Note – I wrote this late 2009, during the recession. I always wanted to go back and do a better, second draft, but it has just been sitting, rotting in the first draft form. Very long, but I hope you enjoy this
Mark Lydon deposited a handful of letters into the post box that sat squat next to the library door as he passed on his way out. The sun took the chill out of the air that he breathed in deeply. It was nice getting the cobwebs of book dust and the scent of old tomes out of his lungs, filling them instead with the fresh smell of new grass and pine.
A pretty productive day, he thought. A lot of research into possible career paths, found several perspective employers in the area that I’ve previously missed, researched a few and now sending off some résumés.
Rejoicing in the sunshine Mark turned down the dirt path, deciding to take a walk down by the river instead of going directly home. He’d always liked to take long walks, but his walks had been getting longer and longer lately. It wasn’t just that the days were getting longer and warmer; his walks had started to grow in the middle of winter. There were some days he spent hours just walking and thinking.
After only a few minutes Mark had reached the spot where the trail hooked off to the right, leaving the illusion of a giant tree growing right in the middle of the path. It was a large white pine towering above the surrounding woods like the mast of some forgotten, landlocked ship.
Years ago, shortly after Mark had moved into town, he was walking this very same path and had a special experience. As he neared the large pine a surreal scream filled the woods. He stopped in front of the tree and looked up. About 15 or 20 feet above him, on the lowest branch, was a giant bird. On the next branch up, which was a good 4 or 5 higher and a little to the left, was another bird. In the gloom of the woods he couldn’t make out what type of birds these might be. At first he thought red tail hawk, but they looked bigger. Eagle big, but without white heads. Perhaps they were immature bald eagles or maybe golden eagles. He decided to just call them “eagle” in his mind. On the trunk between the 2 eagles was a squirrel, obviously trapped being able to go neither higher nor lower. The squirrel was making a racket, screaming in fear, anger and displeasure. He wanted everyone to know that he didn’t want to be dinner for a couple of birds; that he didn’t want to be eagle food. Startled by Mark’s unexpected arrival the eagle on the lower branch flew off into the woods. Mark didn’t want to disturb the balance of nature anymore, so he quickly left, the squirrel’s screams quickly diminishing in the distance.
The spot had held a special magic for Mark ever since. He always looked up, hoping to see the birds again. It didn’t matter that 8 years had passed without another sighting; he still always looked and thought of the eagles. As he passed the tree again (no eagles today) he thought of how special he felt to witness such an event.
Then he remembered the next day at work.
He had told Brian about his special experience. Brian was totally unimpressed. In fact, Mark quickly discovered that Brian was unimpressed with just about anything he had to say. Brian had joined the data entry crew about the same time as Mark, but had become Mark’s supervisor within a year. Two years later and he was off to a position in Market Research. Mark learned that Brian had been taking classes and had finished his degree before his promotion. And since then… well, Mark didn’t want to think about that.
Instead he started thinking about some of the companies he sent resumes off to today. One in particular stood out – Markeldyn. It sounded like such an exciting company and it was in town, too. He loved the name. And he also loved the name Ms. Hopewell, Ms. Grace Hopewell, the manager in charge of the data entry department.
A small, much less traveled path branching off to the right was blocked by a big log. Obviously somebody didn’t want the path used, most likely as part of an erosion control effort. Mark stepped over the log and started to imagine Ms. Hopewell.
In his imagination she was a pretty older lady. Not too much older, perhaps in her mid 40s. A round face, full of wit, was fringed by short, light brown hair. Her large, caring smile lit up the room. She looked across her desk at Mark. “I have to say that I am impressed, Mr. Lydon. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I am considering you for a position.”
Mark stepped over some debris in the path. “Thank you Ms. Hopewell.”
“To start it will be a data entry position, similar to what you worked at your last job. As time goes on I plan on giving you special projects and opportunities to progress in the company.”
