Hospital Corners

Excerpt From “Hospital Corners”


Peter Obourn


Pearl Kimberly’s embezzled over $100,000 from her employer and it never made the papers.

She was the private secretary to a prominent young attorney named Foster Abbott.

Pearl sat at her boss’s desk as if it were her own, arranging his papers in neat piles.

The letters were shaking in her hands.

The school nurse had just called. Pearl’s son Lawrence had been in another scuffle. This one had ended with a bloody nose and a loose tooth.

How could third graders fight — hit each other hard enough for a bloody nose? They were just children. She could not endure this — this fighting.

She tried to concentrate, tried to read Foster’s morning mail and mark it for action and filing. She placed the important letters on top of a neat pile in the center of his huge maroon blotter. She was confident only that Foster would read at least the first few letters. After that, his attention was likely to wander. He was more helpless than Howard or Lawrence.

It wasn’t Lawrence’s fault. They were picking on him again, and he had fought back. She wasn’t sending him home this time. He was fine. But he would come home with blood on his shirt.

She had tried to protect him.

“You’re going to smother the poor thing,” Howard said. “He’ll be spoiled for sure.” Howard had been right.

Now she was paying the price for over-protection, holding him so much. Growing up was going to be a struggle for Lawrence.

She placed Foster’s open daybook just to the left of the correspondence pile, highlighting his appointments for the day. Reluctantly, she drew a red circle around “Lunch with Archie”, which meant two martinis in the banks executive dining room. They’d have to get all the work done this morning.

Pearl had brought Foster a long way. She know that Archie lunched with Foster now more often than Aaronson. She kept track.

On the right she piled the advance sheets, “The New York Law Journal” and “The Wall Street Journal”. Of these she knew he would read only the “Wall Street Journal”, but he insisted that they both be there and he noticed if they were not.

She centered the marble fountain pen set, untouched for years and a ten year old picture of Foster’s wife Hoopie as a pretty young debutante.

Pearl had organized Hoopie’s life, too.

This office had been his father’s, but the antique desk had not. Foster’s father was still using his roll top in the smaller office he had moved to down the hall.

Foster had purchased his desk in a London antique shop. It was called a partner’s desk with a kneehole that went all the way through and drawers on both sides of the desk. Pearl could see Fosters knees when she sat on the sofa.

Pearl swiveled in the massive red leather chair with the tips of her toes and looked beyond the credenza out the window down at the Main Square of Grant City, surrounded by more banks and offices. The Grant City Bank Building, in which Pearl sat, was the most impressive on the square. The lawyer’s offices and the board room were on three sides of the perimeter of the fifth floor facing or with an oblique view of the square, the secretaries in a large open office landscape in the interior. Further in the interior were the copy and file rooms, and behind that the office lunch room, which overlooked the alley behind the building.

Pearl’s desk sat in a privileged spot just outside Foster’s office. She was needed close by to help him find things like his files, his phone messages, and his coat.

On opposite sides of a structural column across from Pearl’s desk was the cubicle occupied by Bonnie.

Pearl was so successful with the firm’s collection business that soon she was soon overwhelmed by work. Since the law firm kept a third of every dollar collected, and Pearl had more work than she could handle alone, the decision to hire Bonnie was simple arithmetic.

Under the nonexistent direction of Foster, Pearl and Bonnie were the collections department for the law firm.

Bonnie was never on time, but never more than fifteen minutes late anymore, because Pearl docked her pay if she were later than that.

Foster would stroll in around ten so Pearl had plenty of time to get Bonnie organized, motivated and directed for the day.

Pearl looked at her watch. It was 9:09 AM. From her desk around the corner, she heard Bonnie open and shut her purse, uttering a huge sigh as she dropped her bulk into her chair. The chair groaned with the weight. “Pearl, I’m here,” Bonnie shouted.

Foster arrived at ten. He asked Pearl if she would pick up tickets for the Grant City Symphony concert that evening, “Carlos was supposed to do it, but he forgot,” he said. Just who was this Carlos that she was the second one of? He obviously was not on the Christmas card list, judging by the reference to his lack of intelligence in Hoopie’s letter.

“You mentioned Carlos,” she said, as casually as possible. “Who is Carlos?”

“I did?” he said.

“You said Carlos was supposed to pick up the tickets.”

