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I’ve been working for this book publisher for almost a year. It’s my first job out of college. It’s not what I imagined my life would be after graduation. I worked hard to graduate summa cum laude from a prestigious business school. I also made sure to actively participate in university activities. I wrote for the school newspaper, covering business topics of interest to the student body. I edited the newspaper for a year. Received stellar reviews of my work after a summer co-op at a Wall Street trading company. I expected to have my pick of career opportunities after graduation.
Unfortunately, the pandemic struck a few months before graduation and put a damper on hiring. I had loans to pay. I couldn’t wait for things to improve. I had to take what I could get. In many respects I’m lucky. Many of my friends from school are faring much worse. Some are still unemployed. Others underemployed. In most cases, they’re living with parents again.
My manager is a prickly late middle-aged woman with no sense of humor. Mostly she’s dour and unnecessarily difficult. The running joke among my coworkers, male and female, is she needs to get laid. When we were still going into the office, I liked to needle my coworker, Jack. He’s close to her age, divorced, and unattached. Suggesting that he take one for the team. Invite her to dinner and make a move on her. He wasn’t inclined to entertain the prospect. Or amused. Fortunately, these days we didn’t have to see her perpetual scowl, listen to her grating voice, or hear her incessant criticisms. We only had to deal with her through emails and the rare phone call.
It was going to be a strange day to be at work. First, the office staff had been working from home for months. Second it was a holiday. One of the few good things about working here was there was never any reason to work a weekend. Even less to work a holiday. But a screwup at the printer had resulted in the entire first run of our most popular author’s new book getting delivered to our tiny warehouse instead of being shipped from the bindery. I had the honor of going in to straighten it out over the course of Good Friday and Saturday. There was even the possibility I might get stuck working Easter Sunday, not that I had anything special planned.
It was going to be a mess. Tens of thousands of books that should have been shipped elsewhere – distribution centers, bookstores, or direct to subscribers, were in trailers that their owner wanted back. We were paying through the nose for them. The trucking company was making out, though. They got paid for delivering the books to us, were getting paid for idle trailers, and were going to get paid to deliver the books a second time.
The boss had sent notice that she was sending our newest employee, Reed Phillips, to help along with Steve, a shipping and receiving employee that was trained to operate a forklift. Reed had graduated from college in December and joined us in early January. We’d exchanged emails a few times but had never met. Reed and I had essentially the same job but handled different segments of the business. I did fiction. Reed did children’s books and nonfiction. We weren’t editors. We handled the more mundane aspects of publishing. We managed the logistics of getting books to market. Scheduling the printing and distribution of the books our employer published.
The place was deserted when I arrived early Good Friday morning. Only a few lights were on but more than enough to navigate to my office and work. The first order of business was printing the shipping advices and labels for the commercial customers. Then printing the shipping labels for subscribers, folks who belonged to one of our book clubs. Though lucrative, this part of the business was shrinking and there was talk of killing it off. But there were still several thousand subscribers. Reed was due to arrive at about ten, after I finished the printing.
My phone rang a few minutes before ten. My boss had mentioned in an email that Reed had never been to the office except for two interviews and hadn’t been issued a key card. I wondered how Reed had learned the job duties and processes but wasn’t worried about it. It wasn’t my problem. By all accounts, Reed had been doing just fine. I ignored the phone on my desk, put my mask on, and went to let him in.
When I got to the door, a woman was standing at it with her back to me and a cell phone to her ear.
I knocked on the door to get her attention. ‘Can I help you?’ I asked through the closed door.
‘I’m Reed Phillips. Are you Kevin Callahan? I’m supposed to help him process some shipments.’
I was speechless for a second. I was expecting a man, though I guess there was no real reason for that. Reed was a gender-neutral name. Our limited exchanges didn’t ever provide a clue to Reed’s gender, nor had there been any reason to learn whether Reed was male or female. It was irrelevant.
Reed was medium height, maybe five-five or five-six. Thick, lustrous, dark brown hair that ended just below her shoulders. She was dressed for work, meaning physical kızılay escort work. She was wearing a faded blue denim shirt under a light jacket open down the front, camel-brown work pants that were comfortably loose, and ankle high work boots. Her shirt was tucked in, betraying a nice figure. Though I couldn’t see much of her face because of her mask, her blue eyes were nearly hypnotic.
‘Are you Kevin Callahan?’ she repeated.
