Title: The Pursuit of Happiness or Chasing Serenity
Genre: Comedy, character study.
Dedication: To the brilliant folks at ds_flashfiction who turn out wonderful stories without even batting an eye.
Disclaimer: Benton Fraser, Ray Kowalski, Francesca Vecchio and the others do not belong to me. I am not making any money from them, just having a little fun. Honest!
Distribution: Please ask first.
Feedback: E-mail me at v dot waits at gmail dot com. Thank you kindly!
Personal Notes: Written for the "Somebody Gets It" challenge at LiveJournal's ds_flashfiction. I didn't get the idea for the story until just before the deadline and spent several days writing at breakneck speed to get this piece finished.
Summary: Frannie gets a last-minute catering job for the Chicago Policeman's Ball, but unfortunately, things quickly go awry.
Warnings: None. Not a one. Honest! Safe for the whole family!
Dates Written: October 15-October 19, 2005.
My RCMP training at Depot and fifteen-plus years of field experience had prepared me to handle a wide variety of situations--everything from emergency snowmobile repair to rudimentary ballroom dancing and hand-to-hand combat. Never in my wildest imaginings, however, had I thought that I would be attempting to talk Francesca Vecchio into lowering her green-and-orange, pump-assisted, fully loaded water gun--which, parenthetically, I later learned was called a "Super Soaker."
She brandished the plastic gun at the long stack of toilet paper cradled in her other arm, eight rolls strong, stacked on an old broomstick for easy portability.
"No one move," she snarled, "or the toilet paper gets it!"
It all started harmlessly enough two days prior.
"Man, it's hot," Ray complained as he and I emerged from the GTO in the District 27 parking lot. Ray shook himself loose to unstick his T-shirt from his back. A small dark sweat stain outlined the small of his back against the gray fabric, testifying to the truth of his statement. "Not even nine yet and it's gotta be 80 degrees out here. And the humidity! Don't get me started. I'm telling you right now, we're gonna get domestic violence calls today--people get nasty when it gets hot."
"I fear you're correct, Ray," I agreed, scanning the hazy, cloudless sky for portents of rain or relief, and finding none.
Ray turned his gaze on my red serge uniform. "Here's something I don't get: how come you don't sweat like a pig? How can you stand to wear all that stuff? Just once, I'd like to see you sweat like a normal human being, remind us that you're like the rest of us every once in a while."
"Sorry, Ray," I shrugged, although I had no idea what I was apologizing for.
Ray shot me an irritated "freak" look, but made no verbal reply. The inside of the building was still bearable at this early hour, but no sooner had we walked through the double doors into the squad room than Francesca came running up to us, her eyes bright with excitement.
"Frayzsh, Ray, you won't believe it, you won't believe it!" she cried, her hands waving wildly up and down. "Guess what just happened?"
Ray and I exchanged a look. "You figured out how to work the computer?" Ray said with a smirk.
"No, dummy," she said, cuffing him on the shoulder, "the Policeman’s Ball, the Policeman’s Ball!"
I knew Ray was only teasing Francesca, but I still felt the need to give her due acknowledgment. "I'm delighted for you, Francesca. This can only mean that one of Chicago's finest has requested the honor of your company at the ball. May I ask who the lucky gentleman is?" Inwardly, I breathed a sigh of relief that I, not being a Chicago policeman, was not obligated to attend.
"Thank you, Benton," she smiled at me, "but that's not it either. Oh, here...wait right here and close your eyes." We obeyed and heard the clack-clack of her high-heeled sandals retreat across the room, open the door of the small refrigerator under her desk...."No peeking!" she reminded us gaily.
Ray leaned in toward my left ear and murmured, "I got a bad feeling about this."
"Ray," I chastised him, my eyes still obediently closed, "she's obviously very excited about something. I’m sure she means well."
Francesca's shoes tap-tapped back toward us. "Open your mouths," she continued in her breathless singsong.
