Just This Once

Patty Somlo

By the time things got out of hand, the SWAT team was standing outside the glass doors that led from the lobby. All the bright fluorescent lights were turned on high. 

           

Her name, which had become notorious, was Sally Mathers. She was practically middle-aged. Viewers who saw her on TV, with dyed blond hair falling over her eye, thought she appeared much younger. For years, she had typed briefs and motions, letters and memos, protective orders and complaints. The list could have gone on indefinitely.

Sally typed so fast her fingers looked like a desert landscape passing out the window of a speeding car. In flesh-colored pantyhose without a single run, her legs grew numb sitting eight and sometimes ten hours a day, if they were preparing for a trial. She never complained. Her attorneys, as Sally called Martin Smith, Joseph Hughes and Gail Northrup, interrupted her throughout the day, hovering over her cubicle. Sally’s fingers raced over the keys, while the attorneys fed her changes that needed to be made in the next inhalation of Sally’s breath, even though the brief she was typing had been a red-hot priority and three more were sizzling in her Red-Hot Priority Box.

Sally took one half-tab of Valium in the morning. Just a half, she would breathe. The Valium didn’t slow her down. At the keyboard, she moved into a Zen state. She and the keyboard, her racing fingers and the text of cited cases and arguments, allegations and responses became one.

           

But one morning, she couldn’t help herself. Instead of a half-tab, she took a whole.

           

Just this once, she whispered, before setting the whole pill on her tongue, slugging a gulp of water and swallowing. As things tend to go, she went ahead and repeated the one-time action the next morning and the morning after that.

           

Now, Sally needed a grande no-foam vanilla latté to move her fingers across the keys at the speed the attorneys expected. The record-breaking pace of one hundred and seven words per minute wasn’t enough. The one latté didn’t last through the morning, so she had to take the fifteen-minute break the law required. That lost quarter-hour and the fact that the extra caffeine couldn’t press her fingers past the one-hundred-words-per-minute mark, made the pages and recorded tapes pile up in the Red Hot Priority Box. Pages started to slip down onto the floor. 

           

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the attorneys waited in their offices, tapping their fingers against the desks and looking at the clock, until they couldn’t stand it a minute longer. They scurried out to hover behind Sally. The hovering slowed her down even more.

           

It was time for Sally’s annual review and she was worried.

            

           

The morning of her review, Sally sat across the desk from Mary Everett, the firm administrator. In her fifties, Mary had raised five children while working two jobs and heading up the local PTA. 

           

“The feedback isn’t good this year, Sally.”  

 

Shiny in light peach, with a darker line around the edge, Mary’s lips pursed in disapproval. 

 

“Work is not getting done in a timely fashion. The attorneys have noticed that you’ve been taking a lot of breaks.”

           

Sally could feel the heat rise, throbbing in her cheeks.

           

“What do you think is causing these problems with your performance?” Mary asked.

           

In all Sally’s years of working, her performance reviews had never been less than glowing. She knew the Valium had been a mistake, at least the entire tab, bringing on the need for lattés and the fifteen-minute breaks. It didn’t seem right, though, that one small slip-up could produce such a response.

           

“There’s so much work,” Sally finally said.

           

And then she went on.

           

“Some days, it makes my head spin.”

           

Mary moved the papers at the top of her stack to the bottom, like a TV anchor.

           

“You’re just going to have to try and keep up,” Mary said, after studying the top page.

           

Sally nodded.

           

“I can’t recommend a raise for you this year, Sally.”

           

Mary’s eyes looked past Sally out toward the hall.

           

“Given the performance problems,” Mary went on, as if there was any need to do so.

           

The rest of the afternoon, Sally felt herself burning inside. One minute, she had an urge to lift the Red Hot and Hot Priority boxes and dump the contents on the sedate gray woven carpet. The next moment, she wanted to cry.

           

At home with her husband Wayne, she was finally able to vent. Sally knew Wayne hated it when she complained and cried but she couldn’t stop.

           

Wayne began to pace.

           

“You need to get another job, Sally,” he said.

           

Sally was sobbing so hard, she started to hiccup. The mucous clogged her nose and throat and made her cough.

           

“You can’t go back there,” he said. 

           

This went on until Wayne finally walked to the bathroom and returned to where Sally sat hunched over on the couch and handed her a Kleenex.

 

The next morning while she was eating breakfast, Wayne brought the gun out in a pale blue flannel case, after Sally looked Wayne in the eye and said, “I am so fed up.”  

           

“You’re gonna need this,” he said.

           

“Are you nuts? Why would I want this?”

           

Wayne was a retired police officer, shot in the hand while chasing a parolee who’d just broken into an old woman’s apartment. He trusted guns. When he and Sally went out at night to a movie downtown, Wayne slid a pistol under his shirt, keeping it in place with the waistband of his pants.

           

“Just take it with you,” he said.

           

Sally left the gun sitting in its little blue pillowcase on the kitchen table. As she finished her raisin bran and sipped the last of her coffee, she glanced over at it once. She thought the blue flannel looked pretty next to the bright yellow Formica.