I opened the door, and without thinking, I extended my hand. ‘I’m sorry. Yes, I’m Kevin Callahan. It’s nice to finally meet you, Reed.’
She looked at my hand and did exactly what I’d conditioned myself to do, too. Ignore it. I didn’t feel slighted. I felt like an idiot. She was right to avoid contact. I stepped aside to let her in. She followed me to my office where I grabbed the shipping advices, pallet labels, and the loading/routing instructions. The book club labels were still printing and would be for a couple hours.
‘We’ll be working in the warehouse today and tomorrow,’ I began. ‘Hopefully, we’ll finish tomorrow so we don’t have to work Sunday.’
‘How’s this going to work?’ she asked.
‘No idea. We’ll have to develop a process. We never handle this kind of volume here. Our limited inventory here is meant to support small stuff. A store that needs a few more copies of a book. A book club member that didn’t receive a book for some reason. A reviewer requests a copy. That kind of thing.’
‘Willa said we’ve got a big job. Thousands of books to process. How are we going to physically them?’ Reed asked.
‘Steve should be here already. He’s going to operate a forklift for us,’ I told her.
We had three loading docks. The trucks were already backed up and the doors opened. Steve was on the forklift just finishing unloading one of the trucks. When he set the last pallet down, he hopped off the forklift and came over to talk to us.
Steve and I had met before. ‘Hey, Kevin,’ he said. ‘Any idea how we’re gonna do this?’ He didn’t know Reed, probably didn’t know her name, but he nodded at her to acknowledge her.
‘Steve, this is Reed. I thought the three of us would put our heads together and figure something out. I’ve got order sizes, loading, and routing instructions. We load the trucks in reverse order of delivery. Last delivery is the first load on the truck. Beyond that, we gotta figure it out.’
The three of us talked about how to manage the problem for a half hour or so and came up with a serviceable plan. Most of the books were just stacked on pallets. Our biggest problem was books for book club orders. They were segregated and already prepped for mailing. They just needed labels. Steve had wisely decided to unload the truck that contained the books to be mailed first.
The three of us got to work. Each of us took a shipping order and prepped it for loading onto the truck. Once the first three were done, Steve loaded them on the truck, double-checking that shipments were loaded in reverse order of delivery. After the first three orders, Steve stayed on the forklift while Reed and I prepped each of the following orders working together. By quitting time Friday, we had about three quarters of the bulk orders processed and loaded.
Steve returned to work with us for a couple hours on Saturday. Since he was hourly, my instructions were to send him on his way once a forklift was no longer needed. Steve was getting time-and-a-half. Reed and I got to stay and process the book club orders on our own. We were salaried. It didn’t cost any extra to make us work more hours. The book club orders weren’t going back on the trucks. The local postal processing center was picking them up on Monday.
All day Friday, and for the first few hours Saturday, the only conversation was work-related. We had to stay focused to make sure we didn’t screw up a task we’d never performed. The three of us worked well together. The work progressed well, though it soon became apparent Reed and I would be working at least part of Sunday.
After Steve left mid-morning on Saturday, our task became essentially brainless. Take a book off a pallet, affix an envelope to it. Put it on another pallet. Reed and I could talk.
‘How do you like working here, Reed?’ I asked when we started on the book club task.
‘It’s okay I guess,’ she said. ‘It’s weird though. Working at home and not having any contact with coworkers except through email and phone calls is strange. Can I ask you something?’
‘Sure, what do you want to know?’ I responded.
Reed hesitated. ‘Promise not to say anything to anyone?’
‘Relax. Ask your question.’
‘Is it my imagination or is our boss . . . difficult? I mean, I don’t mind working for someone that’s demanding and expects results. But she seems go out of her way to be hard to like.’
‘It’s not your imagination. She’s not easy. You got that from phone calls and email?’
‘Not entirely. She trained me. When I first started, I spent two weeks with her learning the job. By the end of the first week, I dreaded seeing kolej escort her again on Monday.’
‘Where did you get your training?’ I asked. Willa had told me Reed hadn’t ever been to the office.
‘At her house. With her and her six cats.’
I choked back a laugh. Reed smiled. ‘What’s so funny?’
‘Have you met anyone from the office?’
‘Just Willa and now you. I’ve exchanged emails with you, Willa, Bill, Jack, Susan, Phyllis, Liz, and Courtney. But I haven’t met anyone except Willa. And now you and Steve.’
