The Other Side of Sorrow
Peggy's first instinct was to open the middle desk drawer and pour a drink, but that was the easy way out of what she had just seen. It was the easy way out of the entire day, of the entire lost weekend.
She stared at her cluttered desk. She thought about sweeping the entire mess into the trash – the crumpled pieces of paper, the empty pages where the tip of her pen had never been able to write anything worth recording. Among the ruins Peggy spotted pink paper, folded like a tent. She snatched it up and read Phyllis' note. Mr. Chaough called. Checking in on Chevy. Don't need to call him back. He's at Finnegan's.
She folded the paper and kept it pinched between two fingers while she grabbed her hat and coat. She switched off the lights and purposely slammed the door behind her. The tap of her heels down the hall echoed in the eerie quiet. Peggy supposed everyone was losing steam, or like Stan, too busy burning off the remaining traces of his high.
She stood at the elevators and pictured herself returning home. It was warm out. The neighborhood kids would be loitering on the stairs, playing music and shouting at one another. Abe would be in his underwear reading on the bed, tinkering with the same improvement project he hadn't been able to complete accurately for weeks, or editing a story with a point of view that she found increasingly grating. She knew he wouldn't be able to see it on her face (the sting of Stan's kiss, the surprisingly soft rub of his beard, the odd guilt she harbored for what it said or didn't say about the kiss she had previously shared with Ted) but she wasn't in a hurry to rebuff him and explain why.
Peggy stepped onto the elevator and it descended, it seemed, with more force than usual. She exited into the lobby on unsteady legs. She rubbed the pink paper between her thumb and index finger. Don't need to call him back. He's at Finnegan's.
The crowd had dwindled down enough that Ted no longer felt anonymous. He looked up from his table in the corner. The swirls of smoke from bawdy men's and flirtatious women's cigarettes had dissipated. He watched the bartender lean wearily against the wall and a man slapped a few loose bills on the bar before downing the remnants of a beer. A couple seated at the window stole kisses in between drinks. Everything was quiet and still.
Ted longed for the noise and movement. He squinted to see the clock on the wall and wondered if he should call it a night. Before he had the chance to decide the door opened and provided his answer.
He didn't call to Peggy right away. It was endearing to watch her. Her teeth pinched her bottom lip, contemplative or nervous or both. She made a face at the couple by the window. Peggy was looking everywhere but at him until she pivoted toward the bar, caught his eyes, and shared a not-quite smile. Ted could only describe it as the embodiment of how he felt, and of the look he was certain he'd been sporting since the news of Frank's death – a tinge of sentiment that comes with reminiscing and pondering regrets, an expression that reaches out for and extends sympathy. Vulnerable. An open wound.
"Peggy," Ted called her name as he stood from his seat on the bench behind the table.
She crossed to him. "Hello." She looked at the table, at the books taking up most of the small space. Ted gathered them – a couple volumes of poetry, sketchbooks, a photo album – into a neat stack. "I hope I'm not bothering you."
"Not at all. Have a seat?" Ted knew there were available chairs at other tables that he could have situated across from him. But he shifted a few inches to his left, making room on the bench for her. His chest tightened when Peggy sat and scooted toward him. He felt overheated under his shirt and jacket and the constricting tie around his neck, and never more so than when Peggy twisted to her side to set her purse and hat on the bench. The hem of her dress lifted ever so slightly and Ted's mouth went dry.
"I got your message," Peggy told him, thinking of the slip of paper she'd dropped into her handbag.
"You didn't have to come here. I hope Phyllis didn't tell you I-"
Peggy shook her head. "No. I guess I just…wanted to make sure you were okay." She gestured toward the bar and then at the table and said, "You went to your friend's funeral today and now here you are at a bar." She flashed to the drinking at work, the syringes, what she said to Stan about dampening pain.
"Yes, here I am," Ted said. "At a bar. With a cup of coffee."
She noticed the only item on the table besides his books was a mug filled halfway with black coffee, a tuft of steam rising and disappearing into the air. She smiled and earned a genuine grin from Ted. "Well…"
"It's okay, Peggy. I'm glad you came in. I couldn't reach Don. Productive day?" he asked.
"I thought you didn't want to think about work for a couple days?"
He shrugged. "I tried. But you're right. That's not where my mind should be right now."
She looked at the bar and then tapped the handle of his coffee mug. "I wonder if there's any of this left?"
Ted stood up. He walked halfway across the room, catching the bartender's attention. "Could we please get another coffee and a refill?"
"You can have the pot," the man said, picking it up and setting it on the bar. He fetched another mug and handed it to Ted.
Peggy took the mug from Ted and cradled it in both hands while he poured the coffee. "I've never been here," she said.
