Her hood was dripping rain from the cold driving weather when she walked to the door of Mark's office and rapped on the door jamb. "Margaret?" she said, humbly and hopefully.
Margaret Wills straightened up from her crouched position before the bottom drawer of a black filing cabinet. "Emily? Oh, my God, what are you doing out in this horrible weather?" Margaret reached for Emily's coat to hang in a corner by a plugged-in heater.
He allows space heaters in his office, but not at home? Emily's anger began to rise once more as she looked at the glowing culprit.
Margaret touched her arm. "Emily, don't tell your husband I brought in the space-heater, please? It gets so cold in here it isn't even funny and I know he hates them, but I thought that while he was out of town -- "
"Don't worry about it, Margaret," Emily said in relief. "This weather is too awful."
"Thanks, Emily. I'm not trying to be a bad employee, I was just so cold ... What's up, Mrs. Doctor? Did you need something? You look great, by the way, I haven't seen you since last summer's barbecue."
"Well, thank you! It's about Mark and his trip to Michigan."
Margaret's eyes became as round as billiard balls, and they flickered with fear. Emily could imagine Mark saying, "Don't trouble to tell my little wife about this, got that?" Emily hastened to put poor Margaret at ease.
"He's there safely, but he called to say that he can't find the packet of papers he was supposed to take with him to Western Michigan. Now, I know he packed them in his carry-on, but he's at his parents' place and panicking because he can't find them." Emily waited for her next cue, watching Margaret's reactions. Did she know about a place called Western Michigan State? Or would she just assume that "Western Michigan" was an ambiguous area in a cold climate?
"Oh, no, you mean his resume and all that?" Margaret was aghast.
So you are in on it. "Yep, all that. God knows his mother just put it all away with his underwear and he hasn't thought to look in the drawers of his dresser, but he's in a panic and wants me to get everything faxed tonight."
"Oh, poops," said Margaret, looking at her watch. "I was due to get out of here in about ten minutes. Come on, let's see what we can find."
That's why I got here so late. So that you can hurry and panic and not think about what's happening. Emily had planned her arrival for the last few minutes of office-time, when she knew that Margaret would be hustling to shut down all the workings of the department in the boss' absence.
Margaret fished in the drawer of her desk for a set of keys, and opened the door to Mark's private office. He had a door that could open directly on the hallway so that students could visit him for counseling or course card initialing or advice on assignments, but he always kept that door closed, except of course, when the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts was prowling about, which wasn't often, and secretary of the Psychology Department downstairs was always willing to sound an alert to the other floors of the building. Yes, Margaret His Honor's secretary has the keys to his office, but His Honor's wife does not have keys to his den. How telling.
"What all does he need?" Margaret asked, pulling open the desk's filing drawer. "They already have his resume! He took a copy of his doctoral thesis with him, is that what he's lost?"
"I don't know," Emily said, rolling her eyes at the ceiling so that Margaret could not read any expression into them other than that of the gesture. "He just kept saying, 'the packet.' He had it in a large envelope."
"Oh!" Margaret said. "Got it, he's got a file with all that stuff in it." She stopped and stood up after opening a desk drawer with another key. "Did he want me to fax it from here? Tonight?"
Emily was no secret agent, but it didn't take a genius to figure out that Margaret was not enthusiastic about faxing through a bunch of papers at the end of the day, and then waiting around to make sure they all went through properly. "No, we do have a fax machine at home," Emily lied, "but it's a secret, he never wants anyone here to know about it. I can send them all off tonight."
"Thank God," Margaret muttered. She pulled a file from the drawer and headed for the copy machine in the outer room. "Let me copy it for you."
"It's a shame, isn't it?" Emily asked, pretending to look for something in her purse.
"Yes, it is, a real tragedy," Margaret said, "I still can't believe it."
Believe what? Can I get you to explain more? "It's unbelievable. Like something surreal."
"I just can't believe someone would go so far," Margaret rambled, as she fed documents into the copier. "To be so vindictive."
Vindictive? Are we talking about some kind of retaliation? Against who? Against what? "I just can't understand what there is to be so vindictive about."
"Oh," Margaret said, "some of these people will just use any excuse. Just because that girl was a friend of Dr. Ambris, everyone who is anyone jumped on the bandwagon and screamed discrimination and sexual harassment and bloody murder."
Emily stopped lifting things on Margaret's desk. What girl? She was worried and distraught and grieving over her husband getting ready to run off with someone and dump her -- and that wasn't the issue at all? What's the next question? I have to maintain the appearance that I know what has been going on. "Isn't that the popular thing to do these days, though?" She sighed theatrically.
