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if inconvenient, come all the same

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thirteen weeks

 

“Joanie, I don't understand why you need to go shopping at all. If you'd just reduce, you'd be back at your fighting weight, and then you could save yourself the money.”

Inside the ladies department at Bonwit Teller, Joan has picked out a few outfits from the floor which she'll be able to have altered. She's also cast several lingering looks toward maternity, trying to decide the best way to get rid of her mother, in order to browse through the more...ample...selections. Two more days until Greg's parents leave. Then, the following Monday, she'll have to go back to work. She's got to pick out enough new clothes to get her through the next few months, and do it alone in order to do that much without making her mother suspicious.

“Shouldn't you call Ruth?” Joan asks pointedly, adding a royal purple floral to the selection of dresses in her arms, ignoring her mother's question. “I thought you offered to tell her our schedule.”

Gail waves a dismissive black-gloved hand. “Oh, I ground up two sleeping pills into that cup of applesauce she had for breakfast. She's fine.”

“Jesus,” Joan hisses, wheeling around next to a sale rack to glare at her mother. “What is the matter with you?”

“Joanie. The woman has been in hysterics ever since she got here. Far as I'm concerned, I did her a favor. She could use the rest.”

“She could—” Joan closes her mouth, then breathes out deeply through her nose. “Fine. I'm not going to talk about it. Stay if you want to, but I'm shopping by myself.”

“Oh, excuse me,” Gail gives her daughter a wide-eyed look, then glances critically at a nearby old woman who's attempting to eavesdrop. “Don't act so superior. I'm just trying to spend time alone with my daughter. You should be grateful.”

“I'm going to try these on,” Joan scans her surroundings and sees a dressing room less than two hundred feet from where they're standing. “Don't follow me.”

She walks briskly away from her mother and feels relieved not to hear footsteps behind her as she moves. All of these dresses are several sizes larger than usual. Even from this starting point, she's had to size up on a few items based on the cut alone. If she's very lucky, it will only take two hours to supplement the rest of her wardrobe and schedule the necessary alterations.

In the few minutes it takes Joan to speak to the young salesgirl at the counter and to hang her prospective items by the mirror in the small square dressing room, she's beginning to feel much calmer. She's able to try on several dresses before there's a knock on her door.

“Joanie? You in here?”

“Mother, I'm getting dressed,” Joan replies, biting the inside of her cheek to stay calm.

There's a laugh. “Well, let me in. I can't just stand out here like a lawn ornament.”

Slowly, reluctantly, Joan opens the door a small crack, barely leaving the older woman enough room to walk inside, and turning away as Gail enters and shuts the door, so her entire stomach isn't visible. She's in the middle of trying on a vibrant yellow dress, and has pulled it up to her waist but hasn't been able to adjust the bodice or put her arms into the three-quarter sleeves.

Joan thought it might be a good color to wear in several months, once she's on leave, or after she delivers. It reminds her of spring.

Gail snorts out a laugh the minute she gets a good look at it. “Daffodil yellow? You're newly widowed, for god's sake.”

“You wore hot pink for two months after Daddy left,” Joan snaps, turning away from the mirror as if to take another dress off its hanger, blinking quickly to keep the water in her eyes at bay. It's the hormones. It's just the hormones.

“You're damn right I did,” Gail retorts, walking up to the mirror, and examining her own reflection with satisfaction, as if remembering, “but I wasn't fat, and he wasn't dead.” She steps toward Joan. Her hand darts out to poke Joan's rounded stomach, as if doing so will illustrate the obvious problem.

Joan slaps at her mother's wrist, curling a protective arm over her belly as she turns toward the wall. “Don't—

But it's too late. She's already crying, her free hand pressed over her mouth to keep herself under control. And her mother's fingertips have reached the gentle slope of Joan's stomach, which is taut and round and blooming with life.

“Jesus,” Gail whispers, voice hoarse. “Joanie—”

Joan can't even look at her, voice coming out as a whine. “I told you not to!”

