Susan McNeill stopped by the bakery to pick up two pieces of Black Forest cake, Richard’s favorite treat. He hadn’t been himself since retiring two months earlier. Maybe this would cheer him up a bit. She placed the pastry box on the front seat of the car and groaned when her cellphone rang for the umpteenth time that day. She answered it, put it on speaker and pulled onto the road toward home.
“It’s true,” said the voice of Jennifer Singh, her co-chair for the conference planning committee. “Siddhartha Jones is no longer with Blueback Technical Solutions so he can’t speak on behalf of the work they’re doing on mental health with their HR department.”
“Damn,” Susan muttered under her breath as she approached the solid two-story home she and Richard had built together thirty years earlier, and saw the empty garbage bin sitting on the curb. The same bin Richard had promised to take in yesterday.
“Did you hear what I said?” Jennifer’s voice was higher than usual, a sign that the stress was getting to her.
Susan parked the car in the garage and stared a moment in the rear-view mirror at the garbage can. “Yes, I heard. We can’t use Sid as the keynote speaker.” She sighed, then added. “Stay calm. We don’t have to send out the conference brochure for another couple of days and we can always put a note on the website explaining that the keynote is being confirmed. It gives us some time. We can still find a replacement.”
“Where? This is a disaster.”
Susan turned the engine off and spoke more calmly than she felt. Richard had promised he would take it in this time. What was wrong with him? “I’ve got a list of potential speakers in my office here. If none of them are suitable, I’ll email the speakers’ bureau tonight. I’ve been working with them for years and they have pulled me out of this type of trouble before.”
“Right. Yes. That makes sense.” Jennifer’s voice was returning to normal now, so Susan continued to talk through the rest of her plan.
“We’ve both handled tight timelines before. We just need to focus on damage control. I’ll pull the board together so we can brief them in the morning. Can you start on a press release? Keep it light. Something like, ‘due to circumstances beyond our control, we have booked a new keynote.’ I’ll work on getting a replacement by the end of day tomorrow.”
“Yes. I can do that.” Jennifer sounded relieved, knowing what action to take. “I’ll send it to you by seven.”
“Great, I’ll look at it after dinner.”
“Thanks, Susan. I appreciate you talking me down from this.”
“I’ll talk to you later. Now go take a break and get something to eat. It’ll be fine.” She discontinued the call and leaned back in the driver’s seat, closing her eyes a moment. Why would Sid leave his job? She would have to ask Richard about it. He was no longer working for Blueback Tech, but he’d still be up on the scuttlebutt. Richard. She opened her eyes to see the nasty pimple of a garbage can fester on their otherwise clean street.
“He’s got to be kidding,” she mumbled as she climbed out of the car. In a moment she’d dragged the bin up the driveway and shoved it into place between the recycling and compost bins where it belonged. Then she walked back to the car to retrieve the pastry box, her purse and her laptop bag. It would be another late night and she wished, not for the first time, she hadn’t agreed to chair the mental health conference. She wished she could just retire like Richard had two months earlier. Which she could, if he had kept to his end of the bargain and worked for a few more years.
She set the box and handbag on the bench outside the front door, fished for her keys, unlocked the door and stepped into the smell of stale air. No chicken. No pine scent. He had done no cooking or cleaning, but the television was blaring from the living room and the weather reporter from the six o’clock news was confirming what she already knew. Temperatures were dropping and a storm was coming to Sunshine Bay and a storm this far south on Vancouver Island was rare.
The television grew louder as she approached the living room to find Richard snoozing on the couch, wearing the same sweatpants and tee-shirt he had worn at least three days in a row. She paused a moment, considering whether to yell at him so he would wake up and decided against it. It would just make a hard day worse.
Instead, she went to her office, set down her things and continued to the kitchen to start dinner and stopped, anger rising as she took in the sight in front of her. There on the counter was a cutting board that had been used to slice cheese and tomatoes. An oily frying pan sat on the stove, used to make a toasted cheese sandwich. On another counter, an unrinsed tomato soup can was sitting beside the sink instead of in the recycling bin in the cupboard underneath. The bowls and spoons from breakfast and lunch sat on the counter above the dishwasher. He’d even left an empty instant oatmeal package on the counter. Seriously? What had he been doing all day?
She opened the dishwasher to find dirty dishes and the soap she had poured into the dispenser, waiting for him to press the start button. Growling, she took the dishes from the counter, shoved them in, and started the machine.
All the books she’d read about men retiring — well, the one book and a few online articles — said men could have a tough time adjusting and she should be patient. One article even said that retirement wasn’t for sissies, though whether that one was talking about the retiree or their unretired spouse, she couldn’t recall. What was she supposed to do until he adjusted? Work all day to come home to a slug of a spouse who left the housework, cooking, everything, for her to do?
She pulled a pan from the cupboard and set it to heat on the stove. Why didn’t he understand she was having a frustrating month? She’d told him about the conference and the pressure she was under to mentor Jennifer. He knew Annette Taylor, the new executive director, had pushed them to hold the conference in a different venue so it could be twice as large as the last one. He also knew that Annette had then flown off to Australia for a month to deal with a family emergency, leaving her new director, Boris, to run things. The same Boris, who got the job Susan should have got. Would have got, if she hadn’t told the board president, she was planning to retire in a year which she never would have done if she’d known Richard would take an early retirement package without even consulting her.
It wasn’t fair for her to bring work problems home though. They weren’t entirely Richard’s fault. She needed to keep a lid on the emotions struggling to the surface and have patience. The last thing she wanted was to be a nag. But seriously, how hard was it to put away a garbage can, turn on a dishwasher and fry up some chicken?
Or even do something during the day? Judging by his appearance, he had done nothing in the past three days. This wasn’t healthy for him or for their marriage. She would have to talk to him again.
She opened the fridge and removed the chicken breasts she had thawed and marinated, and vegetables to make a salad. Potatoes? No. They would take too long and she had work to do tonight. Work. Despite her trying to calm down Jennifer, she wasn’t looking forward to this evening. It had been a long day and she’d much prefer to pour a glass of wine, read a book and turn in early.
She was tossing the salad when Richard shuffled into the kitchen fifteen minutes later, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
“Smells great. What’s for dinner?”
The calm she had been trying to maintain disintegrated.
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