Angie is not qualifying; she is crying. With one hand across her eyes, she gropes for the tissue box that her interviewer extends without looking up as he checks her typing test. From between her fingers, she watches him circle errors; the sharp red pencil reminds her of a bird’s beak: peck, stab, scratch. It leaves bloody little wounds all over her page. This abysmal performance confirms every pessimistic prediction of her destiny that Angie has ever heard in her seventeen years.
“Miss uh, Morris.” The man, gray-haired, with swinging wattles and rheumy brown eyes, holds the flimsy paper at a slight distance, like a soiled diaper. “You type thirteen words a minute, once the errors are subtracted.” Angie ducks behind her tissue. “We cannot very well hire you as a typist, now can we?” He arches his brows as if expecting her to commiserate.
“But I must have a job,” Angie wails. A child still, she believes in the magical power of her own needs to drive the decisions of others. “Or, or else I have to move home.” This is a lie. In fact Angie needs a job precisely because she is not permitted to move home. But she doesn’t dare confide in this grandfatherly personnel director. That would open a window on her past far more prejudicial than her terrible typing.
To Angie’s surprise, her inquisitor hesitates at her mention of moving home, and she, with the canny intuition of the delinquent, senses a weak spot in his perimeter and pushes on through.
“I’d be so ashamed in front of my parents. I moved out to live on my own and now I’m failing.” Her head droops, and her long, curling black hair sweeps forward to obscure her face, which rather disappoints her interviewer. He liked gazing at the pretty thing in her cheap gray cotton skirt — two runs in her hose — and worn red sweater. Charming. But hopelessly unqualified. She huddles penitently before him, peeking out from her tissue with reddened blue eyes. Angie’s distress seems sincere enough. And anybody who needs work as badly as she does will surely strive to improve her typing skills.
“Well,” he says with mock reluctance. “I’m going to go out on a limb.” Angie’s heart gives an extra, tripping little beat. “I’ll hire you conditionally. But…” he frowns, stern as Jove, and Angie’s eyes widen in flattering response, “you must raise your typing speed to forty words per minute” (the eyes grow huge) “within three months. If you can do that, you’ll go on permanent status.” Caught in mid-sniff, Angie searches his face. Her grin blazes out like the sun from a ragged rain cloud.
“Oh, Mr....” she glances at the black and gold nameplate, “Mr. Trueblood! I don’t know how to thank you. Oh, I’ll work so hard.”
“I’m sure you will, Angie.” For a moment they beam almost conspiratorially at one another, and into Mr. Trueblood’s mind suddenly flashes the word “snookered,” although that does not diminish the width of his smile.
Angie dances out of the office past the scowling old receptionist, who hands her a packet of employment forms with the trepidation of a cold war operative passing classified information to a suspected mole.
Since this is Friday afternoon, Angie now has a whole weekend to luxuriate in idleness and dissipation. She knows of a party Saturday night. And she has a date on Sunday with a man she met at Larry Blake’s Rathskeller on Telegraph Avenue, where she and her roommate Kati were drinking on fake IDs. The man, who confessed to being forty-two, claimed to own a gull-wing Mercedes and a luxurious home in the Oakland Hills from which his wife had recently exited. The anticipation of a restaurant meal and all the liquor she can hold makes Angie euphoric as she jolts along on the bus back to Berkeley.
For weeks, fear and uncertainty had kept Angie awake at night. While her roommates slept, she would sneak into the bathroom and weep, rocking back and forth on the seat, wiping her eyes with toilet paper. Only yesterday, Angie had dialed her mother collect from a pay phone and received a histrionic response. Mrs. Morris, an inventory clerk in a Los Angeles department store, had her hands full just supporting Angie’s younger sister, Frances. Even now, Mr. Morris was refusing to pay child support for Francie, in defiance of a court order. The woman he lived with hung up on Mrs. Morris when she called. Angie had to get a job like everybody else, her mother shouted.
And now, when hope had all but fled, Angie is saved. Her roommates, Kati and Maryellen, can reinstate the phone, cut off due to Angie’s arrearage. And they can finally give the air to Butch, their pesky landlord.
