Partners (an excerpt) by N.D. Wheeler

by N.D. Wheeler
I fancied myself an artist; he wanted to be a writer.

I took photographs, later picking them up from the developer with anticipation and surprise, always surprise, as though someone else had taken the pictures and I didn’t know what to expect.

He wrote; stories, novels, outlines, ideas for plays. Hour after hour I’d hear the tap, tap, tapping of his fingers on the keyboard of his computer, the whirring sound the printer made as page after page met the blast of the ink jet.

Sometimes I’d help him. Curled up in a chair with my reading glasses and a red pen I’d edit mercilessly.

Whole paragraphs would enter the graveyard of ‘unnecessary,” ‘too high brow,” or, ‘doesn’t further the plot,” with little regard for the birth process. He seldom challenged. He trusted my instincts, had too often seen a shadowy figure take form and breathe due to my suggestions.

When he did disagree – that was it. I would simply say ‘OK.’ and erase or cross out whatever changes I had made.

It was similar with my pictures. I didn’t always seek his opinion, but when I did it was important to me. I would lay out the slides or negatives as if they were children up for adoption, each special in its own way but you couldn’t choose them all.

I would hold my breath waiting to see if he favored the ones I did. When he agreed I was silently ecstatic, not wanting him to know how much his approval meant to me but so hungry to hear more that I would pull, fishing he called it, responses from him.

What exactly pleased him? Was it the play of light, the subject matter, or something more elusive? If we disagreed, I would try to persuade him – couldn’t he see this or that aspect? Weren’t those clouds evocative? When I could not persuade him, he’d back off. He knew his opinions were valuable but ultimately it had to be my choice.

It had taken 21 years to get to this place, comfortable, but never complacent. Always aware of each other, but separate.

It had not been that way in the beginning.

I had just turned 28 when I met Howard Wesley Wheeler. I was coming out of another failed marriage, my third, and was forcing myself to do the only thing I dreaded more than accepting another marital defeat, look for work.

‘I don’t know what my problem is.’ I’d said to my sister-in-law Becky during one of our more recent marathon talking sessions.
Becky lived upstairs in the same apartment building with my brother Danny and their two sons. Danny was a long haul trucker leaving Becky with lots of time on her hands at night after putting the boys to bed.

When my third husband, Rick, and I had still been a couple we’d often played cards with Danny and Becky on the weekends.

They would have an early dinner, get the boys ready for bed and then come down to our place where we’d performed similar tasks getting the twins, Perry and Sherry (from my second marriage), fed, bathed and in their pajamas.
We were grateful that the cousins got along so well despite their age differences, the twins were 5; Robby was 11, and Billy 7. We could count on several hands of Spades infrequently interrupted before putting the kids to bed.
Then we would play well past midnight after all the children were sleeping soundly.

Now Becky was returning to a role she had played many times over the years, that of sole confidante.

I believed Becky relished these sessions, enjoying the feelings of superiority that came with not just the security she felt within her own marriage but the added security of having worked steadily since she’d left college.

Over the years Becky, and sometimes Danny, had stepped in to help me out in a number of ways. Sometimes it was something as simple as a tank of gas or Becky inviting me for lunch when she suspected I had not been eating regularly. Other times they provided a place to stay for a night or two.

These events always occurred when I was sans significant other. I had difficulty operating under my own steam, being unable to get jobs, keep jobs, or manage well the money that came when I had a job.

It seemed that the jobs were just rest stops along the Husband Highway; places where one might casually pause for a period of time, but not where great attention was paid, efforts made to adjust to the surroundings, or plans put into effect. It may have been sub-conscious but on some level, I was always just one job away from the next husband.

‘Momma’s never had any problem with working.’

‘She’s certainly told me often enough to ‘get
a job with the State and you’ll be set for life’.’ ‘But I just can’t seem to find something I can stick with.’

‘Actually, I thought she’d be pretty mad when I told her I’d asked Rick to leave, but she seemed more smug than anything, sort of like, ‘I told you so”

‘What’s she said to you about the whole thing?’ I asked Becky.

Becky seemed to be weighing her words carefully before speaking. She had an unusual but workable relationship with my mother, which I’m sure she had no desire to jeopardize.

