Peggy Lee took Graham’s arm. “Shall we?” she said in a faux-formal falsetto.
“Let’s,” Graham responded in his best baritone. One of his knees buckled just slightly as she gently squeezed his forearm. The two beers at dinner had taken a bit of the edge off his nerves, but he was still feeling very much out of his element.
He took a deep breath and led her across the cafeteria. He was reminded of a scene from Carrie, an old movie about a homely, high school girl who gets invited to her prom by the most popular boy in her class. She is ecstatic, but then it turns out to be an ugly, mean-spirited practical joke (with very dark repercussions). Graham hated Carrie. Was Peggy Lee toying with him?
They had spent dinner talking about different types of oceanic heating elements, the jet stream, onshore wind currents, and reservoir management. He now wanted to talk about something personal, but didn’t know where to start. Instead, they walked in silence until they reached the storage room door. He hoped his silence communicated confidence – not the anxiety that was causing his palms to sweat. “After you,” he said, holding the door open.
“You are quite the gentleman. Now, what were you just thinking about?”
“That’s a funny question.”
“It’s my favorite – it often elicits amazing responses.”
“Well, if you must know . . . in a way, I was thinking about how I didn’t want you to know what I was thinking,” Graham said as they crossed the storage room.
“Hmm . . . interesting . . . very interesting and very honest. Of course, now you really have to tell me what you were thinking.”
“I know,” Graham replied with a smile. “I should have just lied and said something like the weather, tomorrow’s schedule, or something else – like ‘work stuff,’ that’s always a good one.”
“I was just thinking about an old film I watched when I was a teenager. It’s about human longings, attractions . . . betrayals.” Graham could feel his cheeks glowing red. “I don’t presume to know you at all, but I get the sense that you are in the crowd of people for whom life has always been easy . . . well, not easy, exactly, but not really difficult.”
They stopped in front of the walk-in fridge. Peggy Lee crossed her arms and looked down at the floor for a moment. “In the last several years or so, that’s pretty much been the case. I usually get what I want. I’m Ms. Peggy Lee Swenson of Our Modern World after all. But when I was growing up, things were different. My childhood was no bowl of cherries.”
“Really? How so? If you don’t mind me asking.” Graham reached for the fridge door. He had decided a few steps back that he would not prop the door open with the lettuce box. He did not want to explain that to her right now? Instead, he would just leave the door cracked open, and they would grab the beer and get out. He felt pretty sure that he could do that.
“Well, my father was a soldier like you. He left us when I was fourteen. We moved to Georgia to be near family. The Collapse had hit everyone pretty hard of course, though for us in the South, the droughts were not as severe at that time. My aunt managed to take us in, helping us the best she could. My mother tried to take care of my brother and me, but she was heartbroken and did not fare very well without my dad around. She would disappear for weeks at a time and then come back sick and exhausted. Then she would sleep for days.” Peggy Lee followed Graham into the fridge, reached back, and then firmly closed the heavy door. The latch clicked definitively. Graham felt sick. She looked at him closely. “You ok?” she asked.
“Yeah, go on,” he said. Just pretend that the lettuce box is in place, he told himself. No need to panic.
“So, as you could guess,” Peggy Lee continued, “I had to cook and clean and help around the house as much as I could. My older brother was angry all the time, so he pretty much ignored us. I worked as a waitress every day after school. I told everyone at school that I was saving up for college, but really I was coming up with our share of the rent at the end of each month. I didn’t blame my mother or my brother, still don’t, but those times were difficult for me.
“At the same time, those years of hard work made me who I am. I began copy editing on a local website when I went off to college. Then, I got my degree and my first job. I buckled down, took on extra assignments, and eventually worked my way to the top. Nobody gave me anything along the way that I did not fully deserve.”
They were standing in the back of the walk-in fridge. Graham was starting to feel really closed-in. He discretely rubbed the scar under his eye and prayed for calm. Keep it together for just a few seconds, he told himself. He grabbed a six-pack of beer from the shelf. He felt her eyes on him. Could she see how worked up he was? His chest was tightening. Blood was thumping in his temples. He wanted to say something sympathetic about what she had just divulged. He wanted to respond. But he couldn’t even catch his breath. His fingers began to shake as he took the clipboard and quickly signed out the second six-pack of beer.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Peggy Lee asked, taking hold of his arm. “Are you having a heart attack or something?”
“No, no, let’s just get out of here.” Graham clutched the beer to his chest and then hurried Peggy Lee back towards the door. He could not breathe. If the door didn’t open, he would collapse right there in front of her. He hated this weakness of his – all his weaknesses, for that matter. When they got to the door, he reached ahead of Peggy Lee to push the handle down. It immediately clicked free and swung open. Graham lunged forward past Peggy Lee, lost his balance, and fell headlong onto the storage room floor. The six-pack skidded out from under him. A lone beer escaped and rolled across the floor, coming to rest under a shelving unit stacked with jarred green beans. Peggy Lee had easily stepped aside.
“Jesus, Graham,” she said as she knelt beside him.
He rolled onto his back, closed his eyes, and rested the back of his head against the hard, cold floor.
“Just stay there a moment and catch your breath,” she said calmly.
He mumbled, “Yeah, right, no, yes, I am fine, no problem. Just a moment.” He did not want to open his eyes and face her. He reached up and touched his scar again and started to calm down. Would she tell Ian about this? Was she going to highlight him in her story and tell the world that he was a claustrophobic freak? What a disaster . . . and it had all been going so well.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Graham said quietly, opening his eyes. “I am sorry about that. Did I hurt you?”
“Of course not. You didn’t even touch me. But are you okay? What happened in there?”
“I’m claustrophobic. I really should have told you that before you closed the door. I’m sorry. I feel absolutely foolish.” Graham shifted his weight up onto his elbows. Peggy Lee was close. He thought he could smell the faintest suggestion of lemons. She wiped a fleck of dirt off of his cheek.
“You’re not foolish. You just haven’t had guests out here in a long while, that’s my guess. You are used to doing things your own way. I understand. We are all creatures of habit. I should be apologizing. I am sorry for pulling the door closed. It’s silly to risk getting locked in there, now that I think about it. I should have left it open. Now, let’s go have another beer or two and relax. The night is still young.”
She rose and offered Graham a helping hand. Graham took it sheepishly. She then crossed to the shelf against the wall and dropped to her knees. She reached back and retrieved the loose beer bottle. She stood and straightened her shirt and pants with her free hand. Graham took the bottle and replaced it in the six-pack holder. “Thank you,” he said.
“No problemo.” Her tone was warm, and – it seemed to him – positively intimate. Graham momentarily smiled to himself as they turned toward the door; at least he was not covered in pig’s blood and setting the gym on fire.