In the Ladies

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A small, framed sign on each toilet stall door in the ladies’ room advises:

“Small personal items have from time to time mysteriously disappeared from the coatrooms, and it is suggested that all staff members take their gloves, purses, and like items with them to their desks for safekeeping.”

All staff members…meaning back then, the office was ladies only, unless the men, too, carried handbags. Jane aches to lunch with the girls who worked here the year that warning was posted, working girls with buns in their hair, and tailored skirts, and modest one-room apartments. Ladies who needed reminding that not all ladies are ladylike, that some are thieves, and that clothing and coins should therefore be kept under guard.

Instead, she’s surrounded by sour women who bolt for the train at 4:37, and traveling executives who skip lunch, then fill the nearby lounges at 5 o’clock, horny and determined to get scotch down their necks as fast as it will go before happy hour is up. Best to lunch alone.

Jane shrugs into her coat then walks to the café where lunch is a simple beauty. It’s small and crowded, with a din that swells while coffee machines grind and steam. She waits her turn while cooks in white shirts and soiled aprons load sandwiches onto platters and shove them across the silver counter top. Jane goes for the roast beef with lettuce and mustard, neatly wrapped with tiny pickles tucked between the crust and the waxed paper. The waitress wipes her hands and calls, “Next! We now have no more quiche!”

Jane comes here every Tuesday, not for the counter staff, their uniforms, or the perfectly crusted bread, but the brown bag folded twice at the top, creased just right for carrying. Also, for the moment at her desk when she arranges her lunch and digs in. It reminds her of Bread and Jam for Frances, the story of a badger who ate only one thing, and who was changed forever by a schoolmate who laid out his meal then ate it in rotation: a bite of sandwich, a bite of pickle, a bite of egg, a sip of milk, and made it all come out even.

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