I was dressed in a ghastly shade of pink, bright and sugary, like a Popsicle. My skin reeked of sun block and bug repellant. The doorbell chimed. I slammed the bathroom cabinet and boomeranged to the top of the steps, launching myself downwards, pleased when my flip-flops slapped a quick cadence against the soles of my flat feet.
Whitney Anderson, one of my three assistants, stood on the front porch glittering like a sequin. Her eyelids were powdered with rich and variegated tones of mauve and grey. “Didn’t you get the update?” she said.
“What update?”
“The beach is history.” She swished inside. A satin blouse, brown like coffee cream, revealed most of the upper orbits of her pushed-together breasts. An elaborate silver bag swung from one shoulder, all belts and buckles and dangling hardware.
“What do you mean history?”
She let the bag slide to the crook of her arm. “The beach is out.”
I wished that Whitney would follow the example of any self-respecting mermaid and that she would allow great quantities of her long auburn hair to fall forward to partially obscure the ample cleavage, but I didn’t squeak because I wasn’t her mother. Whitney wafted inside with a hint of earthy floral. She stared at me. “Didn’t you get the e-mail?”
“What e-mail?”
“The beach is totally off our agenda,” she said. “We’re going to that new restaurant; Michaud’s on West 49th. The servers are young and good-looking. Scalding hot, broiling hot. I’ve heard that one of them could pass for Hugh Jackman’s identical. Hiliary was supposed to… or was it Sheila? Maybe, it was me? Somebody was supposed to keep you up-dated.”
I hesitated.
“Sorry, Boss.” Whitney said. “If it was supposed to be me, I’m awful sorry.”
“Have a seat.” I waved towards the living room, wincing at the pock-marked indentations sinking into the carpet behind her four-inch spikes. She sat on the couch and crossed her ankles. “You going to have to change.”
“Oh yeah?”
They were all the same I decided, my three young helpfuls. I tried not to refer to them as “the girls” but I am almost 48 and idioms from my generation slip despite my efforts. I started to climb the stairs to change out of my beach attire.
Five months ago, after I had studied resumés and interviewed, I hired three young women. I figured they’d be sufficient for our newest projects. Preliminary stats concerning trials of anti-asthma formulations were streaming in online. The company where I am employed on senior staff, Alderside Pharmaceuticals, one of the largest and most reputable developers in the region, had several posted opportunities, new openings for the up-and-comers. We needed the eager and ambitious and the innovators. Traditionally, historically, we’ve always hired bright young men, nerds and geeks with biochemical degrees and aptitudes for figures and marketing. But not this time.
The doorbell chimed again.
Sheila and Hiliary, my two other production and marketing assistants, stood on the porch, resplendent and elegant in high fashion. They grinned at me like steely-eyed cats.
“Make yourselves comfortable,” I said, ushering them inside. “I shall return as quickly as I can get out of this casual gear.”
As the only female professional at Alderside, I conceded that I was initially given a blessed opportunity, yeah, way back when – way way back. Our company courts a reputation for cutting edge research. Alderside took a chance on me. The only other female employees are a couple of administrative assistants. Of late, I’ve campaigned for better hiring protocols, pouring myself into a role as an advocate for “the girls.”
I loitered at the top of the steps, eavesdropping over the railing.
“She still thought the picnic at the beach,” Whitney said.
“Such is wonder.”
“No worries. We’ll still have some fun.”
“Hey Sheila, are you hungry?”
“Mon dieu! Non! Chéri, I’m going for the atmosphere.”
“Yeah, let’s linger over a long dessert. Make mine luscious and wearing tight-assed jeans,” Hiliary said. “Something worth checking out.”
“And wine.”
“Chablis, and French cuisine.”
“You got it.”
“Like really…. rich pastries, cheesecake.”
“You mean beefcake.”
“That too.”
Whitney called out: “Hey Boss, our reservation is for seven. We should hustle.”
Five months earlier, I had to seek the final approval for hiring these three, a rubber stamp from another senior staffer. I chose carefully and petitioned Dr. Henrik Wallace, the Senior Director. He’s an old stodgy fart, semi-retired now, probably over seventy. He stinks of cigarillos and green peppermints. Although he may have lost his cutting edge, he still knows the business of Alderside as if it were an old familiar blanket. Occasionally, he forgets who’s who. He gets a little flakey when you speak with him for more than ten minutes straight.
