Larger Than Death
My name is Josephine Fuller and I've never weighed less than 200 pounds in my adult life—not counting the chip on my shoulder. Friends sometimes call me Donna Quixote because tilting windmills is what I do for a living. How did I get started? I answered an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Need person of substance for special assignments: part bloodhound, part bulldog, part lone wolf. Job requires quick study, travel and communication skills. Must genuinely care about the advancement of women.
As a matter of fact, I was feeling quite concerned about the advancement of women in general and myself in particular at the moment I read the ad. I had just landed in San Francisco for a breather and a much-needed infusion of salaried work after divorcing my husband, a world-class photographer, adventurer and philanderer.
In other words, I needed a job. Nothing permanent. After all I hadn't stayed in one place for more than a few months for years. My qualifications consisted of a B.A. in psychology (which most employers agreed we could put aside as totally irrelevant) and six years of marriage. I had done whatever Griffin Fuller needed to keep him going: cook, bottlewasher, money manager, photographer's assistant, ghost writer, travel agent, and all the other kinds of helpmeet that a recent ex-wife can't bear to list without bitterness. Griff lived too much on the edge himself to offer alimony, but he was a good job reference.
So at 9:00 a.m. the day after I faxed my letter and résumé I was awakened by a phone call from a brisk tenor voice informing me of the address where I could report that afternoon if I were interested in interviewing. The address proved to be a mansion perched on a dizzying hill above Union Street. I arrived pink-cheeked after a brisk hike from my hotel on Pine.
"Josephine Fuller, here for a 1:00 o'clock appointment," I said to the tall, slender man who answered the door. His hair was bright auburn and his eyes a penetrating blue, which together with a cynical twist to his mouth gave his handsome face a startling intensity. He wore a full-sleeved white shirt and black trousers and looked ready to pick up a fencing foil and resume his role in a Technicolor pirate movie. Both ears were pierced. No rings in them. Must be a conservative place, I thought.
"You know you'll be meeting Alicia Madrone?" he asked, cocking his head slightly.
"You know who she is?"
"More or less." The Madrone name adorned a museum, a hospital and half a dozen donated structures around the state.
Was he criticizing my gabardine skirt and blazer or counseling prudence in the presence of old wealth?
"You didn't mention who the interview was with when we spoke on the phone," I said evenly. I could almost look him in the eye without hurting my neck. "Is there something else I should know in advance that would be relevant?"
He examined me for signs of sarcasm. "You didn't think to look up the address in a reverse directory or anything like that?"
He seemed disappointed. Clearly if he'd had the clout to screen candidates he would have installed a revolving door to replace the massive oak one. "By the way, it's Mrs. Madrone, not Ms.," he sniffed. "She prefers it."
"Okay." His boss clearly came from a generation when marrying into the Madrone family was an accomplishment. No doubt it still is.
"Very well," he turned and languidly gestured me to follow him up a spectacular staircase. The banister must have been eight inches wide. A series of stained glass windows greeted us at each landing. On the second floor we met a nurse closing a door at the end of the wide hallway. She responded to my guide's interrogatory eyebrow lift with a nod and I was ushered into a large airy room flooded with sunlight and carpeted with thick rugs that looked as if they should be hanging on museum walls. The furniture was sparse but I guessed most of it to be imported and older than the Declaration of Independence. My guide was gone without a word and I proceeded toward the woman who sat in a wheelchair next to a heavy mahogany desk which probably had belonged to some Spanish grandee.
Alicia Madrone was in her sixties and narrow as a whippet, with pewter-colored hair pulled back in a bun. Despite the flood of sunshine from the windows that literally looked out over San Francisco Bay, she wore a heavy sweater and a thick wool skirt. A lilac point Siamese on her lap. It raised his head and stared at me for a moment before settling back down into the blue blanket that matched the color of his eyes.
I reached into my pocket to peel a tissue off the pack I'd brought. I was starting to sweat.
When I stood in front of her, Alicia Madrone motioned me into a straight-backed Mission chair a few feet away. The sharp brown eyes she turned on me seemed to come from a distracted world of pain where the healthy could not and would not want to follow.
"I've met your ex-husband. He took a portrait of me." Her voice was light and very sweet, almost girlish.
Uh oh. "I didn't know Griff did portraits." When I realized my ex-husband's love affairs were a cunningly practiced obsession rather than an occasional temptation, I began to dread meeting women who introduced themselves by announcing they had known him. The next word was like as not to be "biblically." I wondered how soon I could politely terminate the interview.
"You kept your married name. Why?"
"I liked it better than my maiden name, which was O'Toole. I prefer leading a Fuller divorced life. I wouldn't go back to being O'Toole for anyone." A joke was a risk but I would hate to work for someone who didn't know the meaning of the word humor.
Mrs. Madrone blinked, then chuckled, passing my first test. She looked at me a little cautiously, the way people do when they realize you're armed with a sharp instrument. "Ah," she said. "Why did you answer my advertisement?"
"I need work. I would prefer working where there is no temptation to assassinate my boss for criminal stupidity. During my marriage I developed the skills to gloss over an egomaniac's mistakes and make his every arrangement. But at least Griffin Fuller wasn't an idiot."
"A blunt speaker. Intelligent and arrogant to boot. You've never learned any particular profession. And you like to travel." She shook her head as if wondering whatever would become of me. Then she shivered. The lemony sunshine had suddenly stopped warming her. "You must have travelled a great deal with your ex-husband."
"I travel well."
"You can also stay in one place when necessary?"
"Yes." I could have said that I wasn't sure where on earth I belonged. That was the truth, but not her business.
"You do seem to be a person of substance," she remarked, looking me up and down just a shade shy of insolence.
I looked back at her in silence until enough time had passed for her to take my point.
"Mrs. Madrone, I never let size stop me and I don't allow anyone to intimidate me. It took awhile, but I learned not to obsess about being larger than average. In my family it comes with the genes. Good health, great teeth and high IQ. You want any one of the above, you get the whole package."
For a moment she retreated back into her shell, then she hitched her wheelchair forward and smiled for the first time since I met her. The smile made her young again and clearly she had once been a dangerous beauty. She looked as if she still had all her teeth and those brown eyes remembered pleasure.
For the first time since I'd rung the doorbell and entered that quiet mansion, I began to feel a glimmer of the spark her ad had kindled when I read it.
"How did you get such confidence?" she asked.
I told her about Nina.
© Lynne Murray