On the way to work, Annabel Prentiss found herself stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. An 18-wheeler had careened into a ditch off of the highway, and the back half of the rig blocked two lanes of traffic. Good thing her job didn’t require a clock-in time. It didn’t require much of anything, truthfully, except transcription skills and perseverance to put up with the hogwash at the office. She scoped deposition testimony for court reporters and got paid per number of pages transcribed. This allowed her to set her own hours, which was the good part. The only good part.
Instead of idling in her car, flipping radio stations trying to find a good song or a conversation on talk radio that didn’t make her want to gag, she exited near the mall. A Krispy Kreme sign flashing “hot donuts” sparked an idea: Her friend Robyn lived in this subdivision. They had met years ago in their night paralegal course and forged a strong friendship, even standing in each other’s weddings. Robyn was one of the few that hadn’t snubbed her after Annabel left the profession. They still talked occasionally by phone. On a rare break, they got together for a drink and a laugh. Annabel cherished those life intermissions and tried to remember their last one. That’s something she would have to remedy, starting now. Last she heard, Robyn didn’t get to work until around nine, so that would give them chance to at least make a plan for a later date.
Robyn greeted Annabel with a warm smile and a surprised look in her eyes. She wore an outfit she probably slept in, sweatpants and Tweety Bird t-shirt. “Oh, my God, Krispy Kremes! I’m so glad to see you.” She invited Annabel in and set the box of donuts on the kitchen counter.
“Look what Miss Annabel brought us, kids.” The two boys came running in. They each grabbed a donut, and Robyn poured herself and Annabel a cup of coffee.
“You look great,” Annabel gushed to her tall, willowy friend. “I don’t think you’ve gained a pound since I’ve known you.”
“Thanks. And you too,” she added. Robyn’s kindness didn’t fool her. Every time she looked in a mirror these days, she saw her mousy brown patches of hair battling the red dye job, and the mousy brown was winning. When she got ahead on bills, she’d treat herself to the hairdresser. Then there was the weight gain. A good fifteen pounds took residence around her frame since all of that turmoil last year. She’d worry about that after the doughnuts.
“Sorry, I’m a wreck,” Robyn said. “I was up half the night with Brandon.” She grimaced. “Nightmares. Then Cayden started.” She rubbed her temples. “I have a migraine coming on, and I’m out of my pills.” She sighed. “Sam’s out of town again. He’s traveling more than ever. And I can’t miss work today. There’s a deposition at eleven that I have to sit in on.”
Annabel drank down the rest of her coffee. “Why don’t you go lie down—“
“I can’t. I have to get the boys to daycare.”
“Hear me out. Go lie down for a half hour. I’ll take your boys to daycare. I’ll also pick up a refill of your medicine.”
Robyn’s stressed-out face relaxed. “You’re a godsend, Annabel.”
“Hey, it works both ways. Remember that time I almost dropped out of the paralegal program?”
Robyn rubbed her temples and nodded.
“If I had missed one more class, they were going to kick me out. I just couldn’t get it together. You showed up at my apartment and literally dragged me to the school that night.”
“I remember. I didn’t want you to throw it all away.”
Only she did end up throwing it all away. Annabel wondered if Robyn’s thoughts mirrored her own. “I don’t know why I got so stuck like that. Couldn’t get myself going.”
Robyn broke a donut in half and chewed on it. “We all get stuck in the mud sometimes. Life’s like that, kind of like laundry.”
Annabel giggled. “Laundry?”
Robyn grinned. “Yep. When we’re on rinse, it’s easy and comforting. We’re looking forward to getting all sudsy and cleansed. Sometimes it’s cold, sometimes it’s warm, and sometimes it’s even hot. Then we get spun around, and that can get rough. Your machine ever starts vibrating because the clothes are spinning around so much?”
Annabel nodded and grinned inside at her friend’s way of thinking.
“At times, we get hung out to dry. Other times, we get worn out. No matter how much Shout we use, certain stains won’t come out. Yet other times, we come out fresher and cleaner than how we started.”
Annabel considered Robyn’s words and hoped her fresh cycle soon awaited her. She stood. “Give me directions to the daycare. Then I’ll head to the drugstore.”
Robyn gave her the address as well as instructions for the school’s procedure. Annabel took the boys’ hands and walked them to her old red Jeep. Before she hopped in, she turned to Robyn. “I’ve got this. Now you go stretch out and relax.”
