Anita had not felt this kind of stress since the flashy administration of Mayor Frank "Homerun" Delacorte, who had failed to win reelection 16 years ago because of his scandalous mistreatment of the office secretary--in other words, Anita herself. The embarrassing story had been the main focus of the Crooked Corners Gazette for several months before the election, but it had still surprised her when, after the strange assassination of the unpleasant town founder, voters wrote in a posthumous vote for the dead man and elected his ghost to head the town.
She did not know if this mass unconscious exercise had been one in irony or in futility; neither the deceased nor the living politician seemed to have any friends in the community. But the turnout that year and the years of apathy afterward that allowed the ghost to remain in office had given her a gift. She no longer had to worry about an overbearing boss--in effect, she was on her own.
So for a third of her life Anita fielded calls for a resting corpse, and for posterity, she had dutifully put together press reports from the city council and called up a local "spiritualist" named Florence who would provide her with sometimes cryptic but at least somewhat credible quotes from the "ghost" of Leonard Marx. His ostensible comments from the afterlife usually showed considerable disdain for the goings-on of his fine town, but she wrote them down and read them to the press; she had signed her own paycheck in his absence and limited her raise every year to the cost of living; and she had written herself glowing reviews to pass some of the time, though she thought no one would ever see them.
Perhaps she should have enjoyed the years more; she had felt obligated to pretend to work even when there was nothing to do, while she could have taken four hour lunches if she'd felt like it, and no one would have noticed. She could have brought her dog to work (it was dead now) or made long-distance phone calls and charged them to the city (she didn't know anyone who lived further away than ten or eleven miles anyway). And maybe, just to make amends, she could have taken up poor Frank on his continued, pathetic and insistent offers of a romance--even after he'd packed his trophies into a box and handed her his washroom key before retreating with--she rolled her eyes--his dignity intact.
She yawned, her chin in her hand. Because of the modern-day problems of blight and crime and unchecked growth, the town had finally voted out their absentee phantom figurehead and replaced him with a man who was very much alive, and he had started the job that morning. She sat up quickly as she heard the new mayor step out of his office with the last council member. He had been meeting with every one of them, a new face every fifteen minutes, and he showed each of the grey-haired and well-appointed people out with a pat on the back and a hearty handshake.
She noticed a slight grimace on the last man's face and saw him open and close his hand as he walked out the front door.
The mayor turned and looked at Anita, and she swallowed. "What a bunch of assholes," he said.
She didn't know how to respond; she didn't know any of the council members personally. She had only dealt with the secretary on their end, a Paulina or Polly who seemed perfectly pleasant on the phone.
The Mayor loosened his tie, a blue-and-yellow striped '60s antique that clashed with his checkered shirt. He unfastened his maroon blazer and his stomach popped out like an airbag. "How about some lunch?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," Anita said. "Would you like me to order it for you here or would you like reservations somewhere..."
"To hell with that," he said. "Let's go get a tuna melt at Sue's. My treat."
Anita walked with a slight limp; her hip had been giving her trouble (too much sitting, Dr. Nile had told her, though she didn't believe him) and with the black rain clouds overhead, she felt considerably stiff. The mayor had a long stride and walked quickly, but he turned and waited for her to catch up. "You don't have to stay two paces behind me," he told her. "I'm not the frickin' king."
"And you don't have to call me sir, either. Ronald is what my friends call me, and if you don't want to be friends, call me Mr. Flint."
"Whatever you're comfortable with."
"Sir it is, then, Miss Jaguar."
Anita felt a drop of rain splash on her eyelid. She blinked and clarified, "It's Saguaro."
"Really? I'm sorry. That's a tough one. Why don't I call you Anita?"
"Whatever you prefer, sir."
"Anita. Reminds me of a knock-knock joke. Knock-knock. Who's there? Anita. Anita who? Anita drink!" He laughed.
"I never heard that one before, sir."
"Oh, hell, sorry about that. I got tons of 'em. Come on."
