Nikki listens to diminutive Morris lecture on gender and the sales environment. She listens to his voice more than his words, how it resonates, bassy and vibrant, a learned voice, with tones and inflections that remind her of movies from the forties: shimmering gowns and orchestrated ballads. Yesterday the voice asked, "Why don't you come to lunch with me?" She refused, but Morris persisted. "Tomorrow," he said, and last night in the spacious bed of her hotel room, she dreamed him there.
"Sex matters when it comes to sales," Morris' voice booms.
Nikki cannot imagine how Morris could have such a grand, soothing voice and be such a dwarf of a man. His face is shadowed with stubble, his eyebrows as black as tar: Fred Flintstone in a three piece.
"Women, for example, have the better talent for creating situational role plays," he says, his brown eyes fixed on Nikki, which she acknowledges, resisting the urge to drop her gaze. She imagines how he sees her: trim and smart with greenish-blue eyes below brown bangs, a slightly crooked nose. She nods in agreement and feels the broken blood vessel in her right cheek begin to burn. It doesn't hurt, this vessel, but when she is upset or excited, it causes a small red dot, the circumference of a pencil, to appear on the ball of her cheek.
"I think it's the woman's creative disposition," Morris says. The line of his large mouth loops into a smile. "On the other hand"—he speaks with the emphasis of a lawyer pleading his case—"I believe men make the most convincing sales people."
Among the women there is eye rolling, sarcastic groans. Earlier, in the restroom, one of them sounded the warning: "He's a toad." "Not even," another said. "A tadpole with feet." And Nikki laughed with them. Like high school, she thought, the feeling that she was about to be caught.
"No, it's true," Morris defends. "Whether you like it or not, ladies, with the proper training a man can muster the trusting-father image for anyone. Especially over the phone and especially to women." He pulls back his brown coat, clamps his hands on his hips, and looks out the windows. Early spring, a northeaster has begun to blow. The tops of pines rock, syncopated, floating as if detached from the ground. Nikki likes the effect of the stormy day, the half darkness, how it gives credence to some greater force. "We all have our father images," Morris says in afterthought.
For Nikki, it's Jules Head, her biology-teacher step-dad, who once accused her of trying to kill him with an un-sanitized fork. "Micro-organisms thrive on surfaces just like this. What were you thinking?" She had wanted to say, Death by micro-organisms would be better than listening to you, Mr. Head. But she didn't. Instead, she rewashed the fork, the shirt, her homework, the boy she thought she was in love with.
"Nikki. Are you daydreaming?"
"No," she says to Morris, who stands on tiptoes trying to reach the string connected to the projector screen. He pulls the screen down, straightens his coat, and walks to the overhead projector. "Here are two examples of situational role plays," he explains. "Imagine your telephone sales reps encountering these types of customers."
Role Play 1
Mr. Johnson has just finished cleaning the oven. Covered in grime and sweat, he goes to wash his hands, but the phone rings, and he has no choice but to answer it. Angrily, he says, "Hello!"
Role Play 2
Mrs. Mackleberry is late for an appointment. On her desk are queries from 14 of your competitors. She has a bottle of Mylanta in her desk drawer, a seventh cup of coffee in her hand, and a sinus headache pressing into her eyes. The phone rings.
"Notice the anti-sexist characterizations." Morris is beaming. He instructs them to write their own role plays, and Nikki, ready to please, picks up her pen and begins.
Role Play 1
Ms. Jones is preparing a wonderful dinner for her new boyfriend. The house is dark and quiet. On the table are freshly lighted lavender candles and an open bottle of red wine set between two long-stemmed wine glasses. She sits peacefully and waits for her guest to arrive. The night is young. She is hopeful. But when the phone rings, it is like glass rods shattering.
Role Play 2
Mrs. Smith fixes hot dogs for dinner. When Mr. Smith comes home, he sinks into the couch and watches a re-run of The Simpsons. Catching her reflection in the microwave door, she imagines she is the kind of woman who would be on Dr. Phil, under her name the caption Married Too Young. When the phone rings, she is both frightened and delighted.
Morris asks for a few examples read aloud. When he comes to Nikki, she quietly refuses.
"How did you ever make it in sales?" Morris teases.
"You don't have to look at people on the phone," Nikki says.
"I'll get you later," he scolds.
