Kissing Frogs . . . so far

After posting my Fiction Friday post, I’ll update here so you can read the entire story without having to go back in the archives.

Introduction – ‘Twas the night after Christmas . . .

Tracey’s diamonds sat in their velvet case on the otherwise empty leather passenger seat beside her.  Shot taffeta tickled her ankles, her Prada shoes tossed aside for the unsightly comfort of well worn slippers.  As she maneuvered her Jag through the familiar streets of home, she looked wistfully at the homes she passed.  Happy tableaus of “traditional” holiday celebrations were played out like shadow boxes in the windows of house after house causing Tracey to ponder her own family traditions.  Formal dinner at Daddy’s club followed by a gift exchange that doubled as an interrogation.

“What about that nice boy you brought to Easter” . . . or Mother’s Day . . . or Thanksgiving . . . or any wedding in the last year.

“I thought I saw you with a nice looking doctor three weeks ago when we ran into each other at The Grill.”

“Well, you do get around, don’t you dear.”

With no thought to tact, nor care to feelings, her mother and sisters-in-law would manage to imply that she was both too easy and too picky and in the end she would resort to her time honored traditional retort, the response that signaled to the family that discussion of her love life was over.

“Well, you know how it is.  If you want to find your prince, you’ve got to be willing to kiss a few frogs.”

Probably the worst part of it all, was that none of them appreciated the intrinsic irony of the statement.

The loneliness of Christmas descended on her chest with leaden weight.  It rolled with her through the sleepless night.  Her only comfort as she tossed and turned for hours in the queen sized brass bed was the familiar warm weight of Stan beside her.  Seemingly undisturbed by her restlessness, he buzzed quietly in his sleep, occasionally twitching his whiskers, or extending his claws at some dream mouse, or phantom cricket.  Her friend Joanna repeatedly called her the crazy lady with the cat, but if truth be told, it was Stan who kept her sane, who lasted through the frustrating relationships and the all too frequent break ups.  At the end of a frustrating, lonely day, she knew that she didn’t have to come home to an empty house, and that, alone, was enough.

It had to be.  It was all she had.Frog 1
Part A – “the Wooing”

Capable, practical, blue collar Joey Dreus.  He had been introduced that way so often he was thinking of putting it on his business cards.  Currently his cards read “Joey Dreus, a quality plumber with a sturdy belt” but it hadn’t drawn as many laughs as he anticipated, and it had certainly done nothing to attract business.  His business was, no pun intended, in the toilet, and about to be flushed down.

In frustration, and with trembling fingers he was about to call the local elementary school and accept a position in maintenance just to pay the bills.  Exactly where the bank manager told him he’d be, and only off by three months.  But there is only so far that hard-headedness will go, and last time he checked it wasn’t taken as currency on loans.  So he reached for the phone.

And it rang.

“Joey?  It’s Tracey. . . Tracey MacManus . . . I’m in your Sunday School class.”  The voice was ringing no bells, nor was the name, but the panic in her voice couldn’t stop him from seeing dollar signs.

“We have a flood.  I don’t know why, or how, or even where exactly, but I need it fixed right now, and I know you’re a plumber.  Do you think you could do me a favor, and put your current jobs on hold?”

It was a real effort to stem the tidal wave of sarcasm that threaten to flood his response, but he managed it.

“Uh, yeah.  I can probably shuffle a few things.  Give me the address, I’ll be there within the hour.”

He arrived in twenty-five minutes, after circling the block three times so as not to appear too desperate for work.  From the street he could see where at least part of the problems began.  The building had been built during the second world war, and judging by the layers of paint flaking from the brick, the newest thing about the building was the handsome sign announcing it as the home of Sophia Publishing.

Joey stopped cold in the street.  Ooh!  Tracey MacManus!  This was going to be a hard earned loan payment.

**********

“It looks like he’s finally found us.”  Joanna had been hovering at Tracey’s plate glass windows for five minutes, watching in fascination as Joey’s truck went around the block.

“Joanna, why don’t you go down and meet him.  We need the flood stemmed, and we need it done NOW!”

Joanna turned from the window to face her friend and her boss.  She grinned in a mischievous way and flipped her brown hair over her shoulder.

“Well, I’m not too proud to take your cast offs.  Let me handle this for you.  All of it.  If I have to work deep into the night and maybe even spend several hours in a restaurant staring into his eyes, I will make sure this is handled, and handled well.”

To the untrained eye, it would seem that Tracey was unimpressed with Joanna’s flippancy, but as she flounced from Tracey’s office, there was a grin on her boss’ face.  But not for long.  In perfect contrast to the bounce that left the office came what could only be referred to as a storm cloud moving in the opposite direction.

“This would be the perfect job if it wasn’t for the people” thought Tracey as the president of the local chapter of NOW moved, like a low pressure front into her office.  Tracey glanced at the boxing gloves hanging behind her door, but decided against it – she only had one pair.  Instead she armed herself with her best smile, and a freely offered right hand.

“Ms. Free, how nice it is to see you again.”

“And you, Ms. MacManus.”

They went through the preliminaries: Tracey asking if she wanted anything to drink, Ms. Free saying “no thank-you” in the tone that really said “I don’t trust anything here” and finally the opening dance was over.  Both Tracey and Ms. Free looked at their watches.

“Well, I see Dr. Faulkner’s disrespect extends to his punctuality, or lack thereof.”  The contempt was rolling from her like fog off a swamp, and Tracey’s control on the situation was precarious at best.  In an attempt to feign a lack of concern, Tracey turned to her desk, as if trying to complete some project far more important than the feminist about to shoot snakes from her hair at any moment.  Thus Dr. Andrew Faulkner’s arrival caught her off guard, and she almost jumped at the sound of his voice – the voice with which she was so familiar, despite having never met the man.

“Ladies, please accept my apologies.  I found myself trapped in a minor water fall between floors.  My tardiness is absolutely no indication of the priority I place on these discussions.”

The deep rich voice had always brought to Tracey’s mind a middle aged man, with greying temples and silver reading glasses.  His daily radio program began as an act of rebellion from her white collar democrat father, but continued past college as a test of her forensic and debate skills.  She had been looking forward to the chance to put her one sided retorts to the challenge against her unknowing mentor for sometime, yet as she turned, hand already extended, she froze.

Framed in her doorway, wet from the knees down, and being toweled desperately by a very embarrassed Joanna, stood the most handsome man she had ever seen.  Only five years older than she was, still in his late thirties, with a magnificent head of dark blonde hair and a carefully cultured goatee, Dr. Faulkner’s most obvious physical trait was his piercing blue eyes.

Gently dislodging Joanna from his leg, as one would shake loose an affectionate pet, Andrew closed the gap between them in one step, grasping Tracey’s hand in both of his, and locking her gaze in a piercing manner.

“Am I forgiven?”

Much to Tracey’s amazement, she was breathless.  Fortunately so was Ms. Free.
**********

It looked like the big shot was the only one in the room actually breathing.  The three women were just looking at him, like deer caught in the headlights of a HUM-V or eighteen wheeler.  Or his brother’s million candle watt portable floodlight.  Despite himself Joey chuckled.  That was exactly the look – deer about to be poached.

Standing at the top of the stairs, and watching the ever growing water fall cascade over the cracked concrete, Joey didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.  This was an enormous job, and he had only begun to scratch the surface.

Thus far his investigation had revealed the source of the original leak in the pipes of the men’s restroom.  This being an all female establishment, no one had noticed that one of the toilets in the men’s room had completely dried out.  No one, that is, except a family of rats, or squirrels, or some other small rodent, who crawled in the bowl and built a nest in the pipes.

The domesticity was disturbed when a delivery boy arrived and begged to use the restroom.  Ushered into the men’s room he used, and flushed, the toilet next to the dry toilet, sending angry water rushing through the old pipes, and up against the sturdy rodent nest.  The nest, much like the home of the righteous man in Jesus’ parable, refused to budge.  Instead, the old brittle pipes gave way to the force of the water, and cracked.  It caused a chain reaction of popping joints, and seeping seams, until all at once an entire section of pipe gave way, and greeted Tracey with a flood.

He took one last glance at the smitten women in Tracey’s office, chuckled, and set off to measure the exact financial toll that was being leveled against Sophia Publishing.

*********

Tracey was unnerved.  She had rehearsed this critical meeting over and over in her mind, but now that she was here, face to face with Andrew Faulkner, she felt like a foolish school girl.  She had actually giggled when he shook her hand.  Giggled!  What was she, thirteen?  She caught herself doodling a small heart on her note pad, and quickly scribbled it out, only to look up and see Ms. Free and Dr. Faulkner looking at her expectantly.  She could hear the sound of her hopes and dreams flushing . . . or maybe that was Joey working on the plumbing.

“Would you like to take this opportunity to introduce us both to your newest publication?”  Dr. Faulkner graciously covered for Tracey’s brain pause.  She put on her game face, took out the glossy press packets just in from the printer this morning, and came out from behind her desk.  This was her office, and her project.  She believed in what she was doing, and was proud of both Sophia Publishing, and this first big project.  If her knees would just quit trembling, she could really sell this thing.  And, hallelujah, for the first time in her life the power point presentation was working.

“Well, as you both know, this work is an evaluation of the fairy tale complex that exists for women in popular culture.”

Tracey had swung into communications mode, and it was getting easier.  In every other part of her life, Tracey felt like a greased pig on a tight rope.  But when she was making a presentation about something she really felt passionately about, she was on firm ground.  This was her home field advantage.

“The reason the both of you have been invited to this advanced look, is because both the conservative movement and the feminist movement comes under some criticism here.”

Eye contact was back, but this time she could handle it.  This was the confidence building look.  This was all salesmanship.

“Now the last thing a fledgling publishing house needs these days, is enemies, and we certainly can’t alienate red and blue states in one book.”  This had the desired affect.  All three of them laughed together.  Both Dr. Faulkner and Ms. Free were relaxed.

“But honestly, we really don’t think we need to.  We don’t want this to be a polarizing book, we want this to be unifying.  We want to open up a dialogue, and discuss what is good for young women, not what is good for politics.  Isn’t that really what we all want?”

