OfficeRomance

BEING A DRAFT OF A STORY FOR AN UPCOMING COLLECTION….copyright William R. Burkett, Jr.

It was late July, last softball game of the season; our co-ed team lost as we usually did those early years. Lenore wanted to talk, so I hung around after the game in the dusky ball park chatting with her and Bubba, the bushy-haired Montanan on loan to the computer division; she had scooped him up for her latest conquest. Mosquitoes hummed and the air cooled, and every time I tried for a graceful exit, she wanted me to stay. I couldn’t figure it out. I had passed up my chance a few days after her divorce.

She had immediately dropped significant weight. She bought new, slinky clothing. She got her hair shortened and restyled into a cute, tousled bob that framed her delicate features very sexily. She applied a light, artistic touch with carefully selected makeup, experimented with come-hither perfumes, and went on the prowl. As a cynical division head had recently observed “you can sure tell when they’re in heat.” Bubba was the most recent fly in her parlor.

After I finally left the softball field I mused on my missed opportunity during the long commute home. I had been eating late lunch at a restaurant across from Liquor Board headquarters when I was swept up by co-workers engaged in their traditional Friday-night drinking party. I was still relatively new to the agency and it was my first invitation; some of the regulars had played softball with me all summer and I now was accepted as a regular Joe. Lenore was there, all lighted up and looking for trouble, the way women on the rebound sometimes get.

She almost found trouble when she plumped her cute little butt down in a chair at a table full of Marines on a detour from the bathroom, flirting like mad. When she rejoined us, the alpha Marine was right behind her, looking to cut her out of the herd. One of the more inebriated of my new friends made an intemperate remark about Marines. He immediately bowed up, ready to stomp our intoxicated outfielder with the big mouth. Our guy didn’t seem to grasp his peril; I cautioned him jarheads were like attack dogs; be careful. So of course the Marine transferred his fury to me and threatened to whip me. I used a line of Hoss Cartwright’s I had used successfully almost twenty years ago to back down a Hell’s Angel: go ahead, do your damnedest, give it your best shot. When you’re done, tell me, and I’ll kill you.

It worked twenty years ago because I was in my Military Police uniform and the cold-eyed blond in civilian clothes at the bar—the Hell’s Angel; they drafted everybody those days—was also an MP who had just cleaned out a bar full of drunken engineers single-handed after his partner chickened out and ran away; the partner had been reassigned and Korsaw assumed I was his new partner when I showed up as an individual replacement. He was road-testing me so see if I had the right stuff, and got a huge kick out of the Hoss Cartwright line; we were immediate buddies and I couldn’t buy another drink that night.

This was different; the Marine was in full rut. I don’t know why the Hoss Cartwright line worked again when the Marine had to back down in front of a woman he was sniffing after. But it did. For some reason that impressed Lenore. When the group decided to decamp to a bar with dancing, she insisted I go along. When the rest decided to call it a night, Lenore wasn’t ready, so I said I’d stay and drive her home. We danced; she kept telling me between dances how weird it was to be dancing with the division head she always thought was standoffish. By the time we were in the car, she invited me home to spend the night. Told her I couldn’t do that and dropped her off. She was cordial at work the next day, but I remembered my grandmother’s axiom that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and worried a little about what might happen next.

What happened was she invited me to meet her after work at a roadhouse outside town for a drink. I asked about Bubba. She said saucily he’s not invited. So I went. Mt. St. Helens still had its top, but was getting ready to blow; a steady plume of ash and steam spewed thousands of feet high into the bright July sky. Cars and trucks and RVs littered the shoulders of Interstate Five crossing Nisqually Delta, where people stopped to gawk and take photos; the Delta offered a good view of the mountain to the south.
In the parking lot of the restaurant after we spent some time inside, I was the only person not looking at the mountain—I was looking at Lenore. “Most kissable lips at the Liquor Board,” I said. And tested the premise and found it valid. It was a surprising repercussion from the conversation last night at the mosquito-infested ball field. She said she was headed for a party and wished she could take me with her as her latest catch, but knew she couldn’t.

The following Sunday I had to go to the office. I was down one staffer and liquor advertising submitted for Board approval or rejection was stacking up. The weather was hot and humid; headquarters air conditioning was a welcome relief.

