No Exit

The job was never supposed to be permanent

She and her husband thought it would be temporary, the daytime work they found after they quit their jobs at the restaurant where they had met. Law school application season would soon open for him, and they planned to leave the DC region and start their permanent life together wherever he was accepted.

Her husband’s first temp assignment was as a receptionist for a company that sold boat insurance. In college, he’d gotten in the habit of carrying around a voice-activated microcassette recorder for recording his thoughts. Each night at dinner, he played the highlights, the moments he had wished to share with her throughout the workday. She supposes now that he was ahead of his time, that his recordings served the purpose that texting does today—messages, albeit delayed, to close a mental distance they suffered once they no longer worked together.

In these recordings, she heard someone trying out words he’d learned in his last year of college, after he left the soccer team and got serious about his studies of philosophy and religion. At the boat insurance office, he reported to two women. She remembers hearing him wonder what they might existentially want out of him as an employee. She heard him wonder if law school was really his calling. Perhaps, he thought, this boat insurance business could become a permanent career.

She tried to imagine her husband at work. He left the house wearing ill-fitting shirts tucked into ill-fitting pants. He talked into the cassette recorder at his desk. He took extra-long lunches, distracted by an afternoon thought. Sometimes, he confessed, he got into conversations with callers about subjects other than the liability of sailing on open water. Usually politics. Did this caller really want to own a boat, to be part of the boat-owning class? Sometimes philosophy. Was the caller familiar with the work of Jean-Paul Sartre? In his senior year, her husband had played the part of the damned soul, Garcin, in Sartre’s No Exit. If a caller was familiar with the play, the other phone lines could light up and those other callers could wait on hold until hell froze over.

She remembers thinking, One of the women in the boat insurance office is going to fire him, and he doesn’t know it. She remembers thinking, He’ll end up being the artist, and I’ll be the one with the job.

Illustration by Anna Hall

Her temp assignment was at an HR consulting firm that specialized in babysitting recently fired executives. In the Washington, DC region, during the recession of the early ’90s, executives at HMOs, quasi-governmental organizations, and defense contracting firms were getting fired left and right. Some received three-month severance packages, most received six-month packages, and a few special cases—those whose former employers hoped never to be haunted by them again—were granted lifetime packages that provided the consulting firm’s services until they got a new job.

The recently fired executives were called “candidates.” The babysitting was called “candidate services.” Their firing was called “outplacement.” Their subsequent job search, “a career transition.” Getting a new job was called “a landing.” A landing was celebrated with a cake in the main conference room. From her seat at the front reception desk, she had a clear view to the single candle glowing on top of the cake.

Most of the outplaced executives visited the HR consulting firm once to see if there was anything in the package that they could use: office space, a phone line answered by her as if she was their personal secretary, and her assistance with word processing—mostly resumes and cover letters. They typically quickly got over the grief of job loss and found new work. But some candidates needed more time to imagine the rest of their lives without the job they thought they’d always have. The first thing to do for them was to assess their personalities using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, the MBTI. Was the candidate an introvert or an extrovert? A sensor or an intuitor? A thinker or a feeler? A judger or a perceiver? Candidates were given a list of ninety-three questions and a Scantron form on which to bubble in their answers. She ran the Scantrons through a machine in the back office and gave the results to each candidate’s career consultant, who would then discuss where and with whom the candidate might land.

When the phones were quiet, she tested herself. A significant number of questions were about her behavior at parties. When she was at a party, did she stand at the edge of a room or in the center? Was she usually introduced or the one doing the introducing? At the end of a party, was she relieved it was over or sorry to go home? There were word pairs, too. Not SAT analogies, nothing difficult, just two words to consider briefly before choosing the one that made her feel the best. The MBTI people were firm in their instruction that she should ignore the urge to attach value to a word based solely on its sound. She can’t remember any of the exact word pairs, and even if she did, she wouldn’t share them; the test is copyrighted material based on the theories of Carl Jung. Theories. That might have been one half of a pair. Perhaps its partner was truth. It was hard for her to ignore the sound of a word when judging how it made her feel. What else was a girl to do with incongruence, cavort, timeless?

No matter how many times she took the MBTI, she was always an INFP. An introverted, intuiting, feeling perceiver. A girl who dreaded both the sound and the meaning of the word party. A girl whose personality type suggested she was the employee in the office most likely to commit suicide, to suffer from alcohol addiction, to find so much of her work meaningless.

