Book Club

By Anna Mavromati

In my book club we’ve been reading about witches. We’ve read about Updike’s girls in Eastwick who fell apart over their devil. We’ve read about the hags who taunted Macbeth. We read a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne about a man who learns that everyone in his town is actually a witch, that the church deacon is a witch, that the pious lady from town is a witch, that even his wife is a witch.

Mackenzie laughed a little too hard at the meeting for the Hawthorne story, looking at me the whole time as she laughed, her green eyes scrunched and tearing up. Amanda Michaels from management came into the room and told us to keep it down because we couldn’t have book club in the conference room if we were going to make the whole office feel like they were at a slumber party.

Mackenzie held her giggling, trembling head in her hands then turned it up to Amanda and said, “But it’s just so funny…”

Two of the guys from accounts, Greg Merrick and Owen Beasley, walked by a few minutes later and Owen, a short man with a strangely tiny head, tripped over what must have been his own pants leg and a stack of papers he was holding went flying. That set Mackenzie off all over again.

We have book club in the conference room every second Friday, because Friday’s a slow day. We have cooking club every other Saturday at my house because I have a big kitchen. Blair has a big kitchen too, but Mackenzie won’t meet us there because she’s convinced that the remains of Blair’s ex are in a jar she keeps in the pantry. And once a month we go for a night out. Just the girls from creative: Mackenzie, Blair and me.

 

At some of our book clubs we go for a lighter fare. Practical Magic, Harry Potter and series novels written for teenage girls. At some meetings we go pretty heavy—usually at the meetings when Blair picks a book. We barely spoke when we met about reading the Malleus Maleficarum, the three of us sitting in stony silence listening to the groans from cubicles when computers went on the fritz and pencils snapped in people’s hands. After about fifteen long minutes, Amanda Michaels stormed into the conference room to say, “Ladies, let’s cut it out in here, OK?”

 

At home a few weeks ago I was reading Anne Sexton when I saw a roach scurrying across the hardwood floor. I watched it for a while. It’s strange the way something unpleasant can transfix you. Then Ian walked into the room, looked at me, then down at the bug and said, “I guess we should probably do something before it becomes a problem.”

It took me a moment to look up from where the roach was carrying its tiny shell of a body into the kitchen.

“I just see the one,” I said. “Maybe it won’t be a problem at all.”

“Nah, those are little monsters,” he said. “They always become a problem.” He scrunched his nose part in disgust but also a little playfully at me. I scrunched my nose back at him.

Ian followed the roach into the kitchen where I heard the stomp of his boot on the tile. He walked back into the living room, sat beside me on the couch, put an arm around me and leaned to look at me book.

“What ya readin’?” he said with a fake Midwestern drawl.

We stared down at the poem on the page I held open on my lap. Although I share a lot with Ian, I felt a little embarrassed he was seeing it, as if Anne Sexton’s words were actually my diary entry. The poem describes an old hermit woman. As Ian read the words I could hear my own voice in my head reciting them.

I think of her sometimes now

And wonder if I am becoming her.

Ian stared down at the book for a long time. Then he looked up from the book at me, grinned a little and said, “Weird stuff.” Then he yawned and said he had to call it a night.

 

Blair’s the oldest of the three of us, but I’m the only one who’s married. The first time I had the girls over for our cooking club Blair turned to me after Ian left the room and said, “He seems normal.” Coming from Blair, I decided it was best to take that as a compliment. A pot of water boiled on the stove and the three of us had been politely biding time before Ian left.

“He is normal,” I said. “He’s amazingly normal and I adore it.”

Mackenzie looked up from the boiling water and smiled at me.

 

People in the office go to Mackenzie and me for advice a lot. Mackenzie gets a lot of the relationship questions. I’ll see her leaning against the copy machine, thoughtfully chewing on the back of a pen while some middle-aged man in a button-down or a woman a blazer says in a tone of voice that takes me straight back to Junior High each time, “But how do I know if someone feels the same way?”

