The Omnipresence of Story

Even in a cheese sauce and pudding factory, there is narrative.

Achievement #145 to leave off the résumé: my first job out of college was working for a food company solely concerned with cheese sauces and puddings.

Okay, I suppose that’s unfair. They do make soup on the West Coast, too. I guess we Easterners just can’t handle California’s brand of chicken noodle soup.

It wasn’t all bad, really, just sort of farcical. Every day I spent there was surreal. Time didn’t speed by like I was doing something I cared about, but it wasn’t limping by like I was at Wal-Mart chewing gum to keep myself awake, so every day felt like a little pocket lost in the folds of Father Time’s trench coat. It was a suspense held so long you forgot what you were tense about.

I kept myself occupied. I wrote random story ideas down on Post-It notes from the nearest desk and stuck them on my wall when I came home. I snuck onto computers that had Microsoft Word so I could break from data entry every once in a while to spew out words instead of numbers.

I found stories in the names on the timecards I processed, in the pictures on all of the desks I made my temporary home, and in all of the people I worked with. Every day, I spent a few minutes marveling at the wealth of things to be told even in a cramped office building.

Then I would blink, watch the cursor follow suit, remember the job at hand, and do nothing to repress a heavy sigh.

Though not a job of great merit, it certainly wasn’t any worse than some of my previous endeavors, such as making boxes for deodorants (achievement #89 to leave off the résumé), or display boxes for ceiling tile (#106), or boxes for Three Musketeers bars (#122), or …

Christ, I hate boxes. This job was the best because of its complete and utter lack of boxes. Did you know cardboard cuts hurt even more than paper cuts? You’d think the thickness would keep you safe, but somehow you manage to slice your fingers open on something with the diameter of deli cheese …

Alright.

So picture it: an office job, sans boxes. Across the street and down a major highway lay Advanced Food Products, the Mecca of my paycheck-earning life to date. I walked across the parking lot the first day wiping the sweat from my palms and reflecting on the phone call I had received just yesterday.

I was to be working for the payroll department, and the woman I spoke to sounded, for lack of a better word, hardcore. She told me I would be working from eight in the morning until five at night, and since I was a temp, she supposed, I could take a lunch break.

I wondered, optimistic English major that I am, what kind of person could sit in an office and work with numbers for nine hours a day. Would she wear glasses the size of saucers? Would her skin be pallid from overexposure to artificial light? Would she speak in complex algebraic formulas I had tried my damnedest to forget as soon as I left high school?

Kelly (clever pseudonyms such as this will be used to keep identities safe), who was to become my supervisor and benefactor, was none of those things. Her hair was graying slightly at the roots and she talked to herself at a clearly audible volume, but nonetheless, she was not what I had expected. She introduced me to everyone around the office, and then immediately put me to work.

At first, I was too nervous and preoccupied to give these random faces any amount of thought. During the times I stood waiting to be told what to do or sat numbly eating my lunch, I gathered what I thought an adequate amount of information on most of the weekday cast.

Kelly felt she did more work than anyone else in the office but got almost no credit for it. Jamie felt put upon even by simple requests, probably because she did nothing all day but complain about her husband. Somehow she was still with him.

Bill was the good-cheer guy that said the same things to everyone: “Hey, how are you doing?” “Question for ya!” “Trust me, I know how you feel.” And my favorite, “Have a good one!”

Have a good what, Bill? Day? Weekend? Angioplasty? Horrible gruesome death?

Janice had worked for the company for almost her entire life, and though she retired more than five years ago, she still came in to help at least three days a week. Holly had adopted the office power walk, the type of awkward urgency that involved Olympic fastwalking speed from one desk to another. Even when I was downstairs I could hear her quick footsteps pounding across the ceiling.

She had also adopted the attitude that she was the boss, even though she was somewhat removed from that stature. The actual boss, Tom, was actually quite soft-spoken and mild-mannered. If we had worked for a newspaper and he had worn thick, black-rimmed glasses, I would’ve thought he was Clark Kent.

After scathingly psychoanalyzing my coworkers, those first few weeks were spent in my own little demented head. I developed a theory about how the sound of a person’s laughter betrays the developmental level of their soul. I worried about making mistakes, then decided my problem was that I hadn’t made enough mistakes in my life. I incubated several new ways to screw up my life outside of work.

I swore to God I heard a woman say to Tom, “Yes, I believe I’ve slept with you before.” I constructed a two-act play around that single sentence.

