HTG: Quarterly Gains & Losses
By Delilah Winston
Bea and Mary sat on either side of Donna, on a plain wooden pew in the hospice chapel. Mary's eyes stayed closed for long periods of time, and her lips quivered in unspoken prayer. Bea gazed at the cross, Star of David, and a square of green silk, at the head of the chapel room. Donna fingered a tract on which was written the 23rd Psalm.
They heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Christina entered the chapel, and sat at a pew near the rear. She wiped at her eyes before folding her hands and busying herself in prayer.
Bea leaned in and whispered in Donna's ear. "I can move to a different pew," she offered.
Donna turned and whispered back. "I don't think it's you she's sitting away from," she said, her eyes glancing down.
Bea's eyes opened wider. She invited Mary and Donna to join her at the cafeteria for some coffee.
Remembering Jean's advice, Donna took a glass of club soda instead of coffee. The three of them sat down at an empty table near one corner.
"I was afraid it would happen one day," Bea said thoughtfully.
Mary's eyebrows knit. "I know she can be temperamental if you push the wrong buttons. But she's not the type to hold a grudge."
"She needs some time to cool down," Donna said. "It's not exactly a big secret anymore." She remembered the incident vividly...
Christina came in to Donna's office with the first batch of work for the day. She placed the papers and forms neatly into Donna's inbox and gave her a polite nod.
"Good morning," she said.
Donna smiled. "Morning, Christina," she answered.
Christina turned and started heading back to her office. Donna's eyebrows lifted. It wasn't like Christina not to make a minute or two of small talk at the start of a day.
Hesitating a few brief seconds, Donna made a curious inquiry. "How are you feeling?"
Christina stopped short. She stood still for a second. Donna braced herself. It started to look like her 'big sister' was pretty upset; quite likely, with her.
The brunette turned, her face pinched in a rare display of anger; her eyes glittering with it. She crossed back to Donna's desk, slamming her fist onto it; jostling a stapler and Donna's name sign. "You knew, Donna. You KNEW! And you said NOTHING! Did you really think any of us didn't see right through that sick leave?"
Donna blinked, her eyes widening; startled at the fierceness of Christina's voice and stare. "You know that I knew, but you don't know that I was asked not to tell? Begged, even? And do you think that Carla was the only one who made that plea?"
Christina's breath briefly caught in her throat as hot tears glistened in her eyes. "There's doing what you're asked, and there's doing the right thing. Did you really think it was RIGHT to keep this from all of us? Did you stop to think how many of us might feel it hurts that much MORE that instead of coming right to us for help in dealing with your own pain, you just up and skipped out for a week, leaving the rest of us all oblivious until it was dropped on our heads like a ton of shit bricks?!" She slammed her fist down on Donna's desk again.
"And if I'd been the one to drop it on your heads... like a ton of shit bricks?" Donna countered. "How are you supposed to prepare for news like this, Christina? That we're going to lose the woman who's done so much for so many of us?"
"Too late now, to see if it would have gone easier, like many of us feel it would have," Christina said, turning on her heel and walking out.</i>
"I think it might have hurt less if you'd been up front with us, too," Bea admitted in a soft voice. "But I trust Carla to do what she felt was right."
Mary gave a sober nod. "I understand how you feel, Donna, even if I too, disagree. Much as I loved her, I didn't always see eye to eye with Carla, and if she wanted you to keep her illness under wraps, then I'm pretty put off at her for making that decision. It DOES hurt that you followed that request. But Carla must have done it for a reason. Maybe we just don't see her side of it. Maybe we never will."
They returned to the chapel, resuming their respective prayers. Over the next hour, the chapel filled up with as many of the women of HTG as would fit inside. Visiting hours would begin at 6 pm, and they'd draw lots, taking turns, as many as would be able to see Carla each night, as they'd all been doing for the past two days.
HTG hardly ever closed. Employees had sick leave, vacation time, and when necessary, doctor and dentist visits were often excused as well. Even if all sick time for the year had been used, necessary doctor visits, including breast and colon exams, were still excused at half-pay. Maternity leave was given special procedure: pregnant women were not subject to the hogtie rope, instead being put in the 'orientation' position, soon as they knew they were pregnant. They were no longer tied up at all as soon as their pregnancy's first trimester ended. They were counseled to take four weeks off from work before their expected due date, and then ten to twelve weeks after delivery. Only then, after returning to work, were they tied up again. But the company hardly ever needed to close its doors.
