|Rowena's Page, Rowena Gets Serious.||Rowena Moves In, Part 4|
Rowena picked up the first memo of the day, an announcement of the annual company picnic. “Come bring a guest & celebrate 20 great years!” the memo said. “Food! Games! And a special cash bonus to all who attend.” A little hand-drawn arrow pointed between the words “all” and “who;” somebody with handwriting very like Eloise's had inserted the word “employees.” “As usual, this event will be a potluck,” the memo continued. “So sign up to bring your favorite picnic dish! See Eloise for sign-up sheet.” Rowena stuck the memo on her spindle. She picked up the next item, a brown envelope.
“Did you see this?” Marjorie demanded. She waved her own copy of the picnic memo.
“Yeah.” Rowena opened her envelope.
“A cash bonus!” Marjorie's memo-waving grew frantic. “Wonder how much we'll get.”
“No idea.” Rowena pulled several sheets out of her envelope and frowned at them.
“I want a new car.” Marjorie went suddenly dreamy. Rowena looked at her.
“A new car? You think the company's giving everybody a new car?”
“Not everybody. And they don't have to buy me the car; all I need's the money to buy it myself.”
“I'm worth it,” Marjorie said. “And I've had that old thing for years.”
Rowena shut her eyes, then turned back to her reading.
“Hey, you going to the picnic?” asked Jim.
“I'm using my bonus for a new car,” said Marjorie. Rowena ignored them both.
“New car! Forget it. A new suit, more like.” He paused a bit. “Suppose there are prizes for the games?”
“Games!” Marjorie snorted. “I'm worth a car, all the work I do here.”
Work? Marjorie? This was news to Rowena. She turned over the final page of her mailing.
“Yeah,” Jim began, “well—”
“Hey, Rowena!” Marjorie called. “You're the food expert. What should I bring?”
“Bring?” asked Jim, alarmed.
“It's a potluck. I gotta bring something impressive.”
“Shit,” Jim said. Rowena looked at him; he seemed to be weighing the merits of his new suit.
“I don't know. What do you want to bring?”
“Marjorie, it's only a picnic. Bring some kind of picnic food.”
“Picnic food? But—”
“Hey, didja see the memo?” This was Berna. “I can't wait to see Eloise doing a sack race.” She slapped a couple of papers onto Rowena's desk. “Those are for you,” she said.
“We're not going to have to play games with Eloise, are we?” demanded Marjorie. “They better pay good for that.”
“You mean they'd better pay well,” Berna said. “Look, it's a picnic, okay?”
“Games with Eloise,” Marjorie repeated. “That wouldn't even happen to Shareena.”
“One of your soap opera people?” asked Berna, as Jim simply left. “Gimme a break.”
“It would happen to me,” Rowena said.
Later that morning, Rowena finished her main project and delivered it to Eloise. She moved onto the next item, worked on that for a while, and just before lunchtime Eloise came by.
“Here,” Eloise said, setting some familiar-looking papers down in front of her, “we found an error on Page Five. If you could just correct it for us . . .”
“What? An error?”
“In Paragraph Two of Page Five you substituted Mr. Berymanowski's name for Mr. Brashmaninski's. Kindly correct your mistake and double-check the rest of the document.”
Eloise left. Rowena stared at the page before her: There it was, just as Eloise had said. Rowena bit her lip. How could she have made such a mistake? And Eloise had caught it. Eloise—or Mr. Schmed.
Possibly even Mr. Rorschach.
Rowena felt cold. She took a deep breath. Eloise had not seemed angry, but Eloise was not always predictable. She looked furtively around; Marjorie was already at lunch, fortunately, and no one else seemed to be within earshot. Rowena stared at the page. She had almost robbed Mr. Brashmaninski and his company of—of a sum equal to about two-thirds of her own yearly wages. Not a huge amount to the companies involved, and of course the wording was such, in the context of the rest of the document, that it did look like a mistake. Mr. Berymanowski would have a hard time, she suspected, having it upheld in court, even if it had managed to get past Eloise, Mr. Rorschach, Mr. Schmed, and all of Mr. Brashmaninski's people. Still . . . Still, it could have made quite a mess. Rowena closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She corrected her mistake, read the document over looking for others—she didn't find any—and then went out for an abbreviated, very light lunch, leaving the project for a second re-reading when she got back.
