• Rebecca L. Monroe

"Box"


Tim wiggled more firmly into the chair. It was his. Finally! Tomorrow he would bring his things in and truly make it his own. Then he’d start doing the job he’d always known he could, given the chance.

“Tim, you got a minute?”

He looked up, scowling. Margaret. She’d put in for the job too. “Yes. What is it?”

“There’s a staff meeting at eight and I have the budget figures for next year. I thought you might want to go over them.” She held up a small packet of papers. Black haired, trim, she had a firm, no nonsense face. Everything about her was neat and organized from her short hair to her dark shoes.

He rose and went to the round conference table with a small inner pleasure. “Let’s take a look.”

She put the printout on the table and he immediately went to the training section. “We’ll need to cut that figure in half, at least.”

“We use that much! Last year it was barely enough.”

“And this year we are going to be more circumspect about who is going to training. I know you and Sylvia attended Stress Management and a couple of others that really weren’t job related. Our budgets are being cut. We need to start preparing now.” He saw frustration in her eyes, the set of her mouth but she couldn’t argue with him. What he said was true. He felt a rush of pleasure. This was one of the areas he’d always wanted to fix.

“Fine. I’ll redo the figures. Anything else?”

He looked the rest of it over. Too much for supplies but he let that slide for now. It would look good at the end of the year when he turned it back unspent. “No. The rest will do.”

Forty-five minutes later, he was seated in the staff conference room. He was one of them now. It was going to take some getting used to but to succeed he would have to act like he’d always belonged.

The ten-minute briefings followed; each department giving a rundown on what was going on, where things were. Tim felt his heart begin to pound as the briefing went around the table. He listened carefully. His department distributed budgets to these people. He needed to know what they were doing. Then it was his turn.

“I’m still getting my feet wet,” brief smiles. “Our priorities for this next week will be budgets, of course. There are some areas I want to start streamlining so we can meet your needs.”

He could see the slight nods. His department hadn’t been known for its speedy responses as far as purchasing requests were concerned, finding answers to questions. All that would change. Then he was going to clean up their departments too. Each of them had their own area of waste in both time and expenditures.

* * *

“How was your first day?” Joyce turned her cheek to him so he could kiss it.

“Good. There’s a lot to do, a lot I want to do! It’s going to be good,” he noticed the slump to her shoulders, the shadows beneath her eyes. “You didn’t sleep well last night,”

“No. I’ve a doctor’s appointment tomorrow.” She turned the heat down under the peas.

He should offer to go with her but there was no way he could. If it were good news, she could share it with him when he got home. If it wasn’t, well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

He realized she’d said something. “What?”

“Nothing…you have work?” She nodded at the briefcase he’d set on the table.

“Yeah,” he resisted the urge to pick it up, get started that moment.

* * *

“What is going on!” Bud slammed into Tim’s office, face red.

Tim forced himself to relax. He may as well get used to it. This was only going to be the first of many. “Excuse me?”

“I’ve got a clerk in tears because she says you’re going to bill her!”

“She expended funds she didn’t have the authority to. I wouldn’t expect you to know that because she hasn’t been turning the vouchers in for your signature.”

“Of course she hasn’t! She hasn’t for years. It’s a waste of my time to sign those stupid vouchers when it’s what I hired her for. She knows what she’s doing.” Bud glared at him, nose slightly puffy and veined from evening cocktails.

“Obviously not. The funds she used were not hers to spend. She also exceeded her purchasing authority.” Tim pushed a finger at the audit on his desk. “Many times, I might add.” He rose and crossed the room to pull out a manual. “It’s all in here, Bud. If the home office ever reviews us, we are screwed. What has happened in the past is not anything I can change. What happens in the future, I can.”

“It’s a power trip for you.” Bud flared at him. “I’ll be talking to Mark about this!”

Tim smiled. He’d already talked to the president. “That would be an excellent idea.”

Bud slammed out of the office.

His job would be easier now. Word would get out that he was serious and other departments would clean themselves up before he got to them. A couple more bills and the problems would begin to disappear.

Tim looked at his planner. What was next? Ah, Sally. He’d spoken with Margaret a couple of times about Sally and she’d done nothing. It was time he stepped in. He called Sally and she appeared a moment later. She was young, early twenties, plump, with a worn look about her.