The sound of the slowly churning water reached Mark at about the same time as the cool wet breeze generated by the river. A step or two later and the river itself came into view through the newborn leaves. Mark turned left at the bank to follow the river back to the main path. Something wasn’t quite satisfying with his introduction to Ms. Hopewell, so he went back and worked out a few little details.
Satisfied he let her continue. “I don’t think it is too early to discuss salary, do you Mr. Lydon?” He shook his head ‘no” as he turned away from the river following the path that headed towards home. “I was thinking 5, maybe 10,000 more than your previous salary. Perhaps 3 weeks of vacation time a year. Sound OK to you?”
Mark continued to revise his little daydream as he walked along. 25 minutes later he was back in his apartment looking through the day’s mail.
“Yes, I’m sure I’m OK, Mom.”
Why did she have to badger him so? He said he was doing fine, why didn’t she believe him?
“Mark, I’m really worried about you. Your unemployment must have given out long ago. Has it been months? I’m sure your savings are depleted. And, as much as I’d like to, I can’t really help much, I’m having difficulties myself. Are you sure you’re looking at all the options?”
“Of course I am. And things are beginning to look up. I should be able to tell you more in a day or two.” Mark realized what he had said and bit his lip.
“Did you get a call back? Do you have an interview scheduled? Why didn’t you say so earlier?”
Embarrassed that his daydream had intruded into his real life Mark had to backtrack. “No, it’s nothing. There were just a few companies I’ve sent things out to… I got a little over excited in anticipation. I’m sure one of them will call me….”
After a short pause, “Listen Mark, don’t put all of your hope into these companies. Continue to look. Look at everything. Everything…”
“Bye Mom. I’m tired and need to go to bed. I’ll be up first thing hitting the pavement.”
“OK. Good night.”
Leaving the library Mark dropped an envelope into the post box and headed off toward home. He was aware, wasn’t aware that the day was overcast and a little cooler than the day before, saw but didn’t see the daffodils by the fence. His eyes and ears were turned inward. Market Research – I like the sound of that. He had spent most of the day at the library daydreaming and looking up different occupations.
Without thinking he turned down the path into the woods.
Josh Towner. Josh had worked with him for almost 2 years before being transferred over to Market Research. Josh had done a few special projects first to get his foot in the door. And Josh wasn’t the only one. Amy went there as did Todd. And of course Brian, can’t forget Brian.
Mark discovered he had stopped and was staring at the eagle tree. “Natural selection,” he said, not realizing he had spoken out load. He continued on his way.
Not just Market Research. In his 8 years at the firm he had the indignity to have worked under 3 supervisors that had started in the department at his level. All had started after him. Why was he always passed over?
He stepped over the log and brought Ms. Hopewell back to mind.
She smiled at him. “Mr. Lydon, I think I’ll hire you directly into the supervisor’s position. It is currently open and, with your experience, you’d make a great supervisor.” Mark made the left turn at the river out of habit, not noticing the flowing water. “There are also many opportunities for self improvement with this position. We take training very seriously at Markeldyn.”
Mark continued, going back and forth in the interview, changing details, slowly increasing his base pay. The bridge soon came into sight seeming to stretch from horizon to horizon 40 feet above his head, soaring over the little valley in a single span. Oops, I guess I missed the turn off. No matter, I can follow the loop around. Mark continued trudging forward, passing under the bridge.
“Perhaps you could start as early as next week? Monday, perhaps?”
“Mom, I told you last night that I am OK. I’m getting by.”
“I’m assuming you didn’t take my hint. I’ll spell it right out then – you need to take a job, any job. You can wash dishes or bus tables. Working at fast food isn’t a crime.”
“Mom! I’m almost 30! I’d look like an idiot working at a McDonalds!”
“No you wouldn’t – you’re still only 28 and plenty of people your age and older work fast food. Even people my age. You need to make money. Maybe you should try retail sales. You’d make a great clothing salesman, you’re so handsome.”
