ALMONDS: A SHORT STORY
This work was originally published in Dime Show Review.
Jane arrived at work an hour and a half early. There was an early meeting with many company executives about a project with which she and a few others had helped prepare their boss. On her way out the night prior, he asked her to come in early, “just in case.” While it made sense to have someone on hand, she wasn’t sure why he’d picked her. She’d purposefully contributed the least. But here she was, back at the office. Once again.
She took off her black, boxy winter coat and hung it on the back of the door. She straightened out her blouse and glanced over at Martin’s desk. It was covered in empty soda cans and loose papers. Trash. He had yet to switch his calendar over to February, too. It was beyond Jane how Martin kept his job with a desk like that. Although, tidiness was the least of Martin’s problems in her estimation.
Jane sat at her desk and fired up her laptop. She opened up her browser. First, she read an article about dishes that utilize the Meyer lemon. Then one with a list of nostalgia that made her feel old. Scanning through, the main topic in her morning download was the death of a young actor. He drove his Porsche off a cliff while going over eighty miles per hour through some hills and died in the fiery wreckage. She looked up from her laptop and stared out the office window. Light snow fell over the dormant field nearby. She slammed her laptop closed.
Since she was there, Jane filed some paperwork. She was on her third cup of coffee when Charlotte poked her head through the door. She had on an argyle sweater that Jane always thought looked sharp.
“How did it go this morning?” Charlotte said.
“I haven’t heard.”
“That must be good, then.”
Charlotte went to her office down the hall. The telephone rang.
“This is Jane.”
“Jane, great. Everything went great,” her boss said.
“Glad to hear. So, what’s next?” The overhead light flickered. Jane’s eyes darted up at it.
“Next is, hold on. Jane, I have to take this. I’m leaving in ten minutes. I’ll be back after lunch. Get excited.”
Jane hung up the phone. She took out a bag of almonds from her top desk drawer, put two in her mouth, then shut them away.
Martin did not enter. He stood in the doorway in his heavy down coat, filling the frame. His round face was a splotchy red. A burst of cold air shot out from behind him. But Jane had made her morning coffee intake enough to avoid shivering at the start of winter.
“Jane,” Martin said. His short black hair was neatly parted. His plaid shirt was uncommonly pressed and leather belted into creased khakis. He was clean-shaven. Jane had never seen him clean-shaven in the little over ten months they’d shared an office.
“Martin,” Jane said.
“I have something to tell you.” Martin hung his coat next to Jane’s on the back of the door.
“Please, enlighten me,” Jane said. She ate three more almonds.
“Well,” Martin said. He sat at his desk and started his laptop. “It’s actually quite incredible. I don’t know what you’ll think.”
“I’m open minded,” she said. She couldn’t think of any incidents that would give Martin the opposite impression.
“Hold on,” Martin said. The heating system spewed a knocking sound from the vent above Jane’s desk that reverberated through the room. Martin typed fast, staring intently at his screen. Jane grabbed more paperwork and placed it in front of her.
“Did you see Rick Stevens died?”
“I did. So sad.”
Still in his chair, Martin rolled himself next to Jane. He looked directly at her. “Jane, listen carefully.”
“Okay.” Jane felt her heartbeat quicken.
“I’m a new man,” Martin said. His baritone voice full, confident.
“You’re a new man,” she said.
“I mean this with all sincerity.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, yesterday, I was one man. Today, I’m a new one.”
“I did notice you shaved.”
“That’s part of it, yes. But what I mean is what I said. I’m a new man.”
“Like you’re a different person?”
“Exactly. Before I was one person, now I’m another.”
Jane turned to her paperwork. She shuffled through it.
“When did this happen? This change?” Jane asked.
Martin sat on the edge of his chair. He leaned on Jane’s desk. “Last night. I finished reading this book that was given to me. You see, I’ve been riddled with insecurity my whole life. It’s been my biggest challenge. My biggest frustration. I get this book. I was told it could help me. I was skeptical. Not one for self-help books. But I gave it a shot. What did I have to lose, you know? I finished the book last night. Then, I sat and thought about it for hours. Really concentrated for… I’m not even sure how long. Suddenly, in a flash, a feeling, more like a sensation came over me. Everything made sense. I fell asleep content for maybe the first time, ever.”
“What are you saying?”
The telephone rang.
“Hello,” Jane answered.
