Oct/Nov 2005  •   Fiction

M and Cornelia

by Kathy Karlson

She paused, and wept some of the unbecoming tears that spring from real grief.
        —Edith Wharton

It is highly traumatic. You fall out of Heaven.
        —C.G. Jung, on birth


M, a person destroyed in childhood, made his connections to people by lording it over them at work. He stood on his imaginary balcony and looked down at the upturned faces, waving to his imaginary guards as if to point out which supplicants were to catch the roses, which were to be shot in the morning. M stopped promotions, he speeded up promotions; he demanded five-year projections, he demanded two-month projections; he scheduled people's time, he unscheduled people's vacations. M made rude personal remarks, mostly to women, about new hairstyles, "Oh, the teenage look," or about new necklaces or rings, touching the jewelry, getting in close, as for the kill.

In his anxiety of ego, M cared nothing about those below him in the hierarchy, and would do anything to please those above him. He did his work, ran through staff, and was thought of as nasty but useful by his own bosses. If some people in the company sometimes wondered how he got away with being so intrusively unkind and scorpion-like, they were too unimportant to matter or too occupied with their own work to maintain an interest in M's misdeeds. So M held a kind of wicked sway for years until finally, Cornelia, a woman who had never toadied up to him, became the focus for his anxiety. He made the mistake of going after her.

Cornelia was insufficiently obsequious, and so M began to make disparaging remarks about her work. He was indiscriminate in these remarks, made them in the elevator, at meetings, in the cafeteria line over soggy vegetables, and on the phone in front of his secretary. He lied about Cornelia. Everyone felt she was good at what she did, but people half-listened to him. She was suddenly a person who was talked about in a way that left a vague, unpleasant shadow. M expected her to begin to doubt herself, to live in the smoggy veil of self-doubt, but she seemed to ignore him. At first, she didn't realize what was happening to her, but then Mandy, a work friend in marketing who was an experimental psychologist, told her M was talking about her.

"Did you know M is undermining you?" said Mandy. "I usually don't pass along such information" (Cornelia knew Mandy loved to pass along information) "but, in this case, seeing as you and I have to stick together..." and so on, until Cornelia could no longer ignore the reports.

Cornelia didn't jockey or plot. She needed time to think and continued to act as if M were an uncomfortable fact like hail or gnats—pesky, but finally not very important. M began to quiver with rage during their monthly meetings when Cornelia reported her sales triumphs, when she turned his remarks away with polite indifference. His VP said to him, "Anything going on I don't know about? You're pretty hard on her; we don't want to get into any trouble. Diversity. Diversity. Don't forget." M couldn't think fast enough to really nail her, and so he became even more enraged.

Then someone left an article in his mail slot, "Dealing with Mentally Ill People at Work." He called her into his office.

Cornelia looked at him for a minute after he accused her of leaving the article there. "Oh, no. Of course not. I don't go for underhanded tactics. I don't think you are mentally ill. I don't really think of you. But if I did, I'd get you that new book, what is it? Working for a Shit?" And then she mentally crossed herself and said Sorry Mama to her dead mother and left his office.

Cornelia cursed herself for losing her cool and immediately called Mandy. They talked in the cafeteria.

Mandy said, "So you basically called him a shit? Don't worry. He's the kind who will always respond to bad treatment. Any kind of attention will feel good to him. So don't be civil. Make him back down, go after him, start getting support. I suppose we could take it up in the women's caucus."

"You can't win that way," said Cornelia. "If you do that, you are cooked, a whiner. They promote you to the project level and give you grunt work until you die. Why do I threaten him so much?"

"Oh, I don't know. He's pathetic. But you have to be careful," Mandy said. "Never accuse or abuse him in public. Ignoring seems to work. He'll get so mad, he'll say something truly awful, something sexist, or he'll call you a cunt in a meeting or something and you will seem calm and thoughtful. Oh! I know! Give him pitying looks. He'll hate that. He'll start disassociating right in front of you."

Cornelia found this vision uncomfortable, M splitting up, M falling to bits, M speaking in tongues like the swayers in her Aunt's Pentecostal church. And not for the first time, she wondered about Mandy's heartlessness. Cornelia's morality didn't include active harm. She thought about what her father said about corporations—"No souls, there." M did seem not to have a soul; he was like a ghost, a blank dull sheet of a man. She wanted to be beyond the reach of M's slimy, defensive, and little hands, especially if the hands began to beseech.

