• Meg Gaertner

She Hasn't Worked Here in Weeks

Every day, for the past 57 years, Albert Hancock has brought a brown-bagged lunch—two pastrami and cheese sandwiches, one with mustard and one without, on rye bread, with two apples and a clementine to share—to his wife’s office. The day proceeds like clockwork. He will enter the elevator (or the stairwell, in previous decades) precisely at 11:47 am, to enter her office suite at 11:48 am. Perhaps exchanging small talk with the receptionist, who has changed throughout the years but whose chirpy demeanor and penchant for wearing too much make-up on too young a face has not changed at all, he will wait at the front desk. At 11:58 pm, his wife will rush out from a door down the hall and, upon seeing him, give him her best smile, and scold him.

“Albert! Have you been traumatizing our poor receptionist with your outlandish tales? How many times must I tell you not to arrive so early? You know I have a meeting until 11:55 each morning.”

He will then offer a good-natured shrug and his own best smile. “Maybe one-hundred times more.”

She will kiss him on his clean-shaven, or stubbled, now wrinkled cheek, then wipe her red lipstick stain off with her thumb.

“Louisa, you should keep that there. How else will the girls know that I’m accounted for?”

Their banter will echo through the hallway as they walk back toward the elevator or stairwell, to take lunch on a bench at the corner of 56th Street and 7th Avenue, overlooking the park.

Today is no different. Albert shuffles into the elevator, presses the button with gnarled hands, waits in the corner with his hands clasped around a brown-bagged lunch. At precisely 11:48 am, he walks into the office suite and nods to the receptionist, whose bright eye shadow and dark lipstick do little to mask her youth. She smiles, a slight uplift of her lips, but her eyes are sad.

Albert settles in to wait, content in the silence.

Then an intern walks by, a new hire. Eager to demonstrate outstanding customer service, he approaches the old man looking entirely out of place in the modern office suite.

“Can I help you? Are you looking for someone?” the intern asks.

“Louisa. I’ve brought her lunch, you see.”

The intern, not seeing, perhaps, the abrupt headshakes of the receptionist, starts, and sighs, and says, in a low voice, “I am sorry to have to tell you this, sir. But Louisa has not worked here for weeks. She died, about a month ago.”

Albert summons a tremulous smile. “Yes. Yes, I know, my boy. But then she never truly leaves, does she?”

At precisely 11:58 am, Albert turns, tips his hat to the receptionist, and shuffles back down the hallway toward the elevator, to eat his lunch on the bench at the corner of 56th and 7th, and look out over the park, alone.

Based on the prompt: When a man takes lunch to his wife’s office, he’s told that she hasn’t worked there in weeks.

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