On the front door of our offices, we have a sign that Paulette, my former boss, asked me to order. I had my choice of a background color of Old Parchment, Dusty Mauve, or Cactus Green. I went with Alpine Green lettering, and decided to keep the background simple; I figured Old Parchment offends no one, so I went with that. The sign says, “Thank you for removing your shoes.”
I mention this because today, the owner of “Heartland Quality Omaha Steaks Since 1917” showed up wearing what looked like snowmobile boots. I couldn’t imagine why he was in our office, since his shop here closed immediately after the Apocalypse. He noticed the sign thanking him for doing something he hadn’t yet done, and probably didn’t want to do. He sighed, then sat down on the front entrance mat by the door. His boots were were streaked with something grayish white, maybe road salt left over from winter. There were a bunch of buckles to undo. When he finished, he left the boots lying on their sides right in front of the door where anyone coming in would trip over them.
“What are you doing here then?”
I’ll be frank. I never liked this guy, even back when life was easier and the scene at our strip mall was more convivial. It’s hard to trust a wiry vegan who runs a retail franchise specializing in fancy cuts of beef. He’s a little too buff, like the sort of guy who goes to yoga studios mostly to watch thinly-clothed women assume vulnerable positions. Paulette was enamored enough with him though, that more than once I watched from the reception desk as they disappeared together into one of the treatment rooms.
“I am carrying on.” I said this slowly, with dignity. I couldn’t quite recall the guy’s name. Henry? I suspect that’s not right, and that I was loosely transposing the letters of “horny.”
He touched the books on the shelves and ran his fingers over the ceramic mugs we used instead of disposable cups. He stared for a long time at the picture of Paulette’s guru that hangs on the wall. Then he seized a Dum-Dum from the bowl, unwrapped it, and stuck it in his mouth.
He didn’t even check the flavor first.
“How are you handling the zombies?”
“They have a right to whatever it is they’re doing. They don’t bother me here.” They do annoy me, of course, but no point opening up to him about it.
“Who is seeing Paulette’s patients then, if she’s gone? How are you staying open?”
The white stick of the Dum-Dum in his mouth jiggled positions until it pointed directly at me. As I sit here now reliving the incident, I hope I remained calm while facing this inquiry though I recall an uneasy clammy sensation souping up in my armpit region. “A woman Paulette trusts.”
Henry, if that’s his name, nodded. I initially felt relieved, at least a little, by the fact he seemed to accept this. But then the nodding continued past the point it should have. It transcended politeness, and indicated a response darker than acquiescence. The little white baton of the Dum-Dum didn’t seem to move with the rest of him; it was as if he kept its tip intentionally laser beamed in my direction.
“You’re the secretary. I remember. What’s your name again?”
Here are the sentences I considered as responses:
A) “Why are you asking me this?” or:
B) “Get that well-toned ass of yours off my property.” Or even:
C) “I prefer ‘office assistant.’”
But none of these responses were necessary, for just then, the phone rang. To put this into perspective, the phone NEVER rings in this office. Because:
A) Most people on earth died. Ergo, not as many phone calls coming in.
B) The phone system functions, more or less, but can be sketchy.
C) Business here isn’t exactly flourishing.
But there it was, this lovely spring miracle in the form of a cheerfully ringing land-line. The caller turned out to be an automated message from a political candidate running for office eighteen months ago. The candidate must have passed away, and no one thought to put a halt to his telemarketing robots.
I remained on the call, while Mr. Beefcake milled restlessly around the reception area. I chatted to the recording as if it were a patient. I wrote down its social security number. I asked about its symptoms. I took notes for the fictional licensed practitioner who had taken over Paulette’s practice. I wanted it to be clear to Beefcake that I would never presume to consult with patients on my own. I considered inventing a personality for my fictional employer. I’d make her less gifted than Paulette, but more generous with vacation time.
After several minutes of listening to me sympathetically cluck over the phone caller’s sad story, the guy returned to his virile black boots. He pulled them on over incongruously thin burgundy dress socks, and without bothering to fasten even one of the many buckles, he stomped out the door.
Jill Riddell is a writer in Chicago. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute and has a weakness for nature, magic, and pennies abandoned in sidewalk cracks.