Root and Branch

Maggie said later that she had know right away there was something not quite right about Mr York. “Anyone with an office in the Chrysler Building should have been heard of before now,” she had told her friends at the lunch counter. But she hadn’t said anything when the agency sent her to him, so everyone assumed, in light of subsequent events, that hindsight was 20/20.

She didn’t say anything upon her arrival at the fancy office, the furniture still in crates and dust covers, a telephone man kneeling to hook up the line. Mr York was as flash as one might expect for a youngish man no one had heard of who signs a lease in the Chrysler Building. That he looked patently like the photograph of her father that her mother had kept hidden under handkerchiefs and collars in the top bureau drawer was neither here nor there. The scoundrel had probably kept on fathering bastards for years after leaving her mother flat. It would make sense - this one certainly had something to prove, judging by the office he had selected. Especially since he had sent away the girl from the day before. Too young, too pretty, he had told the agency. He needed someone with experience, obvious experience. Someone like Maggie.

“Are you the new secretary? John York.”

“Margaret Kooning.”

He seemed taken aback, and though he attempted jocularity, his recovery was more thoughtful than was really appropriate in meeting a stranger. “You’ve got experience in this sort of thing?”

“I was twenty years with Simon Dodge. He retired from the bar last year. The agency said you wanted a legal secretary.”

“Yes. Margaret Kooning. Ever married?”

“No, sir,” she answered firmly.

“Native of New York?”

Cautiously, she replied, “Yes. Are you?”

His smile was even like her father in the photograph. “Not exactly. As you can see, we’re trying to get the phone installed. I remember when there wasn’t so much to do to set up shop.” He checked his watch - a pocket watch, rather fine, she noted. “I’ve got to meet a client. Get the bill when he is done. The movers should be back at 11 to finish all this up. You can take your lunch at one. Is all that satisfactory?”

It was not satisfactory. It seemed rushed, unplanned, completely unlike all her previous experience. Bringing in the secretary before there was even a place for her to sit or a phone for her to answer. What would there have been yesterday for anyone to do? “Yes, sir.” The promised pay was handsome, and at her age, she could not count on attracting it much longer.

The pay was handsome indeed, quite what Mr Dodge had been paying in the end but now in a far less busy office. It had to be, for her to keep arriving at nine every morning, uncertain if her boss would come in at all, and if he did, much of the time he was hungover and too friendly by half. Not in that sense, she would emphasize. She was old enough to be his mother, nearly. But too forward all the same. A new personal question each day he came in hung over, or so it felt.

“Kooning, Kooning. When were you born, Miss Kooning?”

“That question is highly inappropriate, and I won’t answer.”

“Come on. I’ll tell you when I was born.” She deliberately ignored him. “1607.” And then he laughed. “I can always ask the agency.”

“Then do.”

That line of questioning was followed some time later by “What did your father do?”

“It is really not your concern, Mr York.”

“Please? I just want to know you, since we’ll be working together.” He seemed sober this time, or at least in less bad shape, for he did not wince at the noise of the typewriter.

She was touched by his acknowledgment of her role in the office, that she was more than just a typist and receptionist. “He was a chemist.” Maggie turned back to her work, thinking that the end of questioning.

“Really.” Mr York grinned broadly. “And he met your mother in the tea room at Macy’s, in the middle of a rainstorm.”

“Bloomingdale’s,” she corrected absently.

“That’s right, it had opened just a week before.”

He abandoned the topic and only after several minutes did she realize he had known what he was saying. But that assumed the fairy tale courtship and wedding were true. Maggie had long ago abandoned her belief in any of the good parts of her parents’ marriage. Her father had left her and her mother one day in 1891, when Maggie was barely three years old. Which was bad enough, but it had gone all around the family that two years later he had been seen with an opera singer on his arm, denying he was, or had ever known, Martin Kooning. Maybe Kooning - if that had even been her father’s real name - liked to tell tales, and his son remembered them. Perhaps in his old age. An age her mother had never seen, thanks to heartbreak. And tuberculosis.

Nothing was