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An Online Petition to Save the Redwoods

Part One

In the first of a three-part fiction series, a co-worker exhibits intriguing new qualities, and life at the office gets shaken up.

Charlotte’s underwear: the perfect example of how the most interesting things about a person are the things they don’t let you see. At first there was just Charlotte, the New and Slightly Irritating Person in the Office. This impression was based on her reactions, or lack thereof, as I gave her a tour of the office that first morning.

This is where we keep the staples. This is Roger’s office; he will stop by your desk every day and try to have a conversation with you about the weather. This is the supply closet. If Elaine sees you making frequent trips, she will stop by your desk to investigate how much stuff you are taking. This is the conference room that doesn’t smell like burnt popcorn. This is the bathroom closest to your desk, but you should probably use the one over there instead. Don’t ask.

I was being helpful. I was giving her the inside information, in a way that said: I am going to be on your side through this. If she picked up on it, I couldn’t tell. She just nodded occasionally, looking in the directions I pointed, saying nothing. Clearly not hired for her warm personality. Throughout the entire office tour, she walked slightly behind and to my right, like I was constantly walking too fast for her. Awesome. Boring and annoying. She’ll fit right in.

But then, later, there was Charlotte, the Girl Who Wears Underwear Like That, and I wasn’t sure how to reconcile one with the other.

Charlotte had been hired as my replacement. I started here two years ago, as an admin person: the person who answers the phones, tells visitors where to go, and shows the managers that the paperclips were in fact right on their desk all along, just like you’d told them they were. It was not a mentally taxing job, the pay-to-stress ratio was enough to keep me from looking for a better job, and aside from emailing and instant messaging and reading and commenting on various blogs all day while I was supposedly working, I also (proactively, productively) used the time to teach myself how to make websites. Not hard, turns out.

About a year ago, they realized I wasn’t a complete idiot, that in fact I had skills that might be useful to the organization as a whole. So when someone in marketing left, they let me move into that department. Writing copy, adding and removing things from websites. Then, of course, they needed to hire someone to replace me, and it fell to me to help train that person. Charlotte.

Later that first day was when I noticed her underwear. I happened to walk past her cubicle and see her kneeling down to install a hanging file rack in the bottom drawer of her desk. I actually noticed two things at this time: 1) she was wearing a thong made of some kind of flashy, shiny material, and 2) she seemed to be having quite a lot of difficulty installing the folder rack. In my experience those things are a complete pain to put together and fit into a drawer, but once you do it a few times it starts to make sense. So, did I offer to help Charlotte put hers together? No. I didn’t want her to know I’d been standing behind her, watching her, trying to wrap my head around the quiet mouse girl with the trick underwear. Making my presence known would undoubtedly have caused her to suspect that I had seen something that I was not supposed to be seeing. I just kept walking. I’m sure she eventually figured it out. Almost everyone does.

A few days later, Andrea and I were talking about Charlotte during lunch.

“So, Mark, how do you like her?” Andrea asked.

“Like who?”

“The new girl.”

“She seems nice.”

“You like her?”

“What? I don’t know. She just seems nice. What?”

Andrea rolled her eyes. “She’s on my last nerve.”

“And why is that?”

“Because she’s so freaking Christian.”

“Seriously?”

“Come on. It’s, like, all she talks about. Her faith this and at church this weekend that.”

“Really? I didn’t even notice.”

“You are lucky, or retarded.”

Andrea’s a delight. She works in Accounts Payable, which means she’s preternaturally crabby. More importantly, she’s a Wiccan. If Charlotte had happened to make even one offhand remark about any religion, it could have been construed by Andrea as a declaration of full-on holy war. Hypothetically. I don’t think Andrea is particularly prejudiced; my experience has been that she hates everyone equally. But who knows. She gives me a pass because until Charlotte started, out of 65 people in our office, I was the only other person in her age demographic. So there was a special bond there.