Gail retracts her hand immediately, as if making a peace offering. Joan swipes at her eyes with shaking fingers, trying to pull herself together, still hugging her abdomen with one arm.

“How far along?” her mother asks, firm, taking her daughter's free hand and leading her to a chair in the corner. “Have you been sick?”

Joan sniffs, feeling pathetic and small, like a little girl who's skinned a knee and doesn't know what to do next. “F—fourteen weeks. I've seen my doctor.”

“Well,” Gail says briskly, as if the earlier argument is all water under the bridge, “that explains the extra weight. And your mood swings.”

“I'm not telling his parents,” Joan says thickly, wiping her nose on a red handkerchief she finds stashed in her purse, and deciding not to take the bait on mood swings. “Promise me you won't.”

Gail's mouth drops open a little. “You don't want them involved?”

“He's a drunk, and she's a nervous idiot!” Joan snaps, slanting her mother a look that says you must be joking. “Of course I don't want them! They're awful!”

“They can give you money,” Gail says, staying calm. “Which you'll need.”

“I have money,” Joan replies, turning the handkerchief over in her hands, one finger tracing over the white embroidery. “I'm working. I get a dispensation from the insurance. And as Greg's widow, I'll have access to his accounts. It'll be fine.”

“You think so?” Gail asks, in a sardonic tone suggesting the exact opposite.

“Promise me,” Joan says again. “Don't say a word.”

“Fine,” Gail says, holding up two hands, and looking like she's offended by the very suggestion. “They won't hear a peep out of me.”

There's a small silence. Joan wipes her face again, then puts her handkerchief back into her purse. “Please leave me alone. I'd like to finish shopping.”

Gail huffs out a breath, like this is the most unreasonable request in the world, but doesn't dispute it. She picks her purse up from the floor, loops it over her shoulder, and glances at Joan's reflection in the mirror. “Play up your assets. That way it doesn't look like you've gone to seed.”

“Thank you, Mother,” Joan sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose as the older woman walks away. She feels emotion building in her chest again, but whether it's more tears or hysterical laughter, she isn't sure. As if she needs advice on how to tailor her clothes. She could dress her body blind, even in this condition.

The young salesgirl knocks on the half-open door of the dressing room, peering inside with an expression that suggests she's getting ready to step into a tiger cage at the zoo. “Ma'am—I'm so sorry, are you—all right?”

“My husband died,” Joan says in a crisp voice, throwing her hands in the air as if in surrender, and surveying her pregnant figure in the mirror with a mixture of anger and amusement. God. She's a disaster. “Help me with this sleeve.”

The young girl's mouth has dropped open, but she nods in silent agreement. “S—sure.”

**

“Okay,” Ken says from his seat on the green sofa, glancing over two stapled contracts, “so, Topaz is clear—these came from Art this morning—”

“Still fine with good for you, bad for business angle, right?” Peggy interrupts. She's kicked her feet up onto her desk, leaning back in her chair as she scribbles notes on her legal pad.

“Yeah,” Ken says. “I mean, dress it up, but we should bring 'em in next week.”

Peggy nods.

The intercom buzzes, followed by Linda's voice, crisp and calm. “Miss Olson? There's a Miss Holloway here to see you.”

Peggy leaps up from her desk, knocking her legal pad onto the floor. Ken gives her a concerned look, but she just shakes her head, eyes wide, and mouths oh my god before hitting the button.

“Thanks, Linda. Give me just a minute.”

As soon as the line clicks off, she's pushing papers into stacks in a flurry, motioning for Ken to get up from the sofa.

“Holloway?” he asks, raising his eyebrows as he stands up.

She meets his knowing look with a panicked expression. “Joan's mom. This is bad. This is so bad.”

“Didn't know you two were friends,” he teases, and she flaps one hand in his direction as she sweeps assorted junk into the trash can.

“I went to check on Joan at home. Met her for maybe—two minutes? It was awful. Pretty sure she just wants to pry.”