And then a third.
“So,” Marjorie said. “What about a soufflé?”
Rowena put her pen down on the page. “A soufflé?” she asked. “At a picnic?” Marjorie, on top of everything else.
“They're impressive, aren't they? I need something Mr. Schmed will notice.”
“Yeah,” said Berna. “Like everyone noticed your cheese blintzes at the Christmas party.”
“Marjorie,” Rowena said, “he didn't hire you to cook.” She did not feel she had the patience for this sort of thing, not with a real work problem on her mind. She yanked the next item out of her In box. “And it's a good thing, too, judging from your question. You have to serve a soufflé as soon as it comes out of the oven.”
“As soon as it comes out of the oven?”
“Marjorie, choose some kind of picnic food. And if you really want it to turn out, choose something you know how to make.”
“Something I know how to make? Who do you think I am, Sophie?”
“Sophie?” Rowena realized, too late, that Marjorie was talking about a soap opera again. Any normal person, she reflected, would be invoking some famous media chef, or even Betty Crocker. But Marjorie had, apparently, never been a normal person.
“Sophie's a caterer. She could handle this.”
“You don't need to be a caterer to throw something together for a picnic. Look—”
“You suck-up, Marjorie,” said Berna. “That is so—”
“Berna!” Marjorie was outraged.
“Rowena,” said Leslie Campbell, behind her, “What should I bring?”
“Not you, too.” Rowena turned around, if only so she could keep an eye on him.
“What would be the easiest kind of food I could bring? I don't wanna knock myself out over this.”
“The easiest?” Rowena asked. “Something from the deli?”
He made a face. “Too expensive. What can I do that's real cheap?”
“Some soda?” suggested Rowena.
“Cheap!” cried Marjorie. “You won't get anywhere like that.”
“Soda,” said Leslie. “Sounds good.”
“Soda,” Marjorie repeated scornfully. “It figures.”
“Hey,” Leslie said. “It's just a job. I'm not gonna knock myself out for it.” He gazed into the distance. “How much do you suppose the bonus is gonna be?”
“I have no idea,” Rowena said. She did not want to discuss bonuses either. Even though he was still behind her she turned back to her work.
“I'd settle for a couple hundred bucks,” said Berna, “but if it were really up to me, they would give the rest of us a bonus by firing you.”
“Who asked you?” Leslie demanded.
“I did,” said Sara, who, like Berna, liked to attack from behind. “Or, I would have if I'd known.”
Leslie stalked off without a word; he was out of earshot by the time Marjorie asked, “Known what?”
“For Pete's sake,” said Berna. She moved into Rowena's view. “Enough of all that,” she said. “Right?”
“Right,” Rowena said, reaching for her stapler.
“So,” said Berna, “what do you think I should bring?”
“I can't believe it,” Rowena told Sammy. “I've never done anything like that before.”
“First time for everything,” Sammy said.
“Darling, I doubt you're in very much trouble. Nobody does perfect work all the time. You're overdue.”
“I don't do perfect work. I just . . . don't do anything that stupid.”
“Rowena. You fixed it. It was a simple mistake, and you've fixed it.”
“After somebody else found it! If you'd done something like that—”
“They don't fire Leslie Campbell. And Eloise hates him.”
“I'm not afraid of getting fired. I just . . .”
“Relax,” Sammy said. He began gently rubbing the back of her neck. “Tell me what else happened today.”
She told him about the picnic announcement, although it seemed even more trivial now. “But that's all I heard for the rest of the day,” she said. “How much money we're gonna get, what kind of food should everybody bring, what kind of games there will be, and will we have to play them with Eloise.”
“What fun,” said Sammy. Rowena laughed.
