Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: COFFEE BREAK / TEA BREAK (03/01/18)
By Jan Ackerson
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He’s not an unfriendly fellow, and he genuinely likes the company of his co-workers. But his disposition is such that he needs periodic quiet recharging, and in this office complex, the employees’ lounge at eleven o’clock is a good place to relocate his stores of patience, humor, and understanding. He solves a crossword puzzle, grimacing occasionally at the bitterness he’s sipping, and works the knots out of his shoulders.
He’s puzzling over 6-Down when a woman walks in, holding a mug and a book. Ray doesn’t really mind sharing the break room, as long as conversation isn’t required; he just nods and gestures to his newspaper, hoping she’ll get the hint.
She does. She takes her mug to the coffeepot and makes a surprised exclamation at the motor oil that emerges, then quickly and efficiently makes a new pot. Her actions distract Ray from his puzzle; he notices her chunky cardigan and her low humming. But after the new pot is made, she sits in one of the orange vinyl chairs and takes up her book.
Ray goes back to his puzzle. As he’s about to fold up the paper and head to his cubicle, the woman laughs out loud, a lovely sound. He looks over at her, ready to speak if she wishes, but she just waves a hand at him, eyes on her book, still laughing.
She’s not pretty. Slightly tubby, with a few broken veins reddening her cheeks. A bit of a hook to her nose. But her laughter is nice—it’s musical. It stays with Ray throughout the day. Truth be told, he’s not much of a looker himself.
Over the next week or two, the woman frequently takes her break at the same time as Ray. She always brings the book, which is apparently very funny. One day, her laughter causes her to spit coffee, and there’s a flurry of activity as she wipes her face and dabs at the front of her blouse, and Ray gets a paper towel for the table. When he sits back down, he sees that a few droplets of coffee have landed all the way on his crossword puzzle. He wipes them surreptitiously with his shirt cuff.
And then she’s not there for three days in a row, and Ray is astonished at himself for missing her. They’ve never even spoken a word, beyond muttered greetings and awkward apologies during the spitting incident.
He folds the paper and tucks it under his arm, then undertakes a systematic search of the cubicles. Plenty of people are annoyed at his peeking into their spaces, which breaks an unwritten rule of Cubicle Courtesy, but seeing that it’s just Ray, they mostly shrug and lean toward their computers. Finally, Ray spots her sweater draped over an office chair. The nameplate on the cubicle wall says Winnie Paul.
“Do you know where Winnie is?” Ray asks a nearby worker.
“Winnie? Oh, her. Yeah, I think she’s on the third floor for a few days, working with Marketing. Or maybe Personnel? I dunno. She’s around somewhere. Back tomorrow, I think.”
Ray doesn’t get much work done that day. He’s thinking.
The next day, he places a detergent stain stick at Winnie’s usual spot. Too late, he thinks he should have put a bow on it. Maybe she’ll just think someone accidentally left it there. But who takes a stain stick to their coffee break? She’ll know it’s from him, won’t she? When he hears her step in the corridor, he opens his newspaper and stares, unseeing, at the crossword puzzle.
Winnie fills her mug, then heads toward the table. Ray peeks up, just enough to see her pick up his gift and make a small sound in her throat.
“Is this from you?” she asks.
“Yes,” he says. “We haven’t formally met. I’m Ray. It’s for your…” He taps his shirtfront, belatedly realizing that perhaps a stain stick isn’t an inappropriate gift. He doesn’t want her to think he’s been dwelling on her bosom, when in fact, he has not. He has been recalling her melodious laughter which is now, bell-like, creating harmonics with the body of the ancient coffeepot.
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