‘I don’t want to be crude, but the consensus among those of us who were working in the office before everything went to hell is Willa needs to get laid.’
Reed laughed, ‘Yeah. She’s not the only one.’
‘None of know anything about her except from work, which isn’t pretty. She have a family?
‘Just cats. I didn’t see any family pictures anywhere. I was only in her living room, home office, kitchen, and bathroom. She’s got a big house, but I think it’s just her and her cats.’
Saturday afternoon, the warehouse started to get warm. Reed was dressed much like she had been on Friday. I’d worked without a jacket on Friday and again on Saturday. Reed had worn her jacket. She stood and took her jacket off. A few minutes later, she stood and began unbuttoning her shirt. I didn’t think she was stripping for me. She wasn’t. She wore a form-fitting vee-neck tee under her work shirt. Now I had a good look at her figure. It looked pretty good.
At mid-morning, I needed to take a break. ‘C’mon,’ I said. ‘Let’s go outside for a few minutes. I need a break and some fresh air.’
Sounds good to me,’ Reed said. ‘I could stand some fresh air, too.
I led the way to the back door. I stopped at a closet and grabbed a basketball I knew was stored there, opened the back door and propped it open with a cinder block kept for that purpose. Reed followed me over to the basketball hoop at the far end of the truck yard. While I took a few shots, we continued to talk.
‘Where you from, Reed?’
‘I grew up here. Went to college locally. Lived at home while I went to school. Got lucky when I was able to find a job. It’d be nice to make a bit more money so I can move out on my own. I could, I suppose. But my parents suggested I stay where I am until I pay off my college loans. Another year and I’ll be all paid up. You?’
‘I grew up about two hundred miles from here. Went away to college. This isn’t where I expected to be after I graduated. But as you know, everything went to hell last March.’
Reed held her hands up like she wanted the ball. I tossed it to her. She drained a shot from about eight feet, caught the ball on a bounce and put up a layup before passing it back to me. I was shooting from about twenty feet and hitting about half of my shots. Pretty good considering how long it had been since I played. The local recreation league I’d joined when I first moved to the area shut down within a few weeks of my joining. Reed caught my rebound and put up another layup before passing the ball back to me.
‘Do you mind if I take off to get some lunch today? I overslept a bit this morning and didn’t get a chance to make a lunch.’
‘Mind if I go with you?. I’ve got lunch but it’s just peanut butter and jelly. Same as I had yesterday.’
‘Of course, you can come. What do you want for lunch?’ she asked.
‘I’m easy. As long as I don’t have to eat vegan, I’m agreeable to almost anything.’ I told her.
Reed made a face. ‘A meal without meat? No thanks. I like my veggies. But I want something that came from a critter, too.’
I laughed. ‘Okay. Your choice.’
‘Tell you what,’ she said. ‘How about a quick game of HORSE? Loser buys.’
‘You’re on,’ I said, figuring I’d win but wouldn’t let her buy. ‘You shoot first,’ I added, passing the ball to her.
When Reed smiled, I got a funny feeling I’d been had. She went out to about thirty feet and drained a set shot. All net. I put up a brick. It hit the front of the rim so hard it came all the way back to me. I tossed the ball to her. Reed went to the corner and hit a twenty-foot jump shot. Again, all net. By the time she missed, she already had H, O, R, and S. I had a chance to get the upper hand. I tried a hook from about fifteen feet. It circled the rim twice and fell out. She grinned at me and took the same shot. She made it. Nothing but net off the backboard.
‘I get the impression I’ve been hustled,’ I said.
‘Yep,’ she said with a wide grin. ‘I was the starting shooting guard at the university. Hit almost fifty percent of my threes and missed only two foul shots last year.’
I shook my head. ‘How many did you take?’ I asked.
I led the league in foul shots taken, made, and free throw percentage,’ she said. ‘I’ll give you a chance to get ahead. How tall are you Kevin?’
‘Think you can keep me from scoring if I drive to the hoop?’
‘I’m pretty quick. But I’m guessing I can’t,’ I smiled at her.
‘If you stop me from scoring, I’ll buy lunch,’ Reed said.
‘And ankara escort if I can’t?’ I asked, skeptical that I was about to get hustled again.
‘Nothing. You just buy lunch. Same as now. You’ve got nothing to lose.’
