by Dell R. Lipscomb
“I got an application from somebody at Alton Diabetic Supplies,” Paige stated. “Lanesha Timmons. She listed you as a reference.”
It took a few moments for Louisa Barrow to remember her erstwhile coworker and give her current supervisor a response. “I sat two cubicles away from Lanesha,” Louisa replied. “She wasn’t anything spectacular.”
“You don’t think I should hire her?”
“You can get someone better.”
Paige’s usual demeanor, the mien of a kindly grandmother, returned as she patted Louisa on the shoulder. “Thank you for your insight.”
Louisa turned to her computer screen and brushed a stray blonde hair away from her forehead, relieved that she had been able to say what she said with a straight face. As far as Louisa knew, Lanesha was good at her job. But Louisa didn’t want Lanesha or any other Laboring Ladies Club member showing up at the Merit Health Offices. Workdays in the claims processing department were fine without them. She was around her kind of people, and that suited her.
The drive home included a detour to Renny’s Supermarket. Her kitchen was running low on the types of healthy foods that were keeping Kenneth from regaining the seventy pounds he’d lost. Kenneth had been more jovial since dropping the weight. It was the new Kenneth who lowered his six-foot five frame down on one knee and asked her, Louisa Jane Reynolds, to marry him. A few rain clouds hovered in the sky as she loaded two bags of groceries into her car’s trunk. Snow clouds weren’t expected to appear for another three months, thank goodness. The TV weather people said the area was going to have a typical winter…cold with some snow, but not as much as the folks up north usually get. A familiar sign came into view shortly after making a left turn out of Renny’s parking lot. Large red Brush Script letters on a green background spelled the words CHELSEA’S BAR AND GRILL. The Laboring Ladies Club members might be there—they often were on Mondays. Louisa’s large brown eyes glanced at the parking lot, searching for Vonette’s white Mazda.
The corners of Louisa’s mouth drooped when she spotted Vonette’s car. The sudden melancholy overwhelming Louisa was a sadness of stress, frustration and loneliness. Tears blurred her view of the Mazda. Louisa wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and kept driving. The melancholy feeling didn’t abate when she got home. Kenneth’s pickup was parked in the driveway of their split‑level corner house. Louisa entered the kitchen through the side door. Kenneth was leaning against the kitchen counter, chugging water from a plastic bottle.
“Beat you home,” Kenneth said to Louisa.
“Had to pick up a few things at the store,” Louisa listlessly replied.
“I see the bags. When I worked second shift at the furniture factory you always beat me home.” The odor of grime and sweat resulting from a day of repairing HVAC systems briefly filled Louisa’s nostrils as Kenneth kissed her cheek.
“Remember the ladies at Alton I used to get together with after work? We met at Chelsea’s three or four times a week. We called ourselves The Laboring Ladies Club. You met them at the after-hours holiday party last year.”
“Yeah. Black ladies and a Mexican.” Kenneth’s reply was offhanded, like the time he referred to one of his vo-tech instructors as a “fudge brown black guy.”
“Imelda is Puerto Rican.”
“Whatever. Same difference. What about them?”
“I passed Chelsea’s after I left the store. Vonette’s car was there.”
“So?” Kenneth vigorously chewed a piece of gum like a rock in need of pulverizing.
“I think I miss them more than I figured I would.”
“Don’t know why. You work with nice folks at Merit. You don’t need to have anything to do with those women at Alton.”
“Well yeah, true.”
Kenneth started backing towards the door leading from the kitchen to the den. “I’ll get out of your way so you can whip up some supper if you feel up to it. I know I’m not supposed to eat a whole lot, but could you give me a little more than you put on the table yesterday?” He patted his chest. “This big heart needs a lot of nourishment.”
Louisa normally laughed when Kenneth said something like that. This time she couldn’t muster a smile.
“You’ve been acting sad and gloomy all day,” Paige said to Louisa, concern showing in Paige’s gray-blue eyes. “What’s the matter, hon?”
“I think I’m starting to miss my peeps at Alton,” Louisa glumly replied.
Betty sprung from her chair opposite Louisa’s cubicle. “Not even my homemade oatmeal raisin cookies could cheer her up!” Betty wailed.
Paige placed a comforting hand on Louisa’s shoulder. “You know we’re like family here. My office door is always open if you need me.”
