The Color of Love, 2009 First Place Adult Division

By Dianne S. Anderson

Maureen shouted to her husband. “Jake, time to go.”

“I know, I know.” Jake pushed past her and she heard the front door slam. She shoved the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher and made a quick swipe across the table with the dishrag.
“Come on, kids. It’s time to go, NOW.”
Three-year-old Connor toddled into the kitchen, shoelaces flopping, dragging his coat. Sylvia was right behind him, already wearing her coat and backpack, thank goodness.

“Tyler, where are you?” Maureen hated her voice rising, hated the impatience, but what could she do? She knelt and tied Connor’s shoelaces, yanking them so tight he yelped.

“Sylvia, get his coat on him and you guys get in the car.” Maureen ran to Tyler’s room. He lay stretched out on his stomach on the floor, running a Hot Wheels car around its track and making car noises in his throat.

“Didn’t you hear me calling you? Get up right now and get your coat on. I’ve got to get to work.”

Tyler scrambled to his feet and grabbed his coat off the bed. Maureen followed him to the kitchen, stepping on his heels.

Twenty minutes later, Tyler and Connor had been dropped off at day care and Sylvia delivered to second grade. Maureen fought her way through the traffic, praying she wouldn’t be late again. When Fairview slowed to a crawl, she drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. The minutes ticked by and she stared at her watch in despair.

When she entered the outer office, Bagley’s door was closed. She hung up her coat and peered into the small mirror she kept in her desk, checking her lipstick. The face she saw had circles under the eyes and frown lines marring the smoothness of the forehead. Quickly she put the mirror away.

When Bagley’s door opened, she sat at her computer, entering data. She turned a professional smile on the man who preceded Bagley through the door.

“Look over that policy,” Bagley said. “If you have any questions, call me. I think our rates are competitive and I can promise you that you won’t get better service anywhere.”
“I’ll do that.” The stranger left and Bagley turned a silent glare on Maureen.

“ I’m sorry. There was an accident and traffic . . .”

“We’ve talked about this before. You said you wouldn’t be late again.”

“I know, I just . . .”

“I’m not going to keep warning you, Maureen. If you can’t get yourself to work on time, I can find someone who will.”

Maureen held back the tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks. She turned to the computer but then sat, hands in her lap. What would they do if she lost her job? They were barely making it as it was. If Jake would drop the kids off . . . but he couldn’t, it might make him late, and his job was more important than hers. She got up early every morning but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t seem to get everybody dressed and fed and out the door on time. Jake said she should get things organized the night before. But her evenings were full with dinner and baths and bedtime stories for the kids. And after they were in bed, there were a million chores to do. She never seemed to have a moment.

Weariness swept over her. This was as close to peace as she ever got, alone in her office, with Bagley behind his closed door doing whatever it was he did in there all day. Through the rain-streaked window, Maureen saw cars whizzing by, their bright colors seeming to stream behind them. Her vision blurred, just enough to let a picture form in her mind, colors and images floating, twining around each other, separating . . .

“Maureen, where’s that letter to Addison?”

Maureen started, then began pawing through the papers on her desk. “It’s right here. I finished it before I left last night.” She handed the sheet to Bagley, relieved when he took it to his office without speaking.

She turned back to her work, determined to stay on task and not let her mind wander. But she found herself thinking about Tyler, about how often she scolded him.

Poor Tyler. He’s like me, always daydreaming. And then . . . And I’m always yelling at him, just like Mom did me. I swore I wouldn’t do that.

She turned a pencil over and over in her fingers. How often was she late because something caught her eye, maybe the bright pink flare of petunias against the dark green of low-growing juniper? And before she knew it, she would be standing, staring, thinking about the colors, the textures, the drop of dew clinging to one petal, quivering. Suddenly fifteen minutes would have passed and once again, she would be rushing around trying frantically to make up the lost time.

Never again, she vowed. From now on, I keep my mind on what I’m doing.

* * *

Three days later, Maureen rushed through the office door and found Bagley standing by her desk. He lifted his wrist and stared at his watch, then back at her. Before he could speak, she stammered out an apology.

“There was nothing I could do. I left in plenty of time but they were doing road work and shut down two lanes.”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry. But I warned you. You can finish out the month while I find someone to replace you.”

Bagley strode into his office and closed the door behind him. Maureen sank into her chair. Fired. What would Jake say? He’d blame her, she knew that. No matter what happened, it was her fault. Why can’t you keep the house clean? Why is dinner always late? And now it would be, Why can’t you even keep a simple job?

Hands shaking, she hung up her coat and tried to work, as though if she did a really good job, Bagley would change his mind. But he didn’t come out of his office all morning.

At noon, Maureen left the office and walked to the Starbucks on the corner. She’d brought her lunch, as she always did, but today she wasn’t hungry. The coffee shop would have the newspapers and she could look through the want ads. Maybe she’d find another job before she had to tell Jake she’d been fired.

* * *

Maureen stared at the calendar. Three more days and she would be out of work. She’d posted her resume on Craigslist, gone through the want ads every day; contacted the State Job Service. Nobody was looking for a receptionist right now. After a week, she had widened the search. She would do anything—waiting tables, clerking, janitorial work. But no one was hiring. Now time was running out and she still hadn’t told Jake. She began to nibble at her thumbnail, or what was left of it.

As she frantically reviewed her efforts, she felt a strange quivering in her stomach. Waves of feeling swept over her, an unfamiliar feeling. It was anger, she realized with surprise, real, honest anger. She’d always hated this job. Jake said what a good job it was, great pay for someone with only a high school diploma. When she tried to tell him she loathed Bagley and the tedium of entering data into digital forms, he ignored her or told her she was spoiled.