“We've never done the games part before,” she said. “Either it's because they've never offered a cash bribe before, or because 20th anniversaries require that sort of thing.”
“I'll keep that in mind,” Sammy said. Rowena laughed again and squeezed his arm.
“So,” she said. “Wanna go? Even if you don't get a bonus?”
He smiled at her. “I'll go if you're going,” he said.
“You sure now?” It was her stupid company's picnic, and Sammy had been busy of late.
“As long as you're going,” he repeated, “it'll be worth it.” He kissed her hand, and she leaned up against him.
Sammy was not one of her mistakes.
Rowena loaded the cake into her car, setting it carefully onto the front passenger's seat. Willing as Sammy had been to go with her, Rowena, on the big day, had to go alone; Sammy had a project to finish for his boss.
“Shouldn't take too long,” Sammy had said. “I'll join you there when I can.”
“You sure?” Rowena had asked. She hadn't seen him for days.
“Absolutely,” Sammy had said. “I'll even bring food.” She had not asked him what he'd bring; everybody else had been driving her crazy with this issue ever since the picnic had been announced. Between Marjorie and Leslie in particular . . . And Eloise becoming more and more upset because half the employees hadn't filled in the sign-up sheet properly because they couldn't decide what to contribute . . . Rowena herself had signed up correctly; the sign-up sheet, at least, she had done correctly.
And at least once the picnic was over with she wouldn't have to hear Marjorie and the rest of them going on and on about the food and the bonus. She remembered a remark of Berna's: “Leslie, whatever they give you will be too much, unless it's a kick in the pants.” Rowena, still bothered by her error, had not been as amused as she ordinarily would have been. The mere mention of bonuses kept reminding her that she had done something wrong and Eloise had not yet punished her.
She arrived at the park and unpacked her cake, her blanket, and her sunhat. A sign hanging from a tree limb not far from her car announced RORSCHACH & SCHMED ANNUAL COMPANY PICNIC. There was a large arrow at the bottom of the sign pointing to the right; it had been scribbled over with a ball-point pen and a smaller arrow squeezed in above it, pointing left. Rowena considered this only briefly; she locked up her car, gathered her things, and headed left over the lawn. Across the lawn and over a hill—and there they were, her coworkers, spread out in colorful disarray. Just who I wanted to see, Rowena thought, and smiled to herself. She found herself remembering, not for the first time, that her first date with Sammy had been a picnic. Sammy. She took a breath and trudged over to her coworkers.
“What'd you bring?” asked Berna as she approached.
“‘What did I bring?’ No hello or anything?” Rowena set down her things. “I brought what I was supposed to bring.”
“Marjorie didn't. Her Mixed Seafood with Whatsit Sauce—”
“Hey!” Marjorie objected.
“—burned to a crisp and she ended up getting some potato salad from the deli.”
“Well,” Rowena said, “That's not too—”
“Whatsit sauce,” grumbled Marjorie. “I don't make fun of you.”
“It wouldn't be too bad, except that, well . . . You remember how much trouble everybody had trying to decide what to bring? And nobody was completing the food portion of the sign-up sheet, and everybody was going to decide at the last minute?”
“Berna,” said Rowena, “what are you trying to tell me?”
Berna made a slow sweeping motion with one arm. “I hope you like potato salad,” she said.
Rowena looked. Sure enough, nearly all of the bowls, trays, and pans on display contained potato salad.
“Lordy,” she said. She felt a sudden protective urge towards her cake.
“Mine's the best,” Marjorie said.
Rowena managed to capture one deviled egg and a slice of bread to go with her large serving of German-style potato salad and her even larger serving of “creamy” potato salad. The other non-potato offerings were pretty much decimated by the time she could get to them, except for the macaroni salad, which she felt she couldn't face. Eloise had brought, of all things, ambrosia; Rowena had lost her taste for this dish years ago but Leslie Campbell loaded up his plate—and made sure Eloise saw him do it.
“It won't do you any good, you know,” Berna told him, as Marjorie followed his example. “You've been in the doghouse so long, you answer to ‘Bowser.’”
“What? I do not!”
