by Kaye George
Color Me Baby Blue was previously published in an anthology called All Things Dark and Dastardly.
I mostly remember how I got here. As far as I can tell, it happened about a year ago, but it’s hard to say. I can always see the clock on the clean, white wall, ticking my life away, one second at a time, but there’s no calendar in sight.
“You did what?”
Uncle Leo–excuse me, Mr. Hardiman–didn’t have to scream like that. The door to his office stood open. Everyone could hear that I was being chewed out again.
“I ordered ten dozen in Dusky Brown,” I said.
“What in the hell, Anton, is dusky brown?” Still yelling, he pounded his fist on his solid mahogany desk.
“Miss Manning got the official memo a coupla weeks ago.” I wished he’d stop pacing. It made me nervous. At least the thick Oriental rug muted his steps. “She gave it to me as soon as she saw it. It’s the new color this spring.”
“Brown? For spring? Are you an idiot?”
He stopped pacing to stare at me. At least he subsided into a more normal tone of voice. I wondered if Miss Manning was hearing this. I hoped not.
“Dusky Brown, Mr. Hardiman. Not just any old brown.”
“Brown is brown and it’s not a spring color. Which colorist did you say talked you into ‘Dusky Brown’?” His sneer was uncalled for.
He sighed and dropped into his huge leather chair. His strong fingers drummed on his desk pad. That stony gaze of his gave me the willies. Uncle Leo wasn’t bad looking and he was in good shape for a guy my dad’s age, but his worry lines grew deeper every year.
“You remember what happened last time we listened to Miss Manning, don’t you?” he said. “I almost lost my shirt.”
Of course this wasn’t true at all. Leo Hardiman’s shirts were in no danger of being lost, since he owned the company, Hardi Couture, in partnership with his father, mother, and wife. My job, on the other hand, could easily be lost, and I knew it.
Miss Manning, it was true, had made a bad call, but only one. She’d made lots of good ones. Uncle Leo told me, after that time, not to take her advice. I wondered why the hell he kept her on the payroll if he wasn’t going to listen to her.
As for taking her advice, Miss Manning was quite persuasive. Maybe it was something to do with the color of her eyes. Not Dusky Brown, to be sure, more like Passion Periwinkle. Or maybe it was the shape of her lips. They had shimmered with Soft Peach that day. Or maybe it was the shape of her…
“Anton! I’m talking to you.” Oops, he must have been yakking at me for awhile. And loudly, too. Again. If only I had thought to close the door when I had come to tell him about my order.
I thought, until a few minutes ago, Uncle Leo was beginning to trust my judgment. I hadn’t been chewed out for a month and a half.
“Yes, sir, Uncle Leo.” I ducked my head. Not too late for obsequies, I hoped.
“I asked when they’re arriving. And call me Mr. Hardiman at the office.”
“Probably next week.”
“Probably.” His stony stare became even harder. “You don’t know? Find out and cancel them.”
“Yes sir.” This was my dismissal from his office, but not from my job, yet. I slunk back to my wretched cubicle, dropped into my stained chair with the broken armrest, and stared at the phone on the shelf that served as my desk for a good five minutes.
When I had finished doing that I visited the john, got a Coke in the break room, and checked my box in the mail room.
I was building up my nerve, dreading what I would find out.
It was way past time to do the deed. I plowed through the pile of papers on my desk and found my notes from our meeting. Ah, she had sent me a copy of the invoice, too. The shipment was scheduled to arrive…today. That was what I had remembered, but I’d hoped I was wrong. Damn.
When I ran to the receiving room I saw the cartons, all ten of them, stacked neatly against the green wall. The labels were clear. “Dusky Brown sun dresses 12 each.” Oh shit. What do I do now? A little ripple of panic rose up in my gut.
See, the thing is, I had to have that job. I didn’t just want it, or sorta needed it. It’s a little complicated, so I’ll try to make it brief.