She growls out a frustrated noise. “Just—stuff some things in that corner, behind the boards.”

Ken glances around, picks up a few piles of paper and gamely relocates them. Peggy shuts her desk drawer. Nothing to do about the bookshelves. Or Stan's desk in the corner.

“You want to pick back up once she leaves?” he asks, and she nods.

“Yeah. Okay. I'm ready.”

She motions that he can open the door, and puts on her best client smile. First name. First name. What the hell is her first—oh, got it

“Gail,” she says, stepping out into the hallway. The older woman's wearing a pink floral, her makeup and hair as colorful and impeccable as ever. “I'm surprised to see you.”

Gail laughs, motioning for Linda to return to reception. “Well, I was in the neighborhood. Just thought I'd stop by and say hello.”

“Well—hello,” Peggy says again, waving awkwardly.

Gail's eyes flick to Ken, her mouth pursing in a mischievous smile. “Hello to you, too.”

“Don't mind me,” he replies, holding up two hands in surrender—and oh my god, is he blushing? That idiot. “I was just leaving. See you, Peg.”

“Bye,” Peggy says after a pause, giving Kenny a glare that means beat it, and motioning the older woman toward her doorway. “Please, come in.”

They step inside. Peggy shuts the door behind them, and indicates Gail can have a seat in the chair opposite her desk.

“Would you—like something to drink? I can get one of the girls to make coffee.”

“Aren't you a big shot,” Gail says, waving a dismissive hand to mean no, and opening her purse to produce a pack of cigarettes. Pall Malls. Same brand as Joan. Peggy suppresses a smile, feeling around for the spare lighter she keeps in her desk, and slides it across the table without a word.

“You're not queer, are you?” Gail asks first, exhaling smoke. “You dress like a lesbian.”

Peggy can't help it: she laughs. It's like talking with the Joan of five years ago—if that Joan had been even more mean and sharp and curious. “No, I have a boyfriend. Abe.” Realizing this could sound like a lie. “He's...a journalist. For, um...some underground magazines.”

Looking down at her sturdy white blouse and plaid skirt with a small frown. “And I...happen to think I look nice.”

“For a teenage schoolgirl, sure,” Gail says lightly. “You know, Joanie never talks about you.”

“Well, we've—worked together for several years.” Peggy tries to be diplomatic. “I guess she doesn't want to bore you with...details.”

“Did you know Greg well?” Tapping ash from her cigarette into a sculpted piece of tinfoil they've been using as an ashtray. Did she get it from one of the chairs? God, Peggy wishes she'd hidden that. There's still half a joint in there from last night.

“Oh—no—you know, he wasn't here a lot—”

“Didn't they have you over?”

“Well—we've all been—busy. And I know she didn't want people over if...he was on leave—”

“I guess the last time was a couple months ago,” Gail says, a little too innocently. Peggy decides to stop the question and answer session before it can get out of hand, and makes her voice sharper.

“Did you tell Joan you're here right now?”

The older woman snorts out an amused noise, as if she's glad to see that Peggy has a spine. “She knows I'm just curious.”

“Well, that's bullshit,” Peggy says in a dry voice—eyes widening as she realizes she's not talking to a friend—but Gail actually laughs, eyebrows lifting in an expression of surprise and a smirk taking over her face. Peggy can't help laughing, too. Jesus. She's got to stop spending time with Stan.

Suddenly, there is a loud crash from the other side of the shared wall, followed by muffled cursing. Peggy's first thought is – absurdly – a fistfight, but she doesn't hear other voices, just Lane's. Maybe something fell. He's got a lot of stuff on the walls.

“Good god, what the hell was that?” Gail asks loudly, eyeing Peggy and then the wall with a glare.

Peggy frowns and shakes her head, purposefully keeping her voice light. “Oh, that's Lane's office. I never know what goes on over there.”

**

Ken knocks twice on Lane's closed door, feeling everyone's eyes on his back even though the rest of those cowards are hiding out in the creative lounge. When he doesn't get a reply, he opens it just enough to poke his head into the room. “Hey, Lane. Everything okay?”

