Where I Work by Catherine Alexander

I’m an administrative assistant and a liar.  My boss is Dr. Dennis Philpot Hedges, a liar, too.  He’s a research professor in the Primate Department.  Most of the time he just plunks his lard butt down in his office to write papers.  Although I type his manuscripts, I can’t figure out what he’s talking about.  And how he can stand working in that little room in the lab beats me.  It stinks.  Smells like the sewer’s backed up behind his desk.  If that’s not enough, he’s hung pictures of his favorite monkeys all over the walls.  These are not just any kind of monkeys.  They’re called Macaca nemestrina; I always get the spelling wrong so Dr. Hedges always has to fix it.  He’s real patient with me about technical stuff and uses lots of funny words.  He’d be a whiz at crossword puzzles, but I wouldn’t trust him at Scrabble.  For all I know he makes words up, such as “fibroblast.”  Now who would know that one?

No matter how much these precious chimps cost – I mean almost a thousand dollars apiece – they still stink and still throw their poop.  Gross.

As you might expect, Dr. Hedges is an extremely busy man.  If he doesn’t get his research done and the results published, his grant money goes down the drain.  So I have to protect him.  Especially from his wife.

She calls all the time.  Once she phoned from Bloomingdales and had to know if Dr. Hedges preferred herringbone or tweed sport jackets.  Now how would a man who spends his life with monkeys know the difference between herringbone and tweed?  And at least twice a week she calls and gives me a grocery list for Markettime where Hedges has to stop on his way home.  And last January she called all hysterical about a sick squirrel in the yard.  Asked if she could bring it in the house.  Then yesterday she’s panicked because the hot water tank sprung a leak and water is following all over the laundry room floor.

“Dennis must come home right away!” she says.

“Well, he isn’t here just now,” I lie.

“What do you mean, he’s not there?  He’s always sitting in that cubbyhole.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Hedges, he has an emergency with the primates.  One of them wedged himself between the cage and the wall.  He can’t afford to lose one, you know.”

“Look, Ms. Kelly” (she always calls me Ms. Kelly although everyone else calls me Colleen); “I need him to come home right now.”

“Why not call the gas company?”

“I don’t really think this is your problem.”

“Anything that concerns Dr. Hedges is my problem.  I’ll tell you what; let me phone the gas company for you.”

“Look, Dennis handles these things.”

“I know, I know, Mrs. Hedges, but he’s not here just now.  I can take care of it for you in no time.  Don’t you worry about a thing.”

In the meantime Dr. Hedges is coming out of the lab.  As he walks in, he stops at my desk like he wants to know who I’m talking to.  I shake my head and hunch over the phone as though the call were real personal.  Now I’m lying to my boss.  And he believes me.

Then he waddles into his office carrying his lunch (usually two carrots and low-fat cottage cheese) in a wrinkled brown bag.  He’s got to eat more than this.  He could eat with the monkeys for all I know.

Meanwhile I quickly get off the phone with Mrs. H. and call the gas company and say it’s an emergency.  They promise they’ll be out in an hour.  I just had to tell a tiny lie this time; although sometimes I can really get going.

But today I’m typing his latest paper about primates on high cholesterol diets developing heart disease.  I start to wonder if they get patty melts and fries.  Then I hear a little tapping at the door and watch it open just a crack.  Then a cane pokes through the little opening and the door opens wide.  In walks the leading Japanese scientist on atherosclerosis!  I recognize him from pictures in heart-disease journals.

I almost say, “Dr. Yamashima!  You’re not supposed to be here for a month.  We’ve been planning your visit for a year and you show up a month early!  We were going to clean up the lab and get all the poop out so the monkeys wouldn’t be throwing it while you’re here.”

Instead I say, “Dr. Yamashima . . . how delightful to see you!  Apparently you didn’t get our letter asking you to come in July.”  Then I start to panic, thinking I wrote June rather than July.  So I go into the lying mode right away.

“Oh, sir,” I say, “Dr. Hedges will be delighted to see you.  I’ll just tell him you’re here.”

Yamashima bows, I bow.  Then I go into Dr. H’s office even though I know he’s gone on what he calls his “break.”  Two hours out of every day Dennis (he lets me call him Dennis when no one’s around) leaves the office.  One time he said he jogs around the block.  But, of course, he was lying.  I mean, with his lard bottom and jelly belly, regular moderate exercise is simply not a possibility.  But the oddest part is that when I do call him on his pager he comes back to the office within five minutes.  I can call him 10 minutes after he leaves, or one hour after he leaves and he always gets back to the office in five minutes.  Some jogging.

So, I go back to my desk and page Dennis immediately.  Five minutes go by.  I try to humor Dr. Yamashima by saying that Dr. Hedges will be so happy to see him.  Dr. Y. just sits there, smiles and taps gently with his cane.  I’m beginning to think he doesn’t understand English.  I try asking if he wants some tea.  He says, “No thank you” in pretty good English and bows.  I bow back.  Fifteen more minutes go by.  Dennis must be jogging!  Yamashima keeps bowing while I talk, but I know the guy either doesn’t speak very good English or knows I’m always lying.  But he sits there tapping his shiny black cane, all the while smiling.  I’m getting sick of this little man, tapping his cane and either smiling or bowing or both.  His gray hair in slicked back with sticky goo.  He looks old and wrinkled.  I notice his shoes; they have three-inch platforms!  Pathetic.  Wish he’d wipe that frozen smile off his face.  And that hairy mole between his eyebrows is sickening.  Why doesn’t he have it removed?  Instead, I ask him again if he wants tea.  He says, “No thank you” again in pretty good English.

