“Goodbye everyone,” Traci said answered by unharmonious keyboards clacking from the maze of ice blue office cubicles.
Traci was having a great day at NeverMore, Inc. until she found out it was her last. After working there for one year, four months, seventeen days, and two and a half hours, she was being pushed out of her best job ever.
She filled her backpack with the items from her desk; a Fulani Diva jumbo paperclip, a desk-sized poster of a praying mantis eating a butterfly, a chipped and tea-stained Employee of the Month mug that she had found in the breakroom, and a personal journal. She looked over everything else and swept it all into the wire trash bin next to her desk.
Traci took the elevator to the C-Suite level and tossed her employee badge on the desk of Sheila Townsend’s secretary. The VIP offices were lavish with views overlooking City Centre and new Renaissance Retail Plaza.
“Ms. Townsend is on an important call at the moment. Please have a seat.”
She couldn’t decide whether to wait or just walk out and avoid another confrontation. It was a temp-to-perm position. The longer you stayed on as a temporary employee, the better your chances of being hired as a fully vetted employee. That was the golden ticket Traci was searching for; a permanent job. She decided to wait.
She placed her hand on her stomach and took a long deep breath, Four things you can see. Door. Window. Lamp. Candy dish. Three things you can feel. Pants. Chair. Floor. Two things you can smell. Stargazer lilies on the desk. Armpits. One thing you can taste. Wintergreen Tic Tac. Relax, breathe, refocus.
The secretary waved her inside the large sunlit office with pearl white dentil molding and magenta walls. Or was that lavender? She dropped her backpack on the floor in front of Ms. Townsend’s desk, and sat on the zebra printed horse-hair and chrome chair and stared at the senior executive.
“Do you want to search it before I go?”
“Ms. Simmons, I’m sorry we have to let you go. We gave you plenty of warnings, but we didn’t see the necessary changes in your interpersonal skills to continue keeping you on the team,” Ms. Townsend said, sliding a small stack of papers in front of her.
“The team,” Traci muttered. The way she said “inter-per-son-al” made Traci grind her teeth.
“Yes, your current benefit package will remain in place for 90 days. After that point, we believe Ms. Rios will secure other employment for you.”
Traci followed the expertly lacquered fingernail from page to page, signing on the blank lines next to her name, like an obedient child. When they reached the last page, Ms. Townsend took back her pen and shuffled the papers into a monogrammed walnut tray.
“Good luck to you,” she said while tidying her desk, “Is there anything you would like to ask at this time?”
“No,” Traci said and took in a deep breath. “Yes.”
Ms. Townsend tilted her head to one side and stared while Traci rubbed her hands together.
“I thought my work was ... acceptable.”
“Ms. Simmons, you have strong research skills and you can put them to good use,” Ms. Townsend said tapping her pen on her desk. “with another firm. I’m sure.”
Traci shrugged, picked up her backpack, walked to the door and stopped.
“What color is this?” she said touching the wallpaper.
“This stripe right here,” she looked closer at the small details, “What color is it?”
“I have no idea.” Ms. Townsend said with a hint of disdain.
“Of course, you wouldn’t know,” she said with a side-eye glance over her shoulder.
Ms. Townsend nodded to her secretary, who swiftly ushered Traci out of the office.
On the bright side, leaving the office early meant less traffic and no crowds at the bus stop. She purchased a ticket at the electronic kiosk and took a seat in the small alcove. There was a sudden flash in the sky. She squinted and watched a large window dangling from the line of an industrial crane. Construction workers balanced on the massive geometric scaffolding lured it into place on the new Proctor Place Residential Towers. “More luxury condos, just what we need,” she thought.
A gray-haired woman sat down next to her frantically wiping away the melted ice cream dripping down a little girl’s elbow. The wearied woman looked back at her, shrugged and sighed. Traci returned a sympathetic smile and distanced herself from them, taking a position to be first to board the RA-12 coach to Magnolia Grove. At least she would not have to squeeze between the reusable totes and luggage people carried onboard from the terminal that connected City Centre with the regional airport.
She garnered an empty window bench and used her backpack to block another passenger from sitting next to her. The loud exhaust fan circulated the muggy air overhead but gave no reprieve from the sweltering heat. She pushed the window open behind her and closed her eyes until the driver announced her stop. It was a ten minute walk to her house from where the bus dropped her off, fifteen if she detoured around the block to the mini-mart, which she would do today. They sold the basics, which is all she ever needed, and liquor. Definitely needed that today.
