TIS A PUZZLE
By Mary Ann Presman
Linda got up from the kitchen table and took her cereal bowl to the sink to rinse it before putting it in the dishwasher. She glanced over at Russell, still in his pajamas and hunched over his granola, attacking the Star’s crossword puzzle with his ballpoint pen. It was Monday—this was fast and furious action. Later in the week, when the puzzles grew in difficulty, the pace would slow. Scribbles would be interspersed with chewing of the pen. Russell took seriously the admonition to exercise his brain in retirement.
Linda still worked; she had another seven months at Meridian Bank before she would be fully vested for retirement. She glanced at the clock on the microwave and reached for the jacket to her navy pantsuit, and her handbag, both hanging on a spare chair at the table.
“See you later, then,” she didn’t want to interrupt, but didn’t want to leave without serving notice to her husband that she was out the door.
“Okay.” Russell glanced up mid-scribble. “Later.”
As Linda backed her car out of the drive she tried to remember the last time her husband had kissed her goodbye. He used to give her a quick peck every morning when he left for work at the Chrysler plant—in those days he left the house before she did. Maybe the person leaving was supposed to instigate the kiss goodbye—and so it was her “fault” if she didn’t get a goodbye smooch now. But it could be dangerous to try to stick your face between Russell and the Star crossword—you could get stabbed with a ballpoint pen. It seemed easier to just leave; easier, but somehow lacking.
She was so absorbed in thought she had to stomp on the brake when she suddenly saw Fred, from two houses down, barreling down the sidewalk in his tracksuit.
That was close! She needed to be less distracted. But what about Fred? Couldn’t he slow down a little and wait for her—a woman on her way to work—to back out of the drive? Nope. Fred was another retiree—this one diligently tending to his exercise regime.
Whatever happened to sitting on the porch with a good book? Linda recalled the fantasies she had had of the retirement she would share with Russell. Walks along the bikepath on pretty autumn mornings. Afternoon movies at special senior rates. There were crossword puzzles involved—but they worked them together, combining their various interests to come up with the answers. That bubble had been burst early on in Russell’s retirement.
“You’re an old farm girl,” he had teased, “what’s a four letter word for farm wagon that begins with a ‘w’ and ends with an ‘n’?”
“First of all—I’m not an old farm girl. I spent a few summers on my grandmother’s farm, that’s all. And second, I haven’t a clue what that word would be. Four letters?”
So, in the blink of an eye, she had been tested and come up wanting. She was useless. Only on very rare occasions did Russell bother asking for her help—when he thought it was something she should know.
“You know all about flowers; what’s the state flower of Alabama?”
Linda liked her job. She looked forward to going to work every day—well, most days. Sometimes she stood in front of the closet too long, trying to decide what to wear. It’d be nice not to have to make that decision every day—nice not to have to make sure there was something presentable—and clean—available. Linda’s sister, Therese, took early retirement last year when the phone company made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. There were days when Therese barely got out of her pajamas—sometimes didn’t even take a shower. And she bragged about it! Linda and Therese were not a whole lot alike; it’s funny how that can happen with people who supposedly have the same genetic makeup.
So Linda did not envision spending a whole lot of time hanging out with her sister when she was retired. She had good friends at work—Celia and Rosemary. The three of them had worked together for a long time. Linda was somewhat older, Celia and Rosemary weren’t quite ready to retire. It would be a few years before they’d be available to go for coffee or do lunch or take a day trip somewhere.
“Hey there, Linda.” The young security guard was sharp—he had made it his business to learn everybody’s name within just a few days of being hired. So even though she kept her nametag in her desk, Rob was able to greet her by name every morning.
“Hey yourself, Rob. Everything under control?”
“It is now that you’re here,” he responded.
“Got that right.” She hadn’t bothered to check to see if he greeted everybody the same way—but Linda thought it was possible. Nevertheless, she appreciated his playful recognition of her status as one of the vice presidents of the bank—someone who did, indeed, have more than a little responsibility for keeping everything under control. She’d worked hard, put in her time, and had been promoted to vice president eight years ago.
“Probably needed to make sure they had enough females at the top,” had been Russell’s comment when she burst through the door that night after work with her surprise announcement. Linda had her own suspicions along that line but thought it less than chivalrous of her husband to make such an observation. But that was Russell for you. Or, maybe there was something about her promotion that rankled him a little. He had worked on the production floor at Chrysler forever—made good money, a lot more than Linda ever dreamed of making even with this promotion—but he didn’t go to work in a suit and tie. Maybe she was just imagining a tiny bit of resentment. “The Suits” at Chrysler were a pain in the neck as far as Russell was concerned.
