Temp Woes, Enduring Gain

As I walked through the kitchen door just home from quilting class, I heard my husband on the tail end of a very suspicious-sounding phone conversation.

"Yes, that would be fine," he said, purring into the receiver. "She'll be there tomorrow morning at 8."

"Did I just miss something?" I asked my husband, giving him a quick kiss.

"That was the temporary employment agency," he answered brightly, "and I just got you a job!"

While it was true that I had signed up to work as a temp, I had envisioned myself having the last word on what I could or couldn't, would or wouldn't do. And my husband had just signed me up for a job that definitely fell into the "couldn't and wouldn't" category.

"It's data entry - you can do that," he promised, visions of dollar signs dancing in his head. Since he was still new at the business of being a husband, I patiently explained that while I had used a computer at my previous job, I used it to perform a specific function. I possessed no general knowledge of computers nor speed when typing on them.

My husband reminded me with a pleading look that necessity is the mother of invention and that, given our circumstances - a three month stay with his parents until we moved to another state to begin new jobs - wouldn't it be worth a try?

The following morning found me reluctantly being herded out the door by my husband as my mother-in-law pressed a deviled-ham sandwich into my hand and gave me a reassuring squeeze.

My father-in-law wished me well in his usual Yankee pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps manner.

"Don't forget," cautioned my husband before dropping me off, "If you don't know what to do, act like you do and learn fast - it's the New England way."

"Yes, but I'm from California," I reminded him.

I entered the building - a jewelry factory - and was greeted by my supervisor, Mike. He walked me through a maze of tiny cubicles until we reached mine. It had a chair, a desk, and a massive computer. I did not like the looks of that computer. "You'll be typing rows of figures," Mike explained. "I'll let you get acquainted with the computer while I get the books."

I began circling the thing, thinking what a good impression I would make if I could at least turn it on before he returned. Alas, I could not even find the "on" switch. When he returned, I sheepishly explained that if he could just turn it on, I'd be fine. He smiled, started up the monster, then showed me my work. I'd be typing long rows of figures - pages and pages of them. It looked simple enough. I gave him a confident smile as he turned to leave.

And it was simple. Simple, but slow going. When Mike returned about 20 minutes later, I had typed only four rows of figures. "How are you doing?" he asked. "Great" I answered, relieved that the worst was behind me.

Three minutes later, he was back. "You have a phone call," he said. "You can take it next door."

"I'm going to kill him," I thought as I envisioned my husband/business manager wanting to know how I was getting along. But when I answered the phone, I was surprised to hear a woman's voice. It was my supervisor at the agency.

"How's it going?" she asked.

"Fine" I told her.

"No, it's not," she replied with no mincing of words. "You're too slow."

Her words were such a shock that I couldn't process their meaning. "What ... what should I do?" I whispered back.

"Leave," she admonished me, "and I'll call you later."

I returned to my cubicle for my things. I made my way back through the maze, looking pathetic with the little bag lunch I hadn't lasted long enough to eat. It seemed to take forever.

No one looked directly at me, but I knew somehow that they knew. They knew I was too slow, knew I hadn't worked out, knew I had been asked to leave. I held in my emotions until I reached a pay phone and dialed my in-laws' number. My husband answered - the one person who could comfort me, who could make any problem seem small, the one who had gotten me into this mess in the first place!

The instant I heard his voice, I began to sob. I was still sobbing when he picked me up in front of the factory. I cried through my doughnut at the Donut Kettle where we stopped on the way home. Walking through the kitchen door and seeing my mother-in-law's concerned expression unleashed a new flood of tears.

WHEN my father-in-law came home for lunch, he quietly and thoughtfully listened to my tale. His usual stoic expression was firmly in place. But when I finished, the edges of his mouth began to twitch. He looked at me, over at my husband, then back at me. Then he threw back his head in a most uncharacteristic way and laughed. It was not a polite laugh. It was a deep, bordering-on-hysterical laugh. The kind that takes several false stops and starts, punctuated by doubled-over belly-holding, to recover from.

In fact, for the rest of the day, my father-in-law and I could not pass in the hall or make eye contact without both of us breaking into tears - his of laughter and mine a combination of anguish and self-conscious giggles. It could not be denied: The more I thought about it, the funnier the situation became. Why?

It was a failure so complete that there was nothing to do but laugh.

A week later, to my surprise, the agency called with a new assignment. Amazingly, it was for data entry; The same job I had failed at so miserably. "Don't worry," said my supervisor. "This job is for six weeks, and they are willing to train you." Terrified, I showed up for work the next day. That job lasted until my husband and I were ready to move.

Now, when I think back to the shortest temp job on record, I am reminded of a failure that propelled me into a satisfying job; one that my employers wanted to make permanent. I am reminded of the first sign that I had a courageous, risk-taking husband (even though that particular risk was taken with me!). Lastly, I recall an enduring image: my father-in-law, the taciturn Yankee who, because of me, laughed till he cried.

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