Tuesday, April 5, 2011
The Work Hazard
By Sean Kenealy
No one was quite sure what to make of Mary Whemple’s behavior. For the past week she had spent all of her lunch breaks by the entrance of her office building looking up at the sun. Eyes closed, legs spread, still as she could be for the entire forty five minutes of each break, ignoring anyone who walked past her and the overabundance of confused stares. You would have thought she was watching an eclipse. When the occasional coworker did ask Mary what on earth she doing, however, she replied the same to each: “Vitamin D.”
And that was the truth. Mary needed the sun. At least that’s what her doctor told her one week earlier. She was deficient in vitamin D, a work hazard commonly associated with a fulltime office job, or in Mary’s case, a fulltime job that had kept her indoors 45 hours a week for the past 30 years.
“A pill to give you hours of sunlight,” her doctor said.
He wrote out a prescription in the famous illegible text that all doctors have, adding to Mary’s ever growing collection of tablets to fulfill one of her basic bodily needs.
Mary smiled, puffing up her chubby cheeks. Everything about her was puffy. She wondered why her doctor hadn’t just told her to spend time outdoors, go for walks, sunbath, perhaps, but Mary already knew why. At sixty three years old she was simply waiting to die, and everyone knew it. She worked, she ate, and she slept. A chubby, pale old lady who answered every question she could with a timid smile.
Mary returned to her office and filed her prescription in a folder appropriately label personal prescriptions. This was between personal mailings and personal withholdings; with sub folders in each. This was Mary’s life. She worked in human resources for the Sherman Right law firm outside of Dallas, Texas. Mary knew only the commonalities of law, but she did know the ins and outs of retirement. 401K’s, IRA Conversion, Capital Growth, Pensions. Paperwork is where she excelled; all of it geared to helping the employees of Sherman Right plan their retirement, her own included, though Mary gave little thought to that.
“Glad you’re back,” Mary’s boss said. He stood above to her cubicle holding a coffee mug with a picture of a dog on it. His name was Danny, a little man nearly half her age, someone Mary suspected only received his job because he was born into a generation that had an innate understanding of computers that she would never have. Danny wanted to go digital. He was the antithesis of filing.
“Doctor appointment go well?” Danny was nothing but nice to Mary, to everyone for that matter. He had a carefree approach to life that seemed to solve any problem around him in a timely fashion without him looking the least bit stressed. And Mary hated him for it. He was too good at being good, she thought. And if this wasn’t superficial enough to dislike him, there was also his name. Danny? For a grown man? Daniel or Dan would have been acceptable in Mary’s eyes, but Danny was the name of a child, as if he purposely chose it to remind Mary of his eternal youth and her incoming death.
“Well, we’ll talk more later,” Danny said, and he strutted off, not giving Mary the time to respond, a habit of many bosses who attempt to show interest in their employees without having the actual want to do so. In Mary’s case, however, Danny never needed to wait for her answers, because they were always the same: agreeable.
Can you stay late? Yes.
Extra work? Yes. A timid smile for everything.
On the day Mary returned from her doctor’s appointment, however, she wasn’t in the mood for timid smiles. A pill for the sun, she thought. What a silly idea. Arthritis was one thing. Ulcers, too. Both aliments which Mary subscribed to. But a pill for life? No.
And so it started, at 11:59am Mary decided to spend her lunch breaks looking up at the sun.
“What are you doing?” a coworker asked. He was exiting the building and saw Mary standing still with her arms wide: a crucified, lobotomized office worker sunbathing in a cheap woman’s suit.
“It’s my vitamin D,” Mary said.
“I don’t get enough sunlight.” Mary shrugged, as if this simple movement was enough to answer any other questions he may have.
It was the same for the next week. Every day, every lunch, Mary stared at the sun. It was done as an experiment at first, something she assumed she would grow tired of and return to her 30 year habit of eating at her desk. But she was wrong. The sun reenergized her; made her whole. She could feel it lay on her face, her hands, and her wrinkly neck, as if the wind had soft lips that choose to press against her flesh. Mary had felt lightheaded for years, she now knew, and the sun had given her the needed gravity to touch the earth. It didn’t clear her mind. It just made her feel it. It wasn’t coffee. It wasn’t diet coke. It was just life. Mary’s life. Though not everyone saw the positive effects in her newfound lunch activity.
“Looking Tan, Mary,” Danny said. He smiled and sipped his coffee. This mug had a picture of a hedgehog on it. “You know, there’s a park just ten minutes from here. A strip mall, too. Might be a better place to spend your breaks.”
