By Bailey Mapp

"And so, by precisely coordinating the flow of parts to the assembly line with worker's breaks, I've improved productivity by four point two percent."

That's just wonderful, thought Hilda, now he has those poor workers at the plant using the bathroom on command. She had heard Bob prattle on about his methods a thousand times before, but with effort she managed to keep her eyes from glazing over.

Bob checked his watch and, seeing that the allotted time for breakfast conversation was up, he rose and placed his breakfast plate in the sink. He had hardly touched his bacon and eggs, having recently become concerned with his weight.

"Eggs were a bit runny," he said.

But Hilda knew they were the same as they had been a thousand mornings before.

When she didn't reply, Bob glanced at his watch for the tenth time and said, "Well, I'd better be off to work. Don't want to be late." He seemed unable to look at Hilda directly. Instead his eyes moved nervously around the room. When they did pause on Hilda, the total indifference in his eyes was what hurt her most. She was of no more interest to him than the refrigerator or the dozen other appliances in the kitchen.

The television, she thought, now there was an appliance to be envied.

"Did you hear me?" he asked curtly. He could ignore her, but not vice versa.

"Yes, dear," she replied, forcing a casual tone, "Hurry along. You don't want to be late." She didn't want him to be late either, not today. She scraped the half-eaten food off Bob's plate and swallowed the lump in her throat. Thinking back, she now knew that skipping meals had been the first sign. Bob had never been late to the dinner table in his life. In fact, his movements were as precise as the regimental parade. Time management was his life, after all.

For a while she had tried to tell herself the new diet was just some mid-life crisis thing like they talked about on Oprah. But nobody knew better than Hilda that people are creatures of habit. Bob had eaten the same breakfast every day for the twenty years of their marriage and now, suddenly, he was using words like cholesterol and carbohydrates? Who did he think he was fooling?

The banging door announced Bob's hasty departure just as Willard Scott came on the small set Hilda kept on the kitchen counter. She checked her watch and frowned. He had left two seconds late. She would have to adjust for that.

Speaking of creatures of habit, Hilda knew that Mr. Wilkins on the corner would be leaving for work now. All business, he didn't care for sentiment and he despised Willard Scott. As Hilda washed breakfast dishes she stared out the window.

Yep, there he goes, right on time. He really should pay more attention to that young wife of his, thought Hilda.

A commercial came on the set. That meant Mrs. Russell across the street would be letting that pesky cat of hers out and he'd make a beeline straight for Hilda's pansy bed. Yep, there he came now. She let that cat roam the neighborhood with no thought to where he went or what he did. But just let Hilda's little dog, Peanut, try to do his business in Mrs. Russell's yard and watch the fur fly.

While Hilda was intimately familiar with the movements of her neighbors, she didn't consider herself a snoop. It was just that she had lived with Bob for so many years that it had become second nature to observe the habits of those around her.

It was all so predictable, but Hilda had never minded that. She had always drawn comfort from the security of a set routine. It was surprises she despised, even feared. Like the surprise she'd gotten the day Bob had come home with his hair dyed black. Why, she had nearly dropped her best two-quart casserole dish right on the kitchen floor. That was when she knew for sure what was going on, and it had been easy enough to confirm. And now that she knew, she couldn't take a chance of being put out of her own house. That would have been more of a change than she could take.

She dried her hands carefully, folded the dishtowel and placed it back on the refrigerator handle. It was exactly 8:14:45 a.m. when she walked casually out the front door and down the drive. She could hear the squealing tires of that old jalopy the paperboy drove. She was as sure of his tardiness as she was that bees made honey. Bless his heart, he'd be late for school if he didn't hurry.

He rounded the corner practically on two wheels and slammed on the brakes when he saw Hilda in his path. She shook a finger at him. "You really should slow down, young man," she scolded. "You could run over someone."

"Out of the way, lady!" he barked. He made a show of checking his watch. "Great! Now I'm really late."

Hilda checked her watch and smiled. You're not late, she thought, stepping out of his path. You're right on time.

He flung a newspaper at her much harder than was necessary, then pressed the gas-peddle to the floorboard, speeding away like a comet with a billowing white tail.

As he reached the corner, Hilda saw her husband dashing into the crosswalk, hurrying to a "secret" lover's rendezvous with Mrs. Wilkins. He had a faraway look in his eyes as though anticipation clouded his senses.

Yes, sir, thought Hilda, right on time. The screech of brakes reached her ears; the smell of burnt rubber filled the air; then the sounds of metal crushing bone.

Hilda gave a satisfied nod. After twenty years of marriage to Bob, she was every bit as much the expert in time management as her husband. As she turned to walk back up the drive she stopped and looked at her pansies.

"Now," she wondered out loud, "what to do about that darn cat?"

Copyright 1999 Bailey Mapp