“I can’t take my eye off the ball! I need to stay focused on finding a career!”
“Honey, it’s easier to look for a job from a job. And it’s easier to look if your stomach isn’t growling because you haven’t eaten in two days or you can’t stay awake because your car is too uncomfortable for a full night’s sleep.”
“It hasn’t quite come to that yet. I’m still doing OK.”
“Mark, do yourself a favor and drop off just a dozen applications tomorrow. It’ll only take a few hours and then you can go back to looking for your career. Just don’t waste time – it can take weeks, even months, from the time you drop off an application until you see a paycheck.”
“You don’t have to worry about me. Goodnight Mom.”
“Promise a half a dozen?”
On his way out of the library Mark skirted around the post box, carefully avoiding looking directly at it, as if it were some beast that might suddenly jump out and bite him if provoked. He just couldn’t get anything done with his mother’s annoying phone call fresh in his mind. She didn’t see his potential, just as the idiots at his old job couldn’t see it.
He stopped in front of the special white pine, leaning back to try to spot the top floating 150 feet above. What would it be like to have to eat food that didn’t want to be eaten? Meal after meal after meal… No eagles, so the tree was left behind.
Everyone else seemed to be afforded all types of opportunities, but they never offered him anything. Projects upstairs, courses, promotions – why did they get the chance, but not him?
He stepped over his log and headed towards the river. He shook the images of his old coworkers out of his head and brought the image of Ms. Hopewell up. She looked younger than before. Younger and prettier.
“Mr. Lydon, I think I will offer you the supervisor’s position. You’ll have to really crunch, though, as I also went to send you back to school. I think you’ll be more use to me if you have a degree.”
When he reached the bank of the river Mark suddenly stopped and looked around as if suddenly aware of his surroundings. The buds were beginning to leaf out on the trees while shoots seemed to push through the compressed soil, signs of renewed life. Yet there were still big chunks of ice on the banks of the river, even a few up near the path. It had only been a few weeks since the ice had broken. He apologized and let Ms. Hopewell continue, turning left to follow the river.
“Markeldyn will pay for your classes and books, of course. We’ll also give you plenty of time to study. If you want to continue on through graduate school, well, so much the better.”
Mark never noticed passing under the bridge on his very circuitous route home.
“Mom, stop bugging me. I have a job. It’s a great one.”
“What type of job do you have all of a sudden? Where did it come from?”
“They offered me a supervisor’s position and are going to send me to school. I’ll start at a little over 100 grand a year.”
“Oh my God, Mark! Listen to yourself babble this nonsense! Please come home. I can find room for you. I think it’s the only way.”
“I called your father today. He said he would gladly give you a position if you came home.”
“No way! I won’t work for the bastard! I don’t talk to the man, how can I work for him? And you remember what happened last time I tried to work for him!?”
“Don’t talk about your father like that! You were only 17 when you worked for him before. You tried to do too much and took everything too seriously. You’re an adult now, you can do the work. In fact, since you are so skilled with computers your father might let you do most of the office work. He works more than 12 hour days just to stay on top of it. He could use your help with it and you wouldn’t have to go out in the field at all.”
“Please come home. Talk to your dad. If it doesn’t work out, don’t worry about it. There are just as many opportunities here as there. Maybe more.”
“I’ll think about it, but not right away. I have too many sticks in the fire and I don’t want to lose out. ’Night Mom.”
“Please come home!”
Mark walked out of the library, post box totally forgotten. He was proud of all the research he’d done about data mining and analysis. Might come in handy.
His father popped into his mind for a minute.
Arrogant bastard! So what if I can’t pound a nail right or saw in a straight line.
His father never said anything bad about him, but he didn’t stop the men from hooting, hollering and laughing. Of course they did it when his dad wasn’t around. But he had to have known. How embarrassed Mark had been! A picture of his dad came unbidden into his mind, but it actually looked more like Brian.