For the last two months Butch has accepted two-thirds of the rent, on the assurance that Angie was seeking work with the determination of an Everest summiteer. But since the girls owe him money, he has taken to dropping by and hanging around, asking suggestive questions and snooping through the rooms, “inspecting” for bogus leaks or electrical shorts. He complains that he is in trouble with his wife over their rent. Butch has a crush on Kati, who is Hungarian and beautiful. If Kati is home when he comes by, she has to pretend to leave in order to get rid of him.
Maryellen has curly, platinum blonde hair, a deep dimple in her chin, and heavy thighs. She wears no makeup, which makes her look washed out and churchy. But when Kati had suggested a little mascara, Maryellen just snorted.
Maryellen’s brother Kyle, who studies psychology at the university, had taken Angie on a movie date the week before. When she got into his car, Kyle had pulled his penis out of his pants and driven like that through the city streets all the way to the theater. Angie, uncertain what to do, had chatted away nervously about Berkeley, politics and such. All the while, out of the corner of her eye she could see Kyle’s penis bumping along like a third, silent passenger. When they reached the theater, Kyle had zipped himself back up and the evening had proceeded quite conventionally.
In the car on the way home, Kyle took himself out again, which Angie had kind of expected. Upon arriving, she had leaped from the car and thanked Kyle for the movie. He bid her good night amiably from behind the steering wheel, still exposed.
When Angie told Kati about the date, they agreed that Kyle seemed weird, but neither could say for certain what was truly aberrant among college men.
“I think Kyle is a pervert in the making,” said Angie. And Kati must have reported that to Maryellen, because Maryellen shortly thereafter quit speaking to Angie at all. Nights, she would sit knitting on the couch, addressing her comments to Kati as though Angie did not exist. The bitch, thought Angie. She reminds me of Madame de Farge in A Tale of Two Cities, counting her stitches. “A Tale of Three Girls,” Angie thinks, composing a story in her mind. Secretly, she yearns to be a writer. But Angie’s new job only carries her farther away from her dream, and nobody seems to care.
Angie needn't have worried about raising her typing speed. She is in demand at Crost & Comstock the way fresh recruits had been in the trenches of World War I. The company’s East Bay headquarters is located off Webster Street in downtown Oakland, in a five-story building as grim and practical as a penitentiary. A gray-walled reception area holds only a green metal desk; the door behind it opens into a cavernous arena containing countless rows of desks eight abreast, with an IBM Selectric typewriter and a woman at each station. At opposite ends of the floor are the glassed-in cubicles of Mr. Kincaid, the manager, and Mr. Caverley, the East Bay Regional Director.
The typists range from teenagers to veterans whose backsides have broadened over the years to fit the office chairs, solid foundations for their atrophied upper bodies. Their arms serve only to connect the torso to the gnarled and calloused hands, the fingers hammered spatulate on the QWERTY keyboard. The office is lit from above by fluorescent lights that shine a chill, greenish glare on every blemish, wrinkle, and scar.
Promptly at 8 a.m., the Selectrics hum to life with a deafening clatter that lasts till five. And aren’t they all lucky to have today’s—1968—advanced technology? Not like in the old days, declares Marie, the pool's champion typist, when their fingers would crack and bleed after hours of pounding the manuals.
Marie has been with the company for fifteen years. She has a way of sliding the keys together in a sort of arpeggio that generates line after smooth line of perfect type like black cuts across the paper. She is the Vladimir Horowitz of credit report typing. Marie has an unhappy home life, as do most of the typists. Men trick the women into bed, spend their puny wages, beat, cheat, and abandon them. Merciless rigor keeps the office superficially calm, but beneath is unstable magma. The younger girls have not yet learned the lessons of discretion; they trust one another with their hearts' secrets and are regularly betrayed. Screaming battles and deep simmering feuds erupt.