“You wanted to see me?”

“Yes. Sit down.” He waited while she did. “I want to talk to you about your time. I’ve noticed you’re missing a lot of days - especially Mondays. Obviously, since you are responsible for payments, we need to be able to rely on you being here.”

“I’ve got a baby! There are days I can’t leave him. He’s colicky.”

“Especially Mondays?” He raised an eyebrow. “I understand the needs of a mother but we’ve hired you to do a job, to be here. We have to be able to count on you. If we can’t,” he spread his hands. Let her read into it what she would.

Sally’s fists clenched. “My sitter isn’t always available on Mondays. She does her best but sometimes she has to be gone. I can’t just dump Tory in a box.”

“Then I would suggest you find a more reliable sitter.” Her private life was not his concern. “Consider this a verbal warning. Thank you.” He opened a file in front of him and pretended to start reading until she took the hint and left.

It was no surprise when Margaret came in fifteen minutes later. She didn’t knock and the door came very close to slamming behind her. “You had no right to talk to Sally behind my back!”

“It wasn’t behind your back. I’ve asked you at least twice to speak to her and as far as I could tell, nothing has changed. Either you didn’t speak to her, or she didn’t listen.”

Margaret took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I did speak to her. She is working on the problem. What you have failed to see is that she often works through her breaks and lunches to make sure she gets her job done.”

Margaret was sharp. He needed to remember that. “Which is illegal.” He held up a timesheet. “Especially since it’s not showing on her time. She could come back and sue us for overtime.”

“She wouldn’t,” Margaret shook her head once. “I guess you wouldn’t know that. I’ll deal with it.”

After she’d left, he picked up the phone. He needed to find out if he could get his car in for service before the weekend. Then he needed to make motel reservations. There was an accounting class that the corporation wouldn’t pay for but would definitely help him in the future. Spend a little now, make more later.

* * *

“Tim, come in, sit down.”

Tim crossed the room, admiring the way Mark had set up his office, the mile-long walk to the chair, a chance to consider one last time why Mark had called him. Six months had seen major changes in all the departments. Mark should be pleased.

“How are you today?”

The political question. “Fine. Busy.”

Mark nodded, not really hearing his answer. “I needed to talk to you because something has been brought to my attention,” Mark pulled out a piece of paper. “There was a phone call made, long distance, charged to us. When we researched it, we found it came from your department.”

Tim felt a flare of rage. Someone in his department had the gall to make a long distance phone call when his whole message to the rest of the office, was clean up your act? He took the paper, eyes dropping to the highlighted number. “Were you able to trace the extension?”

“It was made from your extension.”

“My . . . ” They’d used his phone? Of course, they’d used his phone. His was the only private office. His eyes found the date of the call. Odd. It was the day he’d had the budget meeting with Calvin. They’d met in his office. He remembered it because Calvin was long winded and he’d known it would take all day. “Mark, I hate to disagree with you but no one could have used my extension that day. I was in my office.”

Mark just stared at him.

“Did you call the number? Find out where it was made to?”

“Yes.” Mark rocked forward in his chair. “The, uh, Marriott Hotel.”

The Marriott? He ‘had’ stayed at the Marriott. “I called the Marriott that day but I charged it to my calling card and it sure wasn’t an hour and a half call! The phone company has screwed up.”

“I’m sure they did. Margaret will be doing a bill for you.”

“Yes. I’ll make sure of it,” Blast. Margaret would never say anything - she was too professional but you could bet she would let Sally type it! “Thank you for bringing it to my attention. The phone company is going to get an earful.” Shut up, Tim. The more you talk, the guiltier you sound.

He went back to his office. He would call the phone company and they would be writing a note of apology!

The bill was already on his desk-sealed in an envelope marked ‘personal and confidential’. Inside, with the bill, was a note from Margaret, requesting he return the bill and payment to her, rather than Sally.

The phone rang and he snatched it up, still thinking of the bill.

“Tim?”

“Joyce,” he’d told her not to call him at work. He forced down the anger. “What?”

“I, uh, I’m at the doctor's office,”

Her pregnancy test. He stretched around his desk so he could sit down, wishing she could have waited until this evening. “And?”

