As the young woman emerged from the steaming underbelly of the immense city, she was immediately struck by how incredibly insignificant she was. She may as well have been one of the street lamps covered in the sediment thrown at them by a thousand passing vehicles. Pausing at the top of the stairwell, she looked down at her reflection in a puddle- the remnants of last night’s rain. She regarded herself as a mouse: not hideous, but not anything of interest. The light turned green and her reflection was lost amidst the trampling of people hurrying nowhere. The young woman believed herself to be forgotten, despite knowing there was no one here to remember her.
Another reflection in a deli window caused her to question her sanity. What was she doing here? She had walked into the mouth of a gaping beast and was on the brink of being swallowed alive, chewed by razor sharp teeth and spat into the gutter. She was no match for the people who loved in their penthouses amongst the stars. She twisted and pulled at her pencil skirt and adjusted her blouse, trying to give her skinny figure a more defined shape. She believed herself to be to be more masculine than feminine with her gangly shape. In fact, her only non-androgynous asset were the flowing locks caught up in a bun under a worn page boy cap. Turning away from the window she determined she was a walking, breathing billboard for lost causes.
She pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. When she had written the directions, she had assumed they had made sense. She also had determined that asking for clarification would look bad to a potential employer. This, along with the fact the gentleman on the other end of the conversation seemed unsympathetic, caused her to keep her mouth shut. Now she was uncertain as to where she was.
"You look lost."
At first, she thought the voice was her own thoughts bouncing around in her muddled brain. Then she looked up and saw a woman staring at her from under a newspaper. Looking up, she realized that it had begun to rain. She had not planned for this meteorological event and therefore relinquished any hope of being presentable for her interview.
When she did not reply to the woman, she asked her again. "You lost?"
She fumbled with her paper. "I...uh..."
The lady clearly was proactive by nature. "Let’s see where you are going." She grabbed the paper and studied it. Then she whistled in surprise. “Cygnet Publishing, huh? Dressed like that?”
“I have an interview in an hour. I’m not from around here...”
The woman arched one brow and smirked. “Obviously. Well too late to fix that!” She turned towards the street and whistled loudly. "Taxi!"
A yellow and black cab screeched to a halt at the woman’s summons. The woman opened the door and shoved her in the back seat. Before she could protest, the woman slammed the door shut and then knocked on the window.
"’A piece of advice," she yelled through the glass. "Don’t let them know who you truly are! Sell them who you want to be, not who you are!" She stepped back onto the curb and the cabbie peeled away into the traffic.
She turned her head away from the window? "What?"
"Where do you want to go?"
His accent was German, Scandinavian... definitely not Indian. She shook her head. That was such a racist thought. Of course, not all cab drivers were Indian. Everyone had to make a living at something.
"Um," she once more fumbled with the paper. "I need to get to Cygnet Publishing?"
"You questioning that?"
"What? No. Sorry, the city is a bit overwhelming. Cygnet Publishing, please."
The cabbie whistled. "Manners. I’m impressed." He swerved to switch lanes and took a sharp left against a red light. "Manners are impressive in my cab. I’ll get you there in fifteen minutes."
She looked at the window, trying to slow her thoughts and trying to remember exactly how she got here. Even more so, how in the world could she possibly make it here? She turned back toward the cabbie.
"Is it always this crowded?"
The cabbie looked at her in his rear-view mirror and then out the window. "Crowded? This? Miss, this is nothing." He studied her in the mirror. "Where are you from?"
She pulled at her skirt. "Sheepshead."
The Cabbie smiled. "Excuse me?"
She slouched down in the seat. "Wyoming. I’m from Wyoming. Sheepshead, Wyoming."
The cabbie cleared his throat. "Well, can’t say I know where you are taking about. It sounds like something out of a cowboy movie. What do you call them?"
She rolled her eyes. "A western."
"That’s it!" He looked over his shoulder. "Are you a cowboy?"
She managed to turn one corner of her mouth up with a small smile. "If I was, I’d be a cowgirl. And no, I wasn’t really anything back home." She leaned her head against the window.
"Everyone’s somebody," the cabbie straightened his cap. "That’s what my mama always told me."
"My grandmother always said we lived in the middle of the middle of nowhere. And nothing ever came out of nowhere."
She closed her eyes and tried to forget nowhere.
"Miss? Miss, we are here."
She jolted awake. She could not have been asleep over five minutes, but she felt as though she’d been asleep for hours. "We’re here?"
"Yes, ma’am. Cygnet Publishing."
She looked passed her frumpy reflection at her destination. It was not what she had imagined in her head. “This is a house.” She looked at the cabbie. “Are you sure this is right?”
“Yes ma’am,” he threw the cab into park. “Rochester Cygnet started the company back in 1809. Back then, it was downtown somewhere. Now his great grandson runs the place.”
“From a Brownstone?”
The cabbie peered out the passenger side window. “It used to be the family home. Now Mr. C lives on the Upper East Side in some penthouse and the offices are here.”
She tried to open her door, but it was stuck. “Um, I’m sorry, I can’t seem to open the door.”
The cabbie whirled around. “Oh! Sorry about that!” He opened his door and ran around to her door. Pulling on the handle a few times, he managed to open the door and offered her his greased stained hand. “This cab is getting on in years.” He reached in and pulled her bag out. “This is all you have?”
She snatched the bag out of his hands and held it against her chest. “I didn’t have much to start with.” She fumbled in her coat pocket and pulled out a crumpled-up handful of bills. “I don’t know how much is here.” She handed him the money, and he studied it for a moment. She could feel her cheeks burning. “I’m sorry, I know it’s probably not enough. But it’s all I have left.”
