Matt entered into what he presumed was the rival shelter's business office, which was just as barebones and cluttered as at his own. Shouldn't think of them as 'rivals,' he corrected himself. That there're more than enough needy kids in this area to overwhelm two service sites, and that they don't look any better off here, just goes to show why cooperating on this fundraiser is so important to our Board. He looked around at the motley collection of clearly used office furniture, every piece piled high with papers, random pieces of clothing, and other obviously unsorted donations. …Even if we are a little neater…
The door swung open behind him, and two teenagers flew past him into the building's interior. He had just stepped clear, and started to wonder whether to follow, when a third, slower form came in, shouting an oddly accented, "¡Cuidado!" after them. Pasty white arms stood out in contrast to the Spanish command, but the stack of boxes the speaker was carrying obscured anything more about him. "¿Pueden ayudarme?" the last arrival asked almost rhetorically, knowing the boys were long gone.
Teetering expertly through the office toward the desk with the least clutter on it, the man mumbled sarcastically to himself, "Spassiba," and set the boxes down. Slightly built and dressed in a T-shirt and jeans as worn as his surroundings, he stuffed a set of keys into his back pocket, and turned around to find Matt standing silently with a folder of paperwork in his hands and a pleasant, but nondescript look on his face.
Apparently not surprised to find him there, the man paused, looked Matt over head to toe and asked flatly putting his hands on his hips, "Can I help you?"
Matt stood dumbly for moment, embarrassed at not having offered to help himself, not sure he'd understood the Eastern European-sounding accent, and a little taken aback by the man's ice blue eyes that stood out so clearly from his dark hair, lean features and pale complexion.
"Can I help you?" the man repeated slowly, with a look of both irritation and hesitation, as he gestured dramatically, first to himself and then to Matt.
Signing. He thinks I'm deaf! Matt blinked, shook his head and stuttered, "No. I'm sorry. I can hear you. I mean… I did hear you, I just didn't…. I understood, I mean." Realizing he was babbling, he laughed, stood upright, and started over. "Hi, I'm Matt Fielding, from 6th Street… I'm here to see Valerie. I'm a little early."
The man seemed skeptical, and Matt felt himself being sized up again. With what looked like a forced smile or a grimace, the man pointed toward a cluttered desk in one corner of the room, "Sit there."
Without further explanation or expression, the man pushed the outer door closed, grabbed the top box from the pile he'd brought in, and stepped past Matt toward the interior door. A muffled call of, "Miguel? Jesse!" announced he and his attention had moved on.
Flinching at the wrong foot this was starting on, Matt stepped over to the indicated chair. Like the other desks, this one was piled high with file folders, stacks of paper and odd household items. Unlike the others, however, this one's décor included a sizable stack of children's and adult books in various languages—English, Spanish, French and an alphabet that literally looked Greek to him. More uniquely, spread neatly across the center of the desk on layer of newsprint, were the shell and pieces of an old electric desktop fan. This desk's occupant obviously did more than push papers. Matt carefully moved a box of odd electrical parts onto the floor, and sat down gently in the lop-sided folding chair next to the desk.
With no ceremony or announcement, the young man returned and dropped into the desk chair opposite Matt. He took a bite from a thin sandwich in one hand, and set two small apples on the desk with his other. Chewing, he offered one apple to Matt, and slid it into a drawer when the guest shook his head politely. Swallowing, the man narrated, "We were nearly late for lunch; so the guys were in a hurry to hit the dining room before dessert was gone." He took another bite, and looked at Matt as though that were explanation and introduction enough.
"Well, I'm glad that none of you missed it entirely." No response; just another bite. "I see you skipped dessert, and went for… PBJ?" he noted lightly.
"They were out of bologna."
"Oh," Matt nodded. And since 'to the chase' seemed to be the plan of the day, "So, is Valerie having lunch now too? Will she be joining us? I could come back if now isn't a good time…"
The chewing was accentuated by another odd smile, this one a mix of irritation and amusement. Finishing the sandwich, the man picked up the remaining apple and corrected, "The name is pronounced 'Vuh-Larry'; it is Russian. And it is a man's name."
"Your name," realized Matt, chiding himself for the gendered assumption, and making a mental note to see whether his shelter's fundraising chair had not known that, or just hadn't bothered to share it with him.
Valery took a bite of the apple and nodded matter-of-factly while chewing.
Oh for two, thought Matt, as he opened and shuffled the file of papers he'd brought with him. He blushed and smiled as he'd tried to explain that, "I was only given the name in writing; I'm sorry, I didn't consider all the possibilities."
Valery continued eating his apple non-committally, not providing any forgiveness or rescue as Matt hoped for some.
"I was told to come meet with you, as you and I will be working on some client stories to share at the…" he read from his file to be sure he got it correct, "'Barefoot & Black Tie Beach Bash' fundraiser our two agencies are holding jointly at the end of the month. I guess we're supposed to choose some of our youths' stories and prepare some posters about their struggles and successes to display at the party."
Valery's face reverted to the confused and concerned look that seemed to be a favorite. "I have heard of the party, but they did not tell me I was to help plan it."
"Well, I guess our agency saw they needed an eye-catching presentation, and said 'Well, if it's got to look good, let's give that job to the staffer with the best fashion sense,'" he laughed.
Valery gave Matt's outfit another judgmental once over, then his own, before a look of concern joined the confusion on his face. "Your boss thinks I have good clothes?"
Matt's face and feelings dropped at racking up a perfect three misspeaks in three attempts. "No! No, he didn't say any— Your outfit's fine. That's not what I- You know what," he laughed aloud at himself, and closed the file in his lap. "I don't seem to be able to say anything right today. Would you mind if I start over?" He took a deep breath, sat upright in his chair, stuck out his hand and said, "Hello, my name is Matt Fielding. I'm a case worker at the 6th Street Halfway House, and I'm here to see Vuh-larry Nichols. We're going to be working together on the Beach Bash fundraiser."
Playing along, but still apparently unsure of this new semi-colleague, Valery wiped his hand on his jeans, leaned forward and shook Matt's hand. "Hello, Matt. I am Valery. I work here, and I guess with you on the beach party... If it is easier, you can call me Val."
Tempted to make a reference to the sound-alike Paul Simon song, but not wanting to derail again what little progress they'd made, Matt passed. He had just dug a hole in the sand, making this extra project even harder; so much for the fun of professional networking.