“Hey, here's Boris!” Sara scrambled over to him, and quite a few other people scrambled after her. Each newly-arrived employee was pounced upon with a mixture of hope and dread; but everyone continued to bring potato salad. And Boris, as Sara soon found out, was no exception.
“Oh, Boris,” she said.
“Boris!” Eloise wailed. “You signed up to bring a salad.”
“Whaddaya call this?” Boris asked. Eloise tapped her sheet.
“It says here, a green salad.”
Boris looked at his offering. “It's got parsley,” he said. “Or whatever that stuff is.” He looked back at Eloise, who stood her ground a moment, then wavered. She returned her attention a bit mournfully to her list. Rowena looked over at Sara, who was all but swooning at Boris' lack of concern. Boris, apparently not concerned with Sara either, put his potato salad with the others.
Leslie Campbell could, apparently, only think of one thing at a time; as soon as he was no longer hungry, he went back to pestering Rowena.
“Buzz off,” said Berna, helpfully.
“Leslie, really. I'm not interested,” Rowena said.
“Come on,” Leslie insisted. “What harm could it do?”
“You have got to be kidding,” said Rowena and Berna, in unison.
“Look,” said Leslie, “I—”
“Hey!” objected somebody. “I saw her first.” The voice was not Sammy's. Rowena turned around.
“Ferd! What are you doing here?” That Ferd of all people had somehow found her here . . . She remembered the time her mother, in a particularly unwelcome maneuver, had actually let him into her apartment in an effort to make Sammy jealous. But her mother didn't even know where the picnic was.
Ferd shifted, uncharacteristically uncomfortable. “What does it look like I'm doing?” he asked.
Rowena looked at the pointed stick in his hand, and at the large bag he trailed. “It looks,” she said, “like you're picking up trash in the park.”
Ferd nodded, glumly. “They caught me littering,” he said. “So now I gotta do this for a while.”
Somehow, Rowena was not surprised. “Well,” she said, “don't let me keep you from your work.”
“Rowena. I know this—this doesn't look glamorous, but I'm still the same guy I always was—”
“I know,” said Rowena. “Good-bye, Ferd.”
“Don't you hear the lady?” demanded Leslie. “Get lost.” Ferd glared at him and brandished his stick.
“This doesn't look glamorous,” he said, “but I'm still a used-car dealer really, and—”
“—And your mother likes me.”
“Ferd, that is really not a—”
“Who is this guy?” Berna whispered loudly. Rowena wished there were some way she could ignore all of them at once.
“Ferd,” she said, “and Leslie—”
“Leslie?” said Ferd. “That's a girl's name!” He tried to appeal to Rowena as Leslie tried to look threatening without risking the stick. “You need a man,” Ferd said. “A real man. Not some . . . some . . . not him.”
“What makes you think she needs you?” Berna asked.
“Yeah!” said Leslie—unwisely, Rowena thought, as the same could be (and often was) said of him.
Ferd raised his stick threateningly. Rowena took a deep breath, preparing to yell at one or both of them. But she saw Ferd freeze, and turn just a little pale.
“What is this?” Eloise snarled.
“Nu—nuth—I was just—I'm a friend of Rowena's and—”
“No, he isn't,” said Rowena quietly.
“You have two seconds,” said Eloise, “to remove yourself and that stick. One.”
“Yeah!” said Leslie Campbell.
“And you,” Eloise said, “have until I count three to join the men on the other side of the potato salad.” She took a deep breath, the better to say “Two.”
But Ferd and Leslie were already gone.
After everyone had had as much potato salad as he or she could handle, Eloise clapped her hands. “Attention!” she said. “I call this picnic to order!”
They stared at her. Eloise laughed. “Game time!” she said. “But first this announcement: Mr. Rorschach and Mr. Schmed are not here. They were not able to attend this year, but they send their best.”
Rowena had somehow forgotten about Mr. Rorschach and Mr. Schmed. Marjorie, however, had not. She let out a low moan. “And here my potato salad was so good,” she said. Berna snorted, but Eloise was not done talking.