I noticed later, when I was specifically looking for it, that she wore a small cross around her neck, but I figure a survey of the office would have shown that just about everyone wears one. I wasn’t sure I believed Charlotte was a Jesus freak, but you can never tell. Take the woman who lives in the apartment below me, for instance. At first I thought she might be some kind of porn star. Sure, she was elderly, but there was a steady stream of younger men always coming and going from her apartment. Then she cornered me in the foyer one day and invited me to her church, and that was the end of that. She went to the New Hope Daylight Church, which I’ve heard is one of the fastest growing franchises at the moment, right up there with Curves for Women and Quizno’s. Everyone I’ve ever met who went to that church just seems a bit off. When Mrs. Fallon started telling me about how wonderful her church is, and how wonderful it would be if I would come with her next Sunday, her hands started shaking, and I got the impression her life was going to end if I didn’t agree to go. Like if I failed to express interest, it would invalidate her entire understanding of the universe. If that doesn’t make sense to you, maybe you need to have one of those churches in your town, and perhaps an elderly porn-star neighbor who attends, so you might understand what I’m talking about. Anyway, I did not agree to attend, but luckily life continued apace for Mrs. Fallon, and the steady stream of handsome men continued to ebb and flow from her apartment. (Bible study group, turns out.)

But I couldn’t tell if Charlotte was that kind of Jesus freak or not. I noticed later, when I was specifically looking for it, that she wore a small cross around her neck, but I figure a survey of the office would have shown that just about everyone wears one. Either way, Charlotte seemed basically intelligent and capable of performing the tasks required by the job, and that was all I cared about. The phone system can be a bit complicated, but she got it after only a few accidental hang-ups. When someone complained that a toilet in the women’s room had backed up (a thing that happens much more frequently than it ought, and I wonder what gross secrets go on in there), she called facilities without my telling her. What else. She understood how to use a computer. That’s actually a big one, right there. I’m constantly surprised at how often this still trips people up. I once worked with a woman who printed out every email anyone ever sent her. She would print it out, read it (bifocals; holding it up to the light), and then store it in a big filing cabinet behind her desk. I tried to explain to her that, aside from the fact that most inter-office emails aren’t worth hanging on to for a very long time (“Blue Honda in the parking lot with it’s [sic] lights on”), email is sort of already filed and searchable and easily organized on your computer. She would just look at me like I was telling her something she already knew, although clearly she didn’t. No issues like that with Charlotte. Amen. So to speak.

And she never once mentioned anything about religion to me. So I mentioned it to Andrea once, when Charlotte had been working with us for a few weeks.

“You’re sure she’s hard-core Christian?” I asked. “Because normally I can tell. They come on so strong, and always mention that they’re going to be late for something because of choir practice or Bible study.”

“Yes I’m sure. What exactly are you eating?”

“Same thing as yesterday. Well isn’t it weird that she hasn’t mentioned it to me ever? In all the times we’ve chatted, don’t you think it should have come up at least once?”

“Maybe she can tell you’re beyond saving.”

“No one’s beyond saving, that’s the whole point.”

“Unless you’re pure evil.”

“So Charlotte thinks I’m pure evil. I guess that would be the most logical explanation. Seriously, I think it’s weird.”

“I don’t know, who cares. What do you want me to do, ask her about it? I’m not interested in doing anything that could be misconstrued as my taking an active interest in joining her church.”

“Maybe I could bring it up naturally in conversation somehow.”

“I think it’s against the company’s HR policies to bait a Christian in the workplace like that. Just shut up and be happy and thank God that she doesn’t talk about it with you.”

“That’s not the kind of thing you thank God for.”

“Whatever.”

Even though I had been the one to train her and show her the ins and outs of the office, I wasn’t Charlotte’s superior in any way. Her actual boss was Elaine, the office manager, a woman who speaks only in questions and maintains a collection of porcelain dogs dressed up like babies. In her office.

