She stood there in her velveteen dress, blooming and exotically perfumed, like a hothouse rose sprouting from the asphalt-colored carpet. Her hair, in defiance of modern styles and gravity, had been sculpted into a magnificent bouffant, and her white pumps matched her patent-leather pocketbook exactly.
“May I help you?” I asked, intrigued.
It was early January. The office was sluggish with post-holiday funk, and I hoped this singular woman would provide an engaging distraction.
She placed a hand on her chest, fingers splayed in a fan, long nails shining red. “My name is Darla. I’m the new secretary.” Her words hung in the air like ripe peaches, heavy and sweet.
“The new—” I broke off, confused. The CEO of our small company was out of the country, wooing some potential clients in Beijing. If everything went well, our business would double over the next two years, and more office help would be a necessity. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize we’d hired an administrative assistant.”
Darla gave me a pitying look. “Oh, honey, you mean no one told you I was comin’? Well, don’t you worry, that sort of thing won’t happen around here anymore. I’m an absolute whiz at the organizational arts.” She opened her pocketbook and pulled out an envelope, which she handed to me with a flourish. “Here are my references.”
At that moment, Gordon, our senior VP, stomped out of his office holding a thick printout. “Guess what, folks? No one ever updated the old spreadsheet with the new product codes, and now all the orders that have come in for the last six weeks will need to be re-entered!”
Doors opened cautiously at the sound of his raised voice, and employees popped their heads out like prairie dogs.
“It’s going to take forever,” Gordon continued, “and all of these orders will probably arrive late, or with the wrong parts. Or both. We’ll lose customers over this. Vanessa’s gonna have a conniption when she gets back from China.”
He paused to wipe his mustache and seemed to notice Darla for the first time. “Who’re you?” he said.
She was unfazed by his hostile tone. “I’m your new best friend, darlin’,” she replied, plucking the sheaf of papers from his fist and smoothing them out.
I glanced down and was surprised to see that I was now holding her pocketbook as well as her references. When had that happened?
The timbre of Darla’s voice changed so that she seemed to be addressing not just Gordon but the entire office. “As soon as somebody finds me a desk and a comfy swivel chair, I’ll set down to work and straighten out those pesky numbers for you.”
Gordon blinked. His face was that of a man who unexpectedly finds himself standing in a sunbeam after months of cold rain.
We held our breath, waiting to see how he would respond.
After a few seconds, he spoke. “Kate, would you please show our new assistant to her desk? She can use Roger’s old office until we can get a more suitable workspace set up for her.”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s right over here.” I was very conscious of Darla gliding along behind me while I walked up to the door. As I opened it and turned on the light, I felt unaccountably nervous. It was a nice enough office, but it was on the small side, and there was no window. “Will this be all right?”
She brushed past me, dusted off the seat of the chair, and settled herself into it. “It will do just fine for now, honey.”
By the following week, Darla was installed behind a large desk in the main office, greeting visitors with irresistible Southern charm, answering the phone, and presiding over everyone’s wellbeing. The stress level in the office had never been lower; our purchasing manager actually cancelled a vacation he’d planned on taking, saying he’d rather be at work than tramping around a muggy amusement park in Florida with his kids. All the little annoyances of the workplace—paper jams in the copy machine, forgotten network passwords, an empty five-gallon bottle on the water cooler—were addressed with relaxed good cheer.
It wasn’t that Darla was fixing these problems herself, but rather that her presence had a calming effect on all of us, and we wandered through our daily tasks with the dopey smiles of lotus-eaters. We all intuitively understood that she was far too busy to be bothered with changing the toner in the printer or refilling the stapler. As a formality, Gordon had called her references, and all of them had said they missed her terribly and their businesses were never the same after she left.
Darla started every day with a towering pile of paperwork on her desk: data that had to be entered, bills and invoices that needed to be paid, printouts of emails that required replies, various forms that needed updating, instruction manuals that had to be proofread, and all kinds of other things. We had yet to discover any document she wasn’t willing to add to her daily stack, which was often two or three inches high by nine o’clock.
Her efficiency was remarkable; as soon as she was finished with one paper, she would reach over and take another, pulling it in a graceful parabola from the pile to the space beside her keyboard, upon which she would immediately start to type with the flamboyance of a concert pianist, each keystroke an event. The whole performance was thrilling to behold. By the end of the day, without fail, the entire stack of papers would be gone.
“How do you do it?” Gordon once asked her. Vanessa had decided to extend her trip to Beijing upon hearing how smoothly things had been running in her absence, so he was still our de facto boss.
“Do what, darlin’?” she said, pushing a tray of double-fudge brownies closer to the edge of her desk. Darla brought in homemade cookies or biscuits or dessert bars for the entire office two or three times a week; a few of our regular customers had already started calling us The Bakery.
“Awwuv ith” —Gordon swallowed a mouthful of brownie— “All of this.” He indicated the tottering pile of papers on her desk. “I’ve never worked for anyone who could get through so much so quickly.” He frowned as he realized what he had said. “Or with anyone,” he added lamely.
“Well, that’s simple,” she said. On this particular day she was wearing a polka-dot blouse with an enormous bow at the neckline. “I know, deep down on the inside, that secretary is the role I was born to play. I’m just a natural helper. I get so much satisfaction from knowing you all can focus better on your own jobs because of my assistance that it barely even feels like work to me.” She peered closely at Gordon. “Were you born to be a vice president, honey?”
Gordon’s mustache twitched. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess so.”
“Well, you’d better think on it. You’ll never be happy or reach your full potential unless you know yourself. After all, you can put a saddle on a hog, but that won’t make him a show horse.”
Gordon nodded at these wise words and walked away, deep in thought.
Darla took another paper from her stack and resumed her typing, humming to herself.