"Frannie, if this is payback for the shaving cream I put in your boots on April Fool's Day, I told you I was sorry! And Huey put me up to it."
"Oh, you're such a baby. Here." I heard Ray attempt a muffled protest, and then the sound of something crunching.
"Frayzsh," she said sweetly, "try this," and she slipped something into my mouth--a slice of smoked salmon on a crisp water cracker, with a bit of radicchio leaf and a perfectly balanced dill spread to accompany it.
My eyes opened in surprise at how good it was--I must confess that I have consumed Francesca's cooking on multiple occasions, and much like Sergeant Frobisher's moose hock/boar tongue/Gorgonzola cheese dish, it does seem to have an unsettling tendency to follow one around for some time afterwards. But this hors d'oeuvre I savored, and, dare I say it, I thought about requesting another.
"Wild Sockeye salmon," I nodded approvingly, "fresh crushed dill, homemade mayonnaise, a touch of full-fat crème fraiche--this is excellent, Francesca."
She beamed at me as if I had just asked for her hand in marriage.
Ray looked as surprised as I felt and unabashedly sucked the last remaining bits of sauce from his fingers. "Mmm, I got some roast beef-horseradish-mustard thingy--seriously tasty. Yum. Where'd you get this stuff?"
Francesca threw her shoulders back and said proudly, "I made these! Myself!"
It took three more punches on the arm to get Ray to stop laughing and believe her, but apparently Francesca really did have some genuine, as-yet-unappreciated culinary talents.
"This is the beginning of a new Francesca Vecchio!" she pronounced, fairly quivering with anticipation. "The Refreshments Committee for the Policeman's Ball had one of their caterers drop out at the last minute, and they were willing to give me the chance to make the hors d'oeuvres for tomorrow night! Me! Mark my words--on Friday morning, Francesca's Fine Catering will be the talk of the town, and then it'll be good-bye mousy police drudge, hello fabulous caterer to Chicago's rich and famous!"
"That's wonderful news, Francesca," I said, and I truly meant it. "Good luck, and I'm sure things will go wonderfully tomorrow evening. Thank you for the delicious salmon."
"Oh," she said, putting her hand on my forearm before I could turn away, "about tomorrow night...I don't have anyone to carry the platters around among the guests, and I can't do everything myself. Since you're, um, not already going to the ball, would you come and help me out?" She gazed steadily into my eyes with a pleading look, reminding me of nothing so much as Diefenbaker begging me for the last bite of my doughnut.
I didn't have to look at Ray to know that he had his hand over his mouth to hide a smirk. He knew I was well and truly caught, a hooked fish, and so did I.
"Certainly," I offered, although it actually came out rather uncertainly, "I'd be very pleased to assist you."
"Great!" she beamed. "Thanks, Frayzsh." She returned to her mini-fridge and extracted two paper plates layered with more appetizing-looking food. "There'll also be bacon-and-spinach wrapped shrimp, deviled eggs, Chicken a la King on toast points, and crab-stuffed baby Portobello mushrooms." She set the plates down on an empty desk and called to the squad room at large, "Come on and try these, everybody--satisfaction guaranteed!"
The first few patrolmen filed up hesitantly and took miniscule first bites, but within sixty seconds, the bullpen erupted into a near-riot. Lieutenant Welsh was reduced to arm-wrestling Detective Dewey for the last deviled egg. Surveying the scene, I for one was glad Diefenbaker had chosen to stay home and sleep in this morning.
The back doors of the Drake Hotel Grand Ballroom were abuzz with activity. Dollies and carts ferried case upon case of wine, all manner of fresh fruits and vegetables, and wonderful-smelling chafing dishes from the idling trucks across the asphalt, where the heat softened and bent the light into shimmering ankle-high waves, into the relatively cool inner sanctum of the large industrial kitchen.
Francesca was off to one side artfully arranging her canapés on a large silver platter, her diamond-and-silver drop earrings swaying with the rhythm of her ministrations. Dressed in a black velvet V-neck dress with an antique silver rope chain at her neck, and fully absorbed in her task, she moved with a quiet, efficient grace I couldn’t recall ever having seen before. She looked...rather beautiful, actually.
