First Friday Fiction–Susanna, part three

As she had promised, Susanna met Conrad at his home the next morning to drive him to work. Conrad had pondered how to open a conversation with Susanna, now that he had learned part of her history at the hospital. After exchanging greetings, while she drove, Conrad ventured a question. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you get back into school after your time away?”

 

“I don’t mind,” she replied cheerfully, and on the way to work she gave him a thorough account of how her life got back on track after the sudden death of the man she had expected to marry. Conrad followed up with questions about her experience getting a job out of school and how she felt about the IT department at the company. Susanna did not seem shy about sharing her feelings about the job, even making it clear that she saw it as a stepping stone toward a specialized position at a larger firm.

 

She parked next to Conrad’s car, and Conrad was relieved to see that the car had been unmolested during the night. Fear for the safety of his car was a frequent part of Conrad’s life–since he was renting his home, his car was his largest investment. Ever since high school, Conrad had been in the habit of approaching his car with the eyes of an inspector, checking for dents, scratches, flat tires, or any other problem. Although this was a healthy habit, Conrad didn’t like the racing heart and churning stomach that often accompanied the inspection. In much the same way, he always made sure to leave home with his work badge, laying it on the passenger seat next to him and checking two or three times on the way to work that it was in car. And he never got out of his car without squeezing his set of keys in his hand to assure himself that he was not locking them in the car.

 

Such diligence in small matters made Conrad a good employee in the IT department, but it also made him socially awkward. Small talk was a chore for him, and teasing or flirting were out of the question. He could plan conversations in his head, but somehow they never happened the way he imagined. Now, as they walked together from the parking lot, Conrad marveled that Susanna was still maintaining the conversation, which had now shifted to the topic of weather, of where in the country she would live if she had her choice of jobs in any climate.

 

Once they reached the IT department, the flow of words stopped. Susanna settled herself quietly into place at her desk. Several coworkers, including the manager, stopped to check on Conrad’s health. The workday began, and Conrad and Susanna quickly focused on their tasks. Conrad thought about trying to join Susanna for lunch, but she slipped away before he could make the offer. Likewise, at the end of the workday, she escaped out the door and made it to her car before Conrad could join her, thank her again for the ride, or even wish her a pleasant evening.

 

The next week, IT staff had to travel around the building, checking on computers, updating programs, and removing illicit links and files. Conrad was amused by the kind of material company workers uploaded–anything from puzzles and games to pornography, as well as shopping sites and personal documents. IT staff generally deleted such material without comment and without reporting the offenses. If a file was innocent and did not use a lot of computer storage, Conrad was generous about leaving it alone–a file of family photographs, for example, or a draft of a short story. Items that suggested a waste of company time or a strain on the company’s bandwidth or storage capacities had to go. Conrad frequently emptied workers’ recycle bins and their “deleted email message” folders. Shortcuts to Facebook and other social media were also taboo. Many of these tasks could be done through remote access to a computer by way of the company’s network, but occasional personal visits sometimes caught hidden material on the work computers, and they also subtly reminded employees that the computers were company property and not for personal use.

 

The manager sent IT workers on these clean-up missions in teams of two. Confrontations over company policy were greatly reduced when the IT staff did not arrive solo. Conrad’s partner was a congenial young man named Keith; he had a beard and a pony tail. Susanna was paired with Tony.

 

Because of these excursions, Conrad scarcely saw Susanna for three days, apart from a brief “good morning” at the start of the day. Wednesday afternoon, though, as Keith and Conrad entered the IT office, Conrad saw Susanna at her desk with no one nearby. He waited until Keith had gone further into the room, and then he stood next to her desk and spoke her name.

 

Susanna looked up and smiled at him. “How is your week going?” she asked. He knew that she was mainly asking about the clean-up tasks, but he dared to answer in a different vein.

 

“Lonely,” he said, “but I’m used to that. Listen,” he continued bravely, “I was wondering if you might be free tonight. We could do something together, maybe dinner or a movie….”

 

She smiled again but shook her head. “I’m afraid tonight will not be convenient,” she told him.

 

“Well, tomorrow night, then? Or maybe some time over the weekend.”

 

“Conrad,” she answered, “you’re sweet to ask, but I’m going to have to say no. I’m sorry, but I’m just not ready for that. Not yet.”

 

“I understand,” Conrad assured her. His heart had sunk when she said no, but it soared with the promise of her words, “not yet.” With that crumb of hope, Conrad could be patient for a long time.

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First Friday Fiction — Susanna

“You know that new girl in the office—Susanna?” Tony asked Conrad in the cafeteria. “I’ve come to the conclusion that she doesn’t like men.”

Conrad rolled his eyes and pretended not to notice.

“Seriously!” Tony persisted. “You know I was right about Tina.”

