Catherine instructed the driver (whom she now called “Larry”) to retrieve my “gift” from the trunk. He popped the trunk and pulled out an over-sized shirt box, nicely gift wrapped. With the trunk still hanging open Larry turned and handed the gift to Catherine, and Catherine quietly held it in her grasp in front of me, but not actually giving it to me. She clutched the box against herself in silence, looking down at the ground in what seemed to be sadness. She made no motions indicating she intended to give me the present and just continued to hug it. After a long pause she spoke again to the driver:
“And now the other one, please, Larry” she said.
I raised an eyebrow at that. Two gifts? I watched him reach deeply into the trunk once more. But then I saw him struggling with whatever was down inside it, so I immediately went to help him. Together Larry and I hoisted up a small brown military foot locker --an old one-- and it weighed a ton (just over fifty pounds, I later calculated). We carried it by the two opposite handles toward the small set of three metal steps that led up into the office trailer door. When Stephanie --still peering out the office window-- saw us heading for the steps, she scrambled to open the door for us from within, then held it open as he and I maneuvered the trunk through the doorway.
After Larry and I got the foot locker past the threshold and into the office, Stephanie wordlessly raced to the fax machine desk and cleared a spot for us to set it down upon. Once he and I had it securely footed upon the desktop, we released our mutual grips on the two handles and simultaneously let out sighs of relief. I extended my hand to him for a shake. He accepted that handshake and we briefly exchanged smiles and verbal thanks.
“Is she not gonna come inside?” Stephanie asked us with an urgency to her voice. We looked over and saw Stephanie again peering out the window at Catherine who remained standing beside the idling limousine, holding the present.
“She needs help,” I mumbled self-consciously as I raced toward the door.
On my way outside I heard Stephanie ask the limo driver in a hushed whisper: “Is she okay?”
--- --- --- ---
Stephanie later told me that Larry almost raced outside with me, but that he was delayed for about thirty seconds because Stephanie grabbed his sleeve and started pestering him for more details. Her first question to him was “Is she okay?” which she told me she had asked out of fear that there was something either physically or mentally wrong with Catherine on some permanent basis. I wasn’t there to witness the conversation, but here’s what Stephanie reported to me. The amount of self-condemnation and regret Stephanie employed when she told me the story of her silly behavior makes me believe she probably got most of it right.
Somewhat disturbed by Stephanie’s abruptness, Larry stood there with his sleeve still in her grip and reluctantly replied: “She broke her ribs last week, so it’s difficult for her to walk and climb stairs right now.”
That answer relieved Stephanie, so --not letting go of him-- she pressed him even further for more details about this mysterious and beautiful woman:
“Is she rich?” Stephanie asked with a hopeful grin.
“Um, well, in a word: yes,” he said, wriggling his sleeve out of Stephanie’s grasp and trying to cut a side-stepping circle around Stephanie and to the door. “But we don’t actually talk about people’s money. It’s not professional for us to do that.”
“Are they in love?” she stepped toward him. “I saw them kissing! Are they in love? Please say yes!”
“Um,” Larry was now backing toward the door. “Maybe. I really don’t know. But I have to get out there and help. It’s my job.” He turned and left while Stephanie went back to the window and gawked at us even further.
--- --- --- ---
As Larry shut the passenger door of the idling car, I helped the gift-bearing Catherine up the steps, secretly cursing myself for never getting around to installing a deck with a proper wheelchair ramp. She suddenly glanced around at Larry who now stood beside the car, awaiting instructions.
“Larry,” she said, “Please wait here for few more minutes.” He nodded and leaned back against the driver’s door.
Once I got Catherine into the office door, Stephanie leaped over to her own desk and yanked forth her chair --which was the nicest out of all the rolling office chairs we had-- wheeling it dutifully forward toward Catherine. My secretary did this in the fastest, most efficient use of motion I had ever seen her display in her two years of employment with me.
“Thank you so much,” Catherine smiled at Stephanie and accepted the chair from her eager hands. Stephanie smiled back with a shy nod as I helped Catherine sit down. Stephanie pressed her nervous hands against her chest and started wringing them, still smiling as she watched Catherine settle into her newly-seated position.
“I’m Catherine,” she finally said to Stephanie, extending one hand up to the girl. “What’s your name?”
“Stephanie,” my secretary beamed down to Catherine, tugging at the many silver and black rings on her fingers and dropping her eyes to the floor in coy embarrassment.
“I’m sorry,” I jumped into the conversation with embarrassment. “I lost my manners. Stephanie, this is Catherine Warren, a very nice lady from Lancaster County. Catherine, this is my secretary Stephanie Baines.”
