SHELBY MALLOY MOVED TO the center of the platform on a Friday morning at rush hour in Washington, D.C. A crowd of commuters waited along with her, hoping to be one of the lucky ones to get on a train into the city to meet the demands of their job. This meant they ran, pushed, sighed heavily, did whatever they had to, to get on a train. She kept asking herself over and over, why hadn’t she gotten up earlier? Why hadn’t she set her alarm clock? She lingered on the thought of setting her alarm clock, then said softly to herself, “It’s because you don’t own an alarm clock, you idiot, but you do have a cell phone you could have set an alarm by.” What a bright idea, she thought to herself sarcastically. Still, I am going to get an alarm clock. She decided right then and there that as soon as she left work that day, she’d head straight to the drugstore to buy an alarm clock, then life would be grand. She glanced at her watch anxiously. It was seven fifteen and she was due at work by eight.
If a train came now, right now, she reasoned, not only would she make it to work on time, but she’d also be able to quiet the growling in her stomach with a bagel from the bakery on the way to her office. She hoped a less-crowded
train would come soon; she’d already passed up one that was packed tight with commuters.
Shelby began to pace up and down the platform. She didn’t care how she appeared to others. So what if she hadn’t had time to comb her hair, put on lipstick, or find a pair of matching shoes. She couldn’t believe she’d actually left her apartment with a red shoe on one foot and a burgundy shoe on the other. “Honestly, Shelby,” she said to herself. She said a silent prayer that she wouldn’t see anyone she knew or even thought she knew.
Just when she thought her morning couldn’t get any worse, she turned to look into the face of Paula Queria. Not only was Paula beautiful, but she was beautiful in all the right places. Her beautiful oval face would rival that of any who chose to challenge it. Her small but shapely frame was always clad in the most fashionable attire. Any color she chose to wear accented her beautiful deep complexion. Shelby often wondered how she kept her short, dark, wavy hair so together all the time. Everything about her was right, Shelby thought to herself.
“Hey, Shel, what’s up?”
“Hi, Paula.” Her cheerful greeting was forced while desperately trying to hide her feet so Paula wouldn’t notice her mismatched shoes.
“Too late,” Paula said with a smile.
“I’ve already seen the shoes, Shel. Rough start this morning? It’s all right. I have about one hundred pairs of shoes under my desk. You can borrow a pair for the day,” she said with a smile.
“Thank you, Paula.”
“Sure, I can’t let my girl walk around looking crazy even though she is.” They both laughed before getting into a conversation about the woes of womanhood. When the train finally pulled up, both of them determined to get on, forced their way in the door. The train ride was miserable, but they realized it was this train or suffer the wrath of their office administrator, Helen Spell. “Shel, do you have any mints on you?”
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t. What about some gum, I do have that.”
Paula hesitated before saying, “Well, okay, gum might work. Didn’t have breakfast, and my mouth feels dry.”
“Excuse me, miss, do you happen to have a dime?” Shelby turned in the direction of the voice, a voice so weak she thought for a second that she might have imagined it. A little lady who looked to be in her late seventies stared up at Shelby with sad gray eyes. She was dirty, smelly, and her dingy gray hair was matted; what wasn’t matted hung heavy and long, almost covering her tiny face. The woman’s hair looked as if it hadn’t been washed in months. Her hand shook as she held it out to Shelby, expecting her to drop something in it.
“Please, miss, just a dime, that’s all I need. I’m homeless and my cat needs food. I’m short a dime. I have just enough to take the train back to where I am staying for the night and short only a dime to get my Mittens her food.”
“Mittens?” Shelby asked, trying to figure out if that was the woman’s cat’s name or if she had misunderstood what she’d said.
“Mittens, yes, Mittens is my cat, and she is all I got in the world. She’s hungry and I have no more food for her.”
“Shelby, come on, this is our stop. We’ve got to go.” Paula’s words encouraging her to get off the train were pressing but she refused to get off without giving the woman at least five dollars. She looked like she needed a meal too. She quickly looked through her wallet for a five-dollar bill, finding only a ten-dollar bill. She handed it to the lady and was out the door.
“You know, that woman just took you for ten bucks, Shelby. You’ve got to stop being so gullible,” Paula said while walking so fast Shelby had to run to keep up with her.
