Little got everything right. From the day she was hired, she was perfect. The filing, the phones, the calming of patients made hostile by tooth pain: there was nothing she couldn’t handle. Of course we all hated her for it, kind of, except the dentists, who loved her. You could see them congratulating themselves for hiring her every time they walked past the desk, where Little would be typing with blistering efficiency—she had those gel nails, and every week a different work of art was splayed across her hands, fireworks or hearts or skulls for Halloween—and simultaneously scheduling an appointment on the phone.
“You are very welcome,” she’d murmur into the receiver while smiling at Dr. Pai. “We’ll see you next Thursday at 9:45.”
Her name wasn’t really Little. It was something consonant-filled and Lithuanian the rest of us struggled to pronounce, and when Margaret, the office manager, clucked her tongue and said, “That’s a big name for such a little thing,” it was the little part that stuck. If Little minded, she didn’t say so. In Vilnius, I’d heard, she used to be a dentist herself, but here she had no license. Why she’d left her home, I didn’t know.
At lunch we put the phones straight to voice mail and sat in the break room eating meals we brought from home. We made New Year’s resolutions together, started salads in January, fell off the wagon like dominos around Valentine’s. Little never joined us. She put her coat on over her scrubs and disappeared, returning exactly forty-five minutes later with her frosty pink lipstick reapplied. Then one day I was out running an errand and came upon Little sitting on a bench, a paper napkin tucked into the collar of her coat, eating a burger and fries. She smiled when she saw me. “Two things I can’t live without,” she said. “Fresh air and fast food.”
She offered me a fry, and I sat down and took it. It was an ugly day in late March, windy and lusterless, spring hesitant to enter this unholy world. Little’s long blond hair whipped against her cheeks. She wore turquoise eye shadow and dangling gold earrings, and her raincoat was dark, shiny red. There were fifteen minutes left of lunch, and I didn’t want to go back. Margaret was on a tear about time sheets, and Caitlin and Megan, the hygienists, had been out drinking the night before; they kept laughing about how hungover they were, and if you tried to talk to them they just shook their heads and rolled their eyes as if no one else had ever been young or drunk, much less both at the same time.
I’ll say this about Little: she never rolled her eyes at anything. As we sat there, a man came out of an office building across the street and jogged straight toward us, pulling up short in front of the bench like a dog coming to heel.
“Sorry I’m late,” he told Little. “I was in a risk management meeting.”
Little held up a hamburger wrapped in yellow paper, and he grabbed it eagerly. She said, “It’s OK. Who is at risk?”
“We’re all at risk,” he said cheerfully, and took a bite. “Who’s your friend?”
“I’m Valerie,” I said. “We work together.”
“Josh,” he said. “I’d shake your hand, but—” he shook the hamburger instead, indicating condiment spillage. He was wearing khaki pants and a white button-down shirt with a fleece vest on top of it. He seemed like the kind of guy who reads about extreme sports in magazines while doing a slow twenty on a bike at the gym. But Little was staring at him as if he’d invented the sun and made it rise on command.
“Are you coming to dinner tonight?” she asked him. “I’m making kugelis.”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” he said. His hamburger was already gone, and Little handed him a napkin, which he used and then returned to her, along with his wrapper. He smacked his lips. I saw he was older than I’d thought at first. He was balding at the temples, and the khakis were tight around his hips, bought for a younger version of himself.
Little turned to me. “Would you like to come too?”
I shook my head; it was clear she’d only issued the invitation out of politeness. We’d never socialized outside of work. In fact I didn’t socialize with anyone from work, even Margaret, who was close to my age and lived in my neighborhood and whose cats I took care of when she went to visit her aunt in Nanaimo for two weeks every July. I liked everyone fine, but forty hours a week is already a lot of time to spend with people who’ve entered your life by happenstance.
I was surprised when Josh chimed in. “You should definitely come!” he said. “The kugelis, man. It’s a thing of beauty, not to be missed.”
I was even more surprised to hear myself say yes.
That night I took the bus to Little’s apartment, following her directions. She lived in a terrible neighborhood, one I would have avoided in normal circumstances. Not two weeks earlier, five kids in their early twenties had been found dead in an apartment building nearby, having overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl. I was an avid follower of this kind of news. My own son and daughter were busy and straight-laced and held bachelor’s degrees and jobs, but I never stopped worrying about their lives going over a cliff. Every time the phone rang I braced myself for the worst-case scenario, and in this way I kept them safe.
I stood on Little’s stoop, ringing her doorbell, and nobody answered. Behind me a car slowed menacingly, then sped up again. The building across the street had been boarded up, and on its front door was a spray painting that looked like a cartoon penis brandishing a knife in tiny hands. Just as I was about to turn around and go home, I saw Josh jogging up the block, waving.
“Her doorbell doesn’t work,” he said. He had a key and let us both in. “I guess she forgot to tell you.”
I followed him up a set of damp, linoleum stairs to the second floor, where he gave a cursory knock and then opened the door. Little was in the kitchen, wearing a frilly red apron tied about the waist, listening to Russian hip-hop. My kids would roll their eyes at my knowing about hip-hop, but Caitlin and Megan keep me up to date. Little’s cheeks were flushed and I could tell that she’d been drinking, not that I cared. She and Josh shared a kiss that passed swiftly across the border from affectionate to uncomfortable. I cleared my throat. Little made for me next, pecking me on both cheeks. I handed over the wine I’d brought, and Little opened it and poured us each a glass.
Josh grabbed a can of Coke from the fridge. “Here’s to recovery,” he said.
“Josh is three years sober,” Little said sweetly.
“Cheers,” I said, then flushed because it felt like the wrong thing to say.
. . .
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