Walker Art Center

Kate Bernheimer & Laird Hunt

Office at Night: A Novella

Edward Hopper’s Office at Night is open to endless interpretation. Throughout his career, the artist was concerned with the relationship between “the facts” of observation and the improvisation that happened when making a work of art. In conjunction with the exhibition Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process, Kate Bernheimer and Laird Hunt adopt a similar process in writing a collaborative novella inspired by the 1940 painting. “Taking up residence” inside the work, the writers have imagined the lives of its characters: stenographer Marge Quinn and her boss, the sometimes painter Abraham Chelikowsky.

Released as a serial on the Walker’s website in April, the story will be published as an e-book by Coffee House Press in June 2014. Follow along here or at #officeatnight.

This project was co-commissioned by Coffee House Press and the Walker Art Center and is supported in part by the McKnight Foundation.

Monday, March 31

He has suddenly realized the window is open. He can feel it. But how far open? And who opened it? Chelikowsky. His grandfather owned a brewery. Came to the new country with a handful of hops in his pocket. Died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 49. Left his son, Chelikowsky’s father, on the Lower East Side with a cart and donkey and 200 pounds of plums he couldn’t unload. Debts. So he went north and west, all the way to Hell’s Kitchen, did the father, who died even younger, with even less, and now Chelikowsky, failed painter, failing businessman, with his own office, who is hoping to make it to fifty, and maybe celebrate a little, only someone has opened the window and he doesn’t know who. The new girl? Couldn’t be. The window weighs a thousand pounds in the summer when the wood swells. He’s strong, Chelikowsky, a wiry ox, and he can barely budge it. Sneak a glance over at her? He can feel her looking at him, always looking. Maybe she’s got secret muscles. Some of them do. Once he went out walking up Ninth Avenue with a girl who accepted the one kiss he gave her then knocked him out cold when he attempted a second. He sneaks a glance. So quick you can’t see it. So quick he sees nothing. Just a girl-shaped blur.

He loves his office. Has an apartment on 38th he can barely stand to set foot in. Somehow inherited a cat from a friend’s cousin that uses a two-foot dead space behind a wall in the kitchen as its toilet. The cat doesn’t have a name. He would never bring it here. Jesus H. Christ no way would he let that cat into this office. Even if it is cute. A cutesy cat. He doesn’t even like cats. He thinks maybe they make him sneeze. Once he threw his cat across the room. Just picked it up and threw it. Then felt bad, sure, but not that bad, because before it got to the other side of the room he had run over and caught it.

He is speedy, is Chelikowsky. In high school he could run well under eleven seconds in the hundred-yard dash. Is someone trying to kill him? That’s the question that is preying on his mind. Not ten minutes ago he picked me up and used me to call his mother and came very close to telling her. Telling her that he thought someone might be trying to kill him. What would happen if he stood, turned, shut the window? he thinks. Is it even open? He tries one of his quick glances. Again so fast you can’t see it happen. He is expecting a client. Over the phone, over me, the case sounded interesting. But complicated. Like a Chinese puzzle. He hates those. There is a guy down on the corner who sells them. Five cents a pop. Make your fingers hurt and your head explode. Why are they always complicated, his cases? he wonders. Chelikowsky used that word, “complicate,” when he hired her, this new girl. He simply can’t bring her name to mind.

I’m a mind-reading telephone. Nifty, right? Lots of us can read minds. I mean lots of what’s in this room. See things. Know things. Why wouldn’t we? Look around you. There, wherever you are. Imagine what’s reading your mind. What’s not?

He used to have a wife, did Chelikowsky. Gladys. He has known three other guys with ex-wives named Gladys. His Gladys had loved gladiolas. It was a joke between them. In the early, giddy, gaudy days. In the summer he put on short pants and a boater and took her to the boardwalk at Coney Island. Now Gladys is gone, even long-gone.

Anyway, sometimes Chelikowsky sleeps here. Turns off the desk light, leans back in his chair, lets the night glide by. Chelikowsky did two years at Hunter, studied English, was still painting. His mother’s pride for two years. Then, boom, done. His mother has seen this office. She says she doesn’t like the chair right next to the door. Says it’s too close to the filing cabinet. Says it is too red. Says the desks are too red and too close together. “It’s not decent to be sitting alone in an office with a girl,” she says. She says she doesn’t like typewriters either. They frighten her. But me she likes. She has used me often enough. Still, sometimes she will meet him at the lunch counter across the street. This is where she says all these things about his office to him. He takes it, the good with the bad. She is his mother, after all. He had whooping cough that turned into pneumonia when he was a boy. She didn’t sleep for two weeks. Caring for him. His mother. They both drink their coffee black.

“My cases are often complicated, you o.k. with complicated?” Chelikoswky asked the girl when he hired her. He can feel her eyes on him. She’s in the filing cabinet too much. It’s like a mania. Some kind of condition. Granted, he asked her to make a dent in his paperwork. The last girl left it a mess. She used it to store her toothbrush. He found it, along with an empty tin of Colgate tooth powder, filed in the M’s. Why in the M’s? Her name was Janice. Janice Jones. He called her J.J. Sometimes he would follow her. He would leave a little after she did and trail along behind her. He wasn’t very good at it. She just did things like buy a pork chop and some milk then get on the subway. He was pretty sure she knew he was following her though she never let on. Then one night he turned around and saw that she was following him. She was holding her little bag from the butcher’s and wearing a grin. Good old J.J.

They tried it on once and it didn’t work out so well because he was already tight when they started. J.J. quit working for him to get married to some other guy. And because he, Chelikowsky, was a “kind of a crumb.” According to her. Though it was true that after they tried it on and it didn’t work so well he shoved her out the door. Just a little shove. Placed his palm into the handsome concavity between her shoulder blades and good-bye. He never shoved Gladys. Even if he had thrown and caught a cat. He would never shove Marge. Marge is her name. Chelikowsky smiles. Even though you could never tell. Marge, Marge, Marge, Marge, Marge.

Is it Marge who wants to kill me? Chelikowsky wonders. She has just handed him a document, plucked from the cabinet and dated two years ago. She didn’t say a word—just strode over and plopped it onto the desk in front of him. He has read it twice and can’t make heads or tails. “Dear Abraham Chelikowsky” it starts. “May we meet next week at Madison Square. I will trust that you recall my situation so recently and gravidly discussed between us. I will wear the same hat as I did in the old days. Yours most sincerely and diffidently…” It was unsigned, bien sur. Who the fuck? It rings no bells. What does “gravidly” mean? A case? He was about to ask Marge why she handed him this two-year-old cryptogram when he noticed the window was open. Wide. Like a mouth. I don’t want to die, thinks Abraham Chelikowsky.