He opened the door of Sue's Cafe and the bell jingled. She stepped in and wiped her feet on the mat, and he followed. He took her clear plastic raincoat for her and hung it on an overstuffed coat rack by the door, but she took it back, afraid it would be lost. She folded it gently over her arm and followed him to the counter.
"Sit down, sit," he said. "I gotta hit the john first."
She had never been inside the cafe before, but it seemed cozy enough. She eased herself onto the padded stool and found it surprisingly comfortable. The mayor spoke briefly with the waitress at the end of the counter and then disappeared, and Anita took the time to take out her mirror and fix her lipstick. She might as well look nice, she thought, if he was going to treat her to lunch.
She did not like tuna melts, and hoped he hadn't ordered for her. She was relieved that the waitress came to her with a menu before he returned. She quickly scanned the list and saw what she wanted.
"Nice of them to reopen this place," the mayor said. He was shaking his hands dry as he walked. "You should see how clean the men's room is. Not a cockroach in sight."
Anita nodded. She put her menu down.
"Well, should we order?"
He signaled the waitress and she came to them immediately, pencil in hand.
"A tuna melt and a cup of coffee," the mayor said.
"I know what you want," the waitress said. "What about your friend?"
"We're not friends," the mayor said. "I'm her boss!" He laughed and said, "Well, it's up to you, kid. What'll you have?"
Anita was so relieved he hadn't pushed a greasy sandwich on her that she forgot what she had decided. She looked at the menu again and spotted the salad section in the left-hand corner. "A chef's salad," she said quickly.
"What kind of dressing you want on that?"
"Oil and vinegar on the side, please," Anita told her.
"No, on the side for the salad."
The waitress gave her a strange look and she took it to mean they were out of oil and vinegar. "Ranch will be fine," she said.
"We got all kinds of dressing, but I don't think you want to drink it," the waitress said. She winked at the mayor.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Anita apologized. "I'll also have coffee."
"Better make that extra strong," the mayor said. He sat down beside her and grasped the counter, pushing his stool back and leaning in like he was riding a motorcycle.
She turned to him. "I'm sorry, sir, to be so tired. I'm not used to having such an active schedule. The last mayor was never around."
"That's cuz he was dead!" the mayor shouted. He looked around, but everyone in the place seemed unfettered by his boisterous voice.
"I used to come here every damn day when I had my stereo store around the corner. Then they opened that White Trash Mart out on the highway and the whole downtown crashed. It's only now coming back together, though you gotta be a rich son of a bitch to shop anywhere. Kim'll cut us a break though."
"Who's Kim, sir?"
"The waitress. Didn't you see her lapel pin?"
"Um, no, I didn't notice."
"She's not wearing one. Don't mind me. I'm giving you a hard time. Not fair, not fair."
"It's okay, sir. You're very kind to bring me to lunch."
"Well, hell, it's the second most important meal of the day, after the cocktail hour."
"There ya go."
Kim delivered two glasses of water and two small bowls of soup with napkins and spoons. Anita was about to protest that she hadn't ordered it, but then remembered she'd seen on the menu that you always got soup for free at Sue's Cafe when it rained.
"Tomato and celery?" the mayor barked. "Why don't you just bring me a bowl of ketchup?"
"Try it before you knock it, Ronald," the waitress, Kim, said, her hips swaying as she walked away. Anita put her purse down on top of her lap, where the folded raincoat remained. She looked at the waitress suspiciously, but chose to ignore what she had seen and picked up her spoon. She dipped it into the soup, stirred its creamy broth, lifted it to her mouth and sipped. "Mmm," she said. "It's quite delicious."
After lunch Mr. Flint waited for Anita to wash her hands and freshen up. When she came out he was holding her raincoat wide open, and with embarrassment, she put her arms into the sleeves. "Thank you," she said. He handed her purse and opened the door, apparently having already paid the check.
"See you later, alligator," Kim said.
"Unless it's sooner, allagooner," he retorted. Then he choked. "Now even I know that one stank," he said.
