Life never unfolds the way we want, the way we expect. No matter how careful we plan, no matter how logical our decisions are, life has a way of grabbing a man by the gonads and squeezing.
Mathew was comfortable in his solitude; he never expected it to be so nice. His wife had gotten bored years before the divorce was final, the kids were off to college and he expected to be miserable. But leaving work at five, an hour at the gym, dinner was anything he felt like eating and then no one to fight over the remote ... he enjoyed this unencumbered existence.
Matt was an Electrical Engineer, managing a department of engineers and techs, in love with the details, lost in the minutia and only concerned with getting it right. He didn't enjoy managing, just demanded his people get it right, nothing more, nothing less. He assigned work based upon skill level and he had years before developed performance monitoring software that told him who the slackers were. Performance reviews were just that, look at the print outs and see if they improved or declined. There were no secrets, everyone could click the icon on their desktops and see how everyone compared at any time.
The only one not logged onto the performance monitor was Veronica. Her duties were administrative, answering the phone, billings, and maintaining the files. She was quiet, fast, efficient, and rarely made a mistake. She didn't look plain ... business like would be a good description ... she had a nice figure, but it would be hard to say it was anything but professional. She wore a starched white blouse and knee length dark skirt everyday. Her light brown or dirty blond hair was pulled tight back in a pony tail, glasses, light makeup ... perfect for the position.
The engineers and techs were mostly married, just three were not, one was a closet gay that everyone knew about and didn't care and the other two were so nerdy with short pants and pocket protectors, personal hygiene problems ... well, there was no fraternizing going on in the office with Veronica. Occasionally a married guy would stop to flirt, but Matt's scowl would put an end to that. Generally, 99% of the time they stayed in the back and the two of them stayed up front.
The office was arranged front and back like that. Matt's office was up front at the window, double glass french doors between his and Veronica's desk right inside the entrance door. All the engineers and techs were in the back; they parked back there and rarely came into the reception area. There were only four parking spaces up front, one for Matt another for his administrator, a client space and handicapped ... always empty. In the twenty years Matt had been there, he had never seen anyone park there. The bathrooms and lunchrooms were in the middle. Veronica had control of the buzzer to open the door beside her desk, preventing people coming in the front from access to the workstations in the rear, mandated by the defense department contracts. The rear access was also controlled by Veronica; she had a video camera.
All this tight security mandated that Veronica arrive first and leave last, the extra hours of overtime each day were sorely appreciated. Legally, the HR people were strictly limited by the questions they were allowed to ask during the interview. Since Veronica had no access to security data, her HS transcripts were verified and references checked, she passed the psyche profile test and she was hired. Matt couldn't have been happier with her performance, never having to worry about anything she was assigned.
Finding Veronica was a godsend for Matt, he normally had a constant search to replace his administrator, always problems showing up on time or making mistakes ... but not for the last five years. Matt knew nothing about her personally, he never bothered to ask. He only knew she was always on time and always did her job, the rest was superfluous. He gave her the high-middle pay raise every year, tried, but wasn't allowed to go higher. She was doing alright, now at over seventeen an hour, a girl with no college ... that was pretty good. He didn't even know how old she was.
Matt was making more than three times what Veronica was, and that was before all his bonuses, but then he had a BSEE, an MSEE, and twenty-three years experience. His life was controlled, happy in a solitary way, holidays with his kids, baseball in the summer, football in the fall and basketball after that. He had fifty channels of sports at home, HD on most of them, life was good. And the home was organized, clean and perfect; he had a service. He played golf on weekends with other managers from the company, a standing foursome, so a day to maintain his big house and then back to work on Monday, a neat and tidy life ... happy. He spent years of hard work getting to this plane of existence and he would do anything to keep it that way.
Veronica had just the opposite ... chaos ... the office was the only thing stable to her reality. She had a child who was an out of control monster, running the household at the age of seven. And the biological father was a no-show since she announced she was pregnant, hiding from her child support needs. Since then it was an endless string of seemingly nice-guy hunks turning into jerks for boy friends. The last one stole all her savings, ruined her credit, and still has her car. She turned him into the police, but they didn't really look ... and the insurance company was fighting her about the car, saying she gave the boyfriend the vehicle; he didn't steal it since he was listed on her policy as one of the drivers.