I got there at noontime. Within two hours, Lenore showed up at my office door, wearing a cute lime-green terrycloth sun suit. She said she almost missed my car in the parking lot until she saw it buried in deep shade; and wanted to know if I was trying to duck her. When I assured I it had never crossed my mind, she wanted more kisses. We wound up in what they called, when I was young, a hot petting party. Her nipples made hot knobs in the terry cloth. Suntan oil on her arms made a long smear on the wall beneath my collection of decorative mirrors supplied me by liquor companies for approval. The smear was there as long as I was.
She wanted me to fuck her in the Board room, beneath all the impassive portraits of board members stretching back to Repeal. She said every time I took the meeting minutes, I could look at the old couch behind the chairman’s seat and remember. I demurred; I had no interest in indulging her fantasy.

“I’m not made of steel,” she said. “You can’t work me up and leave me hanging like this.”

She invited me to her place if I was worried about being interrupted. But that gave rise to an image of Bubba the Montanan with his pistol handy under his front seat, who thought he had her undivided attention that summer. I told her I had no desire for a Sunday shootout.

“Bubba doesn’t own me!” she said hotly. “Nobody owns me!”

She left angry that I wouldn’t come home with her. I worked until six and stopped at an old drive-in near Puget Sound that featured huge lime milkshakes. I had one in honor of her sun suit and as a salute to lost chances; it had turned into a lime-green kind of Sunday. The saltmarsh smell of the Sound was powerful in the July heat.

At work the following week, she was professionally cordial. Except she stopped by my office one day to whisper that she had been asking other women if they thought I was attractive as she thought I was. My secretary overheard her and winked at me after she was gone. Good god!

Toward the end of the week she slipped onto the elevator as I was going downstairs and planted a quick, daring kiss. “No one else can get me when I feel this way about you,” she breathed in my ear. When the doors opened, she was clear across the elevator, all wide-eyed innocence.

I wrote on my desk calendar a phrase I remembered from a long-ago poem: “to mark the place of a bygone summer day” but have no memory why. Then I went on vacation for the first two weeks of August. I returned in time for co-ed softball league “playoffs.” All teams, no matter how poor their season record, got to play at least one playoff game; ours was an unmitigated disaster proving our poor season was no fluke.

Lenore had acquired a new Ford LTD. When I asked her about it, the way you do when somebody gets a new car, she flared up: “You’re just after me like all the rest!” and stalked off. Three days later she was in my office, having trouble with the employee credit union and asking me to help her compose a letter. I wrote it on my office typewriter and she left happy. Days drifted by.

Ten days later she told me she had volunteered to water the flowers at a friend’s house while she was on vacation; and invited me to stop by. After watering the plants we wound up sitting in the cool breeze between the garage and the house talking—about sex, as was beginning to seem inevitable with Lenore. She said she had cut a wide swathe through available men without satisfaction. Some, she said, were put off by “how much I love the taste of semen.” I found that doubtful. But it was her story and she was sticking to it.

Memory fails as to why she led me into the garage, but suddenly we were kissing and groping in a fever. I cupped her elbows and lifted her onto the workbench. She fumbled with her halter top and spilled her bare breasts into my face. I was kissing the engorged nipples when I felt her hands unzip me and tug me free, achingly erect and ready. When I looked up, her eyes were wide and staring, almost angry.

“I love you—but you can’t have me, because you’re married…”

What was there to say to that? I removed myself from her stroking hands, reinserted myself and zipped up. I wasn’t going to play that kind of game. It was time to go. I needed to stop at a department store to buy a wedding gift for my new staffer. (Later, her friend found Lenore’s gold chain in the garage and accurately assessed what had been going on. Lenore told her hell no, if I had my boyfriend there we would have used your bed. Still later, when her friend knew the whole story, she very kindly told me it was Lenore’s loss, not mine.)

A couple days after the garage episode, I had given up trying to find my best sunglasses. Lenore had found them in the garage but didn’t tell me until she called me from home. When I picked them up, she was prickly again, especially when I mentioned that a woman named Claudine called me an enigma.

“She said you were an enigma? I wish I had been the one to say that. I love you and hate you for making me love you…”

“Good night, Lenore,” I said.

Couple days later, another call from her home; stop by when you get out of the office. She had heard a song about a “free and easy feeling,” and wanted to tell me: “You have that.” I bet her fifteen dollars that she would never go to bed with me.

“Got your $15?” she said.

“Are you serious?”

“Serious or delirious…”

But I didn’t believe her; I turned her down. Plus I didn’t have fifteen dollars on me. She was irritable at work for several days, culminating with coming all the way up to my office to tell me “I’ve swallowed some things about you…” by which she was referring to sniping from female co-workers about hanging around me all the time. So the dangerous rumor mill was churning.

