|Rowena's Page, Rowena Gets Serious.||Rowena Gets A Surprise, Part 4|
Rowena spread her papers over the kitchen table. The Culex Project. She would hardly be able to do the entire project before work, of course, but any bit she could do . . . Any work she could do at home she wouldn't have to do with one Mr. Leslie Campbell, the biggest pest in the company.
Why on Earth did she have to do this project with Leslie? She didn't mind having Berna on her little team. But Leslie? He didn't even have any skills to compensate for all the pestering. She frowned, tapping her pencil on the sheet she was reading.
“Okay,” Sammy said, coming up behind her; he kissed the top of her head before she managed to turn around. “I'm off. Good luck with your project.”
“You, too.” Sammy's project was an especially important legal case, whereas hers was merely annoying. She scrambled up out of her chair to give him a hug; he set his briefcase down for just a moment.
“Knock 'em dead,” Rowena told him. “But legally.” Sammy laughed and gave her an extra squeeze.
“Good thing you added that last part,” he said. He picked up his briefcase, and Rowena went with him to the door. “See you tonight,” he said. “I shouldn't be too late.”
He gave her a kiss and was gone.
Rowena closed the door behind him, locked it, and went back to her project. She worked for several minutes, then suddenly froze, listening. She ran to the hallway. Sure enough, it was loud and clear and coming from the bedroom: The sound of a cat throwing up.
On, as it happened, the bed. Specifically, on the comforter.
“Oh, Caesar!” He finished what he was doing, and sat down. Rowena stared at the mess; not a little hairball but a fat trail of actual vomit. “Caesar,” Rowena said again. He looked at her, then slipped onto the floor and trotted over to her. Rowena sighed; it seemed she and Sammy hadn't been the only ones upset. “Are you okay?” she asked. He rubbed against her and she did her best to be reassuring, just in case he wanted to be reassured. She got some paper towels and lifted off as much of the mess as she could, chased off and finally locked out an inquisitive, tail-wagging Linus, then tried the enzyme product she and Sammy used, letting it soak as she took her shower. And then she came out, sponged it up as best she could, sighed, looked at the clock, and then back at the remaining stain.
“Oh, Caesar,” she said. “You cat.” She didn't want to spend the morning at the Laundromat, but she couldn't let Sammy come home to a mess like this, especially after such a long hard day, such a complex and important case. Up late last night working on it, then up extra early to present it to his boss . . . She had tried to give him a pleasant morning, had put off her own work until after their breakfast, and now—he could not come home to a mess like this. Especially a mess on his—their—bed. It had to be washed out, and it had to be washed in a large front-loading machine.
At least she could get some work done as the comforter swished and tumbled and was made nice again. Even with the inconvenience it should still be preferable to doing nothing; she never could stand to just hang listlessly around in the Laundromat. She looked at the clock once more, sighed once more, and gathered the comforter up.
The Laundromat was fairly busy when Rowena arrived. She stuffed the comforter into one of the large washers, measured out her soap . . . She would have to buy some quarters; the lighted display on the washer demanded several dollars' worth. She hoped the change machine was working. She went to it, fed in a dollar, and four quarters pelted into the dispensing tray. Rowena sighed with relief, tried another dollar, then another. She took her change back to her washer and gave it coin after coin until it was satisfied. And a minute later she was able to stand back and watch the comforter sloshing around and around in sudsy water.
Which was a good start, but not all that diverting. Anyway, she had work to do. Work to do and a Leslie Campbell to avoid. Rowena put her laundry basket onto the one unoccupied bench to save herself a place, then went back to her car for her folders and organizer. When she returned she found her basket on the floor and a rather large man sprawled in its place.
He did not have any work with him.
Rowena looked at him, then around the Laundromat. The other benches were all still occupied; she would have to stand. She picked up her basket and set it on the nearest table, then spread her papers out next to it. First she needed the one with—there it was. She picked it up.
“Excuse me,” somebody said. Rowena turned. A woman with a worried expression was all but clutching at her sleeve.
“Yes?” Rowena said.
“I think the change machine is broken. Who do I tell?”
Rowena looked at her. The woman had thin, wispy brown hair and a distracted air; she was dressed neatly enough but seemed disheveled all the same. “It was working a minute ago,” Rowena said.
“It won't work for me. Could you tell the manager for me, please?”
Rowena came very near to saying, “Why me?” Instead she took the woman back to the machine.
“See?” the woman said, feeding in her bill. It was promptly rejected.
“You've got it upside down,” Rowena said. “It has to be face-up, like in the picture.” She pointed out the illustration just below the feed slot.
“Upside down?” The woman stared at the diagram, then at the bill in her hand. She turned the bill over, stared at it again, then turned it the first way and stared some more. She looked at the illustration.
“See?” asked Rowena helpfully.
“What difference does it make? How can that make any difference?”
“Well,” Rowena said, “if it didn't make any difference, they wouldn't bother to tell—”
“I don't think it's working,” the woman insisted.
Rowena considered snatching the bill away and doing it herself. Instead she just repeated, “Face up, like in the picture.”
