J-Lynn’s Last Day 5

Karl stepped forward and extended his right hand, J-Lynn accepting it reflexively. She was still processing what this strange, quiet man had said to her as he backed out of his cube, pivoted softly to his right, and walked down the row of cubicles. She watched the top of his gray head skim the top of the cubicle walls, like the back of a mouse scurrying to its corner. Then it paused, dipped down, and disappeared.

Footsteps coming from the other direction prodded her to return to her desk-clearing duty. Wall and desk calendars, photographs of her boyfriend, memorabilia from trips to Las Vegas and Houston — all tossed quickly into the Jim Beam box. She checked the drawers of her mobile file cabinet, confirmed her suspicion that none contained any personal items.

And with the closing of the last drawer, she knew it was over. Anything she cared to take with her was in the Jim Beam box. Foot and a half wide and high, two feet front to long. The end result of almost two years of her effort, captured in a few cubic feet.

J-Lynn looked across the sea of brown-gray cubicles, hoping to see the sight of Karl’s gray head, while knowing she would certainly never see him again. Not that it mattered to her; Karl was, after all, just another unremarkable colleague. She’d met dozens of them in her young career, was certain to meet dozens more in the years to come. And yet, as she picked up her Jim Beam box and headed toward her final exit at Security, she wondered if Karl was really the one moving on that day.

End of “J-Lynn’s Last Day 


J-Lynn’s Last Day 4

Karl stepped into J-Lynn’s cubicle. “Then I am — happy. For you.” His arms hung loosely at the sides of body, as his eyes seemed fixed on the carpet between them. “It always seems like more people leave this company than arrive, but that’s because we’re usually too busy with our work to notice when a new person starts. But when someone leaves — ” he inhaled loudly, sighed — “if it’s a person you’ve enjoyed working with, somebody you looked forward to seeing, who actually had a sense of humor — when they leave, it’s like they’re taking a part of what you liked about your job with them. But they’re moving on to something better, so of course you’re happy for them.” He looked up, and for the first time that she could remember, smiled fully, showing his teeth. “So, good luck.”

Her right hand resting on top of the Jim Beam box, J-Lynn stared back at the soft-spoken man whom she had only occasionally worked with the past year and a half. She had sensed for some time that he’d been attracted to her, just as every middle-aged man in her young career seemed to have been. Karl, though, had always been professional, courteous, kept his urges under control. And now he was here, revealing his feelings as she had one foot out the door.

How to respond? “Thank you” — she had to say that, of course, but couldn’t leave him with just that. “I’m — sure you’ll find someone else to appreciate your jokes.”

Karl frowned. “Or perhaps I’ll learn to tell better jokes.”

J-Lynn’s Last Day 3

“Today — is your last day.” Karl’s voice was terse, like he was telling her something she hadn’t already known, and didn’t want to hear. Which was about as far from the truth as possible — J-Lynn had started re-submitting her resume over a year ago, little more than six months after starting this job, when it had become clear that her supervisor’s voice really was that shrill.

j-Lynn sighed, shrugged her shoulder. “Well, yeah. Like they say, all good things come to an end.” And you eventually wake up from nightmares.

The middle-aged man standing in her cubicle doorway pursed his lips. “But is every ending — the start of another good thing? What do ‘they’ say about that?”

Suddenly feeling uneasy, J-Lynn reached back into the cabinet shelf, took down the last of its contents, putting some into the Jim Beam box, leaving others on what would soon no longer be her desk. Karl often had this effect on her; he was one of the more competent and reliable workers at their office, someone on whose answers you could definitively rely, but those answers were often provided with a jocular half-smile and obtuse language, leaving the impression he was keeping some vital truth in reserve. “Not sure what ‘they’ have to say about that — I’ll be sure to ask next time I see ‘them’.”

“You are — ” Karl cleared his throat — “moving on to something better, right?”

Although she had been asked that question dozens of times in the past week, having it come from Karl was a surprise. Never shy about challenging on matters of fact, he was reluctant to engage in discussions of opinion. Such as whether the new job she was taking — negligible raise, virtually the same responsibilities, a lateral career move if that, her third job with the same title in the last five years — really was something better.

But such doubts on a day like today would be like hoping for rain on one’s wedding. “Of course it is!”

J-Lynn’s Last Day 2

Deciding on a top-down approach, she opened the wide shallow cabinet shelf suspended over her desk.  Medications and canned foods — she checked the expiration dates, saw all were still good, put them in the Jim Beam box. She took out the pens and binder clips and other office supplies and laid them on top of the desk; if they were going to charge her for boxes, they’d most likely confiscate anything that looked like the company’s property. File folders from last year, definitely garbage, she dropped them into the black plastic trash can next to her chair. More meds —

She wasn’t sure the noise behind her was directed towards her, but turned anyway. Standing in the narrow entrance to her cubicle, his left hand resting on the brown partition wall, was Karl, looking exactly the same as he had nearly every day, a blue oxford shirt and khaki pants hanging loosely on his body. He waved an arc in front of his body, his face expressionless.

