“Get out of the way, Albert! I’m running late!”
“Hey Albert. Someone clogged the toilet in stall three. Go take care of it, will ya?”
“Albert! I told you to clean this window, like, yesterday! Why are you still standing there mopping the floor?”
“Albert! Unclog the toilet, do you hear me? Un-clog-the-toi-let. Did those words make it through your thick noggin? And stop saying that stupid line about it being your pleasure–you don’t even know what that means, and I don’t care if you’re pleased or not. Just get the job done. Now!”
Marie winced as she watched her colleagues verbally batter and berate the office janitor throughout the day. Yes, as a high-end real estate company dealing with hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars every day, she knew that the agents had a lot riding on their shoulders, and were often stressed out beyond what she, a mere secretary, could understand.
Still, she didn’t like the way they treated Albert. But what could she do about it? She was just a lowly secretary.
Marie wasn’t even sure why her boss at Top Star Realty Group hired Albert in the first place–to look good? Albert was intellectually challenged. He was also humpbacked, and wasn’t great at taking care of his personal look–often arriving at work with his shoes on the wrong foot, his shirt untucked, his hair a mess.
Albert worked slowly, appeared to be hard of hearing, and didn’t understand half the commands that came out of people’s mouths. But he was good at his job–he kept the offices spic and span…he just did so slowly.
Yet, whenever Marie’s coworkers made jokes at Albert’s expense, he would smile and laugh along as if it were the funniest thing in the world, which just made the mean-spirited agents laugh harder.
It was only when people screamed in his face that Albert showed any negative emotions, cowering back with a fearful look in his eyes, his lower lip trembling like a toddler’s.
Marie had a distant cousin with autism, and she knew Albert couldn’t help his low IQ and other challenges. She wanted to scream at the others to either treat Albert better or leave him alone, because he was doing the best he could.
But Marie could not afford to piss off her boss and coworkers. It had taken her months to find even this job, and with both parents sick at home, she needed this salary. So she put up with the way the others abused Albert, and herself.
In return, Marie did what she could to help Albert in little ways. She made sure to say hello and goodbye to him every day, to smile at him whenever she saw him…sometimes when Albert was too slow to finish his custodial work, Marie would try to finish her work as quickly as possible, grab a rag, and try to help him.
She only did it when the others were in a meeting or too busy to notice, though. Once her boss had caught her trying to help Albert, and had snapped at her for neglecting her secretarial duties.
“I didn’t hire you to mop the floor! Get back to work!”
“Sorry, Albert,” Marie would say, putting the rag back in his hand and hustling back to her desk.
Frequently, Marie had to work overtime to complete the load of work her boss and colleagues piled on her. When that happened, Albert would often stay behind as well, as he did every day, due to his slow pace.
Marie would chat with him as she worked. About her family, about her day, about the other coworkers (she did her best not to complain or be judgmental, but there were times when it was a little too much for even her calm temper to bear).
Marie knew that Albert could understand very little of what she said. Sometimes he would hold a hand to his ear and say “Eh?” and Marie would repeat what she’d said and speak slower. But she decided early on not to treat Albert in the infantile manner her other colleagues used witih him. Instead, she spoke to him as she would an equal, a friend.
“I’ve always wanted to go into real estate,” Marie said during one of those overtime evenings. “Mom used to be an agent before she got sick, and I thought it was amazing to be able to help people find beautiful homes they would love and grow old in. But–”
“What is real e-state?” Albert asked, pronouncing each syllable with difficulty, in his usual slow way.
“It’s the work that the people in this office do for work,” Marie explained kindly.
“Oh, work. I work,” Albert said, lifting a mop.
“Yes, you do. You do very good work, Albert. I’ve never seen anyone else as thorough and methodical as you.”
Albert ran a hand through his thick thatch of unruly salt-and-pepper hair and squinted. “Me-tho-di-cal?”
“It means you are very careful,” Marie said.
When they talked, Albert frequently stopped her to ask for clarifications. He did that with the others, too, but they always ignored him or snapped at him. It didn’t stop him from asking. Marie admired his tenacious attitude.
“I am very careful,” Albert echoed.
“Yes. You are an excellent janitor. The best,” Marie said. “If I ever needed to hire a janitor, I would choose you. One day, when my parents get better, I am going to become a real estate agent and work for a big company, and I will recommend that they hire you.”
Albert looked puzzled, but he flashed Marie a big smile, and she smiled back.
“Thanks for listening, Albert.”
Monday morning, the office was abuzz with the news–Nigel Vaughn, the mysterious leader of THE biggest real estate company in the city, had announced through the grapevine that he was looking for an assistant. Every agent was salivating to get the position. Although it was said that Nigel was a quirky man and no longer actively working as an agent, he had a famous wealth of knowledge about the field and an incredible career.
A couple years ago, he had handed the reins of his company over to his brother and disappeared from the real estate world entirely. Some said he was vacationing in the Cayman Islands, others said he was working on a top secret project.
