Mary had been struggling all weekend with the dilemma responsible for yet another sleepless night and for her slow response to the insistent ringing of her bedside clock alarm.
Slapping the clock’s off button with disgust, she fought the desire to dive back under her heavenly down quilt and go fetal. She needed to resolve the issues confronting her at the office but didn’t know what to do.
Her friend, Sarah, always said if you didn’t know what to do about a problem, “do nothing.” But Mary wasn’t the type to sit around patiently while life sorted itself out. She needed to take action, to straighten things out, especially now, when things were on the bias, so to speak.
“What’s needed here is a dry run,” she finally concluded and immediately felt better now that she had a plan.
Behind schedule, unusual for her, she stuffed her work-out clothes and a change of underwear into a duffel bag, and grabbing the brown-bag lunch of tuna salad on wheat bread she had prepared last night, she left her one-bedroom condo on North State Street. If she didn’t dawdle, it would be a ten minute walk to her job as one of the administrative secretaries in the Mayor’s Office on the fifth floor of City Hall.
Outside, the Chicago sky was grey and overcast, and she would have to go at a fast clip to beat the rain she smelled hanging in the air. With no time to stop by the blind man’s newspaper stand as usual, she arrived at her desk breathless but punctual.
“Good morning, Mary,” said her co-worker and the office gossip, Patsy Byrnes, in a tone of voice pregnant with surprise.
“Morning, Patsy,” she replied.
“I have to say, I thought we’d seen the last of you.”
“Yeah, well,” Mary sighed, not giving her any more than that.
“I don’t think Scully is expecting you today either,” she persisted.
“Yeah, well,” Mary said again, as she headed toward her desk stationed immediately behind Patsy’s. Easing her tall, thin frame into her steno chair and feigning ignorance of Patsy’s blatant stare, she began opening her desk drawers and emptying the small personal items within into her duffel bag.
There wasn’t much: a hair brush and cosmetic bag, a bottle of Ibuprofen, a travel sized can of hair spray, two bags of Planter’s salted peanuts, some Hall’s throat lozenges and a red umbrella with broken spines, which she reluctantly tossed into a nearby wastebasket. Possessive and compulsive by nature, she always had trouble discarding anything, stubbornly hanging on to outdated clothes and outgrown friendships.
“Well, that was easy enough,” she thought with relief and immediately proceeded to put everything back into the desk drawers, minus the hapless umbrella.
“I can do this,” she announced under her breath. “I can walk away. I can move on. Yes, I can,” she repeated to herself silently, like a mantra. “I’ll do this again when I return from lunch,” she thought confidently.
“Are you okay?” Patsy asked, who had continued to observe her the whole time.
“Yeah, sure,” Mary said, as if Patsy had asked a dumb question.
The telephone on her desk mercifully interrupted Patsy’s annoying interrogation mid sentence, and she gratefully grabbed the receiver, beginning what she knew was going to be a long, tense work day.
Across the room, Frank Scully came out of his office and was openly surprised to see her. Recovering himself quickly, he said, “Good morning, Mary.”
Without looking up, she focused on her phone call, acknowledging his greeting with a nod of her head, her long blonde hair falling across her flushed face. She was relieved to see him get a cup of coffee and go back into his office, closing the door.
She would be okay now, unless he called her into his office later, which she felt certain he would.
She worked straight through her break until 12:15, when she retrieved her lunch bag and left the office. Exiting City Hall on LaSalle Street, she walked the few blocks to Wacker Drive and descended the stairway leading down to the banks of the Chicago River, her favorite thinking place. She came here every day, weather permitting, and the threatened rain she had smelled in the air earlier had come and gone. She felt a kinship with the river for some reason, probably because of its history.
Through the magic of civil engineering in the 19th century, for reasons of sanitation, the flow of the river had been reversed to head toward the Mississippi River basin, away from Lake Michigan where it previously had emptied.
Up till then, the local residents had referred to it as “the stinking river” because of the massive amounts of sewage and pollution which poured into it from Chicago’s booming industrial economy. However, over the past several years much had been done to purge the river of pollution, and it was the come-back-kid of the city administration and the Friends of the Chicago River.
Mayor Daley and the City Council were talking about issuing licenses for singing gondoliers and river bikes, and the fish were actually testing out to be edible again.
There were small cafes along some banks of the River with names like Cubby Bear, O’Brien’s, and Cyrano’s Bistro, where one could dine al fresco and watch the tourist boats go by. Public benches were available at the street level also, but Mary preferred to take the stairs down to Riverwalk Park where she could eat her lunch and walk around.