We three had formed a unique triad over the years with each one sitting at the apex power position on differing occasions, relative to who was in crisis mode at any given time.

When Mary, my mother, was in power we younger women were closely allied but this could be, and often had, shifted, putting mother and me on a more even plain with Becky aloft, not averse to reveling in her position.

It was not dissimilar to the behavior of children. Whenever three gathered together, one was bound to feel separate, sometimes inferior, sometimes not.

Currently, mother and Becky were aligned. They had already shared several phone calls regarding the break-up of my marriage. Phone calls Becky had mentioned casually, never revealing their full content.

‘Well, you knew Mary would call me the minute she heard about you and Rick, just to see if you’d told her first. Don’t worry, I acted surprised.’ Becky finally replied.

‘I know, Momma told me and I appreciate it. But how do you think she’s taking it. Didn’t she seem a little too, I don’t know, ‘not worried’ about the whole thing?’

‘She didn’t ask what you were going to do, if that’s what you mean. Just what are you going to do?’

‘Shit, Becky, I don’t know. Obviously, I’ll have to get a job. Rick’s not going to give me any money. The kids aren’t his and we haven’t been married that long, and you know Danny can’t be counted on even for the measly amount of child support he’s supposed to pay.’

‘Well, have you thought about going back to ‘The State’, Becky asked, meaning the State Government where I’d held numerous jobs off and on since my late teens. It was one of my more frequently visited rest stops. One that had left a particularly sour taste last time out. I had gotten involved with two of the men in my office at the Board of Pardons and Paroles, and although both of those relationships died natural and uneventful deaths, the knowledge of them had left me open to some unwanted advances from a superior in an elevator one day. Surprised when I turned him down he’d put out some pretty nasty rumors that resulted in my agreeing to seek employment elsewhere.

This news had reached my mother via the grapevine and had been the source of ceaseless recriminations revolving around Momma’s stature within the hallowed State halls where she’d been employed for over 20 years and the potential jeopardy in which my actions might have placed her.

This pained me greatly since only a year before my departure from the Parole Board, my second husband, Danny, also a State employee at the time the twins were born, had been having an affair inflagrante with a co-worker.

Momma had smilingly divulged her knowledge of the affair and some details I could have done without after the fact. She had not seemed disturbed about the impact her son-in-law’s behavior might have had upon her reputation at the time.

‘There’s not a chance in hell that I’d go back there’ I responded incredulously. I was beginning to see how Becky and Momma were becoming more and more alike and the subtle ways that Momma inserted her influence throughout the family.

Becky had held a position as an executive secretary for a major insurance company when she and my brother first met. Not long after the wedding, Becky surrendered that position for a less glamorous and lower paying secretarial position with the State.

Sometimes I wondered if Momma was getting sign-on bonuses. She had managed to get three of her family members to forego their own ideas of what constituted a good place to work and fall in lock-step with her and her ideas of gainful employment.

I surmised it had a lot to do with the security. Much like tenure at a University, once you had served a reasonable amount of time without negative incident at the State you were guaranteed a job until retirement. Factor in the paid holidays, sick leave, insurance benefits, and regular pay increases and my mother had a pretty good argument.

‘I’ve got an interview on Monday with a company over in Tucker.’ I said, somewhat surprising Becky with my swiftness. I’d only been alone for a week but already had an interview. Becky was noticeably impressed.

‘What’s the job?’ She asked.

‘Administrative Assistant.’ I said, with a playful air of superiority. We both knew I was a sucker for titles. I would gladly take less pay for more glory.

I was that much like my late father, Luther, to whom appearances had meant everything. You could be destitute as long as you were well dressed and no one knew.

I could remember him unemployed, yet drying out after one of his binges, as a guest at the Atlanta Athletic Club. I recall marveling when my mother gave me this information as we passed by the building one day while window-shopping downtown when I was quite young.

‘What do you mean he goes in there to dry out?’

‘Well, after he’s been on a toot he needs to get that poison out of his system, so sometimes he goes in there for a steam and a rub.’

I found the idea so incredible that I accepted it, asking no further questions. I knew Momma wouldn’t lie about such a thing and I sensed the smoldering anger she held along with this information.