I listened to a half-hour conversation between Kelly and Bill about the desk calendars they should order. They debated paper size, binding, and the pros and cons of an “added-glance” section. I even witnessed Bill whip out a tape measure and compare the lengths of various calendars. I wondered if this was some sort of subtle overcompensation.

All this was very amusing, but like the job, the caricatures I had drawn soon became dull. I started swearing under my breath to shock myself awake.

I thought of how sad and pathetic Kelly’s life must be to stay until seven o’clock almost every night. I thought of how starved for attention Bill must be to accost everyone with innocuous questions. I thought of how desperate Janice must need to belong if she was still here five years after her retirement.

I thought of how my laughter betrayed the underdevelopment of my soul. I thought of what a bastard I was becoming, and the possibility that Bill did want me to have a horrible gruesome death when he told me to “have a good one” at five o’clock.

I walked in late the Thursday of that week, sullen and bitter about being awake at 8:15 in the morning. As usual, Kelly was occupied, so I slipped inside and sunk into Bill’s empty chair.

“It’s still pretty hard,” Kelly was saying in her office. I heard her tapping a pen against the desk. “It’s been almost two years, but it still feels like nothing’s changed. It’s not getting any better.”

I rolled my eyes, yawned at hearing Kelly complain about her job yet again. Poor put-upon Kelly. She’s only human, after all. She can only do so much.

“It’s been almost two years?” A woman from downstairs was talking to her. “I can’t believe he’s been gone that long.”

I blinked once, quickly.

“Yep, two years ago this November.” I pushed myself upright from my slouch and found myself leaning over my side of the desk. “I’m just glad we got married when we did, y’know, because otherwise we wouldn’t have had any time together.”

My heart fell into my stomach, where it was churned around with the remains of breakfast. I gulped down two months’ worth of bile.

“He wanted to get married in December,” Kelly continued, “but I wanted a summer wedding. Always wanted a summer wedding. What good is winter for marriage? So I convinced him to move the marriage up to August … I’m glad I did. I’m grateful for the time I had with him.”

Ladies and gentlemen, displaying the definition of bastard tonight will be: Sean Woznicki.

That’s why her hair is graying at the roots. That’s why she talks to herself. That’s why she stays at work until seven o’clock. I fought to hold back tears. As quietly as I could, I ducked out of the office and downstairs to the bathroom.

I must have stayed in there for close to 20 minutes, berating myself. Even surrounded by all these people, I thought I was the only one with a story. I thought I was the only one capable of having an interesting past and the words to describe it.

Kelly, this middle-aged woman in the payroll department of a company solely concerned with cheese sauce and pudding, had more of a story to tell than I would have ever given her credit for. And so did everyone else.

And so did everyone else — of course! I looked at myself in the mirror, all red-eyed and sniffling. These people were hardly caricatures, they were characters in a Eugene O’Neill play, they were the subjects of novels, they were — they were Kelly and Bill and Janice and … dammit!

I threw the door open and bounded up the stairs in twos, nearly running over the woman exiting Kelly’s office. “Sorry,” I said, backing out of her way.

“Hey, have we met yet?” she asked.

I extended my hand and smiled. “I’m Sean, temporary worker extraordinare.”

The last two months I worked at Advanced Food Products were much more interesting. The job itself continued to bore me, but the people where a source of endless interest and laughter.

I learned Bill was only three years older than me, and he already had a wife and a child. He groaned about having to wake up at 3 a.m. to hold his baby girl, but he smiled whenever he said her name. I learned Jamie had two little girls, and even got to see both of them wander into the office a few days, all straight brown hair, blue eyes and wide smiles, just like their mother.

Mary downstairs was getting married in three months, the amount of time Kelly was thankful to have spent with her husband. Tom always let his phone ring twice to check caller ID, then gave a “Hello, this is Tom Devins” to people he didn’t know, a “Hello, this is Tom” to people he worked with, and a simple “Hey” to his wife and his kids.

And I knew Janice didn’t come back because she missed the job. She came back because she missed the people.

So here I am, a young college kid who thought he knew everything. I will never know everything, even with armies of scholars to help me learn and castles full of people to tell me their stories. But the least I can do is give every person a chance.

Except those bastards who cut me off in traffic.

Achievement #3 to put on résumé: No matter how hard you want things to be simple, they never are. Stories exist everywhere. It’s up to you to hear them, or your life will be one long and lonely soliloquy.

Article © 2001 by Sean Woznicki