“I’m not.”

“I’m sorry, hon,” he hoped his relief didn’t show in his voice but he wasn’t ready for a family.

“I,”

Was she crying? He knew she wanted a baby but she wasn’t fanatical about it, like some women. Or had she just hidden it well up until now? “It’s okay. We’ll try again,” just what she wanted to hear. “I mean,”

“You don’t understand, Tim,”

She was crying!

“I have cancer. ”

A steel beam dropped on his chest. For a moment he thought he would pass out.

“I need you to come get me. I can’t drive. You need to talk to Doctor Schneider.”

“I’ll be right there.” Schneider was wrong. It couldn’t be cancer. Not Joyce. It was ridiculous. He’d kill Schneider for upsetting her!

“Margaret, I have to go out for a couple of hours,” he stopped by her desk. He still had the envelope in his hand. “Uh, thank you for this. I’ll write a check today.” He looked to see if Sally had overheard, saw she wasn’t at her desk and her chair was pushed in. Late again. Or gone. He’d deal with that when he got back.

* * *

They sat in the car, holding each other, absorbing all the doctor had told them.

“We’ll find another doctor, Joyce, a better one. This bozo doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” He wished he could go back to this morning, back to things normal.

“I just wanted a baby,”

“It will be alright.”

* * *

But it wasn’t. Three mornings. Three doctors. Tim called the office yet again to tell them he would be absent. How could life change so much in just three days?

Sally answered the phone though he’d been trying to get a hold of Margaret. He told her he wouldn’t be in.

“Is everything okay?”

Was she being nosy, or was the concern in her voice real? “No. My wife is ill.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll be sure and give Margaret the message.”

“Thanks.”

The third doctor told them the same thing the other two had. They got back in the car, Tim’s mind busy on where they could find another doctor.

“I’ll call around. There has to be one in town that isn’t a complete idiot.”

“No!” Joyce went berserk, screaming, pounding at him with her fists. “No more doctors! No more first diagnoses! You will not admit it. I can’t go through this with you not admitting it. I won’t. Damn you, it’s real. I need help! Not denial! Take me back to Schneider now. Take me back NOW.” Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she was sobbing so hard he could barely tell what she was saying.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. Calm down. We’ll go back to Schneider. I’m sorry,” he managed to catch her, hold her so she would quit hitting at him. Was it his imagination or did she already feel thinner? She’d never been heavy, always been pretty. How was he going to handle the loss of her auburn hair, the chemicals that would turn her pretty face into a mask of shadowy eyes and pain?

Schneider told them her treatments should start immediately. Two days at the outside. Joyce didn’t argue when he put it off until the second day. It was one more day before life finished tipping over. She insisted he go to work.

“I need time to think. Time for quiet. You need a bit of normal. Besides,” she flashed him a quick smile, a jewel that had suddenly become rare. “You’ve told me what happens at work when you are away for too long.”

He walked into the office, surprised that it, too, hadn’t changed. Everyone was at their desks, working at tasks he’d probably assigned. He nodded at Margaret, pausing when he saw she wanted to speak to him.

“I’ve got some things that need going over. When you’ve settled,”

“Come on in. I’m as settled as I’ll get.”

She followed him into his office. “The budget figures are on your desk for the departments. Also, Mark asked that a memo be drafted regarding cuts in June. I did that already and put your name on it. If you want to read it first, I can make any changes you need before the meeting . . . today, at ten.”

He walked behind his desk, picking up the memo that had the sticky note on it, well labeled so he would know. It was next to the pile of papers to hand out at the meeting. He read the memo, tried to concentrate on it. It sounded about like what he would have written, maybe a bit softer but nothing that was worth changing. “It looks fine. Thanks.”

“I’ll get it printed off and copied. How is your wife?”

“Not good. I won’t be in tomorrow. She starts treatments.”

“I’m sorry,”

“Well . . . thanks for getting this information together.”

“Sure. At ten,”

He nodded and she left. He tried to review the figures so he would be prepared but they kept bouncing around and wouldn’t come together in a solid picture of where things were at and what was to come. He went to the meeting and could feel the surprised confusion when he handed out the copies, said a brief ‘your update and Mark’s memo’ and quit talking. Others filled in the gaps and the budget subject was quickly dropped.