Louisa, still unable to smile, nodded.
“The cookies were yummy,” Paige said to Betty as she walked away from Louisa’s cubicle.
Louisa focused on her remaining workload and completed it despite the melancholy that still clung to her after nearly twenty-four hours. As she exited the building she decided to make another side trip before going home.
Vonette’s car was parked near the front entrance to Chelsea’s. It was recognizable because of the personalized license plate: VONONE. Louisa parked next to Vonette’s car and entered the brick building. Vonette was seated at a table with Jackie and Imelda. Louisa approached the trio. “Hey.”
Shrieks of joyous recognition were the replies Louisa received. Vonette’s ample arms encircled and squeezed Louisa. “How have you been, girl?”
“I’m fine now.” It was as if Vonette had squeezed the melancholy out of her. She sat in the chair between Vonette and Jackie.
“The Laboring Ladies are reunited!” Imelda proclaimed.
“Louisa will always be one of us,” Vonette stated. “She’s still a lady that labors, but at a different place.”
“And still needs to have a drink and blow off steam at the end of the day,” Jackie added with a wink.
“I wanted to see my peeps again,” Louisa said. “I miss you all.”
“You know we miss you,” Vonette stated. “How are things at Merit?”
“Great. It doesn’t pay much more than Alton but it’s a lot less stressful.”
“I know that’s right. You’re not on the phone with upset customers. And you don’t have to deal with Roger Harrelson.”
“He’s still with Alton?”
“Unfortunately for us all, yes,” Jackie said with a roll of her chestnut brown eyes.
“That man…omigosh…he used to make me cry,” Louisa said.
“He has that effect on everybody,” Imelda remarked. “How did he ever become a supervisor?”
“I would say he kissed a manager’s ass but who’d want Roger’s mouth on his or her ass?” Vonette smacked her lips in distaste.
They all laughed. “I love what you said about him in the cafeteria,” Louisa told Vonette. “I was crying a lake of tears because a customer yelled at me and he said I didn’t handle the customer properly. You told me, ‘Roger needs to get on the phone with nasty people so he can talk to a kindred spirit.’” Louisa smiled as the others laughed. Vonette’s words had lifted her spirits that day, enabled her to endure the remainder of her shift.
Imelda pointed downward. “Most of Roger’s kindred spirits are way below the surface of the earth, if you know what I mean,” she stated with a look of contempt on her lovely, angular face.
Vonette tapped Louisa on the arm. “Lanesha applied for an opening in Merit’s claims department. She put you down as a reference on the application. Has anybody said anything to you about that?”
“Um…no,” Louisa replied. “Speaking of which, why isn’t she here?”
“Lanesha wanted to go straight home. She had a rough day.”
Louisa seized the opportunity to end a conversation that was becoming awkward. “And I need to get home and fix supper and put out the trash.”
“Garbage collection is on Wednesdays in your neighborhood? Where do you live?” Vonette inquired.
“The new development off Ennis Road. Kenneth and I bought a house there. We can afford it because Kenneth’s new job pays twice as much as he was making at the furniture factory.”
“How is that rascal?”
“He’s fine. Likes his job and loves our new home.”
“I heard the developer lowballed Melba Johnstone when he bought her lot,” Jackie said.
“He sure did,” Vonette stated. “Mrs. Johnstone wasn’t in the right frame of mind to negotiate after the fire destroyed the daycare center. The lawsuits and investigations and having three children die in the fire wore her down. She just wanted to get rid of the lot and put what happened behind her.”
“I remember that,” Imelda said. “Faulty wiring caused the fire. The daycare center was on the corner of Garth and Marian, right?”
“That’s where it was,” Jackie affirmed.
“There’s a house there now,” Louisa added. “I can see it from my kitchen window. And like I said, I need to get to that kitchen and fix supper.” She rose, gave her ex-coworkers a hug, and left Chelsea’s with a smile on her face.
Kenneth was in the den when Louisa came home. He was on the couch, channel surfing with the TV remote. “Beat you home again. I’m on a two-day winning streak.”
“Two days in a row is not a winning streak.” Louisa kissed Kenneth’s cheek. “I was at Chelsea’s. It was like old times.”
“Why were you there?”
“You don’t work with them anymore.” Kenneth sounded like his uncle did whenever he mentioned “those people.”
