It was early for lunch. Pam hoped that she’d have a solid half-hour to herself before the others started filtering into the break room, chatting about sandwich places and last night’s football game and the unexpectedly strong performance of a new paper color that Dunder Mifflin had just released, interrupting her peace and quiet.
A few weeks ago, she would have been happy to give up lunch time peace and quiet for good. She had assumed, when Jim came back from Stamford, that her solitary lunches were over, that she would return to spending lunch time with him, joking and laughing and basking in the warmth of their reunion. Then Jim came back, with his more serious drink (bottled water) and his more serious hair cut (shorter and without the stray curls behind his ears) and his more serious attitude toward work (no pranks since the merger beyond the unconscious habit of mildly annoying Dwight). And, most difficult of all, his serious declaration on that very first day that he had “sort of started seeing” someone. It didn’t take long for Pam to realize that “someone” was Karen and that she was beautiful and intelligent and had obviously helped Jim move past whatever he’d once felt for Pam.
It had been hard, adjusting to having him back in the office, but not really back to her. Jim and Karen ate together now when he was in the office, sharing jokes and stories and laughing together. Pam had shifted her schedule so she could at least avoid being in the break room with them, but her solitary lunch hours seemed lonelier than before. She’d tried eating with Kelly for a while, but that was worse, since Kelly was completely taken with Karen and talked endlessly about her clothes and her complexion and her hair and which celebrity she looked the most like. It didn’t take long for Pam to go back to solo dining, usually at her desk. It wasn’t exactly fun, but better than the alternatives.
Today, she was glad that she had a habit of eating alone. When she’d gotten up to go into the break room, no one followed her. She would have stayed at her desk, but she needed space for her sketchbook and some time away from the ringing of the phone to concentrate. Her yogurt and chips sat neglected on the table as she focused on the series of drawings in front of her. She didn’t look up when she heard the door open, hoping to discourage socializing.
“Hey. Mind if I sit with you?”
She looked up to find Karen hovering beside the table. Great. Just the person Pam wanted to see. She wanted to say that she minded Karen sitting anywhere in the Scranton office. In fact, she wanted to suggest that Karen would have to take a nice long walk to find a seat that Pam didn’t mind her taking. In the middle of Lake Wallenpaupack would be good. Or all the way back in Connecticut, if possible. But that would have been rude and, even in her “fancy” new incarnation; Pam couldn’t bring herself to be rude to perfectly nice people. Dwight, maybe. Karen, no.
“Um, no. I’ve got an assignment to finish before my art class tonight, though, and lunch is the only time I really have to work on it, so I may not be great company.“ Pam turned her attention back to her sketch pad to emphasize the point.
“That’s okay. I just needed a break. Michael’s been testing his sales pitch jokes on us for the last half hour. He exhausted the clean jokes ten minutes ago and he apparently wasn’t ready to quit yet, so . . . dirty ones. Jim’s meeting with a client outside the office, so he can’t control Michael and Toby tried – but you can guess how that went.” Karen set her bag down on the table and walked over to the vending machine to get a bottle of water. “I thought he’d get discouraged if I just didn’t laugh, but Dwight and Andy are more than making up for me. If the two of them don’t stop this sucking-up competition, the whole office could get pull into their black hole of . . . brown nose?” Karen pulled out a chair and dropped into it.
“Black hole of brown nose?” Pam smiled in spite of herself. “That’s an, uh . . . interesting image.”
“Yeah, I sort of started that metaphor with nowhere to go. I’ll have to think of a better one.” Karen returned the smile and pulled a sandwich and some chips out of her bag. “So, what’s the class you’re taking? If you don’t mind being distracted for a minute?”
“It’s an art class. On illustrating, actually.”
“I didn’t know you were an artist. Is that why you’re working as a receptionist – you’re a struggling artist?”
Pam looked up quickly to gauge whether Karen’s last comment was sarcastic, but all she saw was sincere interest. So Jim hadn’t mentioned that she liked to draw. He probably hadn’t mentioned her to Karen at all, since he hadn’t actually mentioned Karen to her even when he told her that had “sort of started seeing” someone. She’d known, of course, and she was sure that it was obvious to the rest of the office now, too. She had noticed Phyllis giving her a sympathetic look when Jim first passed up an empty seat next to her in an office meeting in favor of a seat behind Karen and even Kelly had recognized that Pam and Jim weren’t particularly friendly anymore. When Kelly asked if she and Jim were mad at each other, Pam told her it was nothing – that with his new job responsibilities, Jim was just too busy for all the silliness. Pam shook her head gently to clear it of Jim thoughts and focused on Karen, who was patiently waiting for an answer to her question.
“Well, not really. I’ve always liked art, but I wasn’t doing much when I started working here. I’ve been doing a lot more recently, though. Since . . . since this summer.” Pam ducked her head back to her sketchpad. She really didn’t want to talk to Karen about Roy or the wedding.
