IF KEITH MENDALSEN knew that the sausage and egg croissant would be his last meal, he would have ordered two or three more of them at the drive-thru. He would have gorged on as many calorie-laden breakfast menu items as he could devour—and keep down.
He put his scalding coffee in the cup holder, gulped down the greasy sandwich in barely chewed hunks, and tossed the paper wrapper onto the passenger seat of his Mercedes convertible. As he pulled back into traffic for the two-block ride to his office, he wiped his mouth on a napkin, missing a crumb that stuck to the corner of his lip. In nine days, Keith would be dead. In eight days, the crumb that clung to his lip would be a feast—if it were still stuck there to be licked.
Mendalsen Investments occupied the twelfth floor of the ALCO Development Building in Santa Monica, California. If the firm’s suite were a table, Keith’s private inner office would be the centerpiece that decorated it. A marvel of contemporary corporate architecture, it was enclosed in floor-to-ceiling glass and lit from within like a tropical aquarium.
He enjoyed a spectacular 180-degree view of the Santa Monica beach and pier on one side, and a view of his support staff’s cubicles on the other. Everything from his imported Italian credenza to his throne-like, burgundy leather chair with gold buttons and engraved armrests, proclaimed his financial success.
This morning, an elevator that stopped on every floor lit the fuse for a particularly bad mood. Then, after a heated phone call that ended with a client’s threat to fire him, he had slammed the phone down and hurled his paper cup of coffee at the glass wall that framed his door. Half of the searing French Roast sloshed from the cup during his windup, scalding the back of his hand. After a scream that went from pain to anger, he sucked his knuckles.
The door latch in the entryway clicked. The temp for this week was late for work. He pulled his mouth from his hand and screamed, “Caaaaarrie!”
He knew she would rush to him with the self-conscious subservience Keith liked. Reprimands always flushed the twenty-six-year old’s cheeks, which then drained to blotch her pale neck. During her first stint as a temp in his office, Keith had developed a taste for making Carrie blush. It was a secret reason he had requested her by name from the agency.
Carrie hurried to Keith’s office without putting down her handbag. She took a deep breath and tried to exhale her nervousness before she reached his door. She saw tentacles of coffee stretching down the glass wall and a toppled paper cup on the carpet.
Keith shook his head and rocked in his big chair. He pointed to a bottle of water on the corner of his desk. “What is this?” he said.
Carrie tilted her head, allowing her shoulder-length blond hair to conceal half of her blushing face.
“What is this?” Keith said louder.
Carrie remembered that Keith required her to put two new bottles of water on his desk before leaving each evening. Yesterday she forgot.
“Your job is simple,” Keith said.
Carrie stammered, “I’m so sorry, Mr. Mendalsen. I just—”
“Well, I need to ask you something, So Sorry,” Keith cut her off. “Why is it so hard to put a couple of bottles on my desk?”
Carrie’s face deepened a shade, and her fingers tightened around her handbag’s strap for a better grip on her composure.
“Answer me!” he shouted. “What is it with you?” He paused to let her absorb the disgust on his face.
She stood motionless, trying to compose a non-flammable answer. “Mr. Mendalsen, it won’t happen again.” She was rouge. Keith liked it.
“Damned right it won’t happen again.” Keith sucked the back of his hand while staring at her. He had the last two assistants in tears by now, but the temp agency’s restriction on aiming profanity at their temps had removed one of his better tools.
“I do apologize, sir,” Carrie said.
“I do apologize, sir,” Keith mocked her reply. His face reddened, and he shouted, “I don’t pay you for apologies, I don’t pay you to forget my water, and I don’t pay you to be late.”
“I understand,” she said. She shifted her weight to the other leg and drew her tongue across her dry lips.
“No, I don’t think you do understand. You’re just a no-career temp.”
Carrie’s eyes fluttered, but not soon enough to blink back a tear that slid down the crease beside her nose.
Keith enjoyed the tear. He liked that Carrie didn’t immediately wipe it—perhaps hoping he might not notice. Another tear followed, merging to fatten the first, and she wiped them away before they could reach to her lip.
“So, tell me, Carrie,” he said, examining her with a new sneer. “Were you a, uh, popular girl in school?”
The phone rang. Keith raised his eyebrows. “Gonna answer that, or just look at me?”
Carrie turned to go answer the call at her desk.
Keith picked up the phone. “Hello.”
Carrie sat down at her desk and looked at the 3 x 5 framed photo of her husband and three-year-old daughter. She had placed it there for inspiration and comfort. There was no way her husband would tolerate the abuse she received from Keith, nor would her husband find out. He was unemployed, and they were in dire financial straits, which had required her to accept any available job. At Keith’s office, she netted barely enough to cover rent after subtracting the cost of daycare from her agency’s hourly wage.
Keith’s voice echoed through his open door as he laughed with his caller about Carrie’s incompetence. He ended the conversation by saying, “Alright, pal, I’ll be there in a half-hour.”
As he passed Carrie’s desk, he threw his coat over his shoulder and said, “Get someone in here to steam clean that damned coffee I shouldn’t have had to throw. Make sure they use the odorless steam. I better not come back to an office that smells like perfume.”
As Keith exited the office, he mumbled, “Unbelievable…” The door clicked shut behind him.
Keith left, feeling better. Carrie felt horrible. In less than six minutes, their feelings would be reversed.