Jurisprudence Jeopardy
— an essay by Wanda Marrow Clevenger

While unpleasant, I found fielding the Girls Gone Wild rep call favorable to incessant heckling, regular Dictaphone insults and the absurd instruction to type—hand to God—a grocery shopping list in alphabetical order. I pitied that porno video representative and grocery delivery man almost as much as myself. 

Presumptuous yes, answering a secretarial want ad behind a twenty year lapse in the white-collar world to wallow in full-time parenthood, but want for extra income presented when our oldest son entered college. And I admit my dusty résumé highlighted high school shorthand (gone rusty) hoping to compensate for fledgling computer skills. But isn't there a learning curve with any new job? Doesn't advancement opportunity abound for the personable, dedicated employee?

On that day credited as miraculous, I became secretary reincarnate (with starter pay and no discernible benefits). Just like riding a bicycle, I reminded myself at the library checking out a shorthand refresher manual. Yet despite my honest ambition to make this enterprise mutually successful, the poo was already poised to hit the fan.

Circled with teetering triage-arranged files, at business start the lone secretary already wore considerable frazzle behind her hopeful smile. Persnickety protocol crammed those first chaotic months, everything urgent due to an inordinate lapse since my predecessor's departure. Phone lines screamed in glints of ring and hold. A clutter of clients packed the waiting room, their names and faces a muddle. I had landed on a Tilt-A-Whirl ride with no one at the stop switch.

The law firm employed two typists, one full-time indentured-endangered and one part-time. Several turnovers resulted in the two attorneys becoming partnered for fifteen to life. The pecking order was set in granite. Bold letterhead declared unquestionably who was top dog. Big Dog, as I'll call him because he raised hunting dogs and periodically smelled of them, made the rules. And the rules were subject to frequent exceptions. One could master every trick in the book but invariably still suffer scolding. Job description: Come. Fetch. Heel.

Five years in, at my ulcer's urging, I started circulating updated résumés and once almost wriggled under the fence and hightailed it. The husband and wife law team couldn't conceal their glee when inquiring as to why I was interviewing. “Have you met Big Dog?” I half-joked. They nearly laughed out loud. Strength in this simpatico offered a sliver of salvation. About to seal the deal, they delicately disclosed their own recent staff incompatibility, thus the open position. I politely declined more of the same.

Add three years and Big Dog lastly topping himself. But first indulge a four-day flashback to intense converse emitting from his office and an investment agent's ears blown back with business mishandling accusations. Big Dog yapped for twenty minutes, the agent squeezing in: “I'm just telling you what the law says.” I flinched at the agent's snafu, unaware the snafu exclusively involved me.

Big Dog had made a boo-boo. He failed to read his employee IRA literature. And while I toe-danced my tootsies to the nub for token pay these unknown matching dollars had continually accrued. Compelled by the same law he represented, Big Dog reported the oversight on a Friday, then sidestepped. “You can start in with the IRA Plan if you so wish,” he informed. Reaffirming my reason for taking his guff week upon week, I undeniably saw a deeper shade of riled.

The following Monday I occupied the chair edge opposite crass indifference. He pushed a packet toward me. “Fill out these forms,” is all he said. The matter cleanly settled, he leaned back in his big, leather chair in expectation of compliance.

How many times in as many versions of the question I had practiced over the weekend is inconsequential. The more immediate question was: Could he make me roll over and play dead? As close to out-of-body as a whipped wimp gets without the blessed relief of being out-of-body, my shaky courage raised its dooks. “What about the six years I was eligible?” I heard myself ask, bracing for sarcasm or humiliation depending upon too many factors to factor in.

The room grew small and I swear oxygen convulsed into ripples before my eyes. Big Dog's lanky bones shifted an inch. “It's too late. The years have passed. You can't go back.” His declaration resonated with weekend practice as well. “It's out of my hands,” capped the bottle. A scuffed shoe sole appeared and propped against his massive desk edge. “We'll make it up to you in some way. Maybe some days off with pay. Down the line somewhere,” penetrated a thin smokescreen as he turned his attention to a opened file folder.

I returned to my work station and sat down hard. Every dog has its day. Oh, and this poodle was coiffed for show. I fumed over figures for forty-eight hours—getting my ducks in a tight row. They were quacking to beat the band when I consulted Big Dog's partner. Big Dog had announced his plan to retire in six months and it was sure as phew on puppy-piddle he didn't want to make good on the IRA monies. A lawyer dragging his feet for that short length was an easy hop, skip and jump in the park. Him leaving this mess for Partner to clean up looked inevitable because I wasn't slinking away this time. Partner listened, nodding at appropriate intervals. One arched eyebrow acknowledged my heretofore skittish gumption: pay me what's due or the counselors were back training another in a longish line of newbie secretaries. Jurisprudent jeopardy.

Two days dragged to end and back to a third morning without one mention of the pregnant elephant in the room, and I had to wonder if I was getting the brush off. But Partner was no patsy. We had developed a good rapport over the years, and on any given slow afternoon he was apt to prop a foot up on the credenza by my desk and dish the office dirt. He was my singular hope.

Partner arrived, poured his coffee and hustled to his office. I entered four steps behind. “Shut the door,” he whispered, and I instantly knew I had an ally. If I hadn't made my position entirely clear before, it was now halcyon. Leaving, I heard Partner ring Big Dog. Some tense minutes lapsed while Big Dog's displeasure bounced off the hallway walls. I jumped when my intercom buzzed.

Often I heard Big Dog blast opposing opinion; the sound was several decibels harsher aimed directly at me. I'm still uncertain if he was more torqued about the payment demand or that the demand came with an ultimatum—both federal offenses. Partner sat in silence, studying his desk mat. Fearing I was being thrown under the bus, there was little recourse but to rally to my own defense. And imagine the satisfaction discovering Big Dog didn't know the current minimum wage figure. Owning this particular moment produced a calm not felt in eight stomach-clinched years. My calm antagonized, I think, the vantage grossly empowering.

Big Dog's punishment for my insolence: no verdict for five days. Then I could take it or leave it. If I left it— “You can chase me down in small claims court for relief,” snarled from under his furry upper lip.

Hackles raised to the max, I stayed chained to his dictate until we two peeved adversaries were pitted in private session. A chew toy no longer, this underdog fought a unprecedented battle in the annals of Secretary vs Boss and was awarded an astonishing judgment: every pinched penny owed, plus a twenty-five cent raise and paid vacation.

“How's that?” Big Dog asked, full of himself. He actually believed I still worked for him.

Stunned, I could only deduce Partner (in cahoots with his 9 to 5 working wife) had weighed in heavily on my behalf. I was going to miss Partner.

“I'm really surprised,” I finally sputtered, having opportunely accepted a new position the night before. “But I will be seeking employment elsewhere.”

True to form, a prickly pause preceded Big Dog getting the last dig in. He imposed a preposterous one month leave notice (one I did not intend to honor past two weeks). In the time spent cowered in the corner I had heeded the legal wrangling I transcribed, learned some highly inventive words and a few self-preserving maneuvers too. None of which I hoped to need in my new data processing job, or for the rest of my life if I was lucky. And why I vacated my desk after only a week was Big Dog's choice. I didn't question the reprieve, just bolted at the smell of freedom. And a professional in my own right, bite me was the last thing I didn't say.

Wanda Morrow Clevenger is author of This Same Small Town in Each of Us, a collection of nonfiction, poetry and flash fiction.  Over 190 pieces of her work may be found in 72 print and electronic publications.  For access to published works, review and interview links, and work in progress, visit: http://wlc-wlcblog.blogspot.com