Telling Tales

by Mary J Breen

I used to be fascinated by double lives.

Like the mother of four who taught Sunday School at our church until it came out that she was a high-class escort in her spare time. Or the man with two wives, not forty miles apart, and a job that required lots of travel. Or Adella at work who wore buttoned-up floral blouses and braids and looked like she should be baking pies for the Mennonite bazaar on her days off.

I never really noticed Adella until one day I dropped in the lunch room and there she was, wearing a kind of mauve calico Little House on the Prairie dress and telling three other young women about the time that Edmund, her old boyfriend, had arrived through the back door already starting to unzip when Bob, her husband, came charging through the front to retrieve his lunch bag still sitting on the counter, all the while shouting his fears of missing his ride, no less. At least Bob had no inclination to look behind the basement door where his fate was hiding, zipped up at least. I was intrigued enough to drop into the lunch room the next day too, and this time the young women sat around the table all eating their leftovers from plastic containers while they listened to the tale of when Edmund had to hide in her bedroom closet when Bob came back for a tie. Soon after this, Adella got assigned to help me with a new promotion and I got to hear more stories, like the time Edmund had to revert to his other calling as a Bell Canada linesman when he arrived to discover Bob was taking the day off because of a cold. I asked her if she didn't worry, but she said it would never cross Bob's mind to distrust her, Bob being a plain white-bread-and-margarine kind of guy, which is, of course, exactly how I would have described her.

Every night at home, for want of anything else interesting to recount about work, I'd tell my husband Malcolm each instalment in Adella's sitcom life. I just referred to her as "a woman I work with." She'd made me promise on pain of death never to tell a soul, but Malcolm seldom listens anyway.

Then in September, Adella found a better job at a bigger agency, and I didn't see her until the office Christmas party. Lots of former employees come to them. She arrived in an old-fashioned velvet dress hand-in-hand with the famous Bob. He was wearing a brown turtleneck under a plaid sports jacket. A substantial gold necklace and cross rested on his substantial pot belly. He was at least fifty, and he kept his hand on the back of Adella's neck like you'd steer a toy car. Even so, Adella looked happy enough, smiling up at him, all coy and fluttery. After the men got introduced, someone from Adella's old section rushed up, and they headed off towards the buffet table. That left me to listen to the guys lamenting the Argos' inability to win that year's Grey Cup, and then, it being the season of goodwill towards all men, lamenting the need to attend Christmas parties, which, Bob said, was all because the women of today were running and ruining men's lives, not to mention the fact that office parties were not in keeping with the true meaning of Christmas. That finished off what little sympathy I had for the lamenting Bob.

I was about to see if I could find some more punch and better company when Malcolm started agreeing with Bob, claiming that he too was beginning to think that feminism had produced wives you couldn't trust because these modern women thought only of themselves. Take this woman The Wife used to work with. The Wife—that would be me. Before I could think of how to stop him, Malcolm launched into the story of The Woman The Wife Used To Work With and Her Secret Lover. "Red or Ted. Something like that." (I'd always referred to him as "Ready Eddy." How could I not?)

"Ed?" Bob said slowly, a puzzled look crossing his brow.

"Yeah, that might be it," Malcolm said. He turned to me, and I smiled brightly and shrugged as if I'd be the last person to know.

Malcolm went on, remembering the details much better than any other story I'd ever told him. I looked at him in panic, blinking and bugging my eyes out as much as I could, until he stopped his story to ask me if my contacts were bothering me. Then, I affectionately put my arm through his and pinched the back of it which made him yelp and mutter, "What's got into you?"

At this point Adella returned with some eggnog for Bob. I tried to distract her with questions about her new job, but Malcolm was getting pretty loud as he regaled Bob with more and more details, and soon Adella's eyes had the same bug-eyed look as mine. She grabbed my arm and whispered, "You promised!" I turned back to Malcolm and pinched his arm again. He pulled away and said, "Stop it, dammit!" louder this time, but thank God Bob didn't notice as Adella was already telling him he must come and meet some of her really good old friends. Bob gave us a farewell salute as they left, but Adella didn't look back.

I felt sick. "Malcolm," I hissed. "What were you thinking? Don't you realize she's—?"

"What do you mean? Bob's a nice guy. Easy to talk to. I've even asked him to come watch the game Sunday afternoon. If you girls are such pals, it's time we men stuck together too."

BIO: Mary's essays have been broadcast on CBC Radio, and she has published fiction and nonfiction in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines including Boston Literary Magazine, Canadian Woman Studies, Mystery Authors, Writer's Bloc, Soliloquies, and Other Voices. She lives and works in Peterborough, Canada.