By Gillian Doyle
Rubye Freeman looked more like Cinderella’s fairy godmother than the mailroom lady at a factory. Sweet-faced, gray-haired, rolly-polly Rubye may not have worn a long blue gown or waved a magical wand, but the mischievous twinkle in her eyes should have given me a clue.
One summer break from college, I took a job at a temp agency, filling in for a sick clerk in that same mailroom. My first day, I looked up from sorting mail to see a man filling the doorway with his broad shoulders. As he entered the room, his russet-blond hair brushed the top of the door despite his slight bow to clear it. My hands stilled. My mouth went dry. His thick wavy hair curled over the white collar of his oxford shirt. Unlike the other executives in traditional dark business suits, he wore a buckskin suede jacket with the required necktie and dark slacks. No brown wingtips for him, though. Only cowboy boots make that distinctive heel strike on the hardwood floor in the slow stride of Gary Cooper in High Noon.
But did he notice me? Hardly. This young executive was out of my league.
Little did I realize that Rubye thought otherwise. She had a soft spot for Donald, as she called him even though he was Don to everyone else. He had started as her assistant a few years earlier, and he still liked to stop by the mailroom to see if there was anything she needed. When he came around, he charmed her with the quiet impeccable manners of a real gentleman. With that slow half-smile, he was her soft-spoken knight-in-shining-armor, running errands for her on his lunch hour, lifting boxes too heavy for her to manage, stocking the higher shelves in the supply room, dropping by after he’d clocked out so he could help her finish her own work.
I struggled between mute gawking (when he wasn’t looking) and joking with him as if he was just another friend of my brothers. Growing up a tomboy, I was more comfortable as the gal-pal to all the guys. I was far from being a statuesque brunette capable of winning the affections of Mr. Marlboro Man in the Mailroom.
After a few days, the regular clerk was ready to return to work and I moved on to another temp job. A month later, I was called back, specifically requested by Rubye. I was not only flattered– I truly enjoyed working for her– but I was also looking forward to another opportunity to secretly fantasize about that tall urban cowboy.
But that seemed to be as far as it would ever go….pure fantasy. Oh, I had a few hopeful moments, like when he stuck his head into the mailroom at lunch time and asked if I wanted a bite to eat. Was he asking me out? No, he and another guy were going to pick up burgers and would bring one back for me if I was hungry. Oh geez…he was only offering to feed the hired help. Or, as he liked to refer to me “Rent-a-Girl”.
One afternoon Rubye asked me to retrieve a five-gallon jug of Sparkletts from the warehouse. I was in a dress and high heels and had no idea where to find the warehouse. No problem, she assured me. She had asked Donald to drive me. Minutes later, I followed him out of the air-conditioned building and into blistering July heat where the bright Southern California sun bubbled the black asphalt parking lot. I stopped dead in my tracks when he escorted me to a brand-spanking-new blue fastback Mustang Mach I. Oh, Lordy…(Should I mention that I was a sucker for guys with hot cars? Shameless, I know. But to be fair, I had fallen hard before I knew about his car, okay?)
Still, the feeling did not appear to be mutual. Oh, he did take me out to lunch eventually…at Jack In The Box. I joked about being a cheap date, even though I knew it wasn’t a real date. Feeding the Rent-A-Girl, remember? I must’ve bruised his gentlemanly ego because he invited me to lunch again. This time it was a local bar that served lunch for the workers at the surrounding industries. (Hey, what did you expect, a five-star restaurant nestled among the factories?) Unfortunately, when he ordered a drink, I had to admit I was not yet twenty-one. I was sure that my admission of being underage had slammed the door on any potential romance with this older guy.
My last day on the job was Friday the Thirteenth. As (bad) luck would have it, there was no invitation to lunch. So I spent my free hour driving to the bank to deposit my paycheck. On the way back, a car ran a red light. I don’t know how he missed me by mere inches. Back in the mailroom, I was shaky but lucky to be alive. If only I could have a bit of that same luck in regard to a certain cowboy, I thought to myself.
With only an hour left till the whistle blew, Rubye came out of her office to say goodbye. Patting my hand, she said, “I left my appointment calendar open on my desk. I want you to write your name and phone number on today’s date.”
I assumed she wanted my number for future temp jobs. She’d already said as much. But she added, “If Donald doesn’t ask you out by the end of work today, I’m going to tell him on Monday to check my calendar for his mileage. I keep track of his errands so he is compensated for the gas. And it’s about time for him to do that again.”
I felt my face burn with embarrassment. “He doesn’t even like me.”
She only smiled with that mischievous twinkle in her eyes. “Let me take care of that.”
But Rubye didn’t have to send Donald to her calendar on Monday. As I gathered my things and prepared to leave, I heard the distinctive sound of his boot heels. I turned and found myself staring at the center of his broad chest. I craned my neck to look up at him. Lord almighty he was a tall drink of water.
With that sexy half-smile lifting one corner of his mouth, he gave a casual shrug. I honestly thought he was about to give me one of those Hollywood lines like, “It was nice knowin’ ya, kid.”
Instead, he said, “There’s a John Denver concert this Sunday….”
Many years later, a package arrived in the mail with a postmark from Washington state where Rubye had moved to live next door to her only daughter and family. Inside was a bundle of letters tied with a blue ribbon, accompanied by a note. Rubye had passed away in her sleep, her daughter wrote. Among her things were my cards and letters sent over the years. Her daughter told me that Rubye had cherished them. As my tears fell unchecked, I reverently untied the ribbon and went through each and every card, the invitation to our wedding that Rubye had attended, the birth announcements of our baby girl, then our baby boy, their photos from each year of school, the graduation announcements.
Near or far, Rubye had watched over Don and me and our little family throughout the years, our real-life fairy godmother…Always and forever.
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