by Windi Padia
Bertina was a large German woman who sat hunched in her office most days. I dreaded asking her for a deadline extension on the paperwork. She looked either insulted or angry when I asked for anything outside of normal routine.
Her office was in the basement, sandwiched between the custodian’s closet and the men’s restroom. She wasn’t behind her desk, so I decided to wait. I sat in a rickety plastic chair shoved into the corner. It was the first real chance I’d had to study her work space. Usually our conversations were short verbal missives fired at each other while I was half-turned to go and her eyes were glued on her computer.
Haphazard cords fell from the back of her computer, which faced the doorway. There were no plants—no way they’d survive the windowless basement. One glaring ceiling light buzzed above; a dust-covered bookcase housed cracked plastic binders. Bertina had one picture on the wall: a yellow cat with distended claws stuck in window curtains, and a caption that read “Hang in there!”
I shifted—the plastic chair scraped the linoleum floor—and glanced back towards the doorway, wondering if I should come back another time. That’s when I saw the diploma hanging above the door. A Ph.D. in Social Sciences with a concentration in economics from Caltech, 1995. Bertina was slightly above a secretary and far below a mid-level manager. She had worked at our company for fifteen years. It struck me that she was probably smarter than her boss and his boss put together.
I heard squeaking shoes and Bertina walked in—I stood up—she saw me and moved sideways. “What do you want?” she asked.
“I’ll be turning in the StaffCo contract paperwork about a week late,” I said. “We have some more negotiations to do.”
Bertina was in a blue and green flower-print dress, long-sleeved. There was a ring of dust around the bottom of her dress where the fabric had slid through the muck of the linoleum. Greasy hair framed her red-splotched face. This giant German thought to dress herself in flowers from the early nineties. I choked down a panicked laugh.
“Any changes mean more work for me,” Bertina said, and sat down behind her desk. She looked at her computer screen. “I’m sure you can appreciate that I don’t have time to waive deadlines for every contract. The answer is no.” She motioned me out of her office.
Ugly, big, mean white lady. No imagination. No flexibility. Out of her office and up the stairs to my corner office with bright windows and plush carpet. Bertina had no decision-making authority. We both knew I would take as long as I needed to with the negotiations, and she would “forget” to process my paperwork until I had to come to her squat dirty office again to check its status. A game, an office power play. I was tired of it.
So I made her a mixtape. Bon Jovi, Bee Gees, Madonna, P!nk. Joan Jett. A little Slip-Slidin’ Away by Paul Simon. A little Michael Jackson. Some Elvis Presley. I kept it light, dance-ready, upbeat. Some Queen seasoned with a little Hall & Oates. I grew up in the eighties, so I still call them mixtapes. What I really did was create a playlist called “For Bertina;” then I burned it onto a CD. Since she had no way to play CDs in her office, I bought the cheapest CD player I could find: a Hello Kitty pink boombox for $9.99.
I figured at some point in the past fifteen years, she had been confident, maybe even well-regarded. The big bosses must have asked for her ideas. Little by little, she had been ignored. Her promise as a highly educated member of the workforce was forgotten; she was given menial tasks that required no brain power. She could either fight back, challenge her bosses to give her more meaningful work, or become bitter and protect the small responsibilities dumped on her in the basement. I figured she had chosen the latter.
I waited one night until she went home, and then placed her gifts on her desk. No “To… From…” note, just the CD and the pink boombox.
I waited a week, then two; continued my negotiations with StaffCo. I forgot about Bertina. StaffCo and I finally came to an agreement, and a month later I made the long walk down the basement stairs. I found her office…empty. Dust patterns showed where the computer had been, the phone, the diploma above the door. The only things left were the scuffed plastic chair and the cat poster.
I walked back upstairs and went to my boss. “Did you finally fire Bertina?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “We promoted her. You need her for the StaffCo paperwork?”
“Yeah…,” I said.
“Give it to Sandy for now.”
I started to walk out of his office, and then turned and asked, “What’s Bertina’s new job title?”
“Senior VP of Marketing,” he said. “She’s a couple rungs up the chain from you now.”
Senior VPs had offices on the sixth floor. I got on the elevator and rode up. I told the receptionist I had been summoned upstairs and got a suspicious look, but was allowed past anyway.
Bertina was pin-striped and well-groomed, not a hair out of place. Her skin was clear and smooth. She regarded me with a steady gaze, and smiled.
“Congratulations on your promotion.” I hovered in the doorway and looked past her to the view of the city. Green plants in a tasteful arrangement on the windowsill framed the skyline.
“I’m just livin’ on a prayer,” she said.
I caught a flash of pink: the Hello Kitty CD player was nestled under her diploma on a gleaming mahogany side table. “You’re halfway there,” I said, and smiled back.
© Copyright 2010 Windi Padia. All rights reserved.
Windi Padia grew up wanting to be a biologist and is now in the Human Resources section of a state wildlife agency, where humans make much more fascinating subjects. She is currently writing human-interest articles for Colorado Outdoors Magazine and learning all she can through the creative writing certificate program at the University of Denver. Her blog, Crazy Coppertop, is the diary of a crazy redhead.