Holy crap! Two weeks ago, I was blissfully enjoying my fairly perfect life. Now I’ve just boarded a plane to Hell—the real one, with the heat and the desperation and the…what is that smell? And it’s not even my fault—well, not technically, anyway…
As the plane pierced the cloudbank, the tone chimed, and a disinterested, yet cheerful voice explained that the Fasten Seat Belt sign had been turned off and it was now safe to fire up every electronic device you’d ever owned. An aside: It is my firm and sincere belief that Angry Birds will not bring down a 737.
Racing against every other business person on board, I pulled out my laptop and began flipping through client accounts. My boss wasn’t kidding when he said the eastern region—my shitty new region—was a difficult place to grow business. At least I knew why.
You see, I was born Southern, raised Southern…but I did not want to be Southern. I simply wanted to be Susan; Susan Wade of some random, non-controversial, non-embarrassing place. So I left, quite literally. I didn’t climb out my window and run away from home, though I’d tried several times. No, I bided my time, planned and plotted, took all the necessary measures.
And when the opportunity presented itself, I afforded a single sidelong glance to the sleepy, mist-encircled Pilot Mountain—the megalith looming over my entire existence, and made my thrilling escape to Chicago, racing from heritage and homeland to an unexplored, but surely more enlightened harbor.
After crossing the Mason-Dixon Line—for the first time in my whole entire life!—I tossed the last of Mom’s country ham biscuits out the window and laughed maniacally. Okay, what really happened is this: I totally freaked, pulled to the side of the interstate, and hurled up said biscuits. While on all fours I finished the job properly by purging terms including, but not limited to y’all, ain’t, hey, and anything ending in in’. The soil absorbed them hungrily.
Determined to successfully graft, I’d studied this Northern species; its culture, mannerisms, and customs. Mimic. Infiltrate. Become. And, as I skimmed the outskirts of this vast city, I reviewed my crucial list: do not wave, do not converse with random strangers, do not make direct eye-contact in elevators or enclosed spaces—it makes them uncomfortable, do not freely smile, and for God’s sake, do NOT hug anybody!
My tribe is a friendly lot that openly studies one another, judges by appearance, then slaughters piously. As for smiling, I didn’t do it all that often anyway, and bruised purple on the inside, I rarely wrapped my arms around anything other than my midsection unless forced by that ominous creature known only as “Mother”. Though daunting, in the end abandoning Southern tradition was simply part of the decontamination process; a re-tooling of body and brain to perform in a novel fashion; the price paid for admittance to the new world.
Northwestern University was a mad mix of people from the other three-quarters of the country; my clean slate; my opportunity to convince those around me that I was someone to be taken seriously, someone special…someone who did not need others!
Having grown up all too aware that need was the Devil’s road to slavery, and slavery to bone-crushing heartache, I made it my single-minded mission to become self-reliant. And to that end, I set to the task of developing a steel core of self-discipline, earning me top grades in both my majors. And if missing parties, skipping football games, and avoiding serious relationships was the price of success, then so be it.
Four years later when I left Chicago, parchment diploma in hand, I’d emerged from my chrysalis a liberated, sanctimoniously free-thinking person, completely cleansed of all things Southern; a woman with an extraordinary career lying at her feet; a woman en route to that shimmering city called Philadelphia.
And I dove headfirst into its glimmering ocean of urbanity, learning to swim through its gridlocks of hostile motorists, evade its tow truck operators who, like hungry sharks, skulked at every corner poised to whisk my car to scary impound lots, and, though scoring my ethical peel, feed on its indifference. It was the only way to survive.
After a shot-gun wedding to INTech Corporation, one of the largest Internet technology companies in the world, I plunged into its corporate sea with the same zeal. Here, at its world headquarters, open hostility took the polished forms of intimidation and manipulation, the lurking sharks were far better dressed…but the indifference was exactly the same.
Now a sage at twenty-nine, having grown talons for clawing and sharp teeth for biting, I was a great deal meaner, significantly more jaded, and rarely forgiving of those who got in my way. I was also tremendously sophisticated, wholly independent, and thoroughly exhausted most of the time. And I loved this grown-up Susan. And I loved my all-consuming career. And I loved my life just the way it was, dammit!
The crux: I was hungry, and maybe a little greedy, though I certainly didn’t see it that way at the time.