After work that day, Annabel parked on the street in front of the house she rented. The expansive, ranch-style brick home stood on a corner lot in a neighborhood lush with trees. Well, she didn’t actually rent the whole place even though she rarely revealed that to people that casually asked about her living arrangements. At thirty-six, she shouldn’t be leasing a bedroom and bathroom from a young married couple. It kind of embarrassed her. People called it house-sharing these days. But after all of that drama last year—the loss of her job (and her dignity), and her marriage—she had to economize.
When she got out of her vehicle on the blustery fall evening, she saw a neighbor, Miss Gladys, hobbling out of her house as her little apricot poodle mix led her down the sidewalk.
“Let me walk Buttercup for you, Miss G,” Annabel offered.
“Oh, but you just got off of work.” She stopped and balanced herself against a tree. “I hate to ask you, but my arthritis gets really bad by this time.”
“You’re not asking, Miss G. I’m insisting.”
Annabel enjoyed walking Buttercup. Since she couldn’t have a pet of her own, this helped to fulfill her animal need. She winced at the way she framed that thought. It would inspire great mirth among her former colleagues and current co-workers.
After returning the pet, she entered the house she lived in. Trevor stood at the kitchen island chopping vegetables. Kiersten stirred a sauce by the stove. Without looking up from their culinary tasks, they both muttered, “Hi Annabel.”
“I’ll be right out of your way,” Annabel said. She grabbed a container of leftover lentil and sausage soup from the refrigerator and retreated to her room. She kept a small microwave oven and dinnerware and napkins there. As she ate, she checked the job sites on her computer. She’d like to change professions, but any appealing job, meaning a paycheck that could cover rent, utilities, and food, required experience and education that she lacked.
On the way to work the next day, the interstate traffic flowed. Her heart sank the closer she got to the gleaming downtown building that housed her office. The legal community in this mid-sized town proved to be a close-knit, gossiping conglomerate. While she tried to concentrate on plugging away at her work, she couldn’t help noticing how the court reporters acted around her, their eyes laughing at her. People would suddenly stop whispering when she entered the break room. Screw them. Oops. She shook her head at her bad word choice.
As the workday wrapped up, Annabel sure didn’t feel like going straight home. Heck, she could hardly even call it home. She’d phone Robyn and offer to bring over take-out. The phone rang and rang before it went to voice mail. “Hi, Robyn. It’s Annabel. I thought I’d stop and pick up a pizza or some Chinese food and wanted to know if you’d like me to stop by. I’ll bring plenty for you and the boys.” She paused. “Let’s see, it’s five-thirty. Just let me know by six. Bye.”
Annabel stayed at work until six p.m. Maryann, one of the firm owners, passed by Annabel’s cubicle. “Hey! I’m surprised to see anybody still here.”
“Hi there,” said Annabel. “You’re just getting done with your depo?”
Maryann nodded and exaggeratedly staggered toward the chair. “I’m spent.” She flopped down in the cushy leather chair. “And guess what?” She winced. “They want this transcribed by the end of the week. Will you have time?”
“You bet,” said Annabel. She appreciated Maryann. They weren’t buddies or anything, but Maryann treated her professionally and with respect, which helped make the job bearable.
At six on the dot, Annabel called Robyn again. When the phone went to voice mail, she set it back in her pocket. Robyn could be bad about checking her messages. She walked out to her Jeep. Maybe she’d try one more time. If someone offered to bring dinner over to her, she’d do a happy dance. When she drove up to the strip mall that housed both a pizza joint and a Chinese take-out, she once again pulled out her phone. Her stomach churned as she pressed in Robyn’s number. Was she bugging her? Nah. How could an offer of dinner bother a harried mother of two? She and Robyn shared a lot and enjoyed many kicks back in night school.
“Hi… who’s this?”
“This is Annabel.” She waited for a reply. “Did you get my message?”
“No. When did you call?”
“Oh, about an hour ago.” She waited for a response. “Anyway, I was seeing if you wanted me to bring dinner over. I have a hankering for pizza or Chinese and figured that might be nice for you and the boys.”
After a pause that seemed quite long, Robyn said, “Tonight? Well, I already cooked dinner, and I have so much laundry to finish before Sam comes home tomorrow. The house is a mess. Thanks, but how about some other time?”
Her heart sunk a little, but Annabel managed an affable, “Sure thing.”
Annabel nearly bumped into Trevor and Kiersten as she carried her pizza through the door. “Excuse me,” she said. Motioning to the pizza boxes, she said, “Hey, have some pizza when you get back. I’ll have lots left over.”