She glanced up and saw me watching her, flashed a nervous grin, and the spell was broken. "Hi, Benton."
"Good evening, Francesca," I greeted her, feeling a blush spread up my cheeks. I cleared my throat before I could stop myself. "The canapés look delectable."
She grinned as if I had told her she looked delectable. "You look very nice, too. The white gloves are very dashing."
I looked down at my hands and wished Ray were here to witness my humanity, because I could feel my palms beginning to sweat beneath the gloves. "Oh, yes, it's just that I felt formal attire would be only fitting and appropriate for the occasion." I glanced out into the ballroom where a hundred or more officers and their guests already stood talking and nibbling on cheese cubes and fruit from a central display, taking glasses of wine and water from the trays carried round by the catering staff. Several officers stood at the wall of doors at the ballroom entrance, checking tickets and smoothly directing the flow of people entering.
"Shouldn't I be getting out there with these?" I asked, indicating the tray. Small bone china plates were stacked in the middle of the tray, with each of the different canapés arranged on a bed of lettuce around them like petals surrounding the pistil of a flower.
Francesca also looked out into the ballroom. "Wow, I didn't think so many people would be here already!" She released her breath anxiously, her eyes taking stock of the throngs in dress uniforms, tuxedos and fine gowns. "Now I'm kinda scared. What if they don't like the food?"
"Don't worry, Francesca. Remember how quickly your samples disappeared? Lieutenant Welsh has been saying all day how much he was looking forward to more of your deviled eggs."
She smiled at that. "Okay. Okay. This is it...go with God, I guess." She handed me the platter and made a shooing motion to indicate I should enter the ballroom. "I'll get the next platter set up."
I maneuvered through the crowd with the heavy tray, feeling naked and incomplete without my hat. Plates and canapés disappeared at a reassuring rate.
I almost bumped into Ray before I even recognized him.
"Ray," I said, looking him up and down, "you look..." I had intended to say "splendid," but the more I looked, the more I realized how uncomfortable he was in full dress uniform, how the buttons and tie, the jacket and white gloves confined and caged him, skewed all of his natural angles and squared them off, made them dull and pedestrian under the ballroom chandeliers. He was an Arctic wolf jammed into an itchy brown sweater and tam o’shanter.
"I'm sweating, Fraser," he growled, one gloved finger tugging at his shirt collar. "Why did I agree to put on this straitjacket again?"
"I believe you mentioned a band and ballroom dancing after dinner, if I recall correctly," I noted, flicking a thumb across one eyebrow. "Here, perhaps some canapés will provide a welcome distraction."
Ray did not hesitate to snatch a plate and grab all eight of the items remaining on the tray.
A smile tugged at one corner of my mouth. "Be careful not to lick your gloves," I said as I turned toward the kitchen to retrieve a fresh tray.
Francesca's fears proved unfounded. As fast as she could arrange them, all eight platters were quickly laid bare down to the last bit of horseradish-and-mustard-daubed cracker, and soon afterwards, the guests were urged to move to the tables on the other side of the ballroom and take their seats for the soup and main course.
Francesca took the last empty tray from me, rinsed it off, and stacked it in a dish dryer next to its mates. "Done." She rinsed her hands and dried them on a hand towel. "'Clean as you go,' my mother always taught me. It's the mark of a professional."
I could think of no reply to this and simply nodded.
She smiled and gestured to two empty stools at an unused stainless steel island. "Shall we dine? Fernando says it'll be about five minutes." Taking my hesitation for distaste, she added quickly, "We could go out there and sit with them, but that's not professional. I have to think like a caterer now, you know."
"Of course, Francesca," I agreed, and took a seat at the island. "I must admit I'm quite hungry. I was so busy serving your culinary creations to others that I didn't get a chance to sample any myself. Your bacon-and-spinach-wrapped shrimp seemed to be very popular, though."
