Friday, October 13, 2000

Reservations for Two

Janice left for work earlier than usual. Recently promoted, today was the first day in her new job. She knew if she played her cards right, worked really hard and did everything asked of her, she would excel and get the recognition she deserved. The evening classes she took – while working full time – for her certificate in Secretarial Services were about to pay off.
As Janice entered the building, she passed by the mailroom door, barely taking notice of the new girl inside sorting mail. This promotion had moved Janice out of that dead-end job where she was stuck working in a room not much bigger than an eight-by-eight box. She remembered how the other girls walked by each morning and never acknowledged her, as though she wasn’t there. That wasn’t the case anymore, now she would be one of them.
Passing the interior office doors and the conference room on the left, she headed for the suite of Executive Offices. This was her new work home, and she eagerly flipped on the light switches and settled into her desk outside the office of the Senior Vice-President of Marketing and Public Relations, Mr. Michael Masters.
Opening her newly purchased Gucci bag, she pulled out a framed picture of her dog and a pencil holder that her niece had made her for Christmas and arranged them on her desktop. She explored her desk drawers, discovering a half empty prescription vial of Lithium for Mr. Masters. Wonder if he still takes these, she thought, while tossing the vial to the side. She started thumbing through files.
“Well, good morning.” Mr. Mike Masters entered the vestibule carrying his briefcase, an overcoat draped over his arm, and a Starbucks coffee. He almost knocked over some binders atop a credenza as he patted his pockets looking for his keys. “You’re early.”
Janice stood up. “Here, let me help you.” She held his briefcase and overcoat while he fished out his keys, then unlocked his door.
“Thanks,” he said, as he took hold of her hand and retrieved his coat and briefcase. “I’m glad to have you aboard.”
“Glad to be here,” Janice replied, gently tugging back her hand.
“We’ve got a lot of high profile work coming up, including a big PR event. I’ll be looking for you to get up to speed quickly, maybe work a little overtime.”
 “Sure, Mr. Masters, you just let me know what I can do for you.”
“Well for starters, how about calling me Mike?” A smile lit upon his face, erasing years.
“Mike… OK then, Mike it is. And you can call me Janice.” She smiled back.
* * *
For weeks, Janice and Mike worked long hours on a ribbon cutting ceremony for a new high-rise office building. She learned he was a flirt, but she was good at playing along, and they worked well together. The project was a big hit. Mayor Holiday came out for the event and made a speech about their outstanding community involvement, the environmentally friendly construction, and all the jobs they were contributing to the city of Hamblin. There was a festive air in the Executive Offices afterwards, and several corporate officers stopped by to personally congratulate Mike.
It was late, well past quitting time, when the last of Mike’s visitors left. Janice knocked on his open doorframe. “Is there anything else you need?”
“Janice, come in. Did you see the traffic through here all afternoon? The President stopped by, and he says ‘well done,’ and then the CEO, and some of the Board of Directors. I feel on top of the world,” he said as he stood up, arms spread and raised. “I just can’t go home yet. I don’t want to pop this bubble. Would you go out to dinner with me so we can celebrate?”
* * *
They sat in the corner, at a table for two. “I owe so much of my success to you,” Mike said, while cutting into his sirloin. “In the short time you’ve been with me you’ve improved my life drastically.”
Here we go, thought Janice, another one of his God-awful flirting sessions.
“You have such great organizational skills,” he said. “I didn’t realize when I hired the prettiest candidate for this job that I was also getting the most qualified.” Mike winked at her. “We are such a good team, you and I.”
“Thank you for the compliment, or I guess I should say compliments,” Janice laughed. “And you’re not so bad yourself on this team.” A little encouragement might go a long way, she thought, remembering that nominations for the employee fall awards were due next week.
Mike’s smile stretched across his face like a crescent moon.
“Before I forget, do you need any changes on the PowerPoint presentation for Thursday’s board meeting?” Janice asked.
Mike reached across the table and took her hands. Holding them, he said, “Can we quit talking about work for awhile? Let’s enjoy our dinner and just get to know each other a little more.”
She started to pull her hands back, then relaxed. What harm can it do to get a little more personal? I’ll just pretend I don’t see the thinning hair and bulging belly on this old man.
