Ralph sat back on his heels and straightened his back, grimacing as the kinks and pops loudly protested the movement. He was only forty-three, but ten years of working bent over in the stacks were enough to give him chronic back pain that rivaled most 65 year olds he knew. Shutting the filing cabinet with a loud snap, he pushed himself up, rising to his feet and shaking out the aching muscles of his legs.
Clarissa looked up at him over the glasses sitting low on the bridge of her nose and took her hands off of the typewriter, where she had been painstakingly recording the names, social security numbers, and birth and death dates on the cards Ralph was filing. She glanced at the big clock on the wall that loomed over the chaos of notes, photos and calendars that adorned the walls of the small room. It was only 11:30 in the morning, but deep in the basement of the hospital, it felt like midnight.
“Coffee?” Ralph asked her, one hand still one his lower back. She shrugged and stood, stretching, the bulk of her stomach resettling itself over her ill-fitting khaki pants. Wordlessly, they threaded their way through the skinny network of hallways, past young men in blue shirts lugging boxes from a computer depot, the administration’s barely budgeted gift to the department. Their own computers were supposedly arriving within the next few hours. Ralph felt the irresistible urge to make an excuse to stay out of his office for the rest of the day to avoid the situation.
They stopped at last at the small and dingy kitchen and poured cheap coffee into ugly plastic mugs. Clarissa held the sugar canister over her cup for a disgustingly long time, stirring it in with a weak plastic straw. Ralph preferred his straight black and steaming. Leaning against the counter, they watched the workmen lugging equipment around the hallway as frazzled hospital workers snuck past them, stepping over the cords and cables littering the floor. Ralph’s attention was diverted from the hallway scene by Clarissa scratching at her waistline, the skin peeking out from her light blue blouse, the fabric caught on the swell of her large breasts. Clarissa glanced at Ralph and jerked her shirt down as he redirected his eyes back to his steaming coffee cup.
“How’s the file cards going?” he mumbled into his coffee.
“Good, good,” Clarissa said, a little too loudly. “Into the oh nines now.”
Ralph nodded as if this was important information and cleared his throat. Clarissa turned to refill her mug and Ralph slid the sugar across the counter to her, watching her large fingers close around the container, the ashy skin stretching over swollen knuckles decorated by large sparkling rings.
“More coffee?” she asked, holding up the pot. Ralph held up his cup for her to pour for him, the long stream of black liquid splashing into the plastic mug in a hurried gesture. Both of them watched the quivering waterfall, Ralph’s fingers clutching the mug, resettling the top two fingers in a reflexive motion. Clarissa caught the motion out of the side of her eye, turning her attention to Ralph’s hands. He had long, thin fingers that frequently flicked and skittered over his filing cabinets as she worked at the desk next to him. They were piano hands, she decided, hands that belonged on a set of gleaming white keys in a dark nightclub somewhere, where skinny girls in sequined dresses pouted their big red lips at men in shiny suits.
to be continued.