Carrie stood at the third-floor window, squinting as she watched Peter Callender in the parking lot below. The day was cool but bright, and the dumpy little man whose motives she knew so well moved busily in and out of her range of vision, disappearing several times down the alley and returning with a can of garbage each time. The overfilled receptacles were a lot for a man with spaghetti arms to carry, and the occasional scrape of metal brushing concrete sounded, but determination provided strength for the task. With great care, Peter dumped the contents of each can beside the last, forming a disgusting, noxious wall of garbage around the sides and rear of a cream-colored Cadillac sitting in his parking space.
The Caddy belonged to Peter’s brother and business partner, Jim Callender, who had usurped Peter’s space in order to allow an attractive female client to leave her brand new 1968 Mustang convertible in Jim’s space. The sleek red car sat two spaces down, and Carrie noted the sparkle of its chrome wheels in the October sunlight without losing track of Peter’s progress.
Jim and the lady in question had gone off together for a "consultation," a term that caused Peter and the third partner, their cousin Brad Callender, to roll their eyes each time Jim used it. Bluntly speaking, they had gone to a nearby hotel for a quickie, leaving their cars at the office for the sake of appearance. That meant no parking space was available for Peter when he returned from lunch. Now Peter’s Thunderbird sat in a "One Hour Parking Only" space on the street as he grimly took his revenge, one gooey pile of trash at a time.
As she turned away from the window, Carrie gave a little sigh. Her work was almost finished for the day, but she would not be leaving soon. When Peter had finished his juvenile prank and gone home, she would trek down to the Caddy and un-barricade it before Jim returned. She would do it in the name of peace and harmony in the office,. nNot that there was much of that.
Carrie had worked for the firm of Callender, Callender, and Callender for almost two years now,- longer than any other secretary had tolerated the antics of the three adult delinquents. Decent lawyers, successful men, and responsible citizens in many ways, they hated each other passionately and aired their feelings at peak volume when the mood struck one, two, or even all three of them.
Past secretaries had quit in tears, in anger, and in disgust, but Carrie stayed on, braving the shouting and the lunacy. Maybe she had become used to their ways, or, as her mother said over and over, maybe she had no sense. Mostly she could not face the prospect of looking for another job.
The coping mechanism developed over time was to foresee and forestall trouble whenever possible. When Brad, the cheap one, had billed his own uncle, Clayton Callender, at their highest rate for preparing his will, using the justification that "The old geezer is rolling in money," Carrie had treated it as if it were her own clerical error and got Peter to fix it. Seeing Peter dithered with useless detail until papers were often filed late, she’d suggested a revolving system for proofing and left Peter out of the rotation when a deadline was close. She sometimes managed to keep Jim’s escapades with female clients a secret from the other two, although what they did know was scandalous enough.
Difficult as it was, Carrie made the office work, and the Callenders were grateful in their way. Still, it was awful when they went at each other, screaming, swearing, and shouting for hours, followed by a day, sometimes two or three, when Carrie was the only one any of the three would speak to. Peter and Jim were bad, but Brad egged them on, siding with Jim sometimes and Peter others. Occasionally, the brothers united against him, too. Carrie never knew how it would play out.
Today, she would remove the trash from around Jim’s car and hope that neither man mentioned it in the morning. Peter would think Jim too proud to say anything, and Jim would never know he had been the target of Peter’s vendetta, if she acted quickly.
As she started down the hallway to the stairs, she heard feet shuffling on the landing above and a voice called, "Where you goin’, Miss Walsh?" She turned to see Bea, the building’s janitor, coming down the stairs, mop in hand. Bea, twice Carrie’s size and age and suffering from bad feet, still did the work of three men. A static-y transistor radio broadcast Motown music from her belt. Bea claimed she cleaned better with accompaniment, and was especially fond of the Temptations.
She answered her own question. "You’re gonna clean up that mess, ain’t you? Everybody in the building’s snickerin’ about their latest stunt already."
"It’ll only take a few minutes," Carrie said defensively, "and tomorrow will be a lot easier."
"It ain’t your job." Bea set the mop down with a thump, and folds of skin under her chin wobbled as she shook her head. "All that hair you got still don’t give them men the right to treat you like a red-headed step-child."
"They don’t do it to me. They do it to each other," Carrie reasoned. "I hate it when they fight, so I fix what’s fixable."
"Like when you cleaned the spaghetti off the wall after Peter missed Jim with it, or when you bought a new lamp with your own money so Brad wouldn’t know Jim busted his?" Bea shook her mop and the smell of pine wafted toward Carrie. "It ain’t right, you babying them. Lotsa better lawyers would hire a secretary good as you."
Carrie laughed mirthlessly. "I don’t know any. They all want girls who have an associate’s." She added somewhat wistfully, "And with class."