Kiersten stooped down to tie her shoes as Trevor did stretches. “We already have a salad made, and Trevor’s going to grill salmon. It’s marinating. Thank you anyway.” With that, they both jogged on out the door. The way their lips curled, Annabel knew they looked down on her choice of dinner. Hell with them. What’s wrong with a woman indulging in pizza now and then? It’s not like she had her own kitchen to play around in.
She used to cook nice meals for herself and Abe. She never knew for sure if he was named after Abraham Lincoln or the Abraham in the Bible. Either way, he found it his mission to stay true to those Abe’s and their virtues. Too bad forgiveness wasn’t one of them.
She brought a couple of slices of pizza to her room and reminisced on the orderly menu of her married days. It almost read like her favorite café and wine bar, Gobble & Guzzle’s, daily special: Mondays, beans and ham. Tuesdays, veggie stir-fry. Wednesdays, grilled pork chops and mashed potatoes. Thursdays, roasted chicken and veggies. Fridays, fried fish and potato salad. Saturdays varied. They got take-out or ate leftovers. Sundays, pot roast with his parents. The boredom got to her. Not boredom with the menu; boredom with Abe. She loved him since high school. Granted, the love became more a habit than a passion, but she was willing to stick it out. It’s a rare relationship, career, friendship, or even hobby that holds its fervor indefinitely.
She ate her pizza while flipping channels on television. After settling on Anderson Cooper’s 360, she turned on her laptop. Automatically, she checked the job sites. Who was she kidding? It might take her a decade to live that incident down. Her Facebook page offered nothing exciting. Couples celebrating anniversaries, kids’ birthday pictures, request for prayers for an ill relative, etc., etc.
A commercial on television caught her eye. The local mall advertised an October Fest this weekend. In Center Court, they would host face painting, crafts, and all kinds of autumn activities for kids. Robyn and her boys would love it. She pulled out her phone but didn’t press in Robyn’s numbers, as she had sounded really busy with housework and stuff. Maybe she’d stop by in the morning again. That seemed to be a good time to catch her.
On the way to work the following morning, armed with a half-dozen supermarket blueberry muffins, she veered off her usual route and crept down Robyn’s street. If Sam’s vehicle occupied the driveway, she’d drive on past because she didn’t want to impose if the husband had completed his travels. As she drove up, she breathed a sigh of relief when only Robyn’s old Camaro sat in the driveway.
Robyn, dressed in brown slacks and a sweater woven with oranges, yellows, and greens, greeted her with a smile, and the two boys ran up and gave her a hug.
“You are spoiling us,” said Robyn. “Come in.”
“You look like autumn,” said Annabel as they took a seat at the kitchen table.
Robyn looked at her sweater. “I got this thing on clearance last winter. That’s the time to go.”
Annabel cleared her throat. “Speaking of shopping, did you hear about the October Fest at the mall this weekend?”
“Your boys would love it. All kinds of fun things for kids. I have to go shopping, so I was wondering if you want to go out there on Saturday. “
As Robyn considered the invite, Annabel found her insides jumping around. “That ought to be fun,” Robyn mused.
Annabel smiled. “Great. What time should I pick you and the boys up?”
“You don’t mind driving us?”
“Not at all.”
“How about eleven?”
When Saturday finally came around, Annabel, Robyn, Brandon, and Cayden took off to the mall. The day played out like one from a classic sitcom where minor conflicts get resolved within a half hour and everyone is happy. She and Robyn chatted away like old times, and the boys welcomed her like she was part of the family. The kids were even calling her “Aunt Annabel” by the end of the day. Outings to the zoo, the park, and the children’s museum bounced around in Annabel’s head.
Her elation continued through the day at work on Monday, even when the office manager, Blaire, introduced the new court reporter around to everyone. When Annabel heard Blaire clear her throat, she stopped transcribing and turned around.
“We have a new reporter on board, Monica.” Blaire clasped her hand over her mouth in a ridiculously exaggerated motion. “Oops. I mean, Annabel. This is Megan.”
Annabel ignored Blaire, stood up tall, walked over, and shook hands with Megan. “Nice to meet you.” Later that day, she overheard the whispers in the corridors: “Let’s just say she reminds me of Monica Lewinsky and not because of her appearance or because she makes handbags.” Giggling ensued. Silly, schoolgirl giggling.
