The following is excerpted from Jen Fawkes' short story collection, Mannequin and Wife. She is the winner of numerous prizes, including the 2019 Pinch Award in Fiction and the 2019 John Gardner Memorial Fiction Prize from Harpur Palate. She has another story collection, Tales the Devil Told Me, coming out next year. She lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.
We’re worried about Misty. The youngest stenographer in the pool, she’s been with the firm less than three months. Like the rest of us, she graduated from Ms. Purdy’s Academy, the finest stenography school in the tri-state area, and like Penny, the most senior of us, and Phyllis and Mabel, identical twins who work in tandem, Misty took top honors in her class. It isn’t her typing or her shorthand that has us biting our manicured nails and tugging nervously on the collars of our cashmere sweaters. It’s her flagrant flouting of convention.
Each of us took an instant liking to Misty, from Holly, who can be an utter grump, to Janine, who’s recently switched to decaf, to Penny, who can take months to warm up to a new girl. Having come from Ms. Purdy’s, Misty fit into our tight-knit-sweater-set-and-sensible-shoe collective nicely. The fact that her bangs were a bit short and her lipstick the wrong shade of pink didn’t bother us in the least—such imperfections made Misty more appealing. After gently correcting her mistakes, we felt a motherly sense of accomplishment, as though we’d had a hand in her development.
The fact that her bangs were a bit short and her lipstick the wrong shade of pink didn’t bother us in the least.
At eight a.m., we stenographers hit the ground running. We don’t stop until the other side of six p.m. There’s no nesting for us; unlike secretaries, we lack the luxury of a desk. Ours is a transient, hardscrabble existence, one that finds us perched on a chair in Personnel in the morning and, after an egg salad or turkey or ham on rye from the sandwich cart, wolfed in the elevator, trotting through the halls after a roaming, dictating vice president in the afternoon. With nothing but a notebook, two pencils, and a thermos full of strong black coffee (or decaf, in the case of Janine), we go where the wind blows us.
Misty was only two weeks out of Ms. Purdy’s and adjusting nicely to the demands of the steno pool when into the bullpen slid a memo announcing an interoffice duel. The walls of the bullpen, a narrow first-floor room in which we type up dictation or pace restlessly, ready to sprint to the elevator banks at a moment’s notice, are painted the color of strained peas. The desks sag, the carpet is worn, and on the west wall hangs a framed poster of a long-haired kitten clinging to a tree branch. “HANG IN THERE!” blazes in red letters across its stretched, exposed belly.
“Memo!” Penny cried, waving the sheet of paper above her graying brown bun. “Ladies! We have a memo!”
As stenographers, we receive few memorandums, and the appearance of one meant something momentous was afoot. We dropped nail files and compacts and glossy magazines and flocked around our senior sister.
“Oh my!” she exclaimed, her eyes gleaming. “It looks like Mr. Venable’s challenged one of the junior executives.”
The door of the bullpen opened and in marched Misty, who’d been taking dictation on the twelfth floor. Our fists unclenched; our tongues retreated into our mouths as we turned our collective gaze on the youngest and most innocent among us.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“We’ve had a memo.” Penny stepped forward. “I’m afraid there’s going to be a duel, dear.”
Interoffice duels are a frequent occurrence. Any actual or perceived insult to an executive by another is grounds for a challenge: stealing another man’s lunch, sabotaging his presentation, flirting with his secretary, stabbing him in the back, giving him a weak handshake or a funny look. Notoriously sensitive, executives believe the only way to restore their honor is to demonstrate their willingness to die for it. They gain satisfaction at twenty paces in the courtyard of the firm’s high-rise, using a pair of dueling pistols the CEO keeps under lock and key. In the bullpen, we watched Misty’s pearl-pink lower lip quiver, each of us thinking of her own first duel. Fresh from Ms. Purdy’s, we stenographers arrived at the firm artless as infants. The first time we saw a man slain over a trifle, we were horror-stricken. The next time, too. But after months, then years, of dealing with executives, we found that though some are lascivious and some misogynistic, all executives see us as one interchangeable automaton put on earth for the sole purpose of taking their dictation. And we became accustomed to watching them off one another. Duels shattered the monotony of our days, and we started looking forward to them with fluttery stomachs, with a sickening intensity, with a morbidity of which we were ashamed, of which we never spoke.
“There, now,” Penny said, wiping tears from Misty’s cheeks. “It’s not so bad. Holly, get her a cup of tea, will you?”
Grumbling, Holly stalked toward the break room. “When?” Misty sniffed, as Penny settled her into a chair. “Friday at noon. Mr. Venable’s challenged a junior executive. A Mr. Fisk.” Misty groaned. “What is it, dear?”
“I was just in Mr. Fisk’s office! He shared his Danish with me! He was such a nice man!” With that, Misty’s face dissolved.
Penny held her until she was called away to take a letter for an account manager on fifteen. One by one we comforted Misty, wiping away her tears, until in turn we too were forced to abandon our sister and race to the aid of an impatient executive.
Friday dawned crisp and clear, and we stenographers traveled by train or bus or bicycle or automobile to the firm, our thoughts bent on the impending duel. On duel days, the normally neutral air of the high-rise crackles. Everyone—from the greenest boy in the basement mail room to the vice presidents on nineteen—bounces through the halls, jingling pocket change and whistling off-key tunes. People who never look up from the gray carpet cry “Good morning!” with a nod and a wink for whoever is listening. Smiles and handshakes abound. Pats on the back long overdue are meted out. People give each other impromptu massages. Executives and accountants wear their brightest neckties. Secretaries show off even more leg than usual.
Interoffice duels are frequent: any actual or perceived insult to an executive by another is grounds for a challenge.