The hospice had been given a number that went straight to Mr. Hill. When the call came, notifying him that Carla had passed away, HTG closed, and would remain closed until two days after the funeral. Part of the building stayed accessible, for employees to come and mourn together. Many of the company men came to grieve alongside the women. Although it was difficult to tell, due to permission given to dress in regular street clothes, and masks not being worn, Donna was sure that a number of aides participated as well. It was an odd feeling for Donna, knowing that a couple of the men who grieved beside her, might also have tied her up a number of times, during her time at HTG. But it was also a welcome feeling.
Donna fixed her tie in the mirror and buttoned her jacket. All the women were going to be wearing their business attire for the funeral services. Only a few of them would have the courage to look into the open casket, but they knew Carla would be buried in her favorite dark brown business suit, complete with a cream-colored blouse, a dark blue man's tie, and her tan stockings and black pumps. Not all of the women in HTG got along personally, but they stuck together through thick and thin.
Ethan likewise fixed his tie and combed his hair one last time. His usually cheerful face was more somber than Donna had seen it in a long time. He'd never met Carla, nor any of the other women in HTG, but he understood and respected both the hard work Carla did as a human resources counselor, and her close ties with all the ladies in the company, including Donna.
"Thank you, again," Donna said. She'd said it enough times by now, but she felt like she couldn't stop. Ethan's going along gave her a feeling of solace she needed so desperately right now.
Ethan just patted her shoulder and tried to smile.
They stepped out of Donna's building, heading toward her car--
"Dad? What are you doing here?" Ethan raised his eyebrows.
Mr. Goldman nodded respectfully to Donna. "Ms. Richmond."
"H-hello, Mr. Goldman," Donna said back.
The pain in Mr. Goldman's eyes was visible from a distance. But it was clear that it was more than the loss of Carla that was weighing down so heavily on him. Ethan read his father's face.
"Forget it, Dad," he said tonelessly. "You know how much this means to her."
Mr. Goldman nodded sadly. Donna swore she heard a sniffle in his voice.
"Yes, Ethan, I do," he said. "But I also know that you're putting her reputation with her peers at serious risk. You could open a rift between her and many of them that can never be bridged. She's particularly vulnerable right now, with several of them taking their grief out on her for not telling them about Carla Velasquez's illness as soon as she learned of it."
Ethan's eyes narrowed. He stepped protectively in front of Donna, facing his own father down. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Ethan... you know that a few of the board members know what you look like. At the very least, Stan and Eric, and their families do. SOMEONE is bound to tell just one person that they shouldn't tell. Then the trouble will begin."
Donna drew breath, putting a hand over her mouth. "Oh my God," she whispered. "Ethan, he's right. How am I supposed to explain to my co-workers that I'm dating the boss' son?"
Ethan half-turned. His voice already sounded desperate. "I-I'm not with the company, Donna," he protested. "And we were dating a year before you found out who I am."
"But just like someone is sure to tell the wrong person, someone else is also not going to care if you distance yourself from the company," Mr. Goldman pointed out. "You know enough about it, that Donna's peers could start to frown on her. They all have a very strong and unique bond, son. Any sign of disrespecting that bond, that solidarity... it isn't tolerated by them."
Ethan looked bleakly at Mr. Goldman. "So nice of you to tell me this NOW, Dad? Instead of, maybe, you know, when you and Mom both gave me the 3rd degree after finding out I knew she works for you?"
Despite the mood in the air, this remark forced a brief smile from Donna.
Mr. Goldman smiled without humor. "Most of the women at the company don't know a lot about each others' families, except for those who form close friendships," he said. "Strong as their bond and sense of community are, it's still largely a business relationship. You could marry her and it could take years, until Donna was ready to retire, before one of her peers learned the truth. Remember that they don't all get along personally, which is why each of them only shares a little about what happens behind her closed door, and only with a few. Nobody gossips about anyone, about anything, with anyone else. That little safety net system, is why your mother and I didn't have to tell you to stop the relationship, both for Donna's sake and the sake of the company itself. The company women have a very elaborate social system constructed over many years. One way they keep the bond strong, is to check any sign of impropriety at the front door and not flash it under any of their peers' noses."
"Such as showing up at the services with you on my arm," Donna said to Ethan.
To which Mr. Goldman nodded. "Precisely."
Ethan grit his teeth in anger. "I'll sit with you, then, at the funeral," he said to his father. "Nobody will think anything of THAT, will they?"