“Well, one of them asked about you. Vonette wanted to know how you’re doing.” Louisa left the den and set about the task putting garbage on the curb. She rolled the plastic garbage container from the rear of the house to the curb and positioned it next to the juniper bush flanking the front walk. A juniper sporting dark green needles also adorned the front lawn of the house on Garth and Marian. A place where three children died was now someone’s home. She wondered if the people who lived there were enjoying a peaceful evening. She certainly wasn’t.
“You seem to be in a slightly better mood today,” Paige remarked.
“I am,” Louisa replied, still feeling good about yesterday evening despite Kenneth’s attitude.
“Good. We won’t have to give you a double dose of Betty’s cookies after all.”
“But you can have as many as you want,” Betty added.
“Just Louisa, or everybody?” Kirk, the only man in the claims department, asked from the cubicle behind Betty’s.
“Everybody, sweetie,” Betty said.
“Hey, Paige, I was wrong about Lanesha Timmons,” Louisa said. “I had her confused with somebody else. She’s a good worker.”
“I’ve already hired someone else,” Paige replied. “But I’ll keep her in mind the next time there’s an opening.”
“Okay.” Louisa tried to console herself as she finished the remainder of her day’s work. Reminding herself that a claims department job with Merit wouldn’t pay much more than what Alton pays didn’t help. She would get Lanesha’s contact information from one of The Laboring Ladies so she could give her a heads up as soon as another position became available—that’s what she’d do. It would be her reason for going back to Chelsea’s.
The Laboring Ladies were at the same table as the day before. Lanesha was with them. Vonette scooted a chair from an empty table and made room for Louisa. “Couldn’t stay away, could you?”
“Well, I can’t be a permanent member of The Laboring Ladies Club if I don’t show up for meetings, right?” Louisa turned to Lanesha. “Glad you’re here. My supervisor at Merit hired somebody else but she’s going to keep you in mind. Give me your contact information and I’ll let you know when something else opens up so you can reapply.”
“Okay,” The slender, dark-skinned young woman recited her phone number and e-mail address, her voice faltering with disappointment as Louisa entered the information into her smartphone.
“Wish we could all go to Merit right now,” Vonette stated.
“Lord, yes,” Jackie added.
“Things got rough at Alton today?” Louisa inquired.
“It was a typical day at Alton,” Jackie replied. “You know how it is.”
“Oh yeah. At least it’s Hump Day.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
All the ladies nodded in agreement.
“Remember the time Roger heard somebody say it was Hump Day and he thought that person was talking about humping?” Imelda asked.
“He thought she was talking about humping her man after work!” Vonette howled. “He took her to Human Resources. When they left HR his face was red and she was giggling.”
“I remember that,” Louisa said as the others laughed. “My goodness…”
They all laughed until Jackie pointed and exclaimed, “Big man!”
Kenneth was standing midway between the entrance and the table.
Vonette motioned for Kenneth to come to the table. “C’mon and join The Laboring Ladies. Are you gonna offer to drink all the tap beer like you volunteered to do at the party?”
“That was nice of you, Kenneth,” Jackie said. “Offering to empty the beer taps so the restaurant could do maintenance on them.”
Every Laboring Lady roared with laughter except Louisa. Kenneth’s expression was stern.
Louisa said nothing as she rose from the table and followed Kenneth to the parking lot. They didn’t speak as they went to their separate vehicles. Kenneth exited the parking lot first. He was standing at the head of the driveway when Louisa got home. She wondered if Kenneth was going to say or do anything before she made it to the side door. She got out of the car and stood more than an arm’s length away from her husband. “Why don’t you go inside? Are you making sure I won’t turn around and head back to Chelsea’s?”
“Seems like I need to,” Kenneth replied.
The shrill, frenetic chirping of a finch commenced in the ensuing silence. Two other finches were chirping by the time Louisa stepped inside the house. She wasn’t going to fix supper—Kenneth could throw something together for himself if he liked. Her evening was going to end early. The trio of birds could be heard as Louisa got in bed.
“Honey, what’s going on with you? Is it Kenneth? Something else?” Paige asked.
“It’s him and other things,” Louisa replied.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“It’s him and other things,” Louisa repeated, summoning the willpower to speak above a dejected whisper.
“All of our health plans include coverage for counseling.”