The invitation to fill my belly came one crisp winter morning, hand-delivered by my closest ally and self-appointed champion, The District Manager of Rhode Island. Taking form beside me, her face gleamed with smug pleasure as she announced, “We’ve had a breakthrough.”
“The posting’s been out five seconds. This is the one!”
When not busy shredding her underlings to bits, Kirsten tirelessly searched for ways—alleyways—to get me promoted. She knew it was all in the world I wanted, but my work ethic, faith in perseverance, and professional dedication was simply farce to her.
During my short career, I’d already risen to an important position within the corporation; a highly-rated regional service representative. In company terms, I negotiated and vended computer service agreements and eradicated both technical and software interface issues. In layman’s terms, I cajoled people into buying service contracts and then fixed their computers. I was quite good at my job…but my job wasn’t quite good enough for me.
"North Carolina!” She whispered the words as if they were magic. They were—the black kind.
“N-North Carolina?!” I sputtered, almost choking. “Did you say North Carolina?” The concept defied words.
“Susan, you’ve got to take risks if you want to move up. Surely you realize that.” She stopped suddenly and scowled at the secretary, arms full of paper, who dared hesitate at the copier nearest us.
“Of course I do,” I snapped, glowering over her shoulder at a world she could not see. “But not there!”
That was bomb number one. She had a pocketful that day.
“I’ve already spoken to Bob on your behalf, and he loves the idea.” She smiled as if she’d moved heaven and earth. She had—mine!
“You what?!” I squeaked incredulously. “How could you do that without speaking with me first?” Kirsten dismissed my outburst with an elegant wave.
“You would have said no, and no won’t get you promoted, hun. Your meeting’s at one-thirty. You’ll thank me later. Ta!” And with that she turned on her heels, leaving me gasping.
“Ta” about summed it up, too, because regardless of my protests, feet-stamping, and the rather embarrassing tantrum I’d thrown at lunch that day, here I was, hurtling at some high velocity towards this terrifying destination; and by my own doing…sort of.
“WADE!” Bob Shillings, Senior Vice President of the Eastern US Retail Service Division, known simply as God Almighty to us peons, bellowed down the hall that same afternoon.
I was scared shitless of the man, and rightly so. Why, you might ask? Because, other than holding my career—aka world—by its whiskers, he wasn’t actually my boss; he was my boss’ boss’ boss. Beth Stamler, my now-on-maternity-leave-having-thoughtlessly-left-me-in-the-hands-of-the-likes-of-this-man district manager was my immediate supervisor. Hers was a vice president who’d been loaned out on “special assignment”—whatever that meant. So, as of now, there was nothing but thin air between the two of us.
As I scampered to Mount Olympus, I passed “Strategy Girl”. Kirsten gave me an enthusiastic thumbs-up. I glared back, seriously weighing the merits of flipping her off.
“Shut the door,” he said, failing to look up from his computer screen. “I'm surprised you requested this assignment. I don't usually send seasoned reps to low grossing areas.” Ha! “Unfortunately, this project’s become high exposure.” He made a nasty face, but continued typing. “If you’re successful there, you’ll get noticed, so I can see the enticement. But know now, there’s real downside if you aren’t.” Not so “Ha!”
“Oh,” I softly responded, my Greek salad turning to leafy lead in my stomach.
“What’s the problem with West Penn?”
For the last four years I’d run Pennsylvania’s western region. It was a lucrative part of a fairly lucrative state, housing several substantial cities including my crown jewel and part-time lover, Pittsburgh.
“No problem, Bob. I, I love West Penn,” I stammered like an idiot. “I have a great sales team, my customer base is excellent and—”
“As you’ve no doubt read between the lines, INTech, or rather I have a situation in North Carolina,” he said, plowing over me in tyrannical style. “Problem seems to be public relations. It’s a damn mess down there and I need it cleaned up.” As he grimaced at his screen, I stood quietly, wondering if he’d notice if I bolted back down the hall.
“I’ve reviewed your records. You hit your numbers consistently. More to the point, you’ve had no customer complaints, and that’s saying something.” He shook his head succinctly. “Overall, I’m pleased with your work.”
“That's good to know, Bob,” I responded feeling warily pleased.