It isn’t his life dribbling away, she thought. Yes, that was what it felt like. Her life was dribbling away, consumed by fixing meals and cleaning house, doing laundry, and day after day showing up for a job she despised.

She heard Bagley’s door open. Before, she would have immediately sat up straight, her hands on the keyboard to make him think she’d been working. Now, she didn’t bother. He could only fire her once.

Bagley cleared his throat. “I know I said you could stay until the end of the month but I’ve found a replacement and she can start tomorrow. So let’s make this your last day. Go ahead and clear out your desk.”

Maureen turned eyes that blazed on him. “You said the end of the month. I expect to be paid until then.”

Bagley stepped back. “Why . . . all right, sure. I’ll pay you through the thirtieth.” He returned to his office, staring over his shoulder at her.

Maureen watched him go. Once she’d been so nervous of him; now she dismissed him without a thought.

Well, she guessed she had no choice. She’d have to tell Jake. He couldn’t help noticing when she didn’t get ready for work in the morning. Or maybe . . . Suppose she got up and got dressed, the same way she usually did. She could drop the kids off and have the whole day to look for work. It would give her one more day before she had to listen to him complain about her failings.

But the next day went no better. She walked from store to store, filling out application forms everywhere they would let her. She passed out copies of her resume, a resume she had typed on Bagley’s time and copied using his copier. It made her feel a little better that, unknowingly, he was helping her in her job search. Still she didn’t tell Jake.

Two more days, she thought. Something’s got to turn up.

The last day came. Maureen wandered down the street, pausing from time to time to stare in a shop window. There were no more stores to apply to and no new jobs in the want ads. She’d called Job Service first thing this morning but they had nothing for her. She was out of time and out of ideas. She began rehearsing her conversation with Jake.

Bagley fired me for being late so often. And what would he say? What’s wrong with you that you can’t even get to work on time? And then she would say . . . But her thoughts ended there. She couldn’t think of a response that would placate him and satisfy her. And she’d have to tell him that she’d actually been fired three weeks ago. What explanation could she give for why she hadn’t told him? I just didn’t want to listen to you gripe? That would be all he needed to set him off. After all the years of listening to her parents fight, she vowed she wouldn’t do that in her own marriage. So she refused to argue, but that never stopped Jake from yelling at her.

Her wanderings took her out of downtown. Ahead of her she saw a tree, a maple she thought, its leaves glowing jewel red in a shaft of sunlight. Behind it another tree shone a brilliant gold. As she watched, a gust of wind tore leaves from both trees and sent them spinning into the air, a kaleidoscope of gold and red. The leaves drifted to the ground but she stood immobile, watching the maple leaves change from ruby to flame to mahogany as the breeze moved them from sun to shadow. She jumped when a voice spoke behind her.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

She turned to face the man who had spoken. White hair fell in untidy locks around a face whose lines spoke of years of laughter. “I love this time of year,” she replied. “The colors, all the different shades . . .”

“Trees are beautiful any time of year,” he said. “My favorite is that moment in the spring when the first hint of green along the dark branches tells us that winter is over and life is springing up again.”

“Yes,” she breathed. “I know just the moment you mean. It’s a green so tender it makes your heart hurt.” Her gaze lost focus as she saw in her mind black branches tinged with green, against a cold blue sky.

“Are you an artist?”

“Me?” Maureen laughed. “I can’t draw a straight line.”

“Art doesn’t have much to do with straight lines,” he said.

Maureen blushed. “I’m a receptionist. Well, I was a receptionist. Right now I’m looking for a new position.”

The man smiled. “Isn’t that interesting? I happen to be looking for a receptionist.” He gestured toward the two-story Victorian house half hidden behind the maple tree. On the lawn, Maureen saw a wooden sign: Sawtooth Center for the Arts.

“Come in.” He took her arm and led her toward the building. “Our receptionist gave us notice today. She’s moving with her husband out of state. I planned to advertise in a day or so. Maybe that won’t be necessary.”

Maureen stepped through the door into the foyer. To her left, in what must once have been a parlor, she saw an office with desk, filing cabinets, copy machine. A young, blonde, very pregnant woman sat at the desk, talking on the phone. Stairs rose directly ahead of her, with a hallway running to the back of the house.

“I want to show you something.” The man led the way down the hall. Maureen followed close behind him. They passed through a kitchen and the man opened a door and stood back so Maureen could precede him.

She walked into the room and stopped. Windows high on the walls spilled crystal light over everything below. Her breath came faster and her heart pounded as she looked around. Color, everywhere color. Painted canvases, some hanging and others leaning against the walls. She turned in a circle, trying to see them all. Reds and purples leaped out at her, flowers never before seen in this world. A blue sky with lavender mountains and in the foreground an old barn crumbling into the earth. And another—green streaks across a fuschia background. Her eyes couldn’t take it all in.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh, my.”

“Do you like them?”

“Like them?” The question seemed to have no meaning. She couldn’t take her eyes off the paintings. “Are they yours?”

“Some of them. And some were done by my students.”

Maureen continued to stare, lost in the blaze of pigments.

“Do you think you would like to work for us?”

She heard the question dimly. Only when the man took her arm and turned her gently towards him was she able to focus on the moment.

“I’m sorry. What did you say?”

“I said, do you think you would like to work for us?”

Thoughts flashed through her mind, things she knew Jake would expect her to ask—how much would she be paid, how much vacation time would she get. And he would tell her, Don’t just say yes. Negotiate. See what you can get out of them. But she asked only one question.

“Will you teach me?”

“Of course.”

“Then, yes. Oh, yes.”

As she followed him back to the front of the house, she realized that she didn’t care what Jake said or what he thought. She belonged here and she was going to stay.

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