A couple of weeks before he had been let go he had heard that they were getting a new manager. One day he heard his supervisor, Audrey, who had only been in the data entry group for 3 years before being promoted, talking to somebody. The voice was familiar. Brian, wearing a suite, walked in. Audrey started the introductions, “Brian, this is Mark Lydon, our most senior data entry specialist. Mark, this is…”
“I think he knows me, Audrey.” Brian was still as arrogant as ever. He stuck out a hand. “It’ll be nice working with you again, Mark. Actually, to tell the truth, I’m a little surprised you’re still here. ‘Here’ as in a data entry position. You’ve been here, what, 6 or 7 years now?”
Mark shook his hand. “8.”
Brian nodded, “yes, 8. Time goes by so fast. I’ll see you around, Mark.” He then continued on with Audrey.
The tree looked particularly empty, just a huge expanse of knobby bark stretching into the heavens. Sometimes being on the bottom is better than in the middle.
He moved on. I’d still rather be on top.
While working in Market Research Brian had gotten an MBA. He had been a supervisor for a few years. The move up was inevitable. He’d also married Carrie. She’d only been there for a year, having recently graduated and looking for a better position in a bigger company she had used the data entry job as a jumping off point, a temporary job to tide her over as she did her serious search. She’d caught everyone’s eye and Brian had obviously caught hers.
Mark stepped over the log onto his path. Ms. Hopewell came up, this time even younger and prettier.
“Mr. Lydon, I think I want to take you on as my personal assistant. I’ll groom you to take over for me when I move up.”
“Thank you Ms. Hopewell.”
“Please call me Grace.”
She got up and led him to a door that he hadn’t noticed during any of the past interviews.
“This is the data entry department. I want to introduce you to a few workers.”
There were about a half dozen people in the room. Not just “people” but women. Beautiful women. Mark was barely aware when he turned right at the river instead of left to loop back. He looked around the room and caught some familiar faces.
“Hi Mark! Long time no see! You’re looking fantastic.” It was Marisa Jones. He’d had a huge crush, to the point of obsession on her in high school. He wasn’t sure if she knew he existed.
The path ended and Mark came to a stop. The river, still talking to itself in an asymmetric lilt but now a little higher pitched, was very wide and shallow here. Boulders stood out, seeming to make a pathway across. A few chunks of ice were caught up in the rocks.
Mark turned around.
“Hey Mark!” Lauren. She was in one of his classes when he’d spent his year at NSU. He never knew her last name, but had constantly fantasized about her that year.
As he walked back to the bridge he was introduced to all six “co-workers”. In a part of his mind he realized he had gone beyond fantasizing about the perfect job and had moved onto his personalized version of Nirvana.
Home later than usual, Mark was looking through the mail when he noticed a letter with the word “Markeldyn” in the address. His hands were shaking as he ripped it open.
2 sheets of paper.
“Dear Ms. Hopewell, allow me to introduce myself.”
He stared at the note, very confused. He read through it again before realizing it was his cover letter.
And his resume.
He looked at the envelope. A stamp pointed to his address. “Return to Sender”.
The phone rang. It rang again. It began to sound like the squirrel, shrieking again and again and again.
Finally the answering machine picked up. He could faintly hear it in the background.
“Mark, this is your mother. Please pick up – I know you’re there.
“I didn’t like our conversation yesterday. I thought it over and I’m going to come take you home. I’ll be there sometime tomorrow evening.”
He sat and stared at the wall.
Some fuzzy time later Mark realized the phone was ringing again. He was dimly aware that it had been ringing for a while. It was dark in the apartment. What time is it?
From the answering machine in the other room he could hear his mother’s voice again, “Mark, I talked to your father tonight. He’s even more worried than I am. He’s going to pick me up in the morning and drive out with me. We should be there around 4.
“See you then.
“Don’t do anything foolish.”