"Oh, it sure is, especially when there's money involved. It's ridiculous how people suck up to Dr. Ambris just because she's so rich. And she's the worst one of all, using her money to throw her weight around. All he did was tell that girl to get the class assignments from another student. Well, and then he didn't want to stop his meeting with his grad student group to sign something for her, but he's a busy man, I don't see why they made a stink over it." Margaret scooped up the small stack of copies and the contents of the file from Mark's desk. "It certainly wasn't worth firing him over."
Emily's lower jaw sagged in astonishment. He was FIRED? She was still gaping in shock when Margaret turned around, holding out the papers. Emily took them from her. "Margaret," she said, now that she had the goods in her trembling hands, "Mark was fired?"
Margaret looked shocked in turn. "He didn't tell you? I thought you knew! Oh, my God!"
"I knew he was pursuing employment in Michigan, but he didn't tell me he was fired!"
"I'm so sorry," Margaret whispered, her face pale. "I'm so sorry."
Emily pulled out the desk chair. "Sit down. You look like you're going to pass out." As the secretary sat down, one hand over her mouth in horror, Emily pulled up a guest chair. "You don't have anything to be sorry about, don't worry. You know how men are, proud and macho and never wanting to look like they failed at anything. Probably he was just going to tell me he wanted a change of pace or something, or maybe was going to tell me after he got the job at Western Michigan, so I wouldn't fret about finances or some such."
Margaret dabbed at her eyes with a cotton hanky she pulled from the sleeve of her cardigan sweater. "He's going to think I'm a complete idiot and fire me for being such a blabbermouth."
"Not if neither one of us mention that I was ever here. I got the papers he needed, that's all that matters. Now you can just forget that I was ever here today, how about that? I'll let him tell me about it in his own way and his own time." She stood up again. "But I do have one last question. He's been receiving his salary as usual -- when does his job end here, or did it already?"
The secretary blew her nose with a honk. "He's good through the end of the term. Doctor has a lot of accrued vacation, too. Do you think he'll get the job at Western Michigan?"
"Yes, he's been very optimistic lately, so I think he will. Thanks for your help, Margaret, and don't worry." She turned to leave.
"Good luck, Emily, and thank you, too. You're such a wonderful wife for him, so patient and kind."
Emily smiled. Sure I am.
As she left the building, she folded the papers in half and stuffed them in her purse to shelter them from the frigid rain. The downpour had stopped, but the wind had picked up and the drizzle was so cold that by the time Emily opened her car, her nose hurt. She turned the key in the ignition, and the outside temperature display read twenty-eight degrees. I wonder if my fire went completely out in the fireplace. She fastened her seatbelt and put her purse on the passenger seat. Mission accomplished. What was my mission? Oh, right, to find out what he's up to. To find out if he was running off with a tootsie. She pulled out of the parking lot and turned right, going slowly on the road between the campus buildings, watching for students on foot or on bicycles. Except I still can't rule that out, can I? I do know for sure now that he is trying to get a job in Michigan. But it sounds like he's on the run, not on the make. She stopped at a crosswalk, and turned right again to get on the road back to town. My husband, the head of the Anthropology Department, was fired. Well, is being let go, that sounds nicer. They didn't kick him out on his ass, he's just being shown the door. What the hell did he do?
Emily looked in the rear view mirror, saw only darkness. Why hadn't she brought Spoon with her? She could be talking about this with a friend instead of stewing in the dark, in the silence. Discrimination, Margaret had said. Sexual harassment. What did he say? You don't get fired for not having time for a student appointment.
Maybe he told one of the students she was "fucking stupid."
The road ran in curves along the side of the hill, and it was as dark as any winter night could be, with just enough misty rain to make her run the windshield wipers intermittently. Some of the rainwater puddled oddly, and Emily realized the rain was starting to freeze. Great. Freezing rain, that always means a power outage. I guess I'll be up all night, keeping the fireplace going. She switched on the high beams, saw the mist swirling in their light.
I can't wait to get home. I can't believe that I've reached fifty-three years of age and have to make all these shitful discoveries. My husband has a picture of another woman tucked away in his office. He keeps a stash of condoms under his mattress. He got fired from his job and wasn't going to bother to tell me? He's just going to take a new job somewhere else and say, "Hey, Emily, you're going out on the trash heap, don't bother to pack" or maybe, if I'm lucky, "Hey, Emily, guess what? We're moving to the wilds of Michigan and you can just shut up and tag along like a good little wifey-poo!"
The trees sparkled a little in her high beam headlights, but she wasn't interested in appreciating the beauty. If I'm lucky. Was she lucky if she was asked to tag along? No, wait, told to tag along, that was what it would be. Emily would buy a down jacket and thick winter wooly boots and a four-wheel-drive SUV and learn to enjoy a hot humid three-month summer laden with mosquitoes and gnats and the company of her in-laws, strutting about the Battle Creek Country Club while her husband played golf with his father and with the new principal players of the new university. Was this all about him shooting off his mouth to someone and being all too willing to share the consequences with his little obedient doormat wife who wasn't worthy of knowing what the hell was going on?