Bea started to say, "You’re not so-" but Carrie interrupted, pointing to herself.
"I know what kind of impression I make. Frizzy hair. Twiggy body. A half-blind secretary with Coke-bottle glasses who has to squint to recognize faces."
Bea put up an admonitory finger as if to argue, but Carrie went on in a burst of self-deprecation. "I’m lucky the Callenders are so hard to work for that they had to give me a chance." She shoved her glasses back into place with a quick jab, a habit of necessity since the weighty lenses made the sturdy frames to slide down her nose constantly. "I’m grateful for this job. I’ll clean up Jim’s prank and go on."
Bea appeared tempted to say more but closed her mouth firmly. Everything about Carrie screamed "plain", -no attempt at a hairstyle, clothes that hid her figure, and a demeanor that invited others to ignore any feelings she might have. "Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses." "Nice girls don’t talk back." "Ladies don’t raise their voices." Societal mantras formed Carrie’s operating principles. Although some women of the ’60s were learning to ignore them, Carrie believed.
Bea sighed to indicate that a cleaning woman could supply only so much encouragement and pulled yellow cotton gloves from her back pocket. "All right, but I’ll help. It ain’t my mess, neither, but together we’ll get done twice as fast."
The two women worked quickly, Bea shoveling the trash back into the metal cans with a large dustpan and Carrie dragging them into the alley from whence they came. Bea insisted on taking the dirtier job, since she was dressed for it, although Carrie’s earth-toned skirt and sweater would hardly have shown traces of more earth.
It was five-twenty when Carrie, hauling the last empty can to within Bea’s reach, looked at her watch. "Oops! It’s getting late. I’ve got to call the courthouse before five-thirty." She surveyed the scene to judge their progress. Feeling dirty despite Bea’s efforts to keep her from the worst of the mess, she longed to finish, but there was no delaying this call. "You’d better get back to your own work. I’ll take the last can back after I make my call and close the office."
Bea checked her watch, as well. "I am getting behind in my work. Tell you what. I’ll fill this last one and leave it here. You can drop it off in the alley on your way to the bus stop." She grinned, displaying tiny, even teeth. "It’s Tuesday, so the manager will be checking up on me any time now. He always stops by when it’s two-for-one night at the TNT Bar down the block."
"Thanks for the help. You’re an angel." Carrie gave the older woman a hug and headed upstairs while Bea scooped up the last of the trash with practiced movements.
Carrie returned fifteen minutes later, having finished the office chores. Autumn’s early darkness had descended quickly. The other tenants had gone home, a few making smart-aleck remarks about the cause of the mess as they passed. No one else had offered to help.
Hitching her purse strap higher on her shoulder, Carrie picked up the last trashcan by its handles, feeling the cold metal through the gloves she had pulled on. This one smelled of mimeograph ink and something fruity, maybe peaches. It was overly full, and she concentrated on keeping it upright so as not to spill the contents as she entered the alley. Along the wall stood the six cans she’d lugged back earlier, and she set the last one down at the end of the line.
Movement caught her eye, and she peered at where the alley opened at the opposite end. Three human forms huddled there. Two men stood over the third, all of them silhouetted against a lighter building across the street. Carrie saw only shapes, but one man searched the fallen one’s clothing while the other stood back, separating himself from the action. In her surprise, she tipped the trash can, and its lid dropped to the pavement with a clatter. The two standing men looked up, startled, and hurried away, disappearing from sight almost immediately.
Carrie stood for a moment in shock, unable to take in what she had seen. When she recovered enough to consider the man on the ground, she moved cautiously down the alley. He lay flat on his back, very still, hands clutched to his body. When she called out to him, he moaned but did not move. After checking the street to be sure the other two were gone, she knelt beside him, unsure what to do.
Only slightly older than she, the man’s even features were pinched with pain. Blood stained his corduroy jacket and tight-ribbed sweater. He had been stabbed in the chest, and she sensed immediately that the wound was deadly.
Moaning again, the man seemed to become aware of her presence. His mouth moved as he tried to form words, and she leaned close, touching his hand to reassure him.
"I’m going for help. Don’t move. Lie still and rest. I’ll get you to a doctor."
Surprisingly strong fingers gripped hers, and the man tried again to speak. A whisper came with each ragged breath. She listened intently. Whatever he had to say was important to him.
"Tell Jack. Namwise. Kali-Shurenz. Please. Jack."
Feeling the fingers begin to lose their grip, Carrie held the hand tightly, looked into the dying man’s eyes, and said the only thing she could say. "I’ll tell Jack exactly what you said. Now rest." A strangled sigh told her it was no use to go for a doctor, but she held onto the hand until the grip relaxed. With a sad sense of finality, she closed the sightless eyes and went to find a different kind of help.