And there it was.  She hit her mark, and they took the cue.  After forty five minutes, Tracey had read them excerpts from the book, clarified the house positions, and fielded all the expected questions.  It was almost as if they had a copy of the script in her brain.  And at the end of the meeting, as she ushered them to the door, they were greeted with dry stairs.  TOUCHDOWN!

“Well, thank you so much for your time.  Please feel free to call if any questions come to mind, and I’ll have the printers send your advance copies to you directly.”

Ms. Free shook her hand warmly, thanked her and headed down the stairs, but Dr. Faulkner held back.  This was not good.  Tracey always got the shakes after a presentation, and she could feel the trembling beginning in her hands.  She had to sit down, but not before seeing Dr. Faulkner out.

To her great surprise, he put his hand on her shoulder, and smiled at her.

“Ms. MacManus, it was truly a pleasure meeting you.  I have been ‘courted’ by publishers and promoters a lot in my radio career, but this is the first time I actually enjoyed myself.  Thank you.”

Tracey couldn’t help it.  She blushed, and look at her feet.  Dr. Faulkner laughed.

“You know.  When I finish a T.V. appearance, or a public debate, I always get a case of the jitters.  Can’t stand up for at least twenty minutes.  You’re a cool customer.  And humble.  It’s been a pleasure.”

And with that he left.

Tracey collapsed in her office chair, nervous jitters at full assault. She could still feel his hand on her shoulder.  When she got her breath back, she picked up the telephone, and hit “page”.

“Joanna, where in the name of all that is good and holy are you?”
**********

Joey was standing in the basement of Tracey’s building, after several hours of work, with forty years of sewage running down his arms, and pooling in his boots.

This building needed more than he could do in a day, but he had put a band-aid on it for the moment.  This was the problem with his job.  People want to spend money on things they can see, like paint, and crown molding and furniture and fixtures.  But all those things are only nice and good if the basics of frame and plumbing and electrical are working correctly.  Unfortunately, Joey had never had this discussion successfully with any women he had ever encountered.  Rather, they would look at him blankly and say things like “But it’s just plastic pipes.  How expensive can it be?”

He was anticipating another conversation like that now.  This was an all female establishment, and a publisher of women oriented books at that.  There was little hope for a level headed comment like, “You’re the professional.  If it needs to be done, do what it takes to get it done right.”

But he wiped his hands, picked up his net book and began to fill out an invoice for services rendered.  Technology was wonderful.  No more slimy, smudgy, invoices.  He sighed.  Despite all the frustrations, there was so much about being a plumber he was going to miss.  He murmured a prayer under his breath.

“I don’t want to be a school janitor, Lord.”  He admitted.  “But unless I can get some good steady contracts this week, that’s where I’m headed.  I know you know all of this, I reckon I just need you to remind me who’s really in charge of this whole situation.”

He chuckled.  Dan, his Sunday school teacher was in the habit of reminding the entire class that they needed to step down as the CEO of the universe.  That position was already filled by God.  Joey’s response was always the same.  “I’m okay with Him running the universe, it’s General Manager of my life I keep trying to take from Him.”

“So I’m no plumber, but all of this looks bad to me.”

Tracey’s voice caught him so off guard, Joey almost dropped his computer.  As he bent to pick it up, he noticed she was standing barefooted on the concrete basement floor and her pants were rolled to her mid calf.  He stood up, and addressed her, his business voice at the ready, and his “this is serious” argument already building in his head.

“Tracey I’m sure you know this is an old building.”

“Oh, I have no illusions.  It’s old, and it needs work, a lot of it.  But I’ve yet to get a plumber to talk seriously with me about it.  They seem to think that because I’m a woman, I’m going to care more about carpet and brushed nickle faucets than building codes.”

Joey’s brain was doing some serious back pedaling as it tried to follow this new direction.  He noticed that she had her business face on, and realized, a little too late, that she was set up for a fight.

“Well good.  To be honest with you, I had a speech all ready that went something like . . .’there are more important things than carpet and fixtures’ so I guess I don’t have to do that.”

There was no response.  He knew this was going to be a hard earned pay check.

“Okay, so this blank look on my face, is me fast forwarding the script in my brain to the part where you see my great wisdom and ask me to suggest what needs to be done here.”

“Just work up a time line and an estimate and drop it off with Joanna by the end of the week.”  Tracey turned, and walked away.

“Um, I’ve got an estimate here.  I wasn’t fixin to leave you with a rigged together web of piping.”

It never failed.  When he got on edge his country upbringing showed up.  Sometimes people found it charming, and it disarmed them.  But today, he didn’t think it was going to work to his advantage.

Tracey stopped.

“Oh.  Uh, great.  Leave it with Joanne.  I’ll look it over and call you tomorrow.”

She took a step, and then turned to face him. Joey had never had such a hard time reading someone.

“You don’t happen to know a handyman who could help us do the rest of the work needed on this wreck?”

“Um. . .” Joey was stumped.  Here was a good year’s worth of work.  This was the answer to more prayers than he could count.  Maybe.  Would he be exchanging one job compromise for another?

“Listen, I’ve got another guy I work with.  He’s a licensed electrician, and between the two of us we can do anything you need done.”  Then he took a calculated risk.  “Of course, you’ll have to pick the paint colors and the faucets and all.  We’re just no good with that mess atall.”

Tracey smiled at him, and softened, just a little.

“I’ll take a look at your estimate on the plumbing.  If I like what I see, I’ll set up a time to do a full walk through with you and your guy.”

And then, in a surprise move, she put out her hand.  Joey took it and shook it.

“I’m glad you came out today Joey.  You really saved my behind on a very important day.  Thanks.”

**********

Tracey walked back up the stairs in her bare feet.  She liked the feeling of the cold concrete on her soles.  This morning she thought she was going to have a bad day, but all in all it didn’t go too bad.  Dr. Faulkner and Ms. Free had seemed open to her presentation.  And the plumbing problem didn’t turn out to be much of a problem.  She had always thought of Joey Dreus as a bit simple.  But he was charming in a back woods kind of way, and there was no doubt that she could trust him.

It was 2:30.  She had fifteen more things on her “To do” list for today, and a couple left over from last week.  Her to-do app had conveniently put an exclamation point beside them to mark them overdue.  She had eight phone messages to return, and her e-mail in box had a big read 54 beside it – although more than half of those would be SPAM.  There was really only one thing to do.

“Joanna, I’m going for coffee.  I’ve got my phone if you need to reach me.”

The coffee shop across the street had everything Tracey needed: a convenient location, free wi-fi and the best low-fat, sugar-free, ‘high octane’ mocha she had ever tasted.  As she ordered, she took out her iPhone to check her e-mail thereby justifying standing in a coffee shop at 2:30 in the afternoon.

“Name?”

Tracey didn’t even look up.  “Tracey.”  They’d spell it wrong, everyone always did.

She was right.   Most of the e-mail was SPAM, or solicitations to subscribe to some website or other full of promising young writers just waiting for their break.  But wait, here was one from Dr. Andrew Faulkner.  Why was he e-mailing her?  How did he get her e-mail address?

Dear Ms. MacManus: (it read)
When I agreed to meet with you I had expected to find a dowdy, greying librarian in her late sixties, with eye glasses on a chain.  I was completely shocked to be greeted by a beautiful, charming and obviously intelligent young woman.  After thinking it over for several hours, I find I can’t shake the image of you, and I am writing to ask your permission to offer a token of my admiration.  I have no further expectations in this, and a negative response will in no way damage the business relationship we are building.
Sincerely,
Andrew Faulkner.

“Low fat, sugar-free mocha with two extra shots for Tracey”

Tracey grabbed the cup without looking, and wandered out, across the street and back into her office building.  She was still holding the phone in one hand, and the coffee in the other when she passed Joanna’s desk.  Joanna looked from her computer.

“Honestly, I don’t know why you have to go to the coffee shop to check your e-mail.  We have a perfectly good internet connection right here in this building.”

Tracey ignored Joanna, and instead put the phone down in front of her.

“Dr. Faulkner thinks I’m charming, beautiful and intelligent and would like to send me a token of his. . .” at this she checked the phone herself “. . . admiration.”

Joanna grabbed the small device, and read, and re-read the email for herself.  Finally she looked up at Tracey.

“Okay, this is possibly the most romantic thing I have ever read.  Please tell me that ‘No’ is not an option.”

Tracey found herself giggling like a school girl, and Joanna let out a little squeak, before jumping up and hugging her friend.

Before Tracey knew it, Joanna had responded with a very appropriate, and not too gushy “I would be honored”, and then had forwarded the e-mail to the six other women who worked in the fledgling company.  Soon, Anne, the resident techno-geek, Diane in charge of shipping, Robin and Kristi who were heading up the proofreading department, Terri, the copyrighter, and Cori the firm lawyer who took contract and real estate cases on the side, were all sitting and chatting in Tracey’s office.  Somehow some Krispy Kreme donuts showed up, and coffee from across the street for everyone else, and all work ceased.

This was the situation when a delivery boy arrived and hollered from Joanna’s desk.  Joanna had him come directly to Tracey’s office, and when he arrived, all noise ceased.  He was carrying an exquisite, and very expensive, bouquet of orchids.  A collective gasp of delight came from the gathered women, and the delivery boy looked at them all nervously.  He coughed and read Tracey’s name from the card, but by the time he did, everyone already knew they were the token of admiration from Andrew Faulkner.

Eventually everyone went back to work.  But Tracey was in a bit of a daze for the rest of the day.  She drove through a red light on the way home – fortunately the intersection was empty – and she drove away from the Wendy’s drive-through window without her change.

Her evening was like most of her evenings.  She changed into her pajamas, and ate her salad and potato while watching NatGeo, and reading a manuscript.  Stan was curled up beside her on the leather couch, and would periodically stand up and walk across the reading material just to remind her that she wasn’t alone.  The clock ticked toward bed time, and she knew that eventually she would curl up in the big empty bed, and drift off into a mildly dis-satisfying sleep until her alarm went off and it was today, again.  Well, not exactly today.  It’s not everyday your college idol sends you orchids.

When the phone suddenly rang, Stanley jumped up and ran a few steps before stopping, delivering a withering glare at the offending  instrument and curling up again.

