2011 Fiction Contest-Adult Third Place
He circled the building’s empty fourth floor again, peering into every open classroom, listening for the sounds of the floor buffer or the hollow smack of the plastic trashcans on the linoleum. On the third round, he found her, in classroom 412. She was on her hands and knees under a student’s desk, her rear bumping up and down against the desktop, as she concentrated on her task. The buzzing fluorescent lights and the scraping of the desk leg along the floor were the only sounds in the room. He usually only saw her from behind, a maroon-smocked figure receding down the long hallway where his office was located. He’d never actually seen her in his office, but the trashcan was always emptied before he arrived. And every Monday he could make out the faint lines on the carpet where the vacuum had been. But this Monday had been different. She had left something behind.
He wondered now if he should disturb her. She seemed intent on her task, even though, from his position, he couldn’t tell what it was. He took a few steps closer, crossing the door’s threshold toward the teacher’s podium. She wore the same maroon tunic and pants as the rest of the university’s custodial staff. Her shoes were like the matronly orthopedics worn by nurses, and she used nude stockings rather than socks. Her body’s position forced her top to ride up revealing the small of her back. It came as a shock and excited him a little to catch such an intimate glimpse of her.
She didn’t hear him enter the room, and as he came close enough, he could see a wrench in her right hand and a bottle of glue on the floor near the left. The wrench held the desk leg taut as she wiggled the leg’s foot to retighten it.
"I don’t smoke," he said.
She bumped her head on the desktop and then after slowly pulling herself to her feet replied, "Okay."
"Yes, well, I believe you left one of your butts in the ashtray in my office."
"How do you know it was mine?"
“I recognized the lipstick.”
“Hmm,” he thought he heard her answer. Then there was silence. Some of the hair around her face had come loose from her ponytail and partially hid the large Christmas-tree light bulb earrings that she had on, one red, one green. Her face was free of makeup, and the crow’s feet around her eyes extended almost to her hairline. He, himself, wore the signs of age, thinning hair, spotted hands, a creased forehead.
“So, I’ll no longer need an ashtray in my office.”
He saw it then briefly, a flash of loss.
Her lipstick was the same, even after all these years. Had that been a signal, he wondered, leaving her butt in his office ashtray. Was it like leaving a calling card, just meant to say hello, that she was still around? Or was it an invitation to begin again?
It had been a long time, almost fifteen years. He had just joined the university as an assistant professor. His hire generated some controversy. For one, he was a theorist in an engineering department. Second, he was foreign, a Greek at a research university in the Appalachian Mountains in the early 1970s.
They first met at an Italian restaurant housed in a doublewide out in the valley along a windy road. The place, Mama Somebody’s, served the biggest meatballs he’d ever seen in his life. A colleague took him there because he figured Italian was close to Greek. She waited tables, and when she brought him spaghetti and meatballs, he laughed. She and his colleague looked perplexed. And she began to look worried.
“Is everything all right?” she asked, the words hung together with a whiny pitch that hurt his ears.
He had already regained his composure and apologized. “Yes, it looks fine. Thank you.”
“Sure is delicious,” his colleague added with a mouth full of meatball.
“Good then,” she said. “Y’all need anything else, you just let me know.”
The next Friday, he came back but ordered the lasagna this time. And he came alone. She was his waitress again, wearing the same black pants that bunched up around her rear like only polyester can, her white t-shirt splattered with recently poured tomato sauce. He wondered if she did some of the cooking too. The place wasn’t big enough to house a large staff. But he could hear commotion coming from the kitchen and figured there must be at least a couple of people back there, packing together those giant meatballs that must stew in tomato sauce for hours to get cooked.
His serving of lasagna filled his plate, melted cheese oozing over the edge and onto the table. The majority of the dinner crowd had already come and gone. It was high school football season, and the evening games would be starting soon. Outside the window, dusk settled in, and the fiery shades of reds, oranges and yellows on the mountains became a mute grey. The lasagna tasted like the meatballs. The restaurant had just one flavor, tomato sauce, but it satisfied.
He watched her bussing the other tables, scrubbing at the stubborn globs of adhered cheese, her body rocking back and forth against the table edge. After a while, he was the only customer left. She came by the table to refill his iced tea. Her hair had fallen out of its ponytail around her ears, and she kept pushing it back with her wrist, careful not to get it dirty with her hands.
“You through with that?” she asked, motioning toward his plate.
“Can I get you anything else? Dessert maybe?”
“No, that will be fine.”
She fumbled in her apron pulling out a slightly greasy and wrinkled check.
“Well, here you go. You can pay me anytime. I have to go back and help clean up in the kitchen. So, take your time. No rush. Just holler if you need me.”
He needed her. “Wait.”
She was halfway through the kitchen door, the plastic tub of dishes by her side.
“Could I maybe get a coffee? Would you like one too?”
She wasn’t beautiful, he thought, especially not right now. And she was probably at least ten years younger than him, maybe in her early to mid-twenties. But she had bright blue eyes, the color of seawater, and dark brown hair. The combination unsettled him. They went back to his townhouse after the coffee. In the morning, in his bed, out of her waitressing clothes, she became beautiful. But something else had changed too, something between them. He no longer felt unsettled. She looked back at him, and he knew. He had taken something from her, some sense of self, and replaced it with uncertainty. This transaction was familiar to him having occurred with other women. It always seemed to result in a similar imbalance—he was the same as before, they were somehow less.