|Rowena's Page, Rowena Gets Married.||Book 8, Part 9|
Rowena stood a moment with the new picture in her hand, regarding her desk at work. She nudged a photo of Sammy a couple of inches one way and her pen cup a few more inches another way, and squeezed the new addition in. She regarded the effect, and was adjusting the angle a bit when Berna walked up behind her. And stopped.
“What the heck is that?” Berna asked.
“It's a picture,” Rowena said, still regarding it a bit critically, “of our dog and our cat.”
“Your dog and your cat? What's that other thing?”
“It's a stuffed animal. A lemur.”
“A lemur?” Berna demanded. “You have a stuffed lemur? Who has a stuffed lemur?”
“I do,” Rowena replied. “You just said so.” Loretta Lemur had been a birthday present from Sammy, in honor of their having met at the zoo, and was consequently not to be mocked. But Rowena remained calm.
“You would,” Berna said. “If anybody would, it would be you.” She stood there, waiting, Rowena guessed, to be asked why Rowena was the one person who would have a stuffed lemur. Rowena did not ask. She had no idea why Berna would associate her with lemurs—she did not believe she had ever said anything to Berna about the zoo—but she did not ask.
“Noisy excitable quarrelsome things,” Berna went on, “with those crazy eyes they have. Only you,” she said significantly, “would get involved with things like that. Only you.”
Rowena did not reply.
By the time her lunchtime drew near she was rather pleased but not altogether surprised to find that apparently none of her other coworkers had noticed the new photo, and that Berna inexplicably seemed not to have told them about it. Things seemed surprisingly normal. In fact, better than normal.
“Hey,” demanded Leslie Campbell. “Have you seen Steve?”
“No,” said Rowena without looking up.
Rowena raised her head. “What do you want Berna for?” Usually he was afraid of Berna, and not without reason.
“Have you seen her?”
Leslie leaned cozily against her desk. “Good,” he said. “You wanna go to lunch?”
“Not with you.”
“Rowena!” His voice was almost a shriek. Rowena put her hands over her ears.
“Leslie, I am engaged. To be married. To somebody I—”
“Leslie, I am not interested. Go away.”
And then Berna was saying, “Leslie, dammit, I could hear you screeching clear on the other side of the floor. What is the matter with you?”
“—Hasn't lost her mind yet. Right? Leslie, get out of here. Go.”
And muttering under his breath, he went. Berna watched him, shaking her head.
“The guy has a one-track mind,” she said. “He's an animal. An animal.” And, still shaking her head, she left.
Rowena looked at the photo on her desk, at Caesar the cat, Linus the dog, and Loretta Lemur. Leslie's screech, rather lemurlike itself, still rang in her ears.
Marjorie, at the next desk, sat looking glum. Rowena didn't mean to watch her, but somehow she couldn't help noticing the way Marjorie stared this way and that, and finally at nothing off in the distance. Finally she opened her top drawer and pulled out a banana. “I had all these errands to do at lunch,” she said. “I didn't get anything to eat.” She peeled the banana as if doing so were a matter of great importance.
“Well,” Rowena said.
“A banana,” said Marjorie. Rowena picked up her report, resolutely. Marjorie said, “I have a banana.” Rowena coughed, a bit pointedly, and Marjorie finished peeling her banana and took a bite. “A banana,” Marjorie said again, with her mouth full.
Rowena closed her eyes. “Yes, Marjorie,” she said. “You have a banana. That's nice. You go ahead and eat your banana. I am going to try to get some work done.”
Marjorie was silent a moment. “I like bananas,” she said.
“Could explain why you brought one,” Rowena said. “I'm glad you like bananas, but I really think I've heard enough about it for now.” She found herself thinking that, tiresome as Marjorie was on the topic of her various soap operas, this business with the banana was not really an improvement.
Marjorie said, “One time on Search for Our Lives, Simeon and Portia had these bananas, and—”
“Excuse me,” said Rowena, rising quickly. It was like listening to the thoughts of a rather single-minded animal.
“I wish I had another banana,” said Marjorie, as her peel hit the wastebasket. “You don't have a banana, do you? Anyway, Portia and—”
But Rowena was making for the nearest cup of tea, and didn't hear the rest.
When Rowena got back she found Eloise waiting for her. “You were gone,” said Eloise, fixing her with an accusing stare.
“Yes, well, I felt I needed—”
“Never mind,” Eloise said. She lifted a folder from the pile on her arm and held it out. Rowena took it. “This is your top priority,” Eloise said. She went on staring, as if trying with sheer force to pound the importance of it all directly into Rowena's head. “Note the deadlines for the various sections, and do not exceed them.”
Rowena, somewhat alarmed, checked the deadlines and relaxed a bit. “I think I can handle that,” she said.