Mr. Goldman looked at his son for a moment.
"No, they won't," he said. "You'll need to ride with me, too, however."
Ethan said nothing, but his face showed he'd cooperate, much as he wanted not to.
Mr. Goldman turned to look at Donna. "Will any of the women be gathering at that diner you all go to? Will there be a meeting after the funeral services conclude?"
"No, sir," Donna said. "Jackson's isn't big enough to hold all of us. The women in any three departments would stretch it to the capacity limit. Some of the women who live close by each other, will go to each others' houses or a local coffee shop. I'll be joining one of those small groups for about an hour before returning home."
"Then I'll arrange for a cab to take Ethan straight back here," Mr. Goldman said. "He can wait with your neighbors until you arrive home."
Donna nodded gratefully. "Thank you, sir," she acknowledged.
Ethan turned and hugged Donna. "I still don't like this," he said through clenched teeth.
"Me neither," Donna said.
Ethan turned back to his father. "All right. Let's go."
He got into the back seat of Mr. Goldman's car. The car's windows were tinted a dark shade, but in the front passenger seat, Donna made out the silhouette of a woman wearing a hat; presumably Mrs. Goldman. Mr. Goldman chose to do without a driver, even though Donna was sure he could afford one. She remembered Ethan casually mentioning in conversation, that Mr. Goldman preferred to drive his car, himself.
Donna waited until they pulled away onto the street before continuing to her own car.
Donna rang Bobby's doorbell on arriving home. Bobby and Diane hugged her for several moments before Ethan went with Donna back to her apartment. Ethan had brought some containers that held some dinner for the two of them, which Ethan said his mother had made for them, much to Donna's surprise and gratitude. They listened to some soft pop on the stereo while eating, and for the next few hours. They talked about some recent ball games, and then some upcoming ones, as they ate and listened.
Ethan still didn't feel ready to sleep with Donna, even though he'd admitted his parents had both cautioned him to wait a while longer, and discuss it with Donna at length, beforehand, once they were both sure they were ready. However, he was willing to share the bed, so she could hold on to him for comfort. After they'd brushed their teeth, and changed into long pajamas and tube socks, Ethan lay down first, one arm extended. Donna lay down carefully beside him, atop the extended arm, which Ethan curled around her shoulders. Donna put her arms around Ethan's chest, and rested her head against him. They both lay quietly like that until sleep finally came.
Back at work, a memo arrived for all the women. For the next six weeks, all women were being given a choice to opt out of being tied up at the usual time. Each day at 3:30, the aides would come into their offices, but would only tie up whichever women signaled an okay. They'd all be allowed to decide each day whether to opt out or not. The memo was signed with the initials JMG.
A lot of the women talked about the memo during lunch. Most of them were thankful for it. One thing they didn't discuss was who was going to opt out, or opt in, and on what days. They all knew that many of them wouldn't know until the aides came in each day, upon which a snap decision would need to be made. Donna was sure this would be the case with her.
The first moment of truth came for Donna faster than she'd anticipated. Focusing on work made two and a half hours pass in what seemed like ten minutes. The door opened, and the four aides assigned to her for that day walked in. They closed the door behind them and stood a few steps in front of it. Their postures showed patience in giving Donna some time to make her decision.
Donna released a quick breath as she looked them up and down. The four of them all wore a dark brown armband on their left sleeve. A sign of respect and memorial.
Oh, Carla's a trooper, all right,' she remembered Karen telling her. 'She's dead set against being exempt completely.'
Donna blinked several times, and looked at the lead aide. Rising to her feet, she nodded her head, waving the four men over to her.
The lead aide nodded back, and the four of them gently took her arms, drawing them behind her back. A strange tingle touched Donna's spine as she felt the first coils of the rope settling around her wrists.
* * * *
Work began to slowly settle back to normal; as 'normal' as it could get in a company like HTG. The most immediate need was to elect a new 'overseer,' to use the colorful term Donna had heard from Ethan and Jean. She didn't share that word with the department, of course, but the more she thought about it, the more sense it made to her. Carla had overseen 'life at HTG' for many of its corporate women with compassion, empathy, courage, and friendship, and for some, she was even more of a big sister than some workers' 'big sisters.' Nobody would be able to replace her, but someone needed to step up and try their best.