And now I must stop because in just a moment I will start to ring.

Tuesday, April 1

I should shut that window, Marge Quinn thinks. And perhaps I will in a minute, although it always sticks and I’ll have to ask Miss Chan for help. I have asked her for help, Marge Quinn thinks, six-and-a-half times already today, and I don’t like the idea of asking her again. It’s just that the trucks stop at the corner below and the exhaust smell is awful and Abraham gets so awfully grumpy when the window is open. Even, Marge Quinn thinks, when he has opened it himself. Or mostly opened it himself. Miss Chan always helps him. She has such a skill with windows, thinks Marge Quinn.

Marge Quinn of the wide, soft fingers. Marge whose father arrived in this fine city confined in the hold of the boat. Because of a transgression during the passage. He has the same fingers. He was always gentle was her father except when he was killing someone. But that was long ago, Marge Quinn thinks. In the old country. Here he spends his days in a chair by the window of their fourth-floor tenement walk-up. Here he sleeps quietly and doesn’t yell. All the money she doesn’t need goes to him. He has always been so gentle. Except that once she walked in on him killing someone. Long ago. Where she was born. But she was born here, she thinks. So how could that have been?

There is a coconut product that she herself favors for her fingers. She told Miss Chan about it just the other day and for a moment Miss Chan seemed interested and then looked away. But not before clicking her tongue. Quietly, but Marge Quinn heard it. It makes her feel very tired to think of Miss Chan clicking her tongue. She clicks it frequently. Like she is breaking matchsticks. Abraham must hear it. All those matchsticks. Though he never shows any sign. Such a gentleman, thinks Marge Quinn. She of the soft fingers. So much softer than the fingers of Janice Jones. Always jamming them here and jamming them there. Good riddance, I say, when that one left. Miss Chan’s fingers are fine. Nothing special. Just regular fingers. And they don’t move too fast. But the fingers of Marge Quinn! Like firm butter in five little bags.

She loves to file. Put more in than she takes out. I suspect one day, if Miss Chan lets her, she will fill me up, and they will have to buy another cabinet and perhaps I will finally have a friend. A true friend of my own kind! I would love to be full. And not with tooth powder. Not with tooth powder or wrapping paper or sandwich leavings. There is still a little oil in my upper drawer, back-left. Oil! Marge Quinn fills me with firm paper and firmer card stock. She is a treasure, truly.

Abraham, Abraham, thinks Marge Quinn. Abraham who fired her predecessor Janice Jones. She left him a letter did Janice Jones, thinks Marge Quinn. She filed it under Q. The letter begins, “I am not fired, you crumb who I could have maybe ever-so-slightly loved but never quite did, because I quit.” The letter is not typed. It contains a number of vague threats. She filed it under Q and Marge Quinn just found it. With her soft fingers. She does not pluck. She coaxes. So gently. And handed it to him. To Abraham, as she calls him. When she thinks no one is listening. Abraham, Abraham, Abraham. Of course Miss Chan has heard her. She hears everything. Sometimes when she is just walking past she gives me a good pat on the side.

Marge Quinn handed “Abraham” the letter from Janice Jones, only when she handed it to him her soft fingers, having pulled out more than one letter, nothing to be ashamed of, let fall the one she wanted him to read. So that he could take steps. Forewarned is forearmed! Her lovely, long, soft fingers let fall the one that would help him to take steps and handed him something else, some old letter from a client he has forgotten all about. She has just seen the letter on the floor. There it is, oh darn it, darn it! she thinks. I know if I reach for it Miss Chan will ask me what I am doing, she thinks. Bending down like I would have to beside Abraham’s desk. And she is so efficient, Miss Chan, that she will have it anyway before I have finished my bend. Only there it lies, the letter from Janice Jones, that says, “I told them all what you did to me. All the things you did to me.” Only he couldn’t have done anything. Dear Abraham. She calls Chelikowsky that, does Marge Quinn of the long, buttery, soft, slightly clumsy fingers, whose father once killed people, even though she has only worked in the office for, what, two weeks?

Wednesday, April 2

Here is the story, lit with my finest glowing light, of the letter Chelikowsky is holding. It, the letter, was written by an individual of curious intent whose concern—though Chelikowsky himself was ultimately unable to see it and so missed an opportunity to profit—cut to the core of our great (if modest) company’s central mission. The letter Chelikowsky is holding is the second he received from this particular correspondent. The first was much longer. So perhaps this is the story of a letter Chelikowsky once held. That he once held and then forgot. Regardless, he was a widower, the writer of these letters, a Mr. Stetly, who lived in a palatial apartment on 56th Street with only a single servant, a “cadaverous” individual named Gibson, whose gender was never specified. These two had for some years, before Mr. Stetly entered into contact with Chelikowsky and Co., spent their days cataloguing what was purported to be a vast collection of unusually masterful forgeries. Stetly, an artist of no particular note in his youth, one who had quickly wrung the towel of his own talent dry, came into possession of an absolutely unlooked-for and monstrously significant tinned oyster fortune when he was in his early thirties, and immediately set about acquiring Impressionist masterpieces.

Stetly’s taste was excellent but his eye was poor and after three years of profligate buying from a Paris-based dealer named Delors, he learned at the vernissage of his one and only exhibition, that every single one of the paintings he had poured so much of his fortune into were fakes. Stetly’s high-strung wife, who had never liked the Impressionists and would die some short time later from an imperfectly swallowed chicken bone, smelled disaster to come, smacked Stetly hard on each cheek, then flung herself out the nearest window. Her fall was broken by the accommodating arms of an oak tree that grew too near their luxurious brownstone, and as Stetly, “buoyed by the audacity of her gesture,” helped nurse her back to health over the coming weeks, he formulated a plan that, properly implemented, would allow him to tack into the erratic winds of fortune. When Stetly told his wife—whose name was Gladys by the by, although Chelikowsky, distracted as usual, skimmed the part of this very long first letter Stetly sent him and so missed this—what his plan was, she demanded $10,000, the deed to their Long Island property and a statement of separation, and left him to sink his ship on his own.

