As an older gentleman of the South, I find good manners and common courtesy a wonder and delight, a throwback to a more genteel time of ma’ams and sirs. When someone is polite and helpful, cheerful and efficient, it just tickles me pink. If you feel as I do, that a job well done is a rarity and a wonder in the age of LOL, then perhaps you’d enjoy this work.
A Damn Fine Letting Go
The light tried to die all morning.
Surrounded by water-stains, the overhead fixture buzzed and sputtered, flashing an SOS across Karen’s desk. The VP of Logistics ignored the annoyance, intent on her morning ritual of wrestling the filing cabinet. One brick at a time, she thought.
She took a deep breath, mouthed a prayer and applied a slight amount of pressure on the thumb latch while pressing with all her strength on the right side of the handle, jiggling both the latch and the handle in an attempt to coax the locking mechanism into submission. She knew from experience that if she exerted too much pressure on the latch--or not enough on the drawer pull--no mortal could budge the balky drawer. She pushed. She pulled. She waggled and yanked. Sweat rolled down her forehead and stung her eyes.
After ten minutes of squeezing, pushing and various degrees of jiggling, Karen grabbed the handle with both hands and dragged the two-drawer cabinet across the carpet tiles, grinding her teeth and cursing while kicking the imp with her shoe.
“Dad-gum mother-loving mule-headed stinking rat’s ass piece of crap,” she said.
Despite her efforts, no combination of tugging, pounding and abusive language would soften the mechanism’s resolve. The drawer remained sealed. The young woman collapsed in her chair, a battered boxer flopping to rest between rounds.
Karen quickly regained her air, set her jaw, narrowed her eyes and removed her patent leather pump, thinking she’d gain a modicum of satisfaction by beating the cabinet for a while, but the flashing fluorescent bulb captured her attention.
Criminy. The whole place is on the fritz.
Karen looked at the shoe in her hand and thought about climbing onto her desk and giving the fixture what for when she realized how ridiculous she’d look if someone stepped into the office.
She picked up the handset to call maintenance, but was interrupted when Debbie from HR, flanked by a security guard with a box, marched into her space. The guard touched the light switch and the pulsing bulb went dark with a pop and a sizzle. Karen smelled a quick puff of rubbery smoke, like an engine fire. The guard remained just inside the doorway, dimly lit, but Debbie thundered ahead like Jesus come to cleanse the temple. The older woman stood in front of Karen’s desk, primped a lock of bleach-blonde hair, and without preamble plopped an exit packet onto the faux walnut desktop, knocking Karen’s nameplate to the floor. The woman crossed her arms tight across her sweater vest and said, “Employee number L-114/A?”
Karen nodded and tilted her head at the box-holding guard. “Did I win something?” she said.
“You’ve been terminated,” said the woman from HR. “You have one hour to outprocess.” Debbie grasped the lanyard around her neck and held out the photo I.D. for Karen to inspect. “I’m Debbie Lynch,” she said, “from Human Resources. Think of me as your friend.”
Feeling as if she’d been pole-axed, Karen said the first thing that came to mind. “I should talk to Judy.”
Debbie pulled readers from her hairdo and referenced a Post-it Note. “Your supervisor?” she said. “No go, I’m afraid. She’s the one who put you on the list.”
“But why?” Karen blurted out. “My work’s excellent. I’m never late. I’m the pitcher on the softball team.”
Debbie returned her glasses to their perch and clasped her hands. “Karen, Karen, Karen,” she said. “Have you seen the poster in HR with the wet kitten?”
Karen leaned back and folded her hands. “Okay, yes,” she said. “One of my favorites.”
“Good,” said Debbie. “What does that poster say?”
“Into each life some rain must fall. I’m not sure of the font, but it’s written in big, yellow letters.”
“Exactly,” said Debbie. “Now, do you think that kitty-cat’s happy?”
Karen stared at Debbie a moment. She finally said, “I’m not sure I can speak for the kittens of the world.”
Debbie teetered on her high heels and swiped at the patch of errant hair, fallen across her eye as before. “Of course the kitten’s unhappy,” she said. “He’s wet.”
“And you’re telling me this because...”
Debbie let the hair dangle and positioned her fists on her hips, bent forward like a drill sergeant. “You should look on the bright side,” she said. “You can travel. Go back to school. Whatever you desire. You’re free. Doesn’t it feel wonderful?”
“It feels like I’m going to miss my car payment.”
Debbie brightened. “That’s the spirit,” she said. “Walking’s good for you.” Feeling the time was appropriate, the high-heeled HR pro stepped behind Karen’s desk and extended a sisterly shoulder hug--in the prescribed sign of solidarity--to ex-employee number L-114/A.