The cabbie smiled and handed the money back to her. “Keep it. It’s not every day I have someone so refreshing in my cab.” He closed her door and leaned against the side of the cab. “You better be getting in.”
She looked at him in disbelief. “You don’t want your cab fare?”
He laughed. “You need it more than I do.”
“Thank you,” she murmured.
“Don’t mention it.” The cabbie touched his cap and then walked around to the driver side of the cab. Opening the door, he called after her. “Don’t let them grind you into the street, Miss. You reach for the stars, now!”
She smiled back at him and gave a small wave. Why was she waving? What an absurd thing to do. She positioned her bag’s strap high on her shoulder and climbed the well-worn stairs. There was an iron railing splitting the stairs in half, but it looked as though it would crumble upon contact. She paused at the door and looked up at the ivy that hung over the upper portion of the door. Its green tendrils wove in and out of the aged and cracked stonework on the face of the house, and creeped across the two second floor balconies. Touching the roughhewn wood of the door she leaned her head against its aged surface.
“Ok,” she murmured. “This is it. This is your chance. Your one chance. You can’t go back. You won’t go back.” Taking one last deep breath, she squared her shoulders and reached for the doorbell.
Before the doorbell even rang the large door creaked open with startling speed. Standing before her was an older gentleman leaning on an engraved cane. He looked at her as though he were sizing up a chicken for dinner. His back was hunched and his shoulders arched up toward his graying temples. She thought he looked quite like an aging buzzard.
“Well?” His booming voice startled her.
“Speak up, girl!” He stomped the ground with his cane.
She cleared her throat. I have an appointment with Mr. Cygnet. My name is…”
He pushed the door open further. “Come in.”
He made no sign of moving out of the way. Believing that things could become no more awkward, she ducked under his arm that was holding the door open and entered the hallway. He removed his hand from the door and it slid closed with a groan.
“Well,” he said. “Don’t just stand there.” He pushed past her and headed down the hallway. “Follow me.”
She felt like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. The floors of the hallway were a black and white deco tile that met gray paneled walls under crown molding. All manner of turn of the century bric-a-brac hung on the walls amidst faded photographs of what she assumed were deceased family members. The hallway passed a formal dining room and parlor, which also seemed frozen in time. After the parlor, the hallway took a surprising curve down a darkened corridor that was lit by a few sconces.
The old man opened a door with paint peeling from the grained wood and led her into what quite possibly had once been a kitchen. The ceilings were higher and the beams were exposed. Windows had been put in along one wall, revealing a beautifully landscaped area outside. Whatever this space had once been, it was now an office. Three desks sat in a triangular formation. They were modern and sleek, with even sleeker laptop computers sitting on top of them. In the opposite corner against an exposed brick wall was a work center with multiple copiers, fax machines and what looked to be a modern form of the printing press. She thought to herself that this was a perfect blend of old mixed with new. Nothing of the character or quality of the home had been tarnished, only technology added to accommodate whoever worked there.
A side door opened and a well-manicured young man walked in. He was on his phone which he hung up when he saw the two of them.
“Who’s this, Beau?” he asked her aged escort.
Beau? She mused over the name. “So, Buzzard has a name,” she thought to herself.
Beau shrugged. “The interviewee. I’m taking her up to see Mr. C
The young man’s mouth curved up at its corners. “I see. Fresh meat for Mr. C, huh?”
Beau must have seen the color drain from her face. “Please don’t scare the young woman, Weston.” He gestured for her to follow him. “This way, Miss.”
She turned away from the contemptuous man named Weston and followed Beau down another hallway. “Mr. Beau, is it?” she asked softly.
“Just Beau, Miss,” he replied. “We are rather informal when it comes to prefixes around here.”
“I see,” she adjusted her bag. “And who was that person I just met?”
“Weston? Oh, he’s harmless. More bark than bite. He’s Mr. C’s tech and security advisor. Well, advisor, and just about everything else that isn’t already taken by someone working here.”
She felt the knot in her stomach grow. “Mr. Cygnet needs security? I thought publishing was a somewhat non-threatening job.”
Beau laughed and stopped another well-worn door. “Oh, Mr. C. has his hand in just about everything in the city. Politics, trade, restaurants, horse racing, fashion, et cetera. That’s how he’s built his empire. He’s a complete jack of all trades.”
She tried to swallow the lump in her throat that simply would not go away. “I had no idea.”
Beau’s eyes glistened. She could not tell if it was from maliciousness or amusement. “Always have your facts, miss. Otherwise, this city will swallow you whole.” He twisted the knob on the door and threw it open. “Go on, Mr. C is waiting for you.”
She could feel her already pale face turning three shades lighter. She had expected another room, perhaps an office. Instead, she looked up a flight of winding stairs that twisted in a spiral until they disappeared to what she assumed was the second floor of the house. “Up… there?” she squeaked.
His smile widened, his teeth flashing in her direction. “Up there, miss. Come on now, Mr. C. hates it when people are late.”
She felt all emotion leave her body. Somehow, she knew she should turn and run through this crazy house to the primeval front door, but she found herself moving toward the stairs. Her hand touched the cool, metallic railing and pulled herself up the first few steps. The frigidness of the metal shocked her body and caused a wave of adrenaline to course through her body. She looked over her shoulder at Beau.
“Don’t worry, Miss,” he smiled up at her, gripping the lapel of his jacket. “Mr. C. doesn’t bite… too hard.” He laughed and disappeared down the hallway.
She turned and craned her neck, trying to see the top of the stairway, but only could stare into the unknown.