One look, and he almost busts out laughing. Lane is standing in a crouched position on the set of drawers which sit flush against the shared wall with creative. One hand is placed against the wall for balance. Clearly eavesdropping: his face and neck are bright red with embarrassment. He looks like an even more inept Maxwell Smart.

On the floor a few feet away from the cabinet he's standing on is a red leather wingback chair, turned on its side with its feet pointing toward the window, and several loose pieces of metal from the coat of arms, now scattered across the tile between the wall and Lane's desk. Ken's guessing that thing crashing to the ground was what caused the earlier racket.

“Shut the door!” the older man hisses, voice low, waving a frantic arm.

Ken does, pushing down the impulse to make a joke. “So,” he says quietly, ambling forward, as if this situation isn't awkward at all. “Guess you saw Joan's mom's visiting, huh?”

“I don't—know what you—mean,” Lane stutters, practically whispering. “I was—straightening this...picture.” Pointing at a framed canvas hung about two feet to his left, centered on the furniture and hanging perfectly even.

Ken decides not to challenge the gaping holes in that alibi. Instead, he stoops down, rights the leather armchair in front of the bureau, and turns his back to Lane, walking across the room as if he's just going to fix a drink. Hell, maybe he'll even indulge. It's been a weird day.

As he's pouring gin into two cut glasses, there's a shuffling noise, a small creaking as Lane steps onto the seat of the chair, and footsteps landing heavy on the tile. Ken turns around to see the man tug at the bottom of his suit jacket, straightening it, then put one hand to his lower back with a wince, as if he's going to feel that climbing later.

“Girls think you had some kind of mad scientist experiment going in here,” Ken offers as explanation, taking the two glasses to the coffee table and placing one in the center of the table, then taking his and sitting in the brown armchair closest to the doorway.

Lane frowns as if he's confused by the joke, but he sits down on the middle of the sofa with a quiet grunt. After a moment, he reaches out and takes a long drink from his glass. “I...suppose you've been sent in to—report back.”

“Not exactly,” Ken says, with a shrug. “I mean, sure, they like their stories. But given the racket, someone had to make sure you weren't dead. I volunteered.”

The girls were all too scared to do it, whispering to each other about maybe getting yelled at, and Stan and Harry – the only other men in the lounge – had flat-out refused. Ken offered to go in order to keep the peace. Not that he's gonna tell that to Lane.

“Oh,” Lane says. “Well—then—I suppose I ought to...thank you.”

There's a long silence. Ken takes another sip of his drink, hears a loud laugh from next door. Peggy must be doing okay.

“I wasn't—listening, you know,” Lane says out of nowhere, clearing his throat. His face and neck are still pretty red. Even the tips of his ears.

Ken schools his face into an expression of agreement, waving a dismissive hand. “Course not.” Another beat. “You know, I met Joan's mom when she came in. Very—interesting lady.”

If that's the right word for a fifty-something flirt. He's still not over that. It explains...a lot, actually. Hell of a lot.

Lane chuckles, taking another sip of his drink. Ken takes it as a good sign, and continues. “Peg was surprised to get a visit.”

“Oh?” The wide-eyed look on Lane's face says he's eager to hear the story, although he does a pretty good job of keeping his voice indifferent.

Ken shrugs, keeping it casual. “She went over to Joan's to pay her respects. You know, check in. And apparently it was—” he pulls a face, and waves one hand in a side to side motion in an attempt to convey what Peg told him without making assumptions, “—rough.”

“Hm,” Lane says quietly, then clears his throat. “But—she met—Joan's mother?”

“Yeah.” Raising his eyebrows in a meaningful way. “Not long enough to warrant a work visit, if you know what I mean.”

Lane's confused expression says he doesn't. Ken elaborates.

“Peg thinks she's trying to be nosy. You know how it is. Moms want to know what their kids are up to.” He snorts out a laugh. “Never saw Joan as the sharing type.”