“Hey, Karl.”

The hand arc-waved in the other direction, as if he were wiping a window. “Hello, J-Lynn.” This surprised her, for Karl had always called her Jennifer. The only other person at the office who didn’t use her preferred name was her supervisor, a caustic woman whose voice whipped everyone’s last name. Malesky!

“I’m just — cleaning out my cube.” J-Lynn looked nervously at the clock. Three-oh-five. What were they going to do, fire her?

Karl raised his gray eyebrows, his grayer moustache twitching. She knew Karl was in his late thirties, but to her he looked at least ten years older. “Leave any for us?”

“Pardon?” She had barely heard him, then remembered what this meant — Karl always lowered his voice when telling a joke.

“I prefer gin myself.” His voice had become even softer, yet noticeably playful. J-Lynn blinked, then let her eyes follow the direction of Karl’s pointed finger, stopping at the box on her desk. JIM BEAM.

“Oh!” Her brain scrambled for an appropriately witty reply. “I was — ” no, she wasn’t inviting him to the party that evening — “well I was planning to have a toast on my way out, but HR confiscated all my goodies when I walked in!”

Karl tilted his head back, smiled a wordless ah.

J-Lynn’s Last Day 1

[Been a while since I’ve undertaken a new story, and today seems as good as any other for a beginning]

Her notes on the Cavendish project sent by email attachment to Sunil, Jennifer Lynn Malesky pushed back from her desk, using enough force to allow the wheels of her chair to roll across the thick plastic mat until it came into light contact with the cardboard carton lying across the back wall of her cubicle. She stood and smiled, pleased with the accuracy of her push.

She reached down and picked up the carton. Seeing the label, JIM BEAM, reminded her of the night before, walking in to the Mulford Street Bar, down the block from her apartment. Didn’t bother to order anything, no sense pretending she actually liked that dump. A round-faced man was wiping down the scratched wood bar, looked up as she approached. “Got any boxes?” The circle-face nodded, left then came back a minute later, holding the empty carton towards her like he was glad to be rid of it. She’d looked past the carton, caught the man’s narrow eyes. “How much?” The man exploded with laughter, spittle landing on her forehead. She then grabbed the carton, offered a quick thanks, turned and hurried out as condescending laughter filled the bar.

JIM BEAM. She dropped the box on her desk and stepped back, as if she’d suddenly seen a bug crawling along its bottom. Another reason to feel good about leaving, for her humiliation at the bar was the direct result of the company policy about garbage; she hadn’t known about the policy until she’d read it on the company portal yesterday, following the link sent in response to her request to Operations for a box. Refuse Policy — yes, they called garbage refuse — Employees are not permitted to remove refuse of any kind from the building. Operations had added a note to the end of their response to her: “You can always bring your own boxes if you’d like, but if you don’t have any we have a large selection of shipping containers available for purchase.”

She hadn’t responded to their offer. 

Location Data: Midland, Hillcrest, and Wolford high schools

Few public schools in Bark Bay’s region have fencing programs. The three schools with which the Bark Bay team competes most frequently are Midland, Hillcrest, and Wolford.

Midland is a large school (graduation classes of over 300) located in the center of the city. The school has had a fencing team nearly as long as the private school Academy, and for decades the two were fierce and even rivals. However, lack of student interest and budgetary constraints have taken a toll on the program, which has not placed a finalist at the state championships in over a decade. Midland’s coach, Pat Williams (a former epee champion at the Academy) now coaches as a volunteer after years of being paid, and makes no attempt to hide his bitterness and cynicism over the decline of his team and their sport.

Hillcrest is a suburban school just outside the city limits. The school had a volunteer fencing coach for several years before losing him to a private school in California last year. The remaining fencers who decided to stick with the sport now manage the team, and have approach Coach Pat at Midland (their arch rivals in all other sports) for coaching.

Wolford, like Bark Bay, is a rural school an hour from the city. Located reasonably close to the State university, Wolford students interested in fencing (the school has never had a fencing program) train with the State team.

Location Data: The Academy

Located just north of the city and ninety minutes from Bark Bay, the Academy is a world-renowned private secondary and prepatory school. Founded in 1769 as a seminary, the Academy has graduated two future Vice Presidents, a dozen United States senators, scores of successful professionals, even a few notable professional athletes and entertainers.

