Previously in Unbound Fiction:
A Place of Safety (May 18, 2001)
"She recognizes a charred remnant of material, the thick corner of a book still smoldering, the twisted metal buckle of a baby's shoe." By Penny Feeny.
A Sign of the Times (April 25, 2001)
"If I wait long enough he's going to have to ask. He doesn't want to. Asking is like inviting cancer to eat out his insides." By Joan Wilking.
Interest (March 21, 2001)
"I had no idea. How could I? It was just a homework assignment. Perfectly
pedestrian. I've been giving the same one for years." By
I Was Just Looking (February 21, 2001)
"Her scarlet djelleba was torn slightly at the hem. He gazed at the smooth, graceful curve of her calf, deliberately revealed, he was certain, for his eyes only." By Joe Kuhl
Daniel Wentworth (January 24, 2001)
"No one knows just when he left, only when they noticed that he was gone, and some of us don't even remember that." By Rachel Carpenter
The Faithful (December 20, 2000)
"It's thirty-two degrees, officially freezing, and we're getting ready for a Christmas Eve swim. Harvey's idea. 'It'll put the fear of God in you better than church.'" By N. M. Kelby
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Atlantic Unbound | June 21, 2001
he first hint that my new job would be different from any I had had before was the problem with lunch.
It was close to one o'clock in the afternoon on my first day. No one had mentioned anything about a break, and so I knocked on my boss's door and asked if I could go out for a bite to eat.
"No," he said. "I don't buy into the lunch myth." He turned back to his desk. In my nervousness over my first day at work—which had proven to be well-founded—I had skipped breakfast. I lied to my boss and told him I was hypoglycemic and had to eat. He rolled his eyes and sent me off to the copy room. When I got back to my office a large grape, a pale yellow banana, and a white-tinged strawberry were arranged in a row on the edge of my desk. I was hungry, and I ate the fruit quickly, even though I suspected it had been grown somewhere in the building; it tasted like fluorescent lighting and recycled air. Every day after that I would be sent to the copy room sometime between twelve and one, often with nothing to copy, and when I came back to my desk a grape, a banana, and a strawberry would be waiting. It wasn't enough, so I took to hiding bags of mini rice cakes in a cabinet under the sink in the ladies' room. Other girls in the office, I suspected, were hungry, too; the rice cakes disappeared quickly and soon I was buying the economy size.
The work itself was, or should have been, easy. I was supposed to be working with the department on writing proposals, meeting goals, and filing reports on our progress. This was fine, and in my previous job I had done quite well. Many of the ideas I proposed had been implemented and the managers had raved over my meticulous reports. But here at the new job, nothing I did was right. For example, when I filed my first progress report it was sent back to me with an unsigned note: "Please check your predecessor's reports—follow her form!!" I was surprised, because I had followed standard procedure to the letter and proofed my report twice. That afternoon I looked through the department records until I found my predecessor's files. Like me, she had included progress notes, short-term goals, and a table of contents. But hers was written in calligraphy, on aged cream parchment paper.
Curious, I looked through the rest of the department files—some, I admit, I probably should not have been looking at. Everyone in the department did their reports this way. Some even had intricate scroll work drawn around the edges and illuminated first letters, crafted from mythical beasts in the Celtic style.
Another mistake I made at the new job was the recycling. At first I was told that all paper was to be used on both sides, a request I was happy to comply with. But when I took a handful of used paper to the recycling bin the office manager snatched it out of my hands and reprimanded me for not following company policy. Then the other girls explained to me that when a sheet was used on both sides, I was to cut out any usable words and string them together with tape for my next project. I was to do this until nothing of the original sheet was left. It was time-consuming, but with this system a sheet of single-spaced typed paper could last several weeks—although we did use quite a bit of tape—and I told myself it was probably for the best.
And there were the proposals. The first time I turned in a proposal to my boss, he asked me to wait while he looked it over. I had put a lot of thought into my proposal, and I was proud of my work; I stood by his desk and waited eagerly for his response. Ten minutes went by. An hour went by. Five o'clock came and went, and he was only on the third page. It was after midnight when he finally read the last line.