“See that you do,” said Eloise. She did not look at all reassured, but went right on staring. “Mr. Schmed is going to want to hear about your progress.”
Mr. Schmed. Rowena took a deepish breath. “Is there any particular sort of progress report he wants, or—”
“There's a note in the folder,” said Eloise; she sounded as though Rowena should have been aware of this already. She leaned a little closer, perhaps in an effort—entirely unnecessary—to intensify her stare. “We are counting on you,” she said, and left.
Rowena put the folder on her desk and sat down. She took another deep breath, and then a sip of tea. From the photograph before her, Loretta Lemur stared back with a gaze uncannily like the one Eloise had just used. Nobody seemed to have noticed the picture . . . aside of course from Berna. “Boy,” said Marjorie. “A special assignment for Mr. Schmed! Wow.” Rowena put her tea down and opened the folder. Marjorie said, “I don't suppose you brought me a cookie or something.”
“Sorry.” She should have, she thought. If they'd had any.
“A cookie,” Marjorie said, dreamily.
Rowena was reading her new project when she heard Sara's voice. “Rowena, you have to help me.”
Rowena sighed as quietly as she could. “Is it Boris again?” she asked.
“Yes, it's Boris. He won't—”
“Don't put up with that,” Marjorie said.
Sara whirled on her. “You haven't even heard what it is yet!”
“He won't pay any attention to you,” Marjorie said. “Right?”
Sara stared at her. “How did you know?”
“That's what you always complain about. Always.”
“Don't put up with it,” Marjorie advised. “You put up with stuff and they walk all over you. Just look at Fawn.”
“Will you cool it with the soap operas?” Sara yelled. “I have a real-life problem here, and all you can do is talk about soap operas.”
“You have some nerve,” Marjorie said. “Coming by with your stupid problems, which are really just the same problem over and over again, and it's all your own fault anyway for getting involved with Boris in the first place when you already knew what he was like.”
Sara stared at her. So did Rowena; the comment was remarkably astute, for Marjorie. “Then,” Marjorie continued, “you insult my soap operas like they're not worth watching, when really they're way more interesting than your stupid—”
“They are not! They're not real!”
“They're way more interesting, and they're—”
“They are not!”
“They are too!”
“Do you mind?” Rowena demanded.
“Sara!” said Rowena.
“Are too! And if you say one more thing you're toast. You are dead.”
“Dead, dead, and spread on bread. You are so toast.”
“They are not interesting! Not not not not not!” Sara yelled, and Marjorie leaped from her chair and around her desk, seizing Sara by the collar. “Hey!” Sara yelled, and grabbed a handful of Marjorie's hair.
“What is going on here?” thundered Eloise. The combatants fell silent and still. Very still. After just a moment they released each other.
“Sorry,” mumbled Sara. To Eloise, not Marjorie.
“She started it,” Marjorie said, sullenly.
“Quiet!” Eloise hissed. She glared at Marjorie, then at Sara, and then at Marjorie again. “What is the meaning of this?”
“Quiet!” said Eloise again. She turned her glare in Rowena's direction. “Do you know what this is all about?”
“Um, not really. Sara was complaining about a problem she had, and Marjorie I guess wasn't in the mood—”
“Was this a work-related problem?” Eloise asked.
“Uh, not really; no.” How would she describe it, if she wanted to? How would a biologist? As a territorial dispute? Something to do with mating or nesting?
“Then back to work with all three of you,” Eloise said. “Now. And no more of this squabbling.” And she drilled each of them with her eyes before pushing Sara and Marjorie more or less in the direction of their separate desks. They went, grudgingly. Eloise stayed where she was and watched them; Rowena returned to her project . . . under Loretta's mad but watchful gaze.
Rowena managed to work for a good forty-five minutes before she became aware of another crisis. Actually, she was first aware of a very strong smell of men's cologne. An extremely strong smell, in fact; Marjorie at the next desk began to cough pointedly and fan at the air. Rowena looked around to find Jim, a wet patch on his shirt, approaching from the other side of the increasingly-distressed Marjorie.
“Jim! What in the—”
He stopped by Marjorie's desk. “Quick! You got any of that perfume you wear?”
“What on earth do you need more perfume for?” Marjorie asked. In her early days at Rorschach & Schmed, Marjorie herself had worn too much inexpensive cologne until Eloise convinced her, in typical Eloise style, to go easy on the stuff. Jim sighed, exasperated.
“I don't need it for me; it's for somebody else. Do you have any?”
“Well . . .”
“Quick!” said Jim. “No time to lose! Hand it over!”
