OUR OFFICE IS VERY community-minded. We hold two food drives a year: the first one at Thanksgiving and the second one not at Christmas, because the poor people get so much food from other food drives at Christmas that we like to surprise them with something extra on a random day when they’re not expecting it.
We also look out for, as Sherry puts it, “our own little community.” People are always asking how everybody is, how everybody’s family is. Personally, I have never had much time for socializing at work. My reports keep me busy all day, right up until five o’clock when I would go home to Johnny.
Every so often, Sherry would come by my desk, sometimes after one of her vacations, and ask me how my day was going. That was about the extent of my socializing. I couldn’t even tell you how many places Sherry’s been; I know she’s been to China and Australia, and when you go that far away you have to go for at least three weeks because of the jet lag. I only know that from Sherry. The farthest I’ve ever been was to Florida with my family, and it wasn’t even all that warm when we went.
“That Wendy’s not right,” is what Sherry said to me when she came by my desk that October noon hour, and I honestly had to think for a minute before I could picture who she meant.
“Wendy who?” I was eating my ham sandwich, and the polar ice caps were on my computer screen. Apparently they’re starting to melt, if you can believe that. I gazed at that big stretch of white and I thought, Winter is coming. Then my wheat field scene came on, with the environmentally friendly windmills, and I felt reassured.
“Wendy, who sits next to me!” said Sherry. “Haven’t you seen her lately? She looks awful, and she smells awful because she’s throwing up all the time. I think she’s sick with something.”
Now, the way our office is set up is, there’s my desk, and next to me is Val, and then across from Val is Ruth P., and then beside her is Twyla (she’s a temp), and diagonal from her is Ruth C. And then there’s Kevin (the only man on staff other than Mr. Vanderhoeven) next to Ruth C., and kitty-corner from them is Sherry, and then Wendy’s desk was beside hers.
I knew I’d passed Wendy’s desk a hundred times, because she was directly across from Mr. Vanderhoeven’s office and that’s who I bring my reports to every week. But at that moment, I just couldn’t picture her.
“She’s got streaks in her hair,” said Sherry.
And then there she was, pop, right in my brain. Wendy with the streaks. I heard people saying a few things after she’d gotten them done. Not mean things, just sort of observations that it wasn’t one of the best streak jobs they’d ever seen.
“Okay,” I said. “Wendy.” And right then, my Johnny screen saver came on. I had an old photo of him in my cycle, and it always made my heart skip a beat to see him like that, from back in our early days.
“Val said she heard her throwing up in the washroom today. And I heard her in there twice yesterday.”
I put down my sandwich. “Why doesn’t she stay home if she’s not feeling well?”
This is what I used to think about Sherry — wait, that’s not what I meant to say. I never really thought anything about Sherry. Except that she always seemed like a nice person. I don’t know if I would’ve said before all this that she was nice enough to give you the shirt off her back, but when you stop and think about it, that’s a lot to ask from someone.
“She doesn’t have anybody at home.” Sherry’s voice got lower, but somehow louder at the same time. “Her husband left her. And believe me, it was not an amicable split like me and Dave had. And they never even had any kids, isn’t that tragic?” Sherry leaned in. She was wearing one of her designer suits, and up close I could see my face in one of the silver buttons. They were that shiny. “She keeps coming to work because we’re all she has.”
I blinked at my reflection. I looked so small there on her big, checkered lapel. “I can’t understand people who don’t have a life outside the office,” I said.
“Oh, I know,” said Sherry.
Sherry is the type of person who will make friends with her co-workers, just like that. And she does nice things for her friends, because she cares about them. Once in a blue moon I might hear other people in the office say, “Sherry’s this,” or “Sherry’s that,” but that’s only once in a blue moon, like I said.
Now, she’s got a few degrees, I know that much. And she does art in her spare time. And she’s divorced. And she doesn’t have any pets. And she’s always been nice to me. But until this whole thing with Wendy — well, all I’m saying now is this: Sherry would not only give you the shirt off her back, she would go and buy a shirt and give it to you. And even if it was the wrong size or you didn’t like the style, you’d wear it, because of all the trouble she’d gone to. That’s the kind of person Sherry is.
