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Poison Pill
by Linda Boroff


It wasn’t her I noticed that first time, it was the car. Shockingly red, it flashed in the corner of my eye like a spurt of blood as it pulled into the parking lot outside my office. A Porsche. Almost before it had spun to a stop, the driver’s side door flew open and legs emerged: long, slender, tanned. Naked.

Oh hell, I thought.

My rigid posture and rapt, tracking stare must have alerted Brian the proofreader, my office mate. He flattened himself across his desk and leaned against me as if I were a wall to peer out my window.

“Oh, it’s just Alexis,” he said, with a hint of tremor. We watched as a gleaming white tennis dress floated out, followed by a burst of varicolored blonde hair that the best salons almost succeed in emulating. A slender arm swept aside the mane, to reveal a straight nose, full lips barely parted.

“That’s a ‘just’?”

“Ted’s daughter. Age 23. Stanford, Pebble Beach, dressage, world at her feet.” I watched Alexis glide down the Petunia-bedecked entranceway with an odd and queasy sense of audience, a growing suspicion that the movie running was not the one I had bought a ticket for.

“Fuck me.”

“She works here every summer,” Brian said. “as an editorial coordinator.”

“What in the hell is an editorial coordinator?” He shrugged.

“Whatever she wants it to be, I guess. Ted is a doting father.”

“As are many tyrants.”

Alexis passed my window, and our eyes met briefly—mine brown, sunken and smudged beneath after a night out from which I had barely returned in time for work; hers as fresh and blue and white as the Carmel winter sky. To my surprise, she dropped her black-lashed gaze, then peeked up shyly. A tentative smile wavered on the rosy lips, crashed against my stolid, envious gawk, and fled.

Ted Braddock was a self-made millionaire turned publisher, a choleric perfectionist who dominated our waking and sleeping hours, which he insisted were essentially the same state. Ted was convinced that his dream of creating a global publishing empire was foundering on the incompetence and laziness of his workforce. His monthly magazine, The Business Express, advertised itself as “a finger on the pulse of commerce.” It was actually a boilerroom hell whose employee turnover nearly matched its subscription base.

To me, the reason for Ted’s frustration was simple: He was living in modern-day California, when he really belonged in 14th century Florence, where he could have indulged his rages and inspirations appropriately through war, vendetta and artistic excess. His wife, Lillian (whom we nicknamed Librium) worked part time, staggering under some massive title like Executive Vice President of Operations. She had the bland coloring of a creature whose defense is unobtrusiveness. Somehow, her nondescript features had tamed Ted’s blazing blue eyes and powerful bones to produce the balanced elegance of Alexis.

“What am I running here, a remedial class for Neanderthals?” It was our weekly editorial staff meeting. Ted hurled the galleys onto the table, and we drew back snarling, a tribe of paleolithic untermenschen, skulking, deceitful, brutal and dull. As usual, the magazine was behind schedule. This was because Ted was simply never satisfied with anything. The articles were written and rewritten until words became only symbols in an arcane code that had to be perfectly sequenced to unlock the secret of Ted’s approval. After a few weeks, I began to doubt that I could read or write at all. I was also learning that the English language, manipulated beyond endurance, can run amok like a genetic experiment and produce linguistic monstrosities.

“He’s obsessive-compulsive,” Brian said blandly. “like that lady who built the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. She was afraid that if she ever completed the thing, she would die. I think Ted worries that if he ever just signs off an issue and we go to press on time, something terrible will happen: ‘How the erection of Bush changed the American business landscape.” And he’ll be a laughingstock and lose everything.”

“How can you bear him?”

“How could I bear this job without him?” I glanced at the article Brian was proofreading: “Thirty Seconds Over Oakland:” The boldfaced lead-in read: “Suddenly, a flame from our number one engine illuminated the whole fiscal year.”

“Those are the sane ones,” Brian had remarked as we watched one new hire simply gather his belongings and depart after an hour. “You’ve got to have something wrong with you to stay here.”

In fact, most of us did have some shameful or pitiable reason for enduring Ted’s invective. For some, it was massive credit-card debt; for others, a strict Catholic upbringing or the misguided sense of duty of the Light Brigade. There were, of course, the ubiquitous sycophants who would have flourished under Stalin or Idi Amin, and some, like Brian, that I mentally termed euglenas. These were easily moved around and changed shape when prodded, but a tough outer membrane usually preserved the creature intact.

I hung on because my husband had recently left me, and I was verging on a nervous breakdown. I could not even consider the ordeal of interviewing. My hands shook and I stared at thin air in a stupor of conquering or suffering hero fantasy.

