A REMORSELESS HUM
By Nicole Van Den Eng
Jill knew she looked good in her skirt suit. She’d been working obsessively on her thighs and glutes and she felt strong enough to tow the red sedan herself.
She didn’t move to do so, of course, standing tall in her stilettos was the position of higher influence. Wayne looked flawlessly masculine as he chained the sedan up to his tow truck. Jill admired how broad his shoulders were in his blue jumpsuit, the ruggedness of his work boots, and that he was confident enough to wear a ponytail.
Struggling to pretend like she wasn’t paying attention to Wayne, Jill sniffed. Her work was more important than her setbacks. Work did not allow for setbacks.
A man and woman stood close to one another up on the porch. They aimed reproachful looks at Jill. Their only car was being hooked and reeled in. The man, Trent, wanted very badly to make eye contact with Jill but Jill was no novice at her job. She ignored him.
Wayne turned on the winch and the sedan’s front tires lifted off the ground, Trent finally mustered up the desperation to come down from the porch. He was a lanky man; a man who wore his finances on his sleeve. Trent’s hair was buzzed close in lieu of a style, and both big toes stuck out of their sock.
“We need that car,” he tried, coming too close to Jill. “We have a son in school, we both have jobs, we need groceries. That car is our lifeline.”
High heels made it possible to look down at men, rather than up. “There is one basic rule of borrowing money and it’s very simple: pay it back.”
Trent’s eyes feel to the sidewalk. “Please. Since I couldn’t get a job, I started my own business. And I’ve already got clients,” he pleaded, “I can pay the loan in ten days.”
“Your car might even still be on the lot in ten days and you can buy it back,” Jill watched Wayne’s biceps tense and relax against the winch shifts. He’d been the perfect man for three months: powerful in bed, powerful at work, powerful even in conversation. Jill took pride in being steadfast but Wayne, the secret savant, had the ability to sway her.
A fresh tumbling of tears came out of Trent’s eyes and he wiped his face with his sleeve.
“Your wife is watching,” Jill said flatly.
At that, the wife came down off the porch as well. “Ma’am, please don’t be heartless. We are good people.” She held her hands to her chest.
Jill’s indifference cracked at the word ‘heartless.’ That’s what Wayne had called her when he broke up with her last week.
He broke up with her over the phone after she told him about a truck she pulled. The customer had a bad habit of missing his payment but catching up quickly before a repo was in order. Jill, fed up with this, hired someone to illegally break into the customer’s truck and park it in the middle of a street eight miles away. Jill had been proud of her problem solving. She told Wayne about it, expecting him to be proud of her.
Instead, he said, “I can’t be with someone who has no compassion. I thought you were just tough on the outside, Jill, but you’re actually completely heartless.”
Rather than admit it hurt to hear him say that, she retorted, “Can’t handle a woman with bigger balls than yours?”
“You should marry Frank, you deserve each other,” Wayne had said as a parting jab.
Now, Jill was threatened with that label yet again. Heartless. She was not heartless. She was disciplined. Reserved. Firm. Jill stifled a sigh. She eyed Wayne and wondered if he was close enough to hear.
“Your loan will be paid up in ten days, or I will be back in eleven.” Jill straightened, “Wayne! Put the car down.”
With a turn on her heel, she stalked back to her black Mercedes that reflected the spectral sunlight. It was going to be a nice day.
Come to my office, Frank’s text message demanded.
Jill’s confidence curdled a little. It was about this morning, unquestionably. She dropped what she was doing and headed for Frank’s door. Savannah, the young, bouncy secretary fled as Jill approached.
Inside, Frank stood with his arms crossed. Four huge floor-to-ceiling windows spanned the room, looking out over a field.
“You let another one go.” He stated.
“Yes sir, the customer reported that he had a new job so I let him continue on his loan to maximize our interest return.”
“Interest accrual is our second most important bottom line. The first is our reputation. Didn’t I explain this well enough?” Frank was a fit man aside from his jowls; and was hairy aside from hairline.
“You did, Frank, you did. I feel that our reputation ought to be balanced between enforcing rules and putting the customer first.”
Frank glowered, “It is not up to you to decide what our reputation ought to be. Our customer is the bank, not the borrower.” He paused, “This is the second time, Jill. Go get that car, or go get a new job.”
Jill gave a curt nod and returned to her own office to retrieve the phone number for Trent Rouse. She crossed the threshold and belted out an embarrassing shriek. She grabbed her chest and calmed herself. It was only Mrs. Hummingbird. Though when she realized that, she was deeply displeased it was hanging in her office.