She lived in a crappy apartment and was fighting tooth and nail to hold onto it, the credit card companies and collection agencies were ringing her phone off the hook, filling her mail with yellow and red envelopes. She knew if she lost that apartment, she would not get another ... homeless and out on the street with no family to fall back onto for support.
Matt was just finishing up a meeting with a client, one of the big aerospace companies.
Dan Waters was a big man, friendly, he had a twenty year career in the Air Force before this job. He had a perfect smile, dirty grin and sexual joke about everything. He had been trying to get Matt to go clubbing with him for years with no success.
Matt was always friendly with the clients, the part of his job he liked the least, but they paid the bills.
"Come on Matt, you have to come, just once ... and if you don't have fun then I promise I'll never ask again."
"Dan, you know it's the Lakers playing tonight, I never miss the opportunity to watch the Spurs beat the Lakers."
"Matt, that is no excuse, Kobe is not playing tonight, it doesn't matter who wins ... come on, I promise never to ask again ... I know you're not married, you have to miss some of that action."
Matt couldn't think how to reply. He really didn't miss the action. He resigned himself to not be a sexual person when the wife turned crabby, always complaining and torturing his ego those last five years ... he just kept all that out of sight and out of mind. But he couldn't admit that to Dan, not to one of the 'guys', someone that got around to all the executives, not to a client. And Dan knew his sports too well, he couldn't think of an excuse.
"Matt, we'll take my car, you can meet me at Hooters for dinner, seven o'clock; we'll catch a few minutes of your game and go from there."
"Hooters, the place with all the babes?"
"Yeah, its really tame, the girls all wear bras and panty hose ... or we can go to Benny's Crab shack, the babes are all over you there, no bras?"
"Okay, Hooters ... seven," and he was already regretting that choice.
Dan left and Matt was still bothered. He could still go to the gym, go home and change in time ... but Dan was a scary guy, bigger than life, no telling what he would drag him into. Matt saw Veronica beside his desk filing some invoices, "Hooters ... Veronica ... oh, sorry, that isn't how I meant it ... the restaurant, Hooters, Dan has been twisting my arm for years, I finally agreed to eat dinner there with him ... ever been there?"
"Yes sir, family place really, nothing risqué ... all just innuendo and the name, can't put that on an expense report."
"Really? No nudity?"
"None, the girls wear push-up bras, a little cleavage, but otherwise well covered."
"Thank you Veronica, it makes me feel better ... I don't know why I finally caved in. I don't do stuff ... I could never hang out with Dan, guys like that."
"Yes sir, I know."
"So I'm not going to get in any trouble if the executives find out?"
"You'll see lots of kids there; they wouldn't let kids in there if anything wasn't appropriate."
"So when were you there?"
"Three, maybe four years ago ... brought my daughter, wasn't a problem ... it turned out my boyfriend at the time was chasing one of the waitresses."
"So you're not married? Divorced?"
"No sir, never married, he skipped when he found out I was pregnant ... I was on the pill ... she's seven now."
"Does he pay child support? ... sorry, none of my business, this whole line is none of my business."
"That's okay; I don't mind ... I seem to have really bad luck with guys. They all seem so sincere ... I tend to fall for their bull shit, oh sorry, I mean lies ... they are all liars."
"Not all guys, just the ones you've chosen ... maybe you need to look in different places next time."
"I don't look, they seem to find me ... like I have never gone to a bar or anything looking to pick up a guy ... James ... I broke up with him a year ago and it still haunts me. I met him in a grocery store, produce ... he was so sweet, helped me to the car with my stuff in the rain ... I never knew."
"Sounds painful ... are you all caught up? I can listen if you have the time. I don't have anything for the next half hour."
"Yes sir ... finished the billings, no one calls this late in the day, everyone is gone in the back ... James ... he emptied over five thousand I had in savings, put another six thousand on my credit cards without my knowing and then stole my car. We only dated for three months, I just helped him with insurance because it saved money, he never slept over ... I had no idea, all my friends loved him, I never knew ... even talked to his Mom a couple times on the phone."