For the next few weeks, M tried to be careful around Cornelia, but he was too anxious. The little brutalized children inside him continued a kind of advance and retreat duet with her. For a while, her superiority kept him at bay. Mostly, she could control herself; he couldn't. She actively pitied him. Mandy said to her, "The fact is, you've won. Proof? He's changed those Italian yellow ties for paisley foulards. You don't have to do anything. Soon, he'll get you moved."

But then a terrible thing happened. Cornelia may have had the high moral ground, but M had the power of position. He called her into his office and told her, "I'm taking you off your job and making you my special assistant in matters of equal opportunity."

It was a brilliant move that drilled into her the facts—she was subordinate; she was female. Her career had been manipulated into the cul-de-sac of Personnel. His bosses thought it was a wonderful gesture, an appreciation of her brightness, a clear problem-solving approach on M's part to the problem of his difficulties with her. So now he could call her into his office at any time to discuss other people—"I heard Mrs. Rogers use the word asshole. Could you please speak to her about it? Do it carefully, of course." On every occasion, he could tell her what to do and how to do it.

M sent her to all-day training sessions she was then supposed to bring back to the division, sessions on tolerance, given by people who thought suffering could be fixed. He praised her to his boss in ways that made her seem inept—"She's the perfect person to talk about equal opportunity, having made so much of herself." And, after the shock wore off, the shock of his taking away her other work and giving her tasks that were meaningless in their company, and after she got acclimated and tried to do her best, he took credit for whatever she accomplished.

His divisional communication scores went up because of her, in spite of a session in which he made a very bad faux pas about Asian women. He turned his gaff into a learning experience for the management team by getting Cornelia to role play the part of "a Nisei" and then asked her the exact definition of Nisei. When she wasn't sure, he pointed out that "all of us need educating, not just the old white guys like me."

Cornelia went to Mandy's office. She said to Mandy, "I am going to punch him in the eye, right in the middle of an executive lunch. Tell me what to do."

"This may be beyond me," said Mandy. "What if you ask to be moved?"

"I already tried to switch over to CAM. He wrote them a little note that, I am quoting him, 'although her oral presentations are top-notch, she can't write.' So CAM withdrew the offer of a transfer."

"They can always get you with that writing stuff," said Mandy. "I suppose you could take him through the sexual harassment wringer. Get his little butt twisted at the Personnel board."

"Women who do that are dead. They never get anywhere," said Cornelia. "They spend time talking to lawyers. Who wants to do that?"

"I have a cousin who works over at Justice," said Mandy. "I'll talk to him. It's like M is harassing you in a very subtle way—using the system that's supposed to help you—know what I mean?"

"Really. But I don't think he's doing anything illegal. He wants me to make a strategic plan for Equity 2006 as he calls it."

"Tell him you'll take his paycheck. That'd be equity."

"I think I'd better start looking for another job," said Cornelia, and she drifted out of Mandy's office and took the elevator down to the cafeteria. M didn't like his staff to sit in the cafeteria except at lunch; he didn't like them sitting there drinking coffee as if they had nothing to do, he said, so Cornelia usually took a notepad with her even if she were there for gossip and a bran muffin. She needed to think. As she stood in line, with her notepad tucked under her arm, she looked down at her small hands and thought of her mother saying, "Your hands aren't made for scrubbing, honey. Look at their size." At this memory of her sweet and small mother, rage came up into Cornelia's body like a storm on the plain, as if she were the one in the prairie house, as if the thunder and lightning of the plains were her very self. She felt as if she could thrash M half-dead.

Somehow calmed, Cornelia sat in the cafeteria and slowly enjoyed her muffin and coffee. She came upon a little idea that might be a kind of revenge. Keep them guessing, play their game.

When she went back upstairs, Cornelia called Mandy. "I want you to help me. I want to nominate M for this award..."

"Oh!" cried Mandy, "What the Hell?"

"Well, I'll explain later," said Cornelia. Nominating M for a company award in equal opportunity was a beautiful thing. The shame of not deserving it probably wouldn't bother him, but he would be tortured, wondering what she was up to. Let him think about what she hoped to gain, since gain was his only motive. And speaking of gain, such awards never came with cash bonuses. If M received this award, he would not be eligible for another, and not getting any money might just fluster him into making a mistake.



