That night, Gladys climbed down wearily from the bus. It swerved sharply from the curb, enveloping her in black clouds of exhaust. She regarded Mortimer Avenue balefully.
Dwarf maples lined her wide street of bungalows. Leaves hung limply in the evening humidity. Couples did not stroll on her street: there was no particular place to go. Children did not play on her street: the traffic was too heavy. Tonight, people stayed inside their boxy houses with the world blotted out by the whir of air conditioners. Gladys wished desperately for an air conditioner, but her sister, Merle, would not hear of it.
“Do you want to make me really sick?” Merle would whine as she fanned herself with a cheap, lacquered fan purchased from Woolworth’s last summer. “I got to think of my arthritis.” When Merle said that, it sounded like Arthur Itis.
Gladys sighed as she unlocked the door.
“That you, Gladdie?” Merle always called out.
“Yes, Merle,” Gladys said, almost crying at the heat in the house.
Merle was at the kitchen table in her pink nightie. Everyone knew something was wrong with her, but no one could say what. Gladys knew whatever it was could never be cured, and she just had to look after her for the rest of her life, which would likely be longer than hers.
Gladys eyed her dinner: a slice of ham, some tomato, and one wilted lettuce leaf wrapped around a pickle. Merle’s notion of culinary art, she thought as she sat down heavily.
“What’s in the case, Gladdie?”
“Work from the office.”
Merle looked slyly at her sister. “Who’s the new love? You haven’t brought work home since Mr. Crawford died.” Merle teased and then rolled her eyes. “When you were trying to make a big impression.”
Gladys had to squelch Merle’s stupid ideas fast. “You don’t know a thing about working in an office. Sometimes you have to bring work home.” She poked at the food. Fortunately, Merle just grinned foolishly and began cleaning up.
When Merle turned on the television, Gladys struggled to open the dining room window for a breeze. Her sister had seized upon her weakest point, Richard Crawford. And now his widow wanted to wind up the estate, meaning that money would have to be paid out. She would do the calculations. Harry never appreciated everything she did for the firm. She set the files on the table.
Later, when Merle was snoring lightly in front of the flickering TV screen, Gladys wandered out to the back stoop. Sitting in the rocker, she smoothed her skirt and stared at the boarded-up bungalow across the laneway—a vision of dirty browns and grays.
Memories of those first few months at the firm always filled her mind with vibrant color. Just a young woman, she had fallen passionately in love with Richard Crawford. One afternoon, when Mr. Crawford was meeting with Marjorie Deighton in the library, she had put the love letter on his desk. She had written it time and time again, until she was satisfied. A thousand times, she started up to retrieve it, but did not.
An hour later, when she returned from the washroom, she saw the library door was open an inch. The woman must have left. A frisson of terror shot through her as she realized Mr. Crawford would be in his office, reading her letter. Intending to tidy up the books and files for him, she flung the door open.
Stunned, she stopped. Her eyes blinked their incomprehension. Curvaceous silk-stockinged legs rose above the settee. Mr. Crawford’s white shirt was rumpled and undone. He bent between the legs, which now began encircling his waist. The woman’s blond hair spilled down the back of the settee as she softly laughed, “Richard, darling! Come to me.”
Miss Giveny’s gasp was almost a shriek. Only nineteen, she did not understand such things, nor did she wish to. Mr. Crawford seemed paralyzed at first. In shock, his hardened eyes locked with hers. With scarcely contained fury, his eyes turned cold with contempt.
Gladys backed out of the room. Such contempt! How could she have thought Mr. Crawford loved her? Slamming the door, she raced to his office and snatched the unopened letter from his desk. In the washroom, with tears burning her cheeks, she shredded the letter into tiny pieces and flushed them down the toilet.
Gladys had quaked with the dread of banishment. If only she would be permitted to see him each day at work, that would be enough. But no reference was ever made to her indiscretion and so, she remained in his employ for the next thirty-five years. She still firmly believed Mr. Crawford had to be protected from women, especially his wife.
The back door creaked on its hinges.
“Hi, Gladdie. You’re not mad at me, are you?” Merle pressed her nose against the screen and smiled sweetly. “Want some lemonade, Gladdie?”
Gladys stifled a sob. Her fate was to look after Merle. “No, thank you.” She tried to smile. “Don’t forget to brush your teeth and wash before you go to bed.”