“What do you think of this color?” Traci asked holding up a magazine cover as Randall steered the car toward the highway. He rolled down the window and adjusted the side mirror.
“It’s okay.” He glanced quickly at the photo, then focused back on the road and changed lanes. “I like tan.”
“No, it's called Country Bliss.” She shuffled the stack of advertisements on her lap and pointed to a photo in the DeMarco’s Paint and Lumber brochure. “What about this one?”
“Yeah, sure. That’s okay, too. Ummm, grey?”
“Ah ... I see. Pure Opal. Got it.” He smirked and followed the River Road exit toward Lockwood Township.
“I think you're making fun of me. Not helping, Randall.”
“No, I’m not making fun of you. I love it, I swear. You're like a pretty little bird building your nest.” He cupped his hand on her leg just above the knee and inched it a little further up her thigh until she brushed it away. He grabbed the knob of the Hurst shifter, dropped it into neutral and coasted for the upcoming turn-off.
“Anyway …” she held up another one, “what do you think of this solar lamp? I really like it. It has a cute sign on top. I can put it next to the flowers at the front steps and write whatever I want on it. How about Casa de Tracinda? Or, Maison d'Traci?”
“Really?” When they reached the four-way stop, he pulled his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose and squinted at the photo. “That's what you're thinking about buying now?”
“When the home improvement grant money comes in a few months, I want to have everything picked out and ready to order.” She flopped the brochure down on her lap. “Are you going to help me or not?”
He didn’t care about these colors and lawn ornaments she was obsessed about. Not at all. It was rare to have the day off to spend together. And right now, looking at her sitting next to him, there was only one thing he was thinking about and it wasn’t house paint. But she wanted his opinion and that pretty pouty face … it got him every time.
“Okay, okay.” He glanced in the rearview mirror to check for traffic, then picked up the paper. “Hmmm, I like the tan better. I mean, what’s it? Country Bliss. Yeah, I like that one. Sounds like the name of a song.” He smiled at her.
“Please don't sing.” She rolled her eyes.
“What do you mean? I have a great voice.” He made the turn onto Mayfair and steered onto the dirt road.
“Yes, you do ... just not for singing.” She said and hid her face behind her favorite copy of Faucier Home magazine.
“I heard that.” He pushed down the accelerator a little more and listened to the thundering exhaust. It was a nice day for a ride in the country and they could miss the traffic jam from the double-header at Porter Stadium. He put it in gear and turned onto Lenwood Road.
“Time to light it up,” he thought and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. That big block, four speed ’68 GM Chevelle Super Sport 396 was a dream on wheels. He eased off the clutch, shifted into second, then third and kicked up a little gravel. He glanced over at Traci. She was looking back at him in anticipation.
“What do you think? Faster?” he shouted.
He pushed the Chevelle to eighty and then ninety miles per hour until he felt a little hiccup, checked the gauges and then dropped it back down under the speed limit.
“Still burning oil.”
“I can’t wait to drive it.”
“She’s almost ready for you. But I better never catch you going that fast.”
“Aww, that’s not fair.”
He turned down Brayton Road where it met the main highway back to Keeferton, crossed the four-way stop and stayed on the back road instead of making the turn. Traci was too busy gathering up the home décor magazines and photos that had blown all over the floor to notice. He hoped she would just go along with him today. RD owed him a favor and agreed to open the place up on Sunday just for them. It would take twenty minutes, tops, and then they would be out of there.
“The body work is almost done. Then I can take her in for a paint job. I think you’ll like it,” he said trying to keep the conversation light.
“I’m sure it will be very pretty,” Traci teased and gave him a side-eye glance, “because I’m gonna pick the color.”
Her smile disappeared as he steered the car into the Game and Glory parking lot.
“Oh, Randall, no ...”
“Listen, I followed you around a dozen stores today. And,” he locked eyes with her, “this is important.” He could feel the tension rising between them already as he turned around in his seat and peered through the rear window. He carefully maneuvered the car into a parking space across from the huge warehouse and indoor range. The building had a “Closed” sign on the door and blacked out windows and sat adjacent to the Faucier County Impound Lot full of abandoned cars. He cupped her chin in his hand.
“Tracinda, come on. Don’t give me that baby face.”
She turned away from him without speaking, climbed out of the car and slammed the door behind her. RD met them at the side entrance with a fist bump and a smile before he led them through the back hallway to the indoor gun range.