Tracey was as shocked as her tortoiseshell companion.  The first thought to run through her head was that it must be Andrew Faulkner.  Who else would it be?  And the thought, far from comforting her, made butterflies suddenly sprout from her esophagus to her belly button. On the third ring, Tracey had tamed her stomach butterflies enough to answer.

“This is Tracey.”

“I’ve been trying to fax this bid to you and I don’t think your fax machine is set to auto answer.”

“I’m sorry, who is this?”  Tracey could taste the disappointment.

“Uh, it’s Joey Dreus.  The plumber. . .”

“Yes, yes Joey.  I know who you are, I just didn’t recognize your voice on the phone.  I was expecting. . .  I thought you were. . . I wasn’t expecting it to be you.”  Now Tracey was flustered, embarrassed, disappointed, and mad at herself for being disappointed.

“So, is your fax machine . . .”

“Oh, uh, no.  Joanna got tired of cleaning up the junk faxes every morning, so we set it to answer in the morning, and turn it off when we go home.  Can you e-mail it?”

“Yeah, that’s even easier.  Hey, is there a reason Joanna forwarded me that personal e-mail to you from radio talk guy?”

Tracey blushed.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t even know she had your e-mail address.  She sent it to everyone in the office, she must have put your address in that list.”

“No, it looks like the entire singles group got it.”

The groan began almost in her toes as she slid off the sofa and onto the floor.  This was more than she could handle.  “She is so fired, so fired, so fired!”

It was then that she heard the laugh.  It was a contagious laugh, somewhere between a giggle and a comic book style ‘hee hee hee’.  She couldn’t help but join in.

“I’m just kidding.  I stopped by the office to drop off the quote and Joanna had to tell me the whole story.  She dared me to call.  I’ll say this for the guy: anyone who asks a woman’s permission to send orchids has some class.”

“You have an evil sense of humor!” Tracey responded with vehemence dampened by her chuckle.

“I know.  But seriously, I hope this works out for you.”

“Thanks Joey.  I appreciate it.  I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Sure thing.  Have a good night.”  And he was gone.

The call had cheered her up.  It had been a long time since someone had just laughed with her about something stupid.  Everyone in her life wanted something.  Even laughs came with a price tag these days.  She sighed as she climbed into the big lonely bed.  Maybe orchids came with reasonable expectations.  I mean even Joey thought that was class.  That had to mean something right?

***

The woman was a lunatic.  There was nothing more that could be said for it, and the more Tracey watched her, the more she could see her entire career, this entire business, floating away down the pipes Joey was supposed to be quoting on.  Here was the most celebrated author for Sophia publishing and she looked like a mental patient.

Jan Billar-Sykes was dressed in her pajamas and an old bathrobe.  She had pink terry-toweled slippers on her feet, and one of those “as-seen-on-t.v.” towel turbans on her head.  This was less disconcerting to Tracey than the alternating rage and tears.

“No one understands what this is like Tracey!”  Jan was in a rage stage at the moment.  “It’s like giving birth continuously for a year, only to have your infant snatched from you and thrown to the lions!  These people have no soul!  They can’t raise my words to maturity like they need to be raised.  Andrew Faulkner?  Ms. Tina Free?  Giving my words to them is like offering a child on an alter to Ba’al!”

“Hardly . . .” But Tracey was cut off as Jan slid into tears again.

“How can I go on?  I have abandoned my only progeny.  The muses will abandon me.  They already have, I can feel it.  I will never write again.”

The thought briefly cheered Tracey, but that had obviously not been the intended effect, so she proffered a new box of Kleenex and awkwardly patted the shoulder of a deranged woman.

Joanna was standing in the office door looking speechless and terrified.  It was unheard of for Joanna to look either, so this combination was doing nothing to calm Tracey’s nerves.  Fortunately, at this moment, Jan fainted.  It was the best possible solution to a worst possible situation.

Joanna and Tracey had her ninety-eight pound frame downstairs waiting when the paramedics arrived minutes later.  Reviving from her faint, all Jan could do was wave pathetically as the ambulance doors closed off her view of Joanna and Tracey collapsing onto the sidewalk.

“She’s out of her mind!” said Joanna, when they had convinced themselves that she wasn’t coming back.

“What are we going to do!”  Wailed Tracey.  “She’s the author of our newest book!  Who’s going to promote it?”

A shadow fell over the two women, and a voice spoke from above.

“Well, it isn’t unheard of, when the author is indisposed, for the publisher to send a representative to promote books.”  Dr. Faulkner’s voice was unmistakable, and send shivers through the pit of Tracey’s stomach and the back of her knees.

The two women struggled to their feet and did their best to look as un-rumpled as possible.  Andrew reached down and gallantly assisted, first Joanna, and then, with far more attention, and more assistance than strictly necessary, Tracey.

“I happen to know of a nationally syndicated radio show that would be pleased to interview, say, the publisher of this fine organization about their most recent publication.”

Andrew gently guided her into the building, and up the stairs.  His hand rested, every so gently, on the small of her back.  Suddenly Tracey’s mouth was dry and her stomach was turning flips. She hadn’t felt like this in months.  This was outrageous!  Would she ever outgrow this awkwardness?  And now Andrew was speaking to her, and she was looking him directly in the eyes, and hearing nothing!

“. . . squeeze you in within a few months.  When does the book come out?”

Tracey roused herself, and realized that they were not, in fact, in her office, but in the small break room on the second floor.  She blinked for a second and then looked back into Dr. Faulkner’s deep blue eyes.  Just before she drowned in them, she managed to recite the proposed publishing deadlines, and the promotions calendar.

***

The atmosphere was different.  Joanna was looking flushed, and nervous when Joey and his friend Jack Sawyer walked into the building.  At first he had attributed it to the fact that Jack generally had that affect on women.  When he mentioned that they were here to meet with Tracey about business, though, Joanna’s eyes flickered upstairs, she blushed, deeply, and then looked at her computer keyboard.

“She’s with someone right now, a drop in.  She’ll be ready in a . . . well, actually I don’t know when she’ll be available.”

Joey grinned, “Is, by any chance, a Dr. Faulkner in the building?”

Joanna’s eyes looked up and she relaxed several notches.  She grinned back.

“Yeah.  He just showed up.”

“So, could we just look around the building, work up an idea of what needs to be done, and y’all can find us when she’s ready to talk repairs?”

Joanna hopped up.  “I can show you the building.  The phone’s portable.”

As she came around the desk, clipping the phone to her belt.

“I hate this desk with a deep and abiding passionate hate.”  She said, quite cheerfully, and then saw his reaction.  “Oh, I love my job, I just hate the desk.  It’s down here, all alone.  So I find reasons not to be here.  Like giving you and your friend . . . Jack was it? . . . a tour around our lovely depression era building.  Let’s begin at the top, shall we?”

By the time they reached the third story, Joanna had happily filled Jack in on the Dr. Faulkner saga, and put on her tour guide voice, striking a pose.  “This is the third floor.  On this side. . .”  She opened the door to the left. “. . .is storage, and some stuff that came with the building.”

“Like a heater.” said Jack.

“Maybe, and old desks.”

“Um, he’s saying that the big metal box along that wall is the heater.  That’s odd, because they’re usually found in basements.”  Joey was thinking out loud as he explained the comment to Joanna.

“Oh, cool.”

“No, warm.”  Joanna looked blankly at Joey.  He grinned.  “Get it, warm . . .heater . . .oh never mind.”

Joey and Jack looked at some of the duct work and wiring while Joanna poked through a few boxes. The trio moved through the entire building this way.  Jack spent his time snapping digital pictures, while Joey scribbled notes attached to his grubby clipboard.  Vents where opened, outlets tested, conduits investigated, and through it all Joanna ran a happy commentary of conversation.

On the third floor they met Anne.

“We call her room ‘the hole’,” whispered Joanna before opening the door.  It was techno-geek paradise, and both men were assured that they would have no need to lay a hand on any part of the room.
“But the electrical is awful in the rest of the building.  I’ve got ground fault warnings on all of my power bars, and I keep telling Tracey that if we don’t do something soon, we’re going to fry a piece of hardware.” was Anne’s plea.  The men assured her it was high on their priority list.

On the second floor, Joanna enthusiastically introduced them to Robin and Kristi, the proofreaders who shared a large office, and Terri, the copywriter who was sitting on the floor of her office, surrounded in paperwork.

“Terri?  I didn’t know you worked here!” Joey was surprised to see a familiar face.  Joanna and Jack were just as surprised as he was.

Terri smiled, in a frazzled sort of way, and looked up at him.  “I went to college with Tracey.  What brings you to this estrogen charged work environment?”

“Business.”

“Well good.  That’s what we’ve been praying for right?  Well, it was nice seeing you.” and with that Terri was back into her paper work like the men weren’t even there.

Joey laughed as they moved down the hall.  He’d known Terri for five years, and obviously she was the same person at work as she was at church.  It was comforting.

The second floor board room had very little need in the way of repairs, but when Joanna walked them into the little kitchen area that bridged between the board room and the break room, both men groaned.  The outdated galley style kitchen was not only ugly, it was dangerous.  Their eyes flew around the room, seeing dangling light fixtures, two horribly overloaded electrical outlets, peeling paint, sagging cupboards, the list went on and on.  Jack turned to their tour guide.

“Okay, Joanna, you know that this is not good, right?”

“Oh yeah.  It’s gross.  When we catered our Open House, the caterers wouldn’t even come in here.”

Joey was about to tell her that gross was just the surface, when the door on the other end of the galley opened.  There, framed in the doorway, was Andrew Faulkner.  Joanna began a deep blush, and was suddenly silent.

Jack leaned over and muttered near Joey’s ear: “Dr. Faulkner, I presume?”  Joey chuckled and nodded, continuing to scribble notes.

“Isn’t he supposed to be on the air in 45 minutes?” asked Jack.

Joey checked his watch, before realizing that he didn’t know what time the show aired.  He just shrugged.

“Well, I had better be going,” Andrew was saying to someone (Joey assumed it was Tracey) in the other room, “I’ve got to be on the air in 42 minutes.”