Each woman was to submit nominations to their department's senior manager, and then the two candidates with the most nominations would state their cases in a memo before a final vote was given. The winner would be interviewed by Bethany Wilkins, and with her approval, would be appointed the new human resources head counselor for HTG's corporate women. Although technically part of New Bonds and under Mr. Halwell's direct supervision, Carla had been the main go-to woman for all of HTG's corporate women, up to and including all women serving as investment executives. The same would apply to her successor.
Donna thought long and hard about the decision before finally nominating Nancy. To Donna's knowledge, everyone in New Bonds loved her like a close friend, and if anyone in another department had issues with her, Donna doubted if anyone knew, except maybe KJ. Nancy had great interpersonal skills as well as a slow, long temper; Donna figured she probably had to, dealing with anyone who condemned her over her current lesbian relationship (such discrimination was very strictly prohibited in HTG, but Donna knew that Nancy enjoyed no such protection in her personal life outside of work).
Of course, nobody discussed who they nominated, with anyone else, including the woman they nominated. Like many of the rules by which the women's sisterhood operated, it was 'unofficial,' meaning nobody would face any kind of disciplinary action for breaching it; however, not following it was strongly frowned on. The men of HTG didn't need to step in on any issues among the women, except in the most extreme circumstances. It worked out well that way for everyone.
The memo came at the end of the nomination period; Nancy was the top nominee. However, to the surprise of many people, she turned the nomination down. This was her privilege to do if she chose, although it remained a surprise when she did. The second nominee, Rosa Del Paso, from Surety Bonds, who worked as the main human resources counselor for that department, accepted the nomination; this meant she would face the #3 candidate in the final vote. That candidate... was Christina.
"I know she can be temperamental if you push the wrong buttons. But she's not the type to hold a grudge,";Mary had said that day in the hospice cafeteria.
'There's doing what you're asked, and there's doing the right thing,' Christina had raged that day in Donna's office. 'Did you really think it was RIGHT to keep this from all of us? Did you stop to think how many of us might feel it hurts that much MORE that you skipped out for a week, leaving us all oblivious until it was dropped on our heads like a ton of shit bricks?!'
It probably wasn't fair to judge Christina so strongly on this one recent event. As Bea had pointed out a year and a half ago, 'She's done a lot for you.' And Donna remembered the playful laugh Christina gave when Donna sheepishly admitted her awkwardness toward her first post-orientation hogtie to Mr. Stone. 'Not hard to count to zero, girl friend,' was Christina's answer on how many women in HTG didn't also go through that.
Still, Donna worried about what could happen if a woman coming to Christina for advice and help, inadvertently provoked her in the wrong way. Some positions required higher standards.
Donna sent Rosa an email asking to meet her for coffee at Jackson's one day after work. Donna understood this was encouraged, and even expected, of any corporate woman in HTG who didn't know Rosa. Many women who never met Christina would likewise be doing so now, in order to get acquainted with her.
Rosa was about 5'5", and although she was a little overweight, she was shapely and seemed to be fit. Her skin was a golden tan, a pleasing contrast to her dark eyes, and dark hair that fell to two inches below her collarbone in a cascade of loose curls. She was 32 years old and had been working at HTG for nine years-- long enough to qualify as a manager. Although never having formally married, she and her steady boyfriend had been very close and living together for five years. Rosa had a four year old daughter with him, and they were making plans for a second child. She had already filed preliminary papers and forms in preparation for an upcoming 'maternity leave.'
And there was one more thing about Rosa, as Donna was about to discover as she approached Rosa's table at Jackson's.
"Christina Vanderbilt's 'little sister,' huh," Rosa quipped, holding her hand out to shake after standing at Donna's approach. "You're giving me an open evaluation. I have to say, I'm impressed. And appreciative."
Donna's eyebrows arched as she shook hands. They sat down, and Donna looked close at Rosa. It took a few seconds, but she understood.
"She didn't drop your name. Nor Bea Knight's. I didn't know about you until now."
"Glad to hear that," Rosa admitted, "and I think we can all expect the election to be civil; even friendly. But whoever wins probably won't get a congratulatory peck on the cheek from the other, if you know what I mean."
A waitress came by and they gave their coffee orders. Donna also requested a toasted English muffin with grape jelly, while Rosa asked for a cinnamon raisin bagel with a 'schmear' of cream cheese.
"So, nine years and you haven't become a manager, or even an investment exec," Donna thought aloud. "Is this why?"
