Smoke And Fire

Judith Nakken

© Copyright 2002 by Judith Nakken

The doorbell is ringing. It really goes ding-dong, ding-dong. Slow and two-toned like that Avon commercial.

Remember when the Avon Lady came every month? Her basket was full of scented samples and she appreciated my order. These days one appears magically during the Christmas season. She hangs a couple of catalogs on my door in the middle of the night so she won’t have to see me. If I want my soap or bath oil I have to talk to her answering machine. She could be a man, a nom de plume on voice mail, for all I know.

The Avon Lady brought tidbits of gossip from the neighborhood when she visited in the evening. "I’m not sure this is true," she’d titter as she placed yet another new product in my hands, "but where there’s smoke, there’s fire, you know." I wasn’t acquainted with them, working all day and half the weekends as I did, but my neighbors’ peccadilloes became familiar to me. And, my mama used to say that, too. Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

"What house does she live in?" I encouraged that Avon Lady’s penchant for carrying tales in suburbia, and knew my neighbors only through her. Across in the blue house the woman was in her seventh marriage. The two guys in the house on the corner weren’t really uncle and nephew. You know what I mean. The redhead down the street had undergone four abortions. I knew them, and remembered their sins, even when all had moved away and the Avon Lady didn’t come any more.

Perhaps I should answer the door? Maybe it’s a real Avon Lady? I need soap.

The Company moved to Cleveland. I was highly marketable, and took a position here that paid more than I’d been making after twenty-two years. I had a new staff of eight. Their sympathies were with their discharged supervisor and two of them were deliberately making the work more difficult and my life miserable.

I called them into my office. Two weeks to get on the team, I told their two stone faces. I could personally handle what you’re both doing badly right now until I find other staff, I said.

Yes, ma’am, they said. The one who’d been there forever sat in her partitioned corner and smiled enigmatically while the young one never came back. Our Workman’s Compensation carrier had a claim within the week.

"Mental anguish. Sexual harassment. ‘She rubbed against me and grabbed my chi-chi’s,’" was on the copy of the hand-written claim form Personnel received.

I went to the insurance carrier’s office and met with its attorney. They were negotiating a reasonable settlement, and my firm would have nothing to say about it. It saves money in the long run, she said as she did not meet my eyes. We don’t admit guilt, of course. She smiled and judged my crisp trousers, tweed blazer and the smoke in the file in front of her, and did not offer her hand.

A photocopy of the claim and the payoff was on the windshield of each car in the parking lot a week later. I still didn’t know if chi-chi’s were breasts or buttocks when the summons came from the State. The old girl continued to smirk in her corner. The new data operator shrank from me and ran to the bathroom, weeping.

The cat peeks around the corner. Does the doorbell disturb her? Should I answer it?

My new employer was allowed to bring the accused, an officer who could sign a settlement, and one other person to the hearing. This became the corporate attorney. It makes more sense, I argued, to take my ex-husband or current, occasional lover. It’s too important, the president said, to be without representation. The State takes sexual harassment seriously.

The accuser was allowed to present as many witnesses as time allowed. Still, she had only one. The bitter woman from the corner insured her job forever by trembling in fear that I would terminate her for testifying. No, she was finally induced to emote, the new controller never touched me, but I was careful to keep a table between us at all times.

I’m heterosexual, period, I said. It’s not feasible that I harassed this woman. Check my twenty-two years’ work history. Talk to the last women I supervised.

Mr. Jefferson, the state arbitrator, heard me out and then ushered our party into a side room. We ventured small victory smiles. There is no proof, all we’ve lost is valuable time, our cautious expressions said. Jefferson came within minutes and asked for a check for $25,000 in full settlement.

I’m guilty? I asked. Without proof on either side, we choose to err on the side of the wronged, he replied.

Wronged? I could hear him thinking about smoke and fire as I collapsed.

I couldn’t work any more, even after I was well. Offices are full of women and some time I would have to be tough. So I garden and read and go to the movies. Matinees, when the theater isn’t crowded.

The bell stops. The cat creeps out and laps at the spillage in the center of the room. It’s not fitting, and I take her to my lap. The slut leaves her owner there and loves me immediately.

In the grocery, earlier, was a woman who lived across my street in the ‘80’s. Everyone knew she had euthanised her mother in another city. Before I could consider what the truth beyond the smoke might be she scuttled past me. I was ashamed.

I bought bullets for the thirty-year-old handgun. Three are left.

The bell rings again. Ding-dong. A loud thump, thump batters at the door. I don’t think it’s the Avon Lady.

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