Jack grinned at Joey and mocked polishing his collar before snapping a picture of an electrical hazard.

“All of this office talk distracted me.  The reason I stopped by was to ask you if you would care to have dinner with me this evening.”  Faulkner continued.

At the statement, Joanna let out a little squeak.  Jack was barely suppressing laughter.  All they heard in the kitchen was the sound of a response, without being able to discern the actual words.

Dr. Faulkner nodded, to the response, and said, “I’ll see you then,” before turning and seeing that he had an audience.  He looked Joey and Jack up and down, before greeting Joanna warmly, and leaving the room.  With a deafening scream, Joanna threw herself through the already fragile door, into the break room beyond.  Jack shook his head.

“Maybe we should charge an emotional baggage fee on this one.  I’m going to have the need to shoot and gut an animal just to prove I’m a man after much time here.”

Joey just laughed at his friend.

“Big talk from the father of four girls.”

“That’s what I’m saying Joey!” came the response, “I’ll be outnumbered every where I go!”

****

The men’s laughter from the kitchen startled Tracey, who felt like she was waking from one of those movie dream sequences.  Joanna was staring at her expectantly, and as Tracey began to share the conversation with her friend, she watched Joanna’s face fall.  The words alone where only business.  Andrew had invited her to appear on his radio program in a month, and promote the book.  They had worked out scheduling and discussed how to handle the call-in portion of the program.  Andrew had offered her an entire hour dedicated to the book, and Tracey had accepted.

It wasn’t the words that had made the moment.  Tracey knew that, and she was startled to realize that she didn’t want to share that with Joanna.  She didn’t want to talk about how they sat so close, face to face, that she could feel the crease of his pants on her knee and the warmth of his breath on her cheeks as he talked.  There had been nothing immoral in their contact, in fact they had barely touched, but the intensity of his presence made Tracey a little breathless.  She couldn’t tell Joanna any of it, and she didn’t know why.

“Who is in the kitchen?” she asked, trying to ignore the hurt in Joanna’s eyes.

“Joey Dreus and his friend Jack.  They said you had invited them to do a walk through of the building.  The kitchen made them groan.”

Tracey chuckled.  “They can join the club.  If they can do something affordable with that wreck they’re hired!”

It was said too loudly, just as she entered the kitchen to find herself face to face with the two men.  They both smiled at her, and she felt the blush creeping up her neck as Joey introduced Jack.  Why was she embarrassed to talk renovations with two hired hands – one of which, from the look of his left hand, was married?  Was it the embarrassment of knowing they had overheard Andrew’s invitation to dinner?  Tracey shook off the feeling, put on her work face and told them that when they had finished looking over the building to come to her office and let her know what they thought.  Then she went to her office, closed the door, and caught her breath.

She lifted the phone, and dialed the local hospital.

“Yes, this is Tracey MacManus.  I’m calling to check on a patient.  Ms. Jan Billar-Sykes.  She was brought in by ambulance about. . .”

Tracey checked her clock, and was stunned to see the time.

“About an hour ago.”

******

The rest of the building tour was fairly uneventful.  The main floor, apart from Joanna’s lonely desk in the foyer, was the shipping department, and the only question Dianne in shipping wanted to know was: “Could I get a window in this cave?”

Joey and Jack looked at each other and back at Dianne, and she grinned at them.

“I know, I know.  One window here, or completely replace the kitchen.”

“Oh no, it wouldn’t that expensive.” began Jack.

“Yes it would,” answered Joey. “I don’t want to do it, so it would be so expensive that I wouldn’t have to.”

Dianne laughed and went back to work organizing a shipment of the nondescript inspirational books from which Tracey was trying to save Sophia publishing.

The basement, of which Joey had seen half, held only one surprise: behind a fairly ordinary door they found a very nice office, with leather chairs and a large mahogany desk and several framed diplomas hanging on the walls.

“It looks like a lawyer’s office.” said Jack as he looked around.  Joanna giggled and a voice from behind them made both men jump.

“Well that was exactly the look I was going for, so thank you.”

Joanna introduced the men to Cori, who assured them that there was no need for repair in her carefully ordered office.  Both men checked for themselves before retreating to the actual basement portion of the building.  Staring around them at the bare concrete floor, the open brick and exposed plumbing, wiring and duct work, each of them let out a sigh, and turned to face each other.

“You were right.  It’s bad.” was Jack’s assessment.

Joey just nodded.  It wasn’t the type of work, or even the amount of it.  Neither of them were afraid of work, and they had done far more difficult jobs both together and separately.  But the squealing receptionist and nationally syndicated boyfriends could get under the skin after a while.

“It would almost be like that sorority house job we did eight years ago,” muttered Joey.

Jack nodded and then began to laugh.

“Well that might be a reason to do it, right there.  I got a wife out of that job.  And I’m reasonably certain you won’t encounter any of these women in their under things.”

“That settles it then.  If you assess a low under garment risk, then we’ll just march up those stairs and put in an estimate on this old dinosaur.”  Joey flipped open his clipboard, like a gunslinger drawing for a duel.  The two men laughed together, and turned to see Tracey standing at the base of the stairs.

“What is a low under garment risk?”

Jack burst into laughter, but Joey began to blush.  He could see that she was not amused, and he didn’t know how he was going to explain the statement.  While he was stammering about it, Jack stepped in.

“Eight years ago we were desperate for work, as we are now, and a fairly wealthy sorority hired us to do some serious upgrades to one of their houses.  Two of the girls took a liking to Joey, and would find ways to be ‘accidentally’ undressing every time he was around.  I had just offered the opinion that this establishment would not offer the same risks.”

Tracey raised an eye brow and addressed Joey.

“Why weren’t they undressing for him?” she indicated Jack.

All of Joey’s stammering and embarrassment vaporized.  He could feel the indignation boiling up in his chest.  He took two deep breaths, and responded as calmly as he could.

“I am aware that he’s by far the better looking of us, but on the first day on the job he met a young woman, took her out for dinner, and after that he was off the market.  I suppose I was the best the poor girls could hope for at the moment.”  The last bit of sarcasm had slipped out.

Jack raised his eyebrows at the exchange, and leaned back against a heating duct, his arms crossed, just watching the dynamics.

“I wasn’t implying you were deficient in any way,” was Tracey’s even response, “I was just wondering what you had done to make them feel so desperate.”

***

Oh man this just kept getting worse and worse.  The questions sounded fine in her head, but as they came out they didn’t.  And she was making him mad, she could see it.  He took a step toward her, then re-thought and stepped back.

“I don’t think that I did anything to make them feel ‘desperate’ or anything else.  They asked me out, and I told them no, so they thought they could change my mind.”

“Why didn’t you just take them out once, and then leave it at that?” she meant it to sound inquisitive, because she really wanted to know.  Instead it sounded almost defensive.  And he was feeling it too.  He was clearly agitated, opening and closing his clipboard, and clipping and un-clipping his pen.  He looked directly into her eyes, and responded in a far softer way than she had expected.

“I don’t date.”

“Sorority girls?”  Tracey was incredulous.

“Ever.”

It was so completely outside the realm of her comprehension, that she blinked, looked at Jack (who nodded) and then shook her head.  He wasn’t a monk, he wasn’t even a preacher, or a missionary or anyone special.  He was just a plumber.  Who was packing his stuff to leave.

“Listen, I’m sorry.  When I heard under garments . . . I feel pretty protective of my staff, and I don’t know you very well . . . and then . . . well sometimes things sound better in my head.  If I promise no one will undress around you, and not to imply you’re unattractive, can we talk bottom line on these renovations?”

Jack stood up from his duct, patted Joey on the shoulder, and took the clipboard from him.

“We’ve got some notes here.  Is there somewhere we can sit and talk about this?”

Tracey smiled, and motioned toward the stairs.  She hoped that she wasn’t going anywhere fancy for dinner tonight.  The idea of dinner with Andrew Faulkner was fantastic!  It was just one she needed to prepare for, and the way things were going today, she felt like crawling into her pajamas and eating ice cream straight from the box.  Instead she had to talk about conduits and CPVC and building codes.

****

“So that was interesting.”  Jack was sitting in the passenger seat of the truck.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like that with a woman.  How do you know her?”

“I don’t think ‘know’ is the right term.  You know that singles bible study I go to on Tuesday nights?  She comes on the weeks she doesn’t have a boyfriend.  She comes so infrequently that she thinks she knows me from Sunday School at her church.”

Jack laughed.  “Which would indicate how frequent her attendance is there, too.”

Joey laughed with him.

“She’s exactly everything I don’t like in a woman, so she pushes my buttons a little I guess.  But she’s a good business woman, and she’ll pay on time, which means regular paychecks for a year, and we probably won’t have to actually see her all that much.”

Jack nodded.  “And when we do, I’ll do all the talking, and you’ll just smile and nod, and go to a happy place inside your head.”

Joey laughed out loud.  This is why he worked with friends.  This is what would make this job better than the school janitor job.  A year working all day with one of his best friends was two prayers answered in one go.

***

Jan Billar-Sykes had voluntarily committed herself to a psych evaluation.  She sent a message to Tracey through the hospital, and Tracey responded with flowers and a fruit basket.  She spent the afternoon doing damage control, and touching base with the other two authors working on this new line of books.  But always in the back of her mind was dinner with Andrew Faulkner.

She was the last one to leave the office, as was her habit, and as she locked the doors, she realized that a sleek, dark blue Mercedes was sitting at the curb, and Andrew was emerging from the back seat.  Tracey pushed the whisps of hair that had come loose from her hair clip, and felt the oil that was sitting on her forehead.  She looked and felt like a woman who had been at work all day.  Was this his plan, or was she supposed to go home before now?

Andrew reached her with a smile, and took her elbow, guiding her to the vehicle.  She could smell his cologne, and feel the hem of his jacket bumping the back of her knee.  And here came the dizzy butterflies in her stomach.

“Tracey.  Shall we carry you home so you can feel a little refreshed before we eat?”

She smiled and nodded as she climbed into the car.  After giving the driver her home address, she settled into the leather seats, and turned, to see Andrew looking at her intently.  She smiled nervously.

