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Heather Jenrettes Last Day at Work
by John Tarleton
Heather Jenrette logged into her voice mail and then walked away from her desk to line up another putt.
"My God girl, I can't believe what you're doing," said a remote but friendly voice. It was Bernadette. They had been friends for six years, since the summer after college graduation when they both had worked together as waitresses in the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. while searching for "good jobs" in the city. "It's so cool. I wish I had the guts to do something like that. Sorry I didn't make it to your farewell lunch. We had a big meeting that ran over. You know how it goes. I'll try to catch you again later. Bye."
Heather looked over at her desk. A messy stack of memos and unanswered letters spilled over onto her keyboard. Atop the stack, there was a crumpled postcard with a picture of a penguin. The red light on the answering machine stopped blinking. She brushed a stray lock of blonde hair out of her eyes and looked down again.
Heather's life had changed when she began dreaming of one-putting. She would sleepwalk through her two-bedroom condominium apartment with putter in hand. Her roommate would hear her stalking the hallways and would shout "Go back to sleep!" Heather would awake with a start and stand still for a moment with her finger pressed to her lower lip. Then, she would look down and wonder why she was wearing golf shoes with her light green nightgown.
Following Blue Sky
Now, she concentrated intently on the little white ball, just as she always did in her dreams, and then on the putting cup that was plugged into the wall socket 10 feet away. She tapped the ball firmly and it slowly rolled across the white shag carpet. The ball disappeared into the center of the cup with a clicking sound. The machine then regurgitated the ball and it rolled to a stop at her feet. It hadn't always been so easy.
Ever since she put in her resignation, Heather had been counting down the days. And when Bernadette dropped by her office, she would glance at the slashmarks on the calendar with wistful envy.
"I wish I were going too, following blue sky wherever it leads," she would say. Her husky voice would be filled with longing. "I guess I'll have to continue looking at the Windows 95 logo on my computer screen."
Bernadette was a short, compact woman with round hips and a round, luminous, full moon face, who listened attentively to what other people said. She worked as a computer systems analyst and was detached from the usual office politics as she was not involved in "policy-making"; that great urge which draws so many bright, young over-achievers to the capitol city. She had come to D.C. because her fiancé had said it was a good job market. Now, she was recently-divorced with neither children nor long-term commitments. She had read all of ej's postcards with wonder and fascination and listened intently as Heather tried to cajole her into joining "The Breakout".
Just as Heather dreamed of picturesque green golf courses, Bernadette thought every day of wide-open Alaska; of the 900 or so species of plants that flower during the long, summer days, of hiking through dense, virgin forest, scaling snow-capped mountains, the fresh smell of salt spray, going out to sea on whale watching boats and salmon fishing in fast-moving streams. "Won't even need a fishing line," she liked to imagine to herself. "Why I'll just catch 'em bare-handed." It would be everything that her sterile, climate-controlled office wasn't. She was also fascinated by the lichens, the mosses, the grasses, the caribou and the many other hardy species that could survive on the tundra above the Arctic Circle.
"How do they do that?" She wondered. She then thought of ej wondering the world with the few meager possessions she carried on her back like a tortoise shell. "Maybe we don't need as much as we think we do. Or at least that's the case with some people," she added. She couldn't picture herself without her modern appliances; just winging it. Instead, she would glance again at the slashmarks and delight in asking Heather to recount all her plans once more.
Heather had traded in her Lexus for a van and planned to travel around the country for a year playing all her favorite golf courses. She would be playing eight hours per day, every day until her money ran low. The thought of it made her giddy at once with both excitement and dread. She had already won some local amateur tournaments and hoped to qualify for an LPGA tour card.
"But what if it doesn't work out?" She asked herself many times. She was concerned that she wouldn't be able to get another "real job" with that kind of gap in her resumé. Dave, the man she was currently seeing, told her she worried too much. But, Heather couldn't help it. She couldn't imagine dumpster diving as ej sometimes boasted of doing in her postcards. Still, she realized she had no choice. As if waking from a long, muddled dream, it slowly dawned on her that she had to follow her heart's desire. Nothing else would give her any lasting peace.