Marjorie did so, looking bewildered. Jim hefted it a moment—it was fairly large—then unscrewed the cap and looked at the top of the bottle. There was no atomizer and no roller ball; it was just an open bottle.
“Jim,” said Rowena. “What are you going—”
“Ha!” yelled Jim, but not in Rowena's direction. Rowena looked to see Leslie Campbell approaching, grinning to himself and trying to look nonchalant.
“‘Just an accident,’ huh?” demanded Jim. “Just happened to jog my elbow just when I happened to be getting ready for a hot lunch date?”
“Bad luck,” suggested Leslie. And then he noticed the bottle in Jim's hand. “Hey, wait a minute!”
“It wouldn't rinse out, either,” Jim said. “And now I'm wet. Wet-ter.”
“I said I—”
“Ha!” yelled Jim, and charged. Leslie shrieked and tried to run but was caught in a slashing arc of cologne. The air, already thick with whatever was on Jim, went instantly even thicker, and decidedly more cloying.
These were not, it turned out, very compatible odors.
“Aaaugh!” coughed Leslie.
“Hey!” yelped Marjorie.
“Ha!” yelled Jim, again, and then he coughed too.
“Hey!” yelled Marjorie. “That's my good perfume!” She increased the tempo of her waving.
“I'm gonna be sick!” said Leslie.
“Serves you right,” said Jim. He went to stand over Leslie and upended the bottle over his head. Whether there was even any cologne left to come out Rowena couldn't tell, but Leslie lunged up and grabbed at the bottle, apparently trying to shake any remaining contents over Jim. There was a scuffle.
“I knew it,” Marjorie moaned. “I knew I should have bought a spray bottle instead.”
“What is the meaning of this?” The voice sounded like Eloise's, except that Rowena had never heard Eloise sound strangled before. Rowena turned to see that Eloise looked rather strangled as well.
“He started it!”
“It was an accident!”
“Out!” Eloise roared, as best she could. “Out, both of you, and don't come back until you're properly cleaned up.”
“Out! Straight home, and no more monkey business.” They got up muttering, and slunk off, trailing clouds of scent. Though not enough scent, in a way; not only could Rowena still smell it but she could see spots and streaks of it on the floor. Eloise picked up Rowena's phone and summoned the custodians. “All your cleaning supplies,” she said. “And bring an electric fan, if you have one.” She hung up. Rowena contemplated a trip to the Ladies Room, a nice sturdy almost airtight door closed behind her. She also contemplated a documentary she and Sammy had once watched which showed male lemurs engaging in stink fights, using a special musk they produced.
Had Berna been talking about lemurs? About Rowena and lemurs?
“Sometimes,” she heard Eloise say in a voice that was almost a growl, “I think this place is a zoo. An absolute zoo.”
Rowena looked up at her. Out of the corner of her eye she saw movement; turning she found that rather than going straight home with no more monkey business, Leslie Campbell was chasing Steve, and not even towards the elevators. They dodged around a desk, leaped over a stepstool, and doubled back around a file cabinet. As Rowena watched, Steve noticed Eloise and came to such an abrupt halt that Leslie crashed into him. They both ended up on the floor.
“Campbell!” Eloise barked. She looked, if anything, fiercer than ever. Leslie, untangling himself from Steve and struggling to his feet, began to gibber something that might have been an excuse.
“An absolute zoo,” Eloise muttered, and marched off towards them.
“What a day,” Rowena said, trudging out of the building. The fallout from the cologne war was almost under control and guaranteed to be gone by morning. And it was finally, finally, time to go home.
“I heard some stories,” Berna said. “And of course smelled a few things. But other than that I didn't see anything out of the ordinary except that picture on your desk.”
Rowena looked around. No one else seemed to be in earshot. “Did you, ah, mention that to anybody?” she asked.
“What, tell everybody about your weird lemur thing? Would I do that?”
Rowena looked at her. Usually Berna liked a joke too well to play this sort of thing quite straight, but this time she didn't seem as amused as Rowena would expect, and she didn't seem to be hiding anything either. It hardly mattered, Rowena thought. Nothing she had seen or heard that day had been entirely out of character for any of the various culprits. And it seemed a bit much, a Pester Rowena By Acting Like A Lemur conspiracy involving so many people. Including Leslie, whom Berna couldn't stand. And Eloise! Eloise would never join in, even if anybody did invite her, which nobody would.
“Way too silly to spread around,” Berna was saying. “Besides, they'll notice eventually.”
They probably will, Rowena thought, because she was leaving the picture where it was. No matter how anybody else reacted.
Berna was shaking her head. “Only you,” she said, “would get involved with something that silly. Only you.”
Only me, Rowena thought, and the entire rest of the office. One way or another.
“See you tomorrow, Berna,” was all she said.
And she got into her car and went home.
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