“So tell me a little bit about yourself.  Are you any relation to Edward MacManus?”  Andrew seemed genuinely interested, but the question was not one Tracey welcomed, especially from a vocal conservative who had been on the opposite side of her father’s outspoken liberal politics.  Tracey looked at the back of the car seat as she spoke.

“He’s my father.  I began listening to your local radio show when I was in college just to make him mad.”

Andrew chuckled, and leaned back in his seat.

“Well, I guess I won’t be able to use that on the air, as much as I may want to.”

There was a brief silence, and then Andrew laughed again.

“You know, for someone who makes a living by talking, I’m just not very good at small talk.”  He turned slightly to look at Tracey.  “And this is the first date I’ve been on since the Clinton administration.  I don’t get out much.”

Tracey was shocked, and it must have shown on her face, because he smiled, and said, “I’m flattered that my lack of a social life surprises you.”

“I have a hard time imagining you wanting for female attention.”  Tracey responded.

“I don’t travel in the kind of circles where available, intelligent women abound.  My listening audience is sixty percent male, and the intelligent women I encounter tend to be either married or acrimonious, or both.”

Tracey laughed and Andrew gently rested his finger tips against her shoulder as he finished his thought.

“I think what is drawing me to you is the combination of your obvious intelligence and your peaceful grace.”

A blush was flooding her face, and in the back of her mind, a warning siren was sounding.  She was neither peaceful, nor graceful, and at some point he was going to figure that out.  But not tonight, because they were already at her house, and Andrew was telling her to dress casually, he had planned a picnic.

The evening was beautiful.  They ate Greek food on the grass by the river and then walked beside it in the crisp early spring night, drinking cappuccino.  Andrew told stories about his early days in radio that had Tracey in stitches.  Tracey asked him questions she had wondered about since those early college years, and he answered them in as great a detail as he could.  There were no silences now, and as he talked, Tracey found herself almost unable to concentrate when those big blue eyes would turn on her intently and look at her like she was the only thing in the world.

He walked her to her door, his hand once again resting lightly on the small of her back.  When she unlocked the door, he touched her elbow, and she turned to face him.

“Thank you Tracey.  I haven’t enjoyed an evening this much in years.  Can I see you again.  Personally, I mean?”

“I’d like that,” was all Tracey’s throat would let her say.

He stepped closer, kissed her on the forehead, and then turned and walked to his car.

Stan was indignant at being left alone for an evening, but Tracey didn’t notice.  She sat in silence for almost half an hour, just going over the evening in her mind.  When she did go to bed, she didn’t sleep for most of the night.  In retaliation, Stan jumped from the bed, when she finally did fall asleep, and clawed apart the closest pair of pantyhose.  Satisfied with his revenge, he curled up in the small of Tracey’s back, and dreamed of female cats with long whiskers.

*****

Joey realized part of the way through Sunday School that he had a muffin paper stuck to the tread of his shoe.  It wasn’t surprising considering the gas station coffee cups and take out containers that flooded his truck at the moment.  He and Jack had put in an intense 20 hours of work over two days to replace the plumbing over at Sophia.

Knowing that they couldn’t expect a functioning office to operate without water, the men had committed to do the plumbing work in a single weekend.  Working from five pm Friday evening until midnight and then returning at eight the next morning and hearing the last successful flush near nine  Saturday night, the men were both exhausted, but pleased with both a task well done and time with close friends.

As Joey bent to tug the muffin paper loose, he smiled.  The weekend could have been a total write off.  When Tracey left Friday evening, as the men were setting up, she locked all the doors, telling them someone would be by in the morning to let them back in.  Joey drove up on Saturday morning dreading the “why don’t you have more done?  Will this be finished in time?” style questions he knew he would face the minute Tracey opened those doors.  Instead, he was greeted by Joanna’s contagious smile and home made Banana-Buckwheat muffins.

She’d stayed for three hours, first chatting and asking questions about plumbing in general, and the current tasks specifically, but pretty soon she was threading fittings and carrying PVC.  In fact, her assistance cut at least an hour from the project, and certainly made the start of the day much easier to bear.

When she jumped up from a finished stretch of brand new PVC and said, “Uh-oh, late for fight club,” Jack and Joey both laughed.  She actually apologized for leaving them, and as she locked the doors there was a strange sense of let down.  Jack sighed, flexed his fingers and went back to measuring and cutting pipe.

“I think you should introduce her to Will.” was Jack’s suggestion after remarking at her vivacious personality.

Joey was strangely ambivalent to the suggestion.

The Will in question was teaching Sunday School, and he grinned as Joey sat up, muffin wrapper in his hand.

“So both Wisdom and Folly are women who call out to young men who lack sense.  This is important, guys.  It’s not just a word picture.  The women we choose will either be wisdom or folly. . .”

The lesson from Proverbs faded out again and Joey spent the next half hour in quiet contemplation.

*****

“Yes, thank you for calling me back.” said Tracey, trying to ease the tartness slipping into her voice.  She’d been trying to reach her representative at the printers since just before lunch the day before.

“Well I was just heading out for the weekend, but I wanted to return your call.  How can I help, Tracey?” came the scripted response.

“Are you looking the digital copy of the manuscript that was approved by our in-house proofreaders?”  Tracey adjusted her monitor and clicked the tab to bring up the document in question.

“I have the bound hard copy sitting right here on my desk.  I’ve already shut down my computer for the day.”

“That’s okay.” answered Tracey, almost brightly, “I’ll wait for you to boot up.”

*****

“We’ve got a friendly wager on this.  Which would you prefer, the wheat grass smoothie, or the espresso bean/chocolate chip blended coffee concoction?”  Jack was holding a blended drink in each hand, the condensation from the plastic cups dripping from his pinkies onto the laminate top of Joanna’s reception desk.  Joey was leaning on the other end of the raised counter, with a grin on his face.  Joanna grinned back and reached for the coffee.

Joey’s grin flickered, just slightly, in surprise and Joanna burst out laughing, immediately switching to the smoothie.

“So what was the bet?”  she asked, clearly relishing the wheat grass.

“I get to drink a refreshing over priced chilled blended coffee and he gets to watch,”  replied Joey, enjoying his high calorie concoction as much, if not more, than Joanna was enjoying hers.

“And if you had lost?  If I had chosen the chemical laden, processed beverage?”

“Then he would have had to drink the wheat grass, and I would have gotten to watch,” replied Jack, his eyes twinkling and dimples flashing.

*****

The scripted politeness had been abandoned for barely veiled frustration as Tracey, firmly, but politely, refused to be pushed off to Monday.

“Okay, so before we begin comparing the digital manuscript to the printed book, let’s begin by reading together the promotional synopsis.  You read aloud and I will follow along from my copy.  Okay?  Go ahead.”  Tracey felt a brief flashback to her days as a nanny in college.

“Since the suffragists, western women have found their identity trapped between two impossible ideals.  These are not the artificially created “feminist” and “patriarchal submissive” categories . . .” the voice on the other end of the telephone connection read quickly and monotonously.

Tracey’s eyes were faithfully scanning the familiar words when the door to her office gently clicked open and Joanna stepped through.  The sight of her casual stance caused Tracey’s already fragile temper to reach almost a boil.  Andrew was right.  This attitude of Joanna’s wasn’t endearing and casual, it was disrespectful, even subversive.

“. . . so using fairytale to combat fairytales . . .”  continued the irritated voice, reading at almost double speed, “ . . . Ms. Free addresses both the princess complex and its counterpart the goddess complex . . .”

“That’s fine.”  said Tracey, abruptly, not noticing Joanna slip back out of the room.  “You can stop there.”
*****

Joanna joined them in the hall, quietly closing the door behind her before speaking.

“When I asked if you could wait in her office, she said it was fine, but it’s a pretty important call with the printers, so maybe keep it as silent as possible?”  Joanna was almost apologetic in the suggestion, but both men nodded in understanding and hesitated at the closed door as Joanna headed back to her lonely desk.

“Do we just go on in?” asked Joey, despite Joanna’s assurances.

Jack just shrugged, and quietly unlatched the door, opening it enough to slip through, but no more.  Tracey’s voice rose through opening, startling Joey into action.

“So you would agree that the words “princess” and “goddess” would be fairly important to the overall message of the book?”

Joey joined Jack, closing the door as quietly as his friend had opened it, and lowered himself into the one of modern leather chairs sitting across from Tracey’s desk.  She didn’t even glance up at them, but the general level of total disgust wafted from her like cologne off a middle school boy.

“Good.  We both agree.  Princess and Goddess are integral words to the book.  So explain to me then, why every single instance of the word “goddess”- all 397 of them – that appears in the digital manuscript has been magically transformed into the word “gaudiness” in the print edition sitting on my desk right now?”

There was a brief moment of silence in which Jack and Joey dared not make eye contact, and then Tracey erupted once more.

“I don’t care if your spell checker is HAL 9000!  There is just no excuse for this sentence getting past your quality control: ‘Jennifer, the time has come.  In three days you will have your birthday ball, and when the clock strikes midnight, you must decide: will you become a princess or a gaudiness?’  The digital edition should never have been edited at all after final approval.  This is completely unacceptable! . . .”

The rant continued, understandably, thought Joey.  The poor woman had banked a significant gamble on this book and she was sitting two weeks from the release date with boxes of unusable editions.  Feeling empathy, however, did not stop the men from feeling completely awkward.  They sat there, rooted in place by mutual embarrassment, wishing they were somewhere, anywhere, else, while simultaneously feeling that leaving would just make things worse.

*****

“So they just walked in uninvited and then sat there through the entire discussion?”  Andrew had a more sardonic expression than usual as he listened to the story of Tracey’s afternoon.

They were sitting in a fenced courtyard as they had three evenings a week, eating grilled salmon with sweet potato fries and grilled vegetables.  It was delicious, and Tracey had given up wondering where the meals came from.  She would just eat and enjoy the one-on-one time with the most private man in radio.

“What did they need that was so important they couldn’t wait at Joanna’s desk?” asked Andrew as he meticulously flaked a portion of his salmon.

“A key to the building.”

Andrew halted his excavation and looked up at her.

“That’s all?”

