Monica checked her Rolex as she reached for the door latch of her silver Mercedes SLK. She admired the shade of her spray-on tan — a nice, rich brown — not too orange — and frowned at the time. She thought of Haberman as she backed out of the garage — Haberman sitting in his window office with his wooden ducks and bronzed hunting hound statuettes. He’d be on the edge of his manager’s chair, looking composed, but quietly furious she wasn’t there.
The morning sun stung her eyes — she’d forgotten her shades. She backed up too fast, flattened a cardboard box and bumped the trash bin. Packing peanuts flew everywhere as she accelerated away.
She’d had too much sake with Martin last night. Had he thought her unprofessional? He was a colleague after all, but she’d been sure he liked her.
At the end of the alley she turned left, and hit traffic.
Well. Not traffic. Just a gardener’s truck, stopped at the corner where no one ever stopped. God, she didn’t need this now. What if Haberman fired her? Would he do that? But Martin would take her side, wouldn’t he? She’d rather not find out. There was a policy somewhere about interoffice dating, and she was pretty sure kissing colleagues was bad.
Monica honked. A bum stood in the street, bent over at the waist, his hands on his knees. The gardener was watching him. Monica drummed her French-manicured fingernails along the steering wheel and tapped her heeled pump lightly against the gas pedal. What the hell? If you’ve seen one bum, you’ve seen them all.
She honked again. The bum dropped to his knees, and Monica smacked the steering wheel. Another nut. She wanted to scream. Instead, she grabbed her phone. Cars were lining up, waiting to turn onto the street Monica wanted to leave. She speed-dialed the office and inched closer to the truck in front of her. Of all the times to get front-row seating.
“Mr. Haberman’s office, please,” she requested.
Now, from his hands and knees, the bum planted his feet on the ground and straightened his elbows, shaping himself into an inverted “v”. He walked his hands toward his feet, then threw his arms up in the air and arched his back, as if trying to fly. Instead, he flopped back down. Monica heard the thwack of his knees hitting the ground, followed by the smack of his palms on the pavement. He barely caught himself in time to stop his head from cantalouping onto the ground. He repeated the sequence, falling again.
“Mr. Haberman’s office.” The crisp voice of Haberman’s secretary rang in Monica’s ear, and the bum looked up, his mud-brown eyes catching Monica’s baby blues. Monica shivered. The bum wasn’t a bum. He was just an old man in a Nike jogging suit and Adidas sneakers. White socks, a huge wrist watch and a fat gold wedding ring. Sweaty and wide-eyed. His mouth moved. No sound came out, but it was clear.
“Help me,” he was begging, “help me.” He tried to crawl, but his legs seemed not to work. He collapsed completely, cheek to the pavement.
“Hello?” The secretary’s voice shrilled in Monica’s ear.
Monica watched the old man’s mouth open and close like a fish behind glass, silently pleading, “Help me.”
A primordial feeling tickled the recesses of Monica’s brain. The secretary hung up, and Monica sat frozen behind her own wall of glass, the phone still held to her ear. She thought to get out, but saw there was no need. The gardener had already rounded the corner and parked his truck. Now he was directing traffic, holding out a hand for her to stop.
Two other men were running into the street. They reached the old man at the same time, nodded to each other, and lifted him up, fast and gentle. His legs dragged limp beneath him, toes scraping the ground. His head hung down. Goosebumps erupted across Monica’s arms as that feeling tickled again. She watched them reach the sidewalk and lower the old man to the ground. His mouth went slack, his eyes closed. A heart attack? Stroke? She tried to think of symptoms, but nothing fit. She thought of the phone in her hand, thought to call 9-1-1. Pulled the phone away from her ear to stare at it.
Someone else’s honking jarred her out of the moment.
Haberman. Martin. Late.
She turned the corner and drove off.
There was a traffic jam, she’d tell Haberman. A man in the road, collapsed. She’d tell Martin too, and the secretary, and whoever else would listen.
But at the office, no one would. The receptionist ignored her, and others turned away as she approached. Monica heard snickering behind her and whirled about, but all eyes were again averted. She wasn’t that late, was she? Was there coffee on her blouse? A snag in her nylons? No, she looked fine.
She strode to Martin’s office and threw open the door, saying, “Martin, you’ll never believe…”
But the office was empty, stripped of Martin’s belongings. What the…?
“He resigned,” said Haberman’s secretary, from the hall behind her.
Monica shuddered. He’d never said a word… unless… could he have planned this? Or maybe… the dating policy? But how…?
“Did you know,” Haberman’s secretary was asking, “that Mr. Haberman lost a valuable client this morning?”
“Wanda in HR will see you now,” said Haberman’s secretary.
But all Monica saw was the man in the road, pleading, “Help me.” Her heart beat faster and her stomach churned. The tickling in her head tightened to a viselike throbbing, and she vomited all over the new puce carpet.
A. S. Andrews is currently a student in the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program.