A jackrabbit sailed across the road at the edge of her headlights. Stupid rabbit. Good thing you were so far away. Thirty feet ahead of her a coyote leaped onto the roadway, and then hesitated, confused. Emily slammed her foot onto the brakes and sounded the car's horn. The coyote shied away into the brush just as the car began to slide sideways into the oncoming lane. Emily pulled at the steering wheel, and the car fishtailed into the other direction so hard that it spun around. I can't have been driving that fast! Nevertheless, the last glimpse she had of the console had put the speedometer reading at fifty. Fifty! I'm a fool! She pulled at the steering wheel again, and the car stopped its spin, but continued sliding toward the right edge of the road, sideways. Emily felt the rear wheels leave the paved road and touch the muddy, sloped shoulder. "Shit!" she shouted and looked over her shoulder to see what she was sliding into. The car slowed, but the angle of her seat was changing, and she was being pulled back and down, her eyes darting and staring, wondering if she was about to slide backwards into some deep forest ravine.
A thud jarred her from spine to eyeballs as the rear of the car hit the bottom of a deep drainage ditch. Her foot slipped from the brake and she could feel the back wheels trying to take hold in the mud. In a moment of near-insanity, she pressed the accelerator and heard the wheels spray muck and pebbles against the underside of the back bumper.
She took her foot from the gas pedal, and shifted the drive lever to "Park." Emily was dazed, and did not want to try to move. She looked up at the heavy mist churning in the light of her headlights and pawed feebly at the door. Am I going to blow up? That would solve a lot of my problems.
I can move. I should call 9-1-1. I don't have my phone, it's still sitting on the kitchen table. "Dammit!" she screamed. "Dammit, dammit, dammit!" She pushed on the handle of the door, but when she opened it, she couldn't see the ground outside the car, and the weight of the door shoved her back. I've got to focus. Undo the seat belt. She felt at her side and clicked the restraint free.
Her next impulse was to take the keys from the ignition, but the resultant impenetrable darkness along the hill road was unbearable. She literally could not see her hand in front of her face, or the ground beside the car, or a sky. She felt a wave of vertigo, the seat of the car confusing itself with the sky. She turned the key to "Accessories" and saw the headlights shoot into the hazy, misty sky.
Headlights appeared at the top of the last hill she had traversed. The vehicle slowed and pulled to the side of the road. Thank God.
A figure leaped out of the driver's seat and ran to the side of the road. The slim figure in a light-colored suit slid down the side of the ditch and wrenched at the door of Emily's car. "Are you all right? Talk to me, talk to me!"
"I'm all right, I think. A coyote ran in front of my car! The road was slippery --"
"Leave the keys in the ignition, okay? it'll give us light. Come on, I'll help you, you can't stay in there." Strong hands caught Emily as she stepped out of the car and began to slide down into the ditch. "You're going to get dirty, don't worry about that. Just climb, hands and knees are best. Good girl! Up we go!"
Emily slipped in the icy earth twice before she reached the top of the ditch and the roadside berm, smearing her chest and face with pebbly mud. At the top of the slope, she struggled to her feet, clutching at the purse she'd looped around her neck. Her hero brushed some of the mud off her sleeves, supporting her with one arm around her shoulders. "Anything hurting? No? Good. Did you hit your head on anything?"
"No, I feel fine, just a little shaken, that's all." Emily brushed at the dirt on her face. "Thank God you came along!"
"We'll never get your car out of there without a tow truck. Does your insurance company have a towing service?" The voice was female, strong and assured.
"Yes, but I left my cell phone at home. Thank you for helping me out of the car, I don't know how I would have -- " Emily started and jumped as a screechy rumble came from her car. In the light from her car's headlights, she watched her car slide onto its right side into the ditch. The airbags in the front seat deployed with a muffled boom. Her knees buckled and she nearly fell down, grasping at the arm of the woman who helped her.
"Easy! Easy! You're all right, things will be fine. The tower will get your keys out. Come on over here and sit down in my car. There you go," she said, helping Emily into the front passenger seat. Another car passed them by, headed toward town, not slowing at all.
"Good, you got your purse out with you. Do you have the number for your insurance? Here, give them a call," said the woman, pulling a cell phone from the inside left pocket in her suit coat.
Emily wiped at her tearing eyes, reached for the offered phone, and froze. In the light of the passenger compartment, her savior was revealed. She was KC Carson, the lesbian from the Psychology Department.