Days became defined as treatment or non-treatment days. Sometimes Joyce was all right, almost normal. Other times he could think of nothing but his helplessness as she suffered the racking hell the chemicals put her through. Her hair fell out and he found he loved Joyce without hair. Every day he got to see her, be with her, was a gift. She pushed him go into the office and, on good days, he listened - needing the touch of normalcy it provided.

Somehow, he never ended up with more than a random meeting now and then. He knew his job should be back to back meetings but when he asked Margaret his schedule was clear - some light issues that needed to be dealt with like how an item should be charged, or checking an audit that had been done. He tried to think of a way to thank her for the load she must be carrying in his place, handling the mounds of paperwork that should have flowed across his desk daily but couldn’t without embarrassing them both.

* * *

He sat, holding Joyce’s hand after a treatment, watching her fight for breath through pneumonia as well as the chemicals, her face was so pale, eyes dark smudges and he knew. She wasn’t going to make it. Until that moment he’d never really considered whether he loved her or not. Oh, there had been moments - the flash of a joke, seeing her cross a street, unaware he was watching – when his heart had lurched. But mostly, in the day-to-day drive, he hadn’t paid much attention. She’d always just been there - listening to his work problems, running his errands, making sure his clothes were clean. She’d been patient about having children, understanding they weren’t ready yet until her age began to worry her. He’d finally, reluctantly, said yes. How relieved he’d been each time she’d found she wasn’t pregnant. How had she felt, in that moment between ‘no you’re not pregnant and you have cancer’? Disappointed? Resigned? Relieved herself? Fifteen years of marriage and he didn’t know. And that was what was missing, had been missing. It wasn’t love. That was so elusive and ill-defined he probably wouldn’t have recognized it anyway. What he’d missed was consideration of Joyce’s feelings. He’d just assumed she felt the way he did. Not always, but most of the time. How did she feel now? Was she frightened? She didn’t act frightened. Fifteen years and he didn’t know.

He wanted to ask but couldn’t form the words. He wasn’t sure what the words were. He knew how he felt. It was an ugly lump in his stomach and he wanted this to be over; hospitals and illness and seeing her so racked with pain. He wanted it to end.

“Go to work tomorrow,” Joyce's voice was a whisper, eyes dull from medication.

“I’m not going to work tomorrow.”

“Go. I won’t mind. I’m mostly not here anyway.”

Fear shot through him and anger that it so closely matched his previous thoughts. “I want to be here.”

“Go!”

He did. He stopped at the hospital the next morning on his way and found Joyce so drugged that she didn’t recognize him.

“We had to increase the dosage last night. We don’t like to but she was keeping the other patients awake,”

It was all he could do not to hit the big-boned nurse who looked at Joyce as if the bed were already empty. The thought of Joyce in such pain that she was crying out threatened to break him. He took a deep breath of the nauseating, medicated air. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours. I expect her to be kept comfortable.”

The nurse raised an eyebrow at him, tucked a sheet in by Joyce’s feet and left.

Margaret and the others were busy at work. He paused to pick up his mail from the communal in-box and saw Sally duck into the bathroom down the hall - coat on, purse over her shoulder. Two hours late. As he walked by Margaret’s desk, he said ‘got a minute’ without pausing for an answer. She followed him into his office.

“Sally’s late again.” He didn’t bother sitting. Joyce so small now. How did she feel? What was she thinking?

“I know.”

“Tell her I chewed your butt big time. Tell her you convinced me to wait just a little longer. I agreed but am drafting a letter. As far as you know, it’s my first step toward having her fired.”

Margaret relaxed. “All right.”

“Has she bothered to find an alternate sitter?”

“I asked. She hasn’t. I told her we would meet this Thursday and she would have the names of a backup by then.”

His phone rang. “Just a moment.” He snatched it off the hook. Later he realized he knew before the voice ever started speaking. “...passed away . . . ten-forty . . . never conscious.” He stood with the phone in his hand, staring out the window. Not seeing anything, a mind trained for details; funeral, who to notify…gone...alone. He put the phone back on the hook. “I have to leave,”

“Your wife?”

