenlivet that my parents had bought me to celebrate my getting into law school. I used to tell myself that when the bottle was empty, I could put the whole experience behind me.
“I did it! I’m sorry to bother you at home, Melissa, but I had to tell you. I finally did it.“
“Did what?” My stomach gave a hard jump.
“I told Tom about Edie and her witchcraft. I waited until everyone left tonight, and then I went in and showed him all the evidence. Everything was marked with a date and catalogued. Tom always says the chain of evidence is the pivotal part of a case. Every single piece was there, where I found it and when. Edie was nailed!”
From my bedroom window, I saw a slate-dark, drizzling sky, and for some reason, I pictured Eleanor standing outside in that rain, the upswept hairdo soaked and collapsing of its own weight, sagging comically to one side like a duffel bag, the false lashes flapping wetly above the livid slash of lipstick.
“When you try to straighten things out,” Eleanor said, “and they keep getting twisted up again, you know there’s a powerful force working against you. I told Tom I’d tried to fight it for a long time, but her magic was getting stronger and he needed to take action now or it would be too late, the way it was with Harv. If he didn’t get rid of Edie, she would turn on him too and tell his wife and kids about the affair. Or else try to take you over. Edie is a very dangerous woman.”
I couldn’t bring myself to speak, so I tossed back the rest of the scotch, which seared a raw, welcome swath all the way down, burning through the hopeful lies; the presumptions and facades and well-worn excuses we employ to shore up our collapsing dreams.
“Oh I had her, all right. I even went out in the garden and pulled the plants she uses in her spells—star anise and bay leaves and lavender and rosemary and about a dozen more, and are they ever potent. Let her try to explain that away when Tom confronts her.”
“What did Tom say?”
“He said, “Well, Eleanor, it looks like you’ve done your homework. I know how much you care about the office, and I’m grateful for your work all these years.”
”That’s what he said?”
“Yes, and he should be grateful.”
My silence must have summoned back Eleanor the careerist. “It’s so considerate of you to hear me out, Melissa,” she said. “I apologize for calling on a weekend, but I did this for you too. Things will be different from now on, you’ll see.”
When I arrived at work on Monday morning, Edie met me in the waiting room. The stuffed owl observed us with its clever and knowing stare.
“Melissa, you should know that Tom had to fire Eleanor. So she won’t be here anymore.”
“Tom fired Eleanor?”
“He only kept her on here out of pity long past the time when there was no work for her. She lost important files and client information, and she was a handful for all of us—including you, I’m sure.” Transfixed by Edie’s pointed gaze, I said nothing. “Between you and me,” Edie said, “she was a disaster waiting to happen. I’m amazed at Tom’s patience. He felt terrible, of course, but he had to take the step of getting a restraining order to keep her from harassing us. So you let me know if she bothers you.”
As I turned away, Edie added that despite anything Eleanor may have told me, Tom was the most faithful of husbands and had always been a loyal friend to his partner. She hoped this whole unfortunate incident would not cause me to think of leaving the firm. In fact, Tom had even mentioned sending me to classes that would prepare me for another try at law school.
When my messages to Eleanor’s phone went unreturned, I drove past her small bungalow in Live Oak and knocked on her door. There was no response, though I thought I sensed movement within and I either glimpsed or imagined large, haunted eyes peering from a slat in the blinds.
Last week Edie moved me out of my cramped quarters and gave me Eleanor’s roomy corner cubicle. She and Tom even held a little ceremony with cake and tea to mark my elevation to legal research assistant. They presented me with all new office furniture and a new computer, and Edie even graced my office with a charming miniature spice garden under its own fluorescent lamp.
Shortly afterwards, my once boyfriend called to ask if would consider giving our relationship another chance. He sounded more ardent than he ever had.
As I drive to work, it occurs to me that each street, house and building in town has its own story, and that these are sometimes very bizarre ones. I remind myself that this must be true of every hamlet in the world.
Linda Boroff graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Guardian, Hollywood Dementia, Drunk Monkeys, Word Riot, Hobart, Ducts, Blunderbuss, Adelaide, Thoughtful Dog, Storyglossia, Able Muse, The Furious Gazelle, JONAH Magazine, The Boiler, Cold Creek Review, and others, including several anthologies.
She was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize for fiction, and she won first prize in The Writers Place short story competition. She has written one feature film which played in theaters and festivals in 2010. Her short story published in Epoch is under option to Sony and director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer). She wrote the script for the upcoming biopic of film noir actress Barbara Payton, Fast Fade, currently casting with producer Don Murphy (Transformers).