When Megan walked into the reception area, an old man was at the counter. He was speaking softly and leaning over too far towards the young woman on the other side of the counter. Megan could see the girl at the reception fighting her own impulse to draw back. She was a pretty girl, her dark eyes large and luminous, limned with a vivid blue eye shadow. The man was there for several minutes and Megan thought he might have been there for a while before she came in. She wondered what his concern was. She couldn’t hear him really, just a patterned murmur, the knocking of an old refrigerator at night, a senseless, irregular beating, a thrush’s heart. All at once, the girl at the reception stood straight up. A brilliant red flushed her check beneath the makeup.
“I’ll have to get someone else to help you, Mr. Rosten,” she said shakily, as she swiftly slipped through a side door that had seemed flush with the counter around her and made her way soundlessly over the thick grey carpet into and through a door that led somewhere else.
Mr. Rosten turned and looked straight at Megan where she stood a respectful eight feet back in a line consisting of only her. His eyes held great despair and a question. As she always did with strangers, Megan lowered her eyes. She saw that the man would have liked to talk to her, to explain his dilemma but she could not, would not engage. She was here because of the Notice she received and all she wanted was to get it resolved as quickly as possibly and go on with her day. She had errands to do and wanted to call at least two friends. Marcia, her ally from the support group, had instructed her to call, no, not call, speak with three friends a day. Three. Not leaving a message, not sending a text and emoji, talk. Even if only briefly. Megan thought she could manage two, if only she could get this Notice thing taken care of. But there was no one here to address her concerns to, no one except Mr. Rosten and a pair of closed doors.
She took a seat in one of the turquoise plastic chairs set up, she guessed, for others who were waiting. Because of the pandemic, there were no magazines to read. She checked her phone for messages and calls, checked her email, checked the weather, finally checked the news and instantly regretted it. She didn’t need more anxiety, more fear, more panic. She could and did generate that all by herself.
Very quietly the receptionist, creamy skin now mottled as if she had been crying or maybe panting from exertion, slid into the room and slipped, head down, into her place behind the vast, perfect glass counter. Mere inches behind her, a man more large than fat, wearing a khaki bomber jacket with no insignia, came forward and took Mr. Rosten’s arm. He told Mr. Rosten to ‘come with him now’ and began to firmly tug him towards one of the two doors. Mr. Rosten sputtered, his face ashen with fear. He looked back at Megan a last time, his face now a masque of an undisguised, desperate longing but Megan felt rooted to the spot. Mr. Rosten mouthed something to her, it might have been as simple as “Help me’ but if it was, it wasn’t in English. The large man quickly effected the transfer to the door and beyond.
Megan got up to talk to the receptionist but the girl held up one finger as if to say ‘wait’, so Megan sat back down in her chair. On the far wall, where the doors to the inside of the building were, there was a large analogue clock, like in the old days. This one had a brass plague over it that said: ‘Tokyo, Japan + 16’. The clock face read: 4:27 but Megan didn’t know if that meant day or night. Did the Japanese use the military clock, she wondered? She had lived in France once and she missed those hours when she came back — 22:00 sounded more lively than 10:00 p.m. and 24 could be both midnight and death. No, midnight. No more death. Not today. She felt for the folded Notice in her smock pocket and rose again.
“Hello?” she said as she neared the receptionist.
The receptionist looked up. Megan saw now how upset the girl had been.
“Yes,” the receptionist said, visibly trying to arrange her features into a believable customer service smile, her brows inching towards one another like conjoined twins who had only recently been separated, and with considerable force.
“I received this Notice yesterday evening when I returned home from work,” Megan said, unfolding it and noticing for the first time how wrinkled and handled it looked as she slid it across the counter.
The receptionist glanced at it for a second and then handed it back to Megan and said: “Door on your left.”
Mr. Rosten had been ushered into the door on the right. He hadn’t been holding a Notice. Had he lost his? There was something troubling about the way he had been led out of the room and now several minutes had passed and there had been no sign of him.
“Why the left?” Megan asked. “I just want to get this removed. Obviously, it was sent in error.”
“Maybe not,” the receptionist said and smiled more convincingly. “They’ll take care of it if you just go through the door to the left.”
Megan put her bag back over her shoulder and started to walk ahead to the left then stopped stock still. She understood with great clarity that Mr. Rosten would not come out again. Suddenly, she missed him. She feared for him. She regretted not helping him. Had he possibly been mouthing not “help me” but “save yourself”? She glanced at the receptionist who had somehow found some paperwork from some place and was eagerly perusing it. Tightening her grip on her bag, Megan nearly leapt out across the thick grey carpet as fast she could and broke into a fierce run as soon as she crossed the front threshold.