“Hello, Stephanie,” Catherine nodded, still balancing the present on her lap. “Those are such beautiful rings. Where did you get them?”
“Most of them I got from a pawn shop,” she gave a slight and timid shrug of just one shoulder while grinningly looking at the rings of her nervous hands. “But this one I got from my great-grandfather,” she pointed with more smiling timidity to a flat rectangle of black onyx set on a silver-looking band with a diamond embedded in the onyx. She weakly lifted that hand to make the ring more visible, but her giggling coyness somewhat undermined that intention. “Most people think it’s silver, but it’s really white gold.” At this point, she finally got up the nerve to look Catherine directly in the eye. But as the grinning Stephanie continued to speak, she started pivoting her entire torso --from shoulders to hip bones-- left and right repeatedly, back and forth, like the agitator of a top-loading clothes washing machine. Yet she did this while keeping her eyes still fixed upon Catherine and still gesturing awkwardly to her great-grandfather’s ring.
Catherine reached out to Stephanie’s limply dangling hand and grasped it, steadying its wavering position, examining the ring more closely. Stephanie stopped pivoting and held her breath in a momentary flash of surprise from Catherine’s clasping of her hand. But Stephanie’s surprise got slowly replaced by a look of ... hope.
“What an exquisite piece of workmanship.” Catherine smiled and finally released Stephanie’s hand. “You make sure you hang on to that ring. It’s a true family heirloom.”
Stephanie burst back into her grin, but with a new boldness behind it. “I will,” she nodded with a sudden energy, and now her smile had broadened so much that her tongue ring was clearly visible. The silliness had now left and an actual poise took its place.
I have to admit I had never seen such a childish display of behaviors in Stephanie before. Getting past all the cliché goth-chick trappings --such as her dozens of body piercings, black leather and lace clothing, and the black hair and lipstick contrasted against deathly white face makeup-- she really was a very sweet young woman. I hired her because she lived in the neighborhood and majored in office administration at Temple University, so I felt she had a lot to offer. While I was at first put off when she showed up for the interview wearing --among other classic goth badges of honor-- a black leather dog collar around her neck with spiked studs sticking out of it, she pulled an awesome interview and her resume included years of experience with more than a dozen of the most important specimens of professional business software. For the entire two years that she worked for me, she repeatedly came to work full of smiles and cheeriness despite the heavy eyeliner on her lids and the studded leather bracelets on her wrists. This seeming contradiction between goth and sunshine, darkness and light, always baffled and amused me. And in a somewhat fatherly concern I sometimes wondered about the possibility of there still being a little girl inside of her buried underneath all that makeup and hair coloring. So after over twenty-four months of befuddlement from my secretary’s ongoing dichotomy of being the cheerful death-walker, it took the mesmerizing presence of my beautiful Catherine to prompt the 22-year-old Stephanie into suddenly acting like the 8-year-old little girl I always suspected might lurk beneath the surface.
Catherine turned to me again.
“Have you any other employees I could meet?” she asked me.
“Uh, no. Just me and Stephanie --Stephanie and me,” I corrected myself. Stephanie could not get that grin off her face. And she now found the courage to look Catherine up and down from head to toe, examining every aspect of her clothes, hair and makeup.
“I hope I’m not interrupting your work day,” Catherine said to me apologetically.
“Uh, no,” I assured Catherine. “In fact, we’re kinda’ slow today and so I was just about to give Stephanie the rest of the day off.”
Stephanie shot her head up at me in shock, her smile nowhere to be found.
“With pay,” I added giving Stephanie an overtly knowing glance. But Stephanie’s shock didn’t turn back into the smile I hoped it would. Instead she morphed into actual sadness now. “Not vacation pay, just regular company pay,” I clarified, certain that would cheer her up. “So that means the rest of the afternoon is all yours, Steph.” But Stephanie’s sad eyes remained fixated on me, pleading for me to change my mind.
I was growing embarrassed by Stephanie’s resistance and wasn’t sure how to make her leave. Finally Catherine asked: “Stephanie, how far away do you have to travel? Can my driver perhaps give you a lift?”
Stephanie’s eyebrows arched up to the sky as her mouth opened wide with a gasp of delight. For the second time I witnessed her eyebrow ring pivot sideways. “Are you serious?” She could hardly even breathe.
“Of course, dear,” Catherine smiled and then took out her phone. She hit a button which I later learned was one of her speed-dial buttons set up as an automatic page. Within seconds the office door opened and in the doorway stood her driver.