The woman poked the bill in face up, with an air of intending only to humor Rowena and possibly make a point. The machine sucked the bill in and, after a pause, dispensed four quarters.
“There you go,” Rowena said. She turned to leave.
“How strange,” the woman said. “How strange.”
Rowena left before either of them had to come up with anything else to say. From her table she could just see her comforter tumbling clockwise; as she watched it reversed itself and began spiraling counterclockwise. She checked the benches; none of them were free. If Caesar hadn't—she turned to her papers; where was the one she needed? Ah, yes. She picked it up and—
“Excuse me?” She was back. “Could you show me how to use the washing machine?”
Rowena closed her eyes. “What kind of help do you need?”
“Which way should the coins face?”
Rowena took a deep breath. “Either way. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter in the least.”
“Are you sure? Because the change machine—”
“This is different. As far as I know, all the washers and dryers care about is whether the coin is the right size.”
“Oh. Well, I only have nine quarters, and I would hate to lose any of them in the machine.”
“You wouldn't lose them anyway. If the machine doesn't like a coin, it just won't take it.”
“Well, that wouldn't do me any good,” the woman said. “That would be just as bad as far as my laundry—”
“The washers and dryers don't care which direction the coins are facing,” Rowena said. “I am sure. I am positive. I have never had any—”
“Could you do it for me?”
If Rowena did as she asked, she might be left alone for a few minutes. She would also have time, as she walked over to the woman's washer, to count to ten, a thing she felt she really needed to do. She went over, put the quarters into their slots, and started the machine . . . as soon as she'd helped to properly load and distribute the laundry and add the soap.
“And you're sure this'll work?” the woman asked.
It worked. Rowena left the woman standing and staring at the machine, and went back to her project . . . If it could be called “going back” when she hadn't actually managed to do anything with it yet, Rowena thought. If only that cat . . .
She picked up—now, where was her pen? Rowena patted her various piles of paper, checked the floor, and finally located the pen in her pocket.
“Excuse me?” Now what? “How long does it take?”
“About the usual amount of time,” Rowena said.
“And so that's, um . . .”
“Haven't you ever done laundry before?” demanded a well-dressed woman who had evidently been standing behind Rowena.
The woman she'd been helping bristled. “I just thought I'd make sure—”
“Why, my washer at home has about a million dials and knobs and controls and things on it—it's one of these new high-tech models, you know, very advanced and expensive and everything, and—”
“But it's broken, right? Just like my cheap one at home.”
Her antagonist smiled. “I'm sure it isn't just like your cheap one. Why—”
The first woman turned to Rowena. “What about you?” she asked, clearly hoping for some support.
“I live in an apartment,” Rowena said. “I don't have my own washing machine.”
They both looked at her. “I don't see how you can stand that.” The first woman seemed to have switched sides.
“You don't have your own washer?” said the other. “Do you have to come here every time you need to—”
“We have a laundry room,” Rowena said. “It works just fine. I am here because I'm washing a comforter and need to use a triple-loader.”
“Why don't you just have it dry-cleaned?” asked the woman with the high-tech washer. “I have a satin—”
“A triple-loader? What's that?”
“The big front-loading thing,” Rowena said. “I'm sorry, but I've got a lot of work to do, so if you could just—”
“Well, you don't have to be rude,” the cheap-washer woman said, and stalked off. Rowena stared after her. She wasn't sure whether to be annoyed or relieved. She glanced at her washer; according to the dial, she still had plenty of time to wait. She went back to work.
“Excuse me.” Only one of the women had left.
“I was just wondering—you seem to know what you're doing—could you help me?”
“This is kind of embarrassing, but I've never had to do this before. You see, my washer is broken, it won't do anything at all, just sits there. It came with the house, but the house is new—it's about two years old now—and you'd think that for all I paid for that house, and I'm talking a six-bedroom house with a formal dining room and—”
“Very nice,” Rowena said. “Now—”
“You'd think a washer would last more than two years, wouldn't you?”
Rowena trudged to the nearest empty washing machine and, with a minimum amount of speech, showed the woman how to work it—with a minimum amount of speech from Rowena, at least. Where, she wondered as the woman went on and on, did these people come from? None of her friends ever reported being pestered in Laundromats. Maybe she should go to Terese's Laundromat next time. Preferably with Terese along to scare away any pests she might attract. Next time, she resolved, Caesar would have to throw up on a weekend when Terese was free. She sighed. That cat.
The washer started, she returned to check on her machine, then went back to her papers. She felt much less optimistic about them than she had before; she was certain she hadn't seen the last of Ms. Six-Bedroom Mansion. And after it was all over and the comforter was (she hoped) clean and dry: A day working with Leslie Campbell.
Rowena closed her eyes and sighed. She reminded herself that she only had to actually work with Leslie through the project's first stage. She did her best to concentrate on her work; on her work and, at brief intervals, on her laundry. She remembered Sammy, grinning at her and saying, “Don't worry; Berna will protect you.” Rowena would have preferred not to have Leslie there at all, but at least she wouldn't be alone with him. And at the end of the day it was Sammy she would come home to . . . It wasn't long before the machine started to wind down and stop. She pulled the comforter out and looked over both sides of it; no stain. At least that had gone as planned.
