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Nolan gave her the high sign, and like one of those Russian dogs she'd read about once in some magazine, her insides twisted almost painfully in anticipation. But her face gave nothing away. She worked a few more minutes, then glanced up at the clock.
"One of these days I'm gonna have my goddamned bladder removed," she told her neighbor Flo as she got up from her machine.
Without taking her eyes from the slippery fabric she was feeding under the presser foot, Flo grinned and said, "A woman's gotta do what she's gotta do, eh?"
"Some of us just gotta do it more often than others," Maggie quipped, moving away through the din of the various machines, headed for the side staircase by the washrooms.
The business offices were on the floor below the factory. The receptionist, two secretaries, and the bookkeeper sat at desks at the front of the building. In back of this was the owner's office, with its mahogany paneling and thick carpet. She'd never actually been inside - there was no reason for her to go there, as Nolan was responsible for the employees - but she had glimpsed details through the open door. Nolan's office was situated in a low-traffic area halfway between the storage bays and the shipping department at the rear of the building.
She glanced around. No one in sight. Her palm damp, she turned the knob of Nolan's door and ducked inside, throwing the latch on the lock as she did. Heart racing, already wet, she remained by the door of the darkened office. For years she'd been responding to Nolan's signal. She didn't know if it was the terrible risk involved - he had a wife, and she could be fired if they were ever found out - or her hatred of men that kept bringing her back. But once or twice a week, ever since her second month on the job more than twelve years before, he'd appear on the floor to give her the high sign, and she'd come downstairs. There'd been a few close calls, occasions when they'd almost been caught, but they'd managed to keep what went on between them a secret. No one in the factory, not even Flo, who was a good friend, knew about Maggie and Mr. Nolan.
He was waiting for her. One hand reached up under her skirt as the other closed over the back of her neck, directing her mouth to his. They'd never bothered with preliminaries. For one thing, there wasn't time. And for another, the risk and the secrecy kept her permanently stimulated. Five mornings a week, she inserted her diaphragm as a matter of course, just in case Nolan should decide to summon her. At the beginning, there had been weeks when she'd crept into his office sometimes twice in one day. Of course he'd been younger then. Now he was forty, and slowing down. She didn't care. Twice a week or twice a day, it was all the same to her. Their encounters were like a bitter medicine that briefly relieved her generalized pain.
He undid the top of her dress and opened her brassiere while she got her pants off. Then she stood half naked, with her legs apart, knees locked, while his fingers stroked and rubbed, and his mouth drew at her breasts. She despised both herself and him, and bit down hard on her lower lip as he easily teased her closer and closer to the brink. He knew every part of her body, perhaps better than she did; knew how to excite her and what she did or didn't like.
A minute or so and they were both ready. He positioned her on the edge of the desk, his hands lifting and holding her open while he fed himself smoothly into her. Almost sick with desire and contempt, she locked her legs around his hips, her mouth fastened to his. She kept one hand braced behind her on the desktop while the other signaled in the small of his back as they silently struggled toward their separate pleasures. Three minutes, four, then he buried his face in her neck as he shuddered, flooding inside her. She imagined the tide of his flow crashing against the seawall of her diaphragm, and felt grimly triumphant. Her muscles involuntarily dilating and contracting, she waited. Thirty seconds, sixty. Then, recovered, still joined to her, he eased her back on the desk, delved again with his fingers, and at the same time began the slow driving thrust he knew she needed.
The combined motions inside and out took her into that dark place where there was no thought, only vicious sensation - a spiraling, tightening coil of violent pleasure that culminated in convulsion, an exquisite seizure that sent the framed photographs on his desk toppling as her treacherous body leaped beneath his touch.
He liked to watch her at these moments. She couldn't stand that, and always closed her eyes so she could remain detached from him in her frenzy. He could watch if he wanted, but she was damned if she'd let him see. With her eyes tightly shut he didn't exist; she didn't need him, didn't rely on him for these ten or twelve minutes of frantic nakedness. He was nothing, no one, just something she used to ease some of the tremendous tension.
After, while he quickly dressed, she dried herself with a tissue before stepping shakily into her underpants. She felt emptied, hollow, enraged. Her hands shook as she fastened her brassiere then fitted her breasts into the cups. Already, so quickly, the loathing was sweeping through her. And inside, the spiral gradually uncoiled with ever smaller aftershocks as she smoothed her skirt, took a deep breath, then, with uncertain limbs, left the office.
They hadn't spoken. If he'd said a single word she might have picked up the letter opener and stabbed him.