"Well," he said without emotion, "I guess it'll do."
The second time I turned in a proposal, this one strung together from available recycled words, I prepared ahead of time. In the ladies' room I fully emptied my bladder, put cotton in the toes of my shoes, and ate a large handful of rice cakes. But there was no wait this time. My boss read the first few lines and then closed his eyes and leaned back in his leather chair, sighing deeply.
"I'm not sure what your thinking was here," he said. "I want you to see the company priest."
I lied again and told my boss I was Jewish. He said that was all the more reason I should go.
The company chapel was high on the twenty-first floor, in between the executive dining room and the president's office. It was a room similar in design and decor to my boss's office; the only difference was that the ceiling was arched, and one of the windows had been replaced with a colorful stained-glass depiction of Jesus and the disciples around a conference table. Each disciple—and Christ—had a pad, a pen, and a glass of water in front of him. At a small table off to the side, Mary Magdalene took notes on a stenography machine.
An elderly priest and a fresh-faced young nun sat at the desk, deeply engrossed in a discussion about papal infallibility. When they saw me the nun smiled and excused herself. She walked out through a back door into a room I couldn't see. A strong smell of incense and wax wafted through before she shut the door behind her. The priest gestured for me to sit in her chair. I explained that my boss had sent me up to speak with him about my report. The priest smiled with fatherly compassion and read aloud from a leather-bound edition of the company manual: "God is in the details," he read. He recommended I meditate on this passage by repeating it one hundred and fifty times. I told him I would do so that evening.
"Now," he said, a smile still on his face. I started to recite, and he stopped me with a wave of his hand. He pointed down at the thinly carpeted floor, and after a moment I understood. I crawled down to my knees and put my hands in the prayer position. In this way I finished my one hundred and fifty repetitions. When I was done the priest gave me communion. Thankfully, it was quarter after five by then, so after eating the body of Christ and drinking His blood I could go home.
My career at the company wasn't progressing as I had planned, but I still hoped I could fit in. After all, each company has its own culture, and there's always a period of adjustment when starting a new job. Then one day I had an interesting phone call: it was a headhunter who recruited for the top firms in my field. He said he had heard I was doing a bang-up job here, and he wanted to talk to me about moving to a higher-paying position at a different company right across the street. When I looked out the window I could see this other company through two sets of gray-tinted windows, and they seemed to be doing pretty much the same work over there as we were doing over here. But I didn't want to mislead the headhunter or get myself into some kind of trouble, so I told him he must be mistaken—I was barely treading water in this job.
"That's not what I hear," he said. "I hear you're shaking things up in your department. Your proposals are excellent, your reports are killer, you're setting goals and looking forward. You're exactly what we're looking for."
Despite my protests, the headhunter assured me he had this all on the most reliable sources. After a few days of consideration I took the offer, to start in immediately. My boss had instituted a fitness program whereby we were required to clean off our desks, lie on top of them, and do sixty-five sit-ups first thing every morning. My abdominal muscles ached, and the headhunter swore to me that the new job offered only the regular, optional, type of health plan.
I was sure this new position could only be an improvement, and I snuck out of the building at lunchtime to rush across the street, a hat shadowing my face. I wasn't sure what, exactly, the official resignation process entailed, but I knew it could take several weeks, and I wanted to start at the new company as quickly as possible. Rumor had it that at one point before leaving you were required to receive Last Rites from the priest; at another point your supervisor was expected to tear his shirt above the left breast and wail.
The headhunter had promised me that at the new company, I would be able to use my professional skills to their best advantage. My first assignment, however, was to groom the horses in the company stable. As a rule I liked animals, but I suspected these horses had been mistreated in the past. They kicked and sometimes bit, and it was not the fun I had imagined it to be. And in the long run I was never sure if I had made the right decision, to leave the last job for this.
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