"So are you fighting the credit charges?"
"The first charges he did were to cards I never applied for. He applied on-line and over the phone ... I guess he made his voice sound like a woman or had a friend. And the last month we dated he ran up charges on the two cards that should have been a zero balance, maxed them out with cash advances, I never used them, kept them in a drawer at home ... I still don't know how he did that."
"So what does your lawyer say about all this?"
"Lawyer? Have you ever tried to get a lawyer to help with anything? If you don't have a job you can get free legal advice, but since I'm working, It would cost over ten thousand dollars to straighten this mess up ... and the insurance company won't pay me for the car he stole, I'm taking the bus everywhere, I can't get another car because my credit is so fucked up, sorry, screwed up."
"So how did he get your savings money?"
They claim I called and asked to have a check sent to the apartment, closing out the account, they said he knew my pin number and mother's maiden name and sounded like a woman."
"Yeah, the bank won't settle unless you have an attorney, the credit won't clear up either ... wow, I wish I knew how I could help." He looked at Veronica and she had to look away, to get a tissue off his credenza to blot her eyes. "If you knew where he was, I could help you kill him and dispose of the body." He said that to lighten the tension.
She chuckled a bit, but said under her breath, "Yeah, I could kill him ..."
"So the bus ... how long does that take you?"
"Usually an hour and ten minutes, I have to leave two hours early to get Steffie in daycare first. And I have to be there by six to pick her up ... I've been late everyday for the last month, they want to cancel my account, and it is so expensive, I don't have any options because my credit is so bad."
"How long did it take before, to drive?"
"Fifteen minutes, I didn't need daycare in the mornings."
"Oh, well give me your address ... you don't mind do you? I'm thinking of mapping the addresses of everyone here ... between the twenty three of us we should be able to start carpooling, I'll call it our green program, to reduce our carbon footprint."
"But that won't work, we have flex time ... and I have to be here first and last ... you are the only one that works as many hours."
"So maybe I can help ... give me the address."
Veronica was very uncertain about this, getting her stuffed shirt boss involved in her problems could jeopardize her job ... and without the job, she might as well commit suicide. "No sir ... I'm putting some money away, another few months and I'll be able to buy a car for cash. I'll be okay." And she knew that was a lie as soon as it came out of her mouth, things were headed down hill and spiraling out of control, getting deeper in debt.
"Well at least let me drop you off tonight, you won't be late and I'm still lacking the courage to hang out with Dan ... you can tell me it's going to be alright. And besides, I was a father, still am, I know how hard it is to arrange all those trips ... and wait until she gets to be a teenager; everyday its Karate lessons, shopping at the mall, hanging with friends, this club, that team ... it never ends, a nightmare if you're single."
"Alright ... just tonight sir." She stood up and knew it was wrong, knew she was risking everything ... but trapped ... she went back to her desk knowing she should never have said anything to him about her problems.
Matt was worried, not sure what to worry about ... it was so simple when he didn't know anything ... and she had been so perfect all those years, never a question of her reliability. And he thought back to all the terrible people that sat at her desk before her. Brrrrr! ... that gave him chills ... especially the tattoo lady, and the young gay guy always crying ... and Sheena, never on time two days in a row, and only after she was threatened with her job but then late again the day after ... oh, and Gabby, the really fat one that broke her chair and huffed and puffed just to stand up to get to the door, unable to do the filing because of her size. No, Veronica was worth a little extra drive out of his way to save ... to keep his life uncomplicated and perfect.
It felt really strange to go out the door together after he did his walk through, checking all the bathrooms and closets and the back doors. Matt set the alarm code, held the door for Veronica, locked up and opened the door to his truck, a quad cab, all leather inside, holding her arm to help, but not looking as she climbed in. He needed the truck for tailgating with his kids when they went to football games in the fall; otherwise, he had never had anything in the bed since he bought it.
"Still smells new," Veronica said as she settled into the plush leather, the foot well so large she could stretch out.
"I have it detailed once a month in the winter, about every two months the rest of the year." And Matt felt strange again with Veronica sitting there. She was all the way on the other side of the cab, but the big truck now had two occupants, not one as he was used to. "Seat belts."
