Sunday, February 26, 2006

HER ANGER: A short true story


Peekaboo
Originally uploaded by macwagen.

Her anger was like 30 days of bad weather, no sun in sight. Harnessed, it would have sent any number of freight trains slashing through the night. But as it was, the only thing it drove was her. And occasionally those she supervised.

She was always the first to arrive at work. A "captain", she took her job as seriously as a wartime general. If we had to come in at five for an early breakfast, she was there by four, hunched down in the depressing employee area near the dumpster, sucking on a cigarette and a tall French vanilla from Dunkin Donuts.

"Better punch in," she'd say, consulting her watch. "We've got to get that coffee break out by six."

Hesitate for a minute, pause to check your hair as you slung your jacket on a hook, or wonder if anyone had made coffee, and you'd jumpstart her dormant anger.

"Listen, you've got a good job here. You make fucking good money. You might not care if our customers get their coffee on time, but I do."

There was no way to deal with anger like this, but to follow it from a safe distance. And hope it didn't singe you too much in the process.

Her skin was as white and thin as the tissuey paper they used in old typewriters; she was missing teeth, and her upper arms flapped when she walked--or rather charged. I can see her now, head down and pushed forward, entering the dining room like a battlefield. Her musket shot words, silencing every objection a co-worker might make. Kaboom. She must have been in her late fifties, but she could stack more dinners on a tray and carry them, work longer hours without rest than anyone I've ever known.

In many ways, I admired her. Even liked her. Though she bullied and nitpicked, she was the first to tell you to go home if you had a sick child. Go ahead--get the fuck out of here! she'd say with a wave of her flappy arm. Then off she'd charge, ready to take on your work and hers. No problem.

And when a stray cat birthed kittens outside the dumpster, she railed at us about taking one home. "They're ours. It's our responsibility," she said, illogically passionate. "We're a family here, or we're nothing."

"Maybe we should call the MSPCA," a co-worker suggested sheepishly, setting off our general.

She raged into the back room and came back with a crate, which she thumped on the floor. "If you people don't care then, I'll take them," she said. "All of them."

And she did.

Illogical passion seemed to keep her motor humming, along with the anger. She cared more about the hotel where we worked than the invisible corporation that owned it ever did. A tablecloth that was slightly askew, a glass insufficiently iced, or a table set in the improper sequence--bread plate first, set precisely between each chair--could bring on a violent upbraiding about what a good job we had, how much fucking money we made.

Rumor had it that she was excessively generous with the people in her life. She was frequently carless because one of her kids had borrowed hers. She'd lost the home she worked for and lived in a rented house, full of her adult kids and their friends. Though she hollered at us for the slightest infractions, she never said much to them when they kept her up all night with their parties. Even when she had to be at work by four a.m.

But a train run on rage and cigarettes can only go so far. First her knees went, then like several of my former heavy smoking co-workers, she developed lung disease. She left work one day, and never came back. We didn't hear from her either, despite her frequent assertions that we were a family. And the place where she had slaved and raged and bullied her co-workers toward some wacky vision of perfection, ran pretty much the same as it always had.

36 comments:

floots said...

it's strange how people pass through our lives
(and we through theirs)
then simply cease to be
whether they die
morph
or were bigger in our minds
is hard to say
but
(like this one)
their stories are more than real

thank you

marja-leena said...

Oh, poor womand , so much anger as a coverup for a ned for love, that she pushed away! Great human story, Patry, drawing on all the emotions.

Patry Francis said...

floots: thank you for your comment which has the shape and elegance of a poem. And yes, it's strange--how people who have so much influence over our hours and our days at certain times in our lives simply disappear--like a test, passed or failed.

marja-leena: what a deeply compassionate response. Thank you.

daisy said...

Well there's a moral for you...but a good one or a bad one?

Patry Francis said...

daisy: morals only come in the good variety, don't they? It's just that some are revealed in light, others in shadow. I hesitate to say there's a moral here because it's about a life--and lives are usually too complex to yield a simple moral. But if this flash characterization has a moral, it would be a shadow moral; and it would be something like this: You can learn something about yourself, and about life from everyone you encounter--even if the lesson feels unpleasant at the time. Maybe especially so.

MB said...

This is such a poignant story. I've known people like this, tough and prickly, with a good core they hardly every let anyone see... and certainly not touch. Sad that it's so hard for some to let themselves be loved.

Rexroth's Daughter said...

What a well-drawn portrait of a life toughly lived, Patry. I probably pass someone like her in the aisles of all the supermarkets I've ever been in. Her prickliness like an armor that keeps us from knowing almost anything else about her.

Patry Francis said...

mb: It's amazing to me that both you and marja-leena saw something that I did not--the desperate desire for love, and her adamant refusal to accept it. Of course, of course.

r.d.: What amazed me was the effort and passion she brought to everything she did, but in many ways it was a negative passion...and in the end, yes, you have that bitter person you pass in the supermarket.

