I decided to write fiction because I wanted a forum for talking about things that I couldn’t effectively talk about in my nonfiction, specifically relationships, families, friendships, and love. When You Went Away, my first novel, has plenty of all of these elements. At the center of the story is a man who suddenly finds himself a widower with an infant child and a runaway teenager. In this scene, he has his first extended conversation with a colleague who is going to wind up playing a surprising role in his life.
I began to adjust to my return to work. After a few weeks, I was back into the rhythm of the office. While not nearly as diverting as I had found it to be at other challenging times in my life, the job was something I could focus on for increasingly longer stretches. The deadline of the Christmas catalog lent a certain amount of propulsion to every day.
This wasn’t to say that I didn’t meditate on the pictures of Maureen, Tanya, and Reese every time I sat at my desk, or that I didn’t check in on Lisa more often than was probably necessary (or, from her perspective, welcome). But I began to have ideas again and I could look at the piles of paper in front of me as surmountable.
I was addressing one such pile when Ally Ritten knocked on my door. Until she joined my team, I was only peripherally aware of her. I heard she was smart, others worked well with her, and she came up with some trinket or other for catalogs I hadn’t worked on as a sideline to her primary marketing job. In the first couple of team meetings I had with her, I was impressed with her energy and with how quickly she could run with an idea. She quickly made more of a contribution than anyone else did on the team, and I was sure this was something she would be very good at full time. I’m sure Marshall had some notion of this, which was why he told me to bring her on, though he hadn’t yet suggested anything like a department transfer.
“Hi, am I interrupting?” she said, standing half in and half out of the doorway.
“I’m plodding through some vendor contracts. Please interrupt.”
She sat down across from my desk. “What do you think of cookie jars?”
“Filled or unfilled?”
“Well, that’s sort of where I was going with this. What about offering a set of personalized cookie jars? You know, ‘Mom’s Favorite Cookies’ or ‘Jimmy’s Favorite Cookies.’” This way everyone could always have their cookies in their own cookie jar without compromise or, you know, cross-contamination.”
“Oatmeal cookies don’t taste as good if you get Oreo on them.”
“I think a certain sector of our audience might believe that to be the case.”
I looked at her skeptically.
“Okay, I’m part of that sector,” she said. She seemed embarrassed by the admission, as though she told me something terribly intimate.
“Oatmeal cookies aren’t allowed to touch Oreos?”
She reddened slightly. “It gets chocolate on them. Then they don’t taste as much like oatmeal anymore.”
“So it would be better if Mom’s cookies and Jimmy’s were segregated.”
She closed her eyes. “This was a stupid idea.”
I laughed. “It’s not a stupid idea. We sell tens of thousands of personalized TV remote caddies every year. Trust me; there are no stupid ideas. Actually, you satisfied my number one rule for pitching a concept – that you be part of the market for it. The first best way to test the viability of a product is to know that you would buy it yourself.”
She nodded and seemed to regain a little of her composure. Clearly, Ally had been nervous about pitching me one-on-one and I unintentionally made her more nervous by teasing her.
“If this is your number one rule, shouldn’t everyone on your team know it?” she said with a smile. Obviously, she gathered her feet under her quickly.
I smiled back. “Now everyone does.”
“Thanks. I’ll play with this a little and let you get back to your contracts.” She glanced over at my desk. “Is that the baby?” she said, pointing to a picture frame.
I handed the photograph to her. “The picture’s a couple of weeks old, so of course he looks completely different now.”
“He’s really cute.”
“Yeah, Reese. It’s Greek for, ‘He who doesn’t sleep very much.’”
She grinned and handed the picture back to me. At the same time, she nodded toward another frame. “Is that him with your wife?”
I took the photograph of the two of them cuddling that Saturday before our last date together. I touched the frame, but I didn’t pick it up. “Yeah, it is.”
“This has to be tough for you.”
I was tiring of hearing people say that, but it wasn’t fair to her to let it show. “I’m getting better at dealing with it.”
“You know, you’re not giving off any signs of freaking out at all. That’s admirable.”
“Freaking out really isn’t one of my available choices. Not with a baby to take care of.”
“I guess you’re right. You’re lucky to have him at a time like this.”
I looked up at her, surprised at the insight of the comment. No one else had said anything like that to me. “You’re right; I am. It’s hard to wallow when he’s around. And it’s hard to think that the world sucks when you get a glimpse at how amazing it seems to him.”
She settled back in her chair. “You’re on an adventure.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, like one of those guys who gets thrown into a heroic situation against his will.”
“A reluctant hero.”
“Something like that.”
She reached over and touched the original picture I handed her. “Too bad he doesn’t sleep.”
“Most of the time it’s too bad. Sometimes it’s just what you need at 2:30 in the morning.”
She smiled and shook her head. “Yeah, I can understand that.”
“It’s just that, a lot of times, I’m up anyway. It’s the weirdest thing how stuff will just creep up on me. Even when I’m sleeping. I’ll be floating along and then suddenly something will remind me that I’m that widower with the tiny baby and the runaway daughter.” I surprised myself by talking to her this way, since I barely knew her. But she seemed more receptive than most people I spoke to and not at all uncomfortable with these subjects. With most people, opening up made me feel like I was either being boring or feeding someone’s prurient curiosity. “It happens to me in meetings sometimes. You can watch for it now that I’ve told you.”
“At which point, I’ll bring up something completely inane like personalized cookie jars and snap you right back into the moment.”
I laughed. “That’s very generous of you.”
“The cookie jar thing really was stupid, wasn’t it?”
“It wasn’t stupid. Work it up.”
“You think so?”
“Look, it might be stupid, but it’s worth exploring a little further. What’s the downside?” I smiled after employing my catchphrase of the moment.
“I will.” She stood up to leave. “Thanks for the time. They told me you were approachable, but I was still a little concerned about just barging in here with an idea.”
“Come in any time. Really.”
“Thanks for the invitation.”
Ally smiled and left the office.
I ran my hand over the picture I showed her. Reese did look very different now. Are you changing right this second while I’m not with you? I needed to bring some new prints into the office. Maybe even one of those picture frames that cycled digital images so I could constantly have the latest shots of my son sitting on my desk with me. I was relatively certain that Lisa would object to a nanny-cam.
Michael Baron is The Story Plant’s Author of the Month. This means we are offering sensational deals on all of his works, national bestseller When You Went Away. You can learn more at our website.