“I wanted to try some new workplace stretches,” I tell him, the lie tumbling out surprisingly easily. “And I was afraid I’d look a bit goofy my first go-round.”
He smiles. “As if looking goofy has ever stopped you,” he says warmly. I tilt my head. Wendy and goofy don’t belong in the same sentence, unless you’re talking about two costumed characters at Disney World. Being goofy would require a sense of humor, and Wendy Charles hasn’t got one. But the man, the strapping, tall man, gestures with his head toward a five-by-seven picture taped up on Wendy’s back wall, one I’ve never noticed before, and sure enough, in it Wendy’s dressed up as Cheri Oteri’s character from those great old SNLs when she and Will Ferrell are cheerleaders with way too much school spirit. The Strapping Man before me makes an excellent, hot Will Ferrell in his trim white pants and red tank top. And pom-poms.
My mouth drops open, and I try to close it up. “Well,” I say. A beat passes while I try to be clever. “If I’d had my cheerleader costume on, it might have been different.”
Strapping Man’s eyebrows lift, and in a hot rush I realize both of us are imagining me in a cheerleader costume, stretching. In my version he is definitely in the room with me. And the door is definitely closed.
Wow, I mentally add. Wendy, you dog. One look at this guy’s face, and I know with complete certainty that if she hasn’t slept with this man, he’d certainly like to change that soon. Holy cats.
At this precise moment, Wendy—real Wendy—calls me. I sneak a glance at my phone and see a string of text messages from her that I’ve missed. Oh dear. Somehow it’s gotten to be afternoon, and that means it’s pickup time, and that means I should put it back in my pants, as Hugh’s crass brother likes to say, and make sure the right assortment of children is in my minivan right now before Wendy drives off and strands half the softball team. I exhale.
“I’m sorry—I have to take this call. My kid’s school,” I lie to Strapping Man.
“Not a problem. Actually, I was just checking on you because of the closed door. Wanted to see if you were taking a nap day.”
Oooh, is that a thing? I think it might have to be tomorrow if I stay up late cooking and cleaning again. “Wide awake . . . and wondering who forgot their soccer cleats,” I say, because I’ve learned that whenever a mom mentions soccer, all nonmoms, men or women, are guaranteed to flee any room. (Pro tip: in the event of a zombie apocalypse, clear any overcrowded bunker by talking at length about kids’ league sports.)
Obligingly, Strapping Man says, “I’ll let you handle that, and we can catch up later,” and books it outa there. On the way out he leaves the door wide open, and I wonder if it was out of habit or a commentary but leave it be. I remember the promise I made to Wendy last night like a solemn oath: Don’t ef anything up. Maybe I closed her office door and spaced out for half the workday, but I haven’t had sex with Strapping Man, divorced her husband, or sent her kids to school in circus costumery. I’m doing fine.
And as for my counterpart . . . I answer the phone too late. When I call back, no one picks up. I scroll back to catch up with her texts.
WHY ARE THERE TEN KIDS TRYING TO GET IN YOUR MINIVAN RN? reads the first text.
Oh ok, reads the second one, which came in two minutes later.
Then: I’m looking in the rearview mirror at three girls, two boys, and a toddler. Does that sound right? I frown. It does not sound right.
A new one pops up now. Wait, do I take this rando boy? Hugo? He says his mom says it’s ok.
I text back quickly. Hugo is supposed to walk to his grandma’s and he knows it. It’s two blocks. Tell Samuel no friends except on Fridays. And make sure he has his backpack. Hugo, not Samuel.
Then I keep texting: Did he get a check-plus today? Samuel, not Hugo.
And more: What is Zoey wearing? Did you see in the planner that you were supposed to get her some softball clothes? Can you tell if Merine has lipstick on? Her mom wants me to watch for rogue makeup.
No answer. I keep texting. Oh and before you drive away, can you send Zoey into the school kitchen to pick up a Nesco cooker for the soup sale?