“You were right about Tina. So what?” Two weeks after she took a job in the company’s IT department, Tina had invited her fellow IT workers to be friends with her on Facebook. Those who accepted her invitation immediately learned from her profile that Tina was married to another woman. “The fact is, you say the same thing about every woman who doesn’t like you.”

Conrad wanted to say more. He wanted to say, “It doesn’t help when you call them girls. It doesn’t help when you make fun of their names. It doesn’t help when you keep on flirting with them long after they’ve shown they have no interest in you.” But Tony—annoying though he was—was the closest Conrad had to a friend in the company. Other than the IT manager, Conrad and Tony had been in the department the longest. Most people stayed only until they had gained some experience for their resumes—then they went on to better-paying jobs. Conrad wished he could be outgoing, like Tony, but it hardly seemed worth the trouble to make friends with new people before they left. Being shy, Conrad often didn’t have his first conversation with someone new until he or she had been in the department at least a month.

Tony was still working on getting Susanna’s attention. He stopped by her cubicle to visit with her. Three or four times a day he would mock her by singing, in a tuneless way, “Oh, I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.” Aside from hellos exchanged in the hallway, Conrad and Susanna had not spoken with each other. Conrad regretted this very much.

From the day she started her job, Susanna reminded Conrad of someone he used to know, but it took him a long time to realize who she resembled. He went through people at work and people at church without making a connection. He went back through college friends and high school friends. Susanna bore a passing resemblance to some of the young women he had dated. But only a passing resemblance. She was a dead ringer for someone.

Then Conrad remembered. When he was in junior high school, his grandfather had spent a week in the hospital. In the hospital hallway, just outside the family waiting room, hung a painting. It showed a dark-haired young lady in a bright red dress. The background behind her consisted of swirls of color. Her dark eyes looked out from the painting at Conrad, inviting him and challenging him at the same time.

About half the homes and public buildings in Wisconsin had portraits of this young girl. She had been the favorite model of a Hungarian-born painter who trained in Paris and then moved to Norway. More than forty times he painted the same gypsy girl from memory, and it seemed that every Lutheran from Scandinavia and northern Germany had a reproduction or imitation of one of those paintings. Even American artists imitated his work, because it sold.

Because he saw this painting frequently at a time when he was especially impressionable, Conrad was always drawn to the dark-eyed, dark-haired exotic women he met. In college he had dated one student from Venezuela who rather resembled the painter’s gypsy. She was in college for an education, though, and was not interested in romance. Since graduation, in a large part due to his shyness, Conrad’s dating had dwindled to nothing.

For Susanna he was willing to change his ways. For her he was willing to come out of his shell. He had the desire, but he was lacking the opportunity. He saw no way for that to change in the near future.

One evening Conrad stayed at his cubicle when the other workers had gone home. He was trying to solve the problem of why a new download was working on some of the company’s computers while causing others to freeze. His thinking was better when the office was quiet, and he felt he was on the verge of finding the answer, when Susanna’s soft voice interrupted. “Do you know anything about cars?”

Conrad turned and looked at her. “Not a lot,” he admitted. “What’s wrong?”

“My car won’t start,” she said. “I was hoping you might be able to help.”

“Let’s go look at it,” Conrad offered. The two of them walked to her car in the parking lot. She handed him her keys, and he got behind the driver’s wheel. When he turned the key in the ignition, the starter gave a brief moan and then stopped. It also seemed to Conrad that the dashboard lights were dim. “I think you need a new battery,” he told her. “I can drive you to the auto parts store and back.”

She smiled a small smile. “Thanks,” she said.

Conrad’s car was only two rows away. He walked to it and got out the tool box that he kept in the trunk. Returning to Susanna’s car, he popped open the hood. Handing her a flashlight, he said, “Aim it right here, please.” It took about ten minutes of struggling to free the battery; leakage had caused some corrosion around one of the terminals. Conrad slammed the hood closed. “Please carry this,” he asked, handing her the toolbox. He carried the battery himself and put it and the tools in his trunk. Then he unlocked the passenger door and opened it. “Get in,” he invited.

As they drove two miles to the store, Conrad hunted for some conversation opener. His instructions while removing the battery had hardly been conversational, and Susanna was contributing even less. “How long have you had the car?” he asked.

“About two years,” she replied. “It’s used.” Conrad nodded. Another silence followed.

Probably too much time had gone by, but Conrad had thought of nothing else to say. “Do you like it?” She hesitated. “Your car, I mean.”

Conrad sensed her shrug, though he could not see it. “It’s OK,” she said. Then, after a few seconds, she added, “At the moment I’m pretty angry at it, though.”

Conrad forced a small chuckle. “Don’t worry,” he promised. “I’ll have it running again soon.”

He carried the faulty battery into the store. The salesman brought out a replacement battery for which she paid. He put the new battery into his trunk. Their drive back to the parking lot was silent.

