Jeff Barnes watched the hands on the wall clock with the nervous intensity of an explosives expert defusing a time bomb. Three minutes till five. She’d be walking out of her office across the way any time now. The window of opportunity would be open for only a few seconds, so he’d have to act fast. “Tonight”, he said to himself, “I am definitely going to ask her out.”
There! The jangle of the hanger on the hook behind her door; she was putting her coat on. There was an assortment of snapping and zipping noises while she packed things away in her purse and briefcase, and her office was thrown into deep shadow as she turned the lights out. She emerged, walking briskly toward the door leading from their suite into the hall. Jeff, sitting ramrod straight behind his desk, and wearing the aching smile he had been practicing for hours, mustered his courage, felt it break ranks and retreat in complete disorder, and yelled…”Good night!” She nodded at him and whisked into the hallway. Jeff heard her high heels clicking on the hard floor toward the elevators, and then, silence. Once again, the window of opportunity had slipped its catch and come crashing down on his fingers.
Jeff groaned, crossed his arms on his desk and put his head down. What was it about this girl that robbed him of confidence, glued his tongue to his palate, and made him feel like some wriggly thing in a bait shop? Susan Botts, for crying out loud! What kind of name was “Botts”, anyway? It sounded like a tropical disease. And although she was a pretty young woman – tall, slender, with big brown eyes and long dark brown hair pulled back (rather severely, in Jeff’s opinion) in a bun – you could see a dozen just like her on the subway every morning. It must be propinquity that had led to his infatuation, he reasoned.
Jeff and Susan had started at the accounting firm of Smith, Lord & Wise on the same day, three years ago. Although he specialized in auditing international banks, and she was a corporate tax expert, they had worked together on several projects, and now that they had offices in the same suite, they ran into each other everyday. But it was as if they were fish in separate aquariums, occasionally observing one another through the glass of their respective tanks - if so inclined, and Susan didn’t particularly appear to be.
“No guts, no glory, Mr. Barnes.”
These words emanated, not from Jeff’s troubled mind, but from the larynx of a stranger seated on the credenza behind him. Startled nearly out of his skin, Jeff leaped from his chair – or would have, had his legs not been parked beneath the desk. Brought sharply back to his seat, Jeff massaged his knees, waiting for the crescendo of pain to reach its coda and then fade away. He turned to look at the source of the comment, his eyes goggling in amazement. There, slouching leisurely, was a portly man of medium height who appeared to be about seventy years old. He was clad in a brown and beige plaid sports coat, khaki slacks, a white shirt and a red bow tie, and had bright blue eyes, a florid complexion, and a prominent nose; a few wisps of white hair poked out from under a dark green wool fedora.
The trespasser – or phantom, Jeff really wasn’t sure - affected a dramatic pose, as he recited, in a rich baritone, “’How now brown cow, grazing on the green, green grass.’ Is that the phrase you’re looking for?”
The man flashed a wide smile. “Well, Jeff, we proceed from elocution exercises to bird calls! You’re certainly a fellow of many talents. That sounds remarkably like the barn owl, or Tyto alba, although I think the first hoot is supposed to be more staccato.”
Before attempting speech again, Jeff tried to pinpoint the precise moment at which he had lost his mind. Even the excessive passion he had conceived for Susan didn’t seem sufficiently traumatic to have provoked a complete nervous breakdown, let alone a hallucinatory state. Oh, God! Was it a brain tumor?
The stranger shook his head slowly. “No, Jeff, you’re not seeing things. I’m genuine, all right. Permit me to introduce myself.” He bowed and doffed his hat. “I’m Cupid.”
Jeff failed to find this announcement reassuring. “Listen, mister, I don’t know how you got in here or what it is you want, but…what are you doing?”
The man was vigorously patting down his jacket. The slap of his hand on one of the side pockets produced the noise of crackling cellophane; he grinned and extracted a pack of cigarettes. Fishing a gasper from the pack, he stuck the cigarette in his mouth and asked, “Do you have a light?”
“No, I don’t, and besides, this is a smoke-free building; but more to the point, you don’t seriously expect me to believe that you’re Cupid, do you? That’s just an ancient Roman myth, like Jupiter and Mercury and all those other gods.”
The man sighed. “Well, I’ll just have to do this the hard way.” He closed his eyes and furrowed his brow, his face turning from pink to mauve. A few seconds later, the end of his cigarette began to glow. He took a long draw, exhaled a cloud of smoke in the direction of the low ceiling, and then coughed violently. Recovering his breath, he spluttered, “I really should give these things up.” Jeff simply gaped at him, feeling his sanity slipping away like a greased rope.
“Now, about the gods, my friend. We’re not myths. We were simply pensioned off a couple of thousand years ago. But me? I like to stay busy, keep a hand in.”
Against his better judgment, Jeff was lured by curiosity into conversing with this odd bird. “But Cupid has always been depicted as a kind of cherub; you know, a chubby infant with wings. You look more like…well…a used car salesman who’s retired to Ft. Lauderdale.”
For the first time, the man demonstrated something bordering on annoyance. “None of us are getting any younger, and that includes you. You’re 32 years old and haven’t had a ‘meaningful relationship’, to put it in the current parlance, since you got out of graduate school, and that didn’t last but six months because you got so tied up in your work that your girlfriend – Barbara, wasn’t that her name? - grew tired of being ignored and took up with a rock musician – a friend, or rather an ex-friend, of yours named Marvin Fineburg who now goes under the amusing, if bizarre, stage name, ‘Johnny Freakhead.’”
Astonished by the man’s possession of this bit of intelligence, Jeff practically shouted, “How did you know that?”
“I know a lot of things about you, Jeff, and about Susan Botts, too. I think I can help you. Here, take my hand in friendship. Maybe your tactile sense will prove to you that I’m real.”
Jeff rose from his chair – slowly, this time, mindful of his knees – and grasped his visitor’s outstretched hand. He felt something resembling an electrical charge run up his arm. He pulled his hand free and glared at the man. “What was that? Some kind of spiritual energy?”
The man roared with laughter and exposed his palm, revealing a joy buzzer. “As you may recall, Cupid’s known for being a prankster, too.”
Jeff took a step toward the intruder with the firm idea in mind of grabbing him by his gaudy lapels and dragging him down to the security desk. The man backed up, and held his hands before him in an effort to placate his new acquaintance. “Now, now, Jeff. Take it easy. Why don’t we go for a walk? Really, you’ve got nothing to lose by simply listening to what I have to say. Even if I’m not who I claim to be, what could possibly go wrong?”
The silence of the office was broken by what sounded like the patter of rain; Jeff felt cold water running down his neck and face. “What could possibly go wrong? Well, for one thing, your cigarette smoke has set off the sprinkler system. Let’s get out of here!”