At this time in our lives, the government, due to the diminished income of the family, was providing school lunches for my brother and me. The shame of this fact and the knowledge that her husband was able to use his considerable charm and guile to not only enter but use the facilities of such a place made Momma smolder; all the more so because even had money been no object she could never have entered an establishment such as this represented. Her attitude seemed to be ‘Don’t get above your raising’.

Although I would come to share many of the angry feelings my mother had for my father I also shared my father’s love of, and longing for, the good life. These feelings created major problems for me as I was much more often on the outside of that social circle than in it’s midst and my desire to be like ‘those’ people while feeling so apart and different from them was a source of great pain.

Becky now wondered aloud, ‘What do you think you’ve got that would work for that kind of interview?’

I’d been out of the job market for nearly three years and during that time expenditures for clothing had gone toward either my husband’s or the twins’ wardrobes. I could not remember the last time I had bought any clothes for myself.

‘I don’t have a thing. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I’m going to do something I said I’d never do. I’ll go to Rich’s and buy something suitable then I’ll take it back after the interview. If I get the job I’ll go back later and get it for real.’

The next day I went shopping and found a businesslike dress that I thought not only looked appropriate for the position of Administrative Assistant but which also played up the blue in my eyes and the figure I’d managed to keep despite having given birth to twins.

I swore to myself, as I paid for the dress with a credit card that had only a marginal chance at approval, that I would definitely come back ‘for real’ if I got the job and re-purchase the item. Besides, this wasn’t like buying the proverbial Prom Dress you had no intention of keeping and then taking it back after the dance with sweat stains in the armpits. I found it hard to believe that people did things like that. No saint I, by a long shot, that particular form of larceny just wasn’t my style. But this is important, I told myself. This means food on the table for my children. With these reminders I was able to leave the store with my dignity still intact.

The following Monday I got up early, put the twins in the car and started the long drive to the trailer where my mother and stepfather lived. Momma had agreed to take care of the kids for me while I went on the interview. This was an unusual occurrence. She was not a doting grandmother, and in the five years since their birth she had never babysat.

Even since her recent retirement with, as she so often put it, ‘Way too much time on my hands,” she still didn’t come to visit her grandchildren, volunteer to keep them overnight or even for an hour or two so that I might have some time to myself. Given the often strained and difficult relationship we’d had during my childhood, I was not uncomfortable with this arrangement. Still I occasionally longed for a relationship that more closely approximated ‘normal.”

As I drove down the highway Perry and Sherry entertained themselves in the back seat and instead of planning my every word for my upcoming meeting, I found myself falling into a reverie of a painful event from my childhood involving my mother. There were many of these and I’m not sure why this particular one chose this moment to present itself.

I had begun developing breasts in the sixth grade. My parents had never discussed ‘developing’ or sex with me. All I knew was that I had some protuberances on my chest that were growing pretty rapidly where none had been before.

Maybe Momma didn’t notice. Maybe she hoped no one else would. Either way, no changes were made to my wardrobe. No slips, bras or little cotton t-shirts were added. I had the same dresses and sweater that I’d had the previous year.

They still fit since I hadn’t grown any taller over the summer. No one at school noticed any changes, initially.

It stays really hot in the south well into fall. I was still wearing my loose fitting print blouses and dresses leftover from summer. Then came a day in late October when we had our first taste of fall.
I’d been dressing myself since my earliest school days. As usual, Momma was already on her way to work by the time I was up and ready to get dressed. The windows had been left open the night before and a cool breeze told me that one of my sleeveless tops wasn’t going to keep me warm on the long walk to school. I chose the only sweater I had. It was short sleeved with a crew neck and I liked it a lot because it had rhinestones and fake pearls on the front. I’d worn it last year when we had school pictures taken. It made me feel grown up. On this day it made me feel particularly grown up. I wasn’t yet into preening and staring at my image in every mirror. That would come later. But something led me into my mother’s room for a look at myself in her mirror.

Even in my innocence I sensed that something was wrong. I could see my breasts. Large beginning buds, very noticeable, being hugged quite firmly by my sweater. Maybe I should wear something else, I thought. I didn’t really have any options if I wanted to be warm. I certainly had no one to ask how I looked. So, off I went hugging my books to my chest with my arms wrapped tightly around them.

Once inside the classroom I went to my desk. I then spent most of the morning round-shouldered trying not to call any attention to myself. This was all the more difficult since my teacher that year, Mrs. Russell, was someone who didn’t particularly like me.