“Women, especially younger women,” I pointed out to him, “are equally capable on the research and the data correlations. We need new blood.”  
“Be careful,” he said. “Our success requires pure and scientific methods and empirical precision.”
“I know, Dr. Wallace, I know. Remember? You taught me. But we’ve got to consider a new generation and gender legalities. This is after all the twenty-first century. No different than the boys.”
He spun his four-wheeled executive-style leather chair across the vinyl mat underneath it and audibly emitted a quantity of gas which gradually grew more odoriferous and reinforced hisreputation of the old fart.
I threatened major delays in my own reportage. Finally, he said: “Yes, my dear. Go ahead, hire the females.”
So, these three grads, Whitney, Sheila and Hiliary, beautiful and assertive, aspiring, edgy and newly spat from their respective universities, came to work for me. Whitney is 29; the others a year or so her junior.
One of them called upstairs: “Hey Boss. Can we sample a glass of your finest reds?”
“Go nuts,” I shouted, remembering that I’d recently restocked the Cabernet and Merlot inside the hutch. My thoughts drifted towards my work.
When we were all within the bounds of 9 to 5, I found the day-to-day a drudgery of late. Like a stranger outside myself, I resented the obvious; that I’d begun serving as a guidance counsellor or a nag. I wanted something to occur with my three young woman assistants – I wanted to be – well – I really don’t know what I had expected.
“I’ll need several minutes more,” I called downstairs and closed my bedroom door. I unzipped the garish pink. The girls could cool their jets for a while. No rush.
Months ago, in the triangular foyer of the offices, on a tired afternoon, I heard my girls gossiping. I stooped behind the dividing wall, effectively hiding and listening.
“Hey, did you check out that really bad snarl of tangled hair?” To my chagrin, I realized Sheila was referring to me. “Disgusting. Must be a phony. A wig or something glued to the underside. Maybe it’s a cheap and synthetic weave.”
“Yeah, looks horribly thready and fake,” Hiliary said. “A mess. She should maybe get some highlights, blond or red, at least a decent cut and style.”
“Blow job?” Whitney said.
“No. No. Please Don’t!” Hiliary choked on snicker until she fell into a fit of coughing.
“And those awful snug fitting stretch pants that she wears – yuck!” Whitney’s voice was mean. “Loser. Her backside needs a miracle. She should find a three-way mirror, fast. And then a reputable gym or a plastic surgeon.”
“If I were even half that size or a quarter that flabby,” Hiliary said. “I’d consider a butt lift or a suicide.” And they all laughed, loud and snorty.
This physical critique seared like a third degree burn. Deliberately, I reframed my own mind, “Silly unimportant drivel,” I said to myself. “Doesn’t matter.” And so I forgave the blasphemy of youth. I was the consummate professional.
I wanted my three assistants to come into my office from time-to-time, to sit and percolate their bright and fresh ideas. Instead, they skirted around and decidedly avoided my flabby ass when I jostled down the hall. I roosted alone inside my corner office. They seemed to be having way too much fun out there; everywhere. Monday mornings, Sheila arrived late. I deduced she was chronically hung-over. Hiliary squandered many entire afternoons investigating the adjunct facilities. She fumbled over simple routines. Whitney spent company time on her own personal errands, toting the impression of busyness around like a comfortable sweater, but I couldn’t see much in the way of true accomplishment.
The three of them failed to clean-up after themselves, leaving wads of granola bar wrappers and empty soda cans. I heard Whitney griping when she had to perform any minor clerical functions. I began to wonder what applications and programs or activities they actually indulged in behind the screens of the stats computers.
I couldn’t decipher exactly who, but one of the girls had registered the data-entry sequence incorrectly, warping formulae and miscalculating time-frames. I heard Hiliary flubbing and cussing behind the computer.
“Where did you slot the Buchanan data?” I asked her as I passed by.
“Buchanan who?”
“Our largest research affiliate.”