Susanna held the flashlight again as Conrad installed the new battery. “Give it a try,” he said. The car started right away. She opened the window and leaned out to speak to him. “Listen, thank you for all your help. I appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome,” Conrad said. Susanna drove off while he was putting his tools back in the truck of his car.

Even though Conrad felt like a hero that night, he realized that what he had done had barely broken the ice with her. He was still too shy to approach her at work. He had gained one privilege for his help, though. He now knew which car was hers. He had even taken the trouble to memorize the license plate number.

About a week later, Conrad noticed that one of the tires on her car seemed low. He stopped by her cubicle and mentioned that to her. “I’ve got a pump in my trunk,” he offered. “It plugs into the car’s lighter. I can fill the tire for you during lunch break.” Susanna thanked him. Instead of going out to the car with him, she gave him the keys. He filled the tire, checked the other three, put the pump away, and gave her back her keys. Not much more was said.

The next week the tire was low again. “I think you might have a nail in it or something,” Conrad suggested, as he offered to fill the tire again. He had a droll thought while he ran the pump. “Maybe she’s letting air out herself so we have something to talk about.” He knew that wasn’t true, but it amused him to pretend that it was.

The following week, when he saw her car, the tire was totally flat. Conrad knew that his pump wouldn’t be any use now. “Let’s see what we can do about this,” he said to her, after describing the flat. “Do you have a spare tire and a jack in the trunk?”

“I think so,” she faltered. They found that she did have an undersized spare—“a donut,” Conrad called it—but no jack. “My jack should fit,” Conrad volunteered. He pried off the wheel cover, loosened the nuts on the wheel, and jacked up the car. Then he took off the nuts, carefully putting each into the wheel cover. He put on the spare, replaced the nuts, lowered the car, and tightened the nuts. Finally, he put the tire into her trunk. “Don’t drive on this donut for more than a day or two,” he suggested. “Have the tire patched or replaced as soon as you can.”

Susanna lowered her eyes to the ground and said, “I don’t know how to thank you for all your help.”

“Don’t mention it,” Conrad said, although he could have bitten his tongue when he realized that he had just thrown away a chance to arrange a date with her.

To be continued…. J

roka10

First Friday Fiction — Old Faithful

I buy used cars. I take good care of them, and I try to keep them as long as I can. Until recently, I had been driving a car that was built during the last century and was older than my two youngest children. Recently the repair bills were becoming too frequent and too big. I decided to visit the used car lot and trade Old Faithful for something a bit newer.

I looked at a lot of cars and test-drove a few, and finally made my selection. The price was more than I expected, and the trade-in for Old Faithful was pitifully small—would you believe five dollars? Still, newer wheels were what I wanted, and newer wheels were what I brought home that afternoon.

The next morning I was astonished to see Old Faithful back in my driveway, right behind the newer used car. I had to wait until nine o’clock to speak with the dealer, but I called him from work right at nine. He was surprisingly dismissive over the phone. “No, J,” he told me, “no one drove your car back to your house. It must have found its way back overnight.” I shook my head in disbelief and asked if he wanted me to bring it back. “Don’t bother,” he said. “We found almost seven dollars in spare change in the seats and under them. Nothing else in the car is worth our bother.”

I wasn’t sure what to do next. I don’t need two cars—the insurance alone is too expensive in my neighborhood. Finally, I decided I would have to abandon Old Faithful. I asked my neighbor to follow me in his pick-up truck. We went to the mall, I parked Old Faithful, patted it on the hood, and got in my neighbor’s truck.

The next morning, Old Faithful was back in my driveway again.

My neighbor and I tried all sorts of tricks. We tried leaving Old Faithful in the state park, knowing that the gates would be closed at sunset. The old car still made it back to my driveway. We took it to another town, but ten minutes after we got back, Old Faithful was back as well. We left it in a parking garage, and somehow it still came home again. Everything we tried—disconnecting the battery, deflating the tires, even emptying the gas tank—only managed to slow it down a little bit. Old Faithful was determined to return, and I had no way of stopping it.

Finally, I told Old Faithful to my regular mechanic. He had worked on the car for years and knew all its faults and all its needs. I started telling him what had happened, but he interrupted me to look at the car himself. He opened the hood and looked at the engine, he kicked the tires, and then he started the engine and listened to its sound. After thinking quietly for a minute or two, he turned to me and said, “Well, J, I know what I would do if this was my car.”

“What would you do?” I asked him.

“I’d go ahead and buy another car,” he told me.

At first his advice seemed silly, but my mechanic is a wise man, and he’s never given me bad advice. So now I have three cars crammed into my little driveway. Old Faithful seems happy, and the other two cars don’t seem to mind sharing me with it. I just wish I knew where to find the money to take care of all three cars. J.