He took his seat, sitting closer to her than he had been. Whenever Peggy set her mug down or picked it up, their arms brushed. "This is where Frank and I spent a lot of late nights. And long lunches," Ted confided.
She smiled. She looked at his hands; one was wrapped around his coffee mug while the other was perched close to the books, his thumb absently tapping against the binding of the largest.
"You must be exhausted," Ted said, although he didn't think she looked it.
"Me?" She left the what about you silent.
Ted nodded imperceptibly. "I suppose I'm avoiding sleep," he offered.
"Why?" She thought of other grieving people who induced sleep, or did whatever possible to avoid being present in their pain.
"If I fall asleep I lose control. I might dream about Chevy or…" Ted glanced sideways at her, at her plump bottom lip. He swallowed. "If I were dying, I'd be afraid of being forgotten. It seems more reverent to stay awake and think about Frank."
Peggy smiled and tipped her chin to her chest. "You're a good friend."
"He wasn't everyone's favorite person but he was one of mine." Ted took a drink of his coffee and then gave the mug a gentle push to the other end of the table. "He liked you."
She narrowed her eyes.
"He didn't express himself with a lot of enthusiasm, I know, but Frank was impressed with you, Peggy."
"I was impressed by him. I went to the archives once and looked at his older work. He was very versatile."
Ted leaned back. He let his arms drop to his sides and didn't move when the edge of his hand was pressed to Peggy's thigh. "We used to sit in a place like this, or somewhere at work, and we'd just talk. About anything. Or nothing. We'd eat sandwiches. Drink coffee. And then Frank would get his sketchbook out and create the perfect image for whatever we were working on. It was great to have that."
"You were very lucky. Both of you," Peggy told him.
He nodded and looked down at where his hand rested between them. Peggy shifted and the side of his hand came into contact with the coarse texture of her pantyhose. He drew his hand up, clutching a fist to his chest. "Yes," he whispered. "We were."
Peggy had already heard the story about how Ted met Frank, but she asked to hear it again. The two of them sat side by side, ignoring their coffee as it cooled, talking and listening in equal measure.
"Last call!" the bartender barked into the hushed room.
Peggy twitched at the suddenness of a sound that wasn't Ted's tender, sentimental voice. "Well," she sighed. "I guess it is getting late."
"Yes," Ted agreed. He retrieved his wallet and left money folded under his mug.
Peggy stood and gathered her things while Ted picked up his books. He held the door for her. The night was still and tepid. They stood at the curb and a cab parked down the street pulled forward.
"We could share this one?" Peggy suggested, noting there weren't many around.
"You go on. I'm okay waiting," Ted said. He opened the door to the cab. Peggy stepped in front of him to climb in and he reached out, cupping her elbow. When she turned to face him he said, "Thank you."
She nodded. "I'll see you later." She climbed into the backseat, holding her hand up in a goodbye as Ted shut the door for her.
Don's proclamation – that he wouldn't be contributing any creative on the Chevy account, only reviewing others' work – had Ted spiraling. He couldn't make sense of the sudden shift and thought there might only be one person in the office that could.
Ted approached Phyllis' empty desk. He noticed the door to Peggy's office was ajar and peeked inside to see her leaning back in her chair, stretching her arms above her head. He paused before tapping his knuckles on the doorframe.
Peggy smiled and said, "Come in."
"I haven't seen you yet today. Been a busy morning."
She nodded. She didn't yet have extra chairs in her office, but she had recently gotten a sofa. Peggy stood up and pointed to the cream colored couch. When Ted sat, she joined him. "I guess you went through the work from the weekend?"
Ted's eyebrows knitted close together. "I've been given some indication of what went on here. I see why you didn't want me to ask about work the other night."
Peggy cringed. She started to launch into an apology.
"Don't apologize. It's not your fault. You weren't expected to be in charge and corral everyone."
The intercom buzzed and Phyllis said, "Lunch is here, Ms. Olson."
Peggy stood and opened the door. She came back into the room carrying a plate with a ham sandwich cut in half and a mound of potato chips that almost spilled over the sides. She set it on the cushion between her and Ted. She grabbed a notebook and pen from her desk before sitting back down. "I've been jotting a few things down."
"I don't want to keep you from your lunch," Ted said.
"I'm not that hungry. Have some?"
Ted picked up one half of the sandwich. He took a bite and Peggy snatched a chip. They ate for a few minutes, talking in between bites about the new coffeemaker in the break room and what Peggy could do to make the white column in her office add character to the room.
Peggy plucked a tissue from the box on the coffee table and wiped the grease and salt from her fingers.
Ted pointed to the notebook on her lap and asked, "May I?"
She handed it to him and said, "We'll make up for lost time this week."
He read through her ideas and nodded. "Yes." He looked up at her. "Yes, I think we'll accomplish a lot this week."