Barry Ullman returned to work after bereavement leave with memorized lines. The pulled pork vendor’s cart was set up a few yards from the high glass façade of 806 Madison, steam rising from the stainless steel warmers, onion and barbeque stronger than his cologne as Barry walked in for the day. He technically had three more days he could take off without a penalty but he was ready to get back into his routine. He knew his lines and he knew his coworkers’ lines. Nothing new really happened in the office, just the relentless churn of spreadsheets and rumors. He called it the maelstrom when speaking to his kayaking buddies.
He didn’t make it to his cubicle before he was stopped in the maze of gray fabric walls that only rose shoulder high to his six-foot frame. The accounting office drowned in ringing phones, printers, and radios tuned to different AM talk shows—sports, politics, books, religion, money.
“Had she been sick or was it sudden?” Gabe asked.
“She’d been ill for a long time.” Barry looked him in the eye with intent, trying to communicate he was bored with the conversation already.
“Well she’s in a better place now.”
“Sorry.” Barry checked his phone. Nothing. Why isn’t there a Wingman app for situations like this? Press the home button and the phone rings with a programmed voice feigning urgency, alarm. Presto! You’ve just been rescued from a boring situation.
“No. That’s on me. I just…didn’t know. I’ll catch you after the meeting, chief.” Gabe backed up between the cubicles and Barry saw the new pennies in Gabe’s maroon loafers. He’d forgotten about Gabe’s penny loafers while he was out and almost laughed as he stared at them.
“Sure thing, bud.” Barry gave him a lazy bro salute. He rolled his eyes when he turned around and chuckled when he saw Erin Turner grinning.
“Hello, you! We’ve missed you around here. Let me give you a hug?” Erin was in her black dress with blue pinstripes that stopped at the knees. The dress looked like it was made for her, not a stripe out of place. He only had to check his memory to imagine what she looked like without it on. They were friends with benefits, the kind you can’t get through Human Resources.
“Better not. Susie might phone up HR or scurry down there on the way to the bathroom even though the can is right across the aisle from her cube.” Barry took off his tan linen jacket.
“Silly. Oops. I hope she didn’t see me slap you with these papers. I’m digging that suit.”
“Thanks. I think she missed it ‘cause she’s watching Amir change the water cooler. But, you’re right. You don’t want to help her imagination along. I heard she stays up all night writing romance novels.”
“And not the gentle ones where the maiden in the antebellum dress is swept up in the shirtless cowboy’s glistening flesh. I see her world populated with a bit more leather and quite a few restraining devices—chains, cuffs…”
“Ooof. She’s a twisted minx. Anyway. We really have missed you.”
“Thanks. I’m glad they let me come back finally. Funeral leave isn’t a necessity for everyone.”
“You were out on funeral leave? Who died?”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“We were expecting it.”
“Hmmm?” Erin looked at the empty fabric wall of the cubicle unsure how to proceed.
“Oh. Shit. I…”
“Don’t worry. Like I said, it was expected.”
“Will you be okay? If you don’t feel up to giving the presentation today maybe we can talk the boss into postponing it.”
“No. I’m fine. The raised eyebrows get old after a while.”
“Wait. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’ll see you in the meeting.” Barry hurried to his cubicle to scribble some notes for his presentation. Just like undergrad English homework, he thought. He heard the red second hand ticking from the clock on his cube-mate’s desk as he tried to beat the deadline.