Rhett was able to get control of her day drinking by taking a few days off after Thanksgiving. By wrapping her time off around a holiday, she hoped that no one noticed her absence. But it was athletics and she wasn’t a coach, so more than likely people noticed. She went to the women’s basketball tournament to make an appearance but after that she checked in to a treatment facility for 10 days. Once she took that empty coffee cup to the President’s box and filled it with whiskey, all drinking doors were open. She started the day with whisky in her coffee and once that was gone she filled her coffee mug at work with vodka.
Drinking helped her deal with the stress of her job. It helped her smile when she was miserable, helped her ignore the ridiculous requests she received, allowed her to cope with handing off valuable work to Doug. She knew he did excellent work because she checked every task he completed. His work was so good and he was so ambitious, and clueless, that she determined quickly she would do whatever was needed to keep him employed as long as he reported to her.
Doug drove pretty much everyone in the department crazy. He talked weird, he was cocky at times, sometimes he was combative just to see what would happen. It was like he watched Survivor, picked a contestant from the show to mimic and spent weeks at a time playing that character at work. Rhett knew he was finding his personality and didn’t care because he only acted one way with her, respectful. That, his perfect work and the happy vodka buzz she maintained for 8 hours each day made it easy to value him and ignore the regular complaints about his strange behavior.
Lesa, on the other hand, was a solid worker and never had a complaint about her. People didn’t come around asking her to intervene on Lesa’s odd comments or weird arguments she started, like they did with Doug. She did great work, she was getting media attention for every team she was assigned to and she helped Mark in ways he didn’t even dream was possible. Mark would regularly come by her office and brag about Lesa, suggesting as often as he could, as any man would do, that he was the reason she was such an amazing asset to the team.
Rhett’s office was a regular stop on the morning and afternoon greetings tour that Lesa took to break up the day. Sometimes Lesa would ask for advice, other times she would ask questions to get to know Rhett. It was flattering, that someone so young had an interest in her life. Those conversations always started with a feeling of being trapped and ended with her unexpectedly opening up and sharing details about her past.
Some days Rhett had too much privacy. Work was slow or she gave Doug a large enough task that he, and no one else, came around needing help. One afternoon after a morning of privacy, Lesa knocked on Rhett’s door asking if she could visit. Rhett welcomed Lesa in, bumping herself in the face and realizing she had no feeling in her nose, which meant she was fully drunk and had to find a way to slow down.
“What’s new with you, Lesa?”
“Not much. Just needed a little break. Brian’s birthday was last week, did you know that?”
“I know when everyone’s birthday is,” Rhett lied.
“I asked him what he wanted. He’s like a brother to me. I feel like I can trust him, he notices when I need help and haven’t asked and he actually helps me. I wanted to do something special, so he felt special. I mean I can’t randomly do something nice for a dude so his birthday was a big opportunity for me to do something for him.”
“Yes, you have to be carethul offering to do nice things formen,” Rhett slurred.
Lesa pretended not to notice and continued. “I told him I’d bake him a cake and asked him his favorite cake. He said he wasn’t a big cake guy. His whole life he was strung out on candy for weeks after Halloween then boom, his birthday would hit and he’d get a whole new sugar bomb in the form of a cake.”
Lesa checked to make sure Rhett was still listening. After confirming she added, “I told him I understood and left it alone. Then a week later I found a way to ask him what his top three foods were. One of those, if you were stranded on an island and could only eat three things, what would it be type questions. I mean, not exactly like that but, you get the gist.”
Rhett smiled and nodded.
“He said his top three favorite foods were biscuits and gravy – as one – deviled eggs and prime rib.”
“My God. Don’t they have pizza in Alabama?”
“I know. Biscuits and gravy? It’s weird, to me, but at least he told me and it didn’t seem like he was aware of what I was planning to do.”
“What were you planning?”
“Lucky for me, I know how to make deviled eggs. So the night before his birthday I made a batch of deviled eggs, put them in the container I have to carry deviled eggs — how about that? — and gave them to him for his birthday.”
“Did he like it?”
“Well, he was surprised. Definitely. I don’t know if he liked it. I think maybe the smell of eggs, mustard and mayonnaise was a little overwhelming at work. You don’t really notice the smell at a family picnic or reunion. But in the office, it’s noticeable.”
