It wasn’t a total surprise. When Cindy arrived to work Tuesday morning, she expected reprisals. No one just gets yelled by a supervisor, leaves work to go shopping, and expects business as usual. But Cindy didn’t think she would arrive to this. The government tended to operate on glacial time frames; Cindy had assumed that several months or more would have to pass before all the paperwork could circulate through all the right bureaucratic channels and collect all the right signatures.
This? Cindy didn’t expect this.
Cindy’s cubicle looked thoroughly sterilized. All the paper stacks, the loose, half-processed forms, the endless pens and pencils, the forest of sticky notes—all the detritus of her years of work—it was all gone. All that remained was a small cardboard box with what might have been her personal belongings: a scarf (another gift from her dad) she thought she’d lost years ago, a pretty plastic container that fit over the government-issue tissue box (the tissues themselves helpfully removed), a gag dancing-flowers toy (they swayed to the music) given to her by her officemates on some past birthday, and a heavy aluminum fork and a real knife she had brought from home (she hated eating with plastic). That was it. The totality of personalization from Cindy’s work life on the fourth floor of C.O.F.E.
She picked up the box of her personal possessions, so carefully packed for her, and walked over to the elevator. She needed to check in with HR. She might have been demoted, but she couldn’t have been fired. Cindy knew her union rights. No one got fired from a government job. No one.
Cindy was still wearing the purple t-shirt and the stretchy black skirt, the only clothes she could squeeze into. So she stood out. But instead of staring at the little splash of color, people turned away as soon as they saw her. Everyone was wary of interacting with a potentially dangerous, career-damaging source. Cindy felt positively radioactive.
So she held her head high and purposely tried to catch people’s eyes—to make them squirm. The poor man from Actuarial who didn’t recognize Cindy right away—poor eyesight—almost fell over himself trying to get out of her way. Cindy would have found it funny, but she had just lost her job.
They made her sit in the waiting room for several hours prior to seeing her. Cindy was hungry and thirsty by then, but hunger and thirst had now acquired a new meaning. Cindy was almost giddy at the thought of losing weight. It was yet another act of rebellion against the system.
“I’m not sure what you expected, Ms. Rella,” a pleasant pear-shaped woman from HR was telling her. “Mr. Perrault told us that you’ve been a problem for several months now.”
“Several months? Is that what he told you?” Cindy was incredulous. All the extra work she’d been doing…
“He said you’ve been very unhappy with your work.”
The woman gave Cindy the you-are-proving-my-point look and went on: “And, most egregiously, Mr. Perrault showed us evidence of your tampering with the requisitions order for the F.A.T.O.F.F. papers. That’s a very serious offense, Ms. Rella. Very serious.” The woman was trying to look stern and threatening, but she just didn’t have it in her. Cindy wondered why they had chosen this woman to talk with her. Which office lottery did this poor woman lose?
“Look,” Cindy said in her most domineering voice. “I might have lost my position as a third-level clerk, but I know my rights. You can’t fire me.” She made the last sentence snap like a whip; she could be a bitch if she wanted to.
The pleasant little woman cowered, trying to fold herself into her own fat and into her seat. Cindy almost felt sorry for her. Almost.
“Of course you’re not fired, Ms. Rella,” she squeaked.
“Good. I’m glad we understand each other. So, how low did Mr. Perrault manage to demote me?”
“I… I’m not sure.” The woman was beginning to lose her composure completely. She shuffled some papers, but her hands shook and she dropped a few pages.
Cindy picked them up. They were a transfer assignment to the mail room. Cindy laughed.
The woman cringed and looked around for help. But the other people in HR pointedly avoided paying any attention to either of them.
Cindy couldn’t stop laughing. Mail room! That was just too perfect. Cindy and Jacob had brainstormed last night about how to reduce Cindy’s workload. What she was being asked to do was just not doable, not if she wanted to learn how to eat better and squeeze a bit of exercise into her daily routine. And Jacob had told her that working in the mail room was the perfect camouflage for him. It was difficult for the authorities to track his eating habits since he moved around so much, and with all the deliveries, Jacob was exercising right on the job—lifting weights, running up flights of stairs, walking. In fact, Jacob said that being an office delivery man had changed his life. He would never have been able to accomplish so much so fast if he’d had a desk job.
The pear-shaped woman was getting panicky now; she looked ready to bolt at any moment. Cindy made herself take a deep breath and control her mirth.
“I’m so sorry, Miss. It has been a very difficult couple of days for me. My dad died. And now this. I’m just having a bit of problem with my emotional stability.”
Her explanation worked. Fear and anxiety were apparently something this woman could very easily understand and relate to. She must have recognized Cindy’s behavior as hysteria because she quickly relaxed back into professional mode. “Of course, Ms. Rella. I understand perfectly. I’m sure the death of your father was a terrible shock.” She was practically dripping with syrupy sweetness now.
Cindy’s thoughts flashed on pear jam, and she shook her head. “I’m glad you understand. Of course, the work in the mail room—”
“Oh, I’m sure that’s just temporary, Ms. Rella. Temporary,” the woman repeated. She was practically radiating relief.
“I take full responsibility. And I will work in the mail room. It’s a fair assignment,” Cindy said.
“Good. Very good.” The woman sat up straighter and tidied up her paperwork. “Here.” She pushed the papers over to Cindy—the same papers Cindy had just handed back to her. “Sign here, and here, and here. And would you be able to start tomorrow, Ms. Rella?”
“But of course. I will need a new uniform?”
“Of course! Here are the papers. Just fill these out and walk over to Requisitions. I’m sure we’ll be able to accommodate you right away.” The woman clearly couldn’t wait to get rid of Cindy.
Cindy tried to look somber and even a little weepy as she filled out the several copies of uniform requisitions forms, but the manic smile kept creeping back to her lips. Cindy was sure the HR pear-woman thought she was crazy.
At the end of the day, Cindy walked out of the C.O.F.E. building with a new job assignment and several new sets of mail room uniforms. Her life had truly changed. Hopefully for the better.