Mrs. Hummingbird was a plastic display skeleton that was passed around the office to signify who was least in favor. Jill was actually the one who started the trend. The skeleton was up on Craigslist for free and at the time, Jill was dealing with a frustratingly unimpressive temp and wanted her to quit. So she hung the skeleton by a phone cord-noose and scared the temp away. It’d been easy, and Frank thought the skeleton was hilarious. He named it and passed it on to the next person he wanted to quit: an Accounts Communicator from the bank.
Since then, Mrs. Hummingbird had been used as a threat to prod cheap employees into action. Someone had glued on purple dress-up fairy wings and an orange bandana around the lower half of the face.
Jill was unaccustomed to the humiliation she felt just then; and it stirred a deep-rooted vexation she was yet unaware of. She growled and shoved the pen cup off her desk. They pinged across the thin carpeting as Jill boiled beneath her composure.
Just then, in a bought of bad timing, a nerve-scraping squueeaakk sounded through her office. She spun around on hot heels. A guy in a white jumpsuit dragged a sloppy squeegee across her office window. And after a brief moment of squinting, she realized it was Trent Rouse. Jill was almost dumbfounded at the coincidence. She stomped up and rapped on the window. Trent’s head shot up and he strained to see into the window. He stood on the gravel just on the other side and waved when he recognized Jill.
Jill grit her teeth. She needed his car. She’d be damned if she let some idiot cost her a two-decade career. And, she uneasily realized, she’d be equally damned if she let some judgmental ex-boyfriend influence her professional decisions.
She picked up her phone and texted Wayne: Meet me in the parking lot. Bring your wheel clamp.
Outside, the sun was petrifying. Jill’s black suit felt clingy. She went for the garage entrance. When Wayne emerged she nonchalantly scanned the lot for red cars. She spotted it and peeked around for Trent.
“Boot this car,” she pointed to Trent’s vehicle.
Wayne paused, holding the metal bracket in one hand. “Isn’t that the car from this morning?” His voice had a Kentucky accent in baritone.
“It is,” Jill asserted.
“What’s it doing here?”
Jill stiffened. “Just put the boot on.”
Wayne eyed her, suspiciously, but also because he didn’t like being ordered around. Still, he bent down and locked the clamp over the driver’s tire.
“What are you doing?” Trent asked from immediately behind Jill.
He’d startled her. She had to get ahold of her composure. “Your vehicle is being repossessed.”
Trent’s disbelief showed on his face, “What? But you said—“
“I changed my mind.” Jill was not unaware of the way Wayne was looking at her.
“But you can’t just—that’s still my car,” Trent paused. The tendons in his neck drew up, his eyes narrowed, and his lips constricted. “You lying bitch.”
Trent stared at her hard, making some kind of a decision.
Jill was acutely aware of Wayne’s crossed arms.
Trent moved abruptly toward the car. He swung open the back door and pulled out some bottles of cleaner. “I’ll finish my job here and go.”
Jill took her leave before things could escalate.
Inside, dangling in the corner, Mrs. Hummingbird rotated in the smooth breeze of the air conditioner. Jill shot a quick email to Frank letting him know she was successful in retrieving the car. The sounds of the office enveloped her—phones, low voices, copy machines—until Frank’s voice cracked through the air.
“What is that idiot doing?” Frank’s voice naturally carried and Jill’s office was just around the corner so she heard his pronouncements clearly.
Someone responded: “I asked him already. He said he’s going back around because he wants to do an especially good clean.”
“If he has to do each window twice, he sucks at his job. Somebody tell him to get lost. It’s annoying,” Frank commanded.
Whoever wanted most to be on Frank’s good side this day stuck his head out the front door and hollered at Trent. Distantly: “Hey man, get lost!”
“I’m almost done!” Came the reply. Trent stepped in front of my window and sprayed it liberally with cleaner. He raised his stick squeegee and scrubbed it with enthusiasm.
When the window was streakless and dry, Trent stood. He looked through the window at Jill pointedly and stomped off.
“Weirdo,” Jill huffed. She turned back to her computer and tapped at it for a while until her concentration was broken once again by Frank.
“Why’s it so goddam bright in here?!” He hollered so the whole office could hear him. “Did he wipe off the tint? Does anyone else think it’s unusually bright?”
A series of grunts or shouts reverberated back at him. Frank was the type who had to be kept happy or he’d let everyone know about it. He was used to being pandered to. Frank came from money and zeroed in on Jill in college because of her “lioness tenacity” and “raven cunning.” Only after Jill was completely beyond attraction toward Frank did she realize how often he related women to animals.