“Oh. He’s nobody — runs errands for us once in a while — mostly for Hoopie.” He went back to mail pile. That was all the information about Carlos she was going to get.

After her shortened lunch hour, as Pearl handed Foster the tickets, she said, “You never told me you were a music lover.”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “very much so.” He had taken a music appreciation course at Yale, you know, for social reasons, he said. “One of the smartest things I ever did.” She told him all about her son Lawrence, six years old and already an accomplished pianist. She sensed he was not believing her.

At 5:30 P.M., Pearl burst through the front door. “We’re going to the symphony tonight,” and rushed up the stairs. She got Howard into dark socks, his wedding suit. She helped him tie his tie. She worked on herself for two hours — hair, makeup, earrings, and her black fitted dress. She looked good and she knew it. She called Mr. Manzini and he had tickets left for them at the box office. They dropped Lawrence at her parents in his pajamas.

At intermission, she dragged Howard to what she considered a visible lobby position. Foster walked out of the lobby with an attractive woman on his arm, directly toward Pearl. He looked right at her, nodded and smiled, then walked on by. As he was two steps beyond her, she spoke, “Mr. Abbott?”

He turned, still not registering her identity, but relaxed and smiling. Hoopie smiled also. “How are you tonight,” he said.

“Mr. Abbott, this is Howard.”

He shook hands with Howard, keeping his eyes on Pearl. “Pearl?” he said. She smiled. “Pearl, I’m so sorry. I didn’t, I mean you look so, I guess I’m in my usual fog. I’m so sorry, and this is Hoopie. Hoopie, this is Pearl and Howard Kimberly.”

Hoopie’s smile became tight lipped. She arched an eyebrow, glanced at her husband, then smiled at Pearl. “So nice to meet you — to put a face to the voice. Are you enjoying the symphony?”

Pearl noticed that her boss was looking at her in a different way, perhaps a slightly predatory way. She moved her shoulders and inched closer to Howard. Perhaps Hoopie noticed it too. Hoopie grabbed her husband’s arm and pulled him away. “Excuse us, but we must say hello to the Trueharts,” she said, as they moved quickly across the lobby, while Foster, hanging on her arm, gave Pearl one last smile over his shoulder.

As Pearl and Howard walked arm in arm back to their seats, another pair of eyes followed the legal secretary in the sleek black dress, the eyes of Jason Peebody, a patron of the arts who never missed a symphony concert, but usually form a distance in the last row of the balcony.

“Very nice people,” said Howard. “pretty woman.”

Pearl began to dress more carefully for work. She always wore starched white high neck blouses. Now she starched them lightly, ironed them neatly and tucked them in tightly. Once in a while she would leave the top button undone, sometimes two buttons, so that he could see a small part of her collarbone. There was a mole on the curve of her throat, sometimes visible, sometimes not.

She could feel his eyes following the curve of her neck, downward to the dark brown mole against the white of her neck, to the shadow of her collarbone, downward to her tight white blouse.

After long meetings in which he and Pearl discussed the collection files one by one, they would chat in Foster’s office. Then, before they parted for the day, Pearl and Foster talked about music. On one afternoon, the two sequestered themselves from lunch until 6:00 PM, going over the list of debtors, deciding which to send dunning letters, which to sue, and which to ignore.

At 6:00 PM, Pearl was sitting at one end of Foster’s red leather couch and he at the other. Pearl was relaxed, her arm resting on the back of the couch, the mole on her throat peeking in and out of the neck of her blouse as she moved. He was watching.

There had been a trumpet virtuoso at the concert. She was telling him about embouchure. He was unfamiliar with the term. “Embouchure?” he said.

She acted surprised that he didn’t know what it was. “Well, Mr. Abbot, in music, embouchure is extremely important,” she had said, leaning toward him. “You must make your lips like this.” She leaned toward him. Her tongue darted out to wet her lips. She formed a perfect “O” with her mouth, and maintained it as he slowly moved his own face toward her soft lips, suddenly close, suddenly full and wet.

Suddenly, he caught himself and sat back, dazed.

Was it then that she realized she had reinvented herself or, was it then that she became herself? She had worked hard over three years to form a close working relationship. She had worked hard to give Foster Abbott self-confidence, to get out from under the tyranny of his father.

She had succeeded. Not only that, but he seemed to be falling in love with her.

– end –