“Did you need me, Mrs. Warren?” he asked, lingering in the door.
“Yes, Larry,” she said. “Could I possibly ask you to please take this young lady to wherever she wants to go? And then could you please meet me back here by five-thirty?”
“Absolutely,” he nodded, and then returned to the car.
Stephanie looked back at Catherine and said: “Thank you so much!” But then the sadness returned, mixed with a hint of hope. “Maybe I can see you again some other time then?”
Catherine smiled up to her and nodded: “That would be wonderful. I’ll let you know next time I’m in the neighborhood.”
Stephanie’s final smile absolutely radiated with ecstasy. She grabbed her backpack and jacket then hurried for the door. But --much to my frustration-- she stopped short in the open doorway and turned one last time to wave at Catherine. “Bye, Catherine! So good to meet you! I look forward to meeting you again.”
“And I you!” Catherine waved back. “Have a great day!”
Stephanie allowed herself just one more giddy display of wordless yet obvious silliness as a response to Catherine’s farewell. Then she finally left. After she was gone I laughed and slinked down with a sigh upon the fax desk, just beside the brown, still-closed foot locker.
“She’s a lovely young lady,” Catherine nodded to me.
“I agree,” I nodded back. “I’m lucky to have her. She really whipped this place into shape when I hired her two years ago.”
Outside the window I saw Larry open the passenger door to allow Stephanie to enter with a giggle. When the gentle yet audible closing of the car door reached our ears, Catherine turned her head and also looked out the window. The limo drove off. She turned back to me and smiled.
“Is that your son?” she asked, gesturing to my cluttered desk where a school portrait of smiling Jason stood upright.
“Yeah,” I nodded proudly. “That’s my boy. Jason Ryan Walczak.”
“He looks like you,” she beamed.
“Everyone seems to agree,” I said. “But he’s got his mom’s blue eyes.”
“Would you like to open the first of your two presents now?” she asked, holding forth the large gift wrapped box in her hands.
I hesitated, somewhat fearful of what the package contained. My failure to get her a present gnawed deeply at me, and now my fear of her getting me the gift to end all gifts would at last be tested.
I held my breath and accepted the box from her grasp. It was light for its size, so it most likely was a garment. I ripped off the paper and popped open the lid. Inside the box, underneath a few folds of tissue paper, I found the same wool letterman jacket she had originally given me when I fixed her oil tank. In heartfelt relief I looked up and smiled at her with a sigh.
“Thank you,” I nodded. “I actually missed this.” And in a sincere gesture of gratitude I slipped off my leather jacket and replaced it with the letterman jacket. “Wow! It still fits too!” I laughed.
“You’re welcome,” she nodded back, also laughing.
And then I eyed the unopened footlocker, somewhat puzzled. She had said “two” presents just a moment ago, and yet two presents wasn’t what she mentioned earlier. So now that I had safely gotten past the first hurdle of what merely turned out to be a jacket, this second present likewise threatened to prove far beyond my own ability to reciprocate.
“As for the other present,” she said “please don’t open it yet.”
“No?” I asked. “Any hints as to what it is?”
“It’s a little more than I originally intended --but what price can I possibly place upon my being alive?” And now I knew for certain that this second gift cost far more than a mere jacket. She continued: “So with that in mind, I must once again insist: you are free to sell it if you like, but please --as I stipulated before-- please don’t ever try to give it back to me.”
“So ... when do I get to open it?”
“After I’ve gone.”
I glanced at the clock: two-fifteen. Larry would be back by five-thirty to pick up Catherine.
“That’ll be too soon,” I said.
She smiled at me. “Do we really have to say good-bye for good?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, looking away.
“Well then,” she sighed, “let’s stick with the original plan: this needs to be a good-bye worth remembering.”
I laughed and looked back to her again. I got off the desk and walked to her chair. I stood closely in front of her and took both her hands and held them, caressing them.
“You’re sure I won’t hurt you?” I asked softly.
“No,” she shook her head with a smile, causing me a moment of worry and also causing me to stop the hand-caressing. She continued: “I’m not sure at all about that. I’ve found it difficult enough to avoid hurting myself these last few days. But I am confident you’ll try your very best not to. And that’s good enough for me.” Her answer relieved me and my worry gave way to my former smile. I resumed stroking her hands.
“I don’t have any protection,” I shook my head, still caressing her hands.
“I have that taken care of,” she assured me.
I nodded. I stopped the hand caressing and merely held her hands now. Then I leaned over and kissed her.
-------------------End of Chapter 32--------------------