Nikki smiles and covers her hands, folding them into each other, hiding them, as if she is folding into herself. She works her wedding band, around and around, and wonders, Why me? He has favored her since he laid eyes on her, calling her name in the full girth of his voice, his hands held out, opening like sturdy flowers, grainy and passionate, groping the air.
"What brought you here?" someone asked yesterday, and Nikki's mind flipped through a Rolodex of possible responses: a Boeing 737, a corporate push for a more creative sales environment, a need to sit alone in a room without someone demanding she find the duct tape or stapler or the TV remote . Each answer, she knew, was only partially true.
When the class is over and Nikki gathers her notebook, she finds herself wishing she had an important call to make or urgent work to rush off to, but she has none. She stands beside her desk and stares at a paperclip on the floor. The building smells of copy machines, new carpet, and finer things, things she cannot see or understand—electricity, silica, the reason she waits for Morris.
"Role playing is applicable in virtually every situation," Morris expounds in an immaculate voice. A small circle of serious faces, mostly men, nod in unison. When everyone has left, everyone except Nikki, he turns to her and says, "You're coming, Nikki? Wonderful. Wonderful!"
She covers her cheek with her hand.
In the elevator Nikki notices Morris is nearly a full head shorter than her. His arms are long, his face dark: a Mediterranean Neanderthal. Morris goes on and on about the theater. He wants to act full time, he says, but once again Nikki is not listening to his words. She imagines his voice narrating a dramatic moment in her life, something breathtaking, like the elevator breaking free and dropping through the shaft: "The two strangers were found crushed, one on top of the other."
In the lobby Morris opens the door for her, and they walk out into the cool dampness. She sees one of the girls from inbound sales. Nikki shrugs to the girl as if to say, How did I get into this? And the girl shakes her head, as if to say, Gook luck with that. Helpless, Nikki focuses on the sidewalk: weeds crannied between seams, faint indentations of footprints, a date, 03/12/94. Morris asks her if she has a rental car, and Nikki says yes.
He takes her arm, his fingers wrapped like a bracelet above her elbow. She wonders what it looks like, her with Morris. What the girl from work sees. A teacher's pet? A snob? A social cripple? When she was promoted to Outbound Sales Training Manager, she knew people questioned why. She had wondered herself. But her boss said she was dependable, which Nikki believed. So she moved into her private cubicle, with her training certificates, her AA diploma, her cupids—embroidered cupids, stuffed cupids, cupid pictures, cupid plaques—gifts that have morphed into an annoying theme of her life. Once she overheard someone outside her cubicle whisper, "Tel-Tech's own Cupid the Stupid."
"Is this your car?" Morris asks. The rental—an orange Ford Focus filled with the faint scent of smokers and pine freshener—suddenly looks to Nikki like a getaway car, and from somewhere deep inside her comes the word No, a monotonous chant of Nos, until she stops, dead weight, and folds her arms into her chest.
"Morris," she says, looking down, past his face, to the cluster of tiny holes in his wingtips. "I don't—I don't think it's a good idea."
"Oh, Nikki." His voice is musical, a fatherly baritone, a furry bear. "What's the matter?"
"I just don't think it's a good idea."
"Well. All right. I trust your judgment." He slides his hands into his pockets and his pants balloon out. The rattle of keys and change come, and Nikki thinks of dogs on leashes. "Tenacity," Morris says. "Do you know what that word means, Nikki?"
"Yes," she says, but her look is blank. There are other words she cannot quite remember the meanings of: auspicious, impetuous, formidable.
"Tenacity. Being tenacious. I define it as having what it takes to get what you want. In our world tenacity is a must. You have to possess it. Do you have the tenacity it takes to be a professional, Nikki? That's the question you need to ask yourself."
The question is important to her, one she must give thought to. "I do fine," she finally says. She sets her lips straight and begins a row of thoughtful blinks. She looks like a woman with authority—dress slacks and jacket, red scarf, a team player. Why then does she sometimes wonder how she functions at all?
"Well, then, what do you say? You and me? We're professionals, aren't we?"
"Of course we are. So why can't two professionals talk and enjoy each other's company over lunch? Give me one good reason."
Nikki tilts her head back and takes in the brooding clouds, the answer to his question beyond her grasp.
"Okay," she concedes, and she removes the car key from her purse and pushes the button that unlocks the doors.
