When I was a little girl playing in my uncle’s sand and gravel lot, my life’s ambition was to drive a dump truck. Or maybe a front-end loader.
It began with the usual childhood fantasies about Tonka Trucks, but morphed into a bit more when I spent my teenage summers hauling dirt and digging trenches to earn money for college and designer handbags. While my peers nursed their teen angst with Seagram’s wine coolers, I relieved mine smashing boulders in a Magnum-30 Rock Crusher.
But none of the women in Cosmo wore hard hats with their designer suits, so I eventually decided I needed a real job. I was hazy on the specifics, but knew a real job involved a framed college diploma on the wall, a comprehensive dental plan, and an excellent shoe collection.
It did not involve a hardhat.
I got myself a marketing degree and a great job in the public relations department for Albright County, thirty miles from Portland, Oregon. The position came with an excellent government benefits package and a chance to wear tailored skirts to important meetings. I wrote marketing plans and ad copy. I enjoyed a forbidden office romance with the director of accounting. I planned press conferences and sparred with county commissioners.
And after five years, I was so bored I wanted to set fire to my day planner.
“Do you have a pack of matches?” I asked the district attorney, handing her a copy of her retirement speech as I scanned the party crowd for any impending PR disasters.
She smiled and reached into her handbag – a fake Prada monstrosity that had me biting back my lecture about child sweatshops used in the production of counterfeit designer goods.
“Here you go,” she said, holding out a roach clip and a lighter.
I sighed, uncertain whether to be more concerned about the drug paraphernalia or the stolen silverware I’d spotted in her purse.
“Never mind,” I said, drawing back as I glanced around to make sure no media reps were near. “Thanks though. Looks like you’re all set to enjoy retirement.”
She smiled and ambled off to the other side of the ballroom.
“JJ! I’ve been looking all over for you.”
I spun on my Louboutin heels to see my handsome, forbidden boyfriend Daniel approaching, his tie slightly askew. His dark hair was adorably rumpled, and the dimples I’d grown fond of in the three months we’d secretly dated were nowhere to be seen.
“Here I am,” I said, giving him my best PR smile. “Just making sure the hors d'oeuvre trays stay filled and the HR director doesn’t grope the undersheriff.”
“Right. Can you get away for a minute? Or maybe we can talk privately as soon as this is over?”
I snatched six empty wine glasses off the table in front of the county clerk, who gave me a loopy smile as a camera flash went off. I handed the glasses to a passing busboy and went back to scanning the crowd. “I can’t do it after the event. I’m going out with my sister and Macy. And right now I’m kind of busy with work.”
I waited for Daniel to say something disapproving about Macy – my sister’s intern who was rumored to have family mob ties – but he just tugged his tie and frowned.
“Work,” he muttered. “That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about.”
Daniel grabbed my arm and pulled me into a corner beside a fake ficus plant. “JJ – look,” he said, his voice low and conspiratorial. “Remember when we started dating and I said I’d never, ever abuse my role as director of accounting and finance to share privileged information unless it was a dire emergency?”
“Well, it’s an emergency,” Daniel said, looking grim. “I just came out of a meeting, and we’re having some financial difficulties with a few of the county departments. I feel like it’s my duty to tell you that—”
“Aw, hell. Are they going to cut my job and make me write the press release announcing my own layoff?”
Daniel winced. “No.”
“There won’t be a press release.”
“It’s just that your position has always fallen under the DA’s office, and with her retiring—”
“I’m retiring, too.”
“That’s one way to put it.”
I saw the county health director making a beeline toward the food and caught the arm of a passing secretary. “Mary, can you ask Ted not to hand out chlamydia pamphlets in the buffet line?”
Mary dashed away and I turned my attention back to Daniel.
“It’s not a layoff, exactly,” he continued. “They’re calling it a repositioning.”
“Repositioning? Like they do with cruise ships?”
“Nothing that pleasant,” he muttered. “I’m sorry JJ, I’m so mad about this, but I just made a call to my friend Sloan, and she thinks—”
“What’s a repositioning?”
Daniel sighed. “Whenever Albright County has to cut jobs, they first try to find comparable employment in an open position within another county department — allowing the employee to maintain government benefits, PTO, retirement—”
“What sort of comparable employment?”
