Fifty-two-year-old Winifred Johnson never entered the lobby of her employer's apartment building on Park Avenue without feeling intimidated. She had worked with Adam Cauliff for three years, first at Walters and Arsdale, and then she had left with him last fall, when he started his own company. He relied on her from the beginning.
Even so, whenever she stopped by his apartment, she couldn't help feeling that one day the doorman would instruct her to use the delivery entrance around the corner.
She knew that her attitude was the result of her parents' lifelong resentment over imagined slights. Ever since she could remember, Winifred's ears had been filled with their plaintive tales of people who had been rude to them: They use their little bit of authority on people like us who can't fight back. Expect it, Winifred. That's the kind of world it is. Her father had gone to his grave railing against all the indignities he had suffered at the hands of his employer of forty years, and her mother was now in a nursing home, where complaints of supposed slights and deliberate neglect continued unabated.
Winifred thought about her mother as the doorman smilingly opened the door for her. A few years ago it had been possible for her to move her mother to a fancy, new nursing facility, but even that hadn't stopped the endless flow of complaints. Happiness -- even satisfaction -- did not seem to be possible for her. Winifred had recognized this same trait in herself and felt helpless. Until I smartened up, she told herself with a secret smile.
A thin woman, almost frail in appearance, Winifred typically dressed in conservative business suits and limited her jewelry to button earrings and a strand of pearls. Quiet to the point that people often forgot she was even around, she absorbed everything, noticed everything and remembered everything. She had worked for Robert Walters and Len Arsdale from the time she graduated from secretarial school, but in all those years neither man had ever appreciated or even seemed to notice the fact that she had come to know everything there was to know about the construction business. Adam Cauliff, however, had picked up on it immediately. He appreciated her; he understood her true worth. He used to joke with her, saying, "Winifred, a lot of people had better hope you never write your autobiography."
Robert Walters overheard him and became both upset and unpleasant. But then Walters had always bullied her unmercifully; he never had been nice to her. Let him pay for that, Winifred thought. And he will.
Nell never appreciated him. Adam didn't need a wife with a career of her own and a famous grandfather who made so many demands on her that she didn't have enough time for her husband. Sometimes Adam would say, "Winifred, Nell's busy with the old man again. I don't want to eat alone. Let's grab a bite."
He deserved better. Sometimes Adam would tell her about being a kid on a North Dakota farm and going to the library to get books with pictures of beautiful buildings. "The taller the better, Winifred," he'd joke. "When someone built a three-story house in our town, folks drove twenty miles just to get a look at it."
Other times he would encourage her to talk, and she found herself gossiping with him about people in the construction industry. Then the next morning she would wonder if perhaps she had said too much, her loquaciousness enhanced by the wine Adam kept pouring. But she never really worried; she trusted Adam -- they trusted each other -- and Adam enjoyed her "insider" stories about the building world, tales from her earlier days with Walters and Arsdale.
"You mean that sanctimonious old bird was on the take when those bids went out?" he'd exclaim, then reassure her when she became flustered about talking so much. And then he'd promise never, ever to say a word to anyone about what she had told him. She also remembered the night he had said accusingly, "Winifred, you can't fool me. There's someone in your life." And she had told him, yes, even giving the name. And that was when she really began to trust him. She confided that she was taking care of herself.
Copyright © 2000 by Mary Higgins Clark
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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