“That would cut into my lunch,” Mary said.
Danny raised an eyebrow and rested his elbow on the partition of her cubicle.
“I have a forty five minute break,” Mary continued. “Taking a ten minute drive to a strip mall or park would cut it in half.” Danny looked at a large filling cabinet at Mary’s side, as if imagining she had printed out the documentation to prove her statement and could reveal it at any moment.
“Well, there’s a bench by the back,” Danny said.
“Those aren’t in the sun.”
“Well, I thought you liked to eat at your desk anyway.” Danny sighed, as if he had exhausted all of his attempts at being nice. “It’s distracting to have you standing by the entrance, Mary. Please just find another place.”
Mary smiled, but there was nothing timid about it. Instead, she showed all her teeth like an aggressive monkey. Danny walked away, less carefree than ever before.
At 12pm Mary didn’t stand at the front entrance like usual. Instead, she moved to the center of the parking lot, submitting to Danny’s orders in her own roundabout way. It all also put her in prime location for every employee at Sherman Right to have a clear view of her. Before, you only saw Mary if you happened to be entering or exiting the building during her 45 minute break. Now everyone with a window saw her. Not to mention anyone parking their car. Each day lawyers, secretaries, and even the custodial staff would peak out of a window and see if Mary was there. And she always was. Noon to 12:45pm became known as the “Whemple break.” Mary knew they were watching, of course. But she didn’t care. For the first time in decades she wasn’t someone just waiting to die. That 45 minute break gave her the time to think: life, friends, love, even retirement, which Mary never thought would actually come. She began going for walks after work. Saw movies, read more. It was safe to say Mary became addicted to the sun, soon rolling up her sleeves and pants, exposing new bits of flesh each day to expose new bits of life. And it was then, two weeks in to Mary’s sunbathing that Danny requested a private meeting with Mary, along with Mr. Sherman Right himself, the company’s owner.
“I tried talking to you Mary, I did,” Danny said. They sat across from Sherman in his large office; all of it seeming to be cut from an expensive oak. “I didn’t want to have to call you here, but I had to.”
Danny turned back and forth between them, directing the harsh part of his sentence to Mary and the pleading part to Sherman.
“What were you thinking, Mary?” Danny asked. “We talked about this and-”
“Enough,” Sherman said. “Let her answer your question.” He smiled. Sherman had a sweet face, large cheeks and soft features. It was a face Mary rarely saw in the office, but was always happy to find. Sherman had hired Mary 30 years ago, his oldest employee. They hardly spoke over the year, but had a quiet bond, one that can only be understood by two people who had grown old with one another. They had seen each other turn grey. They had shared a lifetime of friendly nods and hellos; decades of stares. All the while knowing nothing about each other’s lives. That’s what Sherman and Mary were.
Danny sighed and cleared his throat, causing Mary to look up from her pale hands.
“It’s my vitamin D,” she said.
“Oh,” Danny said. “Vitamin D. Yes, I’ve heard this.” Danny was sweating, regardless of the cool temperature Sherman kept his office at. “We can’t have you standing in the entrance, or in the parking lot, Mary. These aren’t unfair requests.”
Mary turned to Sherman, who was now looking down, hiding his sweet face. He was even older than Mary.
“Not on office property,” Sherman said. And that was all.
Danny smiled, as if finally hearing something that made sense after being subjected to hours of gibberish.
“It’s okay,” Danny said. He leaned in close to her side. “We all have are problems. But that’s what family’s for.”
And Mary began to cry. Her cheeks became puffy and her face bright read. It was the most color either Danny or Sherman had ever seen on her skin. Both men were still, letting howls filled up the oak office whole.