Karen took in the entire scene--the mischievous hairdo, the catapulting nameplate, the practiced hug--but until the moment she breathed her last, she remembered one image above all else--the security guard, Mr. Deth, holding an empty box, waiting to be useful.
As far as Karen could tell, Mr. Deth wasn’t embarrassed, or angry, nor coldly efficient and guarded, none of the things you’d expect from someone who held the box.
For one thing, he’s damned cute, she thought.
Karen wanted to hug him like a favorite uncle. Five-foot-four. Slight and balding. Almost angular, impish. Flawless amber honey skin that screamed the subcontinent. Kind eyes and an intelligent, ageless face. He looked...competent, like a proper butler. Karen imagined no matter how much she raged or fell apart, afterward, Mr. Deth, in a soothing, British accent, would simply ask if there was anything else she required, a warm cloth perhaps, for her head?
Studying Mr. Deth, Karen noticed the box he held was new and unmarked. As Debbie droned on, Karen fixated on the container. The smell of Pine-Sol engulfed the young professional and she felt the wet heat of the forest sticking to her face like a steamy towel. She saw a seedling grunting through the dirt and a towering tree and teams of cursing lumberjacks in red flannel manhandling the razor teeth of crosscut saws. She heard the bedlam of a factory floor where whistles shrieked and conveyors rattled and people in hardhats slapped big red buttons to boil the wood chips and glue the fluting and cut the box to size. She smelled the diesel of the forklifts. She heard them squeal up and down the concrete aisles. She felt the Earth vibrate under their passing. Karen touched the rough-hewn pine pallets as they whizzed past and winced at the splinters they left behind. She tasted salty sweat and inhaled Old Spice as she viewed truckers and salesmen and route drivers, all meshing, all working, all so there would be a crisp, new box to pack her personal belongings.
Karen’s toes curled. She felt overwhelmed, like the sand against the sea, and her eyes grew vacant and distracted for a moment.
Debbie from HR finished her presentation with a sweeping, open-handed motion toward the west elevator bank and said, “Mr. Deth is here to ease your transition.” Then, accompanied by a knot of Ace Security men, she literally turned the page on Karen Lancaster and walked away.
Karen drifted out of her reverie and focused on Mr. Deth. After a moment she said, “Does it get any creepier than that?”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She pointed at the guard’s chest. “Your name. Is it really Mr. Deth?”
“Oh, yes. Yes, it is.”
“And it’s pronounced death, like dead?”
“That is correct.”
“You’re dressed in all black. Black shoes. Black socks. A shiny black belt with radios and stuff.”
“Is this a joke?” asked Karen.
“Oh, no, Miss Lancaster. This is the uniform of every guard at Ace Security. I am here to facilitate your transition. Everyone at SysCom wishes to convey to you their desire that this be a positive experience. Debbie from HR seems genuinely upset.”
“No, she seems genuinely disturbed. Different word. How do you know my name?”
“I have a rigorous list,” the guard said as he tapped his clipboard.
“You do this a lot.”
Mr. Deth read from his paperwork. “Every day, Miss Karen Rae Lancaster, 28, unwed, five foot eight, long black hair, dark brown eyes, Asian mother, upright posture, likes floral prints and has the physique to pull it off.”
Karen’s hand shot across the desk. “Let me see that.”
The guard shook his head. “Unfortunately, that would not be fair to the others. It’s all in the files. I try to be thorough.”
Karen leaned back and crossed her arms. “So, you’re here to thoroughly ease my transition?”
“With kid gloves and a full heart. I believe the managers and owner/operators, not to mention the individual shareholders of SysCom, sincerely appreciate the fine work you put in over the last...fourteen months as a...Team Leader in...Logistics.”
He looked up from his reading. “And I know they hope, as I do, that your work with SysCom satisfied you emotionally and professionally, and that your leaving will only propel you to greater heights.”
Hearing the obviously canned, but well-delivered, corporate-speak, Karen relaxed and smiled. “Okay, how exactly do you help?”
“My responsibilities are two-fold. I act as an agent of the company--overseeing your final paperwork and helping with any procedural matters--and, at the same time, I am willing and available to be of any assistance to you, personally. For instance, if you possess heavy or bulky personal property, such as a large plant, that you wish to remove, I will gladly see to its transport.”
Karen stuck her arms out at the elbows and swiveled her chair left and right in the universal sign for what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Except for a photo of her parents and a forlorn flower pot, the only items in the office were a cheap metal desk, two uncomfortable chairs, the double-drawer cabinet that was more prison cell than file storage and neat stacks of dusty folders awaiting incarceration.
