Short Story or More?

           The sun was slowly setting on this warm Texas Friday night. Watching the game, without really watching as the dry wind blew warm against her face, yet didn't blow away her worries. She was lost in her thoughts. She had just been laid off so her thoughts were about the kids, the mortgage and the dwindling bank account. Steven had walked out two years ago taking with him the truck, the microwave and the cat. She loved that cat and she was sure he only took it to spite her. He didn’t love that cat; he just didn’t want her to have it.
          The applause drew her attention back to the game just in time to see her son, Drew, round second and head to third. He slid expertly into to the base shooting up a cloud of red dust. Pride welled up in her, as she yelled for him and rose to her feet in time for him to see. He smiled shyly and looked to the dugout seeking out his coach. She knew he was happy to see her at the game. She had missed a few of them lately and knew that had upset him though he would never say so. He was very much like his father in that respect; unwilling to share their disappointments. His dad, whom she was sure Drew was disappointed in, never came to a game. She knew Drew needed her there and she was happy to reassure him that he did matter and that she cared about his interests.
          On the other hand, Stephanie, her 7 year old, seemed oblivious to the divorce and her dad’s absence. The only noticeable difference was that she had taken to painting differently. She had started painting when she was just four. She used to paint the prettiest pictures of farms and children with animals. She was taking art lessons when she was just 5 and now she painted almost daily. Since Steven left though, the only visible change in Stephanie’s behavior was the lone grey cloud that was in every painting now. Always that grey cloud. The counselor said it wasn’t anything to be too concerned about. “It will pass in time,” he said.  Still she worried.
          “Monica, are you ok?” the woman next to her asked. 
“Yeah, Paula,” Monica said with a sigh, “just a little tired, that’s all. It’s been a long week.” Paula had been her friend ever since her son, Peter, had joined Drew’s baseball team some four years ago. Now their little boys were in high school and playing on a select league team together. Paula had been there when Steven left. Paula knew almost everything about Monica and her little family. Today, though, she couldn’t tell her about being laid off.  She didn’t think she could handle the sentiments that come with this type of information. “Remember, when God closes a door, he always opens a window.” Nope, not that. She believed it, but didn’t feel like listening to it. She wanted to be upset, even a little angry.
     She didn’t find it at all fair that she lost her job and Rianna, who had only been there four months, got to keep hers.  Monica had been there ever since Stephanie was big enough for preschool. She had never missed work except when Stephanie had the flu. She had trained Rianna! Everything Rianna knew Monica had taught her. Monica was near tears with anger when the game came back to her again and she watched as Drew crossed the plate. The score was now six to five and Drew’s team was winning. Again, she yelled for him and the team, before turning to Paula and excusing herself to the restroom.
          On the way, she called the sitter to check on Stephanie. Seems she had eaten and fell asleep in front of Finding Nemo. This was no surprise since it was Field Day at school today and Stephanie had taken first in two races. After school, Stephanie was still a little hopped up on popsicles and Kool-Aid. A crash after all of that was to be expected. She smiled at the thought of her little one curled up on the couch. She asked the sitter, Pam, to leave her where she was so that she could carry her to bed when they got home from the game.
          When Monica got back to the game, Drew was on second with his glove this time. They were somehow up by three and only had one inning left. She focused on the rest of the game and when the coach released the team with a team shout and high-fives, she and Drew headed for home. Once there, she took Stephanie to bed, told Drew what a good game it was and then reminded him to finish up his homework and get to bed by eleven. She headed off to the shower to remove the stickiness of the night and then she, too, headed to bed with the newspaper. She scanned the Employment section and although there were a couple ads she felt confident in addressing, the rest seemed out of her league. She had worked as a receptionist at a dentist office. She knew a bit about billing and accounts payable, but not much. She felt so uncertain and afraid. Finally she laid the paper aside and turned off the light.
