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  • Because I was the newest and youngest hire, it fell to me to make sure the office mail made it down to the mailbox in front of our building each afternoon — before 4:30 p.m. Not a minute later. This a standard task, I suppose, for someone holding an entry-level position, and I didn’t mind its being in my job description.

    The only thing I minded about that job — my first real job out of college — was one of my coworkers, if you could call him that. His name was Jerry, and he was the head of our sales team, which made him one of my bosses by about five rungs of corporate hierarchy. His job required him to travel a lot, and I could tell that he wished it didn’t.

    Jerry was a true creature of the corporate lagoon, whose conversation was peppered with phrases like “We need to hit the ground running” and “Here’s where the rubber meets the road” and words like “impactful” and “sub-optimize.” He could also be a real grump, especially on his first day back in the office after being on the road. He was an absolute bear when the mail didn’t get down to the mailbox by 4:30 p.m.

    This only happened once on my watch, in my second week of work there, and Jerry gave me such a talking-to that I never made that mistake again. It wasn’t his seniority that intimated me so much as his breath, which smelled like the backseat of a taxicab.

    I know that taking out the mail doesn’t sound like such a complicated thing to manage, but my days just starting in the workforce out could be pretty full. Sometimes tasks took longer than I thought they would. Even taking out the mail could throw a curveball every once in a while.

    It was one of these unforeseen complications that, a couple of days after Jerry’s upbraiding, had me feeling a bit rattled there at the desk where I sorted the mail each morning and where it collected in the outgoing mail tray throughout the day.

    I had the mail all ready to go out with minutes to spare — eight, in fact — and was stacking it in an orderly pile to carry down to the street, when I noticed the flap of a single envelope bunching up under a few other items. I slid the envelope out of the pile to notice that its flap hadn’t been sealed. The address on the envelope — one of Jerry’s clients — suggested that it had come from Jerry’s office.

    Rather than confront Jerry about this, which is what I wanted to do, though I knew this would’ve seemed even more petty than impudent, I set about trying to seal the envelope shut. I licked the meager strip of adhesive along the flap and pounded it down with my fist. No luck. I licked it again, more liberally this time, and then held the flap closed with the heels of both hands for the count of 10. Still the flap lifted the instant I pulled my hands away.

    I searched the table for a roll of shipping tape, or Scotch tape, but, of course, neither was there, since these were the items most borrowed from my workstation and not returned. So I gave the envelope one more licking — this one too unseemly to describe here. Again, however, the envelope resisted.

    The clock was ticking, and I knew I’d wasted precious time battling vainly with this limp piece of stationery and its inferior glue. I decided to make a quick tour of the usual suspects’ cubicles and track down my tape. If I didn’t linger for chitchat, I’d just make my deadline.

    Before lighting out on this important errand, I dropped the rebellious envelope on my table and pounded it with my fist a couple more times. The flap still refused to stick closed.

    As I stepped away from the table, I nearly collided with Jerry as he came around the corner.

    “I was coming to check on the mail,” he said.

    His eye fell on the recalcitrant envelope, its flap standing at attention.

    “Yeah,” he said with a shake of his head. “I tried for about a minute to get that thing to stick shut, but it just wouldn’t cooperate.”

    He looked at me. “Glad you’re on top of this,” he said. “That letter really needs to get out today.”

    As he turned to leave, I caught a faint whiff of his taxicab breath. I tried in vain to suppress the image of his grayish tongue lapping where my own tongue had just lapped.

    I went out drinking with some friends that night — some other entry-level worker bees. In my inebriation, I cursed Jerry — his breath, his tedious corporate jargon — for making me vomit in the alley near a bar called the Cantab Lounge. It probably wasn’t Jerry’s fault. The more likely culprit was the evening draught beer special.

    I’m certain that it was Jerry, however, who motivated me to start thinking of where I wanted my career to lead me. I should’ve walked right up him the very next morning and thanked him for helping me grasp the merits of hitting the ground running. Of course, I didn’t thank him. Truth is, I couldn’t lay eyes on him for a few weeks without feeling a twinge in my stomach.

    Besides, once I’d decided to make my next move up the corporate ladder, there was no looking back.
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