Francesca blinked, and then she snorted. "Huh. Me neither!"
We shared a smile at that, and then supped amicably amid the hubbub of the kitchen. Francesca seemed convinced that the head chef "looked shifty" and was trying to poison the guests' dinners, but I reassured her after observing him for a few minutes that he merely suffered from limited peripheral vision, which caused him to turn his head more often, and that such a condition had any number of perfectly legitimate causes, such as retinitis pigmentosa, attention-deficit hyperactive disorder, or macular degeneration; however, I felt obliged to add that ADHD-related peripheral vision loss was most common in children, and the head chef did appear to be a bit on the young side to be suffering from macular degeneration...
Francesca placed her hand on my forearm to stop me. "Listen, Frayzsh, the band's starting up!" She wriggled excitedly off her stool and stood in the doorway to the ballroom, and I followed.
After tuning up for a minute or two, the band launched into a Viennese waltz, and it was then that I saw Ray...change. The jacket and gloves were hastily removed, the tie loosened, top button undone, and then he was looking around for a partner, breathing in music, restless--a panther released.
"Ah, Benton," Francesca said to me, "I know this isn't a, y'know, Sadie Hawkins-type thing or anything, but, uh, would you like to dance?"
I met her hopeful gaze. "Ah, well, under normal circumstances, I would certainly be very pleased, but..." I checked my watch. "I have night duty at the Consulate in a few minutes. I'm afraid I have to be going."
Her disappointment was palpable, but before she could speak, I gestured to Ray. "I understand Ray is a very gifted dancer--I’m sure he would enjoy a dance with you very much."
She mulled it over, sizing him up, and finally nodded. "Oh, all right. I guess I'll see you in the morning, then. Listen, Benton, thank you for helping me tonight. I had a wonderful time."
"As did I, Francesca, and you're quite welcome. Good night." I strode for the ballroom exit as Francesca walked up to Ray, but for some reason, instead of exiting the scene, I stopped and turned to watch them.
Ray spoke into Francesca's ear for a few moments; she concentrated on his words, then nodded and smiled, and Ray smiled back. He gently adjusted her hands until they were in the proper positions, their heads bobbed slightly as they counted the beats, and then in a swirl of motion, they were off. Ray led confidently, shoulders and back straight but not at all tense, feet placed at precisely the proper angle and distance apart. After a few turns, Francesca relaxed into the dance, a positively radiant smile on her face, and they were as light and graceful as grains of snow wafting this way and that with the wind. Ray’s effusive smile matched hers--Ray, a man who habitually fidgeted to the point that he had given us away to armed criminals on more than one occasion, moved so fluidly and with such...serenity, that was it, serenity--that I could scarcely believe it. They seemed to be drawing the riotous, headlong joy of the music from the floor directly through the soles of their shoes and into their hips, their arms, their faces, and then propelling it out to us with every turn they made, like water arcing from a sprinkler onto a parched lawn.
I stood transfixed, deeply impressed and perhaps just a bit envious.
He spoke again to her, apparently explaining a move he wanted to add, and then they executed a series of perfect change steps and reverse turns.
Other couples nearby ceased their herky-jerky foot-stomping, apparently preferring to watch a far superior display of exquisite harmony, and began to cheer the two on. Lost in the music and in each other, they took no notice.
I spent the entire walk to the Consulate trying to discern why I was so moved by the display. At length, I concluded that I envied Ray his ability to forge a connection in such a primal, all-embracing fashion, a union so resounding it left no room for doubt.
The night passed very slowly.
Ray looked wan when he pulled up to the Consulate the next morning, all traces of the magical, dizzying music-merge vanished.
"Good morning, Ray," I greeted him with my usual good cheer as I slid into the GTO.
Ray managed only a dull "Mmf," in reply as he steered back into traffic.
"You don't look well, Ray. Are you all right?"
"I don't know, Fraser. I don't feel so good. Too much ritzy food last night, I guess. I thought about calling off, but it's TGIF, so I figured I'd just get through it and save the sick day."