“Ah, I see,” said the guard. “I must ask, though. I once helped a gentlemen move an anvil into his Prius. In another life he wished to be a cowboy and shoe horses. You would have enjoyed his office forge. Human behavior always intrigues me. You never know what you’ll discover when you jump into a person’s life without a moment’s notice.”
Karen glanced around, trying to remember if anything incriminating lurked in her desk.
The guard looked amused. “You should be fine,” he said. “I must notate everything you plan to take with you, but whatever you do not wish to keep--and do not wish to claim--simply place in the trash. I will whisk the offending item to the dumpster and dispose of it personally. Unless it’s Debbie from HR. Just kidding, of course.”
Karen templed her fingers on her desk. “This isn’t fair,” she said.
Mr. Deth tilted his head slightly and smiled a caring smile, a poor, poor Dear smile. “Life is like that,” he said.
“My team is a well-oiled machine. The Group Heads love me. I come to work early.”
“I have no doubt. But we must remember that railing against the tide is a fool’s game.”
“Not this time.”
“Oh, most assuredly, Miss Lancaster. I have a great deal of experience in these matters.”
Karen looked at Mr. Deth, serene and patient, and realized there was nothing to be done, no higher power to appeal her dismissal. Her layoff was a big, fat, stinking done deal, and she could accept the news like an adult or make an ass of herself. Fatalism kicked in. Que sera, sera.
She felt the desk wobble on its gimpy leg. She rolled her eyes and caught sight of the water-stained ceiling. Reeling, down for the count, Karen looked back at her hands and noticed the cabinet that fought her filing attempts tooth and nail. She recognized the end of the rope for what it was. When God closes a door, he opens a fire escape.
She stood, placed her hands flat on the unstable desk and sighed. “All right,” she said. “I’m sold.”
Karen Rae Lancaster, former rising star at SysCom International, smoothed the front of her dress and started rifling through desk drawers, placing odds and ends in a pile. “What say we box-up this crap and hit the road?”
“Of course,” said Mr. Deth. “A decent departure is one of the hallmarks of not working for SysCom. The people upstairs unleash Debbie first thing in the morning, before the coffee disappears, whereas the competition likes to work their people until the last minute, then give them the bad news upon their exit. Two schools of thought, I suppose; not everyone believes in a proper transition.”
The VP of Logistics shuffled through correspondence and motioned for the guard to place the box on her desk. “That’s your specialty, is it?”
“Strangely, I’m the most inflexible, static soul on the planet,” he said, “and yet, my job is to repeatedly pull the lanyard and send shell after shell flying downrange. Every shot lands someplace new, but I never move. You may go on to be U. N. Secretary General, a Provost at Yale or the first person to colonize Mars. When you think of me, I will be right here, exactly where you left me.”
Karen scooped up her pile and placed the items in the box. “Do me a favor,” she said. “Quit trying to cheer me up.”
Mr. Deth shrugged. “When people experience different aspects of grief, part of my job is to intuit their emotions and act as a sounding board, sometimes an amplifier, sometimes a mollifier.”
Karen stopped rummaging through her pencil drawer. “You talk like you’ve delivered this sermon before.”
“I am a professional, Miss Lancaster. I transition people every day.”
Karen signaled for Mr. Deth to begin his accounting.
The Ace Security guard stepped to the desk and peered inside the box, using his pen to move items around. “One picture frame. Personal,” he said, making a tick on his form. “Lunch items. Personal. One medium-sized parrot magnet inscribed: 24 Hour Island Supply. I’ll just mark that down as Office Equipment, non-Corporate. Personal. And a small ceramic frog with a sprig of dead ivy.”
“A One Year gift from the other girls,” said Karen. “Seems appropriate. The dead ivy, I mean. I have no idea what the frog was all about.”
“I’ll leave that part out, about the ivy. We would not wish to sully your permanent record. So, one ceramic planter, frog, small. Personal.” Mr. Deth made a few more notes and signed his name.
“Not much to show for fourteen months,” said Karen.
“Sometimes that’s all we get,” said Mr. Deth, returning his pen to a shirt pocket.
Karen stared into Mr. Deth’s kind, harmless brown eyes for a full seven count, then swallowed a sharp breath. “So, how much time do I have?” she asked.
The guard glanced at his wrist. “Debbie from HR indicated an hour. By my watch, forty-two minutes remain. But, as I understand the process, you’re free to leave at any time.”
“I’m free to choose...until I’m not?”
“Succinct and direct. I like your attitude, Miss Lancaster.”
Debbie took a quick glance around the room and pushed all the air from her lungs, her lips whistling slightly. “So be it,” she said. “Mr. Deth, grab that box and let’s get to transitioning.”