* * *
Janice opened up the Wall Street Journal and laid it out on Mike’s desk. Just as she was leaving his office, Mike came rambling in. He looked disheveled, and he hadn’t shaved.
“Good morning, Mike.”
“Mornin.” Mike bumped against Janice entering his office, hard enough that she was thrust against the bookshelf nearest the door. “I’m not taking any calls this morning, even if it’s Peggy. And please close the door on your way out.”
“Sure,” Janice said and shut the door. What happens to him some nights?
Later, the intercom buzzed. Janice grabbed her notebook and headed for Mike’s office.
Mike quickly slammed shut his office desk drawer as she entered. “Would you order a lunch for me from Chili’s?” he asked. “A Buffalo Chicken Salad sounds good. And I’m sorry for snapping at you earlier. I don’t know how you put up with me.”
“Don’t worry about it. We all have those days, and I know you’re under a lot of stress.”
“You can read me like a book. Better than the wife. Or rather, soon to be ex-wife.”
“Really? Mike, I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry? Oh, please… don’t be. This is my doing. I’m tired of her nagging and her nasty accusations. I’ve never cheated on her a day of our lives together, yet every time I work late she accuses me of sleeping around. Like last night when I was late after our dinner.
“She gets these frown lines between her eyebrows,” Mike points to the bridge of his nose, “She’s so ugly. I can’t deal with it anymore.“
“Still, if there is anything I can do...”
“You already have. Our dinner last night was so refreshing. It opened my eyes. You actually listened to me, and we laughed together. I had forgotten what it was like to be happy.”
Janice had heard that Mike frequently suffered from depression. Peggy is probably celebrating this split-up, she thought, now she won’t have to deal with his moodiness anymore.
Mike continued, “It feels like a weight has been taken off my shoulders. Other than spending most of the night discussing this with Peggy and getting no sleep at all, I feel better than I have in ages.”
Janice did think that Mike looked more relaxed, even unshaven.
* * *
The phone rang, and caller-ID displayed LuAnn, the president’s secretary.
“Hello, this is Janice.”
“Hi Janice, it’s LuAnn from Mr. Garrison’s office. “
“Hi LuAnn. What’s up?”
“A few of us are going over to Gabby’s for lunch today. Me, Molly from HR, and Sarah from Finance. We wondered if you would like to come.”
I’m in, Janice thought, saying, “I’d be delighted.”
They animatedly walked to the elevators. No one spoke or made eye contact with the new mailroom girl as they passed her in the hallway.
* * *
“So how is it working for Mr. Masters?” Molly asked, while her eyes darted from one secretary to another.
“OK. We get along pretty well, and he’s easy to please, well, most of the time. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, nothing really, except you are his fourth secretary this year. We just find it odd that he can’t seem to find one that will stick around. And that you were promoted straight from the mailroom. That’s quite a jump.” The rest of the girls agreed.
“Well I am qualified. I have an administrative certificate and I just worked the mailroom while I finished my schooling. Mike recognized my potential, that’s all.”
“Don’t you find him a bit moody?” LuAnn asked.
“Oh, that. Well, yes, but he’s had a lot going on with work and in his personal life. It’s real easy to get him back in a good mood though.” Janice reached for her iced tea.
“I’ll bet it is,” Molly retorted. Janice felt her face flush. “So, what’s up with you and Masher Mike anyway?” The girls all giggled. “You seem to be the only one that’s able to get him back in a good mood.”
“Yea,” LuAnn chimed, “he doesn’t keep his secretaries around very long, yet here he is nominating you for the secretary award. Come on, what gives? Do you two have a thing going?”
Everything came to a stop for Janice. “You mean, I’m nominated?” she whispered.
LuAnn said, “Crap, I wasn’t supposed to tell you, but I figured you already knew. Yes, you’re one of four nominees for this year’s award. And we want to know what you did to get that nomination. Let’s face it, Mr. Masters isn’t the type to recognize his secretary’s efforts.”
Janice felt ready to burst with excitement, but she quickly pulled herself together, “Well, I had no idea he nominated me, and nothing gives. I’m just a very effective and efficient secretary, and Mike appreciates my help.”