We drove in silence for a while before I spoke up. "I saw you dance the first dance last night--the Viennese waltz."
He half-smiled at that. "Yeah, that was something. Great band. There's nothing like dancing to live music."
He pulled up to a red light, and I struggled to formulate the question in a way that wouldn't sound ridiculous. I needed to ask him how he could do...that, how he could take notes and chords and rhythm and embody them visually with such breathtaking, unswerving totality--an elbow held just so, a turn that seemed to float three inches above the ground, a Musical Ride minus the equines and battle-lances. I needed to know.
But even as I spoke his name, his eyes went wide, his hand flung the driver's side door open, and Ray leaned over and was resoundingly ill.
"Rule number one," he gasped as he righted himself and shut the door, "puke on the pavement, not on the car."
Perhaps now wasn't the right time to be asking him questions about connecting to the universe. "Understood."
We arrived at the 27th to find the morning careening along even more chaotically than usual. Detective Huey had a couple at his desk that he was desperately trying to interview, one hand clamped to his forehead.
"Ma'am, I don’t care what it says on your collar, your name is not Fluffy. Now, are those bite marks from your husband, or are they not? Yes or no."
"Mmmmmmrrraaaaahhhh! Mmrrahhhhh!" the woman protested.
"Rowf! Rowf!" the man barked back at her.
The woman raised a hand with long, sharpened fingernails and hissed menacingly.
The man yelped and cowered in his chair.
"Good morning, Detective," I greeted him.
"Says you. My head is killing me, and I think these two might finish me off."
"I'm gonna just sit down for a minute," Ray interjected weakly, waving his arm vaguely toward his desk.
"Of course, Ray."
We passed Detective Dewey, who was sitting at his desk in a thick winter coat, teeth chattering, but he seemed in no mood for conversation. Ray slumped gratefully into his chair and put his head down on the desk like a first-grader during Quiet Time.
I looked around the squad room with a frown. Several desks were empty, and of those present, the only one who seemed to be acting normally was Detective Tarrington.
"Excuse me," I said, walking up to him, "but did you attend the Policeman's Ball last night?"
"No," he said, "but that's too bad, 'cause it looks like I missed one helluva party!"
"I'm not so sure about that," I replied, feeling vaguely uneasy.
"Francesca!" Lieutenant Welsh called from his office.
"Excuse me," I nodded to Tarrington, and answered the Lieutenant's summons myself.
The Lieutenant was placing the phone back in its cradle, one hand pressed across his abdomen. "Ah, Constable. Have you seen Miss Vecchio this morning?"
"No, sir." I noted the large bottle of Pepto-Bismol on his desk and the small smudge of pink under his lower lip. "Are you not feeling well, sir?"
"I might as well move my desk into the men's room, I've spent so much time there today. And it's not just us, either," he added, indicating the phone. "Six other districts have had a quarter or more of their officers call off today. What about you? Are you all right?"
"Yes, sir, I'm fine." My suspicions took on a more definite outline. "Perhaps I could...assist you with whatever you summoned Francesca for."
He shook his head. "No can do, Constable. She has the key to the supply closet. The men's room is running dangerously low on toilet paper. I need her to get some more in there, pronto."
Oh, dear. "She doesn't seem to be in yet, but I'll let her know the moment she arrives."
"Thank you, Constable." He gripped his abdomen more tightly and rose to his feet. "And with that..." I stepped aside to let him pass, and he hurried off urgently.
Francesca arrived shortly thereafter, and I moved to intercept her as she entered the building.
"Good morning, Frayzsh," she chirped. "Sorry I'm late, but I just stopped off and had these made." She smiled and handed me a business card that read: "Francesca's Fine Catering / Homemade gourmet foods for your next gathering! / Private parties, weddings, corporate events."
"Oh, dear," I opined, and my palms sprouted moisture all over again. That was twice in less than twenty-four hours that I had broken a sweat, and once again, Ray had missed it. I resolved to bring the incidents to his attention at the next opportune moment.