He nodded. Should he be sobbing? Shouldn’t he feel something? “She just died.”

“Oh, I’m sorry…I’m so sorry. If there’s anything we can do . . . ”

He nodded. “I don’t know when I will be back in…how long,”

* * *

It was like swimming through mud. He’d always thought grief was sorrow but it wasn’t. It was revulsion. It was complete hate of everything that made up a normal day because it was all a reminder of how it would never be normal again - the silent house, the clothes hanging in the closet, the bills that came to Joyce. It sat beneath his breastbone like a lump of rock that wouldn’t break but wouldn’t allow him to forget either. It was hearing her voice in his mind every day, asking for something that he forgot until now. Pieces of conversation he’d grunted replies to woke him at night, were with him first thing in the morning. Why hadn’t she insisted? He saw, now, that was why she’d wanted children. She’d wanted something to love and share with and had given up on him.

He went back to work as soon as he could; it was all he had left now. Sally was still a problem, still missing work and Margaret had done nothing about it.

He called Margaret in. He’d given her plenty of chances. Last night he’d been up until two in the morning, trying to sort out the doctor and hospital bills, decide if he needed to take out a second mortgage on the house. The bills kept coming, so many he wasn’t sure which were duplicates.

“Tim?”

“Oh. Sorry. It’s about Sally.”

“I know. I’ve told her. She needs to get her act together and get it together now or else.”

“Or else what, Margaret?”

She froze. She didn’t have an ‘or else’. He could see it on her face.

He really looked at her. The person who had supported him during the worst time in his life, who had covered for him, eased his load in every way possible right down to that silly phone charge. “Is she telling the truth?” How many conversations he’d missed! He could hear Joyce’s voice trailing off into ‘nothing’. A single word that was the clearest of all, it had been used so often.

“Yes. I’ve called her a number of times at home on Mondays. She’s there. Sometimes I can hear her baby,”

Tim nodded. There was a picture of Joyce on his desk of their trip to the beach five years before. Since then all their dialogs had begun with ‘as soon as I/you get the job…’ Five years she’d let him build the box of ‘job’ about them until he’d lost sight of why he even wanted the thing. Later. He wasn’t the suicide type and it was too late to go back. All he had was forward.

“Tell Bud his clerk is bucking for another bill if she doesn’t straighten up. Also, tell Sally that the next time her sitter can’t make it; she can bring her baby to the office. I’m leaving it up to you to decide whether it will work or not.” He opened a file on his desk. “And find an ‘or else’. She’s a good employee and you’re encouraging bad behavior.”

Margaret left, her astonishment lingering in the room.

Tim looked at the picture again, rage at Joyce coursing through him. It could have been cut from a magazine. Why hadn’t she kicked his butt!

Bud slammed into his office. “You leave my clerk alone! She’s doing her job!”

Tim felt a flash of admiration. People didn’t like Bud but it never seemed to faze the man. He was too busy living, having too much fun boat rocking, to care. Fun? Yes, Bud was having fun. He lived for confrontations, especially when it came to defending something as he was defending his clerk now.

“There are rules, Bud.”

“I don’t give a crap about the rules!”

“That’s because giving a ‘crap about the rules’ is my job,” Tim paused, a flash of insight, of what his real job was. How stupid and slow he was! No wonder people liked Margaret; she would have seen it right away. “Write a letter giving Betty more authority and have the other staff okay her spending their funds. Then we’re within the rules and I don’t have to listen to you anymore.” He raised an eyebrow.

“I told her it was okay! The other staff told her!” The air had gone out of Bud, the anger. “It’s a waste of time but I’ll write your stupid letter. It beats having to slam in here every week.” Bud stomped out.

Tim picked up the picture, absorbing the details as the phones rang and voices murmured in the outer office. Tears rolled down his cheeks. But she was still with him, helping somehow. She would always be with him.

Rebecca L. Monroe lives in Montana in a log cabin by a river and has been writing for most of her life. She has over 100 published stories and a book of short stories Reaching Beyond published by Bellowing Ark Press. Along with writing, she loves to read, take long walks with Dodge, her yellow Labrador retriever, play with her granddaughter, wait on her cat and volunteer at the local animal shelter.


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