The girls burst out laughing. Molly elbowed LuAnn. “Did you notice they’re on a first name basis?”
“Well yes, we do speak to one another on a first name basis, but…”
“Come on, Janice, is there a little office romance going on? Tell us. We’re all friends here. We can keep a secret.” LuAnn leaned in towards Janice.
Suddenly Janice didn’t feel “in” anymore. “It isn’t like that at all. No, there isn’t a romance going on. Eww, I can’t believe you girls would think that. Trust me, he’s not my type.”
“No hard feelings,” Sarah chimed in, “we just wondered what made the Masher nominate you, that’s all. It’ll be interesting to see how hard he fights for you. Just think, you could win a cash bonus, plus a trip to Cancun. Maybe you’ll win if you tell him he can come with you on the trip.”
The girls all laughed.
* * *
Janice felt like running back to the office, or better yet, skipping like a schoolgirl. But she kept herself in check and walked calmly with the girls. She rounded the corner to her work area and thanked them for inviting her to lunch. She was daydreaming about the award when a flower delivery arrived. Pink roses laced with babies breath in an elegant crystal vase. The card read, Fate put us together and I’m thanking my lucky stars. That’s why I’ve nominated you for the Secretarial Support Award. –MM
Snatching the card, Janice quickly put it in her purse. She didn’t want anyone to know the flowers were from Mike. That’s all she’d need. She’d had a hard enough time at lunch as it was; she didn’t need to add any fuel to the fire. Still, it was awfully nice of Mike, she thought as she walked to his office to thank him.
Mike must have heard her approach because he was hiding behind his office door and sprang out just as Janice entered. “Surprise,” he shouted. Janice about jumped out of her skin. He laughed, then put his arms around her, pulling her to him. “I hope you liked the flowers.”
“Of course I did. Who wouldn’t? They’re gorgeous!”
“Like you,” he said and smiled, then started twirling her around as if dancing.
“Mike, this is a little uncomfortable. We’re at work. Someone could see us.”
“Then let’s you and I take the afternoon off and find a nice quiet place where we can be alone. Surely you must know how I feel about you by now.”
Janice didn’t want to upset him, she had too much at stake now, but she didn’t want to spend the afternoon with him either. “I… I can’t, Mike. I told LuAnn that I would meet with her to go over some expense reports.”
Mike abruptly stopped turning and dropped his arms. Deep lines etched across his forehead replacing the tender expression and warm smile of moments ago. “Expense reports? Why are you going over expense reports with LuAnn?”
“Nothing really. Evidently I’ve turned in a few reports that were coded wrong. No big deal.”
“Coded wrong? What do you mean?” he asked.
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m meeting with her.”
“Well, OK then,” Mike said. “I’ll be in my office if you need me.” He walked back to the chair behind his desk and added, “Please close the door on your way out.”
Moody bastard, she thought as she shut the door heavily behind her.
* * *
At the luncheon awards ceremony, Janice nervously kicked her crossed leg as she awaited the announcement for the Secretarial Support Award. She’d decided she would have to tell Mike to cool it, but it would wait until after the awards were finalized and presented. She’d agreed to go to dinner with him afterwards, so she supposed she would tell him then. He was really getting annoying, sometimes calling her into his office simply to say he wanted to see her “pretty face.” She’d been politely refusing his advances and making up excuses so as not to be alone with him, yet encouraging him at the same time. She had needed him to be pulling for her if she was going to win this award.
Mike leaned in towards Janice and whispered, “If you win, I hope you’ll consider taking me with you on the awards trip.” He reached for her hand under the table, then squeezed it. She snatched her hand back forcibly.
“And for the next award,” the president of the company was speaking, “this years’ winner of the Secretarial Support Award goes to…” It felt like an eternity, “Janice Hollerman!”
It was as though Janice were having an out-of-body experience. She knew her legs extended and she stood, that she was walking up towards the stage. She could hear “congratulations” thrown at her from friends and co-workers in the crowd. She could see smiling faces and clapping hands, a whole multitude of people. Yet it was as though she were watching herself, as if the real Janice had floated ahead and was already at the stage observing.