“The woman clearly needed help, Paula. You saw her. There was no way I could get off that train without giving her something.” As Shelby’s anger got the best of her, she stared at Paula, daring her to deny what she’d said was true.
“You know what, forget it. Let’s just change the subject, okay?” Paula said while rolling her eyes and throwing her hands in the air. “So what’s going on with you these days? We haven’t had lunch in almost a week,” Paula said in an effort to put their conversation on a lighter note.
“Nothing much,” Shelby replied while trying to conceal her mismatched shoes from the rest of the world by walking very fast so no one would notice them. She was also trying to keep up with Paula who seemed to be running now instead of walking.
“So do you want to have lunch today?”
“Sure, that’s fine. Where should I meet you and what time?” Paula studied Shelby for a second before asking her if she were sure. “Of course, I’m sure. Why would I not be? Besides, I need some fresh air, will help clear my head.”
“Okay then, great! Why don’t you meet me downstairs in the main lobby of our building at twelve thirty?”
“I’ll be there.”
Shelby and Paula walked the rest of the distance to their office, taking in the beauty of the September morning and going on about their lunch plans.
Shelby arrived at her desk with five minutes to spare and bagel in hand. “Good morning, Helen,” Shelby said with a sly smile. Helen Spell was the office administrator at Cordial Law Firm where Shelby worked and had been there for five years prior to Shelby. She had the reputation of being a stickler for being on time.
“Morning, Shelby, how are you?”
“Good, thank you.” Shelby knew she was on time even with the train delay this morning. Helen probably wondered how she always seemed to make it with a few minutes to spare.
“Shelby, we have a few new people starting on Monday of next week. I’ll e-mail you some necessary information. However, one person in particular… Alex Manson, a partner voted one of the best criminal lawyers in the world, brings with him a very large clientele, and we want him to be happy and comfortable.”
“I see, I’ll certainly do my part, Helen.”
“I know you will, of course. You always do, don’t you?” Shelby didn’t know if that was a compliment or a bit of sarcasm. She decided to just smile and pretend she was happy to start her day with Helen breathing down her throat. “Well, I’ve got a lot of work to do, always busy for me. I’m sure you’ll find something to do with yourself today.”
“Excuse me?” Shelby once again tried to determine where Helen was coming from with her remark.
“Oh, I just meant, you’ve been an office assistant for so long, you’re probably used to the boredom that comes with your job.”
“Boredom? I can only become bored if I have nothing to do. I have enough to keep me busy. Well I guess I should get right to work and I don’t want to keep you from all that work you have waiting for you in your office.” Helen attempted to smile, but failed, instead it turned into a look of regret and shame.
“I didn’t mean to offend you in any way, Shelby!”
“No offense taken, believe me. I have learned to endure the worst conditions of my job since I’ve been here.” Helen stared at Shelby for a second before turning on her heels and walking quickly away.
“Hey, Ricky, how long have you been standing there and how much did you hear?”
“A long time, and all of it. I’m glad you put her in her place, what an—”
“Stop!” Shelby was able to stop him before he got the word out. “Ricky, don’t say it if it’s not nice.”
Ricky laughed. “Nice! I call it as I see it. What’s going on, beautiful, and when are you going to let me take you to lunch again?”
“When you get some money to take me to lunch,” Shelby said while logging on to her computer.
“Now see, did you have to go there?”
“You took me there. Ricky, what’s going on?”
“Twenty bucks, Shel, that’s all I need. I promise you, it’s only until we get paid.”
“My point proven. Oh, all right, but remember, this loan is good only until payday,” Shelby said while handing Ricky the twenty-dollar bill.
“Thanks, Shel, thank you… I won’t forget your kindness or to repay you,” Ricky said while backing away from Shelby’s desk and almost colliding with Helen in the process. “Sorry, Helen,” he said as he turned just in time to avoid bumping into her. “I’m very sorry,” he repeated, then raced out of the room with a quick wink at Shelby.
“How much did he borrow this time?” Shelby wanted to ask Helen to mind her own business, but thought again. After all, she did have rent to pay, a car note, and the list went on and on.
“Not much, you know Ricky, Helen, he’s, well… Ricky. The day wouldn’t be right if he didn’t need something.” Shelby smiled as she shook her head.