That’s the only message she responds to: The turkey fryer things?
Roasters, yes. But just one. LMK, I type, and Let me know, please autocompletes on my phone before I hit send. This little moment of technological zen took fifteen minutes of watching YouTube instructionals and searching my iPhone settings, but it’s so worth it. When I die, someone will say, RIP, Celeste Mason. Her text messages were always complete sentences, and polite too.
I wait for her to answer all my other questions, but the screen goes dark. Um . . .
For ten minutes I wonder who is in that minivan. I try texting Wendy two more times. I make a written list of which girls I am supposed to take each day and worry about whether any kids are stranded at school. What would they do if they were? Wouldn’t Zoey tell Wendy if someone was missing? Would Wendy even listen?
I stew in the silence. If Wendy didn’t get that cooker, she’ll have to go back to school and get it after practice. But the school is locked by that time. Crap. Maybe Dr. Randall will still be there? But maybe not, because this is the Monday of the school board meeting. If I don’t have it, then what? No gazpacho in Dixie cups to sell to kids at the monthly Go-to-School Night tomorrow night. No extra fifty dollars to supplement the state-funded snack with fresh-cut vegetables for the following school year. Come on, Wendy. Just tell me you got the Nesco.
Ok, no response, so time for plan B. I can probably make enough gazpacho for the fundraiser if I use a couple of lobster pots. I assume Wendy has a lobster pot. A Nesco is eighteen quarts, so two ten-quart pots will work, except I like to cook the white onions first because they’re too sharp for the kids otherwise, so I’ll cook the onions in one pot, then transfer them to two and add the tomatoes and seasonings before I puree with my stick blender, and if I use enough plastic wrap, I can probably get the pots sealed up enough to get to school tomorrow without incident. But the Nesco has a locking lid . . . so much easier . . . and tomatoes inside my light-tan minivan . . .
I startle. To my great shock, there are three people standing over my desk, blinking at me. How they got there I have no idea. They are all strangers to me, but I pretend to know who I’m looking at and say, “Whoopsie! Lost in my thoughts.” And then, because I guess I’m more off kilter than I realize, I say, “What can I do you for?” like a doofy character from an office sitcom.
The three of them stare at me more.
Finally one rouses and says, “Did you get my email?”
“Or ours?” they all seem to ask in unison.
Email. Didn’t I just read somewhere that it was a scourge on productivity? My emails never scourge me that much—but I click over to Wendy’s Outlook window and am startled all over again. There are So. Many. Emails. What is it that Wendy even does, again? How does she ever get anything done when this many people are pestering her? My goodness.
“I’m sorry, guys,” I say. “I’ll have to get back to you on these later. I’ve got to run. There’s a school emergency.”
One of them visibly gasps. She’s the one who greeted me this morning in surprise by saying, “Wow, Wendy! Your hair is dry!”
“Are your kids ok?” she asks now.
“Fine. I just think that . . . uh . . . Bridget got left at school today by the mom who is supposed to drive her to softball. And I’m not sure about Linus.”
“Doesn’t Linus just go straight to after-school every day?” says the smaller of the three women in my office.
Oh, right. He does wraparound childcare. That’s what Wendy told me yesterday. I pick him up from after-school at five thirty.
I’m not exactly sure what after-school involves, I now realize. Do they feed him? If not, won’t he be starving by then?
I think of that huge mess of emails and the top one on the list. The subject ominously reads, Confirming today’s 4pm intake meeting, and I don’t know what that could even begin to mean.
I really should go make sure Linus has something to eat.
I grab keys and wallet and the light wool jacket I threw over my blouse this morning to make me feel like a boss. “Gotta scoot.”
The crowd in my office looks at me like I’m a freak. “What?”
“But what about that intake with the referral client?” asks one.
“Did you look at my reformatting for the presentation?” asks another.
“The planner proofs have to get back to the printer by Friday,” says the third.