Family is where we go for are problems, Mary thought. Mary had no family. But she did once. At 28 she met a man named Bryan. A shy, skinny man with short curly hair who taught preschool and was an excellent musician. The only job Bryan ever seemed to want, however, was to love Mary. He played the flute, a passion he was always embarrassed of until Mary came along. He played for her every night, often rocking her to sleep with his music. He wrote over 30 songs for Mary; about her face, her body, her mind, and how beautiful he thought she was. Bryan was the first man to ever say Mary was beautiful. And he meant it. They were married at 29. Had a child at 30, a little girl named Deborah, and Mary’s world felt complete. Bryan was a horrible cook, an ongoing joke of their relationship, but over the years became excellent with eggs and pancakes. Breakfast was his unspoken job, which every relationship has. And it was a Saturday morning when Bryan was returning from a grocery store holding eggs, bread, fruit, and two year old Deborah in his skinny arms that a speeding car ran them both over. Their bodies mangled between eggs and leaking orange juice. Mary saw it all from the window of their apartment. After that, Mary never fell in love again. She never listened to the flute again, and she never ate breakfast again. Just two months after the death of Bryan and Deborah, Mary took a job at Sherman Right. She was placed in human resources, retirement, helping employees plan their future so Mary never had to think of her own. She worked, she snacked, and she stopped thinking about life, until one day she was an old lady: overweight, pale, puffy, with arthritis and ulcers. A sixty three year old woman who had spent her life waiting to die. And on top of it all, now she was deficient in vitamin D.
Mary left Sherman’s office and ran down the hall. She bumped into three people, knocked over a stack of papers, and began hyperventilating. It was as if she was underwater and oxygen could only be found in the sunlight. Mary didn’t care if it was time for lunch or not.
Outside, sweating and out of breath, she ran to the center of the parking lot. Everyone was watching from the windows. They sighed. They laughed. They wondered what she would do next. And that’s when Mary tore off her blouse. She threw it to the pavement and laughed like wild. She pulled off her skirt, kicked it to the side, and revealed to the world her pale skin that had been denied of sunlight for over 30 years. Only her bra and white underwear covered her flesh, which she began to take off until something happened that Mary had never expected. It began to rain. Then it began to pour. Clouds covered the sky and the world became dark. Cold and shaking, Mary stared back at her office. She saw dozens of scared face.
Mary then fainted to the sound of thunder, it sounded just like a car crash.
“Glad you're back,” Danny said. “Last week wasn’t the same without you.” He stood above Mary’s cubicle holding a mug with a picture of an elephant on it.
After Mary’s incident, which became known as the “Whemple incident,” she was advised to take a week off from work. She spent all of it in bed.
“You know,” Danny said. “Not sure how you feel about this, but maybe you and I could have lunch together sometime. Would you like that? I’d like that.”
Danny smiled and tapped the partition of her cubicle. Mary did nothing. No timid smile. No aggressive smile. Nothing, and Danny began walking away.
“You didn’t let me answer your questions,” Mary called after him.
“Don’t ask questions if you don’t want people to answer them.” They stared at each other for a moment until Mary returned to her filing.
At 11:55am people began to squirm. Mary’s first day back brought with it numerous questions, the most obvious being would the “Whemple break” live on. At 12:05pm Mary was still at her desk. She took from her purse a frozen pizza and a yogurt you could squeeze from a plastic tube. She stared at the items, and then up to her cabinets. Mary never remembered them being so tall.
Mary walked past the main entrance, past the parking lot, and stood on the side of the road, just a foot outside of the property belonging to Sherman Right. She was so far away that people back inside could only see Mary if they squinted their eyes, which they all did.
“What the hell is she doing,” a coworker asked, standing by a window.
“She’s not on office property,” a woman responded with a smile.
Mary felt the wind from the passing cars splash against her body. She would only have to move a few steps to touch them; only a few feet to end it all. She stared up at the sun, but instead of closing her eyes like she had done so many times before, Mary tried as hard as she could to keep them wide open. She wanted to see what it was that gave her life. Not just feel it, and tears began to stream down her face. When Mary could take no more, she looked back at her office and once again saw dozens of faces in the windows, except now there was something new. Sherman stood at the entrance: a little old man. He slowly walked to her, keeping his eyes straight ahead, only on Mary. Inside, the whispers and stares grew stronger.
It’s funny, Mary thought. For the first time in her life when she was excited to retire, excited for all the possibilities this world could offer, she would be fired. Mary knew only the commonalities of law, but she did know she was acting crazy. She knew she deserved what was coming.
Sherman stood at her side. He was still, looking out at the world with the eyes of a little boy. Mary smiled. Oddly enough, after knowing each other for over 30 years this was the first time she had ever seen him outside. He was as pale as her.
“I’ll stand with you, Mary.” And Sherman slowly took her hand.
That was all. There they remained, hand in hand for another forty minutes until Mary’s lunch break was up. People inside watched every second; you would have thought the entire office shut down. They stared in wonder; they stared for Mary, at two souls who needed nothing in the world but each other's soft touch. In this moment, they didn’t even need the sun.
Posted by Sean Kenealy