Sleep didn’t come. Nights were the hardest. She spent many sleepless nights worrying over the children’s safety. At first, every noise caused panic and made her reach for the gun Steven had convinced her to buy and take lessons to use. She really didn’t want a gun in the house, but those first few months without him there, it comforted her.  Nothing in the night was as bad as she imagined she realized after a few more months and now the gun was safely tucked in the top of the closet out of Stephanie’s reach and under the pajamas she was sure Drew would never touch. She stated sleeping then and then the dreams began; dreams of Steven, the kids and always a lone grey cloud. That cloud was Stephanie’s but it now represented something to Monica, as well. A grey cloud representing all the ugly in her life. It appeared in her dreams and it appeared that night.
          Monday morning found her at the unemployment office. She was once again resentful. As she waited, her thoughts turned to Rianna and the strife she must be feeling. Monica was sure the learning curve for Rianna was very steep because even thought Monica had taught her quite a lot, she had not taught her everything. That would have taken a year or more. Rianna wasn’t that quick. “Rianna could never do my job,” Monica thought and the thought of the office falling apart made her cringe and yet, smile, too. 
“We don’t usually see such beautiful smiles around here. Are you sure you are in the right office?” the man asked who had appeared.
“Um, I think so,” Monica said looking round quickly. “This is the unemployment office, right?” 
“Yes, ma’am, it is. I am Robert Fielding and I will be happy to help you Mrs.….?”
“Ms. Morris,” Monica replied.  “
“Well, Ms. Morris, shall we begin?” he asked.
          The next two hours flew by as they talked easily about her former job. He asked why she had been let go. He asked about her skill set, her aspirations, her frustrations and struggles. The honesty scared her but something about Mr. Fielding’s manner made her feel free to share. When they were done, he knew more than she had expected him to and she was surprisingly comfortable with that. She no longer felt worried about the next mortgage payment but worried instead she might not see Mr. Robert Fielding again. She suspected he was just the first in a long line of people to talk to and work with in order to confirm her story about the past job and her current needs.
          For the next two weeks, she applied to many places, but the economy was making it difficult. She really did try, though. She knew that there were hundreds out there looking for work and her skill set was rather limited. Corporate types were out there hunting, too. She felt her spear was too short and dull to strike the best job. She just kept praying something would come alone to keep the family safe. She had a couple of interviews and was beginning to feel hopeless. Then on Friday of that week, Mr. Fielding called.
            “Hello, Ms. Morris. This is Robert Fielding from the Unemployment office.”
            She sat up straight in her chair and said, “Oh, Mr. Fielding. I did make the deadline, didn’t I? I sent it via email. I thought you would have received it yesterday after I sent it.”
“Please call me Robert. Yes, I received your documentation and did meet the deadline. As a matter of fact, you have more applications and interviews than required. Any leads?”
“No. Not yet anyway, Robert.” She felt awkward saying his name, but also somehow comforted, too.
            She listened to him talk about a potential job he thought she was well qualified for that was in the same building as the unemployment office. He said she had the skills necessary. Before he was done, she thought he was flirting with her. She blushed, thanked him and promised to apply.
            Come Tuesday morning, she had ferried Stephanie to a play date and Drew to baseball practice, before driving to the unemployment office. Upon arrival, she asked the receptionist where the elevator was because Mr. Fielding had recommended she to to the accountant's office on the third floor. She was directed to the elevator and then down the hall to the right; third door on the left. Reaching the destination, she entered and told the receptionist she was there for an application.
            “Oh, you must be Ms. Morris,” the girl said brightly.
            “Well, yes, yes I am,” answered Monica, “how did you know?”
            “Mr. Fielding said to expect you. Said you were highly qualified. As a matter of fact, he said to expect you yesterday, but no worries. Today is fine. He will be so happy to see you.”
            Before Monica could protest or even reply, the receptionist had picked up the phone and was talking to Robert Fielding. Then she handed Monica the application and sent her over to the table in the corner to fill it out. She looked at the two page application and noted that the questions did not look too difficult. She was feeling relieved when Robert walked in. She had just finished the application and when she looked up, he was there smiling at her. She smiled back at him. He asked if she was doing ok and was there anything he could do for her. Monica replied that she doing fine and thanked him for the information about the potential job.
            “You are very welcome, Monica. It is ok, to call you Monica, isn’t it?” he asked.
            “Oh, please do, Robert,” she replied with emphasis on his name.
They both smiled. “Well are you ready to turn that in?” he asked pointing to the application.