Whenever someone in the office announces a wedding or an engagement, Mackenzie will be smiley and cocky with a skip in her step for days.

I get a lot of practical questions. Success strategies. Money problems. Investment advice. The coffee maker’s doing that spurting thing again. What’s the deal with that? Those kinds of situations. I don’t know how I got pegged as the go-to person for these types of things exactly. I’m not a millionaire myself and there’s usually only so much I can say or do to help people out. I think people just like the idea of having a safety net.

I’ve only ever seen three people in the office approach Blair that way before. One was a man who didn’t work at our ad firm and who I’d never seen before and I never saw again. The other was a secretary who ended up abruptly quitting a few months later. Rumor was that there was some sort of death in the family. The third person was Greg Merrick from accounts.

It’s not that Blair’s mean. She just keeps to herself. I think she’s beautiful and stoic, like a queen from a fable. And she has much more seniority than the rest of us in the creative department. I was only about five months in at the office and Blair had been around the longest. She has the most experience.

 

When Greg Merrick from accounts died, Blair didn’t even seem to make a facial expression. She stood casually by the water cooler as we were gathered together to hear Amanda Michaels give the sad announcement. And of all of us, I thought Blair new Greg pretty well. She wasn’t much for displaying emotion. And she didn’t seem to notice me watching her either.

Mackenzie, on the other hand, turned to me with a frown that’s usually reserved for worried mothers.

Everyone in the office was suddenly a good friend of Greg Merrick’s after that day.

“You know, I almost went out with Greg once,” girls in the office would say.

Or someone would say, “He really kept things running smoothly around here.”

“He fixed my carburetor once.”

“Isn’t he the one who invited the whole office to his house for Thanksgiving after his divorce? What a lonely guy.”

Even Owen Beasley, one of the most reserved, mousiest little people in the office, was found crying under his desk at one point in time and everyone knew that he hated Greg.

 

I told Ian that I’d dust the corners of every room of the house with boric acid one day.

“That should take care of the monster problem,” I said.

But I never got around to it. I guess a part of me thought that maybe we didn’t really need to do it. That night I caught sight of three of them in the bathroom before they disappeared somewhere under a cabinet.

 

We all have our little rituals at the office. The way Mackenzie lightly spits three times on all of her original prints of poster art before they’re presented. The way Blair files her nails at her desk and lets the shreds collect in a paper cup. The way I mumble at my keyboard whenever I type copy.

I was mumbling when Owen Beasley came into my office, the last time we spoke before Greg died. At first I didn’t hear him come in.

“What are you saying?” he asked me in a low voice.

“Just working,” I said.

Owen held his hands in front of him, interlocking his short, chubby fingers.

“I wanted,” he paused and stared at a space above my head, then back at me again, “to talk to you about something.”

I swiveled in my desk chair to face him. I’d barely spoken to Owen before, but it wasn’t that uncommon for us the creative department to be approached by someone new.

Later that night when I got into bed with Ian he asked me how things at work were going. I rested my head against his warm shoulder and told him everything was going fine.

 

Greg Merrick had always seemed like a friendly enough guy. He was confident, decent looking, and I’d never confirmed it with Blair but I’d heard they may have had a fling once, which automatically made me feel a strange sense of respect for Greg. But apparently a few of the guys from accounts would get together for drinks after meetings now and then and Greg could get a little aggressive. Like a bad cliché, Owen Beasley was usually the butt of everyone’s jokes because he was small and sweaty and the tips of his ears turned red any time someone disagreed with him at a meeting. The story goes that Greg got a little carried away one night and almost shoved Owen in front of a bus—not that he really meant to hurt him, people said, but that things had just gotten out of hand.

“What is this, high school?” Mackenzie had said, rolling her eyes as she sketched on a pad in the break room.

When Owen came to my office that day before Greg died, he told me a few other stories. That Greg was a girlfriend stealer and a womanizer. That Greg had stolen from Owen’s mother. That Greg was a raging alcoholic.