“I guess you’re right, but still you’d think he’d get tired or embarrassed. I know I would.” Helen walked over and dropped a pile of folders on Shelby’s desk. “These are the profiles of those starting next week. Give special attention to the one on Alex Manson, picture included.” Helen watched Shelby’s reaction as she glanced at the photo of Alex Manson. “Handsome, isn’t he?” Helen’s slow smile made Shelby’s stomach churn.
“He’s not bad if you’re into the pretty-boy type.” Shelby closed the folder and turned to her computer in hopes of ending her conversation with Helen.
“You know, I’m not a bit fooled by your nonchalant attitude toward men. You and I both know that if the right one comes along… well, anyway, I’ve got to get back to work.”
“I’m married, Helen, remember?”
“Well, you have to admit, he is definitely a looker!”
“Not bad! But I’m still married.”
Helen studied Shelby for a second before asking her to make sure Reba got the profiles before three. Shelby watched Helen walk away with a combination of like and dislike. She had to admit that Helen, although a pain at times, had been very supportive of her during some very sticky situations, always making sure she was treated fairly. Even in her middle fifties, Helen was a very attractive woman with her beautiful olive complexion and large brown eyes. Oh well, Shelby thought, there is something about her that I find very puzzeling for some reason.
Shelby’s morning flew by, and before she knew it, it was twelve twenty and time for her to meet Paula downstairs for lunch. She situated things on her desk to start on when she returned from lunch, picked up the pile of profiles, and dropped them off to Reba with a quick hello before dashing down to the main lobby.
“Hungry?” Paula asked with a big smile. “Oh, try these shoes on. I think they’ll fit you.”
“Perfect, thanks, Paula, I love them.”
“Just don’t get too comfortable, my friend. I want them back tomorrow morning. Give me your old ones. I’ll put them in this large bag of mine for you. Hungry, right?” Paula asked a second time with a large grin.
“So where to?” Paula asked, looking excitedly at Shelby. “I could eat almost anything. What about you?”
Shelby thought for a second before saying with a chuckle, “I know just the place!”
“Where?” Paula was hungry and didn’t really feel like playing guessing games.
“The Barbecue Pit over on Madison Street. I hear the ribs are the best!”
“Okay, let’s go,” Paula said as she linked her arm in Shelby’s and they headed for the Pit.
Shelby and Paula found a table near the center of the room and seated themselves. “Smells wonderful,” Paula said as she picked up her menu and started glancing through it. She looked up to find Shelby lost in thought. “What is it, Shel?” Paula asked, as she reached across the table to place her hand over Shelby’s hand.
“I was just thinking about life and how uncertain it is. I mean, one day everything seems to be falling in place, and the next day, things are all thrown off again. It’s just so hard for me to get a firm grip on peace of mind these days.”
“Thinking about the situation with you and Myron, the two of you being separated and all?”
“That and so many other things,” Shelby said with a heavy sigh. “Paula, why won’t Myron just admit he has been seeing someone, own up to it like any real man would?” “You just answered your own question. He’s no real man, honey. He’s a jerk! I’m surprised you’ve put up with him as long as you have. I would have left him!”
“Am I supposed to be stupid, to believe that all those late hours he’s been keeping are with his boys? All the times he had to rush out on a Sunday morning to buy a newspaper was the truth… I mean really? The Sunday paper is always delivered to our front door. Is he serious?”
“Listen, Shelby, if I tell you something, will you promise not to be mad at me for withholding this information from you for the last month or so?”
“I don’t know, Paula, maybe you’d better wait until after we’ve eaten. I may be in a better mood and less likely to smack you silly if I don’t like what I’m hearing,” Shelby said playfully.
Paula had to laugh, after all, that was the Shelby she knew. The five-foot-five bronzed beauty with long brown hair falling softly to her shoulders and framing her perfectly chiseled features. Her large light brown eyes were filled with sadness, but the fight was still there. Paula could see it. Large silver hoop earrings peeped from behind Shelby’s thick mane and added to her fashionable silver necklace. She was down, Paula thought, but not out. That was evident, not only in her eyes but in the way she carried herself, stylish and confident with her every move, even though her heart was broken. Battling her pain inwardly, she refused to let it surface, realizing life was too precious and too short to stress over the mundane.
