The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
In recent weeks I’d been thinking a lot about my secretary Jane Harper and now here she was. “Mind if I join you?” she asked.
I was having lunch at the Capital Building cafeteria, something I occasionally did as it wasn’t likely I’d see anyone who worked in my Division there. Yet here was Jane. “Sure, please sit down.” Jane slid gracefully into a seat, placing her tray in front of her. She was a tall, slender woman with brown hair and hazel eyes. I’d always found her attractive, also capable. In the six years she’d worked for me she was always on top of things, always calm, never upset no matter what happened. I wondered about her age. In her thirties? Forty? No, 35 at most; in any case, much younger than my own 49.
“I didn’t know you ate here,” I said.
“I heard the food is good, better than the cafeterias in the State buildings.”
“It is. Well, how was your weekend?’
“Fine. The weather was beautiful, still is. Spring in Sacramento at last.”
“Yes.” Sacramento winters were invariable cold, wet and foggy. This year it had
been especially rainy, as if saving it up for the last three or four winters. “Did you do anything outdoors?”
“Worked in my garden. Everyone was running to the nurseries to get things to plant.”
In six years, I’d come to realize I knew very little about Jane’s life outside of the office. When I asked about her weekend she always answered that it had been fine. I knew she’d been married and divorced young and that she had no children. Boy friends? As attractive as she was, she must have had them, but she never mentioned anyone. Now it seemed she had a garden. “Do you have a house?”
“More of a cottage really. It’s small but very nice, just enough for me and my cat Bruno.”
“I didn’t know you were a cat person. I have two, Shandyman and Bun Bun. Don’t ask me where those names came from.”
“How was your weekend?” she asked.
“Not bad. Keeping busy. You know there’s always something to do around a house.” I was also divorced but much more recently; in fact just six months ago. I have to admit that it came as a shock. After dinner one night, my wife Margo abruptly announced that she was having an affair (she mentioned a State Senator) and told me she wanted a divorce so that she could marry him. Margo was a lawyer, for the State. She was a handsome woman with strong features and a prominent jaw. She was also ambitious; she wasn’t happy that I was a mere Division head. Now it appeared she’d graduated to a State Senator. When I’d said that my weekend wasn’t bad I was lying. For the first few months after Margo’s announcement, I was in a daze. I was starting to come out of it, I thought, but weekends, even with the two cats, were long and lonely.
“Do you mind if I ask you, are you coping okay?”
The news of my divorce was of course common knowledge and, I imagined, a popular item of gossip among members of my Division. “I think so. I’m still playing tennis a couple of times a week. I repaired the sprinkler system. I’m even thinking of painting the house. It looks pretty shabby.” Our house, mine now, was over 30 years old. Margo had no interest in keeping it as part of our divorce agreement so it had become mine. She now lived in the State Senator’s mansion, at least I assume he had a mansion.
“That should keep you busy.”
“Yes, I might also take up cooking. I’ve been living on take-out.”
“You better watch out or you’ll be over-extending yourself.”
I laughed. “I’ll watch it.” Abruptly, I asked, “Are you seeing anybody?” I didn’t know where that had come from. I immediately said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked you that. It’s none of my business.”
This time she laughed. “That’s all right. I don’t have much social life to speak of.”
“But you should,” I said. “I mean, you’re such a good-looking woman, that is, what I meant was …” I stopped; I was stammering like a teen-ager.
“Thanks for the compliment. Not to change the subject but while you were out Dr. Blanton called. He wants to see you. He said it’s urgent. I told him you were at a staff meeting.”
Dr. Blanton was the new young head of the State’s giant health department, which contained my Division. He’d been appointed by our new young Governor to shake things up and he was doing his best. An urgent summons to see him was not good news.
“Hmmm,” I said. She’d finished her salad and I’d finished my sandwich. “Do you want any dessert,” I asked her.
“We’d better be getting back then.”
