By Annie Josey
We are going to surprise Pascal. The best part is he has no clue. It wasn't my idea—it was Laura’s. She’s good that way. If Laura comes up with something, it’s usually good that way. I am sold. It’s not because Pascal has a birthday or an anniversary coming up. It’s not like he’s sick either. Or has some kind of problem or another and needs money. We know those kinds of people. We have them here and we pass around envelopes. We give them money for gas. We bring them lunch. But not Pascal. Pascal is fine.
Pascal has one cup of coffee in the morning: cream, no sugar. He talks to Dot at reception, asks for details about her chinchilla, but not for long enough to be time theft. He gets back to work. He is productive. He has one picture on his desk, in a plain black frame, of a woman and a small boy. The woman is his wife, Greta, thin with a short haircut. The boy is his son, Dave. Dave is starting high school soon, the picture is old. Everyone is still healthy, as far as we know. Greta works part-time as a nurse. She packs Pascal alternating egg salad and turkey sandwiches for lunch. He eats them at exactly noon every day on the bench outside, unless it is raining. He is not antisocial. We learned this when Fletch asked him why on earth he would sit outside in the forty degrees. The fresh air, he said. Pascal is easy. We like him.
We’re not surprising Pascal because he’s done anything special. He hasn’t, really. In meetings, he speaks a medium amount. We like that. He is not the most creative, but he is usually on time.
It’s possible we’re doing this just because June is droning on. I stop by Laura’s desk on the way from the ladies’ and say, Will this week never end? Laura says, I know. She picks at a sunflower seed in her teeth. She is always eating sunflower seeds to pass the time. She taps the desk with her red nails. Laura is cute. Every week her nails are a different color. We just need something to look forward to, she says. Something we can celebrate. So we settle on Pascal. The best part is, we say, dizzy with energy, our hearts in our throats, he has no idea.
The first thing is to choose a day. Not a Friday because those are too sweet already. Thursdays are almost as good. We decide for a Tuesday, two weeks out. This will give us enough time to really want it, says Laura. We will come in early, on that Tuesday, to decorate. Fletch is bringing streamers. Dot is baking a cake, buttercream, because we think that’s the kind of cake he would like. We can’t ask now—it would ruin the surprise. What else? What else? asks Laura. Pascal passes Laura’s desk on the way to the men’s. And last month’s report? I say to Fletch. Pascal goes in. We giggle, quietly.
Laura sends an email. Subject: Don’t tell Pascal!!!! She sends it to everyone. Accounting. Marketing. Sales. Nina our boss replies. Is she going to ruin it? I say. No, says Laura, she is writing him a poem. Nina knows Laura’s ideas are good. When Nina brought Laura on, she told us all, Laura’s the kind of person you want on your team. I know what she means.
The Surprise is what we talk about now. Between meetings, at lunch. Making plans. We need music, we say. What does he like? Remember, I say, he has that little Grateful Dead sticker on his Corolla! Check, we say. It feels like Christmas.
Laura starts a list, so everyone can bring him something different. Chad is getting him those pens he likes. Lou is giving him a special trophy, a man in a polo shirt dipped in gold, its plaque will just say Pascal. I am giving him a little calculator. Dot circulates a card with a bulldog on the front. It’s close to the picture on his desktop, his own bulldog named Bologna. Bologna is a rescue Pascal adopted one year ago. Bologna was bad with small kids, and was in a tough spot before Pascal got to her. Pascal’s son Dave was old enough then for Bologna not to mind. Once Laura saw Pascal and Bologna on a Saturday. They were in the park, Pascal was sitting on a bench with Bologna on a leash at his feet. He was wearing a polo like usual, but shorts instead of khakis and a baseball hat. He waved to Laura, but Laura was on a bike, so she did not stop. In Pascal’s card, I write, Pascal you are great, and that’s not Bologna. I think that’s clever enough. Laura reads what I wrote and she smirks.
A week out, I am hiding bags of balloons under my shirt as I come into the office. Blue, like Pascal’s mouse pad. I pass reception and he is there. Did you see the wreck on the westbound this morning? he asks me. I stop, arms crossed over my front. I did, I say. Scary stuff. When I passed, an ambulance was just pulling away. That Chevy flipped all the way over, he says. I hope everyone’s okay. I nod, the balloons shift under my shirt. If Pascal were a different kind of man, he may have noticed.
Nina our boss sends us her poem and asks, What do you think? It is an acrostic. P is for Punctual, A is for All Heart, Sensible, Courteous, Approachable, and she’s having trouble with the L. Is Level-headed too boring? What about Luscious? Will that give him a kick? Laura takes it with a write-in: Lovely.