Early in life, I realized that our merciful lack of precognition exacts its price on the other end in shock. In retrospect, of course, we can revisit any scenario and see the killer lurking plain as day. The car veering from its lane. The metal fatigue and stress fractures on the doomed jumbo jet. The genetic predisposition. the obsessive preoccupations, the gauge slightly off, the gaze awry. The tremor, the trigger, the shadow in the corner. The leopard in the sedge.

Cliff had come home early that afternoon. He popped a beer and sat on the couch facing me, as if ready to propose a plea bargain.

“Roberta, there’s no easy way to say this. I’m involved with someone.” The wideset, gray-blue eyes narrowed to assess my response, as they would the head tilt or averted gaze of an uncommitted juror. Even confessing this duplicity, Cliff still looked as if he represented truth and justice. And in a way he did. I, a woman whose high school nickname had been Ferd the Nerd had somehow been allowed to marry a football captain and student body president. These cosmic illegalities, if not set right, can fracture the fundamental architecture of the universe and bring the whole mechanism careening back to its primordial soup.

The following scene has taken place so often in the history of man that I believe it is neurologically scripted into our collective unconscious. I knew what to say next for the same reason that I knew how to point or throw a rock

“Who is she?”

“You don’t know her.”

“How long?”

“That’s not important.”

“Does this mean you’re leaving me?” He sighed and shook his head.

“I don’t know.” He rose and left the room, shoulders bowed with the responsibility of recalibrating the universe. “Probably,” he called out from the safety of the kitchen. I heard him take another beer from the refrigerator, although at that point I would not have been surprised to see him reenter with a gun or come back as Dracula. All rules of probability seemed to be suspended.

Cliff moved out that night, and my life soon became regulated by legal precedent. I had “fallen into the system,” as he used to say of first-time offenders. What that really means is that you always have the power to make things worse.

I soon became an object of compassionate gossip at work, radiating marital failure the way Renaissance madonnas radiate holiness. My situation was actually an ice-breaker, like the cast I had worn on my leg one summer in high school: painful but a little comical, inspiring of commiseration. Just as strangers had impulsively shared their own broken limb stories on seeing mine, I now became a repository for the shattered love lives and abandonment fears of chance restroom acquaintances.

"I have a confession to make," Brian blurted, early one afternoon. "I'd give ten years of my life for one ride in her Porsche." Aha, I thought, so this explained his long silences; oddly partisan defenses and elaborately averted gaze when she passed. He and I were lunching in the courtyard behind the magazine offices, surrounded by bougainvillea, rose bushes, azaleas, begonias. I always thought of Graham Greene novels when I came out here, the dictatorial menace suffused in lush, exotic foliage. Across from us, Alexis chatted with our editor in chief, a large-eyed young man with the face of a Byzantine mosaic, whom we had nicknamed Saint Will for his patience; a rare employee able to get along with Ted.

I looked at Brian as if for the first time: dark, intelligent eyes, fragile thinning hairline, a disillusioned mouth whose very slackness held sensual promise. He was of medium height, with a slight but not weak build. Alexis could do worse, I thought.

“Go for it, Brian,” I said, feeling like an old DeSoto with four flat whitewalls. What good was it? Even though I was tall, not too heavy in the thighs, and sported a skillfully reconfigured nose, I remained the Eve Arden/Paula Prentiss type of galfriend, the perennial confidante. Lovable, leavable. I understood how Dorothy Parker could reduce her own suicidal anguish to ditty.

Alexis kept herself apart from her father’s employees, and I assumed that she had the good taste to be embarrassed by him. Sometimes, I noticed her hanging out with our new managing editor Thea, a young, thin, lizardly woman of flat, flaxen hair and bad skin.
Thea had that habit of unctuousness toward superiors and offhand cruelty to those beneath her that might portend success here. But the fact that Alexis spent time with her might be evidence of loneliness. I mentioned this to Brian, who hung on my words as if I spoke in the tongues of the forefathers.

“I’m nobody to Thea.” He frowned, calculating his chances at joining her inner circle. “I’m a stage prop.”

“I wish I could say the same,” I replied. At the board meeting that morning, Thea’s sweeping gaze had lingered on me a fraction of a second too long. “I’m history.”

“Don’t be silly. Who’d do your job?”

“Alexis, of course. She’s too smart to just hang around adorning the place. I’ll bet she thinks she could get the copy past her father on schedule and rescue the magazine.”

“If anybody could, she could.” Brian said, fatuous as a sitcom swain.

