Foam brimmed the top edge of the hard-paper Starbucks cup. Grande, 2 pump Vanilla, Non-Fat, Extra Hot, Latte. Hot liquid broke through foam and poured onto her tongue. Eleanor stopped. She’d specified extra hot. Eleanor half-turned, hesitated, then turned back and continued toward the exit. No time to take it back. She was ten minutes late already. She grabbed a lid at the napkin station near the door.
“Thank you,” she said to the man who held the wide glass door open for her. She cast down her eyes and slipped out hugging the door’s far edge. The man extended a Starbuck’s paper cup and shook it. Eleanor heard the coins inside the cup rattling as she turned down Baker Street.
On the corner of Baker and Gray the office building’s lobby was alight with blinking whites, reds and greens. Just after nine in the morning the cold winks of color left an empty feeling inside, like the Vegas strip in the dawn of spent dreams. But the delicious scent of pine needles made it bearable, a real tree pulled from the dirt of the earth.
Eleanor breathed deep as she pressed the elevator’s UP button. The doors, already closing, inched open again. A man and woman shuffled back when Eleanor entered. Button 31 glowed white and Eleanor pressed her finger on number 22. The elevator doors whooshed together and they were lifted past unseen floors counted off with quick beeps as they whisked by.
The woman behind Eleanor muttered, “She’s making us stop. We were here first. Why can’t people take the other elevator?” The woman’s voice grew louder, “Is that so hard to do?” Eleanor stared at the shiny metal doors in front of her.
The elevator slowed, bounced up slightly then leveled off. The door pinged open on Floor 22.
“See?” the woman’s voice moaned. “People are so rude.”
Merry friggin’ Christmas, Eleanor fumed silently as she exited. Halfway down the corridor she wished she’d have pushed every button on that elevator before stepping out. Why did she think of these things too late?
Mid-way down the row of brushed-blue cubicles, a co-worker stood in the aisle near her desk and watched Eleanor approach. He held up a manila folder.
“Hi Bill, can’t I at least put down my coffee first?” Eleanor told him with a smile.
He tossed the folder onto her desk. “Give it to the next person on the list when you’re done,” he said, eyes rolling. Eleanor lifted her eyebrow. He responded with a wry smile and motioned with his eyes toward the folder. She glanced at the name inked in thick black pen on a yellow post-it note and rolled her eyes. Eleanor pulled the note off the folder, grimacing as she crumpled it in her hand. Bill laughed and started back to his cubicle but half-turned and leaned far into Eleanor’s cubicle to whisper, “Cruella’s on a rampage and the VP’s coming in for a meeting today.”
Thanks, Eleanor mouthed and flipped open the folder. Paper-clipped to the inside cover was a handwritten list of thirty-two names, every employee in the department. A check mark had been added after most names. Last week they’d all agreed, most half-heartedly, to contribute $25 each toward a Christmas gift for their Manager.
An envelope was tucked into the folder’s crease. Eleanor lifted the flap. A sweet inked smell wafted out of the envelope, a mixture of dried sweat and pigment rubbed into paper-thin cotton and linen. By hundreds of people. It was intoxicating. Eleanor stared at the wad of bills. She took another long, deep breath. Must be at least $500 or more, thought Eleanor. It was irksome, though. What genius had come up with the custom of lower-paid employees contributing what little money they had to buy a gift for someone who was paid more?
But she played along. She needed her job. And morning lattes were expensive.
Eleanor opened her desk drawer and pulled out files, spreading them over the desk, then swept up the paperwork and stacked it into a neat pile in the right-hand corner of her desk.
When the VP last visited, in November, a department-wide email memo had been issued the following day that their desks must maintain a professional appearance at all times; meaning their desks had to look neat and tidy to anyone walking by. And the department was ordered to limit unnecessary conversation.
A week following that memo Eleanor had been called into the Manager’s office and reprimanded for laughing too loud. Eleanor smiled now when she thought of the conversation she’d had with Bill before being called in.
Bill had been standing at Eleanor’s desk and the receptionist announced over the intercom Eleanor had a call on Line 10.
Bill was incredulous. “Line 10?”
Eleanor looked at him with surprise. “Of course,” she’d pressed Line 10 and asked the caller to hold.
Bill’s nose pushed closer to her phone. “You do!” he’d sounded happy even. “You have Line 10! I thought I was in the Twilight Zone.”
He showed Eleanor his phone. A section of buttons was numbered 1-7 another 13-15 and a third section above numbered 19-26. Many buttons had no numbers; reserved lines for branch offices. Sure enough, someone had forgotten to add a tab for Line 10.
“Do you know how many times I’ve been told I had a call on Line 10?” Bill said. “I’d ask the receptionist, did you say Line 10? Yes, Line 10 she’d tell me. She was annoyed after the fourth or fifth time. Whenever she announced Line 10, I’d just pick up any line that was blinking.”
Oh, how Eleanor had roared at poor Bill. In his first two weeks at the company he’d been getting mysterious calls from non-existent Line 10.
Even now Eleanor giggled thinking about it.