“So, what time are you coming over tonight? I have to tell Phil so he knows what time to get the kids.” It was her sister, Isabelle.
“Hey, listen, can I call you back? I’m in the middle of something.”
“I find that hard to believe, but okay. Call me back. Phil needs to know sooner than later. Just so you know.”
She hung up.
“You could have taken that,” Martin said. He smiled at her. Without his beard, his dimples shined and made him much more handsome like she always suspected it would. A theory she never voiced to him or to anyone else for that matter, fearing what they might say. She wanted to believe Martin. But it all seemed muddled, strange. People don’t change overnight. Her mother used to say that. And she certainly wasn’t her mother.
“No, it’s fine. Go on.”
Martin stood and rolled his chair over to his desk. He moved to the window. The light snow had now turned into a dusting.
“There’s nothing else. It sounds like it should be more complicated. But it couldn’t be more simple.” Martin turned to her. Beaming. “ I’m a new man.”
“Well, congratulations, I guess.”
“Thank you.” He sat at his desk. “Unfortunately, this means today will be our last day as office mates.” He collated together some papers, stamping them on his desk with a thud. “I’m quitting.”
“Effective immediately.” Jane watched him throw all the empty cans and loose papers into the recycling container next to his desk. He put his calendar and a few stacks of paper into his briefcase.
“Do you have another job?”
“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.” Martin said without glancing Jane’s way.
“I’ll be sad to see you go.” Jane meant this. She’d always complained about Martin. But now faced with his imminent departure, her feelings curdled inside her. She excused herself to the kitchen. Charlotte was there, making tea. Aimee was there, too, pouring coffee. Jane filled her metal bottle at the water cooler.
“Have you guys seen Martin today?” she asked.
“No,” Charlotte said. She laughed. “But I’m sure he looks the same as any other day: useless.”
“You’re so mean,” Aimee said.
“If we can’t be honest with each other ladies, who can we be honest with? Certainly not the men in this office or, you know, men on the planet.”
They all laughed.
“It’s funny you said he looks the same because, well, he doesn’t. He shaved,” Jane said.
“Praise Jesus,” Charlotte said
“And his hair is parted.” Jane cocked her head toward Aimee. “He told me he’s a new man.”
“A new man. That’s a load,” Aimee said.
Charlotte offered a stiff eye roll.
“He said he was given a book that helped him with his insecurity, and now he’s a new man,” Jane said. She drank from her bottle.
“Well, bully for him,” Charlotte said.
“What was the book?” asked Aimee.
Jane realized she had failed to get the title of this wonder book.
“He also said he’s quitting. He’s already packing up his things.”
“Quitting?!” Charlotte exclaimed. “Where does that slug think he’s going?”
“This is great for you, Jane. Maybe they’ll let you keep your office by yourself,” offered Aimee. “That’s how I got my office. Bob McAvoy took a job in Omaha and they never replaced him.”
Charlotte’s phone chimed. She checked it.
“Aimee, Soloman needs us,” Charlotte said.
They said their goodbyes and hurried along.
Walking down the worn linoleum hallway back to her office, Jane thought about her mounting credit debt. She could ask her father for some money. But she’d already played that card to varied results. If she could just cut back on eating out, going out, the majority of her fun, she could get her finances in order. And then, a sigh. Who was she kidding? It’ll take until her forties to pay off debt working here.
At the office, Martin was walking toward the door with his jacket on, holding a box full of personal items and his briefcase.
“So, that’s it then?” Jane asked.
“Afraid so. It’s been a pleasure working with you.”
Above them, the fluorescent bulb flickered again. This time Jane didn’t look up. She locked eyes with Martin. She’d never noticed how deep of blue his eyes were, like the water of some place far off, exotic, an unknown paradise. It stirred her from within. Martin stepped toward the door. Jane stood in Martin’s way, planted. She embraced him. Then, she kissed him, passionately.
“Take me,” Jane said. “Take me there.”
Martin remained steadfast, almost as if he’d expected this to happen.
“I’m sorry, Jane. I can’t.”
Martin wiggled out of Jane’s embrace and walked out.
Jane wiped away tears and sat at her desk. Outside the window, snowfall continued. She pulled the bag of almonds from her desk drawer. The telephone rang. Jane didn’t answer. She let the analog sound echo around the room while she ate almonds and watched the field turn into an endless…white…nothingness.