Grin and Bear it

By Cadence K. Woodland

Ever since my husband had sat bolt upright in bed and exclaimed, “It’s seven-thirty! We’ve got to go!” my morning had been a whirlwind. Showering, scribbling on makeup, and banging my elbows into walls, I had scrambled into my clothes and taken less than five minutes, and we’d miraculously gotten to campus on time. Any second now it would be eight o’clock, and I would have to go in.

I’m lucky to have this job. I’m grateful. I have health care. I have great coworkers. I shoved the door open, repeating my mantra to myself and shoving aside the little voice that said, Yes, but . . .

_____

“Kelly’s home with cramps,” someone screeched across the office as I logged in to my computer. A couple of hovering officers flinched in masculine disapproval and darted off lest the conversation turn further down the road of gynecology. We secretaries had learned long ago that the quickest way to clear out underfoot police officers was to invoke their fear of the feminine mystique. It wasn’t fair play, but it let us trick ourselves into thinking we still had some power between eight and five.

Andrea followed me in and was greeted by a quip from one of the departing officers: “That boyfriend proposed to you yet?”

She stiffened, almost imperceptibly, and we exchanged looks.

“No,” she said with false cheerfulness, “not yet.”

_____

Twenty minutes later, another officer wandered into the department, laughing hysterically, and dropped a stack of paperwork on my desk. “You’ll never guess what I just had to do,” he crowed, and the office ground to a halt. Any excuse.

“Ducks in a drain and a valiant rescue,” I volunteered.

“Someone riding a skateboard on campus, the punk,” Andrea called from her cubicle where she had retreated to file her nails and let her phone go straight to voicemail.

“Dignitary protection,” the head secretary said solemnly, glaring in Andrea’s general direction. The administrators were contractually obligated to disapprove of flippancy. Those of us further down the ranks usually needed it to get through the day.

“Nope,” the officer said with unholy glee, “But the ducks are close. A few got into the dorms and caused a panic. Rode the elevator up and actually made it into a girls’ dorm bathroom. The screams made me deaf in one ear.” He tapped the folders on my desk meaningfully and, still chuckling, headed back to his office.

I like paperwork. Ducks getting into things are cute, not annoying.

_____

I flipped open the first file and got to work. It was the usual post-weekend damage. Half a dozen traffic accidents, three dry-ice bombs set off in the dorms, one guy in a chicken suit who had harassed students walking home, two feral kittens turned in to us soaking and shivering, and a couple of fire alarms set off as pranks. I finished the paperwork by nine, which was lucky because it was about the time that one of our regular stalkers showed up and had to be escorted off campus. In handcuffs, yet polite and cheerful.

I don’t mind stalkers. Or thieves. Or the criminally insane.

By lunch I’d restocked the supply closet, shredded approximately forty million files, and tripped on the same tear in the carpet twice. All was typical. I was just gathering up some scattered forms after the second of these plummets when the phone rang, and I had to make a mad dash for my desk. Putting on a helpful, pleasant voice, I picked up the receiver and chirruped, “How can I help you?”

“Hello, miss,” came a desperate staccato from the other end, “I’m wondering what it would take to get a parking permit for a horse on campus.”

_____

I felt everything stutter and stop. My eyes darted to the phone interface hoping it was a prank call. No such luck—it was athletic recruiting.

“I’m going to need a bit of background info on that question, sir…” I stammered, trying to sound as professional as possible, given the circumstances.

“Well, we’re trying to recruit this guy for a school team and he loves his horses. So I told him we could get him a parking permit so he could ride his horse to campus, and he really seemed interested. We really need this kid to come here—our team needs him. Can I get him a permit to park his horse, or what do I need to do?”

“Sir, you can’t park a horse anywhere.”

Heads popped up like meerkats all over the office. A couple of the clerks scampered over to my desk and leaned over the partition to listen in.

“Can’t he just tie it to a tree or something? All we need is the permit,” the recruiter begged.

“Sir, I’m positive that no one, absolutely no one, not here or anywhere, can issue you a motor vehicle permit for a horse,” I said, slapping a co-worker’s fingers away from the speakerphone button.

“No, no, no, no,” he whimpered under his breath. “We need him. Isn’t there anything you can do?” I felt the familiar bite of powerlessness sting across me, but answered him in the negative. “I want you to check with your supervisor, right now,” he continued. “I’m sure something like this has been done before.”

Not bloody likely. “Of course, sir.”

