I was going to title this “A Brief Moment About Someone I Used to Work With.” But where’s the fun in that? So I decided I’d be mysterious. This is a mostly true recollection of one of the many odd moments I had while working with a U.S. Federal Agency that I don’t want to name.
My co-worker’s name was Cindy (not her real name). She was a tall, thin, elegant young woman with a huge smile. We worked together for a year or so. Sometimes she worked directly with me, then went back to working with the team. Such was the life of me, a federal employee (a fed), and her, a contractor. She worked so hard, was so serious during work, I never could convince her contractors were the lifeblood of our organization. Or at least of me!
One day, another fed came from HQ to provide the team with some assistance. You know–“we’re from the government, we’re here to help.” Ours was a highly regulated and technical world and one of my jobs was to take all those laws, shake them up, and produce local plans and procedures directing how we’d implement federal and state requirements. Fun!
The guy from HQ was Joe (again, not his real name). He was a short, dumpy man whose clothes always looked slept in. His glasses were thick, smudged, and crooked. Yet, he was unerring polite and painfully kind. He just wanted to help. There was only one thing I found hard to overlook.
When I told Cindy about him and what he’d be doing. I’d worked with him before, so I told her a bit about him–he’s shy, a little awkward to work with at first. But he knows everything about anything related to our work. He was there to give advice and assistance regarding the writing some of us were doing.
I forgot to mention it. I suppose I’d gotten used to it…
This is how it all started– The day Joe arrived, close to the end of the day, he emailed a request for several documents to me. I passed that to Cindy, then sent an email to them both indicating she’d drop them by his office the following morning and meet him at the same time.
What I’d forgotten to mention to Cindy (or warn her, as the case may be) was Joe had one of the worst hairpieces, if not the worst, in existence. It was, and I am not exaggerating for the sake of the story, shaped exactly like a fat, golden brown rabbit, laying on top of his head with its ears, feet, and tail tucked under it–I mean, there was even the suggestion of a head there! No combing down to blend hair anywhere. Just a rodent, sitting there atop his head, with a few strands of his hair trailing down from its butt. This wonderfully intelligent, sweet man, unfortunately, wore a thing that was the target for double-and-triple-takes, long, unbelieving gapes, and not-quiet-enough remarks–and not only from the immature or young.
The rug was impossible to ignore. I saw the most dignified people see it for the first time and gape, their eyes wide, and their lips twitching until they seemed to catch themselves and look away. A lot of people were reduced to doing as I did–talking to his eyebrows. It simply baffled me–how did he not know how awful… how bizarre it looked?
It was late that morning when I looked up from my computer to find Cindy standing in my doorway. No smile, eyes round, she slipped into the chair by my desk and stared at me for a long moment. Just as I was about to ask her if I could help her (as if I didn’t know what this was about)–
“Did you see that thing on his head?” she whispered.
Deadpan delivery, voice worried. I couldn’t decide if she was serious, but experience told me she had to be–she didn’t joke around about anything. I sat there and said nothing, just gave her a bit of a nervous smile. Cindy simply didn’t make jokes at work–at least not to me, one of the feds. She was there to work, take her breaks, work, take her lunch, and go home. If it weren’t for what I’d heard from other people, I wouldn’t have known anything about her (What I did know wasn’t much. She had a small daughter, and she was terrified of cats). Our working relationship was good. Friendly, mutually respectful, even enjoyable. But No Fooling Around.
Just as quietly, she rose and left my office, going right, not left, which would have taken her past the office Joe was using. That worried me. Was she going to be able to work with him? Maybe she was afraid of it–she was afraid of cats. Maybe she should ask him was species the thing was–OK, stop. She’s a pro. She’ll get this worked out.
A couple of hours later, she’s in my office again. She looked pale, which was difficult for a woman of her glorious color. “I swear it made a noise. It whimpered. And I think it smells. Do you think he has a leash for it?”
Oh my stars, what am I supposed to say? A leash? I can feel my lips quivering now. I want to laugh. I mean, that’s really funny! Instead, I focus on her serious face. “Um…do you want to work in your office? I can bring stuff to you.”
She thought about it, then shook her head. I didn’t hear from her for the rest of the day.
She stopped by my office the next day around mid-morning. “He knows so much about (our profession),” Cindy said warmly. “He has a lot of great subjects for me to research. Did you know FEMA has tons of ready-written documents we can grab off their website and repurpose for our needs?”
I was glad to hear this happy news–FEMA and her contact with Joe. I even hoped she’d gotten over whatever she was going through regarding the toupee. I should have known better. We talked business for a while and looked over his research ideas. As she got up, she handed me a few papers and paused.
“I think I know why he walks with a limp,” she said matter-of-factly. “He puts a leash around it, runs the leash down his leg, and ties it there so it can’t get away.”
You know, people actually do snort coffee through their noses. It’s not pleasant, especially when you’re making funny, whiny little noises while you try not to laugh. That just had to be a joke. But I swear, her face is expressionless. Can someone else be feeding her these incredible lines? Cindy was the most tragic figure I’ve ever known–her baby’s daddy was killed. She was so brave! But not funny!
The next day, she comes running in. “I saw him petting it!”
Me (cringing) “Well, he does have a habit of running his hand over it, I guess to make sure it’s in place.”
Cindy: “No. No, he’s petting it”–eyes huge–” and it’s purring!”
I couldn’t help it. I broke down and laughed. Only not loud. Joe was just down the hall, and if I had a rug that looked that bad, every time I heard laughter, I’d know it was about me! She started laughing too. A tinkly laugh that made me so happy to hear it, I laughed more.
That was the last thing Cindy had to say about Joe’s hairpiece, at least to me. Perhaps as she got to know him better, she got accustomed to it. Sort of like me. I had wanted to give her the “look between his eyebrows to talk to him” advice, but I never felt comfortable bringing it up.
Joe spent ten days with us before returning to HQ. That rug was the subject of many whispered stares; I hoped he was none-the-wiser. But I slowly realized that somehow, knowing Joe changed Cindy. She was still an excellent worker, but suddenly, she had a sense of humor. She relaxed a lot. I don’t know, maybe she figured if someone as smart and nice as Joe could go through life with that thing on his head and be utterly clueless, may she should loosen up and not take life so seriously.
She found another job the following year, and I never saw her again. But I’m sure she made her new coworkers’ lives just as enjoyable as she did mine. I do sometimes wish I had asked her if she was trying to make me laugh. Perhaps she thought I was too serious too. She was a wonderful human, a dear person, and I often think of her. I still miss her.