“It’s for the work on the electrical they are supposed to begin tomorrow,” answered Tracey, almost sorry she’d brought it up.

The problem was that they’d been asking for a key for two weeks, since before the plumbing weekend, but she had no key to give them.  Her father owned the building – and the entire business, until she could pay off that loan he’d floated her – and there were only three keys.  He refused to get the depression era locks changed – something about character – so she couldn’t even get another key cut, and dear daddy was a miser about access to his real estate.

“The last thing I need is to get a call from a local police force informing me that my building has been used for a rave,” he told her when she mentioned that she’s hired a repair crew.

“Daddy, I’m thirty-two.   My friends aren’t throwing raves, they’re having babies and buying SUVs,” Tracey had responded.

“No one thinks their friends are throwing raves dear.”  And the conversation was over.  Joanna, the only other trustee of a key, had helped out last weekend, but she was supposed to be at some sort of tournament or other this weekend and couldn’t help out.

“It’s just a security issue,” said Tracey, waving it off to Andrew, and wishing she could convince herself.

“I’ll look after that for you.  You have enough on your plate with your incompetent printers.”  Andrew reached over and drew one finger down her jaw.

*****

“All I know is that Dr. Faulkner hired us to do security for the weekend while the building is being renovated.”

Joey was staring at a very large man in a cheesy “rent-a-cop” uniform. He looked at Jack, who shrugged.

“Yeah.  I’m as stumped as you are.  I sure prefer Joanna and muffins.”

So did Joey, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong with Tracey.  This just felt off.  Suddenly Joey felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to see Will, his friend and Sunday school teacher, and occasional employee on jobs like this one.

“Hey, it’s not on you.  Let’s just do exemplary work this weekend.”

Joey smiled and hefted two boxes of wire onto his shoulders and into the building.

*****

“Joanna, where in the name of all that is good and holy are you?”

Even standing on a scaffolding, hands stretched to their limit bearing the weight of the new ceiling Jack was installing, Joey couldn’t help but laugh.  Despite the awkwardness of working under armed guard, the men had managed to complete the ambitious re-wiring project in another fast food fueled, sleep challenged weekend.

There had been a lot of discussions over those hours about whether or not to continue the project, but in the end the guaranteed pay checks had weighed out over petulant bosses and meddling boyfriends.  They had arrived first thing this Monday morning, prepared to set to work on the second floor kitchen, and no one had even blinked.  It was almost as if the weekend had existed in a parallel universe.

“I wonder what it is this time?”  Jack asked, between drill spurts.  “Faulkner just left, or just called, or hasn’t called . . .”

“Or hasn’t left.” finished Joey and the two friends laughed.

“Who is Faulkner?”  The deep male voice startled Joey so much, he just about dropped the sheet rock he was holding to the ceiling.

A distinguished looking man, in a suit that looked like it cost more than Joey’s entire wardrobe, was standing in the doorway looking up at the men.  Before they could answer, he looked around.

“Isn’t this the room Joanna used to call the “death trap?”

Joey’s answer was drowned out by Jack driving in the last of the screws so Joey could put his arms down.  Once they descended from their scaffolding, he responded again.

“Yes sir, and rightly so.  I think we’ve managed. . .”

The stranger cut him off, rudely.

“Yes, I’m sure you did.  So who is Faulkner?”

The two friends looked at each other and then back to the man before them.  Finally Joey responded.

“I think you’d need to ask Tracey that question, sir.”

The man’s entire countenance changed, and he looked Joey directly in the eye, while offering his hand in greeting.

“You are absolutely right.  I’m sorry gentlemen.”

Joey took the offered hand and shook it firmly, introducing himself and Jack.  They received no introduction in response.

“You’re the young men Tracey hired to bring this old derelict into the current century,” the stranger exclaimed, as if the puzzle pieces had come together in his mind.  “The way Tracey spoke, I had pictured you as some baby faced frat boys.  What have you managed to do with the heap?”

He seemed genuinely interested, and he wasn’t walking away, so  Joey began to tell him what they had been doing.

*********

Joanna’s bounce deflated noticeably when she saw Andrew Faulkner sitting casually alongside Tracey’s desk.  It was amazing and exactly as he had predicted it.  Tracey allowed herself a brief moment of disappointment before putting on her “boss face” and addressing the issue at hand.

“Joanna.  We’ve got to talk about your attitude.”

*****

“So you replaced the entire plumbing system in one weekend?”  this gentleman seemed to be genuinely impressed with the work they had done, so Jack and Joey kept telling him about it.

“The plumbing wasn’t as difficult as the wiring,” Joey began.  “If you accidentally leave a valve open you get wet, if you leave a circuit open you can get dead.”

*****

The look on Joanna’s face almost made Tracey stop, but the slight pressure from Andrew’s foot against her own gave her the courage to continue.

“The final straw was you sending the repair men into my office while I was on the phone with the printers.  What were you thinking?”

Tears sprang to Joanna’s eyes as she looked first to Tracey, and then to Andrew.  Finally she brought her eyes back to Tracey’s face and answered.

“Tracey, I explained they were there and asked if I should send them in.  You nodded and I asked if they should wait during the call and you said, ‘That’s fine.’”

“Why would you lie about something like that?” Andrew’s normally rich voice was a little reedy with the strain of incredulity.  Joanna’s response was sudden and direct.

“I’m not lying, and you, sir, are not my boss.  Tracey, I will be happy to have this discussion in a professional manner without your boyfriend here as an audience.”

*****

“So plumbing and wiring in a weekend each and demolition on the death trap kitchen in a morning.  I must say, apart from my fear that the press will hear you’re non-union, I am very pleased with what you’ve done here.  I may have done Tracey a disservice in my assumption of your competency.”  He was now leaning against a bare stud, chatting with the guys like he’d know them for months.  This well dressed mystery man clearly had some connection to Tracey and the business, but just as Joey was going to ask, he saw Joanna flee down the stairs, obviously in tears.

Jack reached out and caught Joey’s arm to hold him back.  They both knew the surest way to hurt a woman and create a very tangled situation, was for a man to comfort her in distress.  Joey knew it, but he wasn’t ready for the comment that came from behind him as their new “friend” came past them.

“That young woman is like a daughter to me, and if she is crying, it is because someone is dead, or needs to be.  Excuse me gentlemen.”

Jack shrugged, and let go of Joey’s arm, just as Andrew Faulkner stepped from Tracey’s office, and stood, face to face, with the mystery man.  There was a moment as each of the men sized the other up.  Faulkner spoke first, and Joey noticed he had his “radio voice” on.

“Well, Edward, I suppose this was inevitable.”

“Andrew, you really are a cold hearted S-O-B,” came the reply.  “What have you done to Joanna?”

Andrew was taken aback by the question and hadn’t answered when Tracey stepped from her door herself, and slipped her hand into his, before looking at the man in the hallway.  She froze and snatched her hand back like it had been burned.  Andrew snatched it back just as quickly.

“Daddy?  What are you doing here?”

*****
Out of the corner of her eye, Tracey saw Jack and Joey step quietly back into the break room.  Her fingers were slightly numb from the pressure with which Andrew was holding her hand.  Pressure she certainly hoped was intended as reassuring support.  All of that, however, was eclipsed by the overwhelming presence of her father.

She couldn’t handle this today of all days!  There was too much riding on today, and she just couldn’t let daddy step in and take it all off the rails!

*****

Mudding sheet rock was boring and, unfortunately quiet work.  There was nothing at all to muffle the clear voices that began, almost simultaneously, and ran over each other, in the hallway, directly outside the break room door.

“Daddy, I can’t do this right now!  I’m sorry you had to see me with Andrew like this, but I can’t take time to hear the ridiculous and partisan things you’re going to say.  I have an important appointment to keep that could well be the tipping point in Sophia Publishing history, and whatever you think you have to say would probably benefit from a cool down period.  I’ll come by the club for brunch on Saturday and we can hash it all out there.”

“Tracey!  I just can’t do this right now.  I am so sorry to arrive for a quick father/daughter lunch and find you . . . like this.  I can’t stand here and hear the ridiculous partisan things I’m sure he will say.  I have an important appointment today that could be a very good thing for Sophia Publishing but I can’t talk to you without a cooling down period.  Come by the club for brunch on Saturday and we’ll hash this out like a civilized family.”

The sound of footsteps, and stairs descended, and doors closed followed leaving only the sound of trowels scraping putty across taped seams.

“They’re not paying us enough.”  said Jack, earnestly.

*****

Sitting in the back seat of Andrew’s town car, his fingers resting on her shoulder and the city passing by, Tracey felt like she was a passenger on a runaway train.  She had that same feeling in the pit of her stomach as just before take off any time she had to fly.  She closed her eyes and told herself the same thing she did every time she was in a plane.

“It’s going to be all right.  I’m in good hands.”

“You certainly are,” replied Andrew, startling her.  “There’s no reason to be nervous.  You’re about to give Sophia publishing the launch a thousand publishers in your place could only dream of.”

The sweat popped out on her neck and gathered a little at her temples.  She could feel the shakes in her legs already and her mouth was as dry as flannel in a prairie.  She nervously mopped her temples, and put on her joking face.
“Well, at least no one’s going to have to see me.  One of the great things about radio, right?”

Andrew’s eyes went completely serious, and he turned his body toward her, abruptly dropping all physical contact.

“This is the new media, Tracey.  We video stream the entire show live to tens of thousands of subscribers.  I thought you understood that.  I have hair and makeup waiting at the studio.  That’s why we’re arriving an hour before the show goes live.”

Tracey blinked, and put on her best smile.

“Well.  I better dazzle them then, hadn’t I?”

Andrew relaxed and patted her thigh.  “That’s my girl.”

The airplane in Tracey’s stomach had just gone acrobatic.

*****

*****
It was surprisingly quiet at Sophia Publishing.  Eerily so.  The silence was taxing even the normally easy conversation between Jack and Joey.  Periodically a door would open and close somewhere in the building, or a phone would ring, but the normal “coffee house meets study hall” atmosphere was strangely stifled.

Finally, Jack put down his roll of joint tape and grabbed a small radio from his tool chest and plugged it in before returning to his taping.  Joey didn’t pay much attention to the voices, he just enjoyed the break in the silence.