After the ceremony, Janice returned to her desk to find it laden with containers of flowers. A petite pot of gardenia, some sweet-smelling carnation, and a dozen long-stemmed red roses, all signed MM. Grateful they were delivered while everyone was busy at the ceremony, she quickly removed the cards. On one she wrote, Mike – Please, no more flowers. We need to talk. She placed the note in the center of his desk.
LuAnn stopped at her desk, thankfully just as Janice finished carrying all but the last flowers out to her car.
“Congratulations, Janice.”
“Thanks. I’m still in a bit of shock I think.”
“Well, you deserve it.” LuAnn looked around and leaned in towards Janice, whispering. “You wanna know something else that’ll shock you?”
“Yea, what is it?”
LuAnn looked around again to be sure no one was within earshot. “Mr. Masters. He’s being fired. As we speak.”
“Really? What on Earth for?” Janice asked.
“Remember when we worked on the expense account coding? After you left, I went back over some more of his reports. They weren’t errors we discovered. I found a pattern. Your Mr. Masters has been stealing from the company.” LuAnn stood up straight and smug.
Just then, two uniformed security officers rounded the corner with Mike in tow. Mike’s head hung low as he looked at Janice, then quickly diverted his eyes. They walked straight to Mike’s office. “We’ll give you just a minute to gather your personal things,” one of the officers said to Mike.
“Excuse me,” Janice said as she trudged towards Mike’s office, “may I have a word in private with him?”
Mike had already started loading a box with his personal belongings. He looked up at Janice, but didn’t say anything, and then continued packing as she closed his office door.
“What’s going on, Mike? “
“Isn’t it obvious? They’re letting me go.”
“But why? You’ve had a long career here, why steal? Why now?”
He stopped packing for just an instant looking at Janice. “I did it for us. But I’ll talk to you more tonight at dinner. Reservations are at seven.” Mike picked up a framed photo of himself with his two sons and sat it gingerly in the box.
“You’re kidding, right? You can’t expect everything to stay the same between us. I can’t be seen with you now.”
Wrinkles formed on Mike’s forehead as his eyes focused on Janice. “Everything I did, I did for us. I’m working on a nice little nest egg for you and me. Enough for us to live comfortably.”
“Us? What do you mean, us? You’ve been a good boss, but that’s it. I mean, you didn’t really expect this to go anywhere, did you? Not to mention, aren’t you worried about going to jail for stealing?”
Mike’s movements quickened. “You’ll see,” he said, “we’ll find a nice quiet place to live. Maybe in the mountains. No…, near the beach, I’ve always loved the ocean.”
“You’re crazy. I’m not moving anywhere. And certainly not with a criminal like you.” Janice turned to the door, and Mike bolted in front of it before she could leave.
“Wait a minute. Please. Just agree to dinner tonight and let’s talk then. I don’t want you to make any hasty decisions.”
Janice walked over to the window and looked out over the city. I can’t drag this out over dinner, the time to end all this nonsense is now, she thought. It’s time to tell him what I really think.
Mike was back at his desk packing. She sneered. She’d gotten what she wanted and now here he was imploring her to spend more time with him. Well, she’d given him all the time she was going to give him.
“It isn’t a hasty decision,” she said. “Even before all this happened, I had planned to tell you tonight that I’m not interested in you. Do you really think someone like me would even consider a relationship with someone like you? Be real.”
Mike straightened and his jaw tightened. “You bitch. You’ve been using me.”
“No hard feelings, I hope, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.”
“I never would’ve dreamed it would come to this,” Mike said. “I envisioned us with a future, and I can’t believe you weren’t. I was thinking of forever, maybe even marriage someday. You know, of death do us part.” He cocked his head to the side with a faraway look on his face.
“I’m outta here,” Janice said, “you get weirder by the day.”
“Not so fast,” Mike said while reaching into his desk drawer. He pulled out a gun. “I love you Janice. Since the day I first saw you in the mailroom and every time since. How my heart skipped when you applied for the job as my secretary, ‘cause I knew then that my dreams would come true.”
The tremor in Mike’s hand was evident as he raised the gun and pointed it at Janice.
“And they have. Until now. I insist on forever, so hopefully we can be happy together in eternity.”
Slowly he cocked the hammer. Janice heard the reverberating sound of the drum rotate as a bullet was loaded in the chamber.