“I’m telling you, Eunice, I’m getting seriously worried about Wendy’s health. There’s the throwing up, and she’s also tired all the time and has terrible headaches… I even said to her last week, ‘Wendy, you are unwell, and you should be home in bed.’ And Wendy said, ‘I’m fine, Sherry.’ And I said, ‘You’re not.’ And she said, ‘Sherry, I’m fine.’ But she isn’t fine, Eunice, I know it.” She looked at my food. “Ooh, what’s that you’ve got there?”
“It’s just a sandwich,” I said.
“Ham and cheese?”
“Yum.” Sherry smiled at me. “How’s your day going, Eunice?”
“Did you put your cans in the Hope Horn yet?”
“Not yet, but I will.” It was Sherry’s idea to use a big wicker cornucopia for our Thanksgiving food drive — she told Mr. Vanderhoeven that even the disadvantaged deserve a nice presentation. “Thanks for the reminder,” I said.
“Well, you know me!” Sherry nodded in the direction of the cafeteria and then gave me a little wave before continuing on her way there. “Enjoy your lunch!”
And I did, because that’s the way Sherry is. She makes ordinary things feel special.
ON MY WAY HOME that day, I walked past a park where a bunch of people were playing with their dogs. They all seemed to be having a lot of fun. Throwing sticks, throwing balls. Catching the sticks and balls. But I couldn’t relate. Dogs intimidate me, and I’m not afraid to say it. There is no common decency as far as a dog is concerned. I’ve even heard from dog owners that their dogs will eat their own business. That’s right — they’ll do their business, and then they’ll turn around and eat it!
When I got home, the smell hit me right away and I thought, Oh, my poor Johnny. There is something about the smell of a cat’s vomit. It breaks your heart.
Johnny had even tried to be dignified about it — the vomit was in the kitchen, and he was in the living room. But he’d gotten it on his paws and tracked it through the apartment, and I could tell he felt terrible about that. He felt bad enough when he couldn’t make it to the litter box anymore, and now this.
I told him not to worry. I cleaned his paws and put him on my lap, and we watched our shows, and I petted him until he purred. His purrs weren’t what they used to be, but it still made me glad to hear them.
AFTER SHERRY GOT ON board, it wasn’t long before other people in the office started getting interested in how Wendy was doing, because Sherry is the type of person who makes other people want to get involved.
“How’s Wendy doing?” I’d hear people asking Sherry if Wendy wasn’t at her desk when I’d go to deliver my reports.
And then about a week later, Sherry came by my desk to give me the latest Wendy update, which was that Wendy had finally taken her advice and asked for some time off work. “Isn’t that wonderful?” she said.
“Sherry,” I said to her (covering my mouth because I was in the middle of my ham sandwich), “you are a good friend.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Sherry wiggled her imitation Chinese take-out box in the air, which is what she uses when she brings her lunch from home (a tip she picked up in China, she told me). “I’m only doing what anybody would do. Besides, it was getting so nobody wanted to use the washroom anymore, in case Wendy was throwing up in there. We were starting to threaten Kevin that we’d take over the men’s, and he’d have to wait in line like the rest of us. And do you know what he said? He said, ‘Go right ahead, ladies. Mr. Vanderhoeven spends more time in there than I do.’ ” She giggled. “Can you believe he said that?”
The cottage vista was on my computer screen then, and I stared down someone’s long dock with the calm lake and the majestic pines at the end of it. The oranges were going to come on next. I’d found a photo of a grove of them in Florida — row upon row of bright orange balls, like little suns growing on trees.
“And I’ll tell you another thing. When she left, I said to her, ‘Wendy, I am going to call you at home every day and make sure you’re all right.’ ” Sherry pinched one of the many neck ruffles on her blouse and pretended to fan herself with it. “Whew, I am famished. Enjoy your sandwich, Eunice!” And she was gone.
Then you have someone like me. I don’t have a home phone number for anybody at work.
To be continued…