“Really, Shel, I have something I have to tell you, something that, as a real friend, I think it’s only right to tell you.”
Shelby stared at Paula, a mixture of dread and fear made her nervous; however, she forced herself to remain calm. “Tell me.” Shelby’s words came out slow and uncertain. “Tell me!” This time they came out more forceful, more like a demand. Paula cleared her throat and bit her bottom lip as she looked Shelby directly in her eyes, her own eyes filled with pain and concern. She hurt for her friend, but she was determined to get it out.
“Remember…” Just then the waitress came to their table.
“Afternoon, ladies, ready to order?” she said with a cheerful smile. Shelby felt sick. She knew, even without Paula saying it, she knew what she was about to hear couldn’t be good. She’d completely lost her appetite.
“I’m sorry, would you give us a few more minutes, please?” Paula asked the waitress while looking up at her with pleading eyes, begging her to leave them alone.
“Of course, I’ll be back in about ten minutes. Take your time looking over the menu. There is no hurry.” The waitress gave Paula a reassuring smile and walked away.
“Remember last Thursday when I left work early to meet someone?” Paula said cautiously and forged ahead. “I was with Myron.”
“Myron?” Even though Shelby knew the worst was yet to come, she still couldn’t seem to prepare herself for it.
“You were with Myron, my husband Myron?”
“Yes,” Paula said while looking down at the table. Paula thought, yes, such a simple word, yet right now it sounded like a word that shouldn’t be used in public or in any decent conversation. Shelby stared at Paula for a second, narrowed her eyes, and smiled to herself.
“So what’s this, Paula, an invitation to lunch to soften the blow?”
“What?” Paula said. She was a little offended by Shelby’s reaction.
“Have you been seeing Myron? If so, it’s over between us. It’s just a matter of our taking that final step. I just need proof that he has been unfaithful, so if you’ve got it, by all means, give it to me.”
“Seriously? We are friends! Best friends Shelby! I would never do that to you! How could you even think such a thing of me?”
“I know, I know,” Shelby said while shaking her head and playing nervously with her silverware. “I’m sorry, Paula.”
“Like I said, I was with Myron. He called and asked me to dinner. I was a little hesitant, considering what’s going on with you two. My loyalty is to you foremost and always.”
“I know, Paula, it’s just that this thing with Myron and me has become so nasty. I’m on guard all the time, trust no one, and I hate it!”
The waitress reappeared and looked determined to get an order or kick them out. “What will it be, ladies?”
“I’ll have the Cobb salad and iced tea,” Shelby said.
“Same for me,” Paula added quickly, in an effort to get rid of the waitress and continue their conversation. The waitress went off to put their order in, and they were alone once again. “Well, to make a long story short, he wants me to ask you to give him a divorce. He told me he was in love with someone else,” Paula said, wiping away the tear that managed to spill from her eye in spite of her effort to stop it.
Shelby began to laugh, a laughter that kept coming and grew louder. Paula just looked at her, not knowing what to do. “Oh, goodness, Paula, I’m sorry.” Shelby straightened up in her chair and cleared her throat. “Myron asking me for a divorce… the man I begged to set me free a year ago… you know the man, the one who sent me to work a few times with a black eye, the one who smacked me in front of you simply because I denied a lie he’d just told.” Shelby’s voice started to break, but she fought to hold back the floodgate of emotion, determined to make her point. “He asked you to ask me for a divorce? Well, I guess that tells you a lot, doesn’t it?”
The waitress returned with their food. Neither of them felt like talking anymore. Shelby asked herself mentally why she had agreed to have lunch with Paula anyway and why decide on the Barbecue Pit for lunch only to have a salad? She now realized why she always lunched alone. It was safer. She didn’t have to spend the rest of her work day worrying about some crazy conversation she’d been enticed into. There goes my relaxing lunch, Shelby thought while taking a sip of her drink.
Shelby left her office around six-thirty that evening, feeling a little depressed. She thought she’d overcome the heartbreak of being separated from her husband, but today’s reaction to Paula’s news concerning her dinner with Myron was sure evidence that she hadn’t. She decided to put the day’s earlier activities behind her and enjoy the rest of her evening. After a quick stop at the drugstore, she headed home.here…