Mark walked slowly out of the library, confused.
He couldn’t find any reference to Markeldyn in any publication. Not even on an Internet search.
In fact, he didn’t find any of the other companies he’d recently been researching. Did somebody hide all of the material on him? Why?
He threw the balled up envelope into the trash can next to the post box.
No Markeldyn, no need for a resume.
As he slowly walked he thought of his last day at work.
The corner office was big and looked out over a shared pond in the industrial park. Fountains played across the water. Sitting up straight behind the large desk Brian contemplated Mark.
“As you know we’re cutting staff. I had to eliminate 3 data entry positions.”
“I’m senior on staff.”
Brian looked at him sadly, “I know. That’s part of the problem. You’ve been here for 8 years and haven’t made any impact. It’s not that you’re a bad worker – you’re not. You just aren’t a great worker. You never went beyond, never took the extra step or went the extra mile. You never took advantage of what we have to offer.”
“What you have to offer? I was never given any opportunity!”
Brian shook his head. “Mark, did you ever sign up for any of the training classes or online training? It was free for the taking. Look into tuition reimbursement? Go to any seminars? Volunteer for any projects? Show any interest in anything outside your little cubicle?”
“Nobody told me to do any of that.”
“Look, you’re an adult; you don’t need to be told. You need to dig and fight for it yourself. Look at me. I constantly asked, the squeaky wheel and all. That year I worked with you I ended up meeting all of the managers in the building, working my way into 3 special projects, and taking 4 classes offered through work. All the while I was taking 15 hours of classes a semester. I was busting my hump while you sat around and daydreamed. Have you done anything during the last 8 years? Taken even 1 class?” Brian sighed. “Look, I like you. I made sure you got as good of a package as possible. We’ll pay you until the end of the week and then give you 2 months’ severance pay. It should get you through the holidays without a problem.”
“8 weeks pay. For 8 years work,” Mark muttered.
“After you leave here go down to HR. They’ll go over everything with you. Don’t be afraid to use me on your resume. And Mark, do me a favor?”
Mark looked at him. A favor? Now?
“Promise me you’ll be more aggressive in putting yourself forward at your next position. Talk to people. Ask around. Take classes. Volunteer. Oh, and a piece of advice – go back to school. Maybe even take some classes winter term to get back in the groove. You’ll have a few months before classes start to clear your head and pick up a low key job, something simple that will allow you to concentrate on school.”
Mark looked at him for a second. “OK.” He looked down and turned and started walking out.
“Good bye Mark. Good luck.”
Mark realized he’d been standing in front of the eagle tree for quite a while as he thought of his final words with Brian. Standing and fighting back tears.
He suddenly jumped at the sound of a blood curdling scream. He realized it was just his memory of the squirrel. The sound it had made was awful. Pathetic. He hoped by scaring the eagle away he had let the squirrel escape. He couldn’t imagine being trapped like that.
Mark headed for the river, leaving the tree behind.
It’s funny, thinking of Mom and Dad sitting in the car together for hours. Alone together. Together alone. I know they talk often and occasionally visit, but when did they last spend any time together?
Mark stepped over the log. A picture formed in his mind. It was obviously Ms. Hopewell, but different – she was no longer young and pretty, but old and angry.
Mark suddenly realized that he wasn’t looking at Ms. Hopewell anymore. His mother was staring back. Shivering in the cool, moist air he pulled his coat around him a little tighter and took a right turn at the river. A chunk of dirty ice was lying off to the side of the path looking like the rotting corps of some strange white animal. Maybe the eagles had gotten to it too.
At the end of the path, without thinking, Mark started to cross the river, hopping from stone to stone. A stab of sharp frozen pain flashed up his leg as a misstep caused his right foot to dip into the ice-cold water. His little leaps now all felt cold and squishy. The last jump was by far the longest. Mark tripped on landing, ripping open his left pant leg and drawing an angry red rash on his knee. He hobbled forward for a second, cursing under his breath.
