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Creative Planning

by Robert Burns

Robert is a playwright and physician. He received a MA in playwriting from the University of Memphis. His plays have been produced in New York, Pittsburgh, and Memphis, and in the Kennedy Center Regional Competitions for Students. He has published a play, short stories, and essays in Annals of Internal Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, Three Element Review, Creative Magazine, Punchnel’s, and Adelaide. He lives in Memphis with his wife and dog Woody. He is fortunate in that Woody goes to work with him every day.  

Iris blew a cloud into the air; her head tilted back, her vaping pen dangling between her fingers. It was a Thursday night and we were playing gin rummy for a penny a point and a five dollar buy in. I was up a couple of dollars, but Iris was more concerned about my boss.

“So, let’s make sure I got this right,” she said, taking another hit from her pen.

Her voice was deep, hoarse from smoking two packs a day for “a long effing time” as she worded it. Whenever I saw her she had the pen in her hand, so I’m not sure vaping with all of the chemicals was any better.

“Three months ago, he grabbed your ass at the July fourth party.” I nodded. “Two months ago you got a text with a picture of his junk at four in the morning.” I nodded again.

I took a deep breath as a shiver ran through me. “And yesterday he said the only way I get promoted is to sleep with him.”

“Was he in a coma when Harvey Weinstein was on trial?”

She knocked on four and put down threes, sevens, and a heart run J-Q-K. I had twos, fives, and nines, played the ten with six points left over.

“You get two,” I said. I wrote it down and picked up the cards.

“I’d bet my retirement that he’s done this before, somewhere else,” she said. She stared off at a distant spot, her brow was furrowed. ”He’s got to go.”

“He’s the owner’s brother; I don’t think he’s going anywhere.”

I looked at my cards. They were a mess; I didn’t need to sort them because you can’t organize chaos, just like my work life. Somehow I ginned in ten rounds. Iris is normally bad at losing, but that day was pretty chill about it as she thought about my boss.

“I’ve dealt with his kind before,” she said. “Big deals when there is a power differential, but wusses when it’s gone.”

“Well, I’ve tried the human resources office, I didn’t get far.”  I finished the last of the bottle of Pinot. I said “I like my job; I don’t want to go looking for a new one. Can’t imagine the kind of reference he’d give me.”

Iris asked me his name, and I told her. Joshua Martindale.

“It can be fixed. Sometimes you need to be creative with problem solving.”

She dealt the cards.

A couple of days later I was in the middle of my after work run. The October air was crisp, the leaves were starting to turn. Halloween was the next week and the weather people were talking frost, a little earlier in the year than normal. Work had been busy. I was in charge of digital advertising for our company, and the deadlines for placements were approaching for the holiday season. I tried to clear my brain of the screen I stared at for eight hours a day, but it was difficult. I turned a corner at the park and almost ran over a man. My breath caught in my chest when I got a good look: he was Joshua’s doppelganger.  We bumped shoulders, not enough to knock either of us over, but it spun me around, he yelled “sorry” and kept going. The interaction took a second, maybe two, but it brought me to a stop. It triggered a panic episode – I don’t know why. Maybe it was seeing him, intruding into my personal time, touching him, the man running straight at me, although that was an accident, which triggered the response. And it brought up everything from work in a setting that was supposed to be mine.

I got the job three years ago, right after moving to Nashville. It was my break from the past – a crappy job, toxic boyfriend – and it allowed me to start over. Things had gone well – except for my love life – until Joshua got the marketing director job six months earlier. He was a couple of years older than me, with no experience, and since then my satisfaction with the job had waned. I had managed to keep the problems contained, away from my private life, until I told Iris and now this, running into the man at the park. It wasn’t a good time to find another job, I was finally getting caught up on my bills, and I did not want to start over somewhere new.

But Joshua made that choice harder every day.

When I got back to my apartment there was a note on the door.

Emily. Dinner. My place. Bring wine, I’ve got the rest. Iris.

I had met Iris the day I moved into my place. She was a little gruff at first, but I soon realized that was how she approached everything in life. After I brought her a plate of ginger crisp cookies for helping me figure out the laundry room, we had been great friends. My mother had died a decade earlier, and although I’d never tell Iris, she really acted like a fill in mother. I sought her advice, told her stuff I didn’t share with anyone else, and enjoyed her company. The information flow was mostly one way; she shared little about herself other than she was single and retired. We played cards, had dinners together. And shared a cynical world view.

Halfway through dinner that night Iris brought up Joshua.

“Behaviors any better?” I told her no.

Iris cut an end off the baguette and offered it to me. What’s an extra thirty minutes pounding the streets after work for homemade French bread? I inhaled the yeasty aroma before biting into the hard crust. Iris said she had done some checking on Joshua, and he had lost his last job for the same issues: sexual harassment and stalking. An ex-girlfriend had a restraining order on him.

I asked her how she found out this information. It’s not the items usually listed on a LinkedIn page. She smiled.

