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The International Writers Magazine
:

Zelda the Witch
Martin Green

I’d been working only a few weeks in the State’s Industrial Data Agency when Zelda the Witch was transferred into our little unit. She did have a hooked nose and a pointed chin but otherwise looked like a small, inoffensive woman of about 50 in a long shapeless dress.

Mrs. Cranston, the head of the unit, had argued against having Zelda, but Miss Field, the Assistant Division Chief, had insisted and in the end prevailed. I asked my friend Hank Barrow, who’d gotten me my job with the State, what was wrong with Zelda. He told me that she had strange habits. She stared at people, muttered under her breath and ate apples and bananas at her desk. Besides that, odd things happened wherever she worked. Machines malfunctioned and papers got lost. Someone way back had called her Zelda the Witch and the name had stuck.
“Why haven’t they fired her?” I asked Hank. Hank gave me a pitying look. “This is the State, remember.
Nobody who works for the State gets fired. If they get too hard to handle, they get shunted off to another unit. Zelda’s made the rounds and now it’s your unit’s turn.”

I’d already noticed several other strange members of the Division in our part of the State building in San Francisco.. One research analyst dressed in Western costume: big cowboy hat, belt with large silver buckle and cowboy boots. Another analyst was a would-be actor who declaimed Shakespeare from a book of plays while walking through the halls. Hank’s explanation was that since people couldn’t be fired they tended to stay around for years and after a while began to cultivate their eccentricities.

Our unit did surveys of wage rates for the State. I’d landed there when the research firm for which I worked suddenly folded and I couldn’t find anything else. The pay was considerably lower and I hoped to get a promotion but in our small unit there didn’t seem much room for advancement. I was in charge of coding the returns from our latest wage survey and Zelda was assigned to assist me. On this morning, she’d been staring at Ann Tani, our secretary. Ann was a pretty Japanese girl, always well-dressed, cheerful and helpful. Myrna, our unit’s other member, who did most of the statistical work, looked at me pointedly. Zelda took a banana from a large paper bag and began to peel it. Mrs. Cranston, looking up from her corner desk, told her that in our office there was no eating at one’s desk. Zelda put the banana away, took a last look at Ann and bent her head over the survey forms. The lights in our room flickered but then came on again.

The next day Mrs. Cranston asked Ann if Zelda’s staring bothered her. “No,” said Ann. “Let her stare if she wants. To tell you the truth, she’s been so quiet I’ve hardly noticed her.”
Zelda was quiet and when she did speak it was in a soft voice. Mrs. Cranston was the one who did most of the talking in our office. She was a woman of about 40 with a youthful figure and would have had an attractive face but for steely eyes and a thin mouth. She lived in what she implied was a grand house in the East Bay. Her husband was an architect and they were having a swimming pool put in so their daughter, who was on her high school swim team, could practice at home. Mrs. Cranston, besides keeping us apprised of the progress of the swimming pool, told us all about the other people in the Division, especially Miss Field, who, in her view, was a disappointed spinster, envious of Mrs. Cranston because she was married. Putting Zelda in our unit was Miss Field’s way of getting back at her. Mrs. Cranston didn’t have much good to say about anyone in the Division. In short, she was a gossip, and a malicious one at that.

Mrs. Cranston also gossiped about the members of our unit, behind their backs. When Ann Tani was out of the room, Mrs, Cranston would shake her head sadly and remark that it was too bad that Ann couldn’t seem to keep a boy friend. Ann was so pretty and she’d dated several young men but nothing had come of it. She was almost 30 now and seemed destined to become, like Miss Field, a spinster. The same thing would happen when Myrna was out of the room. Myrna’s husband worked in San Rafael, which is where they lived. Myrna wanted to transfer to San Rafael so she wouldn’t have to make the long commute by bus each day. “She’s been trying for a year now,” Mrs. Cranston would say. “Too bad, there just aren’t any jobs there.” Again, she would shake her head in mock-sadness. I could only imagine what she said about me when I wasn’t there.

Zelda for her part continued to quietly code our survey forms.
At first, her coding was a little bizarre and I’d go over it with her every day. Finally, with repetition, her work wasn’t too bad. One day, she told me, whispering, that Ann Tani was so nice, she deserved better than being Mrs. Cranston’s secretary. My friend Hank asked me every now and then how Zelda was doing. I said she was doing okay; maybe being in a small unit was just what she needed. We discussed Mrs. Cranston and her malicious gossiping. “She really hates Miss Field,” I said.
“Yeah, she wants Miss Field’s job so she takes every chance to run her down.”