Undeterred, Stetly began implementing his plan that, far from seeing him end his relationship with Delors, saw him doubling down on it, so that in the years that followed he used the lion’s portion of his remaining fortune to buy fake after fake and not just of French Impressionists. Into his collection went fake baroque landscapes, fake Scandanavian realists, fake American gothic, fake Italian Renaissance, fake Japanese woodblock prints. Somewhere along the line, Stetly forgot the part of his plan where he was to begin reselling the works, as first-rate forgeries, for a nice profit, and instead kept amassing them, eventually going through Delors’s daughter, who had taken over the family business when her father, as wealthy as Stetly had once been, retired.

One morning, some months before he had taken up pen to write to Chelikowsky and Co. for guidance, Stetly had woken, “as if from a dream,” to find Gibson, whom he did not remember hiring, dusting away at the stacks and stacks of pictures in their often unusually tawdry frames. He had decided to take an inventory of his collection before having it appraised. Not terribly long into this process he realized that some of his key works, his earliest fakes, were no longer in his possession. As the weeks passed, more pictures went missing. He was writing Chelikowsky, he said, and because of their previous acquaintance, which Chelikowsky couldn’t help but recall, in order to seek his advice on the matter. He did not expound on the nature of the advice he was seeking, nor fully clarify which part of “the matter” he hoped Chelikowsky could address, nor offer anything concrete about the nature of their previous acquaintance, but he did say he would have to apply for a line of credit, one that he would be in a position to terminate as soon as he began selling portions of the collection. Chelikowsky, who is not immune to the seductions of idiosyncratic solicitations, nonetheless set the letter and its request aside. Even though it is quite true that he once knew Stetly and was to some extent in his power. I feel quite certain that he will do the same thing with this second letter too.

Thursday, April 3

I do not light up the room. I am the secretary in this strange little office.

The history of this office is complex, is a blur, is a puzzle, has been erased from the frame. Please know that I have been framed. At the time of this telling, my day begins at nine o’clock and I am at my desk on time every morning. Promptness, neatness, orderliness—in the first few minutes of every day, I display the attributes of a very good secretary. This is due to my training, and reflects my commitment to our business achieving the highest success.

Of course, the arrangement of supplies in my desk provides a quick check to be sure I have what I need to perform, and I keep on the desk only the supplies that I need for the day. I remove all the rest and place those items in the top drawer, which locks with a very small key I wear on my neck on a gold chain.

With my place of business in order, I begin to organize the day for myself and for my employer, Mr. Chelikowsky, by referring to my invaluable calendar pad, and typing up an hourly schedule. I record the names of people who have appointments during the day—these never are many, and mostly are none—and also I prepare memoranda and reminders for Mr. Chelikowsky, whom I always call Mr. C., though he has requested that I call him by his full name so this is my one act of rebellion. I don’t mean to rebel and in fact I am not rebelling because my teachers at secretarial college always referred to the employer by just an initial—Mr. B., Mr. Q., Mr. R., depending on which lesson we were on for that unit. I have explained this to him and that it is difficult to unlearn certain habits of administrative behavior.

I place the schedule on Mr. C.’s desk before he arrives. Soon after, Marge Quinn, office stenographer and my co-worker, arrives.

Yes, I can easily clarify this distinction between a stenographer and a secretary. A stenographer takes dictation, transcribes, and types; she may also do billing and filing and operate machines like a duplicator, adding machine, etc. At times a stenographer may also operate the switchboard, but we don’t have a switchboard. We’re a small operation, but we don’t deal in small things. Either way, a secretary assumes much more responsibility than a stenographer and she contributes much more to the potential success of her employer—in this case Mr. C. I have worked with him long enough to know that he’ll be successful—that he and I will be successful—in this, our daily routine, which amounts to everything, just as each moonrise and sunrise is everything too, but I’m getting ahead of myself here. A secretary can’t get ahead of herself—not only is it impossible, practically speaking, but it is inadvisable.

At the same time each day the morning mail is distributed and sorting it is one of my responsibilities. I separate out the personal letters from the business correspondence—all of this is first opened in the mailroom, if a business has a mailroom. We don’t have a mailroom. Mailrooms are not the tradition in Hell’s Kitchen and in our trade we prefer direct delivery. And I should mention that of all my responsibilities, I take this separating out of the personal letters from the business correspondence most seriously, though I take all of the work seriously.

Office work is very serious business.

When the office was established, I was there to arrange it: the desk needed to go next to the window, for one thing, that I knew. Mr. C.’s mother thought the desk should go facing the door—there were notes in Mr. C.’s desk to this effect. I filed them under “Chelikowsky, Mother.” She never liked me, but I liked her. Her perfume was amazing: Sumatra. Whispered romance. You wouldn’t expect it, was the thing, from someone like her. If a woman thinks there is something improper about a woman and a man working in close quarters you can pretty much guarantee there is something improper about her. Like I said, I liked her, I like women with secrets. But she never liked me.

When I was hired, the notes were all willy-nilly. Personal mixed in with business and that’s never smart. An outsider might think that personal business is business but there’s business and there’s business and this is one thing that employers (e.g. Mr. C.) don’t understand but secretaries do. Marge Quinn, stenographer, does not understand this due to her inexperience and also due to her figure. What I mean is, her personal self comes into the work. When she stands at the file cabinet she’s not filing, she’s also standing—it’s hard to explain to an outsider.

Even buying a coffee at the newspaper stand to bring to the office, steaming and hot, twenty-five cents with heavy cream added, one sugar, is personal business that she considers business because it goes on her desk. You can see by the way she caresses the cardboard with her buttery fingers. My fingers aren’t buttery—they’re more like matchsticks. Not brittle—more like delicate—and effective for making a pass. But there’s nothing personal about me at work, or at least I maintain that impression, which takes discipline and technique.

What goes on my desk—and I keep my desk bare as I can, just as I keep my body under my clothes—is all business, and the personal matters go in a drawer, or if not suitable there, in a file marked “Personal” (no subheading) and there’s a secret drawer for those files too, but enough of that now, that’s for later, or never.

It is my job to train Quinn. I’ve never met anyone like her. I’d take a nickname like Quinn. Chan isn’t much of a nickname. No one ever uses nicknames for me.