“Maybe you’ll even get to share an office with her after I’m gone,” I said nastily.

“You think so?”

“Fuck you, Brian.”

That evening, I was to interview the concierge of a Cannery Row luxury hotel. Commercialized and defiled as she is, Cannery Row still recalls for me an era when it was honorable to be a disillusioned failed writer and hard drinker; to have bitter memories and self-inflicted wounds. Still, I couldn’t help envying the lovers on the hotel balcony overlooking the water, for whom Cannery Row was a place to sip wine, shiver in the dark wind, and awaken together to the cries of gulls.

I stood beside the concierge in the lobby of Italian marble and Brazilian teakwood, gazing out onto the ocean. The fog had cleared to make way for an impressive brass-and-coral sunset now fading into pale magentas. Panoramic windows spanned the beach, and beneath us, wavelets rolled in all the way from Asia just to charm the guests. Out toward Seaside and Del Rey Oaks, jeweled lights followed the curving black void of the Bay. Here and there, the skeletal remains of defunct sardine canneries, preserved as quaint nostalgia, jutted disturbingly into view.

A small group approached, and I recognized with a start Ted and Lillian and Alexis. They were with another family, talking and laughing. I quickly melted behind a pillar; I had no standing to be greeted by them, nor did I wish for them to have to snub me.

“You know these people?” asked the Italian concierge.

“My boss. And his family.”

“This is a coincidence,” the concierge said. “This too is my boss and his family. The owners, the Rinieris.” We watched them seat themselves by the window. Drinks arrived. “The girl is very beautiful,’ said the concierge. Alexis wore a clinging black dress that fell to just below her knees, the neckline cut like a diamond. She wore no jewelry, nor did she need any.

“My boss’s daughter.” It was a few moments before I noticed the young man beside Alexis. He was handsome in a precise-featured way, with dark hair that kept falling over one eye and slender hands that drummed and roamed over the tabletop as if impatient with visibility. Alexis stole a glance at this boy, but he seemed preoccupied with something beyond the horizon. My heart sank for Brian.

“Who’s that?” I asked, and the concierge knew who I meant. He looked at me and shook his head slightly.

“The younger son, Peter.” An understanding passed between us that we would say nothing more about the families.

Since only those in the direst financial need would work for Ted, our office parking lot was the scene of frequent vehicle repossessions. Which is what I assumed was happening the next morning when I heard shouting behind me in the lot as I got out. “That bastard bastard bastard.” I peered discreetly over a couple of cars and to my shock saw Alexis standing behind her Porsche in impossibly white pants and a red tank top. She stomped her foot in its flat red dance slipper. Her long fingers with their unpolished nails covered her face. When she removed them, she was looking at me.

“I’m sorry,” I said stupidly.

“What am I supposed to do now?” She shouted.

“You could always quit,” I said uncertainly, and at her blank look, I realized that she was not referring to her father, but to some other man.

“You think my father is a bastard.” She laughed.

“Are you okay?”

“No.” She stomped her foot again. “Why are they like that? Men?”

“Oldest question in any language.”

“With some bimbo he met at Doc Ricketts’ lounge.” The stupefying unfairness of existence suddenly crashed upon me; the ceaseless march of outrage; every caterpillar infested with its Ichneumon larva; every abandoned infant; every stock swindle, every sneak attack.

“Join the betrayal club, I’m president.” She looked at me with sudden recognition.

“You’re the one whose husband left her. The district attorney.” I have never been able to resist making people feel better at my own expense.

“I am the said rejectee.” She suddenly dropped her purse and hugged me, and I glimpsed an artifact of the spirited, gawky child who must have been tamed and channeled early in life.

“Your ex …. didn’t he just try that murder case …?”

“Brennie Harlowe,” I said. “who strangled his girlfriend and stuffed…”

She shuddered. “We were worried the guy might get off.”

“Not a chance. That was one of Cliff’s easier cases.”

“He’s very attractive, your ex,” she said. “Of course what he did to you was terrible.” An idea suddenly took root in my mind and instantly sprouted, sending its devious tendrils spiraling like a evil beanstalk.

“Would you like to meet him?” Alexis threw her head back and laughed a little too hard, the magnificent hair rippling.

“I thought he left you for another woman. Why would you want to….” I smiled with my lips shut. “Oh. You’d like me to break them up.”

“I’d like you to try.”

“But that’s just making mischief.”

“Sweet mischief,” I said. She laughed again.

“It would serve Peter right.”

“Perfect way to get even. Cliff is coming by here today at two to drop off some divorce papers. Be in my office.”