Three days later a gift package arrived, a small, well-crafted pewter Pegasus—“the horse of muses…” She showed up within ten minutes; she had uncanny intelligence about the flow of correspondence through the mail room. I thanked her for the thoughtful gift; selected because I had told her my writing muse abandoned me when I became a bureaucrat.

“Give me some space, okay?” she said.

I didn’t say I had been busily trying to do that very thing; just said okay. An hour later she was on the phone from downstairs:

“Can I see you a minute?”

“But you said about space…”

“But that was an hour ago when I wanted space. You don’t ever have to worry—an hour away and I’ll be right back…”

Five days later she arrived in my office—she had the run of the building—to announce “It is over! You’ve been nicer to me than anybody ever has, but I haven’t thought about you for four days. I don’t even remember what we talked about last.I’m going to sell my body and get some use out of it.”

I refrained from asking what was over. Who knew what was buzzing around in that head of hers? She wrapped the Pegasus on my desk in carbon paper, to symbolize crepe, and departed. I kind of admired the drama of that. But within two days she was on the phone making a big deal about why I wouldn’t go to the agency picnic when she expected me to be there. I mentioned the crepe symbolism of the Pegasus. She said she’d come take it off if I’d go to the picnic. Better leave it, I said. Within an hour my secretary was in my office with a smirk on her face:

“I’m supposed to find out unobtrusively whether you’re going to the picnic…”

But I didn’t go. It seemed the better part of valor. Amazingly enough, work went on uninterrupted; phone calls were answered, public records requests handled, minutes recorded; a policy and procedures manual edited; staff meetings attended.In early September I was on the phone with a reporter when she showed up, unannounced as always.

“Get off the phone! I’m here!”

Who the hell is that, the reporter asked; your wife? Sometimes it feels like it is, I said.

“I love that look you get,” she announced when I hung up. “Like a little boy about to get in trouble. You helped me with all the others—Bubba, Mike, never tried to push…” She struck a pose, hands on hips, “Soooo…She’s back!”

I was scheduled to be out of the office for a few days on assignment; she knew almost before I knew. She showed up to complain: “It’ll be so dull here without you…I’m not a woman of my word. I want to do all those things I said I didn’t want to do. Every three weeks I get like this—even Bubba’s looking good to me again!”

Me: “Since I am out of the running you may as well go ahead.”

Not well-received, but I was on my way out the door and didn’t have time for repartee. When I returned she was there to meet me; she had an intelligence net spy agencies could envy. She continued day in and day out, on and off the phone, in and out of my office, flitting like a butterfly.

She popped in one day to say “Don’t do that—look at me like that—you make me smile.” And vanished with a Mona Lisa look.Then she stayed after work to engage in an hour-long conversation about her troubles with her men, the sum of which was “Being with you makes me feel so good…”

All through this time—and before—she had prepared a special pot of coffee in the break room for me to fill my Thermos for my long commute home; I always appreciated it, and ignored catty remarks about my office wife. I didn’t know I had sleep apnea in those days, and I drank a quart on the way to work, a quart at work, and a quart on the way home to stay awake. This September she took to coming all the way up to my floor to tell me coffee was ready. When I asked about this change, she said it was just an excuse to look at me.

I took her to lunch—risky behavior in our claustrophobic environment, where any such activity was viewed with salacious interest by all hands—and she said she felt nervous just being with me.

“It’s my fault,” she said. “My loss.”

It appeared to me she was spinning out a non-existent drama in her mind, but far be it from me to say so. Couple days later she was on the phone telling me life was uncomplicated now.

“Nobody loves me…” Voice break, “and I’m not looking forward to the next time. Hope it doesn’t happen…”

I was to the point of mostly listening, with an occasional non-committal mumble. Then she announced “I always pretty much know where you are and what you are doing—even if you don’t see me, I see you…” For some reason that gave me a little chill. The next day it was: “It’s bo-o-o-ring when you’re not in the building. Let’s go have a drink…”

It was well past quitting time so I thought what the hell.

“Well, here we are again,” she said at the bar. “You need to be more aggressive.”

“You need to make up your mind,” I said.

“Okay. Just be my friend—my money in the bank…good thing you didn’t come over last night…you would have been used and abused…you’re a victim of my past.” She tossed off her drink and walked out without a backward glance.

We were into October now. She called to ask if I was okay with her walking out.

“I feel like kind of a fool,” I said.