_____

As I put him on hold, Andrea shooed her customer out the door and darted around the corner to join the feeding frenzy, and the duty officer at the front counter swung around mouthing, What the hell?! I shrugged helplessly and rang Henry’s phone.

After half a dozen rings, he picked up. “Yeah? Yeah, I’m here.” He sounded tired and exhaustingly busy.

“Hey, Henry, I have a gentleman from recruiting on the phone who would like to park a horse on campus.”

There was a long pause while Henry did whatever it is supervisors do when confronted with livestock before his response boomed into my ear, “I beg your pardon!”

“Just what I said. Please tell me the answer is no so I can relay the message,” I asked.

“Of course it’s no!” he exclaimed. “We don’t have the place for it. Who would clean up after it?”

“Really?” I asked incredulously. “That’s the question we’re asking in this situation?”

“Horse poop is a fairly pressing problem,” he gave a rare laugh. “Or tell him we just don’t have the facilities for it. What’s he want it for, anyway?”

“He’s trying to convince an athlete to attend here.”

Henry gave a low whistle of sympathy. No one wanted to be responsible for losing a potential golden recruit.

“Sorry,” he said, “we can’t.”

_____

I disconnected from Henry and stared guiltily at the remorseless blinking “On Hold” button.

Andrea gestured impatiently at the phone for me to pick up the call again. In an office completely run by instances of the bizarre or heartbreaking, no one was allowed to let guilt stand in the way of quality entertainment.

“Sir, I spoke with the lieutenant, and the answer is most definitely no.”

“But why not?” he demanded.

“Because we don’t have an equestrian program here, which means we don’t have the facilities, equipment, tack, food, or pasturing for it,” I extemporized, leaving manure out of the equation.

I heard the faint sound of his knuckles rapping quickly on his desk as he racked his brains for thought. “There must be a solution. What if he tied it to a bike rack?”

Andrea, who was practically ear to ear with me trying to get both sides of the conversation, snorted into her hand. Even I felt hysterical giggles rising, but I clamped them down and said in a very firm voice, “Tying a living animal to a bike rack for hours at a time in the desert summer or the winter blizzards is not an option, sir. Apart from animal cruelty, what if it kicked someone? That’s one mother of a potential lawsuit.”

“Look I know you’re just messing with me,” he grasped. “I’ve seen horses on campus before!”

“We do bring a single pony onto campus one day a year for a demonstration in equine therapy: as I recall it’s about knee high. And you may have seen police on horseback for holiday parades or football games, but that isn’t with our department.”

“So no horse?”

“Absolutely no horse, sir.”

“So what am I supposed to tell our recruit?” he finally asked, which I knew actually meant, “What am I supposed to tell the coaches?”

There was a long pause.

“I truly have no idea, sir.”

“Thanks for nothing,” he said bitterly.

Click.

Thunk.

My head dropped to my desk as Andrea burst out laughing.

“It’s not funny,” I said, desperately trying to swallow my own titters.

“Why not?”

“Because!” I said, waving a stack of forms at her. “You deal with parking tickets and horrible, angry people. I deal with people’s bungled personal lives and livestock.”

“Kinky.”

“No,” I said shortly. “Not nearly as fun as it sounds.”

Henry, dashing out on his way to another meeting, poked his head around the corner and hissed, “We just got a call from the dorms. Couple of freshman want to report a stolen Mr. Potato Head.”

That did it. The giggles spilled from my mouth so fast I nearly choked. Then, suddenly, I couldn’t stop. I could barely breathe. Andrea collapsed, laughing so hard she had to grab my chair to stay upright, an almost ugly kind of laugh that I’d never heard from her before. My own eyes were pricking and I finally came face to face with the feelings that I kept hidden and did my best to ignore day to day.

_____

It was impotence—and anger. It was every anxiety and frustration I had stifled since graduating. That I had majored in European History and the only work I could find was in law enforcement. A job that required a college degree to man phones, write memos, and fetch people’s laundry. The fact that I had been prepared to move home to England when my then-boyfriend proposed. That my now-husband still had two years left in school, when I was ready to move on and away from university life. That I was too terrified of broken legs, cavities, and unplanned pregnancies to give up my health insurance by finding another job. That I was stuck.

_____

“I hate this,” I gasped, trying to get a hold of myself.

“It’s okay,” she said, flashing me a smile before she schooled her face into blankness. “You’re entitled.”