Jan sat in the corner wedged up against the corn plant and kept her head down. One by one the other employees went into the director’s office. One by one they came out and headed for the exit door, heads down, avoiding eye contact. They each carried a plain white envelope. This had been going on for a good hour and a half and there was at least an hour’s worth of people yet to go. Jan didn’t like it. She was afraid someone would try to engage her in conversation. No one was talking; no one had said a word since they had been called to the director’s office but that didn’t matter to Jan. She was terrified at the thought of having to respond to a question or comment. Arms folded, she chose a spot on the floor about ten feet in front of her and concentrated on it. She tried desperately to keep from looking like a trapped wild animal but she knew she did and that everyone was looking at her. She glanced up and back down quickly. It appeared that on one was paying any attention to her. They were all watching the door to the director’s office waiting for it to open.
She waited like that for what seemed hours, a tight ball of tension. Finally there was nobody left but her. The door to the director’s office opened and the director and another man stepped out. They both looked grim.
The director heaved a mighty sign. “Well, I’m glad that’s over.”
The other man looked around the room. His eyes fell on Jan. Jan tried to become one with the corn plant. The man nudged the director and motioned toward Jan.
“Oh, Jan. I forgot about you. Come into my office.” He turned to go back into his office and stopped. He turned back to face Jan.
“On second thought since you’re the last one we can just do it here.” The other man went into the inner office and returned with another plain white envelope. They both came over to Jan’s corner and pulled two chairs away from the wall. They sat down in front of Jan. A leaf of the corn plant hung down in front of Jan’s face. The director peered around the leaf to get a look at her eyes.
“Jan this is Mr. Arnold. He’s with NASA and he’s the one who oversees the ETL project. And I’m afraid he’s got some bad news for us. What with the economic downturn and all the new administration thinks they need to do some trimming. And you know that since we haven’t produced anything of commercial value, at least in some people’s eyes… Well, you know we’ve always been an easy target. And this time they’ve really done it to us. They’re going to shut us down. Nothing left but a few maintenance people. I’m sorry. They’ve at least come up with a generous severance package.” He offered the envelope.
Jan reached for it tentatively as if it was laced with poison. She thought that maybe this would not be real if she didn’t take the envelope. She had found a home here over the past three years. It had only taken a few weeks in the beginning for people to realize that she was not a talker, that she liked to be left alone. This line of work seemed to have a higher incidence of loners, people who lived more inside their heads than in the company of people. She didn’t want to leave and if she did not take the envelope maybe she would not have to. She looked over the leaf of the corn plant at the director and gulped.
“Are you going to shut down the transmissions?”
“No, but there won’t be anyone monitoring them. Oh maybe we’ll work something out with some of the maintenance people, someone to check things when they get a chance, every few weeks or so. But those kind of people won’t know what they’re looking at.”
Jan’s heart was beating faster. She had to take the chance and ask the question.
“I want to be on the maintenance staff. I want to stay.”
The director sat back and looked stunned. “But you’re a computer operator.”
“I know but I’ve worked with network connections. I know electronics. And I’m a fast learner. I’m good at getting stuff out of instruction manuals. And I can recognize a coherent incoming signal.”
The director smiled warmly. “So you want to stay behind to answer the phone.”
A hint of a smile crossed Jan’s face as she nodded her head.
“There won’t be any new technology for the next four years or the next eight if he gets reelected. No money to be spent.”
Jan nodded again.
The director gave her a thoughtful look.
“OK. Let me think about it. In the meantime…” He offered the envelope again. Jan drew back against the wall.
The director looked at her carefully. Finally he took the envelope back and put it in his shirt pocket.
“OK. Go back to your desk. I’ll let you know something before the day’s over.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hansen.”
After Jan left Mr. Hansen sat down on the edge of what used to be his secretary’s desk and sighed. Mr. Arnold stood in the middle of the room, hands in pockets, and looked around. He finally looked back at the director.
“Rough day, huh?”
“Yeah, the roughest.”
“She wasn’t going to take that envelope, was she?”
“And she didn’t even know what was in it.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered. She’s the shiest person I’ve ever known. Scary. She’s found a home here, away from the real world, and she doesn’t want to leave.”
He paused thoughtfully.
“What do you think?”
“Her idea. Make her a maintenance person.”
“Is she qualified?”
“Of course not. She’s a computer operator. Knows nothing about fixing things. I’ve heard what people sat about her, how quiet she is. But they also say she knows more about what goes on around here than just her job. And she is a quick learner. She can actually find answers in those manuals without calling tech service. She was probably forced to to keep from actually talking to a person. But here’s the thing.” Mr. Hansen stood up and became more animated. “We could hide her in amongst the maintenance people. She could keep the transmissions going and watch for patterns. We could keep the project going. At least sort of. I know we wouldn’t have real engineers and scientists on the job. But at least it would be better than having electricians and heat and air people watching.
Mr. Arnold looked thoughtfully at the director. “OK. But if anybody finds out I didn’t know a thing about it.”
It was still light out when Jan got home that evening. She warmed a frozen dinner in the microwave and took out on the patio. She sat down to eat. As she ate she started flipping through a spiral bound notebook she had brought home from work. The title was at the top of each page. The use of Mathematics in Communicating with Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The phone rang.
“Jan? Are you OK Jan?”
“I’m fine Mom. Why?”
“I just saw something on the news. Some NASA projects being cut. It wasn’t you was it?”
“Yes it was Mom. But it’s alright. I’m getting a maintenance job.”
“Maintenance? What do you mean?”
Oh, air conditioning, electrical, plumbing, stuff like that. They’re keeping a few on just to keep things from going to pot while nobody’s using it.”
“You don’t know how to do anything like that. I’ve never seen you use so much as a screwdriver. You can’t learn to do things like that by reading a book. That’s all you ever do. Oh Jan, I don’t know what’s going to become of you.”
“It’s alright Mom. I’m not really going to be doing maintenance anyway. I’m really going to… Well I can’t really talk about it. Just don’t worry about me, Mom. I’ll be OK.”
“I do worry, Jan. You’re so… quiet. Maintenance. You can’t do that. They push you around and you won’t say anything. You have to learn to speak up for yourself. You’ll never make it in the world. I guess it’s my fault. I wasn’t much of a mother.”
“Don’t say that, Mother.”
Jan hung up the phone. She sat there in the gathering darkness, listening to her mother.
Copyright © 2011 by Angus B. Lewis
All rights reserved