Annabel returned to her work. Hell with them. How long did she have to wear the scarlet letter “A” over one indiscretion? Granted, she chose the opposing counsel on a high-profile case her firm represented to break her marital vows for. Her cheeks flushed at the memory. They flushed with embarrassment but also with the memories of the sheer lust that enveloped her, and him, when they sat in that stuffy conference room for day one of a three-day deposition. He sat across from her with those horn-rimmed glasses and buttoned-up suit. She kept daydreaming about removing the glasses, and unbuttoning the suit. His eyes would fixate on her for what seemed like minutes but were probably milliseconds. After the second day of depositions, he made an excuse to follow her to her small coat closet office at the end of the hall past the restrooms. He closed the door behind them. After a few moments, one of the firm partners barged in on them. And her life veered out of control.
When she left work, she focused on Robyn and the boys. She’d call tonight to make a plan with them. They enjoyed their mall excursion so much Robyn and her boys would jump at the chance for another day of fun with Aunt Annabel. She dialed Robyn’s number after she got settled in her bedroom. With each ring, her heart sunk a little further. She left a voice mail. “Hey, Robyn. Annabel. Give me a call when you get a chance, okay? I want to talk to you about this weekend.”
She tried to concentrate on reruns of The Donna Reed Show. Why not get lost in an ideal world for a while? But she couldn’t focus. The phone stayed hot in her hand. Feeling restless, she grabbed her purse and keys and got into her Jeep. She forgot a sweater and didn’t want to traipse back into the house and disturb Kiersten and Trevor. Shivering from the autumn chill, she cranked up the heat and drove across town to Robyn’s house. Her friend didn’t like the phone too much, but she seemed to enjoy it when Annabel dropped by.
When she turned onto Robyn’s street, she slowed down as she got closer to the house. Sam’s car sat in the driveway. Dang. Why did he have to be home, besides the fact that he lived there? She’d feel funny visiting now. She pulled up to the curb in front of the house and peered inside through the large picture window into the living room. Trevor and Cayden jumped around as Sam playfully wrestled with them. Robyn walked into the room from the kitchen holding a plate or a tray. Then her friend paused. She set the object down and headed towards the window.
Annabel stepped on the gas and hightailed it down the street as if she were driving a getaway car. Her heart raced. God, she prayed Robyn hadn’t seen her. But she must have. Why else would she walk right towards the window? Maybe she just saw a vehicle parked in front of the house and wanted to get a closer look. That’s it. She wouldn’t have recognized Annabel’s Jeep, her big red Jeep, from that distance. She kind of convinced herself of that. Instead of going straight home, she got back on the highway and pulled into Gobble & Guzzle’s parking lot. The café stayed open late, and the waitresses knew her by name. Casual and inviting, the theme song from Cheers played through her mind whenever she sought refuge here.
Annabel sat by the bar, and Terry greeted her with a smile.
“I just want a cup of coffee tonight, Terry. I already ate, but I was out and about and started craving some joes.”
“I’m so glad you don’t want food, Annabel.”
Annabel looked at her quizzically.
Terry set a cup of steaming coffee in front of her. “Oh, it’s just that our evening shift cook didn’t show up! We’re scrambling back there.”
They chatted a bit longer, and Annabel almost forgot her Robyn dilemma.
When she arose the next morning after a fitful night, Annabel worked out a plan. In case Robyn had caught her, she would phone and casually mention passing down her street last night for a reason. She hurriedly slapped on her makeup, brushed her hair, got dressed, and drove to work. She’d call Robyn around lunchtime. Better yet, she’d call from the office line. Robyn wouldn’t recognize that number and might think it’s a business call, so she would definitely answer.
When noon finally came around, the office emptied out as her jolly co-workers set out for lunch, mostly together. To ensure privacy, Annabel slipped into Blaire’s empty office, shut the door behind her, and dialed Robyn’s cell.
“Hi, Robyn, it’s Annabel.” Sweat trickled from her brow. “I know you’re at work and probably…”
“Very busy,” answered Robyn. Not in a bitchy way, just a matter-of-fact way.
“I’ll be quick.”
“Well, first, I passed down your street last night.” She feigned a slight laugh. “I had to run to Wal-Mart, and I took the back way.”
Robyn paused a little too long. Annabel could almost hear her wondering if this was a cover story.
“I stopped for a second in front of your house, thought about saying hello, but realized it was kind of late so just drove on past.” She winced because she knew she had explained too much.
“I see,” said Robyn in a tone that Annabel found a bit too dismissive.
“Anyway,” Annabel said, “we had so much fun at the mall I was hoping we could plan a visit to the children’s museum. I’ve got some passes, and they expire at the end of the month. You think you and the boys would like to go there?” That wasn’t exactly a lie. If Robyn agreed to go, Annabel would purchase passes.
“I don’t know,” Robyn answered with a tad of exasperation in her voice.