The duo entered the corridor like conquering heroes, heads held high, striding down the fabric-covered line of cubes. Karen moved with the grace of a skiff over smooth water, barely breaking the surface. People often struggled to keep up with her long, runner legs, but Mr. Deth moved easily at her side.
Karen knew she’d miss some of her co-workers, but not their habits. The smell of microwave popcorn, stale workout clothes and unshod feet filled the air and cemented her opinion in place. She moved through the stench with a sense of grace, mixed with mild forbearance.
The ex-VP abstained from the usual teary farewells, and her co-workers returned the kindness as if the young woman’s pain was invisible, and not occurring feet from their morning cups of coffee.
Mr. Deth had seen this type of behavior before. The childish fear that, if they looked, he might visit them next.
Karen and her escort reached the bank of elevators at the far wall, pressed the Down button and waited.
Standing with her back to the office made Karen uncomfortable. She felt exposed and studied, like a prized insect pinned to a display board. She didn’t like the sensation, and suddenly thought it was time for a new dress. She also felt the need to say something, to fill the time rather than simply stand and wait. She turned and faced Mr. Deth. “I’ve pushed this button and waited on this elevator hundreds of times,” she said. “Why does it seem so different now?”
The guard thought a moment. “People often remark that familiarity breeds contempt,” he said. “Maybe what you feel is impending freedom, like a greyhound at the starting gate, or an arrow, nocked and drawn.” Mr. Deth looked at the indicator lights. “Some might call it opportunity.”
The elevator arrived. Mr. Deth and Karen stepped inside and turned to face forward. Both shuddered when the doors rolled to a close. The young woman panicked slightly, thinking she’d been secretly watched. “How did you know I do that?” she asked.
“Everyone says a prayer when they leave Five,” said Mr. Deth. “Your supervisor terrorizes the entire floor and two levels of management above her. She thinks rage will get her to the top, but I’m afraid Five will be as far as she goes. The people on Seven look for fire, not arson. I know for a fact she assumed personal credit for your efforts. How do you suppose she gained an invitation to the corporate retreat in Aruba over Christmas?”
Karen clenched. “That dirty bitch,” she said. “She made me work overtime to cover her assignments while she hobnobbed, enjoying my vacation. Corporate mandate, my ass. More like grand theft auto.”
“An understandable sentiment, but at this juncture, Miss Lancaster, I would stress forgiveness. I only bring up these unpleasant truths so you may clearly see the picture in its entirety.”
Karen puffed at her bangs and drained away the last of the fear and pent-up rage. “What are you gonna do,” she said, staring at the floor indicators as they dropped lower and lower, the elevator taking its own sweet time and settling with a bump and a thunk.
Mr. Deth’s heels clicked on the cement. “You must remember the omelette if you crack a few eggs,” he said. “That’s what dear mother would recommend.”
“Mammy Deth,” Karen muttered. “I suppose Papa was a rolling stone.” She stopped and faced the guard. “Am I the only person being transitioned today?”
“Oh, no, Miss Lancaster. There’s a great calamity striking SysCom, the illest of winds. Your brush with hurricane Debbie is but the frontal boundary.”
“Why didn’t they call us in as a group?”
“I find it more civilized to handle people individually.”
Mr. Deth opened the door to the parking garage and checked his clipboard. “Yours is the green Volvo 240, correct, parking spot P-114?”
“Right as always, Mr. Deth.” Karen stopped and turned to the guard again. “Are you sure it’s not pronounced Deeth, like teeth?” she said. “Or Frenchy? D’ Eth?”
“No,” said the guard, shaking his head. “It is most certainly death, like meth.”
“Why not change it?” asked Karen.
Mr. Deth looked over his nose. “And pretend to be someone else?”
Karen laughed a bit and studied Mr. Deth as they walked. Approaching the car she sidled to the right and, holding up her hands, said, “You’re not going to stuff me in the trunk, are you?”
The guard opened the driver’s door and slid fourteen months of Karen’s life across to the passenger side.
As she glided into her seat, dapper Mr. Deth gently clicked the door latch secure, turned and walked away.
Karen stuck her head out the window. “Mr. Deth!” she yelled. “You sure know how to show a girl a good time. That’s the best transitioning I ever had. Quite thorough.”
Mr. Deth, walking backwards, grinned and sketched a Cub Scout salute. “It was my pleasure,” he said. “I only wish I had a comment card for you to fill out.”
A wave and a smile, and Mr. Deth turned and walked away, off to his next assignment.
Karen shifted the car into gear and ran up the radio, giddy as a schoolgirl at the open road ahead and the glorious flare of amber honey light that swallowed her day.