“Yes, I think so. Oh and here is my resume,” she said handing him the pages and watching him give them to the receptionist. “Is there anything else?” he asked the woman.
            “Actually, there is the online personality test. It is a requirement for all applicants. It takes about 30 minutes on average and you have to take it here in the office,” said the receptionist as she pointed to the other corner were a computer workstation was set up.
            “Oh, right. I forgot all about that part,” Robert said with a frown on his face that made Monica pause.
            “Should I be worried,” she asked. “Do I need to study for it,” though she couldn’t imagine how you would study for a personality test.
            Robert looked intently at her for a moment, checked his watch and Monica began to feel uncomfortable until he said, “I wouldn’t take that test on an empty stomach. Have you eaten lunch yet?” Just as he asked, Monica’s stomach let out such a growl, she flinched. “I will take that as a No,” he said smirking. Monica smiled and nodded sheepishly. “May I please treat you to quick lunch before you tackle that test?” Monica was taken aback briefly, then noted his friendly smile and warmed to the idea. “Let me check on my kids and see if they are ok. It should be fine, but need to check in. “
“Certainly. Would you like to use my office so you can have a little privacy?”
            Assuring the receptionist that Monica would be back, she followed him down the hall to the elevator.
            When she had confirmed that both kids were well taken care of she allowed Robert to give her the lunch choices.
“Well, there is a little soup and salad place up the block that also serves quiche. There is pizza place; an old pub with great fish and chips. A Mexican place and a burger joint. What sounds good to you?”
            “Really? All those are within walking distance? I had no idea the square had so many choices and what variety!”
            “Well, you must not have been down here for awhile Maybe we should just walk till we get to the one we like.”
            Walking slowly at first, they talked quietly about the potential job. Passing the Mexican restaurant, they shrugged and continued up the block. Around the corner they came face to face with a clown. He was handing out balloons and when he saw Monica, he pulled a red paper rose from his sleeve and handed to Robert with a motion to have him give it to her. She blushed as Robert bowed low and handed her the rose. She feigned weak knees and they giggled.
            Continuing on, Monica spied what looked like the cheesiest sandwich she had ever seen. It caused her to slow and Robert to gently lead her by the elbow into the café.
            She ordered the grilled cheese she had seen with a side of fresh fruit. Robert got the tomato soup and a salad. They talked easily and Robert shared his experience with being unemployed and his own divorce. They listened to the jazz playing in the background between subjects in conversation. The whole meal was mellow and easy. The time seemed to crawl and before they knew it an hour had passed. At first she thought of the test ahead of her and then her children. For a moment she worried she would not have enough time for the test till she remembered that she had made arrangements for Drew and Stephanie till at least five o’clock.
            Robert and Monica walked back to his office where she thanked him for lunch and told him that she had a very nice time. Robert hesitated in replying, but when he did, it was a quiet question. “If you really did enjoy it, would you like to enjoy dinner with me again next Thursday evening?” Monica just stared at him while her stomach did a sudden flip. She wondered if she could go on a real date. Could she find a sitter? “Oh, God…..the kids! Are they ready for me to date?” she thought.
            “Robert, although it sounds nice, I need to think about it. Can I call you in the morning?
            “Well, at least that isn’t a ‘No’,” Robert thought. “Sure, that will be just fine. Do you need my number?” he asked holding out his business card.
            “Thank you, Robert. I really did have a nice time and I appreciate your patience. Now, I should probably get to that test.”
No scores were given after the test but she did get to keep a copy of her results. There was an entire analysis of her personality. She was fascinated to read what it said about her.  She had always thought herself shy and reserved, but this report said she was more outgoing and extroverted than she imagined. She fell asleep with Robert on her mind and the conversation she would have with the kids over breakfast.
            “Mom! That is so great! I am happy for you,” said Drew, jumping up and hugging her.
            “Well, that’s one vote,” Monica thought.
Stephanie just looked at Monica, shrugged and said, “It’s ok with me. Will Pam babysit?”