The roads are wet and crowded as she heads for the main highway. Morris is talking jazz festivals, how he once had drinks with The Manhattan Transfer. "You know Alan can harmonize with a horse, but when it comes to booze he's such an ass." She sees a line of fast-food restaurants, but decides on the Omni Hotel.
"Nikki, are you trying to tell me something?" Morris says as she turns into the hotel parking lot.
"There's a restaurant inside, Morris. Some of us ate here last night."
He pulls his handkerchief out and wipes his forehead like a nervous fat man. He is acting, she knows, and she laughs.
"Ah, ha!" he shouts, his voice as warm and pleasant as pipe smoke. "And I was beginning to think you didn't like me."
In the restaurant he is all head and shoulders at the table. The chair swallows him, but the way he carries himself demands attention. "Please, trust me. Let me order for you." The waiter brings a bottle of Verdilac and salads. The restaurant is dimly lit and half empty. There are potted plants tucked in unused spaces, yellow flowers and a candle at each table. Beside them, through the glass-enclosed atrium, the gray sky looms.
Morris starts into the salad immediately, cutting the lettuce and tomatoes. The knuckles on his hands are oversized and crude like a puppet's, his fingers as hairy as eyebrows. Looking up at her, he bites into a slice of cucumber. "Tell me," he says, chewing impatiently until the food clears his mouth. "Tell me about yourself. What do you want to do with your life?"
"What kind of question is that?"
"An honest one."
"Well, I have goals." She forks through her salad, tossing the leaves as if culling wheat. Last Sunday at the First Presbyterian Church, she sat in the last pew closest to the side door and awaited direction. Rise. Sit. Rise. Sit. The preacher spoke of free will and then told everyone to hug a neighbor, which Nikki did, a man in his thirties who smelled of shaving cream and goodness. He hugged her so softly, so warmly, so completely, that she realized her life was meaningless. "Okay. I don't have a clue what I want. How's that for honesty?"
"Fine. Fine." He reached for his wine. "You've only had one sip, Nikki."
"My boss likes it if I stay sober while I work."
"This isn't work. Haven't you figured that out yet? Relax."
"Why do you think I need relaxing?"
"Just drink, Nikki. Where are you from?"
"Were you born there?"
"I was born in Alabama."
"Don't tell me you're a farm girl. What did your father do?"
"He was a teacher. What did your father do?"
"He was a professional bastard." Morris laughs and throws his hands up.
"What do you like to do, other than act and listen to jazz?"
His jaw works fiercely. He leans back in his chair, looks out over the restaurant, then wipes his mouth with his folded napkin. "I like to hunt deer," he says, cutting his eyes to hers. She sips her wine to break his stare. "I hunt with a bow in the north Georgia mountains. It's wonderful there. It's nature. Pure nature. Animals. Land. Have you ever hunted, Nikki?"
"No. I don't like violence."
"Of course you don't." He laughs, reaches across the table, and grips her hand. He squeezes it repeatedly, digging his thumb into the back of her palm. "Nikki," he says.
"Do you have a girlfriend, Morris?" She removes her hand from his and reaches for her wine.
"Nothing serious. I did have a girl, though. A wife, actually. But we split up. She couldn't stand me." He is silent for a few seconds, a thoughtful stare. "She said I was cruel. I guess I was." He laughs.
"You were cruel?"
She brings the wine glass to her lips. On her hand is the faint scent of English Leather.
"Did you hit her?" Nikki asks. She surprises herself with the question. But Morris, it seems, is even more caught off guard. She watches his reaction. His oily forehead wrinkles and his thick eyebrows wedge into one. "You can tell me," she says dryly.
He laughs, eyes to the table. "Why's that? Why can I tell you?" He's just a boy, she thinks.
"Because it's all right if you want to." She watches as he places the tips of his fingers to his lips, touching them lightly, hesitating. Finally, his face opens into a smile, all teeth and eyebrows.
"I've misjudged you, Nikki. You are a tenacious little thing. And beautiful. Beautiful indeed."
To his compliment she says, "Thank you," and Morris ceremoniously lifts his glass for a toast. He is a toad, but a toad that makes her feel sure of herself, her hands graceful, her body warm and welcoming. All around them is laughter, music, the sound of glass and silverware.
They eat, but mostly they drink. Nikki does not hide her face. Who is there to see her anyway? Travel is like a dark room, no shame is required, no self-examination necessary. She can no longer imagine how she arrived in this chair, across from this tiny man. All she remembers is a lightness of being, of destinations and exchanges, the flimsy flight through unstable air.
