And I have known the eyes already, known them all -
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
I drove down early for the interview at nine. But instead of being able to rehearse answers to questions about my suitability for Prufrock and Co. all that came up was the ominous
I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
Then I saw a woman talking in my rearview mirror. At the second light down Johnson Street the Mercedes was even closer behind me. Someone was obviously getting an earful. I imagined her husband had goofed that morning. He had left the bathroom in a worse mess than usual.
I tried to bring my mind back to the job interview. It was a last chance before going on welfare. But it's hard when you've lost count of the resumes that went out. I couldn't even enthuse about the company product. Mailing out lingerie for honeymoon trousseaus was not my aspiration.
At the next light the Mercedes was on my tail again. She was still pointing her finger as she talked. But then there was a momentary smile and I could see she would be rather attractive in a better mood. She caught my eye checking her out, and I quickly looked at some students throwing a frisbee on the sidewalk.
I stopped too suddenly at the next light, tires screeched, and I braced myself for a whiplash. This time I could see the words were directed at me. "Why didn't this idiot run the yellow?" I am not superstitious, but I thought of the horoscope on the page opposite the employment ads in the Globe and Mail. "Any interview today would be disastrous for your state of mind."
It was a soft October morning and as I turned on Bagot Street there was a touch of yellow fog to remind me of the poem.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
I put my last quarter in the meter, and hoped the interview with Prufrock
and Company wouldn't last all day. The office was upstairs in a large private
house, and the receptionist dressed in black was more like a footman. He
took my coat, and snickered as he looked down at my shoes. I was
panting, so he asked if I needed a doctor.
I asked if there was a washroom, and he explained it was not for visitors off the street. Then he relented and said there could be an exception if I was a serious applicant for the job. When I returned he snickered again and pointed at my zipper. I turned away from him to do the needful, and sat down.
"Who's next?" It was a woman's voice, and a crumpled fellow came out.
Again the receptionist snickered, gave the man his coat, and I watched the bald spot going down the stairs. Suddenly there was a premonition. I was going to be interviewed by the woman who tailed me down Johnson Street. It must have been her white Mercedes I saw in the parking place next to mine. I just had a few seconds . . .
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
In the hard sell sales course the previous week they said I must get her pinned before she had me wriggling on the wall.
"What makes you think you are suited to work with me, Mr. J. Alfred Jones?" She was daintily impressive behind the antique desk which had none of the trimmings of a modern office. My mind went blank, and all I could think of were more lines from the poem. So I stood up, bowed, and declaimed :
I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the Prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Without missing a beat she went on reciting:
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous -
Almost at times the Fool.
As I had guessed on Johnson Street, she was stunningly beautiful when she smiled. But I wondered if she had already decided I was too obtuse and ridiculous a fool for the job. Perhaps an apology would regain her favour.
"I am very sorry, Mrs. Prufrock, I was too chicken to run the yellow light and jammed on the brakes in front of you."
She liked that and smiled again but the counter attack came in brutally. "I noticed the license plate on your old Chevette was 081 AEH, the doors are badly rusted, and you only had a quarter for the parking meter." I was forced to admit that the state of my car was one reason why I needed the job.
"Give me that file in your briefcase." How dare she? I wanted to refuse, but there was no escape. So I handed over the three pages of notes I had collected about her company. What would she think of my remark about demonstrating bras and panties to a group of dowdy church women? Or the drawing of a gorgeous Chief Executive Officer chewing a cigar? She studied my folder silently for three minutes. "Is there anything else you want to know about our work, Mr. Jones?"
I thought of the horoscope that warned the interview would be dangerous for my state of mind, but a surge of adrenaline helped me look her straight in the eye. "I couldn't help wondering, Mrs. Prufrock, what you were saying to your husband as you were driving down Johnson Street?" She got up from behind the desk, handed me my briefcase, and I caught the fragrance of perfume from her cleavage.
"In your dossier you had me correctly listed as unmarried. You even added a note in the margin, Why a spinster? And now you call me Mrs. Prufrock and have the impudence to ask what I was saying to my husband. I am looking for a person who can deal meticulously with the orders that come in. And what makes you think I smoke cigars?"
The interview had ended in disaster, and I got up to leave. But the sales course said that when you have lost a sale you should still try an outrageous question to see if you can regain the initiative. "This isn't a personal question, Miss Prufrock, but would it be relevant for me to know what you are going to be doing while I run your business?" She laughed and said "When I advertised for someone like you I had decided to put my mind to the more difficult task of getting married, and have some kids for a few years. But when I talked to him last night the creep had another agenda, which is why I was still breaking up with him this morning."