The last stenographer—well, we didn’t have one, but the girl who would have been a stenographer, if we’d needed a stenographer, wasn’t anything like Quinn, not one bit! She was all angles and business. She had few responsibilities apart from being sure the phone stopped ringing in time. I don’t think she had a personal life. She lived in the low numbers, if you know what I mean, where I would have lived if my father would have let me, but I lived at home because he needed someone to take care of his business (all personal, and I would rather not go into details). That was two years ago, before I moved into the hotel. It wasn’t the Barbizon—not that I couldn’t have afforded it on my salary, Mr. C. treats me well—but it wasn’t my cup of tea. I wanted my cup of tea my way, not the Barbizon way, and by that I mean I wanted my birds. Not caged birds, but pigeons—they mainly eat on the sills but if they want to come in I don’t mind and I wanted to live somewhere that didn’t mind either and I didn’t want to sign in and out every time I left for a sandwich—egg salad, thank you, with iceberg lettuce and mayo on white. The receipts are all there in the filing cabinet. I take liberties only with this—keeping my personal affairs filed at work. “Sandwich Receipts,” all in order, you won’t find a single one missing.

The trouble with being a secretary is training new stenographers to understand that there are some phone calls that must go unanswered, and also some letters that will never be filed and some that will never be taken out of the files, will never be seen—there is only so much I can tell her and it is quite clear from the way that she dresses that she doesn’t like to be told anything. So even when I am being evasive, because I don’t trust her, she thinks I am telling her something and wants to rebel. This shows in her thighs.

If you’d like an example, I should not have shared with her the name of my tailor, the Latvian woman on Twentieth Street, Mrs. Lurenski. She’s a genius with wool. I can ring her up on a Friday and have the suit that I need by the following Monday—a Following Suit. These are the most difficult patterns and they need to be frequently changed for success in the office, and on the street where some of our work takes us—especially down to the pickle district, and that is no joke.

What worries me is that Quinn always stays late. Mr. C. says she’s motivated, she’s the most motivated and mysterious stenographer he ever has known, and I’m worried. He’s vulnerable, Mr. C., to certain sensations—no need to go in the gutter with that. I mean he admires ambition but the first thing to know about business is it isn’t personal. Personal ambition is the opposite of his father’s ideals and it is the opposite of how to get where we’re going and I should know, because I’ve read all the mail. I also designed the communication system, the one with the mailroom that doesn’t exist but as far as Mr. C. is concerned it exists and apparently, according to him, it is very, very real because he frequently refers to the mailroom. According to him, it’s down in the basement, which you can only get to by taking the stairwell to the door that’s marked B. I discovered, my first day of work, that the drawer key opens this door. Behind the door is a room full of filing cabinets, locked. My key does not open these files and they’re covered with dust and with grime and the one closest to the door—the one illuminated by the light of the stairwell—has a heart drawn in the grime by a finger, with two initials inside joined by a + and outside the heart, a finger has scraped in a word that might read forever or never.

Friday, April 4

It was not Hester Chan’s desire to become a secretary, and since I am a light I can say this with confidence; I shine a light on every desire, and every lack of desire.

It was Hester Chan’s hope that she could—like her father—work at the hand laundry only six blocks away from their Chinatown flat. She had wanted to work in the back room of the hand laundry—it opened onto an alley where the laundresses stood during their work breaks and smoked. Hester’s older brother, who, if he wasn’t her brother, if it wasn’t so wrong, she’d think of as a “half-Chinese Jimmy Stewart” (Jimmy Stewart being her favorite actor since he had appeared in her favorite play about an imaginary rabbit). Hester’s brother, who, like Hester, wasn’t half-Chinese at all but maybe an eighth, nobody knew and both Hester and her brother had such an elegant look—I shone a light on it carefully when visitors came, delicately tilting my neck.

So, Hester’s brother always had some adorable girl waiting for him on the stoop, had told her that the laundry workers smoked opium, and that he smoked it too.

Even though laundry work is especially wearisome, soaking, scrubbing, and ironing of clothing by hand, often in rather uncomfortable circumstances—overly hot or overly cold—Hester enjoys wearisome work. She enjoys wearisome work of this kind in particular, the kind that involves water and fabric, electricity, steam—not human beings. She is not a self-punishing sort but she’s not very ambitious, either, in some significant ways. Yet more to the point she detests entanglements, intrigue. It is difficult, for this reason, to know precisely how Harvey—the play about Jimmy Stewart and his imaginary rabbit, that had been put on a couple of years ago, had cemented the actor as her ideal sort of man. Yet a man, a perfectly wonderful man with a constant wild look in his eyes, with a long body that was lazy and sensual and really quite strange—a man having an invisible, huge talking rabbit as a best friend is not the same as a man having a tedious entanglement with any old human. Which is the sort of intrigue most humans enjoyed.

And who could blame the encouragers, really? Those who wanted Hester to have more aspiration, that is. As a laundry worker, her daily routine would have consisted mainly of working, eating, and then sleeping. A laundry worker sometimes had shifts of more than twelve hours a day. No doubt her parents wished better for her, you say? Sure, maybe. Who wouldn’t want better for such a beautiful specimen, really—hell, I wanted better for her. She never knew what it was like to be loved. She could have—once—but I’m getting ahead of myself.

As a secretary, she was only employed for eight hours a day, with one hour for lunch. Hester did not understand who in their right mind needed an hour for lunch. Though the conditions would have been bad, she would rather work in the laundry; there, they had political meetings and opium instead of automat lunches. Or so it was rumored—and mainly by her older brother, who was basically a real jerk and not to be trusted.

Hester watched him smoke, staring off into the distance. He was very self-aware, that one. He knew exactly how to create his own image—it was clever, the technique by which he drew himself into Hester’s sad story. Even after she no longer worked in the office, he was often outside on the street, looking up at the open window.

And the story with which we are concerned here—the story lit up in the dark of the night—concerns not how Hester became a secretary, not Hester’s longing for an other mode of employment, and not even the work that took place in this room.

It has to do with the open window at night, you see.

Monday, April 7

My dear colleague, the little green desk lamp, shines fine specific light on a subject that might more greatly benefit from my more varied portfolio. I derive from multiple sources and so perceive many things, move in many directions, see, am, and are many lives. I am the light, you see and that you see, of the diner across the street. I am the light of the all-night bakery, where Moishe Pnipkin boils his heavenly bagels, which sits beside the diner. I am the light of Ravi Fengler’s apartment. I am the light of Constance Rumio’s. Of Allan Parkstone’s, Gwyneth Burdock’s, Merry Gladstone’s. I am the light of Whisper and Janice Kim’s impeccable but illegal tailoring and seamstress service on the fourth floor, where they are right this moment dancing—ah, if only you could see them—before their bright window to the barely muted sounds of Belle Baker in the middle of their single cloth-strewn room. I am the light of the bare bulb shining ever-more dimly in the home of Jessie Rae Waltz, whose Victrola Whisper and Janice are listening to. He is sad right now, is Jessie, and owns only three records, one of them badly scratched. As he sits with his head in his hands, only altering his position to attend to the Victrola, Janice and Whisper will dance to them all.