*****

Tracey had never been inside a radio studio, and for a moment, the novelty of it distracted her and stopped the tremors in her joints.  This may be the “new media” as Andrew had phrased it, but it was still worlds away from television.  In T.V. there was an invisible line of separation between the talent and the technology, but here the technology and the talent were almost one.  Dr. Andrew Faulkner was connected, in an almost Borg like way, to every part of the show.  He had engineers and a producer and a call screener, but he had every thing to run the show at his fingertips for the entire three hours he was on the air.  Tracey suddenly realized that radio was a control freak’s paradise.

*****

Joey was surprised when Joanna walked into the break room with coffee a few minutes later.

“We would normally have a fresh pot on in the kitchen about now, but some jokers tore the whole thing apart and haven’t managed to put it back together.  So I had to order a few boxes from across the street.  It will be in the break room, if you want some.”

She was subdued, but managed to still flash her smile as he looked up.

“You okay?”  Joey asked, purposefully ignoring the warning look from his closest friend.

Joanna smiled again and nodded.  “Yeah.  Sorry about the drama guys.  It’s not always like this.”

She made her way into the break room and then popped her head back through the door way.

“Hey, I’ll have the show on in here and I’m getting a better reception than what you’re getting.  Do you want me to just turn it up?”

Jack and Joey both looked at her in confusion.

“What show?”

*****

She was wired up and headphoned up.  There were three live webcams pointed at her, and conversations happening through the headphones that made absolutely no sense.  Tracey had never before felt more out of place.  She gave herself the “this is your baby” pep talk, and tried to go over some of her notes, but Andrew signaled her to stop turning pages.  The rustling was giving feedback in the microphone.

Every part of her was screaming, “What are you doing here?”  And then the familiar music began, and the “on air” light lit up and the Andrew with which she had become so familiar, suddenly transformed, before her eyes, into Dr. Andrew Faulkner – conservative radio voice.

*****    “We’ll keep working through the monologue, but if we miss the teaser for the interview, come and get us.” Jack was saying to Joanna as the theme music playing on their radio was suddenly joined by the radio in the break room. Joanna nodded in agreement and returned the way she had come. Joey looked at Jack in confusion.

“Why do we care about this?”

Jack returned to taping sheet rock seams and was silent for a moment.

“I don’t know,” he answered, finally. “But we do.”

“Yeah,” answered Joey, troweling mud onto the taped seams. “For some reason we do.”

The sound of Andrew Falkner’s radio voice began to come through the radio, but Joey wasn’t listening to it. He was wondering if the paycheck was really worth all the strings that seemed to be attached to this job.

*****
Tracey didn’t hear a word of the monologue.

It was like magic. As soon as Andrew put on his radio persona, she had been able to put on her business hat. This was the biggest break Sophia Publishing was ever going to get, and she wasn’t going to blow it. Her author was literally certifiable, the first run print had been ruined and her father was out there somewhere doing something to try to help her, which was inevitably going to go poorly. This was the only thing in the “pro” column at the moment and she was going to wring every last drop of positivity out of it.

“And after the break, I’m going to be talking to an up and coming publisher, who is local here in my home town and has a very interesting project coming out that I think is about to make some waves.” Andrew hit the word “waves” just as the music cut in and he nodded with satisfaction before flashing Tracey a smile.

“You ready for this, darling?” he asked.

Tracey smiled and nodded. It was like the curtain had been pulled back on the wizard. Dr. Andrew Falkner was just a guy who got paid a lot of money to talk to himself about his own opinions. The butterflies weren’t flying now, they were laughing.

*****

At some point in the last fifteen minutes, Jack and Joey had found themselves sitting in the break room, staring at the radio. Joanna was pacing, wrapping a strand of hair around her index finger, then un wrapping and wrapping again. In fact, every staff member was sitting in the break room in some form of concentration so deep the speakers should have combusted from the combined force of their listening.

 

“He hasn’t read the book,” said Joanna, for the fourth time.

“He hasn’t even read the promotional materials,” muttered Jack, clearly disgusted. Joey’s head snapped around at that comment, his focus on the interview suddenly broken by his friend’s seeming intimate knowledge of the subject matter.

“What?” asked Jack, “I have three daughters. This is a subject about which I am very concerned.”

The commercial break washed over their combined intense silence with no affect. Everyone’s future was hanging in the balance, and it was beginning to look very dim indeed.

 

*****

 

It was clear that Andrew hadn’t even glanced at the promotional materials she had given him months ago, let alone read the complete digital manuscript she had given him. This was not the interview that was supposed to happen today, of all days.

 

“Let’s take a call,” said Andrew abruptly, as he pushed a flashing line on the touch screen in front of him. The sound of a young woman’s voice suddenly coming through her earphones made Tracey jump a little.

 

“Thanks for taking my call, Dr. Faulkner. I am a twenty three year old woman, and I just feel like all of my friends are married and having children and moving past me. I want to know what I should be doing while I’m waiting for my life to begin?”

 

Tracey didn’t give Andrew a chance to even take a breath.

 

“Thanks for calling. I’m going to assume that you are not being held in a tower by an evil woman who wants to protect your hair. Am I right?”

 

The caller sputtered for a moment before saying, “No.”

 

“Then I have great news for you,” said Tracey, brightly. “You are not a Disney princess. What has been happening to you over the last twenty three years is not backstory. It is the actual story. This is your life. It is happening right now. You do not have to wait for it to begin. It has begun. Congratulations!”

 

*****

 

There was a moment of spontaneous applause in the break room, but the feeling of doom did not completely lift from the people gathered anxiously around the radio.

 

*****

 

Andrew was unimpressed. His face hardened, and if his demeanor had been controlled at all by his personal feelings for her, it was restrained no longer. She recognized his tone of voice from years of listening to his show. He was going for the rhetorical kill.

 

“Tracey, maybe you can tell my audience why you think young women are so content to leave the role of princess behind and strive with so much effort toward that unattainable goal of goddess?” Andrew uttered the words without so much as a glance in her direction.

 

“Well Andrew, and I certainly don’t want to give away any spoilers. I would much prefer that your listeners read the book for themselves. This book is about the fact that those aren’t the only two choices available to women. In fact. . . “

 

 

“For instance,” Andrew cut in over her words like she hadn’t even drawn breath, “what would you tell a young woman who was trying to become a goddess by running her own business, based on your experience and regrets in that area.”

 

Tracey’s stomach fell, and she could feel her jaw clench for a moment as she choked out her response, “I would love to speak to any young woman considering entering the business field. While there are certainly always areas in which I could improve, I have found a measure of success in my field and . . .”

 

“No one is doubting that you are very good at the things at which you are very good, but I’m talking about the day to day business issues that are better left to a man. Like appropriate hiring practices, instead of just paying your friends like women tend to do.”

 

*****

Joanna’s face went white. She stopped completely in her tracks, but refused to look at the radio, as if she feared that by turning to the radio she would alert Andrew Faulkner to her presence.

 

*****

 

Tracey’s face went white hot. She could feel anger climbing her spine like a wild rodent and her palms began to sweat. She took a deep breath before putting on her game face.

“I am sorry that you feel that way. I think that if given the chance to speak to a young woman considering going into business I would tell her that my deepest regret was allowing myself to be duped into pretending to be a princess by someone who claimed to be a prince, but was really just a toad in some fancy clothes. I would tell any young woman coming to me for counsel that she should read this book, of which I am especially proud, and that she should realize that she does not have to be a helpless princess and she does not have to be a bitter goddess. If she read the book – which you clearly did not, and that disappoints me more than anything else that has happened to me today – if she read the book and then wanted to talk about what the alternatives look like in a real world instead of the fairytale world of this book, then I would be happy to speak to that young woman about my successes and my failures.”

 

 

*****

An abrupt commercial break seemed to come as Tracey was in mid breath for more tirade. No one said anything. No one moved. And then all four phone lines began to ring at once.

 

*****

 

The second Tracey heard the commercial music cut in through her headphones, she peeled them from her head, and grabbed her few belongings. She turned to one of the webcams, and smiled her best smile.

 

“Tracey MacManus. T-R-A-C-E-Y M-A-C-M-A-N-U-S of Sophia publishing. Google it.”

 

What she wanted to do was sweep majestically from the room without giving so much as a backward glance to Dr. Toad sitting in his wire cage. But her left foot had fallen asleep, so she resigned herself to a slow gimpy walk through the glass doors.

 

*****

 

 

There was a flurry of activity as the women of Sophia publishing ran to their desks and took battle stations. Amidst the sound of women talking in every office, and the fax machine ringing and printing and the phones ringing incessantly, Joanna quietly stepped to a corner and dialed her cell phone.

 

“Mr. Edward, whatever you are doing to help, please stop. Tracey has done it for herself. Today she is a rock star and she needs you to tell her that.”

 

Then she hung up, and dashed to her despised desk.

 

*****

 

Joey nervously brushed his work boots against the door jam before stepping on the rich plush carpet he saw stretched out in front of him. He had never been to a country club before, and the idea of it had managed to be much smaller than the reality.

 

“Meet me at my club. Joanna will get you the address.” Was all Edward MacManus had said, and then he had hung up. What he was supposed to do and where he was supposed to go once had had parked his work truck in the same lot as those sleek sports cars and fancy SUVs was still a mystery to him.

 

“Joey? Joey!” The call came from somewhere to his right, and he was bumping into the speaker before he saw her as he turned to find the voice.

 

“Joanna? What are you doing here?” He was so relieved to see a familiar face. Joanna smiled up into his confusion.

 

“Tracey and Edward are still talking some things through, so Edward asked me to make sure you were found. It’s quite the maze, isn’t it? Come on. They’re on the patio. Are you still hungry? The brunch buffet is still being served.”

 

She was chattering along seamlessly, but noticed Joey’s hesitation at her suggestion of brunch.

 

“Oh. It’s on Edward. He said to make yourself comfortable.” She grinned at Joey, “And he told me to join you. I’m starving. Let’s eat.”

