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been working only a few weeks in the States 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
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, whod 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 havent 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. Zeldas made the rounds and
now its your units turn.
Id 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. Hanks
explanation was that since people couldnt be fired they tended
to stay around for years and after a while began to cultivate their
Our unit did surveys of wage rates for the State. Id landed there
when the research firm for which I worked suddenly folded and I couldnt
find anything else. The pay was considerably lower and I hoped to get
a promotion but in our small unit there didnt 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, shed
been staring at Ann Tani, our secretary. Ann was a pretty Japanese girl,
always well-dressed, cheerful and helpful. Myrna, our units 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 ones 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 Zeldas staring bothered
her. No, said Ann. Let her stare if she wants. To
tell you the truth, shes been so quiet Ive hardly noticed
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 Fields
way of getting back at her. Mrs. Cranston didnt 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 couldnt
seem to keep a boy friend. Ann was so pretty and shed 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. Myrnas husband worked in
San Rafael, which is where they lived. Myrna wanted to transfer to San
Rafael so she wouldnt have to make the long commute by bus each
day. Shes been trying for a year now, Mrs. Cranston
would say. Too bad, there just arent any jobs there.
Again, she would shake her head in mock-sadness. I could only imagine
what she said about me when I wasnt there.
Zelda for her part continued to quietly code our survey forms.
At first, her coding was a little bizarre and Id go over it with
her every day. Finally, with repetition, her work wasnt too bad.
One day, she told me, whispering, that Ann Tani was so nice, she deserved
better than being Mrs. Cranstons 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,
Yeah, she wants Miss Fields 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 hasnt been looking well lately?
Shes had the flu, said Myrna. Maybe, said
Mrs. Cranston, but I think shes depressed. I dont
think shes even had a date lately, Its 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 everyones misfortune.
Mrs. Cranstons 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. Im warning you . . . beware.
With this, Zelda rushed out of the room. Well, I never,
said Mrs. Cranston. Did you hear that? She threatened me. Im
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 dont 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 oclock, Miss Field came in. Mrs. Cranston had called her.
Thered 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 wouldnt be in that day. I saw a slight smile on
Zeldas face and she nodded her head.
It turned out that Ann had more news for us. She was engaged to be married.
Shed kept it a secret because she hadnt wanted Mrs. Cranston
to know. The reason shed been out the day before wasnt that
she was ill (that was just what shed told Mrs. Cranston), but
because her young man, on a sudden impulse, had driven from Los Angeles
to San Francisco to propose to her. Theyd be married soon and
shed be moving to Los Angeles. The next week Mrs. Cranston still
hadnt returned. The rumor was that not only was the pool destroyed
but the house had been damaged. Shed blamed her architect husband;
theyd had a fight and hed moved out. Like Ann the week before,
Myrna had news for us. Shed 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. Id finish up the wage
survey and then go to Hank Barrows 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 wasnt 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 couldnt get married and Myrna couldnt get
another job. When Zelda confronted Mrs. Cranston the spell was broken.
Dont you think thats a little far-fetched? You really
dont believe Zelda has magical powers, do you?
things happen in State offices, he replied. By the way,
the latest rumor is that Mrs. Cranstons husband got so mad when
he had to move out that hes 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, thats 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?
Youll be going to a larger unit, wont you? said
Zelda. Dont be surprised if something comes up. She
winked and took another bite of her apple.
© Martin Green
Never enough money
The View From 90: Adventures in Fall
Martin Green takes stock of October to Early December 2020.
Stories in Dreamscapes
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