I was fired from the only retail job I ever had. The important thing to remember here is that I wasn’t fired because I was a bad worker, or undependable. It wasn’t because I was a crummy person, incompetent, tardy, or lazy.
It was because—and I will never forget this—I didn’t iron my shirt.
The bossman came into work and looked at me with disgust. “God,” he said. “Don’t you ever iron your shirt?”
At the exact moment he said this, I was eating a ham and swiss on rye—heavy on the mustard. And it’s impossible to defend yourself intelligently with a mouthful of ham and swiss on rye with mustard.
He fired me. I packed my things and I was gone in fifteen minutes.
So yeah, I’m messy. I don’t mean to be, but I am.
My truck, for instance, is a mess. A few days ago, I found a small oak tree sprout growing in a pile of decomposing trash in my floorboards. I couldn’t bring myself to uproot the thing because I love greenery.
My office is a mess, too. I have fifty thousand books. Tall stacks sit on every flat surface so I can always see them, and one day when I am gone, God-willing, someone will think I actually read them all.
I don’t know how I became so messy. I didn’t take a special course to learn how. It’s just a gift.
My mother is tidy. My father polished his lawnmower engines for kicks. My sister keeps a house so clean you could eat supper off her toilet seat. My wife irons our dog-bed covers.
Me? I have a tree growing in my truck.
Yesterday, I was in the post office. I stood in a long line. The room was full of folks with violent winter colds.
After every cough, I covered my nose and mouth with my shirt and mumbled the Lord’s Prayer.
The man in front of me hacked so hard he almost blew out a lung. Then he sneezed.
“Bless you,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said.
That’s when I noticed his familiar profile. It was my old boss. And, by God, you could have sliced a watermelon on his starched collar.
I considered bolting, but that would’ve been childish. Instead, I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and recognized me. His nose was running, and his eyes were puffy.
We shook hands, and while we pumped hands he said, “Oh, wait, we probably shouldn’t be shaking hands, I’m sick with the worst cold of my life.”
“I actually saw you come in,” he went on. “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to make it awkward…” he paused. “I know you probably hate me.”
As it happens, I don’t hate him.
Certainly, I might have once enlarged a photograph of him at the Walgreens film department so I could hang his picture on my garage wall and throw darts at it.
And yes, I might have ordered twenty-three Domino’s pizzas to be delivered at his house one Memorial Day weekend. But I was young, and the pizzas were all my cousin Ed Lee’s idea.
“I was going through a divorce,” he told me. “Those were the darkest days of my life, I was a total jerk, I know that.”
He went on to explain that during that particular year, his wife left him. Then, his father took ill and needed hospice care. His oldest son was running with a bad crowd. His daughter hated him and tried to run away.
And I felt five inches tall. I was sorry I ever called Domino’s and ordered twenty-three pizzas. I should’ve stopped at four.
“Man,” he said, “things are good now, I’m better. I’m working out, eating right, and I’m in a much happier place. I just want to say I’m sorry. I shoulda never fired you, you were an okay guy.”
Well, I suppose being “an okay guy” is a lot better than being something else.
Anyway, he mailed his packages, I mailed mine. We talked in the parking lot until he realized he had to pick up his granddaughter from school.
He extended his hand one more time.
“Oh wait,” he said, withdrawing it. “Sorry, I keep forgetting about shaking hands with this bad cold.”
I gripped his hand anyway. Then, we hugged and slapped each other’s backs.
There are some things more important than colds. Big things. Like feeling the way I do right now.
“Happy New Year,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said. “You too.”
And that’s when I decided, once and for all, to always iron my shirts, forevermore.
No, I’m just kidding.
I hurried home to water the tree growing in my floorboards.