“I’m sorry...” s he began in a lowered, apologetic voice, “but we’re going to have to let you go, Melinda.” Charlotte stared down at me, her dedicated employee who had faithfully served at the company for more than three years. “I tried my best to save your job, but the board decided that this was in the best interest of the agency.” She briefly glanced at the security guard positioned next to the glass door where there was a red and white Exit sign overhead. “You know that was not my idea.”
I rubbed my dampened palms back and forth on my thighs, and calmly replied, “I know.”
We shared knowing glances as I recalled the conversation we had just the night before. This was her formal way of not showing favoritism. The company frowned upon nepotism, but being that we weren’t blood related and she was forthcoming about how we knew one another before I was hired, our association was overlooked.
After a defeated sigh, she rested a hand on my shoulder and whispered in my ear, “You’ll get through this. You know that I’m here for you … this was just out of my control.”
My eyelids fluttered as I exhaled through my anxieties. I shifted my eyes from the Certificate of Achievement that rested near my desk phone to the framed photograph from a recent awards ceremony. With a soft grunt under my breath, I gently shook my head. None of this seemed real.
“Are you going to be okay?” Charlotte’s hazel eyes pierced my brown ones. “You know that I’ll give you a glowing reference letter… where ever you decide to go.”
In an effort to not sound ungrateful, I pressed my lips firmly together. What could I say with six pairs of ears listening as they pretended to be on business calls? I knew my co-workers were all listening because I heard none of them talking. It was clear that if they were legitimately working, the call center would be humming with its usual chattering voices.
“You understand, don’t you?” Charlotte sympathetically asked.
“Yes, I understand.” I tried to smile through my pain.
“I didn’t want to do it this way, but the regional director is here today and well … you know.” Her voiced trailed thin.
“Really, I understand.” I held a hand up to her. “You’ve done a lot.”
“Look, I’ll walk you to your car. Just let me get rid of him.” She glanced at the security guard again, this time through squinted eyes. “I don’t know why they felt the need to call him. You are not a criminal.”
With a hint of sarcasm, I quipped, “But I’ve been known to cause a scene.”
Charlotte cracked a smile. I’m sure only because I grinned first. The way this office walked on eggshells around me I knew this was bound to happen. Over the past few months, they had put up with more from me than they would have the average employee. It’s not because I’ve always arrived at my desk on time, not because I took shorter breaks than everyone else, it was simply because I had recently experienced the most devastating day of my life. It was the day that changed my life forever.
“Well, I guess this is more evidence that all good things do come to an end, huh?” I twisted my lips to one side and smirked.
Charlotte’s sincere gaze was a result of her reading the innuendo in my voice I’m sure. She had been there from the beginning of this madness. Although she was always the clear-headed one, the one who always had an inspirational adage for even the most dreadful situation, her facial expression displayed that she was at a loss for words. Maybe she had used up all of her sayings and Biblical quotes, noticing that none of what she had said worked on me. No matter how much she touted about her God, He was not my God. And after all that has happened in my life, I’m sure she understood why.
“So, I take it that’s for me.” I bobbed my head, motioning towards the cardboard box in her hand. “Looks big enough to carry all of my things.” There it was, the derisiveness in my voice that preceded every argument she’d seen me carry out over the years she had known me.
Charlotte nervously swallowed. I’m sure she was hoping that I would just take the box, load my trinkets inside of it, and peacefully leave the premises. To her relief, I had all intention of doing so. I wouldn’t want her to lose her job too, especially not her current position as Chief Human Resource Officer. I know how hard she’s worked to obtain such a title at this stage in her career. We’re both in our late twenties and the competition for her salary grade was fierce. But Charlotte had always been smart, clever even when it came to business.
Coming from a family of investors and entrepreneurs she had been groomed on just the right things to say to get the edge on a competitor. I admired her business savvy, but more importantly her heart to look back and help people like me. The board of officers at this prestigious eleven-year-old company had trusted her judgment when she recommended that the team hire an old friend from college. One who looked good on paper, impeccable résumé, but the truth is that I wasn’t so impressive under pressure. Some of my actions even surprised me. But what do you do when stress and pressure seems to choke the very life out of you?
“Here, this is for you.” Charlotte handed a white envelope to me. “Sorry it took so long to process.”
I examined the contents of the envelope and found that it was the bonus earned from last quarter. “Thank you …” I said to her. “For everything. I know—”
“Not here—” She quickly cut me off. “Outside.”
As Charlotte looked around at the people in the neighboring cubicles, heads snapped towards computer screens and keyboards. Suddenly, phones started ringing and calls were once again being taken. It’s amazing how my co-workers all had an interest in my life now, but not one of them showed a bit of concern when things were going great in my life. My achievements, my awards, and my permanent hire from the temp agency. They had appeared as if they could care less. Well, not all of them. I gently smiled at Farrah who always had a kind word for me. She held her hand up to her ear in the shape of a phone and mouthed the words, call me.
I nodded with a slow exhale.
After I placed my last possession into the white cardboard box, I cleared my desk of the residual dust and lint. I may not have been happy about the powers that be to fire me, but at least a clean desk would give the naysayers one less thing to dog me about.
As I neared my car, I turned to Charlotte and said, “Please, don’t tell Richard.” With slightly downcast eyes, I added, “The last thing I need is for him to tell Mama about this now.” I couldn’t bear for them to know I lost my job because I had lost my temper one time too many. When I lashed out on a client who held a large account, it was the last straw for my employers. “Just let me get through the weekend with some peace and I’ll tell her on Sunday. Easter is Sunday and she’s always in a good mood after church.”
With her voice full of compassion, Charlotte promised, “You don’t have to worry about me saying anything to anybody. True, Richard is my husband, but that’s your brother.” She then took me by the shoulders. “You are not only an employee, Melinda, you’re my friend.”
“Was … I was an employee,” I corrected her.
Charlotte’s arms lowered to her sides. She sighed softly and offered a gentle smile. After a few uncomfortable moments of silence, Charlotte reached into her purse and pulled out her wallet. I watched as she thumbed through a few twenty-dollar bills before extending the money in my direction. I shook my head, but she folded the bills in half and stuffed them inside of the front pocket of my favorite pair of jeans that I always wore on Causal Friday. Only now instead of alternating my pretty blouses and cute shoes to pair with them, worn-out sweatshirts and sneakers had become the norm.
“You don’t have to do that.” I adjusted the box in my hands. “Really, I’ll be okay. There are plenty of jobs out there. I’ve been down many times before …” I steadied my eyes on her, “and have managed to bounce back each time. So, this isn’t anything new.”
“I’m thinking of Sean too, you know.” The warmth in her voice melted the resentment in mine.
With the mention of his name, I swallowed the growing lump in my throat. She knew what Sean meant to me; especially after all we’d been through. Charlotte hugged me, and then took the keys dangling from my front pocket. She pressed the unlock button on the remote and opened the door. I placed the box on the back seat and closed the car door.
“Let me know if you need anything.” She stalled for a moment. “I mean it, anything. I’m here for you.”
Before the next shift ended, I took my keys from Charlotte’s hand and opened the driver side door. “I meant what I said inside. Thank you for everything. You took a chance on me when no one else would. Even though I basically sabotaged myself.” I nervously chuckled. “I’ll never forget how you looked out for me.”
“Hey, that’s what friends do. Before I married your brother, we were friends. Good friends.”
I stared at Charlotte, admiring her for the woman she was. There was something about her that caused me to want to do better for myself. And although it was Casual Friday, she still managed to make a pair of jeans look fit for the boardroom. The loose fitting blouse with a sewn in scarf meshed well with the high heel strappy slingback sandals she wore. It was the beginning of spring and she definitely looked the part.
As Charlotte stood there with her sleek white cropped jacket and leather satchel resting at the bend in her elbow, I was reminded of how I was just three short months ago: together, stylish, outgoing, and a pleasure to be around.
“Well, I’m gonna get out of here.” I glanced at the building and then to the nearby highway as traffic picked up. “Sean is going to be looking for me soon. I’m thinking of just having dinner alone, you know, just the two of us.”
“I’m sure he’ll like that.” Charlotte smiled. “And when you have time this weekend, give me a call, okay.” She backed up, allowing more room for me to open my car door. “I think I know a place that’s hiring. I’ll tell you more about it.”
Charlotte’s heart was in the right place, but right now all I wanted to do was curl up in bed and cry. The breezy weather in coastal South Carolina called for a seventy-five percent chance of rain. By the looks of things in my life, today a thunderstorm suited me just fine.
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