As an IT guy who has been through enough re-orgs and RIFs and burned enough times to accept the role of contractor, especially given that there are no "permanent" jobs these days. I had finally found a nice small town outfit as my "rental agency" that serviced enough local small businesses none of whom needed a full-time IT geek, so, instead of getting one full time, they were engaging an IT geek-- me, that is-- to use a song from Fiddler on the Roof, getting "A little bit of this, a little bit of that..."
Through all of my years in the business I had acquired a broad (some would say eclectic) skill-set that helped me handle all of the little-- and not so little-- tasks that faced me in this new world of small business workloads. I usually had a set of tools that would allow me to pull a penguin out of my pocket.
Early on I sometimes wondered if my "boss" was not really the owner of the agency, instead providing a "front" for someone else given how shy she had appeared.
Mel, short for Melanie, was a small and unassuming woman who was waif-like in body shape, and, as mentally sharp as she proved herself to be, plagued by more than just occasional moments of self-doubt. She did not seem to be assertive enough for her role as owner and operator of a temp agency, but, then, I can't really criticize her given my own crises of confidence. I suspected that, like myself, the only prize she could win in confidence and assertiveness would be the scrap medal.
Mind you, Mel's personality made her easy to get along with and I enjoyed the times we spent together working, to the point that she got more hours out of me than I logged. Working closely with her didn't feel like work.
Our customer's IT-related workload seldom kept me busy for more than four days worth of work per week, so, by the second week, I started hanging around "our" office on my "slack" day, Wednesday. This gave me time to work on projects for the agency by handling the web services and various databases. I also assisted Mel in handling billing, payroll and other accounting. While I may not really understand business accounting I didn't have to since Mel did all of the heavy lifting. I only helped by providing the fulcrum and lever.
What I did observe on those days was how Mel-- and some of the other people she rented out-- were treated by our various customers, each of whom what I would have called, at one time, A-list.
Wondering what I mean for "A-list", something you'd hear from High School or College these days? The "A" in A-list stands for aggression, assertiveness, arrogance, but, most of all, for how much of an asshole they were in treating the people around them. Every one of them acted, in one way or another, like they were something special.
What seemed odd was that a few of them treated Melanie with a fair degree of politeness, consideration and wary respect, all out of proportion to how they treated other folks ... like me, or the girls working in their offices.
Well, Mel got more consideration than I ever did even when I saved their butts by recovering deleted files or disinfecting their computers.
Mel, in her role as the agency owner, was the only person who ever passed along positive comments regarding my work. Whenever I was on-site I seldom got any real feed-back from the asshole in charge, as if I wasn't really there, though their staff, usually receptionists and clerks who, often enough, got a pay-check from Mel, treated me well.
The nice part in this was that getting a hug, even if it was not an offer for more, still felt good.
This all changed six and a half months after joining Mel's little firm. It was early spring and the latest dose of snow was desperately trying not to vanish.
On this particular Wednesday I had gotten into the office more than 20 minutes before Mel's uncharacteristically late arrival and observed her looking more than a bit tired and irritated. Whenever I'd seen that kind of look on my ex-wife's face I had interpreted that look as "angry at me". I had never before seen this kind of look on Mel's face before. Given my own emotional scar tissue I think you can imagine what this did to boost my level of anxiety.
"George," she said, calling me over to her desk as she unpacked her laptop from her bag, "I have some bad news. It's about Mark. He's dead, last night, as I hear it, in a car wreck."
I sighed. While the work I'd been doing for Mark's office would be missed by me-- and Mel-- I was less than likely to miss Mark himself given that, out of all of our customers, he was, to me, the single biggest flaming asshole I had ever had the misfortune to work with ... or, indirectly, for, and, let me tell you, I have worked with some prize assholes in my time. If you've worked for any length of time you have some experience with this kind of person, too, usually accepted as "kept alive only through the Brady Bill". The kind of person who, when you first meet them, you're not thrilled with, but, when you really get to know them, you despise.
Fortunately his office did not use any of our girls as "staff" so the only loss was some of my time.
Given the loss of income to both of us, I sighed and shrugged. "Will I have any clean-up work to do for his office?"
She shook her head. "The way things usually work is that the practice-- Mark having been a lawyer-- will go up for sale and some new lawyer will buy it up and figure out what to do from there. And I'll have to sell them, somehow, on giving us work."
Melanie sighed and asked "You make any coffee, yet? I feel like I've been awake all night."
In hindsight I have to tell you that this clue flew so far over my head that I never even heard a "whoosh".
Given that I now habitually made coffee for her-- my ex had trained me well and the habits had stayed with me once she'd left me-- it only took a couple of seconds to pour her some coffee and fix it up the way she liked in the mornings.
When we sat down at her small conference table each of us had our favorite morning caffeine with us. Mel seemed more introspective than usual as she wrapped her hands around her mug, seemingly drawing some warmth from it, and eyed me.
"So, George ... what do you do, family-wise, these days?"
I sighed and shrugged. "You already know that my ex moved across the country and my children, now all adults, have scattered to the four corners of the earth, so, boss, I've no family ties any longer, it's not like any of my siblings could ever stand me. Why do you think I'm still living down the street in an efficiency apartment?"
Mel chuckled. "Want to meet the local network of people tonight? An informal get-together?"
It wasn't like I had anything else on my calendar. "Sure. What's the dress code? I have gone a long time without a three-piece suit, y'know. Or even a tie for that matter." I smiled back at her as she chuckled. I always appreciated Mel's response to my efforts to get a laugh out of her.
Even given my only intimate relationship with a member of the opposite sex I had no inkling that there was any real flirting going on. Even in hindsight I still don't have the level of experience needed to recognize that there were hints flying over my head.
"Don't you worry about dress code, and, in fact, arriving in sweats might be a good idea. I can guarantee that no one else will bother to dress up."
I nodded. "What time? And where?"
"At the A&W, at 6:15 sharp, that OK with you?"
I nodded my head. "Sure, no problem" I said, then entered the necessary appointment in my phone.
All those hints ... and I they all flew right by me.
I arrived at 6:10 to find Mel in the snow-dusted parking lot with two of our customers.
The A&W was still closed for the winter awaiting a breath of spring or, better yet, a heavily panting summer, and, on reflection, seemed an odd venue for what I took as the movers and shakers in this town to gather. At least no one was any better dressed than I was in warm sweats with big insulated jackets.
Looking around I felt old and out of shape compared to the people who'd awaited my arrival. At least none seemed particularly unhappy with seeing me there ... though none but Mel seemed specifically happy to see me.
It wasn't until it was too late for me to get away that I realized this parking lot was hidden from the road by bushes and hedges and that it backed up to the woods. Another hint missed.
So many hints ... and my Y chromosome made hints almost impossible to recognize without the benefit of hindsight.
When the Sheriff's cruiser pulled up he got out of the driver's seat while his wife, who normally handled dispatch calls, got out of the passenger seat. Three more tall women, two of whom worked with me for Mel's agency, were released from the back seat of his cruiser.
.... There is more of this story ...