There were times when Maggie Parker's memories were like a fast-burning fuse attached to the highly volatile anger that detonated inside her. She then found herself a servant to its force, unable either to conceal or control it. When this happened at the factory she could relieve herself with Nolan, if his summons happened to coincide with her resurgent anger, or redirect her furious energy to the work at hand - feeding triangles of fabric, in a blurred multicolored frenzy, between the presser foot and feed dog of the industrial sewing machine.
If it occurred while she was waiting tables at the coffee shop, she'd snap at the short-order cook, at the other waitresses, even at the customers, most of whom were regulars who'd long since grown accustomed to Maggie's occasional irascibility. Her coworkers at both the umbrella factory and the restaurant simply shrugged and kept their distance until her mood improved, as it usually did in an hour or two. They accepted her periodic displays of bad temper philosophically, because she commanded their respect.
Everyone knew Maggie had been left to raise her daughters alone, and they could see for themselves she'd done a good job of it. Her girls were clean, well mannered, and obedient - a credit to their hardworking mother, which was precisely how she wanted the world to see them. More than anything else, she wanted it known that she could stand on her own two feet, and that no one, particularly that son of a bitch John Parker, was going to drive her to her knees.
But sometimes, without warning, the recollection of what Parker had done to her set her insides on fire, and then the flames of her outrage scorched everyone indiscriminately. In the aftermath, while her victims sought to nurse their charred sensibilities, it would never have occurred to Maggie to apologize for any damage she'd done, because it was a given that she, more than most people, had cause to give vent to her molten indignation.
Her daughters, Faye and Louise, were her public burden, the upright and transverse pieces of the cross she bore, and whenever the anger overcame her, all she saw when she looked at them were the features they'd inherited from their rotten father. Faye had John Parker's depthless, deep-set gray eyes, his square jaw, and elegant patrician nose. Louise had his high, rounded forehead, his arching, well-defined eyebrows, and his wide, full mouth. The sight of those two faces so clearly bearing John Parker's imprint could send Maggie into such a blind rage that she felt capable of murder.
In more temperate moments she was able to see her own self in the tawny hues of Faye's hair, in her dimpled chin and fair complexion; she recognized herself in Louise's deep blue eyes, the length of her neck, and the tidy conformation of her ears. It was these inherited characteristics of hers that enabled her to live year in and year out with the too-visible, walking, talking reminders of her teenage folly.
She carried around a mental portrait of herself in 1938, the year she was sixteen and met John Parker on a blind date set up by her girlfriend May Greeley. It was the year her life had been ruined. The portrait was always perfectly clear in her mind: Her hair was ear length and done in smart marcel waves; she wore a royal blue drop-waisted dress that set off the color of her eyes; high heels that showed off her slim ankles and shapely calves and made her exactly five feet six; and her mother's pearls. She weighed an even hundred and ten pounds, her breasts were full and firm, and her waist was precisely twenty-four inches. Her eyelashes were subtly darkened with a bit of mascara, her checks bore a hint of powdered rouge, and deep pink lipstick accentuated the shape of her mouth. She was virginal, pristine, perfect; filled with a simmering excitement for her own limitless potential. She had a head full of ideas for her future, for the wonderful life she was going to have when she met the man of her dreams.
And then John Parker came along to dazzle her with his snazzy clothes, his glib tongue, and his large persuasive hands. After being introduced, he leaned uncomfortably close to her and said, "You don't know it yet, sister, but you're just wild about me."
He was so much older than the boys she'd dated, and so good-looking, so smooth and confident that she couldn't think of a thing to say. She'd just stared into his deep gray eyes, with her heart hammering and her body all at once overheated, and waited to see what would happen next. She felt imperiled, cut loose from everything familiar, and hoped the sudden rush of moisture between her legs wasn't the start of her period. She hated anyone, even her parents, touching her when she was having the curse.
"No comeback, eh?" he said after a moment. "Good. Tell the boys no if they ask. John Parker's taking you out from now on."
He was a salesman, and he had a car, which impressed her. Hardly anyone had cars in those days. He held the door for her while she climbed in, then he took her for a drive. They wound up parked in the pitch dark somewhere in High Park. He turned on the radio, tossed his cigarette out the window, then reached for her.
That first night he got her so crazy she didn't know what she was doing. She kept saying no, don't, but before she knew it he had the blue dress down around her waist and her step-ins were on the floor somewhere. He wouldn't quit, his hands were all over her. She was scared to death someone would come along and catch them there, but she couldn't stop him. He kept stroking her between her legs and kissing her, and after a while she couldn't even think. He made her come. She didn't even know what was happening. He had to tell her. Then he got her to use her hand on him until he stopped her abruptly, pushing her hand away while he held his hankie over himself.