And now he was back. And wanted an assistant. And of course, everyone at Top Star Realty expected to be on the top of the list, mostly because, like its name, Top Star Realty was one of the best, most successful companies in the entire city, second only to Vaughn Realty itself.
Everyone in the company was in a particularly good mood all week. Some even clapped Albert on the back and spoke nicely to him. Albert took it all in stride, smiling back in his own slow way, and continuing his cleaning.
Then, on Friday, Nigel Vaughn sprung a surprise visit on Top Star Realty.
Everyone crowded in the hallway to catch a glimpse of the tall, dark-haired man wearing sunglasses, sporting a classy three-piece suit, and exuding a movie-star-like ambiance as he walked through the crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea.
Everyone, that is, except for Albert, who had for the first time in the entire year Marie had known him, not come to work—and Marie herself, who was so concerned about Albert’s unexpected absence that she was searching the directory to see if she could call Albert’s relatives to ask after him.
“I have decided, I will be choosing my assistant from among the folks here at Top Star,” Nigel Vaughn announced. Everyone gasped, and then tittered amongst themselves as they wondered who Nigel Vaughn would pick.
Nigel stepped forward, and everyone fell back, watching in awe as he strode across the floor to the front desk, where Marie was busy looking through the phone book.
“Excuse me, miss,” Nigel said.
Marie looked up, too absorbed in her search to notice that everyone was staring at her and the new stranger rather than going about their usual business.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir. May I help you?” Marie said, a little flustered, as she tried to recover her usual friendly secretarial demeanor.
“You seem a bit stressed, miss. Anything I can do to help?”
Marie had never had anyone ask if she needed help. She wasn’t quite sure what to say. “No, thank you sir,” she said. “I’m just concerned that a friend of mine hasn’t come in to work today. He’s never missed a day of work before, so…”
“Ah, I see,” Nigel Vaughn nodded.
“Anyway. What can I do for you?” Marie said.
“Would you like to be my assistant?” Nigel Vaughn asked.
Marie blinked at him.
“I am Nigel Vaughn,” he said, extending his hand for Marie to shake, which she did, still befuddled. “I’ve been searching for an assistant, and I think you are just the one for the job.”
The jaws of the other coworkers in the office dropped as Marie’s boss sputtered in disbelief.
“But…she’s not even a real estate agent!”
“I can train her,” Nigel replied coolly. “How about it, Marie? I heard that real estate has been your long-time dream, since your mother used to be an agent herself.”
Now Marie’s jaw dropped. “How did you know?” she whispered.
Nigel smiled, then took off his glasses, and his suit jacket. He went to the cabinet and with familiarity born of daily repetition, removed the janitor’s bucket and mop, and ran a hand through his perfect hairstyle, messing it completely up.
Then he turned, Nigel was hunched over like a hunchback, and his six-foot-plus frame suddenly seemed to shrink. With his mussed hair and that blank look on his face, Nigel looked just like someone Marie knew.
But then Nigel looked at everyone and uttered the four words which made every person in the office blanche with horror: “It…is…my…pleasure…”
“Albert?” Marie gasped.
Nigel straightened up and put the janitor’s mop and bucket back in the closet.
“My full name,” he said, “is Nigel Albert Vaughn. Albert is my paternal grandfather’s name. Also my middle name.”
“You’re not…you’re not…” Marie gasped.
“Not the janitor anymore? Yes, I resigned yesterday,” Nigel said. “My work was done here, I’d found my assistant.”
“You…you…” Marie’s boss sputtered.
Nigel turned to the crowd. “I infiltrated Top Star Realty because I heard that all the best and brightest agents were working here, and I wanted to find out who might suit me best as a future assistant. But I didn’t just want to know how well you did your real estate related jobs. I wanted to see how you treated human beings–because real estate, as you know, is a very person-centric career. So I decided to take on the persona of a janitor with…difficulties, and bribed a few people to get me in here. After a year of observation, I have found the person I would like to assist me in my future real estate endeavors, if she would be so kind as to accept my offer…”
Nigel gestured to an assistant, who handed him a folder. Nigel opened it and removed a contract which he placed in front of Marie. As she read, her eyes grew bigger and bigger. Who had ever heard of treating his assistant so well? And the salary–it was many times what she was earning now and would more than pay for both of her parents’ medical bills.
“This is…too much,” she breathed.
Nigel smiled. “Not for me,” he said. “I wanted the best assistant, and I am willing to pay the best rates for that. You have proved to not only have a strong work ethic but also a big heart. You are exactly the kind of person I would like as an assistant. So how about it, Marie? Would you like to work for me?”
Marie felt tears spring to her eyes as she imagined her future as an actual real estate agent, earning enough money to support her entire family without being afraid of rent or hospital bills.
“Yes, I would,” she said to Nigel. “Thank you so much for this opportunity.”
Nigel grinned at her, and said, with perfect fluency:
“It is my pleasure.”