I usually took great pains to raise my hand every time a question was asked in an effort to impress. Today, pretending I was uninterested or worse, didn’t know the answers, was almost more unbearable than the thought that I wouldn’t make it through the day without someone noticing my bumps.

The morning wore on I relaxed into the day’s activities. I forgot to be uncomfortable and cover up. The class had just begun to line up for recess. I remember kidding around with a couple of boys, two in line ahead of me and one behind which I guess made me all the more conspicuous. Suddenly Mrs. Russell was standing beside me with a horrified look on her face.

‘What are you doing wearing that sweater?’ she asked me in a loud accusatory voice while staring directly at the middle of my chest, addressing those newest parts of my body.
This was one of those ‘time stands still’ moments. It seemed as though thirty formerly rowdy, boisterous students that a gunshot wouldn’t have quieted all went mute and in unison turned to stare at me. I don’t remember what, or even if, I answered. I do remember her telling me not to show up in her class looking like ‘that’ again.

I waited till the weekend to talk to Momma. I guess I was hoping she’d come to me and I wouldn’t have to bring up the subject. Something told me this was not going to be pleasant.

It was early Saturday morning; after the cartoons were over and I knew the stores would be open. I wanted to eliminate as many excuses as I could. Momma was in the kitchen. I walked in not wanting to look in her in the face. I waited till she was turned away from me and spoke to the back of her head. ‘Momma I need a bra.’

She whipped her head around so fast I thought she might have hurt herself. ‘Why!?’ She barked, in a manner and tone that implied I’d better have a damn good reason for this.

I told her what had happened in school. I wasn’t expecting sympathy, just a little guidance. A pathway out of this uncomfortable forest I’d wandered into.
‘Well, little lady, if you think you need a bra, you’ll just have to go get one yourself!’

Fear and panic gripped me. I managed to get out the words that I didn’t have any money without throwing up or choking on them. Momma stormed into the bedroom where she retrieved her purse from the dresser drawer where she always kept it, hiding it from whom I didn’t know. She managed to find a few dollars and some change, which she threw on the kitchen table, then went back to her work. I headed for downtown Decatur.

As I walked block after block towards town and the department stores I tried to imagine how I was going to accomplish this. I knew nothing about bras. I’d only been in the lingerie department once or twice with my mother. It was intimidating with its long counters and display cases showing various selections of undergarments; garter belts, girdles, stockings, camisoles and brassieres. All of these were kept in drawers that lined the walls behind the counter. Access to any of the items required a sales associate. Anytime I’d been there before it had seemed hallowed. All the women who were shopping wore their best clothes. Some wore hats and gloves. The saleswomen were as well or better dressed than my mother when she went to work each day.

There was also a quiet about the place. It fit with the fact that these items were referred to as ‘unmentionables’ at the time.
I decided to go into the first department store I came to. Not necessarily to buy but to get the lay of the land. Maybe I could see how the other women navigated this minefield. Figure out who approached who. What did you ask for?

The lingerie department in this store was upstairs and as I ascended the staircase I noticed that for a Saturday not many shoppers were about. Maybe they didn’t sell bras on Saturday. I wandered around the department looking at the few tables where slips and panties were openly displayed. I didn’t stay long. The lone saleswoman in the department kept looking at me as if she thought I was a college panty raider.

Struggling with ideas of how to get this over with and determined not to go home empty handed, I approached another store and went into their lingerie area. Definitely not empty. Several shoppers were milling about and chatting. Things were looking up. The atmosphere seemed more relaxed than I’d seen it before. I skirted the edges of the counter looking here and there. I was waiting for an opportunity to catch one of the saleswomen alone. A pleasant young woman had just approached me and begun to ask how she might be of assistance when the principal from my school walked up and said, ‘Nan, dear, what are you doing here? Picking up something for your mother?’

Only my good Southern manners kept me from bolting. After a hem and a haw I mumbled something about trying to locate the girls department. That must have seemed so transparent. I’d grown up in that town. She could’ve safely assumed I’d spent hours in that store. She politely allowed me to excuse myself. I left the store and headed home.

My determination was now replaced with an anger that grew with each step toward my house and my mother. How dare she send a 12 year old girl out on her own to buy something I knew nothing about? How could she let me be embarrassed like that? What’s a mother for anyway?