“Fred wants to see you,” Bonnie told her as she passed her assistant’s desk on the way to her office.
The president of the bank prided himself on being the first one in the office every day, so Linda wasn’t concerned about his being here ahead of her.
“Have a chair. You want some coffee?” Fred asked as she came in. He rose and closed the door.
“I felt we should touch base on your future plans,” Fred said.
“Okay…” Linda wasn’t sure what he meant exactly.
“I mean, I know you’ve previously spoken about retiring as soon as you were eligible for full benefits. And that’s coming up soon, isn’t it?”
“Do you have big plans for your retirement? Places to go? People to see?”
“Not really.” Linda was uncomfortable admitting this.
“And, if I remember correctly, your husband is already retired?”
“Yes. He’s been retired for a little over a year.”
“So I thought maybe you had plans made for when both of you are retired. Travel plans? A move to a warmer climate?”
“No.” Linda crossed and uncrossed her ankles. “Russell kind of likes being at home…not doing anything special.”
“How about you?” Fred smiled to show this was a friendly question, not an inquisition about her marriage.
“Oh, I’m good with that.”
“Are you happy in your work?”
“You seem to be,” Fred said. He got up from behind his desk and came around to sit in the chair beside her, moving it a little so he was more or less facing her rather than sitting alongside. “And we’ve been very happy with your work.”
“Good.” Linda wondered if this was standard exit-interview jargon.
“In fact, we really hate to see you leave,” Fred said.
“I’m actually dreading the day myself,” Linda admitted, feeling herself exhale a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.
“Well, then, maybe you’d consider staying on?”
“Really?!” Linda sat taller, her spine straightening at this unexpected suggestion.
“Really. We’ll be hiring a few new people in the next few months, and I think you’d be the ideal person to train them, bring them up to speed. Your work ethic has always been exemplary—I would hope you’d be able to pass that on to any new staff.”
Linda sat in stunned silence.
“If that appeals to you?” Fred hastened to ask. “I wouldn’t want to upset your applecart at home.”
Linda shook her head yes, than no.
“We won’t add to your workload. We’d pass some of your present duties on to others—mostly to Jeffrey, he’s in line for a vice-presidency within the next year or so.”
“Right…” she wished she could summon an intelligent response.
“And we’d be willing to sweeten the deal by giving you a ten percent raise.”
Linda’s eyes widened.
“Couldn’t expect you to delay your retirement without some reward, could we?” Fred smiled at her again. She knew she should say something…anything. “Why don’t you think about it for a few days—talk it over with your husband—and then let me know if you’re willing to stay on with us a little longer.”
“How much longer?” Linda immediately regretted her question, because she didn’t really care, but she was curious.
“Oh, I think at least a year or two, if that’s alright with you. We can play it by ear.”
She kind of nodded again. Fred stood, signaling the end of their conversation. Linda got to her feet, shook Fred’s hand, and managed to find her way out. When she got to her own office, her assistant looked up, frankly inquisitive. Linda brushed quickly by Bonnie’s desk, went in, closed the door, sat at her desk, and burst into tears.
Russell was watching golf on TV when Linda arrived home from work that evening. Sapphire, the cat they had inherited when their daughter moved to an apartment that didn’t allow pets, was curled up in his lap. Russell didn’t play golf, but Linda hoped that adding the Golf Channel to their cable package would inspire him. It hadn’t worked so far, but they’d only had the channel for a month. Russell seemed to be getting lumpier day by day, maybe she needed to push the golf thing a little.
“Oh, that looks nice,” Linda said. “Where are they playing?” She set her purse down and gave Russell a bit of a kiss on the cheek before easing herself out of her jacket.
“California,” he said, carefully following a Rory McIlroy putt as it rolled slowly but surely across the green and into the cup. He gave a fist pump then looked at her with a big grin—“Luck of the Irish!”
“Speaking of luck…” Linda began, intending to launch into the little speech she had rehearsed off and on for much of the afternoon.
“Wait just a sec—Tiger’s about to tee off.” Russell held up his hand to ward off any further conversation.