A Postcard from ejAfter Heather sank 10 more putts in rapid order, she leaned her putter against the desk and smiled as she reread the tiny handwriting on ej's latest postcard; the one with the penguin on front:
Hey Heather! I'm really rolling now! I had to stop in a small town in the Andes for a week to get spare parts to repair my motorcycle. The children all gathered around to stare at me and the parents all wanted me to stay as their guest in their huts where chickens are always scratching around in the dust. You'd be amazed at how cool most people are when you get out in the world. Anyway, when I get to the tip of South America I'll unload my bike and hop a boat to Anarctica. Yeah no kidding! If I didn't mention it, I've got a food service job lined up for the next year. The work will be so-so but it will be like living on another planet. Everything pure white. And so, so quiet. When I finish, I'll have enough money to go up to New Zealand and start roaming through Asia. Say hey to Bernadette for me. I think she'd dig all the penguins in their tuxedo suits. With the wind snapping in my face every second of the way, this sister is fast approaching The Bottom of the World. Your Friend, ej
P.S.-What's it gonna take to get B out of a place like Washington, D.C.?!?
Heather smiled at her friend's audacity. And she thought of Bernadette. "What's she holding onto?" She asked herself in a moment of giddy excitement. Then, she abruptly dropped that line of thought and started to replay all the doubts that had plagued her before she finally worked up the nerve one day to shove off from her desk, set sail down the carpeted hallway to her boss's corner office and put in notice that she was resigning her position with the Lawnmower Manufacturers' Association (LAWNMA) at month's end.
Her boss's reaction caught her off guard
"We had kind of expected this sooner," he said, folding his hands and looking straight past her while speaking in a relaxed, accepting monotone. "You've been doing fine work here at LAWNMA. But six years on the job is a long time."
"Huh?" She had thought to herself.
It was the one reaction she hadn't been expecting. He was calm and encouraging and not overly concerned. She had rehearsed this moment for months, bracing for the worst. But, there were neither urgent pleadings nor angry glares and recriminations. It was all so easy. But then she thought to herself, "Why doesn't he say something more? Don't they want me?! Or, does he already have a replacement lined up?"
Climbing the Ladder
She wanted to remind him of all that she had accomplished, but instead demurred. Back in Baton Rouge, she had grown up respecting the importance of being modest and self-effacing even as she was prodded to excel in everything she did. Bright and industrious, she had quickly advanced from being one of LAWNMA's many temps to the only full-time employee of LaFF (Lawnmower Freedom Foundation), an auxillary organization that had been formed to organize grassroots organizations that would present a common front to defend the rights of lawnmower owners against excessive government regulation.
"Well you know how it is in this town," her boss confided to her on her first morning on the job. "Those who become apart of the process get access. Those who don't get good government."
Heather quickly took to her work revising LaFF's logo and stationary, updating the mailing list, issuing a new quarterly newsletter, putting on conferences and seminars for the 92 organizations sprinkled around the country that were members of her umbrella organization. And in what was generally considered her biggest coup, she was once able to use her connections on the Hill to get a 4-term Senator to speak at her annual luncheon. From the beginning, her expert golf game had helped her.
"Whah I nevah saw a little gal who could handle a 3-wood like that," a powerful homestate Congressman once said to an industry rep when her first drive split the fairway and rolled to a stop 50 yards beyond where both men had veered into the rough. "Just like her daddy. Why thar was nevah anyone who hit the ball further off the tee at the Nawlins Country Club than Ol Earle Jenrette. He coulda made the pros if he wanted to."
Heather also found that she was adept at the local sport of making connections (as opposed to "friendships", which sounded oddly naive in D.C.). She enjoyed the Washington reception circuit, mingling with the powerful and famous. She thought it one of the perks of her job, though she reluctantly noted years before that she usually didn't like them as people.
