Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Truck Days

I wrote the story below back in 2002, when I was pining for a way to quit an assistant professorship I loathed, without having to actually take the initiative to do so. (I'm bad at quitting jobs, but I did quit that one, finally, in 2004.) I'm publishing the story on my blog eight years later for my friend C, who doesn't need to quit her gig, but who has been having some serious truck days of late. Unfortunately, the gods got it all wrong this week and sent her four-year-old son an immunization-resistant form of chicken pox. Not right. Not right at all.

Just to be perfectly clear, I was Beth and I was Lola. Lola was actually a music theorist with a minor in linguistics, but I changed her degree program, professional affiliations, and age to make the connection less obvious. Peter was totally fictitious, but my husband S still bears a striking resemblance to Jack. (Fortunately, S didn't actually take the job, and for better or worse, he's oblivious to pain.)

(ESP 2002)

Some days are truck days: days when you sure could stand to get hit by a truck. Not killed, mind you, or permanently maimed, but taken out of commission just long enough. Maybe you could break a leg--your left one, since you need your right one to depress the accelerator in the car (so much for stick shift). Or perhaps break an arm, though you would have to be careful about the extent of the break because it could have a longer term impact on your ability to type once you got out of the hospital, and it would probably best be your left arm, since you're right handed, but what would that do to your guitar chops? In either case, leg or arm, you need a hospital stay, though it could be brief--say 24 hours or so. If they simply put a cast on you and sent you home, you might be expected to resume work right away, which would defeat the purpose of getting hit by the truck in the first place.

You imagine how it will feel. The damage should be localized and preferably not too painful. How well would sneakers protect your foot if the truck rolled over it slowly and with precision? (You wouldn’t want the bumper to bang your shin--that could really hurt.) And best to avoid anything with the knee, given how long it took for that biking injury to heal, but how do you break a thigh or shin bone without knocking the knee out of whack? No matter what, you have to be the one who gets hit by the truck: no fair wishing to be called away for a "family emergency," since it would be unkind to wish a broken limb on any of your loved ones, or even someone you detest.

Just long enough. Just long enough to have an excuse not to finish the 20-page financial report due next Tuesday. (Make a note to yourself to get hit long enough in advance that you could have finished the project, but for the terrible misfortune.) Just long enough to get out of giving that conference presentation--in which case you can get hit as late as the night before, since your colleagues have all at one point or another written a paper at the last minute in their hotel rooms.

Friends will cluck their tongues--"poor dear"--and will bring you flowers in the hospital, admiring how noble your wan, perspiring face looks against the sterile white sheets.

The only problem with the plan, of course, is that the wish comes true when you least want it to. And inevitably it's metaphorical. The truck bowls you over figuratively, not literally, taking you out of commission when you need to be present, when you want to be present. Like when Beth had to go back to the hospital after having her baby. Pregnancy, labor, and delivery were all fine and dandy, she said, and then boom, hemorrhaging, anemia, and mastitis, and they didn’t even find the haematoma until a week after she finally got out. She never did bond with the boy; it’s no wonder he’s having such a rotten adolescence. Consider: all she wanted was a little extra time off before going back to work and instead she got hit by a triple whammy truck.

At least Beth had the good sense to limit the chaos to her own immediate family. Peter, on the other hand, really blew it. His personal truck arrived precisely five minutes before he was to give an as yet unwritten presentation on as yet uncollected data to the team of underwriters who had flown in all the way from Paris and without whose continued funding his entire department at the Research Park would be forced to fold, leaving him thoroughly humiliated and his colleagues back on the job market. When the epicenter of the earthquake began its rumble less than five blocks from his hotel room, his final thought was "…but it was supposed to be a truck."

Jack had a different approach. Afraid of bodily harm (yet remarkably prone to self-inflicted cuts and burns due to perpetual tinkering with the "valves" of small household machinery), he hoped for unavoidable delays rather than injury. So desperate was he for a late flight once that he manufactured one himself by arriving at the airport a day late. When the company offered him the job anyway, he felt compelled to take it, shipped himself off to the boonies, and hasn’t been heard from since.

But then there’s Lola, my hero Lola. To her peers, Lola seemed to breeze through graduate school, obtaining a Ph.D. in literary theory by the time she was 26. The year she finished her dissertation, she had fifteen interviews at the Modern Language Association conference, a dozen on-campus interviews, and six job offers. She took the job at Yale, her proud parents’ alma mater, and settled into a brilliantly productive academic life.

On the eve of her thirtieth birthday, already tenured, Lola had an epiphany: that what drove her remarkable productivity was an overwhelming number of fantasies about salvation through eleventh-hour trucks. "How sad, how unhealthy," she declared. The next day, she marched into the post office and applied for the job she had dreamed of in her youth: mail carrier.

"The United States Postal System is the most efficient mail-delivery system in the world," she explained to stunned friends and family. "I'll get to work outside, I'll have time to think, and when my workday is done, my time will be my own. People will be happy to see me coming. And it's a way to be patriotic and wear a uniform without going overseas to kill people."

She got the job, and immediately gave her department chair notice. She could not remember ever having been happier.

Her loyalty to her new employer would have wavered had she realized some of the parcel delivery service was being farmed out to FedEx. Fortunately, she never saw that business move coming, just as she never saw the big white FedEx truck turning the corner on her first day of work. It struck her from behind, killing her instantly.

Admittedly, death is far longer lasting than just long enough. But had she been able to witness her own demise, Lola would have been pleased, for this was the very best circumstance she could have imagined: a truck that enabled her final thoughts to be not of pining to avoid life, but of joyously embracing it.

1 comment:

a daughter of danaus said...

oh, that's brilliant! and definitely the story for my life these days! Except, when I tell people about the trucks, they just say, "oh, I'm so sorry--but we'll just extend the deadline for you--you can do it when you get out of the hospital"... sigh...