“Ah, yes,” said one of the vice presidents, an extrovert, when she told him what she was. “You’re definitely an INFP.”

Besides selling the firm’s outplacement services to HR executives, the vice president’s job was to notify large groups of middle managers that they were terminated. He traveled to their places of lifetime employment and selected the best room for such a notification; a neutral break room somewhere close to the exit was optimal. There, he delivered the bad news in such a way that some of them, for a moment, mistook it for good news.

She was wrong about her husband getting fired from his job at the boat insurance office. In the temp world, one didn’t get fired. Instead, neither of the two women he worked for asked him back after his initial three-month term was complete. “I don’t understand,” he said the evening of his last day, home without an invitation to return. “I thought the three of us were friends.”

When he interviewed for his next temp job, the last thing they asked him was why they should hire him. It was one of those “gotcha” interview questions intended to leave a young candidate speechless.

“Because,” he said, “I never get sick.”

Soon, she was hired full-time at the HR consulting firm, a salary plus medical benefits, which was good news since her husband, age twenty-three, was suddenly and surprisingly dying. The vice president brought her a copy of a book, The Chelation Answer, that he said had saved him from dying of a heart attack years before. Though chelation therapy, which pumps binding agents through a patient’s veins, is an approved process for remedying toxic metal poisoning, it is a discredited and dangerous approach to treating ailments of the heart. Still, the vice president credited it with keeping his arteries clean, his ticker ticking, allowing him to steal a few extra years he wasn’t meant to have with his wife. Maybe, he thought, a dose of chelation therapy would cure her husband’s rare and aggressive cancer. She added the book to the growing stack at her desk, each one outlining alternative cures that promised to put oncologists, heart surgeons, and funeral home operators out of business for good.

On her first day at the HR consulting firm, she had been warned about a lifetime candidate who had essentially been working on one letter for years. This candidate was a lawyer, a former general counsel for an HMO. It was insinuated that his letter had been the downfall of her predecessor at the reception desk. If she wanted to keep her job, she was warned, she shouldn’t rely too much on her “feeling” preference when it came to dealing with the lawyer’s demands.

She should have recognized that the lawyer was grappling with a serious mental issue. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, perhaps. She should have seen the signs as he stopped to look at himself in the mirror in the reception hall each morning, pulled a comb from his suit coat pocket, and passed it through the few strands of greasy hair on the top of his head, then did it again and again, so many times that she wondered how any of it managed to hang on. Instead, she collected these moments for stories she would tell her husband as she tucked him in and climbed into the cot next to his hospital bed, stories that would drown out the cries of other young people in his ward—not quite adults, not quite children anymore.

Each morning, the lawyer submitted a work order that carefully outlined the revision requests for his letter. He wanted to change the spelling of words that could be spelled in more than one way. Cancelled to canceled. Acknowledgement to acknowledgment. He wanted paragraphs to break differently. A sentence added. A sentence taken away. In the afternoon, he made her change everything back again.

Soon after her husband died, the lawyer made a cruel joke—something to the effect that he hoped she would take better care of his letter than she had of her husband. Because she had no mirror at her desk, she was not sure what happened first—the hives that popped up between her breasts and ran screaming up her neck or the red-hot explosion that burst from her mouth. You are a fucking lunatic. In the ’90s, the f-word still had a dark zing. A fucking, fucking lunatic. It felt so good to see the surprise on the lawyer’s face as she said it. What would he do if she said something more? You don’t deserve to be alive, she said. You don’t deserve to breathe the air between us. Then she got weird. Why did she always have to get weird? I wish to trade your fate with Kurt Cobain’s. The lawyer was fiftyish. The allusion was ineffective, not to mention syntactically awkward. He did not know Kurt Cobain or the fate she was offering him as a trade. He drifted away from her desk. Where did he think he was going? She pulled him back by saying the worst thing she could think of, the kind of curse that was sure to get her outplaced: You are never, ever going to land.

A career consultant stopped her just as she was coming out from behind her desk to invade the lawyer’s space. This consultant gave her a card the next day. In it, he wrote the nicest three words anyone has ever written her: Grace under pressure. Was he setting a goal for her or describing her usual state? She never got to ask him. He was outplaced under mysterious circumstances not long after he wrote it. But she—she who suddenly had no reason to stay—did not lose her job. In fact, she was promoted. Given a desk with the others in the back office, a raise. The lawyer was moved to another office location. A message went out to everyone in sales: the lifetime package was dead.