Mr. Caverley, gray and flinty, takes little notice of the typists, reserving his conversation for the younger manager, Rich Kincaid. He relishes humiliating Mr. Kincaid, delivering ripostes from the side of his mouth in a jocular, hearty way, so that Mr. Kincaid has to laugh along, as if he too enjoyed the jibe.
"Hey Rich," Mr. Caverley shouts suddenly above the din. The typists instinctively slow to listen. "You got the March receivables bassackwards again!"
"I don't think so, Mr. Caverly." Kincaid rises and sidles hippily across the office, through the too-narrow aisles, knocking papers, staplers, and files from the typists' desks. “What the deuce, get this stuff off here.” A ripple of suppressed laughter follows his progress like a grass fire. The consequences of an outburst are too terrible to imagine—and that is dry tinder to the urge.
Mr. Kincaid takes out his own rage on the women beneath him. No petty infraction escapes his notice. And he goes beyond that. "Don't get caught late here with him." Angie is warned. "He'll be all over you. " As if there were a chance of that! On the stroke of five, Angie is out the door, bypassing the balky elevator to race down the stairs two and three at a time.
At home, she exchanges her shabby dresses for jeans and tie-died shirts, wishing she could disappear into their infinite fractals. Then she and Kati cruise Telegraph Avenue, “looking for trouble,“ they call it. Late at night, Angie might have to find her way home alone, crossing the dark campus, dodging through clumps of trees, hugging the shadows of buildings. By 7:30 a.m., she is at the bus stop in the early drizzle, wobbling on her high heels, eyes half closed.
One morning Angie looks up, and there is Mr. Kincaid in his new Oldsmobile, right at the curb. He smiles and waves, beckoning her into the car.
“It’s my boss,” she blurts. The other bus riders look at her enviously.
“You waitin’ for an engraved invitation?” asks a tubby woman. “Wisht it was me he was askin‘.” I do too, thinks Angie, but a cold, rainy wind is whipping her thin skirt around her legs. She gets into the car beside Mr. Kincaid, squeezing herself against the door to stay as far away as possible. The car is warm and smells of leather.
“I didn’t know you lived in Berkeley,” says Mr. Kincaid.
Angie smiles with the corners of her mouth. “Do you live here too?“
Mr. Kincaid mumbles “Livermore,” which is nowhere near Berkeley. Angie wishes the Oldsmobile really could gobble up the street the way it does in advertisements. Each stoplight lasts forever; traffic is snarled.
“And where do your parents live?“ asks Mr. Kincaid.
“My my, far from home.” Well, thinks Angie, here comes his hand on my leg. But Rich Kincaid says, “My son is dying, you know.”
Angie blinks. “What?”
“He has a rare genetic disorder. I can hardly pronounce the name, even though we’ve been living with it for five years.”
“I’m sorry,” Angie says.
“Would you like to have dinner some time?” says Mr. Kincaid. “It’s just... my wife...has to be with Todd all the time. If his head is not held up, he can choke to death..”
Mr. Kincaid has dark, thin hair cut very short, and sad brown eyes. He looks like a person whose son might be dying.
“How come you yell at everybody all the time?” Angie says suddenly, dizzy at her own nerve.
“I have a temper,” says Rich Kincaid. “I admit it.“
“Well it’s not their fault.”
“No,” he says, “it isn’t.“
When they get to the parking lot, Angie lets Mr. Kincaid kiss her and feel her up. He is so grateful he almost cries. They agree that he will pick her up at her apartment from now on so she doesn’t have to walk to the bus stop.
So Rich Kincaid drives Angie to work, and after a while he brings her home as well, and it is just as easy to stop for a bite of dinner on the way. Afterwards, they sit in the garage at Angie’s apartment building and neck like high school kids.
“We’re Catholic,” he says. “I don’t break God’s law, just bend it a little to keep my sanity.”
“Me too,“ says Angie, a wave of euphoric relief washing over her.
Every morning now, Marie looks sharply at Angie, though she and Rich are careful to separate blocks from the building and enter several minutes apart. Sometimes the entire typing pool is looking at her. So they know, thinks Angie. So what? Whenever Rich hollers at a girl, he looks quickly at Angie, who tries to keep her features neutral. After work, he apologizes.