She sat down at one of the concrete walls that bordered the beds of hostas and begonias, but she ignored her tuna sandwich, her jumbled thoughts overriding the desire to eat. The sun was unseasonably warm for April, and she lifted her face to it, eyes closed, and tried again to make sense out of her situation.
"First of all, let’s get something straight,” she admonished herself. “ You are not in the wrong here. You didn’t do anything.”
Although everyone at the office suspected that the very married Frank Scully had the hots for her, he had never acted on his feelings. If the gossip was true, it was all so subliminal on his part, like Jimmy Carter lusting in his heart.
And she had never done anything to encourage him, treating him respectfully and professionally as her superior. It was just what she called the “City Hall Mentality” at work that gave them the name without the game.
Lucy Knowlan, a friend from the Department of Transportation, recently told her that she had heard how Mary and Scully were getting it on after hours and warned her to be on the lookout for Scully’s wife, who was rumored to be bi-polar.
She warned her to be careful “because if the Mayor hears any of these rumors about you and Scully, both of you will be toast, especially Frank.”
And then, last Friday, Lucy’s prophecy was fulfilled. Susan Scully, red-faced and wild-eyed, rode into the office on her broom and self-destructed all over the place, leaving no foul language unfurled, or any lingering doubt about the nature of her business with her “lying, cheating, poor excuse for a husband” and his “(Bleep), pathetic, home wrecking whore.”
Scully could be heard cajoling his wife to calm down, to talk about it at home, but Susan’s voice continued to condemn, accuse and berate him. Then, bursting from Scully’s office, she advanced on the dumbfounded Mary like George Patton and the Third Army on Berlin, yelling at the top of her voice, “You want the (Bleep, Bleep)…..you can have him,” poking her right index finger into Mary’s shoulder blade for emphasis.
Mary, who had been glued by fear to her chair, rose to defend herself against the coming onslaught. Fortunately, the totally out-of-control Mrs. Scully was intercepted by the policeman who, normally stationed right outside the entrance to the Mayor’s Office, had taken a walk to the Men’s Room but came running when he heard the commotion.
Not knowing the intruder was Scully’s wife, he treated her like she was a radical community activist bent on marshalling her troops for a sit-in against some new City Council proposal.
Scully, who had been right behind his wife, convinced the guard that she would cause no further disturbance, and grasping her by the arm a little more tightly than was necessary, he steered her to the stairway, rather than risking another scene in an elevator.
Mary had been too shaken to react and said nothing. She made no protest, which didn’t help convince Patsy Byrnes and the other staffers who had gathered on the scene of her innocence. They were expecting some sort of injured party outburst from her, some emphatic denial of the charges against her. Instead, she had just grabbed her duffel bag and purse and said, “I’m taking a half-day. Have a nice week-end,” and left.
She headed straight for the river and stayed there until sundown. She hardly remembered the walk home; she had been on automatic pilot. Except for trips to the bathroom and to the kitchen for a couple of glasses of red wine, she spent all day Saturday and Sunday in bed, going over the event in her mind, looking for guilt, placing blame, sleeping fitfully, and eating nothing.
Scully called three times, leaving sad, apologetic messages on her machine. She knew it was time to get out of bed when she started to feel sorry for him. SHE was the victim here, not him! It was so unfair!
God, how she hated the idea of looking for another job, but she knew how it would play out if she stayed. She would be transferred to the Department of Oblivion. They wouldn’t touch her salary, but she would be exiled to some obscure agency, assigned a desk and maybe a phone, but given nothing to do and absolutely no chance of future advancement, confident she would leave of her own accord.
“So, Mary, face it, it’s time to leave. If the city fathers could reverse the flow of a river, surely you can turn your sorry self around. Pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start all over again,” she instructed herself and resolved to practice another dry run as soon as she returned to the office.
Maybe, after a few more stabs at it, she thought, she would find the strength to let go of the job and leave behind what she had finally recognized as an obsessive, though unrequited, love for Frank Scully, who was, truth be told, as broken as the red umbrella she had managed to discard only this morning.
“Yes,” she said confidently, “I believe one more dry run, maybe two, should do the trick.” DSS
Margaret Lisle, 77, of Beverly Shores, Indiana, formerly of Chicago, has had her short stories published in anthologies, and is working on a one-act play. She's a retired admininstrative assistant.
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