“Sorry Boss. I’ll look it up.”
I hauled them into my office, drummed a tutorial at them, showed them again. I provided copies of the Research and Development Manual. “Study,” I said, ignoring vacant wide-eyed smiles and furtive shoulder shrugs.
After two months, nothing had altered. I decided to try to socialize with my protégés. Team building and upper management skills, I’d inspire them, damn it! I would win at this. Anything. But really, I just wanted to let them know that deep inside of me, I was capable of being young at heart – and fun – a whole fat and flabby-ass load of fun.
In the deep recesses of my mind, in my soul, in my self, l always feel like I’m well under the age of 30.  And I wanted to go out and party hardy and savour leisurely lunches over cappuccinos at Pavali’s Cafe, just like they did, and laugh like them. I wanted that inclusiveness. I wanted these girls to see me. “Hey, I’m a girl too, just like you.” I wanted to shout at them. I wanted to be a friend, not a mentor or a guiding mother figure, or a boss either.
First, we tried going out for lunches – the company credit card burning up the damage. And then drinks after five o’clock. On one occasion, I persuaded them to trek over to the pub for a game of snooker. Sheila brandished her cue like a lance and nearly ripped a felt strip near a corner pocket. Whitney was listless. She wanted to go elsewhere. “Anywhere,” she said. “Coffee?” Hiliary suggested. And so I sorted them all out and paid for café mochas.
On Friday night, a few weeks afterward, we ventured into Sweet Apple’s Night Club where I watched them dance. I drank rye and coke and then rye neat. My girls were certainly not angelic or reserved. Sheila left with some guy she danced with for less than five minutes. Whitney imbibed numerous glasses of something transparent until she puked in the women’s restroom. I sent her home by cab. Hiliary melted into the crowd and then re-emerged arm-in-arm with some tough-looking wannabe, a guy with dark tattoos and sinewy biceps and torn denim.
I tried to let the girls exist without my reprimands. I wasn’t their guardian. Besides, I wanted to dance. But no one asked me. The music blared loud and hollow for a while. What the hell? I snaked home.
Now, this evening, attired anew and ready; I had relied so heavily upon our planned outing to Lacarno Beach for an informal picnic. With this new scenario in a crowded place, I must revise. I worried. Michaud’s was trendy and hugely expensive. Maybe I could wait until after the decadent desserts. Ah, so young, so beautiful, so edgy and so entirely self-absorbed. Lost, hopeless and unprepared! If only someone had asked me to dance on that night in the sway and glare of the night club. If only….
I’d pick-up the tab of course. The smell of insect repellant renewed as I re-buttoned my boring work-day collar, part of a conservative skirt suit, and I hoped my butt didn’t look too wide. I reached for the calfskin wallet with the company credit cards.
Mark Covington, Eric Hepburn and Phillip Meyers could take over during the next few weeks. The tallest guy, Eric, was broad-chested and almost 31. He possessed a shock of peppery dark blond hair and pale green eyes. The other two had barely passed their undergrad, but all of them would do well enough. Nerds. I wasn’t sure about their skills of innovation.
I suppose, that fact, the fact that they were pleasant to the eyes and would probably fake it till they made it, like all the guys eventually managed it, would carry me forwards to the company’s new projects, cutting edges and all. At least I told myself that’s what mattered. I could continue with my new plans, hoping that the three young women who idled at the table and drank too much wine and were silly – airheads, immature – would find themselves in other gigs, or they might benefit from a protracted term of unemployment.
After the French pastries which indeed were delicate and light, and too many glasses of house red, I said it clear as glass. “You’re fired. All three of you.” I didn’t look into their bright and vacant eyes. “Immediately. Capiche?  Don’t come in to work on Monday.”
I swallowed my own spit. Then I paid the tab using my personal accounts, scratching my flabby ass as I walked out of the restaurant – alone. I started to tremble just a little as I continued stalking away from them, but I never did look back.

Katrina Johnston

Katrina Johnston is a recent Pushcart Prize nominee. Works of short fiction may be found at several online sites. She occasionally breaks into print. The goal of her writing is to share. Katrina lives in Victoria, BC, Canada.