"Not specifically," Rosa clarified. "I wasn't exactly waiting for Carla to retire... or..." she paused and looked away, sighing softly. Donna could only give a small nod. Work, and 'life,' as the women called it, at HTG, was returning to normal, but the loss would be hurting them for a while, yet.
"But I like working with the other women," Rosa went on. "Being an exec is different, as Natalie Perez would happily explain if you wanted to ask her. Exec work is when you start to really become more autonomous, and more separated from all the other girls. Execs work more with other company men than ever before. It's easier to fall out of touch with that solidarity and sense of community we all form. Nat really has to go out of her way, now and then, to maintain her feeling of connection with the women's sisterhood. It's all even more reinforced if you become a manager. That's one of the biggest reasons many women, including Natalie, have listed in declining such a promotion. Everyone thought Nat would become a manager before Mrs. MacHugh, or even before my manager, Ms. Timmons, until she declined the offer. I've been here long enough to assume a managerial position myself, if I'd become an exec when I first qualified. Having heard what that sense of disconnection is like from Ms. Timmons, I knew I made the right decision not following the same path."
Donna scribbled a few notes in shorthand on a pocket memo pad. She was starting to attain a position of seniority and experience in the company that it wasn't unwise to start thinking about her own progression. While she managed to keep her mouth and lips from smiling at the thought of it, she still fondly remembered Mr. Halwell's impromptu evaluation of her a few months ago.
Their coffee was brought over, and they paused from their conversation to thank the waitress and carefully wait until she was out of earshot before continuing.
"Heading Human Resources isn't a step 'lower' than being an executive, is it?" Donna asked. "I'd heard that most of the women who held the position before Carla eventually 'went on to become an investment exec,' as it was explained to me."
Rosa smiled. "'Went on' doesn't necessarily mean 'promoted,'" she pointed out. "If anything, heading women's Human Resources is certainly a more respected position among the corporate women here. Women execs still went to Human Resources when they needed to talk. Natalie called Carla, 'her rock.' So did Mary Braddock. It's how long Carla served in the position, never feeling a need to become an executive or administrator, that made her so beloved here."
Donna nodded again, putting this in her memo pad as well. "How many 'little sisters' have you helped, um, what's the term? 'Bring up?'" she gave a bit of a silly grin as she asked this.
Rosa chuckled softly and touched her fingers to her forehead. "Yeah, that's some more of HTG's personal brand of humor, the private jokes we crack among ourselves. My third will be 'fully grown,' to use the term, by the start of summer. Fay was..." Rosa paused, reflected and smiled again. "Fay was a challenge. Makes me proud to see how integral a part of the team she's become."
Donna's muffin and Rosa's bagel arrived. Again they paused to say 'thank you' to the waitress and give her a moment to pass out of earshot.
"Did you start in Surety Bonds, or did you start in New Bonds?" Donna asked.
"I started in New Bonds, but I spent very little time there," Rosa said. "I had some experience interning with surety companies while in college, so when an opening occurred, I was offered the option to transfer, and I accepted. I was only a month out of orientation, too. I became a secretary after three years, and served in that position for another two, before becoming the department's Human Resources rep."
"If you're the department HR, doesn't that mean Ms. Timmons is the department's senior manager?" Donna asked.
Rosa smiled again, and nodded. "Ms. Timmons is one of those people who skipped a rung on the ladder. She was unsure about becoming a manager for a little while, until it was clear she was just a natural leader. Ms. Wilkins personally asked her to accept going straight from her exec position to senior manager. One or two of the male managers weren't too happy, but Ms. Timmons has since proved she was the best one for the job."
"What's it been like, working for her?"
Rosa took a bite of her bagel. "Latisha Kara Timmons, that's her full name. A few years older than me, and raised in Ohio. Mother of three kids. Finished an MBA before starting work. She's one of the hardest workers I know. She'll laugh with you, joke with you, give you a hug if you're feeling down, but don't try to pull the wool over her eyes, and don't act like you can't when she knows you can. She'll put you back in your place, but in a way that doesn't make you feel like you've been slapped down. She doesn't just command respect, she earns it. She's not my 'big sister,' but she feels like one. I'm happy, even proud, to work under her."
Donna smiled. "That's really nice," she said.
Rosa merely nodded in thanks. The 'interview' having reached a conclusion, the two women spent the rest of their time in Jackson's talking about their respective backgrounds and college life, before shaking hands again and saying good night.
To Be Continued…