Louisa gave Paige a nod and exited the building without her usual “have a good evening.” Melancholy had once again firmly settled into Louisa’s mind. The acuteness of the melancholy heightened whenever she thought of The Laboring Ladies. During the drive home she tried to focus on ways to end the silence between her and Kenneth that began the previous evening. Kenneth’s pickup came into view as she neared their house. “You just had to come home early to see if I was here,” Louisa muttered.
Kenneth was sitting on the couch in the den. The TV set was off. He stared at the wall behind the TV, a bewildered expression on his face.
“You’re home early,” Louisa observed. “As you can see, I came straight home from work.”
“I’ve been here awhile. I got fired.”
“Fired for what?”
“We were doing repairs on a ventilation system in one of the downtown office buildings. “When we got there I couldn’t remember how to do it.”
“Wait a minute, you’re saying—“
“I couldn’t think of what came first or anything. Charlie, the supervisor on the job, got on my case because I was just standing there, doing nothing. I shoved him.”
Louisa stared at her husband, mouth agape, for a moment. “How could you forget what you learned in all those morning vocational classes you took?”
“If I’d known I would’ve figured it out!” Kenneth was on his feet now, face and neck turning scarlet. Louisa fled to the bedroom, locked the door and waited for pounding and yelling that never began.
“Have a good evening. Three more days ‘til the weekend,” Paige said, her lilting voice trying to coax a happy response out of Louisa. She breezed past Louisa and into the parking lot.
Louisa nodded. Three days away from the weekend. Two weeks and five days since Kenneth got fired. She hadn’t seen Vonette’s car in Chelsea’s parking lot since the day before then. I’ll look for it one more time, Louisa told herself as she headed for her car.
Vonette’s white Mazda wasn’t near Chelsea’s front entrance. Louisa searched the entire length of the parking lot before pulling into a space. She hesitated for a moment, then selected Lanesha’s number from her phone’s contacts list.
“Hey, Louisa,” Lanesha said after three rings. Dance music and chatter could be heard on Lanesha’s end.
“Hey. Where have you all been? I haven’t seen you at Chelsea’s recently. I’m there now.”
“Louisa’s on the phone?” Vonette’s voice inquired.
Jackie spoke. “Tell her to tell her husband to—“
“Hold on,” Vonette interrupted.
“We’re at a different bar,” Lanesha told Louisa. “Imelda heard about it on the radio after we left Chelsea’s the last time you saw us. We decided to give the place a try and liked it. The name of it is—“
The music and chatter ended with a sound like a feeble electronic burp. The line had disconnected. Lanesha’s name was no longer in the phone’s contacts list. Louisa scrolled through the list nearly a dozen times. It should have still been under L for Lanesha but it wasn’t. Louisa allowed her phone to slip out of her hand and onto the front passenger seat.
The TV in the den was on when Louisa entered her house. Kenneth, barefoot and wearing jeans with an undershirt, was munching on a slice of pizza. The partially eaten pizza on the table contained chunks of pepperoni, sausage and ground beef. No vegetable toppings.
“Doesn’t look like you went job hunting today,” Louisa observed.
“I looked at a couple of listings. Can’t remember a lot of what I knew, so there’s no point in checking them out.”
“The furniture factory might take you back. They’re usually looking for help.”
“I said I’m not going back there,” Kenneth growled.
“You don’t have many choices at this point.” Louisa went to the kitchen to make herself a salad. The melancholy was once again unshakeable, an amalgam of demoralizing memories from her time at Alton. The balm of camaraderie and supportiveness from The Laboring Ladies had lost its efficacy. Recollections of them no longer buoyed her spirits. Unrelieved stress and inconsolable despondency persisted. Louisa gathered the salad ingredients from the refrigerator and placed them on the counter.
The breeze started modestly, like the intonation of a shy teenage girl trying to get someone’s attention. Louisa began rinsing a celery stalk under the faucet. The breeze howled, followed by a thud and rattle. The garbage container at the curb across the street was on its side, trash spilling out of its plastic maw. Every bush and tree in sight remained still except the juniper bordering the front walk across the street. The juniper’s branches swayed in the breeze like a cluster of fingers waving at Louisa as she forlornly stared from her kitchen window.
About the Author:
Dell R. Lipscomb is a former radio announcer who listens to any type of music that sounds good and will lend an ear to anyone who has something interesting to say. Dell currently resides in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia.