This is an essay that I started sending out early in 1996, so I must have written it in 1995. It is also the recipient of one of my favorite rejection letters, from Scott Vallee, at Yankee magazine, who not only managed to encourage me while turning down my work, but also let me know that he was a regular reader of my column at The Telegraph.
By the time I left him, we were barely civil.
I got the dog, so I didn't press for furniture or appliances. New Hampshire is not a community property state, so I was entitled only to the things I entered the marriage with, and half of the things we acquired jointly. I did not care. I could live without the house, or appliances. Or dishes. But I needed music.
Alone in my own apartment at night in the leafy suburbs of Nashua, I would waken, my heart pounding, and sit upright. I would listen intently, and hear nothing but the breathing of the dog, asleep across the threshold of the kitchen door. I would try to get back to sleep, but every rustle of every leaf would be amplified into an intruder alert.
When I got home from work, I would take the dog for long walks along old logging trails near the house. Back in the apartment, I would continue to unpack. Sometimes I would read or call friends. But I wanted music. And voices
I lost my pride.
"Can I have the stereo?" I asked. This was decades before iTunes.
"It's mine. I bought it before you and I were married. I got the amplifier at MIT."
"I know, but I don't have anything to listen to. You have the washer and dryer my parents gave us as a housewarming gift."
He thrust a sandy box at me.
"Here. Take this."
I cried in the car. It was the radio we bought on Nantucket,
I recently cleaned out my paper files. After recycling 16 1/2 lbs of paper, many of which were rejected essays, I decided to post the ones I think are good. They come from many different times in my life. This first one, "Iced Tea Spoons" was rejected initially in 2000. I wrote it before Bill and I adopted our daughter Lucy.
Iced Tea Spoons
Since my parents retired, they seem compelled to give me things. My grandparents' 1929 wedding portrait now hangs in my hall; soft-boiled eggs are served in my grandmother's rooster eggcup; and my mother's pearl-and-gold circle pin lives on my one suit jacket.
Another thing my mother gave me was her silver chest. My mother's silver is plate, not sterling, so the set itself has little monetary value. I treasure the plate because it was my grandmother's. We ate every Christmas and Thanksgiving and Easter dinner with that silver as far back as I can remember. I loved drying the knives and forks and watching the patina bring out the details of the little sheaves of wheat. Those spoons and forks are a real physical link to my past — Grammy T and Grammy Lemen and Dede ate with those pieces of cutlery and they are no longer here. More valuable than the silver though, were all the insignificant things that had been put in the chest with it.
The first thing I took out of the chest was a white cardboard place card. It was made from the cardboard that my sisters and I used to fight over for craft projects — the thin, white cardboard that came with men's dress shirts.
While I was sequestered in the hell formerly known as the Bell System, one of the people in the pod I worked in (at AT&T in North Andover we worked in large open cubicles, called pods or bays) was incredibly irritating. He was a member of MENSA, which he would casually mention at least once a conversation. He was a gourmet cook and inevitably described in detail the meal he had prepared the evening before every day at lunch, no matter what the topic of conversation. He was a science fiction aficionado and would make frequent analogies between the repeater documentation I was working on and the fiction of Ray Bradbury. He was living in Worcester, the city that I was born in, so he thought we had a bond.
I didn’t have a problem with any of these things. I mostly found him amusing, and waited for him to wind up one of the other writers we worked with after he got bored with me. He was particularly fond of annoying a lovely older woman, quiet and efficient at her work, by attempting to engage her in theological debate. She was a devout and practicing Catholic and he was an atheist.
He was also a slob.
I did not care about that, either, as long as I did not have to sit at his desk. Because the management was cramming six of us into a space meant for four, the two of us most recently hired had to float around the bay and sit at whatever desk happened to be vacant that day. AT&T had a liberal work from home policy, so most of the writers worked at home one or two days of the week. This meant that we floaters rarely had to spend the day working in the AT&T library, although I did that occasionally just to get away from the noise generated by four writers asking technical questions over the phone.
Back to the slob. He was an Oscar Madison level slob. His clothes looked as if he had slept in them (including his ties, which he often wore), and he was the kind of bearded gentleman who frequently snacked in the afternoon from what was left on his face after lunch. I hated having to sit at his desk. If you attempted to work at his station, you would have to dodge teetering piles of AT&T manuals (including the venerable ‘Physics in the Bell System’, half-eaten packets of junk food, wadded up tissues, and crumbs.
I am not a neat person — at home. In the workplace, I am tidy and well-organized, partially because I always had to be. An unorganized technical writer is as useful as a screen door on a submarine. A technical writer’s primary function, in my opinion, is to know how things (software or hardware) actually work, as opposed to how their designers think they work. This means keeping track of many different pieces of information — given to you in engineering specifications, over the phone, in hallway conversations, and through email — in a systematic and retrievable fashion.
I had to do that at AT&T, without having my own desk, computer, or phone line for the first three months of my contract. It was AT&T that I started carrying a real briefcase. And my own coffee cup.
My caffeine addiction deepened during my employment at the Bell System, partially because it was so damnably hard to get a good cup of coffee there. Either you belonged to a group with its own coffee station (the writers were a small group, so they did not have their own coffee station) or you bought a cup at the cafeteria or from a machine. Coffee from a machine? You had to be kidding.
I could not understand this. I had never, in my fifteen years of employment since college graduation, worked anywhere that I had to purchase coffee from a machine. Plus, for the last ten years of that employment, I had worked at Digital Equipment Corporation, where the engineers had coffee stations that competed for your coffee business, providing different kinds of delicious coffee, including every form of exotic bean. They had various ways of paying for your coffee (by the cup, or you could pay a monthly subscription) and at one coffee station I became the milk, half-and-half, and cream purchaser for the station and got all my coffee free. (The station paid for the milk. I was just the schlepper.) So I was used to good coffee being available all the time.
Since the coffee was so abysmal at the AT&T plant, I resorted to stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts before I left New Hampshire for my commute and at a small, but good, coffee shop in Andover for java to go right before I got to work. When I got to the plant the first time with a coffee in my hand, the guards stopped me and said I could not bring it into the plant because it was in a Styrofoam cup.
The guards had all kinds of ludicrous rules about things that could and could not enter the plant, including me one day when I had the audacity to wear Bierkenstocks to work. “Those are both open-toed and open-heeled and are not allowed.” It didn’t matter that I worked about half-a-mile away from the actual fiber optic processing part of the plant and never went near it; it was a rule and would be followed.
As was the rule about Styrofoam and open cups.
I was, by this time, heartily tired of calling my manager and asking him to ransom me from the guard station. In the two and a half weeks I had worked for him he had been called to the guardhouse three other times: once for the shoes; once because I had parked my car incorrectly in the appropriate lot; and once because I had parked my car correctly in an inappropriate lot. He was the kind of person who flushed when he got angry, and I hated to be the cause that of that flush. And now? Was I going to be the cause of our manager’s being annoyed all day because I had brought in coffee in a Styrofoam cup?
I knew, by this time, that the guards were having a bit of fun at my expense. I am sure that they were enforcing actual plant rules, but they were smiling a bit too much whenever they informed me of an infraction. I didn’t really care about this, but I wanted to drink my coffee, and I would be damned if I would pour it out. I called all of the phones in the bay until one of the other writers agreed to come and bring me an empty ceramic coffee cup. When they got to the guard station, I carefully poured it into that cup and left the offending Styrofoam outside of the plant.
After that, I kept a cup in my briefcase, and two cups in the bay. I did not want to be caught cupless again.
I also smartened up and bought a thermos and filled it with coffee I brought from home. That helped.
But occasionally, when I left at night, I would not get the chance to pick up all my empty — or nearly empty — mugs. I rinsed them out, before I left for the evening, and put them on the table in the center of the bay that was mine. And one morning, when I breezed into work, carrying a bouquet of sunflowers to brighten the bay up, I was greeted by a frowning slob.
“June, may I speak with you?” he said, his face a picture of worried concern.
“Of course,” I said.
“Here at AT&T, we have certain standards of behavior. I realize that these may not have been important in other workplaces that you may have been employed by, but here they are important.”
I looked at him, totally clueless as to what he was talking about.
He held out a mug. One of mine, which had been left on his desk accidentally the night before. It was not filled with mold, or full of undrunk coffee. It was merely unwashed.
“This is a sanitary hazard,” he said. Seriously.
I burst out laughing, because I thought he was joking. This man, whose desk was filthy, was telling me I was creating unsanitary conditions in the office? He had to be joking.
It became clear that he wasn’t, when he continued lecturing me in his pompous tones about workplace standards of conduct and how he had learned his standards in the military.
I started to get angry. Really angry.
I am also a person who flushes when she gets angry, and the writers at AT&T had not seen this side of me yet. But we shared a boss who flushed when he got angry and they knew anger when they saw it.
One of the other writers took the slob to task. The quiet, softspoken woman who was the lead writer and had the respect of every engineer in the plant.
“Are you serious? I really think you are out of line, telling June she is unsanitary, when you are working in a pigpen that the rest of us have to look at every day. I do not believe that the military would tolerate your workspace. I think you should apologize.”
He blinked and murmured something that could have been, “I’m sorry.”
And I said, “That’s okay,” and took the mug out of his hands.
I thanked the lead writer and went about my day.
I was quite grateful that I had not blown my top, because I would have. I jcould not put up being lectured on cleanliness by the slob, on top of all the other nonsense at AT&T.
I lasted about six months at AT&T. Our styles never meshed. When I finally left, tired of dealing with engineers who did not want to speak to me because I did not have a Master’s degree in Physics, and sick of fighting for every piece of information I needed to do a competent job on my manual, my boss asked me to stay until Field Test, which was in six weeks. It was the AT&T way.
“You’ve got two weeks. That’s the Lemen way.”
And in two weeks, I was gone.
In three weeks, I was in New York, on a much-needed vacation.
In four weeks, I was being assiduously pursued by a couple of technical recruiters, who wanted me for a contract in Nashua.
In six weeks, I had a new contract, at twice the money I made at AT&T.
And in six months? They still had not gone to Field Test at AT&T.
When I was in high school, there was a revival of ‘Camelot’ on Broadway, so the local cinema showed it again on the big screen. I went to see it more than once. I loved all of it — the acting, the music, the costumes — everything. I could not stop singing songs from the soundtrack, especially “If Ever I Would Leave You” on the way to the bus stop. I wanted so desperately to be Guinevere. I was an average-looking high school girl, and I yearned, more than anything, to be the kind of woman that Guinevere was: beautiful, queen of one man’s kingdom, and mistress of another.
That year, I was taking Art as an elective.
A lot of people thought of Art as a gut course at Auburn High School. Maybe it was, but not if you had Glenn Williams as the teacher. Glenn (he allowed us to call him by his first name — it was the Seventies) demanded serious work from his students. I got one of the few Bs I got in high school from him.
I was shocked. When I asked him for an explanation, he told me that even though I did not have as much artistic skill as many of the other students, he was not just going
I was sitting across from my beloved at a brunch party in our home when I noticed him frowning at the sideboard. The frown was a fleeting thing, but it caught my attention, because it is so unusual for my beloved to grimace.
I did not ask him about it until much later.
“What were frowning about at brunch?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You were sitting at the head of the table and everyone was laughing and talking and then you looked over at the sideboard and frowned. I know that you were not glaring at the food, because everything was great, but do you remember?”
“Oh, yes. “
“It was at the decor.”
The décor? I hadn’t changed the décor since we painted that room after we bought the house. What could he be talking about?
I walked into the dining room to review the décor.
Our house, the Old Beauty, has an unusual setup in that the kitchen and dining room are separated by the downstairs bathroom. The bathroom — according to the previous owners— was added after the turn of the century, so it was once part of the kitchen. Where we have a sideboard there was once another sideboard, but instead of the mirror that hangs above the sideboard there used to be a pass through — a wonderful idea, especially for entertaining — but then again, so is indoor plumbing.
The dining room is green. A green that was originally intended to be apple green, but ended up moss. Both my husband (who feels that most rooms should be painted blue) and my daughter have expressed their dissatisfaction with the color, but until they offer to repaint it, it’s not going to change.
There’s not a lot in the dining room. There’s a built-in china cupboard, with drawers, in one corner, and the dining room table and chairs. The only other furniture is a old sideboard, which we are holding onto for Pat’s partner. I restored it by rubbing nearly an entire jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise into it, which worked miracles. Over the sideboard hangs an ancient mirror that I bought from Elizabeth Ann’s Victorian Tea Room years ago.
What décor is he talking about? I wondered.
There are pictures on the wall, but they are all things that Bill likes and they have not changed since we renovated the room, except for the addition of a photograph of a nautilus shell given to me by my friend Bruce. Bill likes that, too.
So I concentrated on the sideboard. A pair of candles, in a pair of plain glass holders. Between them sits a two tier dessert stand of ruffled hammered aluminum — not to my taste, exactly, but it was one of my parents’ wedding presents, and I remember my mother serving small sandwiches, cookies and date nut bars to my aunts and grandmother on it. Plus, I had made it look rather cool by the addition of some funky jeweled and beaded fruit. But I could understand Bill not liking the dessert tray.
I went in and said to him, “I’ll put the tray away, but I cannot get rid of it, because it has sentimental value.”
“It’s not the tray I mind, it’s that ridiculous fake fruit. That’s just ludicrous. It annoys me every time I look at it.”
I was completely taken aback, though now that I think of it, I shouldn’t be. I’ve been married to Bill for over twenty years. Bill likes things to look like what they are. He objects to painted furniture, because he thinks if it’s made of wood, it should look like wood. He likes his food to look like food, his women unmade up, and his stories unvarnished.
So I put away the jeweled fruit into a cupboard.
But I am glad that Bill told me about it. I think it’s awful to live with objects that you don’t find attractive, and I have to say that now that the funky apples and pears are gone, I’m noticing that I find that tray unappealing. I frown at it.
It’s about to be reunited with the jeweled fruit.