“Oh, right. Kelly told me what happened. I didn’t ask or anything; she just volunteered,” Karen added quickly when she saw the surprised and guarded look on Pam’s face. “That must have been hard for you. It’s good that you had an outlet. You know something to focus on.”
Kelly told her, Pam thought. Another thing that Jim didn’t mention. “Yeah, it was good. And I’ve been taking some evening classes since then, too. So, anyway, I’ve got this assignment. . . .” Pam looked back down at her sketchpad, hoping that Karen would get the hint.
“Right. So, what’s the assignment?” Pam could feel herself beginning to get annoyed. Couldn’t this woman take a hint? She gritted her teeth and looked up, ready to give as curt an answer as possible, but when she saw Karen looking back at her with an open, friendly expression on her face, the anger faded. It made sense, she supposed. She and Karen were about the same age; they were definitely among the most normal people in an office of pretty unusual folks; and Karen was new. She was just trying to strike up a friendship. And even though Pam would have much preferred hating Karen – or at least disliking her intensely, she felt a little sorry for her. She had certainly needed a friend when she started working here. Karen probably did, too.
“We have to create a graphic novel by the end of the course. They’re really big now – like a comic book but with a better story line. A lot of kids’ books are being done as graphic novels.”
“Oh, I think my nephew likes those. The ones from Japan with all the magical fighting and stuff.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen those. They’re pretty glossy – like bound comic books -- but that’s the idea. We have to come up with a graphic novel for kids by the end of class and, tonight, we have to have sketches of our main characters.”
“Wow, that sounds like it would be fun to do. What’s your story about?”
“Well, the professor told us to use a place that we know, so. . . the office. But I didn’t want to draw people. They’re so complicated and I didn’t think kids would really be interested in a book about working in an office. Plus no adults would believe our office was real. So I’m making the office into a farmyard. Like Animal Farm, you know? That way, I can draw animals which I’m way better at doing and our office stories might seem more believable and less . . . sad.”
“Seriously? You’re going to draw everyone here as a farmyard animal?” Karen laughed. “Let me guess, Michael is a jackass.”
Pam was surprised to feel herself genuinely smiling at Karen for the first time since the day of the merger. “Actually, I thought of that. He’s not so good at staying out of people’s things, though. I was afraid that he would see my sketchbook and ask about the drawings. I don’t want to explain to him why I think he’s a donkey.”
“Right. Might be a bad conversation to have with your boss. Have you drawn anyone else?”
“Yeah. The canary in the little shed by the farm gate is supposed to be me. You know, greeting people as they come on the farm – like the receptionist.” Pam didn’t mention that the canary was also a caged bird that she planned to set free in the first chapter. She didn’t think Karen needed that level of detail.
“This is Phyllis.” Pam pointed to a broody hen, being trailed by several small chicks. “She doesn’t really have children, but she reminds me of a mother hen. Trying to look after the rest of us in the office. Plus, that means I get to make Bob Vance of Vance Refrigeration into a rooster. And this, of course, is Angela.” She pointed to a drawing of a barnyard cat, but one with pristine mostly white fur and neat, symmetric black patches. It was walking on the top of the fence post and looking with great disdain at the muddy ground below and the animals that were walking or lying in it. “And this is Creed.” A sly rat sniffed at the contents of a feed bin, its long tail curled around it and its eyes darting to one side, carefully watching its surroundings
“Of course.” Karen studied the drawings. “Wow. I could definitely pick out Angela as the cat. It looks like her. That pinched expression on her face. And Creed the Rat looks about as mysterious as Creed the person seems. So who else have you captured?”
“That’s it, so far. I thought about doing Kevin as a pig, but that just seemed mean.”
“Definitely. Too obvious. You need something more subtle.” Karen leaned forward and started at the sketchpad. “I know. How about a goat?” Pam looked a little confused and Karen gave her a knowing half smile. “You know. Goats are a little . . . randy. And they’ll eat anything.”
Pam laughed out loud for the first time in weeks. “That’s a great idea. How about this?” A few swift flicks of her pencil and a chubby goat with a slightly bewildered expression on his face appeared on the ground just below the fussy cat on the fence railing.
“That’s perfect.” Karen said. “You’re really good, you know. If you aren’t working as a receptionist because you’re a struggling artist, you should be.” Although she didn’t really want to, Pam felt warmed at the compliment. Someone besides Jim had noticed her art, someone with no possible ulterior motive. Maybe she really was good.
Karen pulled her chair closer. “So,” she said conspiratorially, “who should we draw next?” Pam moved the sketch pad to a spot where they could both see it easily, forgetting that she was supposed to be annoyed and that she was supposed to be suggesting ways for Karen to disappear.