Frank grumbled loudly from his office as he lowered all the window blinds. Two hours later one of the temps stood up. He came to Jill’s doorway.
“Hey Jill, I need to go home. I’m getting a migraine and I think it’s because it’s so bright in here.”
“You can go but I make no promises on Frank’s reaction.”
He scowled at her but left anyway.
Jill glanced up at Mrs. Hummingbird, who did look like light was reflecting off her white plastic bones more than usual. In fact… Jill got out of her chair and went to inspect her. She gingerly touched the thigh bone, it was sticky. Sticky like the plastic was softening.
The blazer had to come off, Jill was sweating. As she was shrugging out of it, a solid figure, heavy in the brightness, leaned against her doorway. “That was a shallow move today, Jill.” It was Wayne.
“I did what had to be done.”
He nodded softly, “I’m aware. But are you aware that’s what you say every time you need to justify yourself?” Wayne didn’t put his opinion in often. He looked the part of the beef but few people realized how thoughtful and observant he was. That’s why Jill liked him so much.
“I’m in the market for a new job. Back-stabbing is something I don’t take lightly.” He stuck out one finger and nudged Mrs. Hummingbird into a slow spin. “Looks like you’re in trouble.” With that, he walked away.
Jill rubbed her face hard. “Wayne, wait,” she finally said, scrambling out of her chair. She scampered down the hall after him but he was already heading out the front doors. When Jill rounded the last corner he was letting the door swing shut behind him. As the door angled, it reflected the sun at Jill. She shielded her eyes and turned away from it. It was bright like a spotlight.
Just then Savannah, the receptionist, fled past Jill and went out those same front doors.
“You won’t be welcome back here,” Frank snarled from behind her. Jill turned to look at him and he motioned after Savannah, “She told me she quit. Didn’t even have a good reason.”
Jill made a disgusted face that she hoped was agreeing with Frank, while not betraying her actual reason for being appalled. She’d been called horrible names by people who were angry they were losing their cars. Jill deflected their insults. But Wayne’s slights were sparse and carefully chosen.
Shallow. He called me shallow.
There were little white spots on the floor beneath the skeleton, like it was dripping. Jill tilted her head slightly, trying to figure them out. They led in a little trail out her office door and across the hall. She followed them.
“What the hell is this?!” Frank screamed. “Who did this?!” Jill stopped short in the doorway. Her hands went to her mouth. All the blinds that Frank used to cover the bright windows had been cut down. They were left in heaps on the floor. Frank was furious. Worse, there were little white spots all over his office floor that led back to Jill’s office. He followed the trail and then turned to Jill, fuming, “Did you do this?”
Jill’s eyes went wide, “No, of course not.”
Frank straightened and addressed the audience of round eyes watching, “Whoever thought this was funny will be fired. Never mind, I want you all gone! Get out of the office!”
Unsure of themselves, staff members started to rustle around and gather their things.
Jill fidgeted. She’d never before been unsure of herself in her workplace. She knew her tasks and knew how to succeed. Now, she didn’t know what was going on.
“Not you,” Frank shoved a finger at Jill. “You can clean up the mess in my office.”
Jill caught herself before she scoffed; she was offended. She’d put just as much work into this business as Frank. She thought of herself as Frank’s equal. The only difference was that he was born with the funding, she wasn’t. She returned to her office, deciding if she was going to pitch a fit or succumb to what she was told.
The skeleton was no longer hanging. Instead, a lumpy white puddle spread slowly across the carpet. The arch of the skull, and the bandana, the wings, were all in there. The phone cord. But the plastic had melted.
She was annoyed. How was she going to get melted plastic out of the carpet?
“Now Jill,” he commanded. They were alone in the small building now.
Grudgingly, Jill walked over there. She picked up all four of the blinds, barely getting ahold of them all, and went to dump them in the garage dumpster. There were only small windows in the garage and it was not as suffocating. She threw them into the dumpster with frustration.
The garage had a high ceiling and a cement floor. A beat up old desk sat in one corner next to the rack of blue jumpsuits. This was Wayne’s domain. He was a tow truck driver for a long time and he lost his truck due to his sister’s medical bills. This was his job now, using someone else’s tow truck.
Jill walked over to the desk. On it sat a copy of the generic keycard Wayne used to get in through the garage entrance. It simply said Maintenance on it. Jill touched it. She felt defeated. She was sizzling, fussy, and mad at Frank. And at herself. She wanted to be mad at Wayne but it was a false, flimsy anger.