It was raining, and Anita pulled her hood up over her head. Mr. Flint grabbed a Gazette and used it as an umbrella as they walked along the side of Main Street, ducking under hanging roofs when they could and trying to avoid streaming gutters.
She felt full and had enjoyed the meal, but she didn't care for the rain, and as they walked, Mr. Flint lit up a cigar and the smell nauseated her. He got ahead of her several times, but he always waited for her to catch up with her, though she would have preferred he didn't.
When they reached the city building and stepped into the linoleum entry way by the elevator, he held the door for her again. She wiped her shoes on the rubber mat outside and then entered.
"Guess we're not taking the stairs," he said.
"No, Mr. Flint." She winced and shifted to take the weight off her hip.
"What's the matter, your leg bothering you?"
Anita pushed her hood back and glanced up at him. The drenched cigar looked like he had rolled up a torn piece of a grocery bag and stuffed it with wet tea leaves. He was squinting, and she noticed for the first time that his eyebrows curled up off the sides of his forehead like feathers. "I'm sorry," she said, "I'd rather not talk about my personal business."
He shrugged. "My apologies," he said.
"Yes." She unzipped her raincoat and stepped past him, pressed the elevator button and felt thankful that it opened right away. He stepped onto it with her, bringing with him the stench of the still-smoldering stub of mush protruding from the side of his mouth. She cleared her throat, then coughed, but he seemed not to notice as the doors closed.
He looked down. "Well, thanks for joining me for lunch," he said.
"Are you..." She hesitated for a moment but decided it was better out in the open right away: "Are you aware that it is illegal to smoke cigarettes or cigars or...to smoke, anyway, inside public buildings?"
"Is it? Shit. I guess I did know that." He took the thing out of his mouth, looked around, but didn't know what to do with it. He put his hand behind his back as if that would help, and Anita rolled her eyes. She sighed as the interminably slow 1920s cables took their octogenarian time drawing the car up to the fourth floor.
Mr. Flint remained silent for the ride, and that was at least a blessing. She was happy to be in out of the rain, but feared she might come down with a cold and was beginning to wish he hadn't dragged her along.
The doors slid open without warning, and he held them for her, though he didn't need to. "Thank you," she said reluctantly, and she walked through and headed to their suite. She unlocked and opened the main door and left it open, hung her coat on the hook on the wall and set her purse on top of the filing cabinet. Mr. Flint came in and left the door open also, passed her by and went into his office.
She shook her head and closed the door, then went to her desk and sat down gently. She opened the middle drawer of her desk and rustled around in the back; she knew she had a pillbox with aspirin in it somewhere.
"Shit," Mr. Flint said. She could hear him in his office, moving around. She pushed back her chair and was about to get up when he came out. "No, no," he said. "You rest your personal business. I'm just looking for an ashtray."
"You can use one of the cups by the water cooler, Mr. Flint," she said.
"Ah, perfect." He marched over to it and grabbed a cup and squished the cigar out. The smoke still lingered, but Anita felt relieved that the monster had been killed.
"I hate to break the law on my first day," he said. "All those meetings with all those sticks-in-the-mud, and I'm the one with mud on my face."
"And on your shoes, Mr. Flint, you're tracking it in."
"Oh, shit," he said. He looked down, then bent over and said "oof" as he untied them and took them off. Anita observed both big toes sticking out of his white socks as he made his way back into his office. He closed the door behind him, and she raised her eyebrows, then sat back and resumed her search for aspirin.
A minute later, Mr. Flint popped his head out and said, "Hell, Anita, if you're not feeling good, you should hit the road. This rain ain't goin' nowhere, and I need you tomorrow. I got a meeting with the treasurer at 10 a.m."
"Won't you need me this afternoon, sir, to help you prepare?"
"No, I can handle it. You're a good kid. Take off." He winked and closed the door. Anita didn't know what to think about the wink. She didn't want to read anything into it, but she couldn't help herself. He had called her "kid," and he had winked. What should she think of that? What should she think of him?
She got up and retrieved her purse and took her raincoat from the hook and smiled. As a matter of fact, she thought he was rather nice.