She paused. “I’ll think about it. Not out of vengeance of course, but just out of …”

“Curiosity,” I supplied, knowing how irresistible to Cliff the curiosity of such a girl would be. Alexis put her keys into her purse and kicked a small rock away from her car tire, then turned and walked toward the building, not waiting for me.

When I entered my office, Thea was standing at my desk.

“I regret,” she explained in front of Brian, who was indeed a stage prop to her, “that your work has consistently failed to live up to expectations.”

“Is that right? The only consistent thing about this place is the abu...”

”The Braddocks and I hope you find a position that’s a better fit for your… abilities.” Thea flapped my final check at me, and I seized it nimbly on the downflap, telling myself that being the victim of petty office scheming did not diminish me. Nevertheless, I felt a cloud of asininity cover and conceal me like octopus ink. I was desexed and now dejobbed. I made a wobbly exit with as much dignity as I could muster. Only in my ongoing internal movie did Brian burst from the building to pursue me in slow motion, whirl me around, and kiss me passionately to the accompaniment of Schumann’s Träumerei. In fact, he hardly said goodbye.

Early that evening, Cliff called. “Thanks a lot,” he said, “for not telling me you were canned. Did you forget I was bringing down that addendum for you to sign?”

“I must have.”

“I made the trip to Monterey for nothing.”


“I’m giving you the piano. Don’t you even want it?”

“I do,” I said.

“It took me over an hour to draft that up.”

“I believe you.”

“And another two hours on the road, for nothing. Well you can just come to my office yourself now and sign it. I’m not going out of my way again.”

“All right,” I said.

“I’m trying to be fair about this whole thing, ‘Berta.”

“I know. Who did you talk to?”


“At the Business Express. Did you talk to anybody there?”

“Just the receptionist. She told me you were let go. Why?”

“Are you asking why was I let go?”

“No. I can hazard a guess on that. Why do you want to know who I talked to?”

“No reason.”

When I received a call the next morning from Saint Will, I had an irrational flash of hope; perhaps Ted had come to his senses and wanted me back; I would now have the pleasure of delivering the scathing farewell speech I had given to my rear view mirror as I left the parking lot.

“’Berta, Alexis died last night at Community Hospital. Her car hit a tree.”

“Oh God,” I shouted.

“Peter was driving. I don’t know why she let him drive, he was drunk as a lord, going about sixty.”

“And him?”

“Oh you know how it always is. He walked away with a mild concussion. It’s odd but….apparently he told the police they were having some sort of a fight. And… your name came up.”

“I can’t imagine.”

“It’s all very hazy, he doesn’t remember much. I just …had to tell you that Alexis had nothing to do with your being let go.”

“I knew that.”

“It was me.. I, who suggested you might be happier ….”

“You? I thought it was Thea.”

“Thea didn’t exactly go to the wall for you. But Ted actually argued for keeping you. He liked you in his own odd way.” There was a long silence. “I feel like hell.”

“Don’t feel like hell on my account.”

“People are being very cruel. They’re saying Ted’s karma came around and got him.” An image that I had been fighting for the last several minutes finally bullied its way into my consciousness: that hair soaked with blood.

“How’s Brian?” I asked.

“Inconsolable. Who knew he was so devoted to her?” Will paused. “Maybe it could have changed things.”

“Nothing could have changed things.”

Peter Rinieri was initially charged with vehicular manslaughter, but in the following months, the criminal case receded into the back pages of the paper, dwindled and vanished. There must have been a civil suit too, quietly settled.

Last week, Clifford and his girlfriend were married at a church called The Little Congregation of the Human Spirit in the Redwoods. I have not seen Brian since I left the magazine, but for some reason, I keep running into Thea in downtown Monterey. She always greets me warmly, like a long lost friend.



About the Author

I grew up in Minneapolis and was transplanted to Los Angeles as a teenager. This transformed me from a timid, earnest and studious nerd to an outgoing, rebellious, and venturesome nerd. I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in English Literature. I have published print fiction in Epoch, Prism International, Cimarron Review, Artisan, and other print magazines. Online, my work has appeared in The Pedestal Magazine, In Posse Review, Eyeshot, Stirring, Zacatecas Review, Cyber Oasis, Starry Night Review, Fiction Warehouse, Pulse, and is upcoming in Summerset Review, ShadowShow, and Outsider Ink. An excerpt of my comic novel was a Chesterfield Film Writers Project 2001 semifinalist, and New Century Writer Awards 2002 quarterfinalist. Would this motivate me to finish it finally, after five years dormant? Naaaah.