“I know it's a great disappointment, and Mr. Schmed did have such fun a couple of years ago when he managed to join us here. He and Mr. Rorschach must be disappointed too.
“Now, back to the games. I need everybody to pair up into teams.”
“Rowena!” yelled Leslie Campbell.
“We're starting with the sack race,” Eloise began, “after which we do a three-legged race—”
Where was Sammy now she really needed him? “I'm teaming up with Berna,” Rowena said. She turned to Berna. “Right?”
“You gonna make sure I get a piece of that cake?”
“CAMPBELL!” bellowed Eloise. “If you can't play nicely, you'll have to go home. Without your bonus.”
Leslie grumbled a bit under his breath as Eloise outlined the game schedule: The usual collection of relays, wheelbarrow races, and so on. Rowena was not enthusiastic about all this, but it was hardly worth causing a scene. She waited patiently for Eloise to issue an order.
“Well, we didn't do too badly,” said Berna, eyeing her piece of cake with a satisfied air.
“Not too badly,” Rowena said, setting her own portion down in front of her. All she'd really wanted was not to come in last. That—and Sammy. Where was he?
“Good cake,” Molly said, seating herself with a smile.
“It's certainly a nice change from potato salad,” Berna said. “Though I wish we'd had something a little less rich at some point.” She cut a bite off with her fork and impaled it. “Do you suppose that suck-up Marjorie really threw the wheelbarrow race to Eloise and Sylvia?”
“I don't know,” Rowena said. “I was a little busy at the time.” She looked over at Sara, who seemed still angry at the defeat. She'd been angry enough at being paired with Marjorie instead of Boris, whom she was now regaling with a story about somebody whose IQ was “running a digit deficit”—evidently her way of impressing computer nerds. Although Boris, Rowena thought, did not look especially impressed.
“Go away, Leslie.” Rowena didn't even turn around. “After what you did during the three-legged race . . .”
“I didn't see you!”
“Yeah,” Berna said. “Right.”
“Go away!” Rowena yelled.
“Go away?” objected Sammy. “But I just got here.” Rowena whipped around, then scrambled to her feet; there was Sammy, standing just behind Leslie, holding a grocery bag and smiling at her. She scooted around Leslie and gave her boyfriend a hug.
“Geez,” Leslie muttered.
“Bye-bye, Leslie,” Berna said.
Rowena disengaged herself. “Glad you could make it,” she said.
“So'm I. I was beginning to wonder, for a while.” He set down his grocery bag.
“In case anybody's still hungry, I've got some stuff here I picked up—”
“Oh, no!” cried Berna. Sammy looked at her a moment, then knelt down, reached into the bag, and pulled out a whole cantaloupe. He set it down on Rowena's blanket and reached back into his bag to pull out four apples, three plums, and a plastic bowl filled with cherries.
“Hey!” somebody yelled. Berna, momentarily speechless, had picked up the cantaloupe and was holding it in both hands.
“But how do we get it open?” she asked.
“Ah,” said Sammy. “Here's the magic part.” He produced an elongate packet, which he unwrapped to reveal a serrated knife. “I bought the fruit last night,” he said. “So I had time to wash everything off and grab a knife out of the drawer.” He held out his hand for the cantaloupe, but Berna wanted to cut her own piece, and so he gave her the knife instead.
“Watch out! She's armed!” somebody said.
“Save some for me!” said somebody else. Berna ignored them both. As she cut her slice, Molly selected a plum and Rowena scooped up some cherries and another hand reached down and then Marjorie was nudging her out of the way.
“Would you like some fruit, Eloise?” Marjorie called sweetly, and popped a cherry into her mouth.
The awarding of the bonuses was a solemn event, at least theoretically. One by one, in order of seniority, employees' names were called and they trooped forward to receive a thin smile and an envelope from Eloise. Some of the smiles, Rowena noted, looked more strained than others. With each award Eloise made an announcement as to the number of years that employee had served; Molly, Rowena learned, had been with the company thirteen years. Thirteen years at Rorschach & Schmed.