With that, Monica began planning for the next Thursday. The week just crept by.  The next day, the accountant's office called to ask her to come for an interview at eight am on Monday. She thanked him and began figuring out what to wear. She did some research on the accountant and even called back to his office to see what accounting software they used. She was relieved to find that they were using a program she knew very well. She calmed herself and worked on the family's weekend plans. Nothing too special; just a quiet weekend before all her excitement next week.
Monday came with little excitement and as she got Stephanie off to her art class and Drew to the library, Monica felt good going to her interview. It seemed as though she had some kind of insight into this office and its workings because from the time she got there till the time she left, she felt very at home. The accountant, Paul, was easy to speak with and he asked questions that she really did have intelligent answers for. She was so happy when she left. She felt sure she would get a second interview and maybe even land the job. Things were looking up.
Monica secured her best babysitter, worked out Drew’s ride from practice and had even gotten a haircut and pedicure. By Wednesday, she was feeling giddy and as she left work at 11:30am to go find a new dress, she was bouncing. Robert had told her that where they were going she shouldn’t get to dressy, but that she couldn’t wear jeans. “Anything in the middle should be just fine.”
          Now, she stood in the dress department, she was torn between a classic little black dress and a red shirt dress that accentuated her waist and minimized her least favorite part just below the waist. The clerk, who was a little too eager to make a big sale, encouraged her to get both.
“Not in the budget,” Monica told the teenager who she felt sure didn’t know the meaning of the word.
                   While walking to her car in the parking lot, the phone rang. Juggling her packages, she answered breathlessly, “Hello? Yes, this is Monica. Oh, yes. Oh, thank you. That will be just fine. I will see you then. Thank you again. Goodbye.” She had it. She got the job! No second interview. Laughing with joy she loaded up the car and headed home.
Thursday dawned bleak and rainy. She rose early and took care of making sure the house was cleaned up and ready for a guest. Robert had called the night before to get her address so he could pick her up. At first she hesitated because she wasn’t sure she wanted the kids to meet him. What if he didn’t turn out to be worth them knowing? What if they didn’t really hit it off? Would they be disappointed? Over breakfast she tested the waters with the kids.
“Would you be interested in meeting my date? I mean, would it be hard on you to meet someone I am going out with? I don’t want to make this hard on you. As a matter of fact, I won’t go if you don’t want me to.” Monica was almost physically backing up as she gave them the freedom to tell her to back out of the date. Both children just stared at her. Drew finally spoke, “Mom, this is good for you. Stephanie talked about it and we want you to be happy. You need to at least have friends to go out with.”
With that Monica felt better, so as the afternoon winded into evening, she showered, did her hair, applied a little make-up and finally dressed. When she felt ready, she stepped out into the living room. Drew was the first to speak.
“Mom, you look really great! He’s gonna like you.”
“Why, thank you, sweetie,” Monica replied and turned to Stephanie, who was staring at her. At first Monica thought her little girl looked troubled till Stephanie said, “Mommy, I want to look just like you when I grow up. You are beautiful like a princess.” Monica could feel the tears, so she grabbed Stephanie up and laughed as she said, “Don’t make me cry; I’ll ruin my make-up.” Grabbing Drew, too, they hugged till they heard Robert’s car pull up in the drive.
Before Monica could get to the door, Drew answered it. He had asked Robert into the living room. Drew sat on the edge of the couch just staring. Finally, Robert asked, “So, Drew, it is Drew, right?” Drew nodded. “I understand you are rather good ball player.” Drew brightened. “Folks at the office have kids that play, too, and when they heard your mom mention you, they said they knew you and what a great fielder you are.” Drew smiled brightly and replied, “I guess. So, where are you taking my mom tonight? She has tried on so many things trying to look good.”
“Hey! Don’t tell him that. Boys aren’t supposed to know things like that.” Stephanie said as she hit her brother’s back.
          Drew turned quickly to retaliate and as Stephanie was turning to run, Monica grabbed them both and said to Robert, “Well, Robert, meet my well-behaved, quiet, sweet children.”
“That is exactly how I would describe them,” Roberts said with a chuckle and a wink at the kids.
          Just then, the doorbell range and Pam was let in and instructed as to the children’s bedtime. Drew scowled, “Mom, it’s not a school night. Why so early?”
“Tournament tomorrow, sport, remember?