By the end of the second week he'd convinced her to go all the way. "Don't worry about a thing," he told her, rolling on a safe. "You're gonna love this, Maggie. Now come on over here," he said, pulling her down under him on the back seat of the car. "John Parker's gonna send you to heaven."
Eighteen months later they were married, and the following year, after a nightmarish labor that went on for almost three days, during which time John Parker was nowhere to be found, she was the mother of a seven pound fifteen ounce baby girl. And sixteen months after that, with John Parker once again conspicuously absent, two days of hellish labor culminated in the forceps delivery of another daughter weighing seven pounds nine ounces. Just when she was beginning to recover from the rigors of this second birth and the exhaustion of coping with two babies under the age of two he telephoned to say he wouldn't be coming home ever again.
"Let's just chalk it up to experience, kiddo," he said. "It's not working out. These things happen."
The ruthless, conniving bastard didn't even have the guts to tell her in person. Nor did he bother to collect his possessions. He left with only the clothes on his back and vanished for good and always.
She was a twenty-year-old mother of two, with almost no money, a thickened waistline, nipples permanently distended from prolonged nursing, and a vaginal prolapse as a result of her extended labors. She sold for cash every last item that had belonged to John Parker, borrowed money from her father to pay for the necessary internal reconstruction that left her with a tightened vagina the surgeon said was "good as new, Marg," made a deal with her friend Blanche upstairs to look after the babies while she went out to find some work, and, in her final act of creation, gave birth to a deep and abiding mistrust of all men. She liked the fact that they were attracted to her; she enjoyed the sense of power it gave her to know that they were forever wanting to touch her; but her contempt for them was so limitless that her greatest satisfaction came in verbally slapping them into place when they took even the smallest step out of line. She satisfied the lust John Parker had instilled in her with Jerry Nolan in the darkened office at the factory.
She took pride in looking good, and paid top dollar for the few clothes she had so that her appearance stated in no uncertain terms how well she was able to provide for herself and her girls. Since Faye and Louise grew very quickly out of their clothes, it was only sensible to acquire their garments at the lowest possible price. But every last item they put on was meticulously laundered, with not so much as a single button missing. These same rigid standards were applied to the girls themselves. Their hair got washed every three days without fail, and they were bathed - or later, bathed themselves - every other night. Their fingernails and toenails were clipped every two weeks, their ears, faces, and necks were washed nightly, and their teeth were brushed morning and night. These girls represented her in public, and by God, they were going to be at their best!
She gave them the benefit of her hard-earned knowledge about men and about the world, determined no fast-talking smoothie would ever come along and put Faye and Louise down on their backs the way John Parker had put her down on hers. No man was ever going to take advantage of her girls.
When Faye got her first period and mutely presented her mother with her blood-soaked underpants, Maggie underwent a moment of such complete and utter revulsion that her initial instinct was to strike the girl with all the force she could muster. She restrained herself because this was a woman's curse, after all, and Faye could hardly be blamed for having had the misfortune of being born female. Maggie went for the new sanitary belt she'd bought for herself a week earlier, briskly gave it and a box of pads to Faye, then went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. She sat by the window, alternately staring at the smoke from her cigarette and at the thawing ground of the small back yard, experiencing an interior spasm of combined jealousy and renewed anger.
Faye was no longer a child. She'd soon be fourteen. And now that she'd started menstruating she'd shortly develop breasts and hips. Louise was twelve. She'd be next to come waving the soiled evidence of her maturity in Maggie's face. Before she knew it, she'd be living with two other women. It wasn't enough she'd had to live with them as children. The thought of having to put up with them as grown women was almost more than she could tolerate. There'd be boys at the door, boys on the phone, boys every time she turned around. And they'd all be after only one thing: getting their filthy hands on her daughters' bodies. On top of working five days and three nights a week, she'd have a full-time job just keeping the sons of bitches away from her girls. And there were no guarantees she'd succeed, nor was it likely Faye and Louise would thank her for it. Look how easily that rotten prick had gotten her out of her step-ins! It was a curse to be a woman. And it was damned hard to say who was worse: men for thinking with their cocks, or women for letting themselves be used. Goddamned stupid women! Bad enough she had to listen to their pathetic whining at work. Now she'd have to listen to it at home too! She wished to Christ she'd never laid eyes on John Fucking Parker.
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