My backbone hardened with fury by the time I reached home. I went into the house looking for Momma. When I found her she smugly asked if I’d gotten what I wanted.

‘No, and I’m not going to until you go with me! I don’t know how to do this.’

Something about that confession actually pleased her. Maybe she sniffed the scent of fear on me. Or failure. My failing at something always seemed to make a more favorable impression on her than my successes. She loved to remind me, usually in front of my older brother, of what she viewed to be my limitations. Her favorite expression was ‘If you were half as smart as you think you are you could rule the world.”

She delighted in ridiculing me. Often, after inviting me to visit her at her office she’d loudly comment, ‘Is that the best you could do with yourself? I have friends here. You’re embarrassing me with the way you look.’ I couldn’t figure it out. She bought what few clothes I had. She kept them clean and ironed, or not. I had nothing to wear that she hadn’t selected herself. That left me feeling that it was me, physically, personally, that she found embarrassing and I couldn’t imagine what I could do to change.

Maybe she was comparing, or competing. Whatever the case, when it came to purchasing my first bra, I was happy to let her win one.
I was jarred back into the present with the duet of ‘Meema,” ‘Meema’ coming from the back seat and realized I had driven the entire route on autopilot. The twins and I got out of the car and met my mother as she descended the steps. Hugs for the kids, an awkward smile for me. It didn’t take long to dispense with instructions and I was soon headed home.
When I returned to my apartment I still had quite a bit of time to prepare for the interview. Glad the appointment was for later in the afternoon, I hoped I might have time for a quick lie down so I would feel more refreshed.

At 4:00 p.m., I was seated in the outer offices of the Merton Company. The single desk in the reception area was vacant. When I had arrived, the sound of my entering had alerted a man in the interior and he’d come to greet me, handing out the appropriate forms to complete and instructing me to let him know when I’d finished.

The forms were straightforward enough and my experience brief enough that it wasn’t long before I was walking through the passageway and into Dick Selman’s office.

‘Excuse me.’ ‘You asked me to let you know when I’d finished.’

‘Oh? Right. That didn’t take very long.’ Mr. Selman said, in a manner I couldn’t quite interpret. Was he pleased I was quick or concerned I wasn’t thorough?

‘Give me a moment to look these over, then we’ll talk.’

I returned to the outer office and took a seat, looking around as I tried to get a feel for the place.

It was of a reasonable size, large enough for the desk, a couple of lateral files, and some chairs for visitors. It was new and pleasant enough. There was the entrance door off a long hall just past the elevators, a doorway leading into a small hall flanked by offices on either side, and another doorway leading into a room that I couldn’t determine the use of from my vantage point. Though tempted to take a better look around, I didn’t want to appear a snoop so I remained seated.

The offices were on the second floor of a new three story building; one of several in a recently completed Corporate complex

After about five minutes my mind began to wander and I found myself doing the self-castigation that was by now a very familiar part of my personality.
‘Why do I keep making the same mistakes over and over? How could I have been so wrong about Rick? At this rate I’ll eclipse Liz Taylor before I’m 40!’

Just as I was about to go for the jugular with the really big questions about what kind of mother I was, Mr. Selman poked his head around the corner and said, ‘Ms. Dangar, you can come in now.”

I got up and walked toward the entrance to the smaller hall. Just as I was making the right turn into Mr. Selman’s office something to my left caught my attention. I glanced in that direction just quickly enough to notice another man, whose presence had gone undetected. He was standing by a file cabinet near the door and he turned to look at me as I passed.

‘He’s cute.’ I thought, following Mr. Selman into his office and taking the chair he offered.

Selman’s office was small with just enough room for a very nice wooden desk, accompanying executive desk chair, a credenza, two side chairs that faced the desk and a low lateral file up against the wall near the door.

I thought the desk too large for the room and figured either it had come with him from previous quarters or to Dick Selman, size mattered.

He began the interview by telling me he had looked over the application and that everything seemed in order.

‘Do you have any family at home?’ he asked, and I thought he sure wasn’t wasting any time getting to the verboten topics they always found a way to insert and that I always had difficulty deflecting.

I decided on the direct approach feeling my defensiveness welling up much earlier than I’d hoped.