“What I don’t understand is your timing.” He took off his thick-framed glasses and rubbed his eyes. “If you wanted a transfer, it could have been settled at Quarterlies last week when everyone was in town.”
INTech’s Quarterlies, a week-long affair occurring four times a year, summoned everyone to the Mothership for company-wide meetings, training seminars, re-organizations, promotions, etc. Oh, and transfers.
Bob looked up at me for the first time and I stared back blankly. Finally, he raised his eyebrows sharply and cleared his throat, and I realized he was waiting for some sort of explanation—one I didn’t have. It wasn’t like I could say “oops” to the man, and “Kirsten’s making me do it” wasn’t exactly going to fly either. So I went with what I hoped sounded believable.
“Um, well, I’ve been considering my options for career advancement—that part was true—and this seemed like a unique line of approach.” “Unique”? Yeah, that was one word for it; “stupid” was another. “If the timing’s off, perhaps we should revisit this discussion before next Quarterlies.” There, that should get me out of this mess.
Smiling at him with faux confidence, I squared my shoulders and waited for him to say something like, “Fine. Go away.” But after a moment of suffocating silence, he simply said, “I see.” His eyes returned to his monitor as his fingers flew across the keyboard. Standing over him, I had a perfect aerial view of the top of his head. Freckled pink skin peeked through an interceding, mostly gray comb-over, and I wondered just how old he was.
“This region’s particularly challenging for some reason,” he finally continued. “But Kirsten tells me you grew up in Carolina.” I opened my mouth and gulped for air like a caught fish.
Since joining the company, I’d carefully hidden my roots under a big rock, hoping that deprived of sunlight, they might just wither and die. My aim was to completely dissociate myself from the misconception that Southern girls are cute, but stupid; I was neither.
Familiar with the mask I wore, as with so many of my life’s private details, Kirsten had used this little poison tidbit to leverage my—her—advantage. She hated losing. Ever. And though her brashness shouldn’t have surprised me, for once, it did.
“Yes,” I confessed, fidgeting with the paperclip I’d forgotten to toss before entering the sacred realm. Born there, raised there, escaped from there, hoped never to return there.
“Good. That means you speak ‘Southern’.” Abruptly, he stopped typing and his lips turned up in a fiendish grin I’m certain I’ll never forget. He looked at me with eyes that had just seen clear to checkmate, and eased back in his loudly protesting chair.
“Alright, Wade. I’ll send you to North Carolina. But, let’s be clear; I want this region off my plate. For. Good. Understand?” I smiled tightly, having absolutely no idea what he was talking about. “And as incentive, I'll make you a deal. A district manager position may open up in the Midwest later this year. If you increase numbers down there by, say…twenty percent over the next six months, I’ll consider you for the slot. Agreed?” I nodded like a bobble-head doll, trying to hide my astonishment. She was right!
“In some ways I'm glad it's you that volunteered. You’re competent. Maybe you can end this nightmare for me.” His dreamy expression weirded me out almost as much as his never-before-seen-by-human-eyes smile.
Vacillating between sudden euphoria and abject terror, emphasis on the latter, I meekly asked, “Bob, since this assignment is only temporary, if I don’t hit the twenty percent mark, can I assume I’ll return to West Penn?”
“Susan, that's not how it works.” After saying my actual first name, his bizarre expression faded, and he returned to his normal grumpy self. “No ‘ifs’. Get North Carolina fixed!”
“Right.” I swallowed hard as a surge of vertigo hit me.
“You'll train your replacement next week—assuming I find one that fast,” he grumbled under his breath. “Then you'll head south.”
“So soon…” I whispered to myself. And then: “Dear God...this is really happening!”
“We'll meet again end of the week to go over particulars. Close the door behind you.”
That had been Bob’s “Ta”, though I doubt he’d ever used such a word.
I hit save and the date popped up. Today was March fifteenth; the Ides. How appropriate to return to North Carolina on the unluckiest day of the year. Sullen, I sipped my Fresca and pressed my forehead against the scratched Plexiglas window. The sky had cleared, and with detached foreboding I watched the ground below morph from wedding gown white to lettuce green. My restless mind wandered to places it hadn’t visited in a very long time; places it didn’t want to go, places of pain and nightmare, of childhood memories. Home.
Rubber found cement, and the plane came to a hurtling stop.
I so don’t want to be here…
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