Her new boss, a devotee of something called The Goals Institute, encouraged everyone in the back office to get to know one another by beginning the workday with thought-provoking questions. For example: How many times a month do you make your bed? Also: What one thing—not a person, not a pet, but a thing—would you grab before fleeing your burning home?

A new client services coordinator, hired to help the vice president fire more people, introduced himself on his first morning, pointed to the photo of her husband on her desk, and asked, “Where does he work?” She realized, then, that he would be the first person of her acquaintance who would never know her husband. Later that morning, when he posed his first thought-provoking question—What famous person from history would you like to meet if you could travel back in time?—she said the idea of meeting famous people, much less traveling back in time to do so, was stupid, and refused to play.

Her new boss quickly assessed her as what The Goals Institute called a “hard-core aggressive anaconda,” a person whose presence poisoned the workplace with negative thoughts. These thoughts, often disguised as jokes, kept everyone else from achieving their fullest potentials. Her boss posted a Goals Institute sign on the wall above the photocopier: THIS IS AN ANACONDA-FREE ZONE. The sign featured a black and white sketch of an anaconda, an angry S standing erect, its tongue scooping at the air, four fangs ready to dig into flesh, slits for eyes—her new avatar.

According to the sign, she and all the anacondas of the world were “dream snatchers,” full of “doubt and despair,” “demotivators” who engaged in “limitation thinking,” “undeservedness,” and “negative self-talk.” Examples of negative self-talk: I hate my job. My back always hurts. Nobody loves me. I hate computers. I was born fat. Of all the rotten luck. The Goals Institute encouraged others to drown out such negativity with simpler, positive self-talk: Here I am, day! How could I lose? Never say die. I’m the best, baby, the best. What can we celebrate? I deserve this. I am on a roll.

At the end of the day, the client services coordinator lingered by the fax machines and the office supplies, trying again to get her to answer his question, waiting with a giddiness she would come to expect from him—a quality she has only recently understood as belonging to someone who finds God in everything, even binder clips. When she could not find the energy to answer or ridicule, he told her that though he’d considered many options, he would, of course, most like to meet Jesus, the man, in the Holy Land, to hear him proclaim the Good News, to see him raise Lazarus from the dead firsthand. Behind him, as he spoke, was a dwindling wall of copy paper, once stacked high by her husband as part of a one-day odd job to help him earn prescription cash. Of all the rotten luck, she thought. My back hurts. I hate my job. There’s no one in this world left to love.

If she could travel back in time, she would go back, maybe twenty-five years, and put a stop to whatever made a tumor begin growing on top of her husband’s left lung. “Something triggered it,” his doctor said when they asked how a twenty-three-year-old could transform so quickly from healthy to terminal. “He had this abnormality waiting, dormant in him for years.”

“Happiness triggered it,” her husband said. “I am finally happy.”

If she had to flee the burning home in which she and her third husband now live, she would grab a glass canister from the cellar. In it, she’s stored a bundle of microcassette tapes. She has never listened to her first husband’s recordings again, but she remembers her part in them as a third-person character who both delighted and disappointed him. “She is that which courses through my veins,” he said. And in the next breath, “Who is this fascist I’ve married? How can she say she couldn’t get through Orlando?”

The condition of the tapes is perilous, their format reaching for unreadable each day. She is afraid to play them, to re-measure the distance between the sound of him then and who she is now, living in a big house with a cellar full of objects that represent all she has done without him, married to a husband—a member of the boat-owning class—who says he will send the tapes away to be digitized, he will listen to them and transcribe them for her, he will do with them whatever she wants.

The vice president once caught her re-taking the MBTI. As if it were yesterday, she can see him standing at the reception desk, twitching with the energy of an extrovert, knowing that what he is about to say will not keep her from repeating the test, from hoping for a different result each time: “There’s no use in retaking it. Personalities rarely change over the course of our lives.”

She took the test again yesterday. He was right.

About the Author

Karen Gentry

Karen Gentry lives in Madison, Georgia. Her work has appeared in Bayou, PANK, New Orleans Review, and American Short Fiction. This fall, she will be a writer in residence at the Ucross Foundation.

View Essays