           

She debated about the Valium while flossing her teeth. As she studied her face in the bathroom mirror, she weighed the pros and cons. This would be a good day to stop.

 

 

 

An unfamiliar edginess rippled through Sally’s mind as she entered the office. There was no Valium to smooth out the jagged reel of her thoughts. The gun rested in its little blue pillowcase at the bottom of her black canvas bag, next to a tuna sandwich on whole wheat, with sweet pickles and low-fat mayonnaise. 

           

“Good morning,” Sally mumbled to Allison, the receptionist, after she walked in the door, sweeping past the little red chairs grouped around pale blond round tables covered with the Wall Street Journal. She tried to toss off a smile but the muscles in her jaw felt too tight.

           

Sally rushed down the back hallway lined with abstract prints whose color had faded under the insistent assault of fluorescent lights. She set the black canvas bag on her desk, preparing to take off her coat and ferry her tuna sandwich to the crowded refrigerator in the kitchen.

           

Sally’s left gray coat sleeve still hung limply at her side when Joseph Hughes thrust a pile of white papers toward her.

“This needs to be done right away. We’ve got a hearing at nine.”

           

It might have been the lack of Valium that caused a dark sensation to explode in Sally’s belly, still flush with undigested two percent milk and raisin bran. Before Sally knew what hit, the anger exploded like a pipe bomb.

           

“I haven’t taken my coat off,” she spit at the lawyer. “You don’t even have the decency to wait. It’s just all-about-you, isn’t it? So what if Sally might need to go to the bathroom or grab a cup of coffee because Mr. King-of-the-World lawyer needs something done and he goes to his machine secretary and expects her to drop everything and do it. Well let’s just see if super secretary here can type with one arm in her coat and one arm out. Oh, I’m sure she can because nothing’s impossible when it comes to doing whatever the god damn, asshole lawyer wants.”

           

Almost in a whisper, Hughes mumbled that he was sorry. Accustomed to never being wrong, Hughes had had a certain arrogance bred into him by his father, Joseph Hughes, Sr., a retired appellate court judge. On the Honor Roll at Highland High, Joseph Hughes, Jr. had attended Stanford University, where he graduated cum laude, and then went on to Georgetown Law, serving all three years as Law Review editor. Along the way, he reaffirmed his belief. You are the Best, Joseph Hughes, Jr..

           

As Sally continued to rant, the dark east end of the office where her window-less cubicle sat began to fill up with other secretaries, since attorneys didn’t tend to roll in until nine. Carrie Fisk, who occupied the adjoining cubicle and weighed a good two hundred pounds, set her royal blue nylon lunch container on the desk and was about to slip her black leather bag into the large bottom right-hand drawer. Other staff on their way to the kitchen stopped walking, because they’d never heard Sally raise her voice before.

           

“That’s about enough, Sally.”  

Hughes’ voice was firm and loud. 

“You have no right to yell at me like that.”

           

He reminded himself to get his own emotions under control. There was, after all, a hearing that morning, and he needed Sally to get some work done.

           

Hughes’ words drifted into the air, past a point where Sally could hear them. She had lost herself in the center of that dark, swirling storm. 

“Sally,” Hughes said. He stepped past the high counter that separated her cubicle from the hall and stopped next to her desk. “I need you to get this motion ready for me to take to my hearing.”

           

Hughes assumed he’d gotten a handle on the situation. Sally had vented. Probably some issue at home, but it was done and they were ready to get on with the job.

           

At that moment, Sally reached into her bag. Her fingers brushed the slippery tin foil covering her tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread, then slid across to the soft blue flannel. Her hand circled the hard metal.

The gun recklessly slid out. 

Before Hughes said another word, Sally lifted the gun and pointed it toward the attorney, as she pressed the handle between her two ice cold palms.

           

“Whoa,” Hughes said, his hands in front of him, as if they might manage to stop the bullet.

           

Jessica Fisher had just turned the corner from the kitchen. She started peddling her feet back then lifted the cell phone she was never without and dialed 911. 

Hughes decided it was time to start whispering

           

“It’s okay, Sally.” He exhaled the words. “Everything’s going to be fine.”

           

He kept up a quiet mumbling that made no sense, except he’d seen people do this kind of thing on television. 

           

Oh, my God, Sally stood there thinking. The gun had most definitely woken her up. I’m standing here holding a gun. She had never held a gun before in her life. Neither did she have the slightest idea how to shoot it.

           

A plainclothes detective named Eric McFarland walked carefully into the office. He had on a pair of black slacks with tight pleats below the waist, a dark olive green shirt, navy blue blazer and a green and navy striped tie. Before his divorce, the detective’s wife would have warned him not to wear all those dark colors together. No one reminded him now. The detective liked to think his work required him to keep his colors toned down. Plus, dark colors didn’t show the dirt as much.