"Do I have to?"
He just nodded his head.
"Sorry sir, I know I should ..." and she was getting nervous again about her boss getting into her life, finding out things that may cost her that precious job. She sucked in her breath; she would have to be on her best behavior.
"'Sir' sounds a little formal outside the office. When we're outside the office please call me Matt."
"Yes sir, I mean Matt."
She directed him to the daycare to pick up Steffie, just a twenty minute trip.
He waited while she went inside and signed her out.
"Matt, I'd like to introduce you to Stephanie, my daughter ... Steffie, this is Matt."
"Not another boyfriend ... Matt, are you going to steal from my Mommy?"
"Steff, be good, Matt is my boss. He is not my boy friend; he just gave me a ride so I wouldn't be late."
"Oh, but don't try and boss me around, because you are not my father and I don't have to do anything you say."
Veronica already knew this was a bad idea, praying that she wasn't getting fired over this, "Steff, shut your mouth and I will deal with you at home."
"I will not shut my mouth and I am tired of eating the shit you feed me every night, why can't we go out to eat anymore? I want to go to TGI Fridays."
"Sir, I mean Matt, I am so sorry for this ... you have to believe me, she hasn't always been this way. I apologize, you must think I'm a terrible mother."
"Which way?" he was a little shocked at her bad parenting skills, another something he was happier not knowing about ... but it was her problem, not his. "Seat belts or we are not going anywhere."
Veronica directed him the short five minute drive to the apartment complex.
Matt thought the place looked nice from the entrance, but then saw all the out of control kids hanging around once they were inside.
Steffie jumped out as soon as he pulled over, getting a little hung up in the seat belt, not waiting for the truck to completely stop.
Veronica started to chase after her until Matt said, "Veronica ... she needs a father figure in her life ... someone stable ... and never tell her an imprecise punishment like I will deal with you later ... you need to be very precise, set their boundaries like brick walls around, they need to know those wall are there to feel safe."
"I don't understand sir ... eh Matt."
"Okay, little steps ... she was disrespectful to you and to me. You need to tell her very quietly, in a very controlled way showing no emotion that she is going to be punished for both those acts of disrespect. The punishment has to be precise, like no desert for two nights, or take away her phone privileges, or both, something, precise with a time limit. Tell her the next time she disrespects you it will be double, triple after that until she understands. Believe me, she wants you to discipline her, she is mad at you because you don't."
"But she will throw a tantrum ..."
"Doesn't matter ... a tantrum is another punishable item. Set a precise punishment for that as well. If she throws something, another punishment, be precise. And another idea would be to put up a calendar ... tell her two days without any Xs and she will get a reward. It doesn't even have to be a big reward, maybe something like she gets to choose what you make for dinner; give her a list of choices."
"A calendar ... I have an extra one at the office."
"What time in the morning, where is her school?"
"No, you said just tonight, I don't want you to come tomorrow, I can handle the mornings."
"It's my green program remember? Its on my way, I have to come this way to work."
"What time ... six forty?"
"Six forty ... you can't do this everyday, it isn't right."
"Stop arguing with me, I'll be late for the gym."
"Yes, sir, eh Matt ... thank you."
Matt was happy to get out of that horrible complex, worried the kids might throw something at his truck. As soon as he was onto the highway he started thinking ... the legal problems ... he could get his corporate policy, the free legal assistance to get involved as a credit card stolen identity ... they would understand if he wanted to keep his administrator, not putting it on her record in any way. He knew he had to keep her; he couldn't go back to Gabby and Sheena, the endless list of temps.
His workout was light, just the ellipsoidal for an hour, a few curls. He was forty-three and feeling the old age stuff happening to his body. There were guys there at the gym in their seventies in better shape than he was, at least he thought so ... and he obsessed about the small stuff that others didn't see. He wasn't very proud of his form, but then he never had been, even as a teen on the cross country team, he was too skinny, now he was too fat ... in his mind. He could still get into his thirty-four pants with some room to spare, better than ninety percent his age. And his hair was thinning a little ... it bothered him a lot, wondering if he would need to have transplants some day.