When M went home at night, he took over from a Mrs. Goode who cared for his wife. He had never exactly loved his wife; she had been a silly blond girl named Lucille who he had thought would make a perfect spouse. In the late 60's, when all the other women seemed like slobs to him, she looked so correct, so darling, with her ballet shoes and little white anklets, her bare legs, her sweater sets, her plump little hemmed-in bosom. Over the years, Lucille had become anxious, never understanding why she couldn't please him. At first, she thought he was more worldly than she was and that he had quickly become bored. Then she became convinced a child would save their marriage, but he said he didn't care; in fact, he soon stopped wanting to have sex. She tried so many things to please him, things like becoming an expert and creative cook, learning the operas he liked, trying to learn French. People always asked themselves how she could love him, he was so obviously unkind to her, but she was the kind of person who is made whole by loving someone else. Unfortunately, she picked someone who could not love back. Then, at 40, she turned to the church, and there she found comfort and freedom in a women's group that studied the Bible. She began to think of herself leaving M.

Alas. She began to change, to descend. One day, the minister said to M (M was going back to church as a way to—what, he asked himself, find God?—M didn't know), the minister said, "Lucille seems to have her good days." The blank look on M's face told all. M hadn't noticed his still young wife (she was only 42) was developing the kind of virulent senile dementia that would later trap her in the nether world of potty remarks, constantly dripping nose, and, most galling to M, a desire for cuddling, loving, and nursing. Everybody else was aware of her forgetfulness, the spots of food on her usually perfect silk blouses, the flyaway hair. In fact, other people in the church supposed M had returned because of Lucille's condition. But then they realized he hadn't noticed. He really hadn't apprehended. She escaped him after all, said the women. For a while, a Mrs. Donant, who loved to order the lives of other people, began to call on them at home, especially when Lucille was still making some sense. She stayed even after Lucille was really far-gone, thinking to comfort M because he was handsome, at least to her. But he soon put a stop to Mrs. Donant's visits. He told her she upset Lucille.

Most people at work didn't know Lucille's condition. M's shame overrode any compassion he might have gotten if his fellow workers knew how much care he had to give her now. In the evenings at home, he tried to be really quite nice to her, to always keep from slapping her or pushing her or yelling at her as he wished to. But he often locked her in her bedroom—now basically a room with a mattress covered by beautiful sheets and with books and stuffed animals she bought during her years of wanting babies. Now, he often thought, Thank God we had no babies; he thought, the world is an awful place. Some people at work who knew about Lucille thought these troubles would make him more human. But they were mistaken. His brutal father had made sure he would never believe in the goodness or even the so-so-ness of other people. And when he thought of other people... well, he never really thought of them.

M had done his damage to Lucille, and now, in a way, she was beyond him, and he went to the office and left her behind. Mrs. Donant called him again with an offer of dinner and bed, but he laughed and she went away for good.

He never thought about Lucille when he was at work. At work he thought he was reaping the rewards of faithful self-interest and tough personnel policies. He would do anything to please his bosses; he could play the sycophant because he knew his own staff had to please him. He used bonuses and trips and assignments to give signals about his favors, and he was smart enough never to make these signals regular. If you worked for M, you had to keep your eyes on him, not on his system, not on the company, not on your own interests, no, on him. But only on the him of work; he never talked about Lucille or about any life outside the office.

M had already aced out his only real competitor, a nice man who helped others. He simply separated his work from that man's work and then claimed credit for all of it. Some people saw the maneuver, but they were too busy with their own problems, with their falling-apart cars or marriages, with their successes in the markets, with their genuine love of things outside work—family or church or nature. M knew work was not family. He didn't really understand he had needs; he thought he was right, that the world was dark, the people disgusting. He imagined their heads on pikes sometimes or saw them swimming in lava with the flesh melting—first the flesh and then the bones. As a child he was never seen; he could not see anyone else, least of all Lucille. She made him laugh. Her illness, her body, and her vacancy made him laugh.