I thought of offering myself to do the needful instead of the creep who had dumped her, but I happily kept quiet and wondered if it was now time to give the sharp tug and see if I could reel in a job offer? But it was Miss Prufrock who had me hooked. "I want to take time off for a course at Queen's. You will have a free hand to develop the business as long as my profits keep growing. When can you start?"
She took out a wad of fifty dollar bills from her purse, counted out half a dozen of them and told me to buy some shoes and a flowered tie. I was so stunned I just stood there with a dumb grin on my face. "When I ask a question, I expect an immediate answer. Do you still want the job?" I bowed deferentially and said "Your least desire it is my pleasure immediately to fulfil." She looked rather pleased with herself.
As I passed the fellow at the reception desk I discovered his name was Grunge, James Grunge pronounced the German way with two dots over the u.
For a month he tried to be civil, and I managed to avoid telling him to get lost. Then I had a business lunch with our main competitor in Toronto. She mentioned there was the need of a butler for her new mansion in Rosedale. I recommended Grunge at a salary twice what Prufrock & Company paid the receptionist, plus a free room and other perks.
Miss Prufrock was true to her word, and let me run the company my own way.
But she couldn't resist coming in to see the new receptionist. "Why did you fire Mr. Grunge?" The answer was easy. "Oh Grunge left when they offered twice what you were paying him to be someone's footman in Rosedale." Then she asked if the receptionist had any office skills to go with her figure?
Again I had my answer ready. "Oh Mary was the one who set up our computer to print up the financial report you said looked so good."
As I left the office that evening I nearly had the courage to ask Mary out for a pizza, but she handed me an envelope with a pink slip. Obviously I was fired. I tried to laugh it off and pretend I already had another job waiting for me in Toronto. But instead of being fired the pink slip informed me that my salary had been doubled so I needn't accept the offer of our competitor. "Miss Prufrock also wanted me to inform you she would be picking you up at six for dinner."
My boss drove very fast along Highway 2 to Gananoque, and we sat down at a table with a red table lamp in a restaurant near the water. I noticed her arms. For the first time since I began work with Prufrock & Co. the lines from T.S.Eliot again began scrolling in my mind:
And I have known the arms already, known them all -
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
She asked why I had suddenly gone silent, and I said something about the Thousand Islands. I felt chilled, but managed to keep the conversation going. I wondered if I would have enough to pay the bill, but she gave the waiter a gold card, and when he brought it back she turned to me with a stage whisper and asked if the tip was sufficient. He picked up the fifty dollar bill, offered some more coffee, and looked at me as if I worked for an escort service.
She handed over the keys to her Mercedes with a merry laugh because she didn't want to lose her license for drinking and driving. When we arrived at my apartment she leaned over touched my arm and said "I like the new tie you bought." I got out of the Mercedes, opened the door for her to get into the driving seat, bowed correctly and said "Thank you very much for a wonderful evening."
The next Friday Mary smiled saucily and reminded me that I would again be picked up at six. Miss Prufrock wore a stunning gown under a mink coat. I wondered if that Bardot woman in France would think the same about minks as she did about seal pups. The boss guessed my thoughts and explained that the coat was a graduation present from her parents long before all this fuss about animal furs. I said it suited her very well, and resisted the temptation to stroke the mink as she drove to a restaurant on the American side of the Thousand Islands.
After dinner the band played a waltz. "Shall we dance?" When I was twenty- one my mother had complained I never went out with girls, and she made me take old fashioned dance classes. So I managed rather well. Twice I missed the beat in a tricky tango but Miss Prufrock squeezed and turned and brought me back into the next run of steps. It was wild and rather fun, and we didn't stop till eleven thirty. I wondered why she wanted to get home before midnight.
Again she made me drive on the way home. At the door she paused for a moment, and I had an animal urge to grab her, but I knew it would cost me my job. I remembered the girl I took in my arms in the locker room behind the gym at school, and she reported me to the Principal. I never had the courage to date a woman since that awful experience. And here I was within an inch of being sued for sexual assault by the owner of Prufrock and Co.
All week the tension kept mounting as I half looked forward to being with the boss again, and the other half filled with terror at the thought of the being alone with her. The next Friday we went to a nearby restaurant in Kingston. This time I was more relaxed at table, and I really felt the boss and I were getting on rather well together, and she invited me to her home for a drink.
She said she was going to change into something more relaxed. "By the way my name is Freda." I sat on the edge of the huge divan and pictured her soaping herself in the shower. Freda Prufrock sounded like the feminine of Alfred Prufrock. She came back, poured a drink, and sat uncomfortably close next to me. As we talked I could see there was a black Prufrock bra and frilly panties under her silk dressing gown. If I touched her I knew I would be in trouble. She finally let me off the hook with "It's close to midnight. I wouldn't want the neighbours thinking you are going to stay the night."