“Oh, yeah,” he sighed.
“Well, we had better go. Where are we going, by the way?” Monica queried.
“Yeah, where?” Drew asked, again.
“I tell you what. Since you are the man of the house, Drew, I will tell you,” Robert said conspiratorially. Drew smiled wickedly and motioned Robert toward the dining room. Stephanie quietly followed and when Robert noticed, he winked at her and held a finger to his lips. Turning so Drew wouldn’t be able to see Stephanie, Robert whispered, “We are going to downtown McKinney, then for a walk.”
“She will like that,” Drew said this as smile and Stephanie gave Robert the thumbs-up.
“Hey, what’s going on in there? Did you start a Monopoly game without me, Monica called to the other room?
“Coming mom,” Drew yelled and gave Robert a high-five on the way out to his mom.
“So, I guess you all know and you’re not gonna tell me,” Monica teasingly asked. Both kids just nodded and Stephanie added, “Mom, don’t forget your cape. It’s cold out there.” Monica hugged both kids and thanked Pam, and then they were off.
          He opened the door and it reminded Monica of her grandfather. She remembered him always opening the doors for her gammy and she wondered if Robert would pull her chair out for her, as well.  They chatted a bit on the way about the new job. As she talked about the office and her new boss, she was happy that although they were working in the same building, her office and Robert’s were on different floors.  She felt sure that if she worked close to his office, she would have been easily distracted. She found herself thinking of him more and more often  since he had asked her out. She did worry, though that he might change his mind. Ever since Steven had left and told her she wasn’t a good wife, she found it hard to believe anyone would ever lover her again. She worried that Robert would think the same and make her sorry she said yes and told her kids.
          When they had parked, Monica still didn’t have a clue. Robert did open her door and then they walked up the block. When they crossed the street, she grabbed his elbow and said, “Robert, we can’t go in there; that is too expensive.”
“Don’t worry about that. We are only having hamburgers,” he said.
Looking at him quizzically, she followed. Once in the door, she knew she had chosen perfectly her outfit. The black dress and her new auburn curls bouncing made her feel carefree and at home. Robert placed his hand in the small of her back as they followed the hostess to their table. She felt a chill up her spine and warmth in her stomach.
After he had ordered, letting her tell the waitress how well she wanted her burger done, he asked her what she thought of downtown. She admitted that until a week or so ago, she hadn’t been down in the area in at least a year. Also, she said, she had no idea how many people were here on a Thursday evening.
“Well, I cheated. This is the Art Walk Thursday. They have one every month,” he confessed.
“Oh, you cheat. I thought it was always this busy,” she replied poking him in the ribs. It felt so peaceful sitting here with him. At one point, she realized she had totally forgotten her burger till the waitress asked if she needed mustard or ketchup. She shook her head and laughed, “Sorry. No.”
            They ate in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the music coming from the bar area. She heard the musicians playing some Crosby, Stills and Young. She found herself, nodding and taping her foot to the song.  She looked up just in time to see Robert singing silently to himself. When he saw her looking at him, he blushed, but she mouthed, “Night Moves,” and made them both laugh. Robert smiled and asked her about her musical tastes. For the next forty minutes or so, Monica told him all about her favorite groups only to have Robert call out songs by that group. Then it became a game; seeing who could stump the other. Robert thought he was winning till Monica said, “Toby Mac.” Robert looked at her blankly. He furrowed his brow and after a few moments, he triumphantly said, “Freebird!” They laughed easily together.
When it was time for dessert, he suggested they move to the bar for a nightcap. Monica was so relaxed and comfortable by then; she couldn’t imagine the night ending. In the bar area, there was only a couple and a keyboardist.  The musician played quietly and the atmosphere became more intimate. Robert and Monica huddled in a loveseat that truly belonged in a man’s study. Leather and studded with gold buttons. They talked quietly. He asked little and she said even less. Enjoying their drinks and each other’s company, they whiled away another half hour. When the song turned even mellower, Robert took her hand and led her to the open space by the pool table. Placing his hand in the small of her back, he danced her silently around the table. As the music faded, he slowed and held her with his eyes.
“Best night of my life,” he whispered leaning over and kissed her gently.

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