“Tracinda, stop crying and tell me what's wrong,” Randall said and sighed. It was their third video chat in less than an hour.
Traci wiped her eyes and straightened the curls that were stuck to her cheeks and tried again. "Nothing, just calling to ask how your day is going," she lied.
“What's happening?” He rubbed his eyes and focused back on the screen. “Tell me what's going on.”
“He won't latch, Randall. I've tried everything Candace told me to do and nothing's working. He just keeps refusing. I don’t understand. It shouldn't be this hard. Why is it so hard?”
“It's going to be okay, angel.” he said with his usual calm reassurance that she found very irritating today.
“No, it's not. It's like he doesn't know that I'm his mother.”
“He knows, believe me. I watched you give birth and I'm sure he could never forget that experience. I know I can't.” He shook his head and chuckled.
That was another thing. Why was Randall always so sarcastic these days? He never took her seriously when she explained the problems she was having with the baby. And the times he actually listened to her, it seemed like he just dismissed whatever she said like it was nothing. She shifted the fussy infant to her other arm and lapped another circle around the room while holding the phone with two fingers. She found the pacifier dangling from a ribbon around her neck and deftly inserted it into little Remy’s mouth.
Although she welcomed the silence, it underscored her heartache once again. She felt like a failure. No matter what she did, it was wrong. She wanted Randall to understand what it was like to watch all the other new mothers serenely breastfeeding their babies and when she tried, her son looked at her like she was a total stranger. A stranger. Every day she tried with him. And every day she felt sore and lonely and disheartened and ... all the things she could not put into words. She wanted to make Randall see her side of things but all she could do was cry.
“See? Everything’s alright now,” he said, clueless again.
“But, Randall ...”
“Put him on the phone.” He took a deep breath, swept his hand across the top of his head and blinked his eyes to refocus.
She knew that look. He was losing his patience with her, but she didn’t care. “What do you mean? Don't be ridiculous. You’re just making fun of me.”
“Put him on the phone. Go ahead.”
Traci lifted Remy’s face to the side and placed the phone in front of him.
“Remy James, this is your father. Listen up.”
Traci watched the baby’s eyes brighten and search toward the sound. “He's looking right at you.”
“Of course he is.” Randall grinned, his dimples popped, matching the cheeks of his son. “Stop giving your mother a hard time. And, do the thing ... what's it?”
“Yeah, yeah. Get to it, boy.”
“I don't know if that will help but he definitely heard you.” She couldn’t help but laugh. Those two were so cute together and she missed Randall desperately when he wasn’t home.
A security alert sounded on Traci’s phone. She placed the baby against her chest and swiped the screen with her thumb. The video showed a tall dark-skinned woman with long twisted locs wearing a bright floral tunic bent over and removing her sandals at the front door. Traci swiped the screen back to Randall. “Candace is here, gotta go.”
She ended the call and rushed to the door, picking up and straightening blankets, cushions and tossing toys into the bin as she went. Remy grew irritated again as she jostled him about and was in a full-throated wail by the time Traci opened the door. When she looked into the kind face of the doula, her eyes welled over and she poured herself into the waiting arms.
“Ahh, tears flowing,” the woman said softly. Her Jamaican accent was more expressive than usual as a result of her recent visit “back home to breathe the island air” and was music to Traci’s ears. Candace carried the peaceful aura of a confident professional “baby wrangler” as Brad called her.
“Nothing's working, Candace. Why am I so terrible?”
“You are not terrible. You're a new mum.” She held Traci by both shoulders and looked into her eyes. “It takes time. Let me have our little Prince Remy and you make us some tea. The one that I brought you on my last visit, do you remember?” She scooped up the infant and cradled him in her arms. “Ahh, yes, such a sassy baby boy you are. Yes, yes, yes.” She stroked his cheeks and drummed her fingers delicately on his stomach.
“Why does he laugh when other people hold him but when I do it, he cries? Traci whispered, “I don't think he likes me, at all.”
“Hush, hush that. Make the tea while I measure and weigh him and update my records.”
“How is he?” Traci asked as she sorted through the tea blends in the kitchen cabinet. She adjusted her clothing and tried to wipe off the rainbow of stains from her sweatshirt, then glanced at the hamper of dirty laundry overflowing in the corner. The newly installed washer and dryer sat untouched. When would she have the time?