“I’m sure he was thrilled you thought of him for his birthday. That was very nice of you.”
“Thanks. So, Rhett. What is your favorite candy? Do you like chocolate? Butterscotch? What’s your go-to sweet?”
Rhett stared straight ahead for at least six seconds, contemplating her answer. She also wondered if she needed to pee but feeling safe to continue she said, “I like buckeyes. Do you know what a buckeye is?”
“Isn’t it a nut?”
“Well, no. I mean, I spose it looks like a nut. It is technically a seed and it is poisonous to eat, and for cattle to eat, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about peanut butter fudge dipped in melted milk chocolate, there is just nothing better!”
“Oh. So like a Reese cup. Is it Reese cup or Reese’s cup? I think I’ve heard it called both.”
“It’s called a buckeye, Lesa,” Rhett said with playful frustration. “Although a Reese’s cup is a fine mass-produced alternative to the superior buckeye. When I lived in Ohio, every week someone would bring in buckeyes to share. It started as a treat around the holidays but eventually everyone liked them so much, someone made some every week. I left that state 20 pounds heavier then when I arrived.”
“How long were you there?”
“I lived in Ohio, I think four years. Maybe five. I was in Springfield for three years, Franklin for two years and Hamilton for one.”
Realizing Rhett was as good at math as she was, Lesa tried to keep the conversation going and not stumble on arithmetic.
“I thought you told me you lived in Alaska. Was that before or after Ohio?”
Rhett was too drunk to realize she was sharing far more about her past than she typically allowed. She also was enjoying the attention, so she continued. “I moved to Alaska in my 20s. It was the scariest thing I did. I just up and moved across the country. By myself. I worked at a visitor contact station in the Denali State Park. A lot of alone time. I spent a lot of time thinking, contemplating what to do with my life.”
Rhett looked at Lesa and saw pure curiosity oozing from her eyes. She forgot where she was going with her Alaska story so she redirected. “They grew the biggest watermelons in Alaska.”
“What? Watermelons in Alaska? Are you sure you didn’t live in California?”
“Oh, maybe it was in California. I stayed in Alaska two years then moved down to Firebaugh, California for a couple of years. They had a cantaloupe festival every year and some farmers would bring watermelons. Yeah, it must have been California with the large watermelons. Biggest I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Lesa couldn’t tell where this story was going but she was loving it. “Do you wash your watermelons before you cut into them? I never do but I’ve heard a lot of talk lately that it’s important to wash a watermelon. The outside of a watermelon.”
“Yes, that’s a big debate. I don’t think I’ve ever washed mine but, apparently the watermelons sit on the ground, laced with chemicals to help them grow. If you don’t wash them before cutting into it, I guess your knife will just carry those chemicals all the way through each piece.”
“Yeah, but, the chemicals made them grow. What difference does it make if you cut into it and add a little more chemical.”
“I don’t know but, there’s also manure. I mean, that’s pretty gross. What if there was something filthy on the ground where the watermelon grew?”
“That’s true. And gross. It’s just so hard to get a watermelon in the sink.”
Rhett was totally confused about what she had shared and what they were talking about. She also knew she officially had to use the bathroom so this conversation had to wrap up soon.
“So you lived in Alaska, California and Ohio. Then came back to Florida?”
“Yes, that sounds ‘bout right. I took several years to get my life straight. Once I did, I came home to my daughter and started working here. I got a job, got my bachelor’s degree, my master’s degree and kept finding ways to move up. Each step I took was a step towards repairing the relationship gap I created with my daughter when I left. I try to tell her, everything I’ve done has been for her but all she remembers is me being gone. A new phone, a college degree, money for groceries, clothes for her children…all I do is try to repair. Try to convince her that it hurt, I know it hurt, but it had to be done and it was done for her.”
Lesa wanted to know so much more. She couldn’t believe Rhett was sharing so much and that she left her daughter for 10 years. Ten early years of her child’s life. Lesa thought of that movie with the gratitude rock and clinched her hand as if a rock was in it, I’m grateful my parents never left me for me.
Rhett stood up quickly and announced, “This was fun but, I’ve got to go to the little girl’s room. Get back to work.”