As soon as she had the clean-but-wet comforter bundled into the dryer, she dug her cell phone from her purse. She expected the comforter to take a long time to dry, especially on the required Low setting; she would probably be late for work. She called Eloise's number and left a message on the machine. A few minutes after her work day was supposed to have begun and she'd checked the comforter and found it still damp, she called Berna.
“I'm going to be late,” she said. “I'll get in as soon as I can, but—”
“What's the problem? You have a nightmare about Leslie?”
Rowena could just hear an indignant “Hey!” in the background. “Not exactly,” she said. “If you must know, the cat threw up on the comforter, and I'm trying to get it clean before Sammy comes home.” She wondered what Berna made of this. “You don't have to tell Eloise that,” she said. “Just—”
“So the cat had a nightmare about Leslie. Tell it to join the club. Do—”
“I never met her stupid cat!”
“Leslie,” said Berna, “shut up.” And to Rowena, “You are coming in, though?”
“Yeah, I'll be there.”
“Okay; I'll hold down the fort. Leslie, leave that alone. Rowena, I'll see you when you get here.”
They said goodbye, and Rowena hung up the phone. And then she turned to find waiting at her elbow someone almost—almost—as unwelcome as Leslie Campbell.
“Your cat threw up on the bed?” the mansion woman asked. “That's disgusting. I'd never have a pet; too messy. Hairs and—
Rowena had had enough. “And love,” she said. “And playfulness and—and humor and—”
“But look at you. Stuck in a Laundromat at—what time is it, anyway? I left my watch at home; I wouldn't come to a place like this with an expensive—”
“Why didn't you just have the maid come here for you?” Rowena asked. She tried not to sound quite as testy as she felt. Not quite. “It's no disgrace to go to a Laundromat. Why do you have to be going on and on about how big your house is and how—”
“I just needed a little help with the machines because—”
“Well, I gave you about all the help I can. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to get back to my work.” She turned and with great dignity picked up her pen.
“You brought stuff from work! You need to learn to relax. All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl.” Not that she was all that fascinating, Rowena thought. She said nothing. “It seems to make her rude, too,” the woman said. Rowena did not reply. After a moment she saw the mansion woman drift off to, apparently, mind her own business at last. Rowena took a deep breath. The woman was welcome to her house; she was welcome to her lack of pets. Rowena was perfectly—
“Man, you sure told her,” said another voice; that of a complete stranger. “You know, I thought Laundromats were boring!” He seemed to have much more to say, but was interrupted by the ringing of Rowena's phone. Rowena excused herself to answer it.
“Rowena, hi, it's Berna. Listen, do you have the Bactri—Leslie, knock it off, I mean it—Do you have—Leslie!”
“I'm sure I—”
“Let me talk to her,” Leslie whined.
“This is a business call, ” Berna said. “I won't be responsible for your committing sexual harassment on company time using the company—”
“I'm not asking you to be responsible.”
“I know. I'm already way more responsible than you'd ever want me to be. Rowena—”
“Let me go check,” Rowena said. She put the phone down quickly, before Leslie had a chance to say anything. She found the relevant document as bickering voices buzzed into the air. She said hello a bit nervously, but it was Berna who still had control of the line. Rowena breathed a sigh of relief. She almost forgot, just for a moment, that soon she'd have to go join them—to join Berna, and Leslie as well.
She left the Laundromat as soon as her comforter was dry. She took it home and spread it over the bed. Good as new. “Now be nice to it,” she told Caesar, who sat watching impassively. “No more barfing on the bed for at least a couple of weeks. Got that?” She scratched him behind the ears and went to the phone.
“Hi, Berna, this is Rowena. I'm about to leave now, so I'll be there shortly.” She looked at the clock as she spoke; the traffic from the Laundromat just now hadn't been too bad, but—
“Very good. Listen, I've got some great news for you. Leslie's out the rest of the day doing research, so you'll only have me to contend with.”
“What? Berna, that's wonderful! However did you manage that?”
“I told Eloise you might be gone all day and, since you had all the paperwork . . . Well, frankly, it was an excuse.” Rowena could picture Berna's grin. “Come in when you can,” she said. “We're doing OSHA one better; we've got a nice Campbell-free environment for you. Your workplace has never been safer.”
“Thanks, Berna. Really.” Rowena put the phone down with a little flourish. Her entire day had suddenly changed. “No Leslie Campbell!” she said aloud. Linus trotted into the room and jumped onto the bed, to be closer to hand level. Rowena scooped him up and gave him a hug. Her pets, the clean comforter, Sammy all evening and night and, in the meantime, an entire day without Leslie Campbell. She put Linus on the floor and went to give Caesar his due. “Well,” she said, “it seems I owe you an apology.” He pressed against her hand, purring, not at all surprised.
“Good cat,” Rowena said. “Good cat.”
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