But a new thing was bothering M: a memory. Sometimes when he sat on the sofa and Lucille wanted to be loved, when she stood in front of him, he remembered in a flash, remembered in his arms and legs, how a neighbor had cradled him after his father had beaten him down. The dark-haired small woman had sat and held him in her lap and crooned to him ta matia mou, ta matia mou, apple of my eye, ta matia mou, apple of my eye. It was a piece of love that almost tore him apart when he thought of it. He remembered she had said something about trauma and poor thing. And the thought of the woman came to him more and more, until the memory began to feel like a disease to him, and he began unconsciously to push the memory away from himself by waving his hands and shrugging his shoulders, as if he were bothered by a swarm of black flies. He did this moving of his hands in a minor way in meetings. People began to notice a bit; they thought he was getting old early, getting those tremors some middle-aged people get. They would have liked to feel sorry for him or try to say something helpful or to see the weakness as a sign of softening in him. But he did not change his ways, did not give up his sarcasm, his jabs, his insults.



Cornelia started to draft the papers for M's human resource award. The CEO's assistant was to read the awards while the CEO shook hands. After the ceremony everybody would gather to have cookies and lemonade with ginger ale.

"It's such a horrible ritual in a way," said Cornelia.

"I know," said Amity, a woman who was able, somehow, to keep goodness firmly in sight. They were chatting in the hall. Amity said, "Some of the people they choose! Like that division head who, you know, was doing it with his secretary. They gave him an award and then got rid of him."

Cornelia looked at Amity's usually calm face. "I didn't know you knew about that."

"Oh, well, wickedness. It's around. It's a spiritual practice not to involve yourself in it."

"Can't be avoided," said Cornelia.

"It seems that way, sometimes," said Amity. "Anyway, you're going to do a good thing. I think M really needs something like this. He seems kind of shaken lately, or something. He's frail somehow. Do you notice the way his hands droop and kind of wobble?"

"Amity," began Cornelia, who thought she had better tell Amity what she was really doing, but then Amity said, "After all, we can't see into his heart."

Thank God, thought Cornelia, who believed that item would be particularly sulphurous.

The morning of the ceremony, Cornelia was feeling unwell. Mandy said to Cornelia, "Oh, come on. I have an idea. Just skip the thing this afternoon. That'll make him wonder even more." She twisted the little red plastic stirrer like a baton in her fingers. "This coffee is terrible," she said.

"Are you going to it?" asked Cornelia.

"No. Not my division. Good luck, though." Mandy stood up to go. "Want me to call your division director and say you had a car accident?"

"That's not funny, Mandy," said Cornelia.

"Okay, okay. Don't be mad at me. This whole thing wasn't my idea." And she left.

Cornelia brushed a crumb off her blue summer-weight wool skirt. Her hands seemed fluttery, like M's hands, and she seemed to be seeing them from a great distance. She said to herself, "What goes around, comes around. That's what you said, Mom, isn't it?" She noticed she had ten minutes before going over to the small auditorium. She went into the 4th floor Ladies, went into a stall and peed because of nerves. When she washed her hands, she noticed they had stopped shaking, that they were her hands after all. She got on the elevator and went down to the auditorium.

Not many people were there, not enough to hide her in some back row, but enough to make her hope no one mentioned her name. The hall quieted when the CEO got up to speak. He was fairly new, and instead of standing on the stage, he stood in front of the first row. The division heads all looked up at him as he began, "On my watch, people will be well and fairly treated." Cornelia thought it sounded as if he were talking about dogs. Cornelia stopped listening because she was looking at the back of M's head and noticing he was bobbing a bit. She got still in herself. Oh no, she thought. This is terrible. I have done something so stupid. M began to look around and to raise his hands as if he were trying to fly away. Cornelia held her breath, and she thought, let him say the right thing, let him just for once get past himself, get out of himself, not embarrass us, let him... she prayed as he stood up, "Dear Lord, let him have dignity. God, let him have dignity."

M stood up as his name was called. His face was strange, as if he were having a stroke that made his mouth turn down. She saw he thought he was smiling and that he could not control the shaking of his hands. She heard murmurs around her. She looked down at her hands. She heard M say something, but she didn't hear what it was. She did not listen or judge; she did not look up again until people began to move out of the auditorium. M walked by her without looking at her. He was talking to Amity and then to the smiling CEO. Cornelia sat in the auditorium for a while. She could hear people talking in the room where they were having their cookies. As she began to write her resignation letter in her head, she realized she had no idea what to say. She thought, once I had a simple heart and knew what heaven was.