“Don’t say it to me,” Angie turns away, arms folded. “Say it to her.” But Rich never does.
Marie has a black eye. She doesn’t even try to put makeup on it, and everyone elaborately avoids asking her how it happened. The eye seems to hover over the entire office as a dark and silent reminder: no matter how perfectly you type, how punctual you are, how many rules you follow, it does you no good. The fundamental cruelty and unfairness of life cannot be buffered or deflected.
When Martin Luther King is assassinated, the black women are forbidden to march in the memorial parade, whose route passes the office. They stand out on the balcony and peer down at the noisy, colorful marchers shaking their signs and their fists, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Mr. Caverly watches too, looking as if he were witnessing a horde of communists bellowing the Internationale on the White House lawn.
Butch has a black eye. Kati’s brother, Miklos, a fiery, brilliant graduate student who cannot decide whom he loathes more, communists or capitalists, had been visiting on a Saturday afternoon, when Butch walked right through the door without knocking. There had been a scuffle and Kati had screamed. Now all three girls are being evicted.
“You’re our hero,” says Angie to Miklos, who wears a tattered, oatmeal-colored scarf around his neck and whose shock of brown hair falls across keen gray eyes.
“He’s not MY hero,” says Maryellen, who has been trying to call Kyle, but for some reason their telephone is again disconnected.
“Maybe because Miklos doesn’t whip it out the minute he’s alone with a girl,” says Angie. Maryellen charges and would have given Angie a black eye too, but Angie races out the door and down the street. Dusk is falling, and a faint aroma of patchouli incense on the mild air gives Angie a sudden aching sense of life’s ineluctable passing, of dreams abandoned. The old Victorian homes turned into student apartments look wise and decadent and seductively inviting. Psychedelic curtains hang at the windows; Country Joe and the Fish reaches her ears: “Well it’s one two three, what are we fightin’ for?”
“I’m in love with your brother,” Angie tells Kati. “Please tell him I’d like to go out with him.“
“He would never go out with a typist,“ Kati replies. “That sounds cruel, but it’s really kind. He would only use and discard you. Sex alone is meaningless to him. He is seeking his spiritual and intellectual equal.“
“I’ll go to school then,“ says Angie.
“He would never love a girl who got an education merely to snare a man,” says Kati. “So it’s hopeless.”
“Hopeless,” says Marie the next morning when Angie tells her of this, “is what you are right now. Believe it or not, I once did the same thing with Mr. Caverly.”
“Yuck,“ says Angie.
“If you can find a way to get out of here, do it. Before it‘s too late” Marie turns her misshapen body back to the keyboard.
Someday, Angie had once believed, all would come right, even if only in the kingdom of heaven. The just God existed transparently, so much a part of the usualness of things that his workings went unnoticed. In the end, though, all the good and deserving, living and dead, must at last heave a mighty sigh of relief and be at peace. But the truth was, Rich’s son would soon die. Angie’s father would never return. The typists would labor away, and love and prosperity would always, always elude them.
Angie sends for her high school transcripts, and makes an appointment at the University with an admissions officer named Trevor Beardsley. He is a young man with a prominent Adam's apple, long thin blond hair and a faint mustache.
“How can we admit you to the University of California?” Trevor says, holding Angie‘s transcripts at a slight distance. “You meet almost none of our academic criteria, plus you accumulated more than one hundred hours of detention for truancy.”
Angie begins to cry. “But my parents were getting a divorce,” she wails. “I had nobody to talk to. I didn‘t care about anything.” This is a lie. Angie had cared deeply about a number of things, none of them having anything to do with school.
Trevor Beardsley looks around frantically for a tissue, but all he finds is a crumpled paper napkin left over from his lunch. He offers it anyway, and Angie gropes for it, one hand across her eyes. It’s really a shame, Trevor thinks, that the older generation has to lay their sick trips on their kids like that. Angie seems like a very bright young woman. And anyone working in a Croft & Comstock typing pool will certainly study hard to keep her grades up. Trevor hesitates...