Annabel’s heart sunk. I don’t know? Those three words packed a wallop. Didn’t they have a great time, all of them? Why wouldn’t Robyn want to make another plan? Her throat tightened. “Okay. Well, just let me know, if you can, before the end of the month.”
Robyn must have detected the disappointment, and she sounded more upbeat. “Will do, pal. I have to get back to work now.”
They hung up, and the hollowness inside Annabel almost swallowed her whole. She left Blaire’s office just in time to collide with the vixen in the doorway. Blaire put her hands on her hips. “And what were you doing in there?”
Annabel felt her face redden, but she looked her nemesis in the eye. “I had to make a private phone call.”
“I don’t recall you asking me for my permission.”
“You weren’t here and I thought it was harmless.”
“Don’t you have a cell phone?”
“The battery’s dead.”
Blaire looked her over for a moment. Then she gave one of her impish grins and teased in a singsong voice: “I better not find a man in there, Monica—I mean Annabel.”
Annabel slinked away, her whole body trembling with embarrassment, humiliation, but mostly anger. She stopped in her tracks. She got her shaking under control. She turned around to face Blaire standing at the office door, boring a hole through her with her eyes. Annabel marched towards her as ogling snoops poked their airy heads out from behind doorways and corners. She stood before her. “You have insulted me for the last time.”
“Humph.” Blaire rolled her eyes.
“You’re a small, petty person. Inside, you are so empty, and you have to fill it with insulting people. It’s me right now. But then it will be someone else. Because that’s how you function. You feed off of others like a damn vulture.”
Blaire seethed with anger as some “oohs” and “ahs” rumbled through the corridor.
Annabel looked around and spoke loudly. “It’s all of you. Blaire may be the most outwardly bitchy, but do you think I don’t hear your whispers, see the looks in your eyes? Like you’re all saints? You think I don’t know how some of you operate? I just don’t make it some kind of sick amusement for myself.”
Blaire pointed her finger. “You can’t talk to me that way.”
“I can talk to you any way I want. And I can walk away from this place anytime I want.”
Relief rippled through Annabel as she spoke these words. She practically floated back to her work area, freed from the crushing pressure she didn’t even realize had weighed down on her so much, it had become so ordinary. No more!
She finished the deposition she was transcribing. Two more sat on her desk with a deadline slated for the end of the week. She wouldn’t leave Maryanne in a bind. Barely stopping, she transcribed both of them. It didn’t matter that the office went dark, and everyone left. She worked until nine o’clock that night because she was committed to completing the work. Then she typed up a resignation letter to the firm owners and let them know what they owed her for the 248 pages she had just transcribed.
She drove away almost giddy, yet afraid. Never in her life had she quit a job without having something else lined up. Despite her budget concerns, she decided to treat herself to Gobble & Guzzle. She wondered if the cook had returned. When she got out of her Jeep and walked to the door, she noticed a “Help Wanted – Evening Shift Cook” notice posted on the door. The sign sparked an idea. She winced when she recalled the Krispy Kreme sign in Robyn’s subdivision sparking an idea—an idea that she placed way too much hope and promise in for reigniting her life.
She could cook. She could cook everything on their menu. She used to cook the same kind of food for Abe. But would it pay enough? Heck, it would pay more than nothing, which is what she faced after leaving, or rather fleeing her job trap. She sure liked the atmosphere here, too.
Miriam, the manager, greeted her with a smile. “Good to see you, Annabel.”
Annabel cleared her throat. “Can I talk to you?”
On the way to work, Annabel slowed down for school zones and watched gleeful children racing home from their long day in the classroom. At a red light, she looked at herself in the rear-view mirror. She wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail. That style used to bother her because it emphasized her tired eyes and puffy cheeks. However, she couldn’t help but notice a freshness seeping back into her face. She enjoyed no longer commuting downtown in rush hour traffic. She also cherished her mornings where she didn’t have to drag herself out of bed to face a hostile workplace. Instead, she took a long walk around the leafy subdivision. Then she’d put in a couple of hours of work for Maryanne, who had set her up remotely with a computer. That filled the gap she had faced in pay. Before long, she’d be able to save up enough money to move to a place she could call her own.
She pulled into Gobble & Guzzle’s parking lot. Terry pulled up next to her, ready to start her shift, and they walked towards the back entrance together. Terry started chatting about her morning mall walkers club and invited Annabel to join. Then they laughed about some of the characters that regularly patronized the café. Annabel got settled in the kitchen and started preparing a pot of beans and ham. She found herself humming as she chopped onions. She knew she was starting a clean, fresh cycle.