I am the light of the bathroom window at Big Anna’s just above them. She has two customers. They are all sitting together on her couch, their legs and buttocks adhering. Getting sticky. I am the light at the tip of the cigarettes in all of their mouths, light that grows and fades, fades and grows. I am the light of the four cars idling at this moment on the street. One is bound for Harlem, two, curiously enough, for Flatbush (they have “business”), and one will just sit there idling until its gas runs out. More cars are coming. There are always more cars. On and on. I am the light of the trucks whose exhaust Marge Quinn so dislikes, there are two of them right now. One is filled with turquoise-and-golden toy motorcycles bound for cheap shops scattered throughout the city. The other is empty. Its driver is waiting, circling, over and over. Stopping every fourth or fifth round at this corner. He has a heart problem. It is hard not to hate it when he eats his mashed-meat sandwiches. He buys them by the half dozen. Small but heavy. He is often, as he is now, holding one in his hand.

I am the light of the streetlamp. Of course I am. If you want to play percentages, I am mostly it and it is mostly me. You can see it/me for seven blocks. So now you know I can see things. All kinds of things. More than my little desk lamp friend with her little green shade. Or the file cabinet whose nice fat flank I glaze (though neither of us grows sticky).

I can see Old Lady Gobner who comes out in the wee hours to throw scraps to the rats. Officer Schimmel who cries when he walks his beat. The triplets from Tenth Avenue who sneak out after midnight to run races down our sidewalks. They are hoping someday to become football stars or Olympic athletes. More than once I watched first J.J. then Chelikowsky emerge from the oak-and-brass front door of the building. Both of them walked quickly. J.J. always knew Chelikowsky was following her. Chelikowsky always hoped she did. Once, Hester Chan came out after him, followed them down the street. Followed Chelikowsky following J.J. Nothing happened that evening. They all went home.

Chelikowsky never did anything to J.J. beyond shoving her ever-so-gently than the phone remembers it out the door. Well, as I have said, he did follow her sometimes. But she also followed him. He shoved her because she laughed at him. Laughed at his fumbling, his groping, his getting it so wrong. Do I excuse shoving because of laughing? Of course I don’t. I’m just some light. Light from everywhere. You are looking at me right now. Or if you aren’t you just were. I am the light of this moment.

I am the light of the aging doughboy who sometimes walks down the street holding two lit flashlights. I don’t know why he does it. No one does. I am the light of the moon. It is here sometimes, peeping through. And of the stars. I am old light. I have travelled. Across the dark reaches. Sometimes there is too much of me. I lie burning the night long against the wall. Chelikowsky doesn’t like to lean against me. Marge Quinn places her lovely hand in my light and looks at it, at her hand bathed in my light. Hester Chan avoids me when she can. Sometimes J.J. would caress me. She had small fingers and big palms. Of course I saw who opened the window. Hester Chan knows who opened the window. Regardless, it doesn’t matter. The window is not what will get Chelikowsky, if anything will. I think something will. The window is just open. I pour through it.

Nobody ever pulls the blind on me at night.

Tuesday, April 8

I avoid the light when I can. The light is vertical. The light is horizontal. It travels through windows too well, slides easily onto the wall where it hovers—telling us what? You know what it’s trying to do. It’s an intruder, appearing to illuminate, to glow; you yourself know it infiltrates, threatens. Light makes art along with shadow but what about when both are erased—or when we are? I feel erased. I want to say—I don’t want to say—I think the light kills. I am a reasonable person. And I know the light killed you—when it shone on your affair, though it was never anything as common as that, no one has any idea who your affair was with—no one but me, that is, and you know it and it’s why you look so lost when I am absent. Though you and I never entertained any conversations about this, because I am very professional despite my dislike of this career, and, like you, I have never had a single pretentious idea in my life. Not like my brother with his sexy Jimmy Stewart persona, which yes, I myself identified, I myself named, but then he took it on and used it with common girls, any-old-girls with blonde hair. What about me? What about Hester? I’m the outsider. Quinn has taken my place—I’ll always be exotic to her. And I can tell that she does not understand you. All I ever wanted was to work at the laundry with Mama and Papa. I never cared about money. And here I am, hunted—haunted—by you.

No one will believe what I say. It used to be you looked at me. Now, you hang your head at the desk. You seem ashamed to even be there.

You don’t even tell anyone that you are a painter.

Wednesday, April 9

Once he threw me across the room. Just picked me up and threw me. As if I were someone trying to kill him. It hurt me badly—internal bruises and whatnot. I had no appetite for days afterwards. Even to this day, whenever Mr. C. enters the office I startle.

Thursday, April 10

So many questions remain—some of them wrong, some of them right. That’s the trouble. We might be asking all the wrong questions. Marge Quinn—is Marge Quinn some sort of spy? Is Marge Quinn a seducer? Is Marge Quinn a good girl? Is Marge Quinn working late out of the goodness of Marge Quinn’s expansive, kind soul? Are these questions too conservative, maybe? For example, did Marge Quinn participate in activities related to forgery, specifically did Marge Quinn, before she became a stenographer—she is suspiciously practiced for one so low in the field—did Marge Quinn work in an illegal art form? Did Marge Quinn have a hand in selling the work that got people killed? What’s Marge Quinn trying to hide? Or is Marge Quinn trying to find something, is that what it is? Does Marge Quinn have an innocent interest in art? What would that even mean? It’s about possessing something so it cannot be innocent, but maybe it can, because it’s like love. Marge Quinn just suddenly appeared here—took center stage in the painting and everyone pays attention to her. She’s not so interesting, or maybe she is, but Hester Chan’s more interesting, and she’s not even depicted. Why is that?

Marge Quinn hasn’t worked long enough to know that Mr C. took that painting off of the wall. She doesn’t even know to ask: did Mr. C. even paint it, or, that time the electricity failed, that time he was in the office at night, in the office at night alone just like always, ever since Janice Jones quit and just before Hester Chan came on the scene: did Mr. C. smoke a red-paper wrapped cigarette with Chinese lettering on it, and then did he draw on the wall? And if he drew on the wall, who erased what he drew? And why did she do it? And what happened next?