Morris provides a series of trite toasts. To ships passing, to new acquaintances, to the frankness of strangers. They drink in unison. Waiters walk by. She is laughing, hysterical, unsure why, and Morris is telling her that this is his hotel, the one the company set him up in. "I thought you knew."
"Really?" She giggles, her lips are numb. In her mind she writes a role play:
Mrs. Smith leaves work early with Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones, the toad, makes a pass at Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith goes to bed with Mr. Jones and turns into a princess. Mr. Jones remains a frog. The phone rings.
"Why don't we play hooky and get another bottle to go," Morris suggests.
"Oh, my," she says, taking the edge of her index finger to her teeth. She has had offers before and always there was a trembling, a feathery recognition, a voice that said, This is it, as though she were ready to leap to her death. And now an offer from Morris, the dwarf with the beautiful voice.
She looks into the atrium. Beads of rain hang on the leaves of plants. Did she know this was his hotel? She catches her reflection in the glass wall that surrounds the inner garden. Her face is mixed with the wet greenery: elephant ears, peace lilies, crooked nose. "You know I'm not presenting anymore today," Morris is saying, and in the glass she can no longer separate herself from the rainy world outside. She feels hollow and dizzy; the sweet-pasty scent of cheap cologne at the pit of her stomach.
Morris' fingers snap violently at the waiter.
"Would you please have a bottle of wine and two fresh glasses delivered to 539."
"Would you like another Verdilac, sir?" the waiter asks.
Morris turns to Nikki. He raises a single eyebrow and she knows he has no shame. He speaks in a dramatic voice: "'Now . . . for the love of Love, and her soft hours."
Nikki's eyes water from what she imagines is embarrassment.
The waiter grins as if he is part of a prank: a Candid Camera segment about to be unveiled.
"Shakespeare," Morris proclams, and then to the waiter, "Verdilac is fine."
"I was in a play once," Nikki says. "In the fourth grade. I was a snowman. It was called A Christmas Without Santa. I didn't have any lines, but I knew the dance steps, so I danced behind a cardboard cut-out of a snowman without saying a word. I wanted a speaking part."
"You can have a speaking part now, if you like."
All around the room table candles flicker like stars.
When Morris speaks her name, "Nikki," she is sure he says it in a European accent. "To my room?"
"Your room?" Her eyes are fixed on her plate. She feels guilty about the food she has left.
"You can do it," Morris assures her.
She tries to see who is in the restaurant, if she knows anyone, the girl from work. "I suppose," she hears herself say.
They are walking through the restaurant, Morris' hand grips the back of her elbow. She feels his fingers against the bone of her arm as he maneuvers her through the tables. She stops occasionally to look at the people closest to her. "Come on, dear," Morris says. The restaurant is full now, people are talking loudly. Nikki stops, then starts. She steadies herself on the backs of chairs, stumbles once. Her legs, it seems, are driven by a volition other than her own. Her shoe comes off and Morris hands it to her. She walks a few steps, seeing but not seeing the faces at the table, then fits the shoe onto her foot.
In the elevator, her back is against the wall. The door closes and she tells Morris he reminds her of someone.
"An actor?" he says. By his smile she knows he has chosen who he wants to be.
"I can't quite—"
Morris traces the outline of her cheek with a fingertip, and her face suddenly begins to burn.
"Have you always blushed so easily?"
She remembers the night after the church service with the stranger's hug. In bed, she told her husband, "I love you," which he interpreted as an invitation, a hand dispatched to her crotch. She rolled over, and an hour later she stood in the bright light of the kitchen, her face stinging from the same hand.
"No," she says, imagining the spot on her cheek.
The elevator surges upward, rising through the shaft. She listens as it moves through the beams and walls of the building. She imagines gears and cables, electrical wires, insulation, the hollowness of the shaft they float in. She tries to picture the mechanism that compels them, but finds it impossible to hold all the pieces in her mind. Cables, counterweights, pulleys? A matter of physics and fate. Why can't she remember what the preacher said about free will? Why can't she remember the preacher's name? Morris stares at the metal doors. He taps his foot, shoots her a look, grins. Finally, gravity pulls at her stomach, a rush of blood washes through her head, and everything—the forward motion of her life—halts to a stop. The door opens, the bell rings, and Morris, standing in the hallway, door key in hand, his voice filled with imminent passion, says, "This is it."