By Alison Buckholtz
I forgot their names immediately after they fired me, so I’ll just call them Dick and Jane. He was a shaggy cowboy; she was a wannabe New Yorker editor with big hair and cheap glasses. They were married to each other, and I, very single at age 22, was secretly comforted that the universe in all of its wisdom could find matches even for these strange specimens. But that’s where any positive feelings ended.
It was 1992. I had answered a vaguely-worded ad for an editor, placed in the local paper. I had just received my M.A. in English at the nearby university and wanted to stick around. I liked the house I shared with five other grad students, a ramshackle mansion close both to campus and to the main street that made up “town.” My roommates were toiling away at Ph.Ds in English literature, each unhappy in their own special way: one girl ate too much; one cried all the time; one refused to emerge from her room, even on Sunday mornings, without full make-up. The least miserable girl among us, who was brilliant, looked like Morticia Addams and never spoke. We rarely saw our male roommate, a farm-bred Fabio, who brought a steady stream of bespectacled beauties up to his room and locked the door.
It was one of the most optimistic times of my life because I knew that deciding not to pursue my Ph.D.—to stop with an M.A. and earn money doing what I loved, which was working with words—was the right path for me. I didn’t feel superior to my friends, but I did enjoy having somewhere to go at 8 in the morning, and being able to come home at 5 or 6 and do whatever I wanted. During grad school, I spent every evening in my library carrel, positioned near a narrow window where I could watch undergraduates with time on their hands playing Frisbee and having picnics. Not to be chained to that spot, looking on as others lived their lives, was my spiritual salary.
My real salary was another issue altogether. My parents had generously paid for school, but I was clearly on my own now, financially, which was fine by me. This editorial job paid just enough to get by, if I kept the babysitting gigs that had kept me afloat as I worked through the Victorian canon. The only real problem with the job was that I wasn’t really sure what the place did. It called itself something along the lines of Herbal Healing, Inc., and I was tasked with writing the monthly newsletter.
Dick and Jane, who owned the company, said they wanted a “real” writer to get their newsletter to a new audience, and they gave me my own office. I sat across from a large room full of young women—younger than me—who had had babies in high school and needed to make a living. They sat in front of computer terminals all day, sifting through enormous piles of mail from people ordering some kind of cancer-killing pill or powder. I was still very unclear on all of that. All I knew was that my new colleagues typed names and check numbers into a database all day. They were friendly, but for some reason they all hated the single-serve pull-top cartons of Dannon yogurt I brought in, so eventually I just started eating lunch alone at my desk.
So here’s a typical day: Dick brought me hand-written letters from people who had been sick, then taken certain pills and healed themselves, and I wrote “human-interest stories” for the newsletter based on these testimonials. Jane stayed in her office. The girls across the hall entered data for 50 minutes at a time, then smoked outside for 10 minutes.
The only problem, as I saw it, was my mom. She’d warned me against taking the job from the moment she heard about it. We fought bitterly. She said the place practiced sham science, and that I’d be throwing my education away. But I suspected that what she really wanted was for me to be closer to home, and that my staying away was a terrible disappointment to her. There were harsh words and lots of tears, but I was determined to make my own way on my own salary in my own city. We stopped talking on the phone for a while. But then, on my first day at my new desk, a florist came to the office to deliver a dozen roses. They were from my mom. The card wished me good luck and lots of love.
When I accompanied the other girls on their smoke breaks, they told me things that made me nervous, like how most of the people who sent checks were very old and dying soon, so you had to be sure to get their money first before you shipped them the pills or powders. In the university library at night, I started reading up on the cancer cures I was writing about, and each one was quickly and easily disproven. I asked the law librarians where I could find information about how the company had registered itself. With each new, discouraging discovery, I felt a little sicker. I mentioned it to one of the girls during her smoke break the next day. She didn’t acknowledge anything, but I saw her talking to her supervisor later. I thought that was a good sign. These girls hadn’t had the time to do the kind of research I was doing, but they deserved to know if Dick and Jane were running a scam.
I resolved to plow ahead. I had to prove to my mom that I was right to take the position, even if, in the end, I exposed the place as a fraud. I’d be a different kind of superhero then, but still a superhero. Dick told me how well I was doing, so I knew I had more time to gather the evidence. The newsletter stories I was writing were reaching so many new people that Jane, on her one visit to my desk, told me that they’d be hiring a marketing director. He or she would share the office with me, and the interviews would start the next day. Would I mind if the interviewees asked me any questions?
I was flattered as the prospective candidates, who all looked like young Willy Lomans, filed through the office; I looked forward to having a colleague. Two days later, the smoke-break girl and her supervisor came to my desk and pulled up chairs. Only the supervisor spoke. Although I liked her because she was more of a mom type than the others, she was the most revolted by my yogurt of all of them; she only ate orange peanut-butter crackers from the vending machine.
“Dick and Jane want me to let you know that they’ve hired someone for the marketing job, and this person will also take over all of the writing,” she said. She had lost a lot of weight fairly recently, and the loose folds of her stomach rested on her lap like the softest pillow. No wonder she seemed so maternal.
“They have also asked me to tell you that we no longer need your services. I’m here to ask you to gather your belongings from your desk. I’ll stay in here while you do that. Smoke-break girl and I will escort you out.”
It dawned on me that they had interviewed my replacement right in front of me. The rest is a blur. I didn’t have much there so it didn’t take long: pencils and pens, a notebook, the card from my mom’s flowers, sending her love in another person’s cursive. I put it all in my purse as I was monitored. The supervisor hugged me, and I hugged her lap-pillow back, but it wasn’t very comforting.
I arrived back home around lunchtime. Although I’d only been working for about three weeks, an empty afternoon had already become foreign. Only Morticia was around, so we didn’t speak and I didn’t have to explain anything. I lay on my old mattress on the floor, a mattress that came with the house, and spent the rest of the afternoon sobbing. That night, I called my mom, who was immediately outraged on my behalf. It was a lot of variations on “How dare THEY fire YOU,” and by the end of the conversation she vowed to call her lawyer friend so we could sue them for wrongful discharge. I was too sad to be part of that “we” in any meaningful way, but I went along with it because I was just relieved to be a “we” again.
I went along with it as I packed up my room, faxed resumes and cover letters, and planned to move to Boston to live with my best friend from college. I went along with it as I accepted an entry-level job at a prestigious publishing house in the Boston area. I went along with it as I saved my money, living with my best friend and her parents, whose kindness launched me back into a life of work.
One afternoon, my mom called me at my new office to tell me that the suit against my former employers, which I was sure was dead on arrival, had succeeded. There would be a certified check coming in the mail. It wasn’t as much as “we” asked for, but it was still significant. Mom thought I should use it to buy a really good mattress and bed frame.
So I did. Twenty-one years, six moves, and five fulfilling jobs later, one of my kids now sleeps on that same mattress. Clearly, mom was right.
Alison Buckholtz is the author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin paperback, May 2013). She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications. She lives in the Washington, DC area.
Photo credit: Victoria Restrepo