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


One character in search of a plot

The painting that changed Carl’s life was not even an original piece of art. It was a reproduction or imitation of a certain artist’s work. This painting hung on the wall outside the hospital’s family waiting room. During the week that followed his grandfather’s stroke, Carl walked past the painting several times a day. Its eyes followed him, challenged him, and invited his curiosity. For the rest of his life, Carl never forgot that face.

The artist in question was born in Hungary. He learned to paint in France, but then lived and worked in Sweden. His favorite and most popular subject was a gypsy girl he had known in France. Her image adorned homes and businesses all over Sweden and northern Germany, as well as in Carl’s home state of Wisconsin. Wearing a peasant smock and a colorful skirt, the gypsy girl sat in front of a background of swirling colors. Her black hair cascaded over her shoulders; her gaze always addressed the viewer. Lutherans in Europe and in North America could not even hear the word “gypsy” without thinking of these paintings.

Her image undoubtedly influenced Hollywood’s several portrayals of Esmeralda in productions of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. People who have grown up seeing her portrait remember her while listening to Bizet’s opera Carmen. Even Stanley Kubrick knew her face: in A Clockwork Orange, when Alex—the main character—has been released from prison and returns to his parents’ apartment, several paintings resembling her appearance hang on the living room walls. [Edit: Those paintings are actually by J H Lynch, a slightly later artist who also painted young women with long dark hair. I suspect that Lynch was influenced by the earlier artist’s work, as the main difference between their paintings is that Lynch has natural backgrounds. The painting Carl saw at the hospital may or may not have been by Lynch.]

Influenced by this painting, Carl preferred Jacqueline Smith to Farrah Fawcett in the caste of Charlie’s Angels. When television stations showed movie musicals, Carl favored Natalie Wood’s Maria over Julie Andrews’ Maria or Judy Garland’s Dorothy. Years later, when the musical Les Miserables was made into a movie, Carl was puzzled by Marius’ pursuit of Cosette while he remained blind to the affection and the beauty of Eponine. Many of the cheerleaders and popular girls in his high school were blonde, but Carl’s eyes were always captured by the dark-haired girls. A case in point was the girl who sat in front of him in his algebra class. Too shy to ask for a date, Carl sent her a carnation on Valentine’s Day. He was crushed to learn of her disappointment that the flower came from him and not from the boy she secretly admired.

In college Carl summoned the courage to invite young women on dates. He dated more than a dozen students during those four years, but he was most drawn to the most exotic ladies on campus. One was from Venezuela, and the other was from Korea. Both of them were more interested in receiving an education than in romance. At graduation, Carl remained unattached.

Now it is time for Carl to meet the young lady who looks just like the gypsy in the painting. But what shall be the barrier between them? Will Carl’s shyness return? Will the difference in their ages be too great? Is she already married? Let’s bring this tale into the twenty-first century: is she married, but to another woman?

I am open to suggestions. J.