College hadn’t worked out for me. They require a certain grade point average in order for you to continue. The job at Dad’s car dealership hadn’t worked out either. That required selling cars. Nor had the job at Uncle Henry’s ice cream parlor. I hated being around the freezing ice cream all the time. Uncle Henry said I didn’t show up often enough. He didn’t seem to give sick days, let alone mental health days.
At that point, there was only one uncle left, Mom’s brother Leo, with his clothing store. Both my parents considered this a long shot for me. Dad told me that if I botched this one up (not exactly the language he used), I could stake out a cardboard box under a bridge, because there wouldn’t be a room for me at the old family manse any more. I surprised myself, and the rest of the family, too. I found I enjoyed working with clothing. I discovered that I devoutly believed that clothes actually do, if not Make The Man, at least Make The Man Look Good. Or not.
Uncle Leo fired me within the hour.
One morning a few weeks later–or maybe it was already afternoon by then–I crawled out of my refrigerator carton and picked up my sign that said “Will Work for Whatever.” I thought it was clever when I penned it, but it wasn’t making me a whole lot of money. Not enough to buy new clothes, that’s for sure. By that time I couldn’t even afford another marker for a new sign. I’d been run off several corners by career, professional panhandlers (some of those boys and girls play rough), but I’d finally found a spot no one else wanted (maybe that was the reason for the measly takings?), so that’s where I headed that day.
Spring had sprung, had reached full swing, so at least I wasn’t huddling outside in the cold. But, you know, I think I got more donations when it was freezing out. Anyway, that day I stood there with my face up to the warm sun and closed my eyes for a spell before I got started. I leaned against the warm stone building behind me and stood on the sidewalk letting the crowds swirl around me and the traffic rumble past. In spite of the faint smell of exhaust, it felt good.
I ignored the empty spaces and growling noises in my stomach.
I shook myself and looked around. Damn! I could see five of them from the sidewalk where I stood. Every woman in sight was wearing Dusky Brown!
“I’ll kill him,” I muttered. “I’ll fucking kill Leo. I was right and he was wrong.”
Leo had sent back the ten dozen dresses I’d ordered and asked for them in Neon Yellow, which was the ninth or tenth color being recommended by all the colorists. In other words, no one in their right mind would have ordered Neon Yellow for spring. Maybe summer. But a gal would have to have a deep tan to carry that color off. Not that I was all that crazy about the Dusky Brown, but I could see everyone was jumping on that bandwagon, or that clothes rack, to be precise, and Mandy Manning hadn’t been wrong about a color for several seasons. Except that once. It’s true, she did get Leo to buy all those Crazy Cranberry men’s trousers for winter, but that was the only miss I knew about. Uncle Leo was good at grudges.
I made my way through crowds of strolling females. They were clad not only in Dusky Brown sun dresses, but in Dusky Brown shorts, halter tops, even shades. It was, I had to admit, a very smooth look. All of them looked good in it, blonds and brunettes, even redheads.
The offices of Hardi Couture were about two miles from my corner, and I figured Leo would be taking his afternoon break by the time I arrived at the front of his office building.
That’s okay, I thought. I would go up and wait in his office. Surprise him. I planned to kill him with my bare hands.
I pushed through the revolving door and marched across the marble floor, trying to act like I still belonged there. I didn’t want my appearance or my aroma to keep me from my mission. It worked.
Halfway across the lobby on my return trip out of the building I got a tap on the shoulder – a hard tap. I whirled around, ready to face some security guy wanting to bounce me. It was Dad. He must have been standing at the elevators and I must have just walked right past him.
“Anton! Where have you been? Mother and I have been worried sick.” He drew back from me a little. I didn’t smell all that good.
“Yeah, well, Leo told me I wasn’t welcome back at the homestead. Then Mom hung up on me three times in a row.”
“You were drunk. And crying. And you were cussing her out.”
I ignored his interruption. I have my dignity. “And the locks were changed when I tried to come home two weeks ago.”