Linda sighed and went to change her clothes before starting dinner. Well, the part about getting him interested in golf had worked—but getting him out of the house to actually play golf himself would be another matter. She carefully hung her pantsuit in her closet, then eased into her jeans and Cubs shirt. Linda felt herself relax a notch just putting on the blue jeans and t-shirt. There was definitely a physical comfort to wearing cotton—a tactile thing that she had begun to recognize and appreciate only in the last few years. If she were retired, she could wear jeans all day most days.
Linda had to pass through the living room again to get to the kitchen. Russell glanced up as she went by. “Tiger’s not having a very good day,” he reported, standing and clicking the OFF button on the remote. Sapphire tumbled softly to the carpet, then performed a long end-of-nap stretch.
“Why don’t you fix us a drink?” Linda suggested, as Russell and Sapphire followed her into the kitchen.
“Good idea—you want gin or vodka?”
“Vodka, I think.” She opened the refrigerator and handed him a lime and grabbed the chicken breasts she was going to pan-sauté for supper, then ducked out of the way as Russell opened the freezer to retrieve the chilled bottle of Ketel One.
“Maybe I should take up golf,” Russell suggested as he dropped ice cubes into two tall glasses.
“That sounds like a good idea,” Linda struggled to keep her response low-key.
“I’m probably too old, though. And what would Sapphire do with me gone for hours at a time?” Russell poured a little vodka in her glass, a little more in his, then added lots of diet tonic to both.
“She managed just fine when we were both working,” Linda pointed out.
“She did, didn’t she? And you’ll be retiring soon, so she’ll have you around for company.” Russell handed her a glass and then clinked his to hers. “Are we drinking to something special?”
“To golf…” Linda suggested.
“To retirement,” Russell replied.
Linda turned away and took a sip of her drink, holding the icy cold liquid in her mouth, inhaling the tang of the lime, savoring the smooth taste of the vodka. For just a moment, she closed her eyes and was elsewhere. She could understand why some women became drunks in their old age.
When she opened her eyes, Russell was looking at her. “Everything all right?”
“Fine.” It was funny how he could be so unaware of some of her frustrations some of the time, but other times his radar seemed to be acutely tuned in.
“Want me to set the table?” he asked.
“Sure.” Did he need permission? Oh, now she was getting persnickety. The dear man was just trying to be helpful—and she’s finding something wrong with that? Linda took another gulp of her drink and set the glass down. She rolled a lemon around on the cutting board and got out her zester, one of her favorite kitchen instruments. All it took was a couple of swipes and the air was filled with the incomparable fresh smell of lemon. A little pile of lemon zest appeared, ready to put some zip into whatever you were making—in this case, a Dijon marinade for the chicken breasts. Linda liked to cook. She would enjoy having more time to experiment with new recipes—whenever she retired.
While the chicken was browning, Linda chopped carrots and tomatoes, peeled and sliced part of a cucumber, and rinsed the salad greens. She turned the chicken breasts over, poured the remaining marinade over them, then put a lid on the pan to let them cook a little longer.
Russell had wandered out into the backyard after he set the table, Linda found him sitting in one of the deck chairs on the patio, eyes closed and head bobbing forward on his chest.
“About that retirement thing,” she began.
Russell’s eyes flew open and he grinned sheepishly at her. “I was all worn out from setting the table,” he said.
“Right.” Linda settled in the chair next to his, fixed her eyes on him, and gave Russell a tentative smile.
“Do I need to fix myself another drink?” he asked, draining his glass.
“No, don’t do that.” Linda put her hand on top of his—she didn’t want him to get up. Not now. “We have to talk about my retirement.”
“What’s to talk about? You wanna make plans? Take a trip somewhere?”
“No, that’s just it,” Linda took her hand away and used both of them to hold onto her drink. “They’ve asked me to stay on at the bank.” There, she’d said it.
“Stay on? What for? How long?”
“Fred thinks I would be good at helping train some of the new staffers we’ll be hiring in the next several months.”
“In fact, he’d actually like me to stay on for as long as a couple more years.”
“But you were all set to retire. Right? In just six or seven months? That’s not fair, is it?”
“Actually, I’d like to stay on, Russ.”
“C’mon. Are you serious?” Russell stood and looked at her. “I mean, you’ve put in your time. You deserve to take it easy.”
“I’m not so sure I’m ready to ‘take it easy.’” Linda remained seated, hoping Russell would sit back down. “I like my job. And it’s not like we’ve made any special plans.”