By now I’m panicked.  For seven years, I have never had a problem with Dennis coming back when I dial his pager number.  Maybe I’m dialing the wrong number.  I look it up twice.  I dial it twice.  I start thinking awful things.  Like he collapsed or croaked.

Finally the phone rings.  It’s Mrs. Hedges looking for her husband.  This time I tell the truth.  “He’s not here and I don’t know where he is.  Do you, Mrs. Hedges?”

“I have no idea.  All I know is I have to talk to him right now.”

“About what?”

“Listen, Ms. Kelly, I need to talk to my husband now!”

“You could if he were here, but unfortunately he isn’t.”

“Oh, why are you so antagonistic?”

“Me, antagonistic?  I’m only trying to help.”

“Oh, just tell him that he’s taken the garage door opener.  I need to get to an appointment before two o’clock.”

“Mrs. Hedges, calm down.  He’ll be here in a second.  I’ll have him call you right away.  I better get off the line in case he calls.  Bye.”

She probably thinks I’m just a dorky secretary.  That’s what most people think secretaries are.  Dumbbells.  After all, I went to college – even if it was 25 years ago.  Back then they called it business school and my favorite subject was math.  Hedges thinks math is changing numbers to correspond with his research results.  Everybody around here does.  Words get to be games, too.  Like Mrs. Hedges.  She just wants attention so she gets wordy on the phone about some crisis or another.  Either it’s herringbone or tweed jackets from Bloomingdales or the hot water tank bursts or a sick squirrel wants in the house.  And now the garage door opener.  Probably she’s got an appointment with the beauty parlor to have some fancy bird’s nest perched on her head.  She’s the one who’s really dumb, if you ask me.  And Dr. Hedges doesn’t care about this Yamashima guy; he just wants to know his secrets.  So they play word games to learn each other’s methods.

In the meantime, this famous heart scientist is still sitting and tapping his cane on the floor by my desk.

I’m smiling.  He’s smiling.  He’s bowing.  I’m bowing.

“You see, Dr. Yamashima, Dr. Hedges jogs every day somewhere between 10 and 12.  He can usually be reached by pager, but he must not have it with him today.”

Then I get this brilliant idea.

“Would you care to look at our primate lab?”  Now Dr. Y.’s really smiling, bowing and tapping like he’s gonna get up and do a soft shoe with those platform heels.  We go through Dennis’s office to the primate center.  You always know the monkeys are there because they scream.  But Yamashima doesn’t seem to notice and keeps tapping his cane while he walks.  I unlock the door to the primate center.  Everything looks as it should.  The monkeys are screeching; the ceiling fans are whirling.  But I’m afraid Dr. Y. might be hit by a monkey muck-slinging from the cages.  Yamashima stops at the front door to copy some figures from the blackboard.  I’m looking everywhere for someone.  I know someone’s here.  I think I hear talking.  Might even be Hedges.

But the Japanese scientist is so fascinated by the data on the front board that he barely looks up from his note-taking.  He seems to have forgotten about the primates.  Probably Hedges, too.  So I slowly start walking up and down the aisles between cages.  The smell is getting to me.  But Dr. Y. doesn’t seem to notice anything but what he’s writing down.

Just then, I see way back in the corner a large table with a Scrabble game on it.  There sits Dennis, his lab technician and three monkeys eating cheeseburgers and French fries and playing Scrabble!  One of the monkeys goes to make a word.  “Unbelievable!” says Hedges, “I’ll never call you a stupid monkey again.  In fact, it’s a triple word score!”  Meanwhile, Dr. Y. is still at the front blackboard.  Dr. Hedges starts to look my way.  He sees me!

I can hardly believe what’s happening.  Dennis gets up from the table.  He spots Yamashima, ignores me and walks right up to the blackboard.  Dr. Y. turns around and begins all that bowing stuff.  But they end up shaking hands and walking back towards the table.  I stand there staring at the largest monkey playing with the pager.  I turn to walk out and guess who comes flying through the door?  Mrs. Hedges!

She’s walking straight toward Hedges and Yamashima.  Her hair looks like it needs something, a perm maybe.  And she’s wearing a white fur jacket in the middle of June.  No sense, no sense at all.

“Dennis!” she says real loud while she’s still walking.  “I had to take a cab here.  Now please give me the garage door opener.”  She stops in her tracks when she reaches the table.  “Dennis!  You’ve been playing Scrabble with the monkeys!  So this is what you call working!  I come all the way here and you’re busy playing with monkeys.”

Dennis gets this stupid grin on his face.  He stammers and then introduces his wife to Yamashima.  “He’s a very famous man in heart disease research.” Hedges explains to her in a funny affected voice.

Instantly she smiles.  “A sincere pleasure, Dr. Yamashima,” she says, offering  her gloved hand.  “I’m absolutely delighted to meet you.”

Then she glares at Dennis who quietly slips her the garage door opener.  She rushes out.

Dennis turns to Yamashima.  “Come on over and join us at the table.  I’ll have Colleen call out and order another burger and fries.  Anything to drink?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to intrude,” says Dr. Y.

“Not at all.  Not at all.  We’re delighted.”

“Colleen?” he yells.

“Yes, Dr. Hedges?” I say, as if I don’t know what’s coming.

“Please call out and order a double burger, fries and chocolate malt for our guest.  And get a couple more patty melts for the monkeys.”

“Okay, Dr. Hedges.  In just a moment.”  And I think to myself, great, I’ll be sure to tell them who the patty melts are for.  Like they’d believe me.  Or anyone else, for that matter.