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The President’s Secretary
To meet another person on the street would be a kind of hell...
In the town there are six buildings clustered together on one street and nothing but endless windswept plains. The power station, the bank, the bank President’s house, the rooming house, the sheriff’s station, and the old saloon. A few a few clapboard farmhouses stand scattered in the yellow-grass towards the four horizons. The power station sits fenced-off and isolated on the outskirts of town, not on a road of any sort, just a cinderblock box planted in the dirt with an antenna on top and a padlock out front, steady low humming for anyone that gets close. The bank is the largest building in town, venerable facade of plank and beam and gleaming windows polished daily, and the bank President’s house sitting beside it the second largest, two entire stories for just the President and a scullery maid, even older than he, who sleeps beneath the stairs. The rooming house is two dusty stories fifteen dismal rooms full of creaking floorboards, stands across the street flanked on one side by the old saloon, full of murmuring from dusk til almost dawn, and the sheriff’s station on the other, low brutal structure where the lamp burns in the window and the old drunkard Waldo can be heard wailing from the holding cell. Can be heard until the sun rises and he’s thrown out in the dust out the back, crawls and sticks his head under the sputtering faucet until his stringy white hair is dripping cold mineral wet turning the ground beneath him to mud, stumbles away to sleep in the garbage behind the old saloon. The sun rises and begins to climb. The President’s secretary rises with it, dresses in high collar severe starched cotton shirt and long plain shirt hair pulled back in a tight gleaming bun and leaves her narrow allotment in one corner of the rooming house, upper floor southwest, goes down the creaking stairs and leaves before breakfast. Leaves to cross the road, an unpaved flat track, fine dry dirt and a few parched weeds in the low early light, and no one yet on the road but her, the rest of the town still waking, face sagging, unshaven, eyes still full of night. Crosses so early that she knows she will not meet anyone and knows she will reach the office, will be at her desk prepared before the President arrives. Does this every morning, never sees a soul. Such is her design, her way of maintaining control. To meet another person on the street would be a kind of hell for the secretary. To not be at her desk prepared before the President arrives would be a worser hell. If she was not at her desk prepared the President would call her a stupid cunt. Dumb airhead bitch. The President would ask her if her Daddy touched her, if that was why she couldn’t follow simple instructions. He would ask if she had some sort of grudge against powerful men and was sabotaging him deliberately and then he would make her beg for her job, would make her apologize over and over and promise to do better and lick and kiss his shoes while he breathed heavily and drooled a little in her hair. She had never not been at her desk prepared well before he came in and so it had never happened but she knew it would, was sure it would, by the look she would catch in the President’s heavy rheumy eyes sometimes sunken into his chair half-asleep at midday bringing him his lunch, the look that told her she was beneath human to him, would never be his equal. She believes this. She sits at her desk at the back behind the frosted glass divider as the tellers, all three, file in and believes this. The President comes in after them, more than an hour after she has sat already feeling the day accumulate around her like a rising wind and walks right past her sitting there too distracted by thoughts about a phone call, a phone call, another phone call to make to even greet her almost never greets her, almost never greets anyone but goes straight to his office and shuts the door and she sits and believes this, on this day and all days she sits and she believes this. The bank is failing and she does not know this, sits outside the door and thinks how the President is like a god compared to her and he makes hopeless phone calls, degrades himself to other men in other places who he know at heart will not help him, and feels as though he is the captain of a meagre ship sinking far out at sea, far beyond any hope of rescue. He did not always feel this way but now he does, he has for a long time. In another three months the bank will not exist. It will be shuttered stripped for parts left to rot in the sun and the town will wither around it like a body infected with gangrene. In two years it will all have blown away, will be a blank spot on the map and nothing more, farms all bust the President dead by gunshot the old saloon a circle of ash the rest of the citizens what few there still were dispersed by the four winds to obscure places cruel rooms and desperate ranches and dive bars with the windows all blacked out on streets full of empty lots. No one will ever guess there had ever been anything here at all. She sits all morning not knowing how little of this life remains to her while the President sits in his office feeling his world shrink down further and further feels his whole world shrinking down condensing into a plastic film across his face clinging to his nose his mouth blocking off his air and the secretary sits outside and imagines this is where she will sit for the rest of her life under the President’s thumb the decades unrolling ahead of her uniform and unchanging. She imagines the President looking through her every day for the rest of her life and feels secure. It is comforting to her to be beneath attention and when she brings the President his lunch coffee and sandwich on a silver platter this is how he seems to treat her, seems to look right through her seems to not even know she’s there until suddenly as she’s bending over setting the tray down in front of him he grabs her hand and pulls her closer eyes suddenly like a desperate caged animal and asks her Do you believe in God I mean not are you religious but do you really believe the dead have names and gropes feebly at her breasts through the severe cotton like an accident.
The secretary goes home that day with the sun already setting, climbs the side stairs of the rooming house under the cold glow of a single buzzing light stuck high up in the eaves. Next door in the saloon the murmuring has already commenced. The secretary goes straight to her narrow allotment in the southwest corner eyes stubbornly fixed on the floor ahead of her moving like an automaton, goes to her room and shuts and locks the door and sits at her desk, opens a drawer and takes out a set of kitchen knives lays them flat on the desk, handles black blades gleaming perfectly sharp, runs her hands over them, fondles them, feels the warmth of the wood and the cool of the steel and lets a calm like submerging in deep, still water wash over her and through her and into every part of her. She runs her hands over the knives for hours. Waldo starts to wail again. She doesn’t need anything more.
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