“Well, we could.”
“The extra money I’ll be earning could help pay for some of those plans.”
“But what am I supposed to do?”
“Just what you’ve been doing. You’ve been happy these last few months, haven’t you? With your crossword puzzles…and now you’re going to take up golf.”
“That’s not for sure.” Russell remained standing, kind of shifting from one foot to the other.
“Well, it’s a possibility.”
“I need another drink,” he said, and abruptly turned to go back in the house.
Dinner was a quiet affair…until Russell turned on the TV. “I just want to see how that tournament turned out.” What he obviously did not want to do was discuss Linda’s non-retirement. The avoidance lasted throughout the evening.
“Are you coming to bed soon?” Linda asked as she bent to give him a goodnight kiss.
“I’m not very tired.” This, from the same man whose head had been nap-bobbing on the patio just a few hours earlier.
And so Linda went to work the next day with nothing really resolved. Fred poked his head in the door of her office. “Did you and your hubby have a chance to talk things over?”
“Not really. We were both kind of busy last night. We’ll probably have more time over the weekend.”
“Good.” He paused. “Do you think there’s going to be a problem with you staying on?”
“Oh, no.” She summoned a reassuring smile. “I just need to find the right time to bring it up.”
“Okay. I’ll check in with you Monday.” He gave the doorframe a little pat. “Have a good weekend.”
“Right. You, too.”
Why didn’t she just tell Fred she’d be staying on? She was going to—she knew that. Even if Russell raised a fuss. Did she really need his permission? Maybe not his permission—but at least his agreement would be nice. Linda was not looking forward to the weekend.
She spent Saturday tiptoeing around on the proverbial eggshells while Russell was in the house. Thankfully, he was inventing all kinds of reasons not to be around—off to the hardware store and the library, both places where he could spend an inordinate amount of time. And Saturday night they were more or less forced to avoid the subject when they went to dinner with their friends, Barry and Sue. Linda realized she was the only one in the foursome who was not retired, even though Sue was a few years younger. They yakked on and on about the cruise they had just enjoyed.
“We had so much fun we’re already making plans for our next one. One of those river cruises in Europe, I think,” Sue proclaimed.
“What’s wrong with this country?” Russell asked.
“Nothing, nothing. But we’ve seen pretty much all there is to see here,” Barry hastened to point out.
“All there is to see?” Russell’s challenge was aborted by the waiter coming to ask if they wanted dessert.
And then Russell and Linda were home—just the two of them. Russell walked straight to his recliner and was reaching for the remote when Linda stopped him.
“We can’t avoid this discussion any longer, Russ.”
“You know…about the offer the bank made me…to stay on.”
“I just don’t see why you don’t want to retire,” Russell began. “We could travel like Barry and Sue.”
“If we could agree on where we wanted to go.”
“We’d figure it out.”
“But the places we want to go see will still be there if we wait a couple more years.” Linda thought this would sound logical, even to Russell.
“They might be, but will we?” Russell plunked into his recliner.
“What are you saying?”
“I’m just saying, you never know when one of us is going to…you know… kick off.”
“Is there something you’re not telling me?” Linda asked. “I thought you got a clean bill of health from the doctor just a couple of months ago.”
“So? That doesn’t mean something won’t happen…or some terrible disease won’t strike…in the next couple years. Or next month.” Russell pointed the remote at her for emphasis.
“Something could ‘happen’ next week, Russ. We can’t go around making decisions on something maybe happening.”
“But it might.” Russell clicked the TV on, and turned away. Then he clicked it off again. “What about that trip we talked about—taking Heidi’s kids to D.C.?” Again with the remote pointed at her.
“What about it?”
“Those kids are gonna be teenagers and not wanting to go anywhere with their doddering old grandparents by the time you’re ready to retire and spend a little time with the rest of us.”
Linda was dumbfounded. “You’re not making any sense.”
“Gotcha on that one, didn’t I?”
“I’m going to make myself a drink.” Linda needed to hit the pause button on this conversation.
“Bring me a beer while you’re at it, will ya?”
There it was—a perfect example of what her days and nights of retirement would be like. Russell in his recliner with the all-powerful remote, and Linda waiting on him hand and foot. She opened the refrigerator door and surveyed its contents, then made a managerial decision.
Linda came back into the living room with two small glasses of tomato juice.