It was after Eleanor’s reprimand she and Bill had come up with their pet name for the Manager. Cruella. She’d lived up to the nickname too. Several times co-workers had caught Cruella standing near the wall behind the corner leading to the cubicles. Like she’d been listening for unauthorized laughter.
Eleanor grabbed the top folder and dropped it onto the next desk. She’d spent her last five dollars on her morning latte. Cruella’s Christmas gift would have to wait until after lunch, when Eleanor could stop by the ATM.
Maybe they’d forget to give the folder back to her. She could only hope.
The VP made his appearance late morning. He’d even smiled a few times as he strolled past cubicles. Nice try, Eleanor thought, but she would not be shelling out any more money to buy him something too; another overpaid corporate neanderthal. Usually he ignored the staff, even in the elevator.
Bill once told Eleanor he’d heard managers were trained not to mingle with the office ‘peons’. They’d laughed, oh, that must be why Cruella hid behind walls to listen to conversations.
When she returned from lunch Eleanor saw that, again, Bill was standing near her cubicle, waiting.
“Where’s Cruella’s folder?” he said before Eleanor could put down her purse.
“On the next desk,” Eleanor gave him a quizzical look. “I didn’t have money this morning.”
“No!” Eleanor said; then emphasized, “It wasn’t me!”
The girl at the next desk flipped through the files on her desk. “I can’t find it,” she told them.
“Do you think someone took it?” They glanced around the room, as if forming ideas who could fit the profile for potential thief.
“You don’t think one of the delivery people going through here could have…”
Eleanor tried to remember the exact spot on her co-worker’s desk she’d placed the folder. They searched through all of the paperwork on top of the desk and dug in the drawer.
“Maybe you gave it to the next person.” Eleanor suggested.
“I don’t think so,” her co-worker told them and their eyes cast once more around the room.
Eleanor kept watch over her suspect all week. The folder had disappeared. Merry friggin’ Christmas, Eleanor repeated sullenly to her co-workers when they discussed it.
They told Cruella about the folder at the company’s pot-luck Christmas lunch. They would have had a gift for her but…, they explained.
In a small way, it pleased Eleanor the department ‘peons’ didn’t spend their money on Cruella. Eleanor liked to think that the thief had taken the money to buy milk for a baby or food for the family table. She hoped it brought a real Christmas to someone who needed it.
The office emptied soon after the long Christmas lunch. Eleanor packed files in her tote bag. Cruella had informed her that a report was due on the VP’s desk the morning following the holiday. Eleanor shoved paperwork into her tote. She’d have to find time over the holiday to work on it. Merry friggin’ Christmas…
The city streets were clear of the usual rush hour traffic. Many had started their holiday early. The afternoon air was chilled and brisk. A hot foaming latte would be the perfect treat to celebrate the beginning of a long holiday weekend.
Up the block, several doors from Starbucks, she noticed the man digging in a garbage can. If she walked fast she’d make it to the Starbucks entrance before he could shake that dirty coffee cup in her face.
Eleanor breathed relief as she tugged open the glass door. Grande, 2 pump Vanilla, Non-Fat, Extra Hot, Latte, she told the woman at the counter. There were many open tables in the coffee shop. Eleanor settled back into a plush chair and dumped the contents of her tote bag onto the table. Might as well get started on that report. Less to do over the holiday weekend. She pulled a folder marked 3rd Quarter in front of her and grabbed a pen from her purse. She sipped at the coffee. Perfect. Extra hot.
There was a vigorous shake of coins. Eleanor glanced up to see the man behind glass open the door for an incoming customer. His dirty fingers wrapped tight around the cup rattling at the woman. The customer hurried inside without looking back. Eleanor knew that feeling. The man stepped back and watched for another person to enter Starbucks. He crossed his arms tight across his chest, shivered, and pulled in his shoulders.
Eleanor put down her pen. She’d bemoaned the season for its materialism and blamed stresses of work and finances for ruining Christmas spirit. All this time, she’d been waiting for Christmas to come to her. As if all she had to do was sit on her couch and Christmas magically oozed into her heart and home. But sitting in Starbucks on that cold afternoon Eleanor dug into her purse and pulled out $25.
She let the man open the door for her. She thanked him and dropped the money into his cup. His eyes lit up when he saw the bills. Tears formed as he took her hand and shook it, all the while looking directly into her eyes and saying too many thank you’s. Eleanor was embarrassed. “Get something warm to eat,” she told him.
She returned to her table in Starbucks but no longer felt like working on the report. Her heart was heavy. A simple gesture of money, originally meant for Cruella, who didn’t need or deserve it, brought tears to the eyes of a man. Her heart ached in compassion.
She tipped the folders back into her tote bag. Something slid out of one and dropped to the floor with a thud. Eleanor pushed back her chair and reached under the table. Her head bumped the table edge when she saw bills spilling out of an envelope. Cruella’s gift money! She must have put the wrong folder on her co-workers desk!
Eleanor grabbed the envelope and counted the bills. Almost $600. She hesitated, then packed up everything and headed out the door. She walked fast in the direction of Baker and Gray. As she approached the corner, now breathless, she tugged on the man’s shoulder. He smiled when he turned and saw her. Eleanor reached into her purse and put an envelope in his hand.
“Merry Christmas,” she said. And this time she felt it.