           

McFarland carried a bullhorn, just like in the movies. That’s what Jessica Fisher thought, the moment she let him inside. He had short black hair stiff with gel, fingered into that just-got-out-of-bed look.

           

“Where is she?” the detective asked, and Jessica led the way through the back hallway.

           

Midway there, the detective tapped Jessica on the shoulder. She stopped and turned around.

           

His voice low, the detective said, “Is there a place I can stand a little away from her, where she might see me but not feel threatened?”

           

Jessica nodded her head.

           

When they got to the end of the hall, Jessica stopped and pointed at Sally’s cubicle. Detective McFarland raised the bullhorn in front of his mouth. 

           

“Ms. Mathers.” 

Everyone in the office jumped at the sound of McFarland’s voice.

“Ms. Mathers. I’m Detective McFarland. Are you all right?”

           

Sally stopped breathing. A voice had suddenly emerged into the air, out of nowhere. A voice that had called her by name. 

           

McFarland waved his left arm above his head. The right hand clutched the bullhorn.

           

“I’m over here, Ms. Mathers. In the hall.”

           

Sally moved her gaze in the direction of the voice. She was relieved to see a man dressed in dark clothes waving to her. She waved back, using the free hand that was not holding the gun.

           

“Ms. Mathers, I’d like to talk to you, see if we can work this out. But I need you to do something for me.”

           

Sally nodded her head up and down. He wants to talk to me, she said to herself. He wants to talk to me. No one ever wanted to talk to Sally. They didn’t care to know what she thought. Do this. Do that. And at home? Wayne just wanted to fix her life. Make it all better so he didn’t have to feel responsible. Wayne didn’t want to talk to her. He didn’t want to hear about her day. Not really. Her talking made Wayne feel that her unhappiness was all his fault.

           

“Ms. Mathers, would it be okay if I move a little closer?”  

 

The detective’s voice barreling out of the bullhorn echoed off the office walls. 

 

“It’s hard for us to talk if I’m over here and you’re way over there.”

           

Sally nodded again. Then the tears started to rain down.

           

McFarland took the opportunity to step out of the hall and into the walkway that ran past the dark cubicles on one side and the attorneys’ offices, with their floor-to-ceiling window views out over the city and beyond, on the other. He kept moving closer, never taking his eye off the gun. His right hand stayed poised above his pants pocket. 

           

Sally continued to sob. Just as Detective McFarland moved in close enough to touch Sally, the gun slipped and fell to the floor. The black metal hit the soft gray woven carpet without making a sound. On seeing the gun, McFarland dropped the bullhorn and grabbed Sally in a bear hug, twisting her around and snapping her wrists into a pair of tight metal cuffs.

           

The action startled the sobbing woman to stop and see what she’d gotten herself into for the first time. The man who’d been kind to her moments before stood smack in front, so close she could smell the stale coffee coating every one of his exhalations. He let her know that she was under arrest and had the right to remain silent. Her head began to throb. More than anything, she wanted a vanilla latté.

            

At the police station later that morning, in a windowless room lit by fluorescent lights, Sally explained to the detective that what happened in the office was not her fault. The detective who’d heard it all before didn’t feel the least bit sorry for Sally.

           

Sally started at the beginning and told the detective that she’d desperately wanted to go to college. For as far back as she could remember, she had dreamt of teaching. But after drinking way too many Seven and Sevens at a bar out on the highway, her mother got behind the wheel. Within minutes, she hurtled the car into a concrete wall.

           

“That was the end of my life,” Sally explained. “My mother was in a wheelchair. She couldn’t do anything for herself. I stayed home the next five years and took care of my mom until she died.”

           

Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, with a brief break for lunch, Sally went on telling the story of her life. The tale was interspersed with thwarted dreams and dampened hopes. It wasn’t a story the detective hadn’t heard before. In fact, after what he’d witnessed in twenty-five years on the force, McFarland had grown pretty numb. That’s what his wife had said to him in the calmest voice, when she announced that she wanted a divorce.

           

“You don’t feel anything,” she said. “That job has turned you into a robot.”

           

Now, this woman, nearing the end of her story, told him the job made her feel more like a machine than a human being.

           

“I had to speak up,” she said, just before the big hand hit the six on the round white clock on the wall. “Just this once.”

           

Sally sat back in her chair, exhausted but enormously relieved. Her head throbbed and there was an ache in her belly she sensed was a craving for Valium. Her life was a mess, she understood that. She had thrown her job, her marriage, the routines, the income, the lunch-packed-in-the-morning, even the half tab of Valium, up in the air, and had no idea if she’d ever be able to pick the pieces of her life back up. She might end up in jail for what she’d done. She would certainly lose her job.

           

But on this one singular day, throughout the morning and afternoon and all the way up until dusk, she had told one person a story about her life. And doing that simple thing was what she had wanted all along.

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Patty Somlo's most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo's previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDO Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, Under the Sun, the Los Angles Review, and The Nassau Review, among others, and in over 30 anthologies. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women's National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest, had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize multiple times, as well as to Best of the Net.