"What, did I misspell something? Is there a typo?"
"No. Francesca, could I speak to you in private? Lieutenant Welsh urgently needs you to retrieve something from the supply room."
"The supply room? Sure, Fraser." She smiled up at me, still blissfully ignorant of the situation. "Let's go."
The supply room was in its usual musty, disorganized state. Francesca had to look around before she found what she wanted: a long wooden stick with a metal tab toward the bottom much like the crossguard of a sword. She gripped the bottom of the stick with one hand and began threading rolls of toilet paper on the top with the other. "So, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?"
I took a deep breath. "How are you feeling today, Francesca?"
Her brow wrinkled in confusion. "I'm fine, Fraser."
"As am I. And therein lies the crux of the matter."
"Fraser, you are making even less sense than usual." She threaded another roll and looked around unsuccessfully for more. "This is all the toilet paper we have left? What have they been doing with it, wallpapering?"
Lieutenant Welsh looked in the open door. "Ah, it’s about time. Get that paper where it's needed. The men's room is about to erupt in a riot." He walked on without waiting for an answer.
"O-kay then," said Francesca, herding me out and locking the door. "Let me just put these keys back on my desk."
There was no circumspect way to do this. "Francesca," I said as we walked toward her desk, being careful to keep my voice low, "I think the men are suffering from food poisoning."
She stopped dead and gaped at me, her mouth in a scandalized O of shock. "Then I was right! That chef did poison them! I told you he was shifty-eyed!" She began moving again, faster now, brandishing the toilet paper stack like a sword. "Let’s check the computer and see if he has any priors!"
I put my hand on her shoulder just as we reached her desk. "Wait. If the chef poisoned everyone, then why aren’t you and I sick?"
She thought about that for a moment. "I don't know."
I turned her to face me and spoke as gently as I could. "The high temperature yesterday was 94 degrees Fahrenheit. You don't have air conditioning in your home, and in rush-hour traffic, it would take you almost an hour to drive from your home to the Drake Hotel. Raw egg yolks are one of the key ingredients in homemade mayonnaise, which you used in several of your hors d'oeuvres. The presenting symptoms are consistent with a salmonella infection."
She stood utterly still for a long moment. "And we're fine...oh, my God, are you saying I poisoned them?! I gave them salmonella?!"
I put a finger to my lips to warn her, but it was too late. Heads turned toward us.
"It's clear that you didn't do it intentionally," I said, trying to console her.
She seemed unable to process any further information. "Oh my God, I poisoned them!"
No fewer than a dozen angry detectives began moving toward Francesca, muttering comments such as, "What? She did this to us? What an idiot!" and "I'll show her what Montezuma's Revenge really looks like!" as well as a variety of other epithets that cannot be repeated in polite company.
That was when it happened. In the blink of an eye, she opened her desk drawer and extracted a large green-and-orange plastic water gun. She aimed the barrel squarely at the long stack of toilet paper she still held in her other hand.
"No one move," she snarled, "or the toilet paper gets it!"
As a threat, it was singularly effective. There was an audible gasp, and the detectives froze.
"These are the last rolls of toilet paper in the building, so you'd better back right off if you want them to make it to the men’s room!"
The men complied, retreating with panicked whispers.
I endeavored to prevent the situation from escalating any further. "Gentlemen, I understand that you might be feeling rather--unkindly--toward Francesca at the present moment--"
"--Unkindly! That ain't the half of it!" someone yelled.
"I say we force-feed her rotten eggs!" someone else cried, and a shout of agreement rose up among the group.
"--but I assure you, it was simply an accident, wholly without malice on her part," I continued, raising my voice to be heard.
My words had no effect at all. Individuals began yelling out their plans for Francesca, none of them charitable, and I was glad that I stood between them and the object of their discontent.