But did she ever once think to ask me if I was ready to accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior? She did not. Unbelievable. Charlotte and I were the lowliest employees in our respective departments, and were about the same age, and neither of us was as crabby as Andrea. By any conceivable measure, it should have been Charlotte and Me versus Everyone Else in the Office. We should have been eating lunch together every day and venting about annoying personalities in the workplace. We should have had codenames for those people, and we should have been using them in rapid-fire emails and IMs, causing each other to have to stifle our laughter so that none of the other employees would wonder what was going on. But I never heard Charlotte badmouth anyone in the office. And we never had lunch together. I eat lunch in the break room just about every day, with Andrea, if she can tolerate people that day. Charlotte either ate at her desk, or out somewhere.

We did talk occasionally. It would be a stretch to call our awkward strings of nouns and verbs conversing, but still. Mainly we talked about matters directly related to work: who gets this kind of mail, where does this person sit, if a person asks me to do [menial office task], is it part of my job? We talked about restaurants a couple of times, I think—which ones we liked or avoided. But did she ever once think to ask me if I was ready to accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior? She did not. Unbelievable.

She seemed like a nice person. Like we should have had more things in common. Like we should have been more than passing acquaintances, at least. Not best friends, but something. Equal participants in a relationship that helped the hours pass more quickly. How about that.

Although, now that I think about it, over the course of my employment at that company, at some point I’ve chatted with everyone who ever worked here, but 99 percent of the time it was only about things that were entirely forgettable, and I basically know nothing about any of their lives outside of work.

But I do know something about people’s lives at work. And one thing I know about office life is that the days are long and there is not enough work to keep you busy all day. How well you fit into an office environment is basically a measure of how clever you are at finding other things to occupy your time and fill up the hours. Some people do this by being extremely chatty. At my last job, I worked with a man who would come over to my desk, apropos of nothing, to give me a description of the things his pet birds had done the night before. And let me tell you, there seemed to be no end to the antics of those birds. I do not own a bird, and I never once asked him about his, so I cannot explain why he felt the need, every day, to walk five (5) desks over and tell me about his. I guess because I listened politely. There’s a lesson there.

Other people take time during the day to work on personal projects. A helpful tip for those of you writing novels and The Great American Poem when you’re supposed to be doing whatever else it is you’re supposed to be doing: Write it in Microsoft Word, on a letterhead template that features your corporate logo at the top. Anyone who walks by and glances over your shoulder, or pops into your cubicle unexpectedly will be completely fooled. You’re just busily composing business correspondence! Good job.

Or, you could look at websites all day. This is the most rewarding and entertaining option, but also the most risky, because it’s the most obviously not-work-related thing you can do. You’re not typing, so your cubicle is suspiciously quiet. And people walking by see splashes of color and interesting fonts racing across your monitor, and in an office, splashes of color and interesting fonts are a bad thing.

A slightly safer thing to do is work on your website. You’re typing a lot, maybe even in text files or Word documents, so it meets the Glancing Passerby Criteria. But you’re also doing something creative and maybe even communicating with people in the outside world, so it feels pretty good. You don’t quite feel like you’ve wasted the day, like you do just reading weblogs all day. You’re contributing constructively to other people’s work-shirking shenanigans. You can feel proud about that.

And that is what I caught Charlotte doing, one day: updating her blog.

I had to talk to her about some copies I needed her to make of a proposal. This was a bad situation. It wasn’t just copies, it was a lot of copies, and they also needed to be sorted and stapled and possibly even folded. It felt weird asking her to do this for me, since only a few months ago it had been my job to do this exact hated task for anyone and everyone who asked. But it was also an excuse to talk to her. So I took my stack of papers and went over to her desk. I’m too quiet of a person. I am just too damn graceful, is the problem. If I were like my coworkers, who cough and slouch and stumble their way from one end of the office to the other, she would have heard me coming. But she didn’t, and I stood there behind her, and saw that she was updating her blog. It was the Blogger interface: I’ve seen it a million times, I’ve used it myself, it’s totally unmistakable. And then my mind was off, reeling. Charlotte has a blog! She’s not a robot! She has feelings and dreams and hopes and desires! Also: Does she write about me?