The plan is that on Tuesday we will dress up. Nothing too fancy, says Laura. We just want to look and feel great. Wear your favorite clothes. I plan to wear my best skirt, yellow with white stripes. Laura is going to curl her hair. Fletch is coming in a bow tie.
On Monday the office is buzzing. One day to go. Accounting has typed up a special report, just for Pascal. We’ve done the math, they say. They show us pages of equations and tables and charts. If Pascal visits Dot once a day, and makes her laugh an average of three times per visit, and if Pascal works an average of 240 days per year, then in the 12 years he has been here, he has made Dot laugh about 8,640 times total. Stuff like that.
Monday night, I can’t sleep. I roll around in bed. My body thrums with impatience. How will it be? Will he laugh? Will he blubber? He will be so surprised. How could anyone anticipate such a fuss? Everyone will show up an hour early to get ready. I wait.
Morning comes. I put on my skirt. I pack the banner I made for Pascal into my Honda. It is simple, but festive. Pascal! is written in big bold cursive. That’s all. I hang it over his desk first thing when I get in. Fletch hangs the streamers. Laura and Chad are blowing up balloons. Dot brings in her buttercream and it is decadent. Three layers, beautifully frosted. Just wait until you taste it, she says, it’s so rich. Marketing has put together a slide show of Pascal. They searched our database and found four photos. One from the 2005 Christmas party—Pascal in a Santa hat. A candid shot of Pascal at a conference in Phoenix, he is standing with a drink in his hand, mid-sentence. One of him in the conference room, pointing to the whiteboard. And lastly the picture from his old ID badge. He looks so young in that one. He has more hair. IT runs the slideshow on every computer screen. They take down the internet blocks to play the Grateful Dead. Nina comes in with her poem. I look at Laura. We are giddy.
We read the clock. 8:54 a.m. Places! says Nina. Pascal must turn a corner to get to his desk, so we all stand around the other side. He’ll have to walk around the corner to see us. He’ll have no idea.
At 8:58 we cry Quiet! He’ll be here any minute now. We wait. We are practically choking on excitement.
At 9:03 I start to worry. Pascal is usually on time. There was no traffic—I checked. What if he calls in sick today? What if he had a doctor’s appointment? Did anyone check?
At 9:07 Fletch says, Call him, Nina. Just to see where he is. Ask him something about the May report. No, says Laura. Give it a minute. Nina never calls anyone before 9:30. True, says Nina. We can’t ruin the surprise now.
At 9:10, I think, the acrostic! What about your poem, Nina? I ask. How funny, she says. We’ll have to tease him about that later. Punctual until today.
At 9:12 we hear the door click. It’s him. We know it is Pascal because everyone else is already here. No one would dare take off on a day like today. We hear his loafers on the carpet, they sound hurried.
When he turns the corner, he sees us all standing there and we yell, Surprise! He stops cold. He makes a noise, almost like a snort, he is so shocked. At first he looks afraid, like we’re nailing him for showing up late, but then a smile slowly comes across his face. What? he says. What is going on? We’re celebrating, says Laura. She comes up to him and drapes him with a sash that reads, The Great Pascal. The rest of us are singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” For just a moment, Pascal’s eyes well up. But why? he asks. Why not? says Laura.
IT presses play on the Grateful Dead. Dot cuts the cake. Fletch hands him a cup of coffee, cream, no sugar. We give him his bulldog card, and Pascal is beaming. Each person comes up to present Pascal with a gift, and the surprise keeps getting better. It just keeps unfurling, one thing after the next. Nina reads him her poem, and we all laugh at the word Punctual. Not so much today, though, she says. Pascal blushes. He pours over the equations and tables and charts from Accounting. Oh-ho! Is that so? he says at their facts and figures, I never would have guessed. It takes Pascal a while to notice the slideshow. Ah! That’s me! he says finally, and we all laugh again. He waits to see all four photos and we wait too, not speaking, the Grateful Dead still playing in the background. I sure was a looker back in the day, he says. We laugh more.
When the presents run out, Nina finally says, Okay folks, back to work. And we go. At noon, Pascal eats a turkey on wheat out on his bench. In the afternoon, Laura runs out for more sunflower seeds.
Annie Josey graduated from UNC Chapel Hill’s English and Creative Writing Program. Her stories and essays have appeared in Watershed Review, Spires Intercollegiate Arts & Literary Magazine, and Carolina Woman Magazine. She currently lives in Durham, NC.