"Hey!" Francesca’s outraged yell cut through the squad room like a knife, silencing the angry rumblings of the detectives. "Good God, is this what I have to do to get you to listen to me for five seconds? Hold toilet paper hostage?" Her voice wobbled at that, and I could see she was blinking back tears. "Look, I'm really sorry that you're all--like this. It was an accident, I swear." She sniffled, once, twice. "Sure, go ahead, it's just one more punchline to add to the collection. 'Frannie has this crazy idea about being a caterer, and then on her first gig, she poisons half the Chicago police force! Ha ha ha ha!' I know how people here make fun of me, how some of you think I’m just a big ditz."
A few pairs of eyes glanced guiltily down at the floor, a few feet shuffled listlessly, and there was a faint sound from the back of someone heaving into a wastebasket, but no one spoke.
"But if anyone here has the right to feel sorry for themselves, it's me. God, look at me! I'm thirty-two years old, and all I have to show for myself is a high school diploma, a failed marriage, and a low-life job. I still live with my mother, for God's sake!" Her eyes grew even brighter, and she tipped her head up and stared at the ceiling to keep the tears from falling.
"Francesca--" I began.
The pained look she shot me stopped me cold. "Let me finish." She expelled a gusty sigh. "You know, maybe I haven't made much of my life yet, but at least I have the guts to get back up and keep on trying. I may not have..." She cast about for a word. "...it, the secret to life, happiness...I don't know, serenity. But at least I know enough to know that I should be looking for it, going after it, chasing it with everything I've got, not just giving up and hoping it will come to me and whining when it doesn't. Can the rest of you say that? Can you?" Her eyes raked accusingly across all of us.
With that, she threw down the gun and broomstick, burst into tears, and ran out of the squad room crying.
As I moved to follow her, the detectives greedily fell upon the precious eight rolls of toilet paper, loudly arguing over who had the first and best claim to them.
I knocked tentatively on the ladies' room door. "Francesca?"
Loud sobbing echoed from within. "Go away!"
I waited for a moment, then tried again. "Francesca, I--"
"Do you have to rub it in? I just made a complete fool of myself in front of the entire station. I can't work here any more. I quit!"
"Francesca," I called through the door, "you didn't make a fool of yourself."
The sobbing paused. "What? You were there, weren't you?"
"You're anything but a fool, Francesca. I think what you said was very wise."
The sobbing stopped, and now the door opened a crack, revealing one very sodden cheek and one reddened eye. "You do?"
"Yes," I said, and she saw from my face that I meant it. "You spoke to something so fundamental and universal that it is enshrined in your Declaration of Independence."
"Huh?" She absently wiped her cheek with her free hand.
"'We hold these truths to be self-evident,'" I quoted, "'that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'"
The door opened wider as she turned the words over in her head. "The pursuit of happiness," she echoed. "Wow, you're right. I was talking about that, wasn't I?"
I looked back down the hallway. Apparently a scuffle had broken out in the squad room over the toilet paper. "If we hurry, I think we can get out the back door before they see you."
"I'll definitely be happier not getting my butt kicked," she agreed, and we made good our escape to the GTO parked outside.
"I'll retrieve Ray. Just hide until we get here," I told her, and she nodded and crouched out of sight.
Ray's head was still on his desk, and he was snoring softly. Apparently he had slept right through the morning's excitement. I roused him and got him to the car without incident, and as poorly as he was feeling, he readily agreed to let me drive.
I set off for Francesca's house first, and Ray almost immediately went back to sleep on the front seat. Francesca was unusually quiet. When I glanced at her in the rear-view mirror from time to time, she was staring out the side window, apparently lost in her own thoughts.
I began thinking about Ray's dance and considering her words. What brought me joy? What made me happy? I could never recall asking myself these questions before, and I was astonished to realize that I had no idea how to answer them. All this time, I had enjoyed only duty for company, but perhaps I could come to know happiness, too, if I made a concerted effort to seek it out.
So as I guided Ray's car through the noonday traffic, I firmly resolved to myself to do a better job of pursuing happiness, or as Francesca had phrased it, chasing serenity.