‘Yes, I have two children, twins actually…’

‘Oh, twins.’ Selman interrupted.

‘Boys or girls?’ he asked.

I wondered for the umpteenth time why people often assumed it was either/or, as though fraternal twins had never been born before.
‘One of each.’ I said and secretly prayed he wasn’t stupid enough to ask the next most often asked dumb question, ‘Are they identical?’

For five years, that question was asked repeatedly. Often by some seemingly intelligent people, and after the first 30 or 40 times, I wanted to start answering, ‘No, idiot, they can’t very well be identical if one’s a boy and one’s a girl!’ Nevertheless, I had stuffed that thought and comment every time. I was used to stuffing most of my negative feelings and thoughts. No sense hurting other people’s feelings.

Selman didn’t really care about the sex of the children, instead he went for the next most important issue.

‘How old are they?” which of course was code for ‘Who’s going to take care of the little rug rats while you’re here if they aren’t school age?’

I sighed inaudibly and answered with a pre-emptive, ‘They’re 5, and whenever I need to be away from home they stay with a woman in my apartment building who also has a five year old and is a stay-at-home mom.’

I tried to breathe into the statement so that it sounded matter-of-fact and less rehearsed.

‘Wonderful!’ Selman said. ‘I have a five year old little girl myself.’ He volunteered, adding that although his wife was a registered nurse she was taking a few years off to be at home with their daughter.

‘Well, that is great.’ was all I chose to contribute, feeling guilty. That’s where I’d be if I hadn’t screwed up again.

‘Now that we have the niceties out of the way why don’t I tell you a little bit about our set up here?’

I smiled and nodded while Dick went into a speech that he had probably given often while never tiring of its delivery.

He told me it was a two man sales office and although the same company employed both, each worked for a different division selling varied products. This didn’t make much sense to me at the time and it soon became obvious that the two divisions were about as different as the tire and lingerie departments at Sears. The only thing they had in common was that both product lines were manufactured by the same parent company.

He went on to explain that his colleague, Mr. Wheeler, would probably be utilizing more of my time on a day-to-day basis. He was in the office more often having recently been transferred to Atlanta from the Akron, Ohio, office. I got the impression this was a promotion for Mr. Wheeler but figured I would learn all that in time.

Dick went on to detail some of my duties and to ask about my experience with various office machines. Most of it was standard, nothing I couldn’t handle until he mentioned a Telex.

‘I, particularly, send and receive a lot of messages that way and you have to be proficient. If you make one mistake you have to redo the entire message from the beginning.’

‘Not a problem.’ I lied while I filed the command to find out what the hell a Telex machine was as soon as possible after leaving the interview.

‘Well, I think I’ve pretty much given you an overview, so why don’t we go into Wes’s office. I’ll introduce you, and he can move it along from there.’

I let Mr. Selman rise first, deciding to follow him out of the room. I wanted the opportunity, if only a momentary one, to scope out Mr. Wheeler’s office and demeanor before having to speak to him.

Howard Wesley Wheeler sat at a desk that, although I wouldn’t have believed it possible, eclipsed Mr. Selman’s in both size and grandeur. There was barely enough room for him to come around and shake my hand upon introduction.

Aside from the desk, the most noticeable item in the room was the credenza. It was a perfect match to the desk, oversized and impressive. Its size and location, directly behind the leather executive chair, forced the desk further into the room leaving scant space for the requisite two visitor’s chairs and a file cabinet. The room’s furnishings put me in mind of a snake having swallowed its dinner whole so that you could see the prey bulging and straining against the animal’s skin except that H.W. Wheeler was clearly not the kind of man to get swallowed up by anything, at least not anything as unimportant as his office furniture.

Mr. Wheeler had resumed his place and I had taken the only seat left.

‘I had the opportunity to look at your application while you and Dick were talking, and Dick,’ he said, leaning forward and directing his comments directly at Mr. Selman, ‘I’m damned certain you wouldn’t have brought this charming young woman in here if you didn’t think I’d approve of her.’

Dick Selman smiled and passed his right hand over his balding pate.

‘Dick has taken on the right of first refusal.’ Mr. Wheeler said, alternating between looking at me and Dick for reactions.

I felt some tension in the room and sensed that these two were used

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