Misty, who lived less than a mile from the high-rise, was late. We paced the bullpen, biting our nails and glancing at the clock. At 8:15, when she wandered through the door like a bewildered lamb, the poor dear was shaking, and we pressed around her in a tight ring of sisterly support.
“You’ll be all right,” said Penny.
“It’ll be over before you know it,” said Janine with a decaffeinated yawn.
“You can always cover your eyes the first time. We did,” said Phyllis and Mabel.
“Hrrmp,” grumbled Holly.
On duel days little work is done, so few of us were called away in the morning, and before we knew it, noon was upon us.
We joined the flow of employees crowding the halls, all wriggling toward the same destination like spawning salmon. With linked arms, we allowed the crush to sweep us into the courtyard, then fought to hold a position less than twenty feet from the action.
In an area roped off with yellow caution tape stood Mr. Venable and Mr. Fisk. Mr. Venable, who’d been with the firm twenty-five years, was an old hand at dueling. He’d challenged and dispatched more executives than all the rest put together. He was the reason, it was said, that executives at the firm were on the whole so young—he’d killed off an entire generation. Any insult would prompt a challenge from Mr. Venable, and he was an expert marksman. No one went so far as to say he took pleasure in killing, but we in the bullpen had our suspicions. Once, when Mr. Venable had mumbled while Janine was taking a letter, she’d asked him to repeat himself and he’d leapt to his feet and drawn back his big fist. His nostrils flared to the size of nickels as he towered over her, shaking.
“I swear to God,” she’d later said of the incident, “there was murder in his eyes.”
Whether Mr. Venable would have taken a life outside the confines of a sanctioned duel was unclear, but everyone at the firm knew not to cross him. We all had to wonder what Mr. Fisk had done to call down his rage.
“Look at him,” said Misty, who sagged between Phyllis and Mabel. “Doesn’t he look nice?”
Mr. Fisk did look nice. He was tall and wore wire-rimmed glasses. His light brown hair was just beginning to pull away from his temples. He stood very straight, with his back to Mr. Venable, who was doing deep knee bends and grunting. Both men had removed their suit jackets and rolled up their shirt-sleeves. Neither had loosened his tie. Mr. Fisk kept glancing at the pistol in his right hand as though he was surprised to find it there.
“Do you know what he told me?” Misty said. “When I was in his office?”
“What, dear?” asked Penny.
“That he’d made his final student loan payment that morning. He was so happy!” Misty buried her face in her hands. Wrapping their arms around her, Phyllis and Mabel cooed into her ears.
Excited voices rose from the churning crush of employees that filled the courtyard. We stenographers had snagged a prime spot. To our right, the boys from Accounting held an equally advantageous position. Directly behind us were the people from Personnel, and across the courtyard the secretaries had winked and flirted their way up front. They stood pressed against the tape that cordoned off the dueling zone, while behind them executives milled around in a section reserved for their use. A girl with a tray of drinks and snacks circulated among them. Three beach balls floated through the air. Whenever one came anywhere near Holly, she punched it with a satisfied grunt.
Janine yawned. “Isn’t it about time to get this thing started?” The CEO blew his tin whistle. A hush fell. The forgotten beach balls bounced to the concrete. Misters Venable and Fisk stood back to back in the middle of the courtyard. Each man held his pistol in front of his face, its barrel pointed up into the cloudless blue sky. When the CEO blew his whistle again, the two executives stepped forward.
Our nails dug into our palms. Our stomachs fluttered. Our knees trembled. Twenty paces was the standard, and along with the rest of the crowd, we all counted under our breath. All, that is, except Misty. Seemingly oblivious to the proceedings, she studied her brown oxfords. She clasped her hands in a tight knot at her waist.
At twelve paces, at fifteen, we strained forward. We felt the hot breath of those behind us on our necks.
At eighteen paces, at nineteen, our tightened muscles quaked.
At twenty paces, Misters Venable and Fisk spun. They aimed. They fired. They fell.
A single scream sounded, one that pierced the crowd’s paralysis. It was Misty. Her pearl-pink lips hung open. Paramedics rushed to the fallen executives as we speculated in feverish whispers.
“Both men down!” said Penny. “This hasn’t happened since Mr. Gibson challenged Mr. Beavers!”
“Has Mr. Venable been hit before?” asked Janine.
“He was grazed once, but he refused to go home. Just wound his handkerchief around his arm and worked through the afternoon.”
Holly jerked her head toward Misty, who hadn’t moved.
She hadn’t blinked.
“At least he got a piece of Mr. Venable, your Mr. Fisk,” said Phyllis and Mabel. “Misty?” The twins waved their manicured fingers in front of her eyes, but Misty didn’t respond.
The crowd released a collective sigh, and we looked up to see Mr. Venable rising to his feet. The paramedics had removed his shirt, and he stood between them, an oxygen mask covering his face, blood flowing from a hole in his right shoulder. Slowly, he lifted his right hand as high as his waist. He wiggled the fingers. Behind the oxygen mask, he seemed to be smiling.
“Where’s Misty?” asked Penny.
We spotted our youngest sister ducking under the caution tape and into the dueling zone. Mr. Fisk was sprawled on the concrete, his glasses gone, his shirt open, his fingers still clutching the pistol, red pooling around him. The paramedics who’d been pumping his perforated chest and breathing into his mouth stood. They turned to the crowd and shook their heads. Misty threw herself on top of his body. One of the paramedics pulled her away. She was smiling. Blood streaked her face, her hands, her ivory sweater set. It was on her teeth. We stenographers shook our heads. We knew that even if she used Woolite, that sweater set would never be the same.
Excerpted from Mannequin and Wife by Jen Fawkes. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, LSU Press.