Dad looked down. I had him there. “Son. I lost my head. I’m terribly sorry. Your mother is frantic. Please come home. We’ll talk.” He put a hand on my shoulder, careful not get his nose any closer to me.
“It might be too late.”
“Don’t say that, Anton! Your mother’s heart is breaking. But what are you doing here? Just leaving?”
I didn’t want to answer that, so I parried it nicely, I thought. “What are you doing here, Dad? I didn’t think you liked Uncle Leo all that much.”
“Your mother asked me to check on him. They usually talk every afternoon and she couldn’t get him on the phone just now. Leo’s secretary is on vacation, I know, but your mother thought he should be answering the phone. I was a block away when she called me.”
“I’ll go up with you,” I said. I needed to see what would happen when he found out.
He headed toward the elevators. I followed and he punched the button for Leo’s floor.
“Why doesn’t he have a temp?” I asked.
We got in and the car started up. I stood in one corner, Dad in the opposite one.
“Well, that’s one reason your mother is so worried about her brother. The business is doing, well, it’s doing rotten.
Leo has let almost everyone go. The Neon Yellow sun dress fiasco just about ruined him.”
So that’s why no one was around.
We stepped off the elevator and I let Dad precede me into the office. Since I already knew what he’d find. This might work out well for me, I thought.
“Leo!” Dad shouted. “What’s matter?” He ran over and shook him. When he raised him up and saw the letter opener sticking out of his chest, he dropped his head onto the desk with a thud and dialed 9-1-1. The police decided it looked a little fishy, so they had their people poke around. I was questioned, but – more good luck here – Leo hadn’t paid the security company so none of the cameras were running. No one could tell I’d gone up, come back down, and then met Dad in the lobby. I’d even remembered to wipe my prints off the letter opener and press Uncle Leo’s onto it.
Dad assumed Leo had committed suicide (I had stabbed him in the chest from behind with a letter opener at the last minute – didn’t want to get my hands dirty). Everything turned out great. The forensics people couldn’t detect that I had just been in the office a few minutes before, since I was obviously there when they arrived.
They thought someone had killed him, but couldn’t find a single suspect. No one seemed to have the required means, motive, and opportunity. Dad must not have remembered I was on my way out when he saw me in the lobby, and I wasn’t about to remind him. I told the cops I’d arrived just before him. Wanted to see if old Leo–I called him Mr. Hardiman–would take me back. Met Dad in the lobby. We went up together and discovered the body. I made sure to shudder a little every time I mentioned it.
I always thought, from the time I started working for Uncle Leo at Hardi Couture, that I was cut out to be in the clothing business. Many times my judgment was better than his about what to order, how to market, who to hire. We would have done well if he hadn’t sent back the Dusky Brown dresses.
Soon after the funeral, Dad and Uncle Henry set me up in Uncle Leo’s place. Turned out old Leo’s business partners, his wife plus my grandparents, weren’t that crazy about getting involved and were perfectly willing for me to take over. Dad bought their shares for pennies on the dollar.
I got the big office, the leather chair, the plush carpet, and the nice view. I hired back the people I thought were good workers and didn’t call back the ones who had irritated me when I worked there. And I dealt with Miss Manning myself.
She looked meek when she walked through the door that now bore my name, into my new office.
“Please close the door,” I said. “Have a seat.”
Uncle Leo always liked to keep people standing. I wanted to be seen as more approachable. Nicer.
Those marvelous eyes looked apprehensive. Did she think I was going to fire her? For some reason, Uncle Leo had kept her on.
“I’d like you to stay on with the company.”
A smile touched her soft lips and she relaxed into the chair a notch.
“Also, if you play it right, I can see a big raise in your future.”
“What do you mean, Anton?”
I gave her a wink and a warm smile. “We’ll see. You just do your job.”
I didn’t want to rush her. She seemed skittish around me.
Things went along fine for three seasons. Business picked up and, between Miss Manning and me, we made several fortunate decisions. I had to hire more people in the stock room. Revenue poured in. After a successful fall campaign featuring Ravishing Raspberry, I decided it was time to make my move on the delicious Miss Manning. I called her into my office.