There was something oily and self-serving about them. They were people whose every action was calculated toward self-promotion and advancement. Cold, contentious people striving to bask in the manufactured glamour that the city radiated. A city full of that kind of young fogey who always runs for student council president in high school. It was nothing like life back in Baton Rouge.
"B, no one cares about anyone here," she once confided to her friend. "They're all the samethe politicians and their staffers, lobbyists, media pundits, Georgetown hostesses, you name it. And they're so busy feeding on each other that they forget this is all bullshit."
Jumping Off the Gerbil Wheel
Heather was uneasy with the feigned civility which thinly disguised the War of One Against All that was renewed daily. And she had a hard time finding anyone who could tell her what all the skirmishing was about.
"What else is there to do in this town?" An ex-boyfriend once said to her in a moment of candor.
Heather was never fully satisfied with such answers. But she continued dutifully plugging away at her job. The annual payraises and bonuses were badges of affirmation. She felt as if she were getting somewhere. And the praise she received gratified her deeply-embued desire to please and impress people who were older and more powerful than her. "Who doesn't love to be loved," she thought to herself more than once. Perched nine floors above the noisy traffic that jostled at the corner of 17th an K St., she was situated right in the vortex of the picture-postcard reality of her high school civics books. She was a player and she was making things happen.
But doubts suddenly popped up from time-to-time, like ej's postcards. The routine of seminars and newsletter mailings and annual luncheons didn't change. They only seemed to consume more of her time. "Am I climbing the ladder to success?" She began asking herself. "Or am I just running faster and faster to keep up with the Gerbil Wheel." When she confided her doubts to Bernadette, she was surprised to learn that her friend was experiencing the same misgivings.
At home one night, she took out a fresh yellow legal pad and for the first time began to ponder what she really wanted in life and whether her current job would help her obtain it. She filled 17 pages with the pros and cons of changing her life. It took an hour, she noted, to get past thinking of how she was supposed to be or how she thought others thought she was supposed to be. Shedding layers of assumed poses on those long, yellow sheets of paper, she heard the little voice that before had only murmured to her in her sleep.
"Life is elsewhere," it seemed to be saying. Life was rushing by in torrents. She could jump in, or she could remain sitting at water's edge, dipping her toes in the chilly waters and admiring the turbulent stream flowing by.
The Little Voice
Heather was surprised at how philosophical she had become in the weeks since she had put in her notice and stopped concerning herself with the petty dramas of office life. "We all have somewhere we need to be in life," she had said to Bernadette during a lunchtime conversation a few days before. They were eating lunch at the corner deli and watching the surge of pedestrians going by. Just around the corner was the underground Metro that whisked the office workers back out to the suburbs long before sundown. It was a bright, sunny day and neither looked forward to returning to the office. "The only question," Heather continued, "is whether we'll each get where need to be before we go crazy or numb from not listening to that Little Voice that's always murmuring inside of us."
Heather had taken up golf belatedly. And the Congressman's reminisces had reminded her of what her mother used to say whenever she caught her husband sacked out on the couch, watching a weekend golf tournament on TV. Her father Earle Jenrette had been a local golfing champion and had tried without success to raise his three sons to be golfers, never thinking his daughter would someday surpass them all.
Heather lettered in several sports in high school but didn't pick up a golf club until she was 19. She shot a 129 the first time she played 18 holes. But, from the start she loved the feeling of fluid grace, of being "in the groove", that came with hitting a good shot. She wanted to experience it over and over again. And within a couple of weeks she improved enough to win a spot (and the scholarship that went with it) on her university's newly-formed womens' golf team. "Would have father paid more attention to me if I had been a boy?" She wondered to herself many times.
Heather traced the first subtle beginnings of the change in her life to when she met Dave six months earlier. He was a relaxed, older man in his late 30s who gave her confidence in herself. He would chuckle softly whenever she would lay her head on his hairy chest and tell him how it reminded her of when she would do the same with Cezanne; the thick, furry collie who had been her childhood pet and major source of consolation.