“It’s like riding a bike; once you know how, you don’t forget.” She painted her piece of bread with European butter. I’m always amazed when I watched her eat. She was as ravenous as a teenage boy, yet her idea of exercise is walking to the elevator. Despite those two facts, she was thin. Iris is probably in her early fifties (she’s never told me, and I’ve never asked), tall, with her black hair cut short. She wore tortoise rim glasses which always slid down her nose.

 “And HR still not doing their job?” she said.

“HR director is the owner’s wife, Joshua’s sister in law. It’s kind of a sticky subject to get them to take action.” Her brow furrowed. I said “Things must have been worse for women when you were working. How did you deal with it?”

“At my job, no one messed around with the staff. At least not with me.”

She sat back, sipped her wine for a few moments. Leonard Cohen played in the background.

“Well, sometimes there are other options,” she said.

“Like what?’

“Less you know the better.”

“But what?”

“What did I just say?”

“I don’t know because I’d need a secret decoder ring to figure out the cryptic nature of the words,” I said. I felt my shoulders slump. “I went to HR. Nothing is going to happen.”

“Any other women talking about him?”

“So far, no. For now, I just make sure there are other people around or the door is open when I meet with him.”

I asked about her work again and Iris changed the subject to white versus red wines with her Fettuccini sauce. She had done that before, whenever I brought up her work with the government. I went with the flow and said I preferred white wine with cream sauces.

Nothing changed for the next couple of weeks. I went to work, ran when I got home, tried a date with someone I met on an app (he forgot to mention he was married the three times we had talked on the phone. I forgot to tell him I am clumsy when I knocked the glasses of water onto his lap when I stood to leave him at the table), and Iris and I continued to hang out.  She didn’t mention Joshua again and neither did I.

It was Friday morning around 2 AM, and I had to pee. Iris and I had played cards until nearly eleven, and we had two bottles of wine instead of one. I felt pretty good about the six and a half dollars I had won. I was walking back to bed when I heard a car door slam and an engine start. I looked out onto the parking lot and saw Iris drive away in her Nissan Altima. I called her and got voice mail.

I didn’t sleep well. Too much wine and wondering about Iris. I called her a couple of more times, no answer. I dozed off at four, woke before seven and her car was in its spot.

I called Iris later in the day and she was her usual self, she said everything was good. She didn’t volunteer that she left her apartment in the middle of the night; I didn’t say I saw her leave. I knew she would have seen the missed calls on the phone.

When I arrived at work Monday morning the office was somber. The owner called a meeting and said that Joshua had died Friday morning, in his sleep, of an apparent heart attack. Gasps pinged across the office as employees responded to the news. My thoughts went to the facts that heart attacks were rare events in thirty-five year olds who rode mountain bikes on the weekend. Everyone seemed to be in a daze the rest of the day; I got a lot done.

I tried to get together with Iris earlier in the week, but she kept putting me off. Thursday night I showed up at her place with take-out tacos and enchiladas and a six pack of Voodoo Ranger. We were in her kitchen as I fixed the plates and she opened the beers.

“Joshua died,” I said. No build up. Just the news.


Her response was not a question and stopped at the one word. I paused for a moment, waiting for her to ask questions, or probe for details. She didn’t.

“Heart attack.”

“My, my,” she said. “Well that happens to men.”

“He was thirty-five.”

“I’d bet there’s a family history.”

“Something is different,” I said. I stepped back.

“I quit vaping. Cold turkey. Those damn things will kill you. Worse than cigarettes.”

“That’s not it. I mean that’s great news, but something else.” I moved my eyes up and down like you do when trying to find the difference between two pictures in the comics “New blouse. Capris.” Iris’s style could be called thrift store chic. Ill fitting women’s tee shirts and designer jeans one to two sizes too big made up her standard outfits. That night, she was stylish. She had a necklace and earrings, two things I never knew she owned. “You look great!”

We moved to the dining room.

 “It’s been a really great week. Yep, decided I needed to get out more, make some changes,” she said.

“I’ve been worried about you these past couple of days. I saw you go out last week, Friday morning. 2 AM.”

“Me?” She looked away, avoided my eyes for a brief second. She took a sip from her beer. “After all we drank? I was asleep before you were back in your place. Slept the night through.”

“But I saw …,” I said.

She cut me off. “Now where would I go at two in the morning?” She flipped over her last card. “Gin. Read them and weep.”

For the first time that night she smiled and sounded like herself. She returned to the table with two more beers and warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream on it. I dealt the cards.

“I was just letting my brain run loose,” I said. “You left the building at two. Joshua was found dead Friday morning. Heart attacks are unusual in young men. I remembered you said he had to go and something about creative problem solving.”

“Sometimes bad things happen to bad people,” she said. “I think they call that karma.”

We took turns drawing and discarding cards.

“So what part of the government did you work for?”

“Emily, now you know if I told you I’d have to kill you.”

Iris smiled, clinked my bottle and laughed.

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