The campus consists of mostly brick ivy-covered buildings, which look as old as they really are on the outside yet are also host to modern technology on the inside. Large verdant fields, gently rolling hills, and enormous sentinel oak trees are all around.

In addition to traditional academic subjects, the Academy’s curriculum requires studies in music and athletics. And while fencing is just one of many sports at the Academy, it’s one of the most prominent. While fencing has largely vanished from most public (and even some private) secondary schools in the region, the Academy’s fencing program has remained vibrant and competitive (and very well-funded), with a long tradition of championships at state tournaments.

The Bark Bay fencing team has an uneasy relationship with the Academy team. Annie has a brother who attends the Academy, and she has befriended several fencers through her association with him. (That her family only sends sons to the Academy, with daughters going to public schools, has not been an issue for Annie — yet.) And while Academy fencers have welcomed the Bark Bay team, they are never seen as equals.

Location Data: The City

Located an hour’s drive north of Bark Bay, the state’s fifth-largest city serves as the financial, industrial, and cultural center for the entire region. Commonly referred to as the city by the region’s residents, the city has a population of just under one hundred thousand, with an extended metropolitan population of half a million.

The city was no larger than Bark Bay until the lumber boom passed in the early nineteenth century. Railroads soon came to the region, and when the primary commercial track was laid through the city and far from Bark Bay, the future of both was sealed — the city soon became the principal transportation and financial hub for the region, and Bark Bay began its steady population decline.

Industry (textile, paper) and finance soon replaced agriculture as the principal activities in the city. Its strong financial infrastructure eased the economic transitions of industries coming and leaving. In the early twentieth century, several cultural institutions were established — museums, theaters, athletic stadiums — with many of them surviving to the current day, if not nearly in the condition they once enjoyed. Immigration also began in earnest in the early 1900s, and within decades several ethnic neighborhood communities were established, and have also continued.

But the city isn’t immune to American urban problems. Violence and crime seem incurable; a persistent economic stagnation has decreased tax revenues, leading to a reduction in city services. The streets are often unclean, electric service sometimes unreliable. Schools, never a strength of the city, have declined notably.

Young people in Bark Bay regularly visit the city for shopping, entertainment, and activity. The city gives them a taste of what life could be like outside their little world. The city is busy, dirty, occassionally violent — but most importantly, it is not Bark Bay.  

The Minutes

[Didn’t occur to me what day it was until I was sitting in the hot tub at my town’s community center this morning. The tub’s lengthy list of rules, along with recommendations for maximum amount of time, will serve as this month’s inspiration.]

She was easy-going by nature, but could not help showing displeasure at the end of a long checkout line, or waiting for a colleague to return from lunch, or while on hold with tech support. If told delivery of her order would take months, she would sigh and move on; or her team would be days late on their deliverable, she would look for ways to help with their tasks; that her car wouldn’t be ready for another couple hours, she would question but not complain. Months, days, hours were easy for her to accept, but the immediate aggravation of the minutes was nothing she could accept gladly.

Location Data: The Cafeteria

Every Tuesday from 3 to 5 PM, the Bark Bay High School fencing team holds its practice in the school cafeteria.

The rectangular room is 60 feet long (north to south) and 75 feet wide (east to west). Its primary entrance is a pair of large metal doors on the southern end of the western wall; along the remaining length of the west wall are four deep alcoves which hold the cafeteria’s roll-up benches and tables. The northern wall is only three feet tall and is actually the front of a small stage where some student assemblies and plays are performed. Along the bottom of the eastern wall are foot-tall radiators encased in black metal, vents running along the top; glass windows run up from these heating units to the top of the wall. The southern wall has two large rectangular bays leading to the kitchen; during fencing practice, these bays are closed with metal sliding doors.

The cafeteria’s floor makes it ideal for the fencing team. Tiled mostly in black, the center of the floor features fifteen rectangular areas of white tile, used to arrange the benches and tables for lunch. Each of these white tiled areas are six tiles wide and twenty long (each tile exactly a foot square), with three black tiles separating each white rectangle. Each of these white areas is approximately half the length and a little more than the full width of a regulation fencing strip; two white areas linked together with their narrow ends facing the other (and separated by three feet, the approximate distance of the en-garde lines) provides the Bark Bay fencing team with up to three makeshift strips for each practice.

Yet there are aspects of the cafeteria that make it less than ideal for conducting a fencing practice. Lighting is generally poor; banks of fluorescent lights hang from the high ceiling and buzz constantly, as if in duress, with at least one bank flickering yet refusing to die. The floor’s surface is dusty, and often littered with spills and trash from the day’s lunch; the occasional cockroach or rat interrupts practice. Pungent odors from the day’s meal, along with an underlying scent of marinara sauce, penetrate the air.