All that week I had to wriggle every which way to maintain my professional conduct. I could hardly sleep at night. The mink coat, the light flickering on her bare arms, a slow fox trot with her tight up against me, sudden Spanish movements in the tango, the silk dressing gown, the couch in her living room, and a pink slip saying I was fired were all interspersed with lines from my photographic memory.
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That's not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.
By then I had got used to the receptionist tricking me with pink slips that turned out to be a raise or a perk. This one was different. "Mr. and Mrs. Richard Love request the pleasure of the company of Mr. Alfred Jones and Miss Freda Prufrock at the marriage of their daughter Mary to Mr. Michel Angelo of Ottawa." I said "Oh, I am so pleased," and gave her a big hug.Just then the boss walked in and barked at me "What's going on here?" In total confusion I handed her the wedding invitation. And the wretched poem came back:
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo
In the ceremony I saw tears rolling down Freda's cheeks. At the reception she told me to propose a toast on behalf of Prufrock and Company. I also had to deliver a thousand dollar cheque and our top of the line bridal set.
I managed to hold back a remark about the scented condoms we thoughtfully included.
Usually Miss Prufrock arranged our date on Thursday. By Friday I wondered if she had written me off. But as she was leaving the office she said "It's my mother's birthday tomorrow, and I am driving to Toronto tonight." I want you to come to church with me on Sunday. I will pick you up at ten."
That floored me. She didn't seem anything like my mother who had dragged me to sermons about my sins and the hell that awaited me. How could a business woman who wore mink, and danced, and sold lingerie go to church?
I put on a dark suit and tie. She appeared in a jean jacket and slacks. My mother always wore a hat, and slacks and lipstick were an absolute no-no for my sister.
Freda took my arm, and introduced me to her church friends. I had a job finding the place in the Anglican book. She shared her book with me so I could join in the Psalm. Then suddenly she went forward and began reading from the book above the big brass eagle. "To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace." She read beautifully as if she believed it. I was proud of her, and wondered what it would be like to be married to a woman who read the Bible in church.
The reading before the sermon was about Lazarus being raised from the dead.
I never heard what the priest said, but I could see Eliot's words suspended above the altar.
' I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all' -
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say : 'That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.'
I remembered that Eliot had been converted and become an Anglican. What did he mean by Lazarus telling me all?
I didn't know the next hymn, and I couldn't connect her nightingale voice with her barking at me in the interview. When they came for the collection she put in an envelope, and I couldn't find the pocket book in my raincoat.
As the priest droned on I felt her take my hand, "Are you going to come and take communion with me?" I had never done such a thing before, but I went up and knelt beside her. I saw her put her hands up for the bread, and take the wine. I did the same. By the time we sang the final hymn, which I knew, I had to hold back the tears. I had never cried since I was beaten up at school, and they teased me for being a cry baby.
Jesu, thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love thou art;
Visit us with thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.
Freda sensed my feelings and put her arm around me.
Ten days later Mary was back from her honeymoon with Michel Angelo. She looked deadly serious and said the office was closed for Good Friday. But I was to pick up Miss Prufrock in my new company car. I must pay for the dinner from my own credit card, and stop being so damn prudish. Mary even suggested that if I didn't kiss the boss passionately and propose by the end of the evening I would be fired.
As I was about to write this in my diary, I saw Friday was April Fools' Day, and I knew my pesky receptionist had set me up to make a fool of myself. I could easily have been tricked into blowing it all with a proposal. It took the receptionist half an hour to prove to me she wasn't joking.
I drove home up Brock Street with a yellow fog rubbing its back along the window panes. I had a strange feeling I was finding out why the professor had thought the poem was so important.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, 'Do I dare? and 'Do I dare?'
That April the First evening I managed a polite kiss. I also mumbled "Freda, I love you very much," but the proposal couldn't get past my craw.
Time to turn back and descend the stair
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair -
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
Freda said sweetly "I told the receptionist you had to propose to me by midnight or you would be fired immediately." But I didn't have to propose. She just took me in her arms. Five minutes later she asked if I would be willing to change my name from J. Alfred Jones to J. Alfred Prufrock. That would keep the business in the family name.
T.S.Eliot (1888-1965) wrote "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" at Harvard in 1910. And Ezra Pound had the wisdom to publish it in 1915. Eliot was converted to Christian faith in 1927, and was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1948.
I began writing this story in 1990, but couldn't see how to end it till December the fifteenth, 1998.