One day when Ann Tani was out sick, Mrs. Cranston, shaking her head as usual, told us she was worried about her. “Have you noticed she hasn’t been looking well lately?”
“She’s had the flu,” said Myrna. “Maybe,” said Mrs. Cranston, “but I think she’s depressed. I don’t think she’s even had a date lately, It’s a shame.”
At this moment, Zelda stood up at her desk and, in a ringing voice, said, “You leave Ann alone. You pretend to be concerned but you rejoice in her misfortune. You rejoice in everyone’s misfortune.”
Mrs. Cranston’s thin mouth went open with shock. “Well,” she gasped, but before she could continue Zelda pointed a bony finger at her and said, “You are a wicked woman. You are the one who deserves misfortune. Beware. I’m warning you . . . beware.”

With this, Zelda rushed out of the room. “Well, I never,” said Mrs. Cranston. “Did you hear that? She threatened me. I’m going to see Miss Field at once.” She also rushed out. Myrna and I looked at each other. “What do you think of that?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “I guess Zelda is in trouble. And just when she was getting the hang of our coding.” The next morning Ann and Zelda were back but Mrs. Cranston was missing. At about ten o’clock, Miss Field came in. Mrs. Cranston had called her.

There’d been a slight earthquake in the East Bay the night before, not even big enough to make the papers but enough to destroy the Cranstons’ new pool. She wouldn’t be in that day. I saw a slight smile on Zelda’s face and she nodded her head.

It turned out that Ann had more news for us. She was engaged to be married. She’d kept it a secret because she hadn’t wanted Mrs. Cranston to know. The reason she’d been out the day before wasn’t that she was ill (that was just what she’d told Mrs. Cranston), but because her young man, on a sudden impulse, had driven from Los Angeles to San Francisco to propose to her. They’d be married soon and she’d be moving to Los Angeles. The next week Mrs. Cranston still hadn’t returned. The rumor was that not only was the pool destroyed but the house had been damaged. She’d blamed her architect husband; they’d had a fight and he’d moved out. Like Ann the week before, Myrna had news for us. She’d gotten her transfer to San Rafael. Someone had unexpectedly retired and a job had opened up. With Ann and Myrna both leaving, that left only Zelda and myself in the unit. Miss Field moved quickly. The State was having one of its periodic cutbacks and she persuaded the Division head that rather than fill the two positions , it would be more economical to dissolve the unit and give the wage surveys to one of the larger units. Zelda would go to another unit, which required the same kind of coding. I’d finish up the wage survey and then go to Hank Barrow’s unit.
Mrs. Cranston, instead of being a unit head, would be moved to a staff position, directly under Miss Field, her arch-enemy. I asked Miss Field about the chance of a promotion in my new job. Maybe, she said.

At lunch the next day Hank Barrow and I discussed the recent turn of events. “So Zelda the Witch zapped Mrs. Cranston,” he said. “Do you think she was responsible for all the changes?”
“No question about it. You see, Zelda wasn’t the bad witch after all.” He buttered a roll. “She was the good witch and Mrs. Cranston was the bad witch. Mrs. Cranston had cast a spell on Ann and Myrna. Ann couldn’t get married and Myrna couldn’t get another job. When Zelda confronted Mrs. Cranston the spell was broken.” “Don’t you think that’s a little far-fetched? You really don’t believe Zelda has magical powers, do you?” “Strange things happen in State offices,” he replied. “By the way, the latest rumor is that Mrs. Cranston’s husband got so mad when he had to move out that he’s going to divorce her.”

We finished lunch and went back upstairs. On the escalator, we passed the analyst dressed like a cowboy. In the hallway, we passed the would-be actor reciting Shakespeare. As we passed Zelda’ new office, I said to Hank, “I just remembered, I have to do something. See you later.”

Zelda was at her desk, tapping the keys of a computer and loudly munching on an apple. Miss Field happened to be there, conferring with the coding supervisor. She came over and told Zelda to stop eating her apple. All of the computer screens in the office went blank. Zelda looked up and asked innocently, “Did you say something , Miss Field?”
“No, that’s all right.” Miss Field moved quickly away and the computer screens came back on. Hank was right; strange things happened in State offices.
“Zelda,” I said. “Do you think you can do anything about getting me a promotion?”
“You’ll be going to a larger unit, won’t you?” said Zelda. “Don’t be surprised if something comes up.” She winked and took another bite of her apple.

© Martin Green Jan 2005
mart_88@hotmail.com


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