I laughed. ‘Except my male pride.’
‘Well, there is that,’ she grinned.
‘Okay you’re on,’ I said.
With that, Reed drove on me. I was sure I had her stopped. Instead, she slipped past me and under the basket. She spun around to face the basket. I went up to block her shot. She pump-faked and stayed on the ground. When gravity pulled me back to earth, she went up. I collided with her on my way down as she took her shot. I turned and watched the ball roll off the back of the hoop and fall in.
Reed raised her hand over her head and pointed her index finger toward the ground. Similar to how a ref would signal an official scorekeeper to count the basket. ‘Foul on Callahan!’ she added, laughing.
‘Okay, let’s go back to work,’ I said. On the way into the warehouse, I was curious her about her early graduation. ‘Why didn’t you stick around for the end of the basketball season?’ I asked. ‘The season just ended. Why’d you leave your team in December?’
‘I didn’t. My eligibility was up after last season. It took me an extra semester to complete my degree. Basketball practice and studying was too much my first year. I was exhausted after freshman year. I backed off my course load a bit and only took twelve or thirteen credits each semester after freshman year. I needed sixteen more credits after my eligibility ran out to complete my degree.’
‘I worked hard in school, too. Took on a lot. But I didn’t participate in an intercollegiate sport. My university is a Division I school. I was nowhere near that good an athlete.’
‘I played Division II. I had a partial scholarship. It was almost like having a fulltime job while going to school full time. Basketball was thirty hours or more every week from the start of the school year until either the season was over, or we were done in the tournament. Plus there’s all the travel. That gets old, too.’
‘What’s the worst part of it?’ I asked.
Reed didn’t hesitate. ‘The preseason conditioning. Weight training, running, flexibility exercises. Court time isn’t always fun. Coach Thomas could be a tyrant when we screwed up. She didn’t like losing. And if we lost a game she thought we should have won, practice between the loss and the next game was hell.’
A little while later, we enjoyed a pleasant lunch, burgers, fries, a beer, and a bunch of laughs at the nearby Hooters. Reed’s choice. I’d never have suggested it. On Friday we didn’t stop working. Just took a moment here and there to grab a quick bite. At Hooter’s I finally got to see Reed’s face without a mask while we ate. Talking to Reed was easy. Looking at her was even better. Even without makeup she looked great. More attractive than any of my high school girlfriends. Or the few women I dated while I was obsessed with my college education.
We spent the rest of Saturday in companionable conversation while we made good progress on the onerous holiday weekend task we’d been given. By the end of the workday, we were becoming friends. And despite my reservations, I felt myself growing attracted to Reed.
I got up early on Sunday and packed enough food for both of us to have lunch. I like to cook. I had leftover eggplant parmigiana from Thursday night, prepared using the recipe that everyone wanted my mother to make whenever we got together for one of our extended-family holiday potluck dinners. A few Sicilian sausage, a loaf of Italian bread, still warm when I picked it up from the bakery near my apartment, and two individual-serving size bottles of Chianti finished my little Sunday surprise.
By mid-morning on Sunday, it looked like we’d finish our work by midafternoon. A little before noon, I mentioned it was time for lunch.
‘I didn’t bring lunch again,’ Reed told me. ‘Where should we go today?’
‘I got it covered,’ I said.
‘What do you mean?’ Reed asked.
‘I brought lunch for us. Homemade eggplant parmigiana, sausage, fresh Italian bread. We’ll have a little picnic.’
‘There’s a path through the woods right behind my truck. It leads to a little clearing with a couple of picnic tables. It’s company property. I haven’t eaten there yet but I wandered out there on a nice day just before the company sent us to work from home.’
I heated the eggplant and sausage in a microwave in the cafeteria and led the way out. I stopped at my truck and grabbed a basket that had everything else needed for lunch.
Reed saw a blanket I kept in the truck and grabbed it. ‘Let’s spread it out and have an old-fashioned picnic,’ she said.
The path to the picnic tables was only about a hundred feet but it was like entering a different world. When I was there last, it was still winter. There no leaves on the trees. The view to the front entrance to the office building was nearly unobstructed. Now, spring was evident. Leaves had budded. A magnolia was already in full bloom. Daffodils were at their prime. Tulips were just beginning to bud. The ground vegetation had filled in enough that the office building couldn’t be seen except from the end of the path. A couple of birds were calling each other somewhere nearby.
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