Brian laughed at him. “We offered a course in outdoor survival. If you’d taken it you would have been able to cross this river dry and unscathed.”
“Get out of my head!”, but the voice continued, though changed.
“My carpenters go through much worse every day without complaining. Maybe they’re right and you’re a wimp. Not just a wimp, but a fool who can’t do anything right.” It was his father talking now.
Mark cursed angrily and the voices stopped.
Traveling along the bank with the river to his left Mark knew he’d eventually reach the bridge. The low clouds made everything seem grey, the baby leaves lost in the tangled branches looming lifeless above him. After a few minutes walking his path came to a sudden end. Mark worked his way through the twisted underbrush, occasionally having to step over some half rotted block of ice. A short distance from the river’s edge another path appeared, going his way. The land rose steeply to his right. He could hear traffic noises through the trees.
What was he going to tell his parents? That his unemployment checks had ended months ago? That his severance pay and little bit of savings had dried up? That he’d been lying? Living a lie?
The path gave out again. Mark attacked the grove of saplings in his way angrily until one swung back and hit him in the face. Tears welled up – he could tell it had left a welt. Your own stupid fault, he thought to himself. Now being a little more careful he worked his way through the thicket before finding another path a little closer to the river. It didn’t seem very long before the bridge came into view, the burble having given way to more of a deep-throated roar.
The water is much too deep to cross here. Swift and deep.
A path led up to the top of the bridge.
As he climbed up, the traffic noise became louder, a constant rumble across the bridge.
There’s no sidewalk across the bridge!, he suddenly remembered.
He scrambled onto the platform beneath the bridge and looked at its underbelly. Sure enough, a catwalk followed the deck of the bridge across to the other side.
Mark climbed up onto the walkway and found that it was wider than he’d feared.
Piece of cake.
A woozy step followed by another woozy step. It was a lot harder to walk without hand rails than he’d imagined. He looked out and saw that beams or trusses passed close to the walkway every 15 feet or so. They were close enough to grab onto and use as support. That should make it easier. Looking straight ahead, slowly he worked his way across, feeling more steady with each step.
They’ll beat me home. They’ll be there waiting for me.
Arms stretched out like a tightrope walker Mark made his way from beam to beam.
Mom will open up the cupboards and realize I’ve lived on mostly peanut butter, Ramón noodles and mac and cheese for the last few weeks. Dad will notice that the car hasn’t been started in over a month.
The traffic sent a constant growl to accompany his crossing.
What am I going to tell them? How will I explain? How can I face them?
He suddenly noticed the shape in front of him.
It was a huge bird blocking his way.
As he came up the bird threatened him menacingly. For some reason the giant eagle reminded him of Brian. On second thought…
“Father,” Mark whispered.
A careful step back. Another. Mark slowly pivoted, facing back the way he’d come. After only 3 steps he came face to face with another menacing giant eagle. Ms. Hopewell?
“Mother,” he hissed.
The two giant birds were about 10 feet away from him in either direction. He was trapped. Mark looked down. The grating of the walkway was almost invisible, leaving nothing but the river under his feet. The cold water was rushing over a scattering of large boulders, an occasional ice block speeding up as it hit the fast water. It looked a lot higher from here than from the river looking up.
The world began to spin as vertigo set in. An irrational thought entered his head that a controlled jump is better than an unplanned fall.
Shaking uncontrollably he let out a wordless cry for help, sounding like some animal letting out a mortal scream. A squirrel?
The whine and rumble of the traffic over the bridge was the only reply.
Mark slowly and carefully sat down, hands touching first, grabbing onto the walkway. Finally seated, head tucked into his chest, Mark began to cry.
“What am I going to do? What am I going to do?” He repeated this mantra over and over as the early spring evening grew chill.
“What am I going to do?”
— — — — —
Read about the Truth Behind the Fiction