On the way back, Jill veered into the bathroom for a moment to think. A look in the bathroom mirror sent her stumbling. It was her in the mirror but Mrs. Hummingbird was there with her. She spun around but there was no one else in the bathroom. She looked in the mirror again. It was her and the skeleton. She ran out of that bathroom so fast she nearly tripped on her heels.
She emerged from the bathroom. It was even hotter than when she walked out with the blinds. “Oh my god,” she breathed.
Frank’s hair was soaked with sweat and he was dabbing franticly with a paper towel. “Frank, are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Make the collection calls for Andy.” He snapped.
A beginner’s job. Fine. She was his subordinate now? After two decades working alongside him, putting in overtime and free time, she was so easily reduced to staff. Jill walked angrily back to her office. She stepped over the melted goop of plastic and fell into her chair. Her face shone back at her from the dark computer screen and over her shoulder was the masked face of Mrs. Hummingbird. She sprung right back out of the chair like the chair itself was burning.
“Oh my god,” Jill whispered again. She wondered if the heat was making her hallucinate. She was the only person left in the building besides Frank. He had no one else to depend on. She could be replaced, but he couldn’t ignore the obvious.
“Frank, I need to go,” she held her voice steady across the floor.
Frank, just as aggravated by the heat, exploded at her: “If you go you’re fired like the rest of them!”
Jill struggled to keep her calm, “Frank, you’re really going to fire the entire office for no reason?”
“I don’t need a reason! I’m CEO!” There was a deep-cut edge to his speech.
Jill was silent for a long while. Could she really give up this job that had been her life for so long? Could she walk out on the company she’d devoted her talents, her time, her weekends to? That she’d been committed to?
Twenty-two years. Too old to switch careers. Unhirable. Alone.
But, Christ, that heat. This had to be some kind of emergency.
She spent more hours in this place than at her own home. With the man she spent more hours with than the one she wanted. And she was miserable for it. Jill realized that with the same kind of potency as the temperature ticking up one more degree.
With the delirium of heat exhaustion setting in, Jill stood up and walked out of her office with nothing but her water bottle.
“That’s right. Walk!” Frank sounded hoarse.
Jill approached the front doors but when she touched the handle it burned her. She yanked her hand back and had a brief moment of panic. She remembered the garage—out through the back door where she could breathe again. She nabbed the Maintenance card and beeped it across the padlock.
The hot summer day was like a cool wind. Jill nearly stumbled out into the parking lot. She turned around and looked at the building, which was hazy and steaming. She mildly shook her head. What the heck was happening?
Propping herself up on the trunk of her car, Jill sipped her water bottle and watched. The windows of the building looked warped, its corners bending inward. As the afternoon wore on, the roof started to sink in.
Once, Jill turned around and caught a glimpse of herself in the back windshield of her car. Next to her on the trunk, sat Mrs. Hummingbird. She ignored it. She was fairly certain, at this point, that she’d suffered heat stroke.
But still she sat; watching the building she helped develop melt down into a heap. The whole thing sunk in on itself. Jill lay back against the warm glass and fell asleep.
She woke when the sun was about set. What remained in front of her was an ugly puddle. Jill blinked to clear her eyes—to be sure there was in fact a puddle where her workplace used to be. There was. And next to it on the far side was a plastic spray bottle. She carefully got up off the car and went and picked up the spray bottle. It had to have been Trent’s, she was sure. On it, written in sloppy sharpie, was a label: Morals.
Jill decided she didn’t want to think too much about it. She got in her car and went home.
Three weeks went by while Jill tried to decide on a job. She needed one soon but anything that required she put her blazer back on made her depressed.
Mrs. Hummingbird didn’t go away. Every time Jill looked in a mirror, she was vaguely behind her, like a burn on her retinas. She took to avoiding her bedroom mirror altogether and instead directed her eyes to Wayne’s keycard that sat atop her dresser.
After her seventh job interview, when her eyes locked on that keycard, she realized that a job in a blue suit was more appealing than a job in a black one. Jill wanted a job that didn’t require her to kiss anyone’s ass or to sell her soul, but simply to scrub something until it was shiny.
She was hired by a small business, cleaning the vacation homes of the very wealthy.
Occasionally, she passed by her old job which was now a pond in the middle of a parking lot. She’d get out of her car with an empty bottle, and fill it up. It did the job of washing away the reflection of Mrs. Hummingbird momentarily, who returned as soon as she moved on to the next reflective surface.
She haunted her, Mrs. Hummingbird, like a pitiless entity Jill was obliged to turn her reason over to. Like an incessant tremor that lingered in her image. Like a throbbing flaw.