At last it was her turn. She took her envelope, thanked Eloise, and went back to where Sammy waited for her. She thought that the smile Eloise had given her had not looked especially pained, although Eloise had always had a hard time looking actively pleased. Seated, Rowena turned the envelope in her hands; it was white, as crisp as Eloise herself, and had her name on it, in Eloise's familiar stiff hand. Whatever was inside was a secret; Eloise had warned them all not to discuss the amounts they received.
Marjorie accepted her own envelope, then came back to sit again near Rowena. “I'm rich!” she whispered loudly, fanning the air. She ripped noisily at the flap. Rowena turned away from her to watch the end of the ceremony. And then she applauded, and then she opened her envelope.
Inside was a flower-bedecked greeting card, in which Eloise had written, “Rowena—Thank you for all your hard work!” The card was signed by Eloise, and by Mr. Rorschach and Mr. Schmed. And it contained a twenty-dollar bill and a five.
Rowena closed up the card and replaced it in its envelope. She peeked over at Marjorie, who looked positively stricken. Rowena wasn't sure whether to feel sorry for her or whether to laugh. She turned to Sammy.
“I'll buy dinner,” she said.
Rowena shook out her blanket and folded it; the picnic was officially over. Marjorie was still grumbling, and, as usual, she chose to grumble at Rowena.
“Twenty bucks,” she said. “Twenty lousy bucks. I guess it's 'cause it's the twentieth anniversary, huh?”
“Could be,” Rowena said. She'd joined the firm only a month or two before Marjorie had, but she'd received twenty-five percent more. Who had decided she was worth twenty-five percent more?
“Twenty lousy bucks,” said Marjorie again. “And they didn't even write my name in the card or anything. It could have been for anybody.” Leslie Campbell, sensing discontent, drifted over despite Sammy's presence.
“Shit,” he said. “Of all the rotten tricks to play.” He glared at Rowena, then at Marjorie, and then at Rowena again. “Bonus, my ass. Three bucks! They call that a bonus?” He waved his envelope in the general direction of Eloise. “Barely even covers the cost of the soda! I feel sorry for those schlubs who got all that deli stuff.” He took a few steps away, the turned back to them again. “I hope she realizes I outsmarted everybody,” he said. “I knew what to do!” He turned again and stomped off.
“He only got three?” Marjorie said. She looked much more pleased. “I guess they like me after all.” She turned to Rowena. “Hey, how much did you get?” she asked.
“More than three,” Rowena said. “Beyond that, I'm sworn to secrecy.”
“Oh, that,” Marjorie said. “You can tell me.”
“Sorry,” Rowena said. “Consider it sucking up to Eloise.”
“Humph!” said Marjorie. “Sucking up. That's pathetic.” She gathered up her own things, happily superior.
“So I don't have a rich girlfriend?” Sammy asked, as they trudged back to the parking lot.
“Not in that sense,” Rowena said. She touched his shoulder; she had an arm free because he was helping her carry her things. The food they had brought was gone.
“Clever,” he said. “No wonder Eloise likes you.” He stood by as she opened her car door. “So,” he said, “how much would you have given Leslie Campbell?”
“Me? I wouldn't give him the time of day.”
He handed her the blanket. “Are you meaning to tell me that Eloise—or Mr. Schmed, or whoever—is a softie after all?”
“Well . . .”
He laughed. “Come on,” he said. “You can think about it on the way to dinner.” He touched her hair. “Where are you taking me?” he asked.
Rowena thought of a place, was about to tell him, but changed her mind. “It's a secret,” she said. “Follow me and don't ask any questions.”
He grinned at her. He seemed about to speak, but Rowena forestalled him with a kiss. “I'll follow you, all right,” he said. “I'll follow you anywhere.”
Rowena kissed him again, then got into her car. She gave him time to get to his car and start it, then pulled out of the parking lot and onto the street, Sammy following as promised.
Volume II: Rowena Gets Serious.
Book 6: Rowena Moves In.
About the Stories.
About the Author.
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