I wasn’t sure that I believed everything he said, but I listened and nodded and sipped coffee at all the right times. Owen talked fast-paced and quietly in a way that reminded me of how homeless people talk to themselves on the sidewalk, out in the open in front of dozens of strangers when they’ve had no one around to actually listen for years. And it was exciting to be able to break a new office story to Blair and Mackenzie, who usually already knew everything worth knowing before I did.

“I just wish,” Owen said, the bald spot on the top of his head gleaming in the light, “that he could get what was coming to him. That for everything he did, he would get what was coming to him.”

“So you just want some sort of karma,” I said. “You want something—any little thing—bad to happen to him for every bad thing he’s done to you.”

It sounded like a harmless enough comment to me and that’s really how I meant it. He nodded at me in a slow way and I couldn’t tell if he was thoughtful or confused.

And I remember thinking, this poor, sad little bastard.

 

Mackenzie was holding her copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe up so that it covered her face up to her nose as she flipped through the pages.

“I’ve always had this feeling,” she said, “since I was a kid that if I ever did something bad, someone would know about it. Like, there’s someone watching us. Like Santa Claus or the devil but scarier.”

I asked if she grew up religious and she snorted into her book.

“No, I mean it’s like another kind of scary,” she said. “Blair, you know what I mean?”

Blair’s copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe looked untouched, sitting stiffly on the corner of the table.

Blair said, “I need to get cigarettes.”

Mackenzie turned to me again. “It’s the idea of conspiracy. How did the White Queen know to give Edmund Turkish Delight if she hadn’t already been watching him? Like this dark presence that’s always watching him? I mean, who the hell eats Turkish Delight?”

 

Owen Beasley was staring at me all day at work that one day. He was watching me as I walked to the break room. I felt him staring at me as I typed furiously, muttering to myself at a more rapid pace because even though it was so uncomfortable to have someone watching me work, old habits die hard.

When it looked like he was about to approach me, I dialed for Ian.

“I’m really swamped right now,” Ian said on the other end of the line. “And we’re going to have to get the place fumigated.”

“Fumigated?”

Ian’s voice sounded irritated. He sighed heavily into the receiver. The kind of sigh that made something in my stomach sink.

“I’m just realizing how bad this roach situation’s getting,” he said. “It’s out of control, isn’t it?”

There was something accusatory in his voice. I said, “I don’t know what you mean.”

There was silence at the other end of the line.

“I don’t want to pump our home full of poison,” I said.

“Well, it’s already pretty contaminated in there. And what have you been cooking with those women from work? After that last time, the whole place just smelled kind of foul. I wonder if it drew the bugs in.”

“I didn’t draw the bugs in.”

 

I was sitting in the conference room with Mackenzie and Blair when Owen showed up again. The three of us turned our heads, copies of The Iliad still in hand, when Owen slowly raised a finger and pointed it directly at me.

He was sputtering, his mouth puckering together but no sound coming out for what seemed like the longest, most surreal seconds of my life. And then he finally screamed out, “W-W-WW-WITCH. WITCH. WITCH.”

Mackenzie turned to me shocked and also a little wary. Even Blair’s eyes widened in an expression of surprise that I’d never seen on her before.

The four of us were frozen like that for a while, the three of us sitting and Owen still standing there, a stiff arm still pointing. A crowd was gathering and Amanda Michaels cut through it and turned to me with a furrowed brow. The crowd of co-workers, the ones who came to me to ask about special financial strategies and the microwave settings being too powerful, all stopped at an invisible line around the conference room doorway, as if they were afraid that I would spontaneously combust at any given moment if they come too close.

 

The book I’m reading now is Rosemary’s Baby. The woman in the novel learns that everyone around her is a witch. Her doctor’s a witch. Her neighbors are witches. Even her husband’s a witch. And the witches are everywhere. The witches are there when you think you’re alone with your spouse. The witches are there when you take your first bite of meat, the juices trickling down the back of your throat. And the witches are there when you’re spreading white powder and spraying poison in every dark corner and crevice of your home, trying too late to solve your pest problem.