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 to cool, 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 chair—burgundy leather with gold buttons and engraved armrests—proclaimed his financial success.
This morning, a slow elevator lit the fuse on one of his frequent bad moods. Then, after a heated phone call that ended with a client’s threat to fire him, he slammed the phone down and hurled his paper cup of piping-hot coffee at the glass wall that framed his door. Half of the searing French Roast exited the cup during his windup and burned the back of his hand. His long scream started from pain, then changed to anger. He sucked his scalded knuckles.
He heard the heavy suite door click shut out in the entryway. Carrie, the temp, had arrived late for work. He pulled his mouth from the back of his hand and screamed, “Caaaaarrie! In my office now!”
He knew she would rush to him with the self-conscious subservience that he liked. Her face would be red; she blushed for almost any reason. Complaints, compliments or any special attention 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 perverse fondness for Carrie’s blushing. It was a secret reason he had requested her by name from her agency this time. After only a few conversations with her, he learned how to work his words like a lever that controlled her complexion—filling her face full of color before pausing to let it subside for a refill.
She hurried to Keith’s office without putting down her handbag. What could she have done this time? She remembered how, two days ago, she had watched spit-laced words fly from Keith’s lips during a tantrum over an incorrect lunch order she had delivered to his desk. She took a deep breath and tried to exhale her nervousness. When she reached his door, she saw tentacles of coffee stretching down the glass wall and a toppled paper coffee cup on the carpet beside his desk.
Keith pursed his lips and shook his head. He rocked in his big chair and pointed to a bottle of water on the corner of his desk. “What is this?” he said.
Carrie knew that an obvious answer would infuriate him. Her mind raced for a more appeasing answer.
“What is this?” Keith said louder.
She tilted her head, allowing her shoulder-length blond hair to conceal half of her blushing face—half of what Mr. Fisher, her sixth-grade teacher, had labeled her chromatic honesty.
She remembered that Keith required a new, chilled bottle of water on his desk each morning. Today, Keith had discovered yesterday’s nearly empty open bottle before she had arrived.
“It’s your fifth day on the job. You should know your job description by now, and yet I come in this morning to be greeted by your third major f–f–mistake!” He struggled not to cuss at Carrie, a promise he had made her agency as a probationary condition of future service. He needed the temps—for the time being.
Carrie stammered, “I’m so sorry, Mr. Mendalsen. I just—”
“Well, I need to ask you something, So Sorry,” Keith cut her off. “If I wanted warm, bottled water, why would I have shelled out eight-grand to build a kitchen with a fridge for you people?”
Carrie’s face deepened a shade. Her fingers tightened around her handbag’s strap for a better grip on her composure.
“Answer me!” he shouted. “Why do I get to the office and find spit-temperature water on my desk? What is it with you?” He paused to let her absorb the disgust on his face. Carrie stood motionless, trying to compose another non-flammable answer.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Mendalsen. It won’t happen again.” She was rouge, and Keith liked it.
“Damned right it won’t happen again—I’m not cussing at you,” he said, holding up his hands, palms out, to pardon his slip up.
“Of course not, Mr. Mendalsen,” Carrie said.
Keith sucked the back of his hand again and studied her. She waited, lips parted, ready to offer her next apology. Keith had the last two assistants in tears by now, but the agency 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, 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. Tell me how you could possibly understand?” He leaned toward Carrie, hoping to detect a more significant crack in her composure. Landing a verbal blow solid enough to unravel her would help him feel better. He couldn’t explain his sudden, sadistic urges. He only knew that from time to time they overwhelmed him like a furious itch that needed scratching at any cost.
Carrie’s eyes fluttered, but not soon enough to blink back a tear that slid down the crease of her nose. Keith enjoyed the tear. He liked that Carrie didn’t immediately wipe it. She let it lag beside her nostril for a moment—perhaps hoping he might not notice. Another tear followed, merging to fatten the first and she wiped them away before they could slide to her lip—just as the other temps had. He had badgered her effectively enough to add tears to her color, and it calmed him. He felt powerful, in control again. He decided to go for another tear or two from the other eye before he was sated.
“So, tell me, temp,” he said, examining her with a new sneer. “Were you a, uh, popular girl in school?”
The phone rang. Keith raised his eyebrows as if to ask if she intended to answer it. When she turned to her desk, Keith grabbed his phone handset and shouted, “Hello!”
As he talked on the phone, Carrie went to sit 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. Her husband wouldn’t tolerate the abuse she received under Keith’s supervision, nor would he find out. She had hidden it from him and would keep it hidden. They were in dire financial straits, which had required her to accept any available job. At Keith’s office, she netted six critical dollars per hour 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.”
“Yes, sir, I understand.”
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.
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