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Helen



Every man in the office wanted to help, but Helen raised a hand to hold us off. She was the best-looking woman on our floor, and all the men — I'm sure of it — had fantasized about cozying up behind her. This was our chance.

One of us would get to Heimlich his way into her good graces, to ball his fist and thrust it upward into her diaphragm — quite likely lifting her off the ground, feeling, purely out of circumstance, the cloven jeans against him. There were a dozen of us at the ready, and I remember thinking it implausible that this many people had first-aid training.

We jockeyed for position. I tried to make myself wider to retain my place in the tightening knot of men that had surrounded her. Helen's hand came up again, more emphatically this time.

"She's still breathing," said one of the secretaries.

"Give her some room."

Another agreed and cautioned that we might make matters worse. The circle of men loosened — each of us watching the secret muscles of her throat as they tried to end her gurgling. And then she coughed in earnest.

The Dorito came back.

People clapped. And Helen broke free of our disintegrating ring, hurrying off to compose herself behind the frosted panes of her office — the same panes that kept us from staring at her as we made our trips to the coffee pot. The men went back to their spreadsheets. The ships we had launched lay at the bottom of the harbor, the gulf between us and Helen uncrossable once again.

This story was written by Charles Rafferty. Charles Rafferty's eleventh collection of poems is The Smoke of Horses (forthcoming from BOA Editions). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, O, Oprah Magazine, and Prairie Schooner, and are forthcoming in Ploughshares. His stories have appeared in The Southern Review and Per Contra, and his story collection is called Saturday Night at Magellan's. Currently, he directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College.
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