Dave said...

A desperate desire to love and be loved, yes, but also perhaps the need to find perfection in an artificial family, since her real one was so fucked up?

Thanks for this very vivid portrait.

kate said...

oh wow . . . I have both worked for her and been her at different times in my life . . . so heartbreaking to read this story of yours . . . I wonder if in her own way she was happy, if she enjoyed the chaos and mayhem of watching others slam dance through life . . . wow . . .

Perfect Virgo said...

A very different style Patry, gritty and earthy. I liked the reality in this. You made the point beautifully, regardless of how much effort we put in none of us is indispensable.

Even a seemingly valuable stalwart can leave abruptly yet the world will keep turning. Poignant.

Amishlaw said...

What a wonderful story, Patry. It rings true -- probably because it is. You have a wonderful talent

Fred Garber said...

Hey Patry! That lady reminded me of a coworker who was killed while driving home in November. Hit a patch of ice, flipped into the other lane and was hit by a semi.....A good part of your story fit her exactly....hotel workers do need a break....and a good union http://www.unitehere.org/

Lorna said...

short, true and haunting.

adagio said...

found your blog recently. your writing style is very engaging.

*why is it we assume everyone is looking for love? maybe they are. maybe they aren't. i believe some individuals are simply better at feeding themselves. having said that, i would not like to hazard a guess at your co-worker's ability to do so.

cheers!
adagio (nz)

dog1net said...

Patry,
I love the emotive quality of this story. Your first paragraph really bites into the raw emotions that come into play when we try so hard to keep others at a distance. Sometimes we're so afraid of being hurt that we forget what it is like to live. Poignant and well told.
Scot

Melly said...

oh gosh, Patry, are you sure we haven't met in real life? :)
That's so me. I'm such a nitpicker. But at home and with my writing. As for work, I've learnt long ago to have zero allegiance to any work place for they have none for me no matter what they say.

rdl said...

What a character! I know i've worked with some of those in my day, but i've succesfully blocked them, uhoh they're sufacing.

Sky said...

Wow. Very interesting glimpse into the human experience. Perfectionism and obesessiveness can bring about these manisfestations of behavior, especially when someone believes others don't share the same drive. There was a strange dichotomy, her feelings about a work "family" and staff feeling disconnected from anything but the task at hand. Interestingly, neither side felt emotionally safe with the other.

I wonder if she would have defended staff if anyone else had attacked them. I have a hunch she would have. (Family)

Marilyn said...

This woman reminded me of some of the people Ehrenreich wrote about in "Nickel and Dimed" (and I mean that in a good way). This feisty old broad was right about your group being "a family"...aren't all work situations ultimately that? With all the accompanying dysfunction and role-playing? (At least that's been my experience.) I love stories like these...lives like these. We (as a society) so quickly dismiss people like this with hardly a glance unless circumstances cause us to inter-tangle with them. This isn't going to sound right, but my brother 'collects' people like this; he intentionally populates his life with people like this. It's always a lesson for me...that he takes the time to find everyone's humanity.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

A terrific character sketch, and in the last paragraph it becomes more: an invitation to meditate on the intertwined meanings of family, friendship, and workplace.

zhoen said...

I know her. Gods I know her. The rules, some of them purely internal to herself, are exactly and completely what matter. Then she doesn't understand why the world don't work. Such a painfully false life, without insight, without genuine compassion - although she does try with too much force to create it, make it happen.

So sad, so frustrating.

Dale said...

Wait a minute... did you write another piece about her a long time ago? About feeding the cats when she was sick? And there was an alley in it. It's not just that I recognize the character, I recognize the narration, somehow. It's (obviously) a piece that stuck with me.

Jean said...

Yes, I remembered the earlier piece too. Yes, for the same reason.

Patry Francis said...

Posted responses to all these comments, but they don't seem to have showed up. V. frustrating, but at least, I want you to know, I read, enjoyed, and reacted to everything you said.

Mary said...

Wow! I feel such a mixture of emotions reading this. Real sadness, fear - I find angry people like this frightening, and also - and I hate to say it - but I can see a bit of me in her on occasions... thankfully not always and it doesn't (I think) dominate my personality in that way. Powerful, Patry.

Cate said...

I loved this. I've spent the last five minutes trying to put my impressions into words, and I just can't. I simply loved this.

David said...

long time no see, patry, how are you ?

leslee said...

Great portrait, Patsy. People are complex and fascinating. And then suddenly they're gone, either from your life or from their own. Sad in a way, but that's life, no?Maybe this is corny, but it reminds me of finding some intricate wildflower - all the complicated structures grow and develop and then it's gone. But at least you took the time to notice, observe and record, like an artist. You've made her indelible.

Carmen said...

I love the last line of this -- as if she didn't make a mark, but obviously did. A haunting portrait. And the best use of "flappy" I've seen. Thanks!

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