Friday, April 11

I am the window. I can speak for myself. I can even open myself. Like a mouth. I am like a mouth. Fear my teeth. My tongue. The deeper reaches. All of you can leap through me. Can pour through me. Howl through me. Just leave me alone. I don’t like your radio. Turn it off. Put it back in the file cabinet. There is nothing easy about being a window. Especially not in a painting. Yes I know I am painted. I know we’re all painted. What can it mean to be a painted window? Can it mean anything? A window made of paint. An open painted window. Talk about your Office of Unconsummated Desire. And what happens when the lights in the room you are looking at me in go out and we exist together, all together, in the dark?

Monday, April 14

It is not difficult to explain, though maybe it is difficult to understand. The aim of a good secretary is to create the most exact transcription of the most intimate impression of her boss’s nature as expressed in his dictation to her of letters, documents, telegrams, et cetera.

People who do not do secretarial work have no comprehension of secretarial work as an art form. This could be said, I suppose, of anyone outside any particular practice, of course. The conductor does not see the janitor well, nor does the waitress see the chimney sweep well. Et cetera. Look, my parents’ impressions about what their daughter’s future should look like were far more decorative than mine; my only goal is to be fully aware of my own limitations and to let my intuition on this be my guide. I find office work brings a disturbing intrusion of elements that are not in the scope of my vision. To do my job well I must obliterate the disturbing intrusions—Marge Quinn, for example—I must obliterate her from my vision in order to do my job well. I find any digression from this large aim—the creation of an exceptionally accurate record—leads me to boredom. And yet I am forced to train her. I have done this as well as I can, but I cannot share my secret with her. I can, however, share it with you: a great secretary, with her intellect, that is to say her intuition, as the sole master, has in her own way created an exceptionally accurate record of the boss’s emotions. Just look at my filing system. It is aesthetically sensitive. New technologies have been invented but there is no replacement for a secretary’s ability to read the boss’s emotions. Just what technical discoveries can do to assist interpretive power is not clear. And the question of the value of nationality, as pertains to my job, is perhaps unsolvable.

Tuesday, April 15

Mr. C. only uses lead white now, never zinc white. As to pigment, the maker is Winsor & Newton. He can’t remember all the colors exactly. There are about twelve or thirteen of them. He tries to keep them organized in his apartment. Mr. C. gets the best Winsor & Newton linen he can acquire. He trusts Winsor & Newton and paints directly upon it. He doesn’t make his own stretchers. J.J. used to make them down in the basement (at work)—but now he acquires them elsewhere. He has a very simple method of painting. It’s to paint directly on the canvas without any funny business, as it were, and he uses almost pure turpentine to start with, adding oil as he goes along until the medium becomes pure oil. He uses as little oil as he possibly can, and that’s his method. It’s very simple. It should be taught. However, none of this will ever be known. Only the light ever will know it.

Wednesday, April 16

“We haven’t yet heard enough about Marge Quinn, we know almost nothing about her,” says the Frame.

“Nor about Hester Chan’s brother,” says the Canvas.

“What’s this about Chelikowsky painting? He doesn’t look like a painter,” says the Pigment.

“What does a painter look like?” says the Frame.

“What did he do or not do to J.J. and why did his marriage to Gladys break up and why does he think someone wants to kill him?” says the Canvas.

“We’re a painting,” says the Frame.

“But not right now,” says the Canvas.

“Right now we’re words,” says the Pigment.

“Words, words, words.”

“Which means what exactly?”

“Does it mean we have to tell the whole story?”

“What’s the whole story? How would you recognize it? What would the whole story be?”

“Who is we here?”

“Yes, who is we here?”

“And weren’t we stretched and painted and framed long ago?”

“Aren’t we all long since dead?”

Thursday, April 17

In the file drawer “C” Marge finds a thick packet of files tied with a string—dirty, like a used shoelace. Chelikowsky/Cat 1, Chelikowsky/Cat 2, Chelikowsky/Cat 3 and so forth. And inside of each file an unfinished charcoal sketch of a cat. And under each drawing a handwritten name in looped, almost feminine letters—in cursive that is, but a specific kind of cursive, like a man would write on a valentine to a secret lover or to conceal his identity, e.g. when requesting a ransom. Marge counts 100 files containing 100 drawings of cats, all tied together with that dirty string. Marge Quinn rummages through these. Marge Quinn stays very late doing this, after Mr. C. leaves, for a few nights. With little difficulty she identifies favorites: Jorge, Piggy, Louis Armstrong, Cordelia, Tiffany, Liliana, Susan, and Helen.

Friday, April 18

Why is he drawing pictures of cats? Why do you assume that he drew them? I drew them. I, Hester Chan, drew the cats. After he told me about throwing the cat across the room—which come on, is really horrible of him, unforgivable, completely, who cares that he tries to redeem that little story by saying he caught the cat before she went down—after he told me that, I knew that I was in danger. But he told me in such an embarrassed, ashamed, horrified way that I think I overlooked something—I know that I did because I often go along with things, because I want things to be easy.

Yes.

Yes.

Later, he threw me. He threw me, and he didn’t catch me, and I got hurt. It wasn’t just once. I lied about that. And I never told anyone this. I wanted to throw myself out the window after it happened the first time. And after that, every time I opened the window? That is the reason.

What?

What is the reason I draw cats? Oh, come on. For Christ’s sake. I draw cats for the same reason anyone draws anything. I love them. And I worry for them.

Monday, April 21

For a long time I sat in the other room, facing the door, and so could see, even if “see” is not exactly the word, who came in and what they wanted, from the moment they came through the front door. Positioned as I am now, next to the filing cabinet, I cannot do this. What I can do, right this minute, is look at Marge Quinn’s great can, and while this is not a small deal, not by any stretch of the imagination, I mean it’s a great, great can, it is not the same as being able to see who is coming in through the door. Once a guy came in with a gun. He was holding it in his left hand and in his right hand he was holding a cigarette. He came in and didn’t say anything, just looked at Chelikowsky, who was looking over some paperwork J.J. wanted him to initial, then looked at his gun, then took a drag off his cigarette, then walked out again. I like to know when someone comes in with a gun. Even chairs can get shot. We can get shot and we can suffer and we can become damaged and we can become scrappable. Not that, let’s just get this clear, I am complaining about my view, right this very second, of Marge Quinn’s great can. I made that clear, right? It’s clear now, right? Very clear? She has a can, does Marge Quinn, that could take her far. If she plays her cards right. Can right. Ha!

