Every single one of Fred’s 41 years in the timber industry lined his face. His wrinkles were hard and showed grit more than age; indicators of experience more than wear and tear. “How thin is your skin?” he asked in the job interview.
I knew what he meant. It meant that the last guy--the guy I would potentially replace--couldn’t hack it when Fred got angry. Oh, Fred had made plenty of friends on the job over the course of his four-decade-long tenure, but you sure didn’t want to be on his blacklist. I could already tell that would be a bad place to visit and an even worse place to live. It felt like I was stepping off the prison cart for the first time in Skyrim, and an Imperial guard was asking, “Who
“Well, Fred,” I said, some minutes into the interview, “I was in the Navy.” Which was true. “That’s where I learned to shut up and take orders.” Also true. “And that’s where I got salty and learned to man up if anyone got in my face.”
Which was a lie.
I’m a softie. I’m also 33 years old and have never been to prison, so I’m probably too young and too much on the right side of the law to be labeled a “softie” in the ironic sense of the word. Softie is a term reserved for old codgers that’ll chase you off their lawn but still keep a fresh bowl of candy corn for a visit from their grand kids. Softie is also a term for hardened criminals, given to them by girlfriends that know how to laugh at domestic violence.
So I’m not a softie in that sense. I’m just lucky Fred never asked weirdly specific questions like, “Was the only guy you’ve ever fought your best friend from 10th grade, and was he so high when you shoved him off the stair railing that he couldn’t have got back up even if he tried?” or “Does reading Where the Wild Things Are make you sob uncontrollably in front of your two-year-old daughter?”
“No to that first question,” I’d lie, “and you weren’t there, Fred, but I’m pretty sure he’d kissed my girlfriend behind the art building between fourth and fifth period. And, no, it’s actually Gotye’s Heart’s a Mess video that makes me sob uncontrollably because it punches me right in the childhood. Sir.”
Thankfully, Fred hadn’t asked any of those questions. “I was in the Navy, too,” was all he said. I must've just rolled an invisible twenty-sided die with a +3 ex-military bonus to get me through that round. But that’s also when his Department of Defense haircut became apparent. When it came to Fred's customization options, the military had picked out his haircut in 1968, and he hadn’t revisited that screen for the remainder of his adult life. He grew up taking cover under his school desk in the Cold War Era, served in some undisclosed theater of war during Vietnam, then jumped right into the timber industry when they could still smoke cigarettes while operating a wood chipper near an open gas main clogged with Spotted Owls. He could care less about getting a different haircut.
“Do you have car insurance? Do you have a license? Can you drive?” were his next three questions, bam bam bam, just like that. I was startled by their descending order of competence and responsibility. Perhaps I expected to delve into some race-specific background questions instead, like in Guild Wars 2 character creation: “I would die for my warband, Fred, especially __________, my sparring partner. I dreamed of a quest that called me back to action. It was a vision of the __________.”
In reality, I said, “Well, sure I do,” hoping he’d take that as a blanket answer for all three vehicular questions. “In fact, I was a little panicked before I made it to this interview because my daughter hid my driver’s license from--”
“Do you have insurance or not?” Fred asked, louder this time.
“Y--yes. Yes,” I said. Failed my wisdom check on whether or not to include an anecdote about my two-year-old.
“I don’t have any more questions,” Fred said. He said it in a tone that meant I wasn’t going to be asking him
any questions either. I’d only met him fifteen minutes ago. This was the shortest interview I’d ever been in. It didn’t look promising. But I couldn’t blame him for coming to a quick, negative decision. I was soft around the edges. It was possible he could see in my face that I’d never taken a punch in my life, and that a single sheet of shop-grade 4x8-foot plywood might crush me against the mill's concrete deck. There might’ve been tears welling up at the corners of my eyes during that very interview, I don’t know.
Either way, there was nothing more than a curt handshake before I showed myself to the door. I drove home and called up my manager at the employment agency. I started landsliding her with info, barely taking a breath.
“Hey, Julie, it’s Randy, I think the interview went well but I can’t really be sure and if they decide to pass me over it’s likely because I don’t have the mechanical background they’re looking for though I don’t know how critical that is so if you don’t hear back favorably from them then thanks anyway for setting up the interview but yeah it’s possible I’m not cut out for the job if they aren’t looking for someone with an administrative-heavy resume because I’ll be honest that’s where all my experience lies and--”
“Hey, hey, Randy. I was just about to call you, actually. You start work tomorrow morning.”
“Be there at eight A.M.”
I had to revisit my customization screen. I ran out and immediately purchased my very first pair of Wrangler jeans, a Craftsman work shirt, and a rugged set of Georgia Boots, the kind my truck-driving grandpa always wore. I checked to see if my vehicle insurance was up to date. I considered getting my hair trimmed back down to Navy regs.
No, that last one wasn’t going fly. I’d just completed a twelve-step program to accept my curly hair. But I could at least look the part with the clothing. I laid the clothing on my nightstand and clicked save game. That would be the outfit I'd wear for my first day of work.
I grew up in a logging town, but this was the first time I’d actually work in a job that’d make me feel like a dyed-in-the-wool Oregonian. (Not a Portland Oregonian; that’s a different story.) An Oregonian that had spent entire summers in tire swings hung from pine trees, running along deer trails and dodging bear traps, feeding pigs slop and eating chicken eggs brought in from the barn at sunrise, taking a machete to the blackberry bushes growing across the gravel road, tipping over backwards on ATVs in fields full of dirt, all outside of a one-stoplight town without a post office, where it was a fifteen-minute drive to the Wagon Wheel country store whose owner still gave you a free Tootsie Pop if you handed him a wrapper with the Indian shooting an arrow at a star. That kind of Oregonian.
I stood outside the mill's admin office, waiting until I could get buzzed through the lobby doors at 8 A.M. by the front desk clerk. My Wranglers were too clean, shirt too stiff, and my boots didn't have any creases across the top yet. All I had was newbie gear, not a single chink in the armor. I wasn't going to fool any of these grizzled mill veterans, but it’d have to do.
Fred waited deep inside, and he didn’t care about how long I’d spent buffing my charisma score the night before, or tweaking the nebulous balance between my intelligence and wisdom stats. He had no problem taking someone wet behind the ears and making something out of them. He wanted to take my old skills and abilities, apply them to a new industry, and break any tiresome ego I might consciously or unconsciously prop in the way. He'd seen plenty of whelps come and go in his 41 years. He had nothing to prove. But I still had to prove everything, without the smell of hotshot cologne stinking up the house that Fred built.
The clock struck eight and a bright-eyed clerical specialist pushed a button. The door unlocked. I wound my way down the dark wood paneled hall to Fred's office. The florescent lighting and LaserJet printer and scanner/fax all hummed with activity. It smelled like so much ink toner. Plywood and particleboard was being ordered, shipped, and received by the truckload at industrial locations all across the United States, all of this purchasing power bending to Fred's basso voice and index finger tracing down finely-honed phone lists. I walked into his office, and just like in an MMO, I imagined a yellow exclamation point hovering over Fred's head, ready for me to double click it to update my quest log. I took a deep breath of the free-office-coffee air and prepared to fire up the in-game tutorial for my first day of work in the timber industry.