“You’re not. You’re my strength. You look good in hats…”

The next day we both were in the same staff meeting; she came by later to accuse me of deliberately “not looking” at her. “Where’s my Pegasus?” It was still on my desk. “Thought you’d done something to him.” So the next day she brought me a bottle of vitamins—said she was worried all the stress I was under might undermine my health. “You take them—I’m going to come up and count them every day.” Then she showed up to witness me taking vitamins; the office wife appellation was beginning to fit and I was uncomfortable with it.

Of course there had to be drama with my vitamins—she appropriated my dictionary and said she was looking up jealousy, definition of, “because you touched Rose in that meeting—I felt a twinge. “I had no memory of having touched Rose; doubted if Rose did. “It was just a twinge,” she said.

“Look,” I said, “I stepped out of the picture.”

“You are a sweetheart—it takes courage to step out of the picture.”

Less courage than to buy into the dramatics; but I didn’t say it.

“I don’t let many people past my defenses like I let you,” she added. No more than a dozen, I thought; didn’t say that either. I had learned a few things by then about crazy-making women. She went right on to tell me she had a commitment now to a man.

“Is he a hunk?” I said.

“Nooo. You want to see a hunk? Look in the mirror.”

Right; within days she was on the phone accusing me of changing a big mailing just to make her job difficult and get even with her for toying with me. Her voice was cold and bitter. I felt another one of those chills. My bureaucrat’s life was vulnerable enough in the give and take of bureaucratic politics without this.

Of course the very next day she was on the phone: “Am I in doghouse?”

“Uh uh,” I said “Am I?”

“Of course not. I was just jealous. Your wife is beautiful, her hair is beautiful…”(The agency had a retirement party; first time she had seen my wife. My wife and I were sitting with Claudine, a truly gorgeous woman and a true character. My wife liked her and encouraged me to dance with her since she didn’t have an escort.

“Oh—was Claudine there?” Meow. I repeated my wife’s praise of Lenore’s good looks: “Well, we have a mutual admiration society going…but not quite!”

She had called to tell me what a smooth and handsome dancer Stan G. was…”but that’s all I know about him…If he wants to take a run at me I’ll let him.” Later she told me he did, and she did; but he was nearly impotent, which was highly frustrating.

November came along. “Haven’t seen you for days!” she complained. “Come visit with me. I called you last week, didn’t know until Friday you were gone—you told everybody but me! But then, who am I?”

Who indeed? It really was like having an office wife keeping track of my comings and goings more jealously than my actual wife ever did. And every time she crashed and burned with another man, she came crying on my shoulder. She seemed genuinely hurt by one whose sarcasm about her bed-hopping had wounded her deeply; the tears were literal. She told me later I could have had her right then and there, I was so comforting and she was so vulnerable. The idea made me shudder and I told her so; it would be like shooting game birds on the ground.

In a couple of days a dozen red roses were delivered to the front desk of the Liquor Board. Everybody was abuzz; who was getting flowers? Even the new chairman came out to take a look.

They were for me. To say they burnished my image would be a classic understatement. Unsigned, the card made it clear I had a serious female admirer; I think the new chairman was actually jealous. My secretary gave me a sardonic, knowing look. I kept my council and waited. Lenore showed up pretty soon to see if I liked them. I told her I liked them very much and breathed an inner sigh of relief; if those roses had come out of my checkered past instead of from her there would have been hell to pay.

The year turned. Spring came along. When I missed the first softball game of the following season, she demanded as by right to know why. So I told her. Why that particular story should have triggered her lust is beyond me, but we wound up in my car necking like teenagers—until I put my fingers in her. I’d like to think I knew a few more things than teenagers by then; the way she clung to my neck and orgasmed repeatedly tended to support my hubris. She was upset because she didn’t have a babysitter that night; so she couldn’t take me home. It’s all right, I said. Don’t worry about it. Then I just had to go and add, notice I did that left-handed. What is that supposed to mean she demanded. Well the last guy you bragged to me about was left-handed and I thought you’d enjoy me being ambidextrous.

Some things you should just keep to yourself, I guess.

Still, before the summer had run she asked for my help in teaching her son how to train his new dog. He was a good kid and dogs are my weakness; I enjoyed the training and the pup was a quick learner. When the boy went off to play with friends and the pup was sleeping, she took my hand and led me to her bedroom.

“There,” she said, “is the famous bed.”

“The one I never occupied,” I said.

“You could have, you know.”

“It’s pretty to think so,” I said. But she wasn’t much of a reader and I’m sure she didn’t get the literary allusion.

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