“No,” Lane agrees, a smile creeping to his face. “Well. Not to her mother, anyway.”

Ken laughs at the joke. “Mine used to complain I never told her anything.”

There are more voices next door, and distinct heeled footsteps in the hallway. They must be done talking. He puts down his glass in the middle of the coffee table, checks his watch. “Well, time to head back to the salt mines. Thanks for the drink.”

“Oh—erm—anytime,” Lane stammers.

Ken forces himself not to grin, gives the other man a slight nod, and walks back into the hallway, headed for Peg's office.

**

“She just kept asking me all these questions! About work, and how well I know Joanie, and I kept thinking, oh my god, I'm gonna blow it—”

“Peg—” he interrupts, trying to tell her what happened—

“No, you don't get it. Somebody else visited her the day she found out—you know.” Lowering her voice. “They bought her groceries. They were there all morning. Now I'm the alibi. Joan told her mom it was a friend from work.” She gestures toward the bookcase, pulling a skeptical face. “I...think it might have been Don.”

“Really?” Ken asks, frowning.

“They're friendly,” Peggy says, with a shrug, as if it's obvious. “But it's not like I can just ask him if he did it. Megan's in there all the time, and I bet if I asked, they'd be blabbing about it ten seconds later. He tells her everything!”

A snippet of the earlier conversation floats into Ken's head. Never saw Joan as the sharing type.

Well, not to her mother, anyway.

Maybe Joan has the kind of work friend who'd defend her in a meeting, then disappear for the rest of the day. One who'd eavesdrop on her mother the day she pulls a surprise visit.

Huh. All this time he's considered Lane and Joan to be a united front at work, but he's never thought about them being friends outside the office. Maybe he'll ask Cyn about it when he gets home. She'll have an opinion.

“Jesus. Are you even listening to me?!” Peggy demands loudly, and Ken straightens in his seat.

“What? Uh. Yeah. Sorry.”

**

Joan sits in the middle of her bed, surrounded by scattered piles of Greg's belongings.

She's been packing in stages for several hours, and so far, she's filled four medium-sized boxes. His entire wardrobe went into the first two – everything from suit pieces and wingtip shoes to undershirts to his white lab coat. Next was a box for personal possessions. In this went his binder of baseball cards, shoeshine kit, and sentimental items such as his undergraduate and medical school diplomas. Joan allows herself to keep one framed picture from their wedding, but the full album goes in the box. Let Ruth cling to it if she wants.

(She'd also found a shoebox full of Playboys and pin-ups on the top shelf of the master closet. They went in, too. No use preserving illusions.)

“Joanie,” comes her mother's cheerful voice, as she walks into the bedroom, “There's sandwiches on the table.” She regards the mess on the bed and the four packed boxes on the floor with a raised eyebrow. “Aren't you keeping anything?”

“His medical bag.”

Joan turns to glance toward the far right corner of their—no, of her closet, where the black leather satchel sits on the floor next to her shoes. At first, she'd considered putting that into the boxes, too, in an urge to rid the apartment of everything that was his. But, after more thought, she'd relented. It could serve as an emergency kit. With a baby on the way, she'll need to have medical supplies other than bandages in the house. And she's been trained in basic first aid. The bag and its contents are something she can put to good use.

She lets out a breath, looking up at her mother. “Is Joe watching television?”

Gail rolls her eyes, meaning yes, and she's sick of him being underfoot, but her voice has the smallest hint of mischief when she speaks. “And Ruth's still sleeping.”

“I'm sure she is.” Joan refuses to engage on the morality of this point, although she'd be kidding if she didn't say the relative quiet has been welcome. “After dinner, I'd like to put these in the trunk of their car.”

The de-cluttering process will go much more smoothly if his mother can't weep over all of Greg's belongings as they leave the apartment. Joan may not like how it happened, but she knows how to use a prime opportunity when she sees it.

Her mother fixes her with a wry expression, and gives a shrug of one shoulder. “If you can get him off that sofa, go right ahead.”