 

Her relaxed enthusiasm was contagious, and as Joey followed her through a startlingly lush lobby, across a marble courtyard and out to a walled garden, he relaxed and began to look around him in curiosity. Before he knew it, the two of them were sitting at a small table on the periphery of a beautiful garden restaurant. The plate in front of him was a collection of anything Joanna had indicated with “That’s delicious!” He doubted his ability to consume it all, now that he really got a good look at how much was there.

 

Sitting in a booth close enough to see them, but far enough that he couldn’t hear, Tracey and her father were locked in a firm, but seemingly friendly, discussion.

 

“So you and Tracey are okay after that reprimand yesterday?” Joey managed to squeeze the words out between bites of the best food he had ever eaten in his life. He suddenly felt the need to apologize to his mama for even thinking it, but it was true!

 

“Well, it’s not the first time we’ve had a falling out over a man.” Joanna’s flippant words were not matched in her tone, and Joey let the silence hang long enough that she knew he wasn’t buying it. She looked down at her plate and then started again.

 

“I’ve known Tracey since before either of us can remember. We go a lot deeper than this. We’re okay.”

 

“So you’re not fired?”

 

Joanna laughed, “She can’t fire me. I don’t work for her.”

 

Joey’s confusion was evident on his face, even with all the chewing.

 

“I work for her Daddy. I have for years.”

 

As Joey seriously considered licking the hollandaise sauce from his plate, Joanna spun her tale.

 

“Mr. Edward is a salesman. He always has been. You’ve heard about guys who could sell ice to Polar bears? Well Mr. Edward could sell those guys ice. He just wasn’t so good with the details like where the ice was coming from and how it would be delivered. When things were good, they were rolling in success, but things weren’t always good, and twice they were so bad the entire family moved into my family’s basement for six months with only two suitcases between the five of them.

 

The first time it happened, Tracey and I were eight. It was like the best slumber party ever that didn’t stop. We convinced almost everyone at school that we were sisters. We did everything together. I cried when they moved into an apartment the next summer, but Tracey and I stayed close, and even years later we would be asked if we were sisters or cousins.

 

The second time Mr. Edward hit rock bottom was six years later, and it was a completely different experience. Everyone was older, and the bankruptcy hit harder. Tracey’s oldest brother was planning to go to college, but there was no money for tuition. She and her second brother had to drop out of everything from tennis and music lessons to school clubs. She would leave the house twenty minutes early to walk four blocks and get on the bus in a different neighborhood, just so no one would see us living in the same house. She kept a notebook of what clothing combinations she wore so that she could rotate as many top/bottom combinations as possible so that it looked like she owned more clothes. And she hated her father.

 

That time the recovery wasn’t so easy. No one wanted to hire a two time loser, and he was completely out of next big ideas, until he realized that politics was all about selling, and very little about delivery. He ran for state representative in an off year by-election and won, and he has never looked back.”

 

Joey was watching Edward and Tracey over Joanna’s shoulder as this tale was being told. They were wrapping up their conversation, and Tracey was smiling and even laughed once. He looked back at Joanna.

 

“So how come you work for him?”

 

“My degree is in economic development. Every summer I would intern for Mr. Edward in some political capacity or other, but the place I shone was community involvement. I found places where he could step in with a little money and some hand shaking, and build some good will and political capital. Thing is, what I did better than the other interns was finding him projects that would actually last. I wasn’t bringing him playgrounds and overpasses, so when I graduated he hired me. My title is “Constituent Economic and Commerce Developer,” which is a real mouthful. I don’t use it much. Sophia publishing is one of my projects, but Tracey only agreed to head it up if I was her contact, not her father directly. So I work for Edward from a desk at Sophia and because I love everyone involved I also answer the phones and send emails and occasionally fetch coffee and the like. It seems to work for us.

 

Anyway, it all means that I’ll probably still be working with you pretty closely if you take this next project because that’s one of mine too.”

 

She swallowed some of her breakfast, then glanced at her phone.

 

“Oh darn! I’m running late for fight club. Just sit tight here until Edward and Tracey are done. Sorry to leave you hanging. I hear the coffee is really good.” The last sentence was hollered over her shoulder as she dashed out the door.

*****

 

Tracey watched Joanna dash down the marble halls like they were a concrete basketball pad. Her ability to make any space seem comfortable was one of the things Tracey loved about Joanna. Even back in the worst days of living in someone else’s basement, Joanna made it all feel like camp instead of exile.

 

“I think you owe her an apology.” Edward’s voice was surprisingly gentle in its firmness.

 

“I know. I’ll find her after fight club and buy her lunch. I was a pretty big fool.” Tracey dropped her head onto the table top and was surprised to feel her father’s strong hand on her shoulder.

 

“The right man will come along, Tracey. You don’t have to push it.”

 

“You know how it is,” came her standard reply, “If you want to find a prince you’ve got to kiss a few frogs.

 

She stood up, before Edward could respond and beckoned Joey to join them.

The poor man looked so out of place here in the club. It was everything that he wasn’t, but rather than making him look rough and unpolished, Joey seemed to make his surroundings look pretentious and artificial. It was one more surprise in her short history with Joey Dreus.

 

She reached for his hand, and shook it.

 

“Thank you for everything, Joey. You are a true tradesman, and I am sorry for underestimating you.”

 

Joey was looking flustered, and his ears were turning red, whether from anger or embarrassment she couldn’t tell. It was like they spoke different languages and everything that came out of her mouth ended up in confusion.

 

“Am I fired?” came the reply.

 

It was Tracey’s turn to blush as she turned on her father.

 

“You didn’t tell him why you wanted to see him? You just summoned and he came?” Tracey laughed, and shook her head. She patted Joey on the shoulder as she walked away.

 

*****

 

Maybe, just maybe, he would one day have a single conversation with Tracey in which they did not both misunderstand each other and have a hackle raising competition. Maybe. But not today.

 

Joey’s spine was still tingling with the sensation that had run across it at the thought of being fired. The bill collectors had only just quit calling. He was beginning to check his mail without dread. He could not lose this job now. He was also having a hard time shaking the idea that he was going to be losing his job.

 

“Well, have a seat. Don’t just stand there kicking those boots. Did you get enough to eat? I told Joanna to make sure you were comfortable.”

 

Joey slid into the booth, while mumbling something inane about hollandaise sauce and better than mama’s biscuits. Edward laughed and leaned back, crossing his arms across his chest.

 

“Well, I was doing everything in my power to make you comfortable coming into this conversation, and then my daughter knocked it all apart.” He chuckled again. “The story of my life, I suppose, and hers too. OK. Let’s cut to the heart of the discussion because you’re sitting over there hearing nothing at all and hoping desperately not to hear one of the many euphemisms people use for fired.”

 

Joey smiled weakly, and nodded.

 

“You’re not fired. Does that help?”

 

Joey smiled more weakly and shook his head. Edward put his elbows on the table, and said, “O.K. Let’s start over.”

*****

 

Tracey got into her car, and smiled as she saw Joey’s truck parked at the far end of the parking lot, as if it was unsure of its role there. There was a brief resistance against her efforts to put the Jaguar in first gear, which served as a reminder that she may look like she belonged, but she was just her daddy’s guest, driving his cast off vehicle. The tears trickled down her cheeks and she wiped them away, angry at herself and angry at her circumstances.

 

Joanna was still at fight club, so Tracey decided to swing by the office to get some work done before facing her oldest, dearest, and much maligned friend. The building was quiet, and the sun was shining, and all of Tracey’s good intentions still found her banging a pencil eraser against a book manuscript as she re-read the same sentence for a fourth time. As Tracey bounced down the stairs, phone in hand, she said, out of habit, “Joanna, I’m going across the street for coffee.” The empty desk didn’t answer her.

 

Tracey discarded promotional e-mails and checked off her to-do list as she ordered her low-fat, sugar free, high octane mocha.

 

“Name?”

 

“Tracey”, she answered, without looking up. They would spell it wrong. They always did.

 

*****

 

Joanna’s walk-up apartment always made Tracey feel slightly guilty. She was pretty sure she knew how much Joanna made, and she was pretty sure she could afford better, and for some reason that made Tracey feel . . .inadequate. She’d never had a name for it, but that was it. The opulence of Joanna’s simplicity made Tracey feel as if her home was compensating for a moral inferiority. She knocked anyway, and the grocery bag swung awkwardly from her elbow as she did.

 

“Come in, Tracey,” came the muffled reply from inside. Tracey steeled herself, then pushed open the solid metal door and breezed into Joanna’s little kitchen.

 

“Hi, Joanna. I brought you a steak for your bruises.” Tracey had barely set the bag down when Joanna whipped around the corner, grabbed the bag, and disappeared again.

 

“Hey. I was kidding. That’s an expensive steak.” Tracey stuttered to her friend’s disappearing back. She rounded the corner herself in to the living room to see Joanna, clutching the red meat to her face.

 

“But it was a gift, so use it as you see fit,” she trailed off, and then burst out, “Are you seriously holding that rib eye to a black eye? What happened?”

 

Joanna looked up at her oldest friend, and said, “Someone kicked a door.”

 

There was silence for a moment before Tracey responded, “You are trained in three forms of martial arts. You’re telling me you were taken out by a door?”

 

Joanna nodded, and the deep red of her exposed face was not entirely due to the red meat she was holding there. The two women looked at each other, and began to giggle. Soon neither of them could stand, they were laughing so hard.

 

When things settled down a little, Tracey took a deep breath and said what she had come to say.

 

“I’m sorry I was such a coward that I would rather alienate you than tell my boyfriend that you work for my dad.”

 

Joanna leaned back into her couch, the steak hiding her face and she said, “It’s O.K. We’re bigger than that.”

“But the thing is, we shouldn’t have to be. You don’t do these things to me, but I have been doing them to you since the ninth grade when I was too embarrassed to let anyone know I was living in your basement and you just let me walk three blocks and take a different bus. I’m sorry. I don’t know why you put up with me.”

 

Joanna laughed behind the steak.

 

“One day I will do something terrible. It is the nature of relationships, and then you’ll be the one on this side, being okay and forgiving me. Besides, I totally could have taken Faulkner.”

 

Tracey looked sideways at her friend and quipped, “Apparently not if he kicked a door.”

 

Both of the women burst out laughing again.

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