Dave managed a golf course in suburban Virginia and had promised to fly out and play with her on weekends when he could get away. She sensed that he would be waiting for her as well when she returned from her odyssey. "He's so sweet," she reflected. "He's not like my ex. He doesn't try to cut me down or control me just so he can feel better about himself."
Just then, she looked up at the clock and suddenly snapped out of her reverie It was 4:30. Dave would soon be coming by to pick her up. "Am I really going to walk through that door and not come back on Monday?" She asked herself. Her stomach did a backflip and her legs turned to jelly. Her face flushed and she felt a hot, ringing sensation in her ears. Invisible talons seized her chest and dug into her flesh. She couldn't believe how fast her heart was racing. Why did something that she knew was right for her feel so wrong; as if she were doing something dirty and illicit?
She caught her breath.
She couldn't quite believe it was going to happen. Or was it? Maybe she could ask for her job back? "I haven't officially quit yet," she reassured herself.
Heather knew the search committee still hadn't even interviewed potential replacements. All she had to do was repeat the journey she had made a month before down the carpeted hallway to her boss's corner office. She calculated that he would probably be relieved to have her back on Team LAWNMA. But,
"Yuk!" The thought of recanting suddenly made her more nauseous than that of actually leaving. She had already said all her good-byes to co-workers who were confused by her decision and the vague plans that went with it. While some quietly admired her plucky courage, others clucked and commented about how "irresponsible" and "immature" she was being; about how they would have to do more work in her absence.
She knew in her gut that if she suddenly reversed all her decisions and managed to reclaim her job nothing would be like it was before. She would be quietly ostracized by the others both for wanting to leave and deciding to stay. She had already set herself apart.
She looked around once more at her cramped office and her messy desk. She grimaced, realizing how much she did not want to be there; that (in a sense) she had already left.
"Is this," she wondered, "how people finally make the most important decisions in their lives; when they reach the point where nothing else is bearable?!"
Then, the talons slowly began to release from her chest. She was being propelled out of the carpeted, climate-controlled womb of LAWNMA by the force of her own decisions.
The office was fast emptying out. It was a quarter til five and Heather was briefly paralyzed when she saw that she hadn't even begun cleaning off her desk. She desparately didn't want to be the last one to leave. "Been there. Done that," she mumbled, thinking back on the past six years.
She snatched her friend's crumpled postcard from atop the stack of debris and brushed the rest of the pile into the wastebasket with one long swipe of her forearm. Papers and unopened envelopes lay scattered on the floor around her now-stuffed wastebasket. She smiled a mischievious smile and let out a sigh of relief.
When Heather stepped out of the elevator into the lobby, she saw Bernadette was waiting for her. Sunlight was streaming through the heavy glass doors. A uniformed security guard sat at a wooden desk, listening nonchalantly to the radio. Summer Solstice was only a couple of days away. Heather remembered with a knowing smile how ej used to get excited about things like that.
"Hey Heather, I think I'm gonna do it." Bernadette had changed into sneakers and looked at ease.
"What do you mean?"
"I'm gonna break out. I can almost see Alaska on the horizon. I left an e-mail on Chuck's computer saying that I wanted to see him first thing on Monday morning. "I'm going to give him a month's notice from then. Do you think that there will be enough time for them to find a replacement?"
"Why didn't you walk over to his office before he left and tell him what you plan to do?"
Bernadette's face tightened. And she bit her lip. Heather was still weary from her last-minute anxiety attack. But, the talons had released from her chest. And in the presence of her uncertain friend, she felt calm and steady. She had always thought of courage as something distant and unobtainable; possessed only by a chosen few. She now realized that it was simply the willingness to act on what you really feel and believe. She looked at her friend, as if to say "come on".
"Well, I don't know," Bernadette responded. "I just thought it might be better to think about it a little bit more over the weekend."
*Disclaimer: All persons, places, events and incidents described in this story are the product of the author's imagination and are entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, places, events and incidents is coincidental.
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