We went out the Capitol and walked down the steps. The fresh air felt good. The sun was pleasantly warm. The trees in front of the Capitol were in bloom. Spring in Sacramento. Suddenly I didn’t feel liking going back to the office. “Come on,” I said, impulsively taking her hand.
“Let’s take a look at the rose garden. I want to see how it’s doing.”
“What about Dr. Blanton?”
“The doctor will have to wait. Maybe the staff meeting went overtime.”
Still holding Jane’s hand, I led her around the Capital building, past the koi pond, to the rose garden. “I like to take a look every so often,” I said. “See when they prune, then compare the roses here to my own during the year.”
“All right,” she said.
The roses looked good, much more plentiful and grown much higher than my own half dozen bushes. We examined the tags that identified each variety. “I have that yellow one,” I said.
“It’s beautiful. Look,” she said, “you said you were living on take-out. I’m sure you’ll become an expert cook once you take it up but why don’t you come to my place for dinner some time.”
“Oh, no,” I instinctively said. “That would be too much of an imposition.”
“It would be no trouble at all.”
“No, I really appreciate your offer but I couldn’t accept.”
With that, there didn’t seem to be any more to say. I wouldn’t say the sun had gone behind a cloud and the air had become chilly, but it might as well have. We walked in silence back to the office. I made an excuse to go into the little newspaper store in the lobby of our building. It was silly, I knew, but I didn’t want everyone to see Jane and I coming back from lunch together.
The rest of the week went by quickly. The matter that Dr. Blanton wanted to see me about was centralizing all of the Department’s data-gathering sections into one unit. I pointed out that just five or six years ago data-gathering had been de-centralized, but he was undeterred. Centralization was this year’s mantra. Jane, in her usual competent way, went back into the files and collected a mass of organization charts and memos around the time of the de-centralizing. The Department had grown quite a bit in the meantime but these would be a great help. Otherwise, there was the usual stuff: a budget shortfall, legislative bills that had to be followed, a computer shutdown, a case of possible sexual harassment. Neither Jane nor I mentioned our lunch or the visit to the rose garden.
On Friday I decided to stay late and work on the centralizing project, which I hadn’t been able to get to before; actually, I’d been putting it off. Jane looked into my office. “Is there anything you need?” she asked.
“No, I’m fine. Thanks for getting all this information. It’ll save a lot of time.”
She hesitated in the doorway for a moment. “All right then. Good night.”
I was left alone. Damnit, I thought, I had the perfect opening. Why hadn’t I asked if her invitation to dinner still stood? What was wrong with me? I stayed in the office for another two hours. When I left and was driving home it started raining. Great. When I arrived home, I fed the two waiting cats, made myself some soup, then went to bed.
I had a troubled night’s sleep. The next morning, dressing, I examined myself closely in the mirror. I didn’t look so bad, I thought. Although I still had something of a belly, the tennis had kept me reasonably fit. After breakfast, I mowed the front and back lawns. Last night’s rain had stopped, the sun was out again, the smell of new-mown grass filled the air. Some of my shrubs needed pruning and later I’d fertilize the roses. I wondered if Jane was working in her garden. I looked at my watch, almost noon. What the hell, an invitation to dinner meant nothing. Maybe she just felt sorry for me, her old guy boss. Or maybe it did mean something. Margo’s rejection had left me more bruised than I wanted to admit. I didn’t want to be rejected again. But if I didn’t give it a try how would I ever know? “Okay, guys” I said to Shandyman and Bun Bun, both watching me closely as if to see what my next move would be. “Let’s do it.” I’d memorized Jane’s home phone number from the personnel file I’d looked at last night. I picked up the phone and called her.
© Martin Green September 2011
Next morning a stunning girl who was in my lit class stopped me on the way out and asked, “Are you the one who hit somebody at a party yesterday?”
On the way back to my office from the so-called oral exam, which I knew I’d flunked brilliantly, I stopped at the State Building Number 8 cafeteria for a cup of coffee. It was, I thought, the least I could do for myself.