Not, great as it is, that I like being sat on by it. It is a misconception that all chairs like being sat on. In fact I can speak with some authority, even if “speak” isn’t exactly the right word, for all the chairs in our office on that score. None of us like being sat on. Though I’m the only one who doesn’t like not being able to see who might be walking into the room holding a gun. Is that “who” or “whom”? One that, probably, has been used before. For nefarious purposes.

Hester Chan’s brother has a gun. He hasn’t showed it to her yet. I know he has it because three nights ago he came to see Hester Chan and when she went down the hallway to the ladies room her brother pulled out his gun and pointed it at Chelikowsky’s empty chair and said, “Bam!” We haven’t had a peep out of Chelikowsky’s chair since. Chairs are sensitive. Some of us more than others.

Tuesday, April 22

Desks are solid, desks are sturdy, we serve as background, we support, we provide circumstance, we intimidate, we maintain. We are also full of drawers. Of nooks and crannies. We are stained in secret places. Here is a story—one Hester perched neatly on me to tell her brother once—or part of one.

A woman emerges from a river, crawls exhaustedly onto the bank, passes out. A moment later a man does the same. While they lie there two bags float up beside them. The woman wakes first, sees the bags, takes them and walks quickly away without waking the man. She makes her way to a train station and manages to climb aboard a train that is just leaving. She finds an empty compartment, pulls its light-blue curtains shut, takes off her damp blouse. As she is opening one of the bags to look for another shirt she sees the shadow of a figure behind the compartment curtains. She freezes, terror-struck, but the figure moves along.

Instead of continuing to look for a shirt she sits down on the bench, puts her head in her hands, and bursts into tears. Sometime later, having fallen deeply asleep, she sits up and realizes the train has stopped. She puts her original blouse back on and leaves the train, stepping over various encumbrances related to cleaning as she goes. Not by chance the train has taken her home but she does not go home. She goes to a hotel and asks for a room. The clerk is suspicious (she looks very bedraggled) and asks her for an exorbitant amount. She realizes that she has no money at all, let alone the princely sum he is demanding, and asks if she can stay on credit. He picks up the phone to call the bellboy to eject her but as he does so her hand, which has been wandering around in her bag, uncovers a thick wad of cash that she hands over to the clerk, who is placated.

She is exhausted when she reaches her room but places a call to her father thanking him for putting the money in her bag. She tells him she loves him then crawls up into the bed and lies down and, for the third time since we first encountered her, sleeps. The next morning, having showered at length and generally tidied herself up, she goes to work. She finds her boss standing out on the curb in front of their building. He greets her, tells her he is waiting for someone, and asks her if she will run upstairs and grab something out of his desk drawer, some papers. As he asks her this, he lights a cigarette. She agrees, of course.

When she gets up to the office she finds it full of police. They want to know what the hell she is doing there and she explains that she works there, that she has forgotten her wallet in the back room. The officer she is talking to tells her to get lost, they have an investigation going, but when he gets called over to look at something by an excited uniform she darts quickly into the back room, opens the desk drawer, and removes its only contents—a bundle of correspondence. When she gets back downstairs her boss is no longer standing there. She hears a psssst, looks up and sees him across the street, beckoning from behind a newsstand.

“They’re shutting us down, my dear,” he says. “Someone was brought down trying to pilfer from us this morning.”

“Who got shot and who shot him?” she says.

He raises an eyebrow and asks for his documents.

“I’m going to need a new job,” she says.

“Stay with me, my dear, stay with me,” he says, again asking for the documents.

She tells him that whatever he does next she’ll need a raise. He has his eye on the documents, but knows better than to try and take them by force.

“Agreed, yes, a raise.”

“A good one, something real.”

“Yes, all right, a good one.”

She hands over the documents. He takes them then leans over and kisses her, chastely, on the cheek.

“You have just saved my life, my dear,” he says.

“A real raise and never call me ‘my dear’ again,” she says.

They part ways and a moment later a car pulls up beside her. The man driving it is the one who came out of the river with her. She climbs in beside him and he eases away from the curb. He drives slowly and carefully. He reminds her that she will have to help him. She says she knows this. He hands her a pair of spectacles and she puts them on. He looks over at her three times then says, “Nah, no way.”

“So I’ll just go as I am?” she says, taking them off, folding them closed and handing them back to him.

“Just as you are,” he says.

Which is where the story ends. Or the part of the story that I have. The part I know about. The only thing I can add to it is that her name is “Hester Chan” and the boss’s name is “Abraham Chelikowsky.” Yeah: them. I do not know the name of the guy who climbed out of the river with her and took her for a ride in his car. I don’t know what she was supposed to help him with. I don’t know if she did, in fact, help him. I do know this was five or six years ago.

Wednesday, April 23

Of course he keeps me hidden in the drawer. Of course he has forgotten that he keeps me here. Chelikowsky has circumstantial dementia. That may or may not be true. What do I know? I am wedged now at the back of the drawer behind three legal pads and a peppermint stick. Which is to say it is dark but smells good. I was not well-cleaned the last time he used me so there is a powdery pool of blue that grows ever-more-slightly each time he shoves something else into the drawer and I am banged up against the back. I feel nothing of course but that doesn’t mean I’m not aware. Doesn’t mean that I don’t know, that I don’t remember. It is one thing not to feel. It is another thing not to remember. Abraham doesn’t remember. That much is undeniable. Once he used me every day. I lived in a hopeful coffee can with other brushes, some fatter, some finer. All of them are gone. I know he has purchased new ones and now paints again but that is not what I am discussing here. After his last rejection, back in those old days, he threw them out the window and they hit a passerby who came straight upstairs and demanded a dollar for his trouble. A dollar or it was the police. Abraham gave him a dollar and handing over one of only four dollars sobered him up and he didn’t chuck me out the window. Instead he took me up and dipped me in a lovely fat blotch of blue and then dropped me onto the floor and cried.

Abraham cried with great energy and at great length in those days. This was far from here. Several blocks away at least. A small studio. More closet than studio. A closet with a big window. He slept curled in one small corner and painted in the other. For himself at first with no success of course and then for others. He had one or two drips and drabs of success with these others and then someone better, even much better, than him at forging Impressionist landscapes and Dutch Master portraits came along and that was it: no more work. There was nothing I could do to help. What could I have done? The servant serves the master and the master was fucked. And now he has forgotten me. He has forgotten that he worked, even just briefly, for the man who has been writing to him, Mr. Stetly, the man whom he once threatened to kill, for having refused him. For having given him work and then for having rejected him. Some of what Abraham did with me wasn’t bad.

