Everyone in the office had the cell phone of every other person programmed into their cell phones but the thought of calling a coworker on their cell, except for Lee with whom she would occasionally socialize, was unpleasant to her. Her coworkers mostly lacked curiosity in everything other than celebrity gossip and work-related gossip. She stared at the phone's long list of work numbers and chose the name of her manager.
She saw her manager's cell phone number and realized she'd wisely put in his desk number as well. The rule at their company was that you had to call in before the start of your work day. The time on her phone said she had five minutes before the rule would be broken so she called his desk line. He liked to walk in right as the work day was starting so she thought she'd not have to talk to him.
She dialed and waited for his answering machine.
"Hello," he said.
Of all the days for him to get himself to work early, he chose today.
"Hello," he said again.
"Oh, hi," she said. "I am sorry but I won't make it in today."
She knew he recognized her voice.
"Who is this?" he asked.
Seriously? She said her name.
"Lee said he saw you in the lobby and you looked terrible. He's really worried about you. I didn't see you down there so I thought maybe you went home."
Lee was a lovely man but he could keep nothing to himself when he was worried. If you said to him, "I am going to be shot in the face if you tell anyone," he would still tell and, of course, you would be shot in the face.
"Yes," she said. "I was headed home but stopped at my doctor's office to see if I could get in. I'm in the hospital cafeteria now." There had to be an explanation for the background talk. "It's the only place in the building where you can use a cell phone."
"You haven't called in sick in nine years," he said. "What a shame to ruin that record."
His tone was pure sarcasm but it was true. Nine years had gone by with perfect attendance but the company gave no special award for coming in every day and on time, even with colds and low-grade fevers. Their attitude was that you are supposed to be there, so be there.
"Something's not right. I have to figure out what's going on," she said.
"Go take care of it. Let me know if you need anything," he said, as if she would. "I'll let Lee know you called in. He was almost fretful."
"Yeah, please tell him I called in," she said. She added begrudgingly, "Thanks."
"Of course," the manager said. "I am hoping we see you tomorrow." To continue breaking her spirit and making her feel small.
"Thanks. I gotta get back to my doctor's office now. Thanks. Bye," she said, and disconnected the phone.
She put her phone back into her purse, sighed loudly, and collapsed back onto the banquette.
"Well, that's that for him for today anyway," said the new boss. "I think you and I need to wait ten minutes then get the heck out of here."
"Why ten minutes?" she wondered aloud, not looking at him.
"Stragglers," he said. "You know the one or two people who happen to be running late and you run into them when you've not given your plan much thought? Stragglers."
Debbie and Gladys pushed the boundaries of punctuality every day but they were total suckups so their manager seemed to let it slide. Jeff in accounting liked to tell people that his train was late, or the bus was delayed, or his wife didn't wake him up but Jeff simply couldn't get it together to get anywhere on time. Jeff also stayed as late as was necessary every night and never asked for overtime. Still, stragglers.
"I would love a cup of coffee. You need a refill?" he asked as he stood, looking squarely at her. He was a very handsome man in a very lovely suit.
"Yes, please," she said. "And we can look at each other now?"
"Well, yeah," he said. "When someone works for me, they have to look at me. How do you like your coffee? Wait, can I guess?"
There are a zillion ways to make a cup of coffee. Lee liked his very light and very sweet, Jodie liked hers slightly light and sweet with artificial sweetener and whitener. She and Lee liked 2% milk. Their former manager liked lots of powdered creamer and sugar. She liked hers light and sweetened with a particular artificial sweetener, but really, any of the artificial ones would do.
"Why would you want to guess?" she asked.
"It's a game I play with myself," he said.
"You play with yourself?" she asked.
"Very funny, Missus Dark Roast with artificial sweetener and light with either skim milk or low-fat milk," she said, meeting her gaze.
Her jaw dropped.
"How? What?" she sputtered.
"I didn't. I was up in the front looking at a newspaper when you paid so I saw how you doctored yours up. Who the hell can guess how someone likes their coffee?" he said.
"Wow, you're really something," she said, looking at him with her head cocked, her right eye closed for emphasis.
"I know, right?" he stated.
He went and got their coffee -- buying a fresh cup for himself and then making hers perfectly -- and as they sat and sipped, waiting for the 10 minutes to go by, she thought this was as good a time as any to ask what it was she was going to be doing.
"So what line of business am I now in?" she asked.
"You're my new right hand," he said, and took a big sip of his black coffee. He held up his right hand and turned it back and forth and did a low wave in her direction. "Like this," he said, and pointed at his hand, which he used to pick up the coffee cup and have another sip.
"I hold your coffee cup while you sip?" she asked.
"No, but you'll see," he said. "In about 30 seconds."
She took a sip of the perfect coffee and tried to be calm in the banquette. She was thinking 30 seconds had surely come and gone when suddenly the giant came back, walking through the establishment with great purpose.
She audibly held her breath.
"What the hell," said the giant, leaning forward and resting his bulky frame on the edge of the table. "I forgot my damn wallet and I can't buy a ticket. Can you please help me out?"
Her boss looked at her and smiled but addressed the giant.
"Of course we can," he said. "We were just leaving. We'll walk you down there."
They stood up and gathered their things and walked quickly to the exit and toward the escalator that lead to the ticket kiosks for the train. Stragglers were not in evidence and they went to the first free kiosk.
"Mind if we join you on the train?" asked the new boss as he put his credit card into the machine.
"Not at all, if you don't mind me falling asleep and snoring up a storm," said the giant.
"We love that," said the new boss. "Don't we?"
She smiled widely. This was way better than anything she'd done for years.
"We do love it," she said, and touched the giant's forearm once, very lightly. It was something she did when she was connecting to someone and didn't even realized she did it, but the giant grinned down at her when she did.
The new boss bought three one-way tickets to Mount Prospect.