“It’s time for me to think about salary increases, Miss Manning,” I said, acting all businesslike.
That made her smile and sit up a little. Sitting up made what was in her blouse look even better. I stayed silent for a moment, wanting her to ask what she should be doing for a raise. When she didn’t, I was forced to say it.
“Your raise will depend on several factors. We can discuss them over dinner if you’re free tonight.”
Her eyes narrowed a little, but she recovered quickly. “Tonight would be fine.”
I picked her up an hour after work and took her to the new Asian Fusion place. She hated the food. When I took her home she said she felt sick to her stomach, so there was no progress that night.
She accepted several more dinner dates and we saw some plays together, but nothing sparked. She always had an excuse for why I couldn’t come in when I took her home. I wasn’t making any progress for some reason.
That last night, as I was dropping her off at her apartment, frustrated at the state of the relationship (okay, the non-relationship) I couldn’t stand it anymore. When we got to the balcony outside her door I grabbed her and kissed her.
She shoved me away and gave me a look as cold as Icy Frost White, the new winter color. Those Passion Periwinkle eyes flashed. “Anton,” she said, her lips pursed tight.
“Call me Tony.” I’d told her that a dozen times.
“I won’t call you anything at all if you keep after me. I don’t need this job that badly.”
“Mandy.” I almost sobbed. “What can I do? I’m crazy about you. What’s the point of sitting in Leo’s chair, running Leo’s company, if I don’t mean anything to you?” I couldn’t help it, I was giving way to melodrama.
Her eyes filled and those luscious lips trembled. “I could never love anyone else, Anton. It’s not you, it’s just that…” She clutched the wrought iron railing and stared down into the parking lot. “There was someone else. Someone I truly loved. And he’s….”
Ah, she had had a tragic love affair. But she could eventually get over it. I could help her. What I said next was just to impress her, I guess. But it was pretty stupid. I know that now, of course.
“I went to a lot of trouble to get this job,” I said, putting my hand on her shoulder. “Do you know why they never found Leo’s killer?”
Her shoulder tensed under my fingers. She stopped crying, turned around and stared at me, her eyes huge. “What did you say?”
“I know who helped him out.”
“Helped him out? How? What are you saying?”
“I, uh, I was there.” I was grinning now, just bragging and showing off for the damsel. I scuffed my shoe against the bottom of the railing.
She looked like she didn’t understand me.
“I did it. I killed him.”
“You killed Leo?” she screeched. Her mouth hung open. I assumed she was really, really impressed.
I looked down in modesty. Leaned my butt on the railing, all casual like. “Yep. Stabbed the old codger right in the heart.”
There was a strange strangled sound from Miss Mandy Manning and when I looked up I realized she was not impressed. She was furious. With me.
“Dear, dear Leo,” she whispered.
A feeling the color and temperature of Igloo White Ice crept up my spine.
“I loved him.” She narrowed those incredible eyes. Tears spilled down her cheeks. “I loved Leo with all my heart. I would have won him over eventually. But you, you killed him.”
And that’s when it happened. It was easy for her, in retrospect. I wasn’t expecting it. She gave me the tiniest little shove and over I went. As I hurled through the air, I thought about how easy I’d made it for her, leaning on the railing and all. I heard the sound my neck made when it broke. I didn’t wake up for a long time, they tell me.
Mom and Dad visit me about once a week. Sometimes twice. Mandy comes less often. She acts like she’s so delighted to see me, but that glint in her eyes is hard. She always has a new hospital gown for me, in a most hideous color. She tells the orderlies to put it on me right away, that I like those horrible shades: vermilion, chartreuse, baby blue. I don’t know what they’re called any more. I can’t ask for a fashion magazine, being paralyzed except for my eyeballs. But I can see those colors. And the way she sneers.
Check out other short stories by Kaye George in KRL’s Terrific Tales section.