Stetly said as much himself. But there is saying these things and there is handing over money. Maybe it’s willful dementia we’re discussing. Maybe Chelikowsky doesn’t remember because he doesn’t want to remember. I’m glad blue was my last color. Blue is deeper than black. It is deeper than anything. There is a strange curve to the earth. It comes off the earth’s surface, howls through the hallways, rearranges all the rooms, and goes skidding off into the sky.

Thursday, April 24

Where did the light go? And where were you when it went, Abraham? Did the light go out in you? Did you eat the light off the wall?

Thursday, April 24

I live in the top drawer of the file cabinet, and Hester Chan takes me out every-so-often to listen to her favorite program, The Housewives Protective League. She turns me on at a low volume, sets me down on the windowsill, leans over me as if to protect me, and sets her chin in her hands. She imagines a different scene. Poor Hester. She loves housekeeping—she just wants to stay home. Does she imagine the danger? No. She senses the danger. My gentle tones calm her. She is so beautiful—the way she leans her strong, slender frame over me as she listens, shoulders drooping from longing, listening to product endorsements. How her heart leaps during the panel discussion on sweeping (“A Clean Sweep for a New Broom”) and how she blushes when Abraham returns to the desk, how she gently picks me up in her shy, capable hands, turns me off, puts me away. Abraham watches, but never says anything—never suggests she just keep me on her desk, like she used to do before Marge arrived. At least I’m still set to 880 a.m.—at least some things never change.

Friday, April 25

In the dark night Mr C. takes the radio out of its drawer—he has to reach around Marge in order to do it, and then he sits down at the desk, puts it on the windowsill, tucked in the corner to get good reception, just like he knows Hester does every morning when he steps out to get his second cup of coffee from the diner. He turns the knob roughly, to a live broadcast from the Algonquin Room. It’s late and the music is pretty. The jokes are fantastic. There is something melancholy—something nostalgic or about to be gone, about the whole program. Standing at the the file cabinet, Marge watches him listen. He’s pretending to study some pages, close to the desk. Does the lamp know what he’s thinking? It’s so close to his head. He looks miserable, angry, troubled; he looks haunted, insane. So fucking lonely. Marge leans against the cabinet. Her makeup is very intense. She paints on her eyes every morning with brushes that cost a month’s salary—and of course she buys only the very best pigment—her face is her most visible canvas. Her face is dark, optimistic. Marge has no idea what her incredible face is actually worth. Who can quantify that? She smoothes her hair, then her skirt. Her expression hardens? Softens? Is she older or younger, or is she the same as she was from the beginning? Mr. C. stares down at his papers. He tries to picture her there. He wants to paint her but there’s no way he’ll ever try that again. His life is basically over. She’s in the room with him but he can’t bring himself to look at her, can’t admit what he has done—oh, he hasn’t done it yet, but still, he can’t admit what he is doing, or will do, with her, in the office at night. Marge leans on the drawer. Shirley Marge Quinn. Why did she drop her first name? When is she going to wrench herself from the cabinet? It is like she’s been welded onto it—it cuts into her soft, welcoming frame. When is she going to—when is she going to touch him?

Monday, April 28

“Wait, what?” says the Frame.

“It’s romance, we’re in romance now,” says the Canvas.

“Where’s the guy with the gun? Where’s Hester’s brother?” says the Pigment.

“Isn’t anyone going to come in and throw Chelikowsky out the window?” says the Frame.

“We’re in romance?” says the Canvas.

“Romance,” says the Pigment.

“Ain’t it all strange.”

“Yes.”

“So strange.”

Tuesday, April 29

And they dance. It’s ridiculous, really—a slow motion dance—it’s not a good dance. It’s awkward. She doesn’t pick up the paper. She ignores it. She walks over to him and places her hands on his shoulders and starts to move them down the sleeves of his jacket. And he sits very still. He is like a scared rabbit. He even looks like a rabbit. Like a giant man-rabbit. Like a child or father. He must not think that, he thinks; he empties his mind of all but the music and of her hands upon him, upon his nervous night body. He needs this more than he knew.

Wednesday, April 30

He signs all of his letters to Hester “Confidentially Yours.” That’s how he signs all of his letters, but especially hers. Why does he sign the letters to Hester “Confidentially Yours”?

Because he hurt her.

Thursday, May 1

In the back room of Mon Fong Won Co., Hester Chan lies on a table. She is stretched out on a white sheet, and she wears a beautiful pair of silk Chinese pajamas: a deep shade of blue. The phonograph plays “Mean Old World” over and over. T-Bone Walker is Hester Chan’s favorite musician. Someday someday darling I’ll be six feet in my grave… as the needles warm her whole body, as the needles calm her startled condition, Hester enters a dream. Or is it not a dream? Nobody knows. And isn’t that the whole problem, that nobody knows whether or not life is a dream? If we knew, we wouldn’t be afraid of dying, would we? If life is a dream nothing is real—not even the pictures we see with our mind. But if life is a dream then is there even a mind? Are we someone else’s dream, maybe? What Hester Chan’s brother told her when they were kids: that he controlled her every movement. That she was his. That she was his servant. That she was his love. That she was his soldier. That she was his robot. That she worked for him. He is the one who puts in the needles. He has a gift. Everything that he does is illegal. In the back room of Mon Fong Won Co., on a Saturday morning, there is no direct light coming in; it’s a closet, curtained by velvet—dark blue. A small sliver of light sneaks in under its edges, washes the floor, slides up the blue silk of her pajamas and reaches her face—gives her complexion a ghost’s chilly color. But she isn’t dead, she is only dreaming she is. Or is it a vision? The needles are supposed to calm down the dread; her mother suggested the treatment. Her mother told her to let her brother do it. It’s the best thing Hester could have imagined. Her complexion glowing in blue, the record turning around and around with a soft whir—and those strong, lyrical sounds floating toward her—and her brother’s cigarette smoke, wafting in: Mon Fong Won Co., Saturday morning. The Office of Unconsummated Desire is far, far from her mind. Hester Chan knows she must go back to work the day after tomorrow. Why is Hester Chan so afraid?

Friday, May 2

“Wait, what?” Hester says.

“This is romance,” he answers.

“But it doesn’t feel right.”

“So why don’t you throw yourself out the window?”

“Wait, this is romance?”

“Romance,” Marge chimes, from her post at the files.

“Yes, romance,” he says, at the desk.

“So strange,” Hester murmurs. “I don’t feel like I’m even here anymore.”