“What’s this? We can’t be out of beer?”
“I just think that if we’re going to have a reasonable discussion, neither one of us needs any more alcohol.”
“I can be reasonable and drink beer at the same time.” Russell grinned at her, then reached up to click his juice glass against hers. “Truce?”
“Truce.” Linda sat down on the ottoman.
“I just wish you could understand that this offer means a lot to me. I’m flattered, sure—but it’s also like a validation of the work I’ve been doing—work I like doing.”
“More than you like bringing me beers?” he teased.
“I know that’s hard to believe…” she realized Russell understood more than she thought he did.
“How about this?” Linda set her glass down on the end table and leaned forward with her hands clasped in front of her. “How about if I tell Fred I’ll stay another year? Twelve months. Then I’ll retire for sure.”
“Why will you be ready then, but you’re not now?”
“At least I will have taken advantage of this opportunity. I won’t have regrets about having turned down what I think is a very appealing offer.” She paused. “And in the meantime, you can get on the computer and plan a trip for us with the grandkids. And maybe one for just the two of us.”
“You’re good at this, y’know? This negotiating stuff.” Russell picked up one of her hands and brought it to his lips. “I think we’ve got ourselves a deal.”
Linda awoke early the next morning. Something in her subconscious told her she was alone in bed. Sure enough—when she opened one eye to peek over at Russell’s side of the bed, it was empty. Didn’t even seem to have been slept in.
She got up and went to the open doorway of their bedroom and could hear the TV. He must have fallen asleep watching Saturday Night Live. Linda thought about going back to bed—it was Sunday morning, after all—but knew she wouldn’t go back to sleep. Maybe she’d go down and start the coffee before she showered.
One of those half-hours of paid commercial time selling the perfect piece of exercise equipment was quietly attempting to persuade Russell, who appeared to be paying no attention and in a sound sleep in his recliner with his back to her. Should she wake him? She came up behind him; stepped closer.
Something was wrong. There was a sour odor. She reached over to shake his shoulder but stopped. Ohmigod. Something was terribly wrong. She did then—she put her hand on his shoulder at the same time she stepped around for a better look.
“Russell? Russell!” He was grey, his mouth hung open, his pants were soiled. She picked up the remote that had fallen to the floor and put it on the end table next to him. She shook his knee. “Russell!”
Call 9-1-1. There might still be time. She stumbled to the kitchen and punched in the numbers.
Ten days later, Linda was back in the office. “Take as much time as you want,” had been Fred’s admonition. And she had. After the days of funeral arranging and dazed family gathering and trying to sort out who would sleep where—they had all gone back to their respective homes.
“Come with us for a week or so,” Adriana—her sweet daughter-in-law had urged.
“No, maybe I’ll come for a visit later.” She didn’t want to be the one who had to explain to Benjamin and Marcy why their grandfather was not with her. Linda wasn’t sure she knew why Russell wasn’t still around to play “Go Fish” with them.
At least here in the office, there was some semblance of routine. No question what to do next. Her duties were known to her and she busied herself right through lunch and on up to five o’clock.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Rosemary asked as she peeked her head in the door of Linda’s office.
“You want to go have a drink?” Rosemary half-heartedly suggested.
“No.” They both knew that wasn’t going to be a good path to go down. “I’ll be okay, honest. I just want to finish up with this.” Linda pointed at her computer screen as if there was an all-consuming project to be completed.
“Okay, then. See you tomorrow.”
Linda at last forced herself to go home. She opened the front door to overwhelming silence. Linda walked over to Russell’s recliner, lightly caressed the cool leather surface of the arm and, after a moment of hesitation, she sat down in the chair. Sapphire appeared out of nowhere and jumped into her lap.
“Now what do we do?” she asked the cat.
About the Author:
Mary Ann Presman is an author of short stories and a playwright, retired after a long career as an ad copywriter. Her work has appeared in the online journals Adanna, Slippery Elm, Hypertext, The Raven’s Perch, in the journal Kippis!, in the OASIS Journal 2016, and in collections entitled, “Curse? There Ain’t No Stinking Chicago Cub Curse,” “Love from Galena,” and “Sweet and Saucy Stories from Galena,” She is a snowbird, nurtured by two writing groups—one in Tucson led by Meg Park, and the other in Galena, Illinois, led by Peggy Stortz. She is currently working on a collection called “The Good Dishes.”