Over forty years with Incle Corp, forty years and how many millions of dollars, and they’ve put together an employee potluck, bought a big box sheet cake, dollar store decorations, and there’s a cardstock achievement printout that I know Karla (“with a K!”) in HR has printed from her own computer. It’s unbelievable. I’m not even sure which is more unbelievable that it’s happening or that I’m forcing myself to smile as though it’s all okay. Which it is, really, everyone retires at some point, but it’s also not okay at all. Forty years for a potluck and a sheet cake?
I’m doing that breathing thing Karla is always going on about, “you have to breathe in deeply, count to four, then exhale for a count of eight. It really helps if you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Do it with me now. Good! You’ve got it!” And I do have it, the breathing thing, but it’s not helping. It never helps. Either she’s full of shit, and I’d put my money on it, or I’m doing it wrong, and how do you breathe wrong? Impossible.
But I can get through this. Keep the fake smile on, I can let it go if I’m eating or drinking, thank goodness I brought my own pop for lunch because they’ve neglected to include drinks on the potluck sign up sheet and I can see right about now that everyone is very much aware of this oversight. There’s Jim whispering to Bob in the corner and their both smiling. You know they’re wishing drinks had been included, they would have brought whiskey and pretended it was no big deal. I wish they had.
Oh geez, now Karla’s talking and smiling and gesturing, something about everyone knowing how much I’ve meant to the company blah blah blah. What’s this? What’s happening? Everyone’s staring at me. What did Karla just say?
“I’m sorry, dear, what did you say?” I ask. It helps to call them dear, the younger ones, they think it’s endearing. Sure enough I see her face loosen a bit, she’s probably reminding herself that I’m old, delicate. Ha!
“I asked if you’d like to think back on your years here at Incle and share with us your thoughts?”
She’s smiling. I know she thinks I’ll have nothing but positive things to say, because that’s me, always positive. Always trying to keep the company on track despite the way it’s being mismanaged, despite the way it’s all gone to pot the last ten years after Mr. LeBouche, Sr. died and Junior took over. Junior. That’s his name. Mr. LeBouche, Sr. never would have named him Junior but what do you do when it’s your wife’s dying wish? You have to go through with it, right? Ridiculous.
“Well, I remember when I first started here, I was hired on by Mr. LeBouche, Sr. himself. There weren’t but a handful of people here then, we all started together, see. They’re gone now, those first few, except me,” I say, trying to keep things light, forcing that smile even as I see their eyes starting to glaze over. Jim isn’t even pretending to listen, the bastard and I can’t help myself. I really can’t. Before I know it I’m telling the truth, “when it all started we were about customer service and proactive selling and positive customer interactions but that’s obviously not the focus any longer. I’m surprised I made it to retirement at all, really. One after the other I’ve watched as my longest term customers have made their excuses and walked away, watched even as they offered me a job with their company so I could work somewhere reputable.”
I can see the panic on Karla’s face. It started as a cocking of the head as she thought surely I was going to tell a joke, maybe rib Junior, who hasn’t bothered to show up, the pompous little twerp. But now she knows. Now she can see what’s coming, I think there must be a glint in my eye or a set to my jaw, because she’s just assumed the face she wears when she tells me to breathe. I should stop, I should laugh or find a way to make it seem like I’m not entirely serious, like I’m not embarrassed to be retiring from this joke of a company. But I guess she’ll have to find a way to stop me cause I can’t seem to stop myself, the words just keep tumbling out.
And that’s when the glaze in Jim’s eyes evaporates, he even shakes his head, his eyes wider than I’ve ever seen them, although that may have more to do with the lack of alcohol available than anything I’m saying. The next thing I know he and Bob are laughing loudly and walking towards me enveloping me in a hug, which is outrageous by the way, and now I can see, they’re embarrassed for me. I’ve just embarrassed myself in front of these people.
The next thing I know I’m being escorted politely to my desk, my box of knick knacks carried for me by the sweetest little gal who’s only been answering the phones here for a week and she’s saying something about how she wishes she’d started sooner to have more time to “get to know” me. And now we’re out at my car and she’s put the box gently on my passenger seat and she’s hugging me before returning to work and I do the only thing I can think to, which is to get into the drivers seat and start the car.
It’s a good idea to sit for a few minutes and let the engine warm up, not just put her in gear and go tearing off like these people do nowadays. So I’m sitting there waiting for all the lights to come on and go off again, for the engine to settle into that sound it makes when it’s got itself situated and I realize, I didn’t embarrass myself at all. There was nothing embarrassing about what I said except maybe for the fact that I said it. It’s not me that embarrassed myself, it’s those people. Those people are embarrassed because they still have to work there, while I’m free to leave. It’s their own sense of regret and guilt and fear that I was exposing and that they have to live with.
There’s a knock at my window that makes me jump, and when I turn to see who it is I’m genuinely surprised to see Jim. I roll down the window, a question in my eyes, and he blurts out, “Bob and me are going to the Wayback after work if you’d like to join us? We’d like to buy you a drink.”
I’m astounded. Not once in forty plus years has a coworker invited me out for a drink, and certainly not to some garbage hole in the wall like the Wayback, all forty year old women in tight jeans hoping for a second chance and pot bellied old drunks willing to give em something for their efforts. So I’m surprised when I hear myself saying, “why Jim, that’s so kind. I’d love to.”