“That’s the problem,” Daniel said, his voice growing more aggravated. “There’s nothing in public relations right now, or any other office jobs in the whole county system, and what they’re planning to offer is so utterly ridiculous that–”
“So nothing like my current job?” I asked, craning my neck to watch the county assessor showing her tattoo to a befuddled-looking reporter. “Nothing even close?”
“I’m sorry. I know how much you love your job, and you’re damn good at it, too. That’s the really shitty thing here. Look, my friend Sloan owns this great PR firm downtown. I told her all about you and she wants you to come in for an interview next—”
“What’s the county job? The one I’d be repositioned to?”
Daniel sighed again. “They found out you have experience operating heavy equipment. There’s a vacancy in the Department of Solid Waste at the Albright County Landfill. They’re going to try to give you this crap about how the benefits and salary are the same as what you make now, but obviously—”
Daniel closed his eyes. “I’m so sorry, JJ. Everyone knows you deserve a promotion, but you’ve got the least seniority right now and this is the only opening in the county system—”
I stared at him. “Would I drive a compactor?”
“The big thing with the spikes on the wheels to squash all the garbage.”
“Um, well — I have no idea. But that’s beside the point. You can’t possibly accept this. It’s an insult. It’s – it’s—”¬
“Who would I be working with?”
Daniel snorted. “The landfill’s best and brightest, I’m sure. Really, with your education and professional experience, Sloan said she could probably start you at—”
“Hey, Randy,” I said, catching the library manager by the elbow and lowering my voice. “Your fly is unzipped.”
Randy jerked unsteadily on his tie and winked at me. “Saves time for when I have to take a leak.”
I released his elbow and looked back up at Daniel. He was quivering with enough indignation for the two of us, which made me feel better about my own surprising lack of it.
“JJ, I’m telling you the county is eliminating your job. Why are you still doing it?”
I frowned, not sure I understood the question. “Because I like taking care of people. And because I take my work seriously, no matter what it happens to be. You know that about me, Daniel.”
“Right, sorry. I do admire your work ethic, which is one thing I told Sloan when I—”
“So would I wear a uniform?”
“At the dump. A uniform.”
“Oh,” he said, frowning. “Well, I doubt you’d be enjoying haute couture at the dump. No more matching shoes and bags. Just dirty boots and coveralls and safety vests and—”
“So let me get this straight,” I said, taking a slow survey of the tipsy, well-heeled masses. “I don’t have to iron blouses, dry-clean skirts, or suffer the shame of showing up to work in the same pair of Cole Haan sling-backs as Marti in payroll. I don’t have to listen to Sarah tell me every week how her BA from Stanford is superior to my MA from the University of Oregon. I don’t have to see you in the hall every day and pretend we haven’t been secretly dating for three months. And I get to run over refrigerators with a 150,000 pound machine.”
“JJ, you can’t seriously be considering accepting—”
I forced a smile to take the edge off my voice. Then remembered the spanakopita I’d eaten five minutes earlier. Having spinach in my teeth probably won’t matter at the dump, I mused. The thought made me smile for real.
Daniel stared at me, perhaps wondering whether I’d gone completely off the deep end. I was kind of wondering the same thing. “JJ, this is an insult. It’s ridiculous. You can’t possibly—”
“Sure I can. I’ve been unhappy with my job for awhile. This could be a good thing.”
Daniel blinked. “You never said you were unhappy.”
I opened my mouth to insist I was perfectly happy with our relationship, that everything was just fine. I shut my mouth when I realized my brain was the only one wandering down that path.
“You love your job,” he insisted.
“Not really. Having an office job isn’t really what I thought it would be. I kinda miss crushing things.”
“But I already told my friend Sloan that you’d—”
“Well I didn’t ask you to do that,” I snapped. “I mean thanks for trying to help, but I can handle my own career.”
“Career?” he snorted. “Like the dump is a career move.”
“Plenty of people do it,” I informed him. “Not all careers require a desk.”
“Come on, JJ. You’re the girliest girl I know. I’ve never seen you without high heels and lipstick.”
“Am I not allowed to wear lipstick at the dump?”
Daniel frowned. “What would people think?”
I folded my arms over my chest as my heart began to slam hard against my rib cage. “What people?”
“People,” he said, exasperated. “People here tonight. People who wouldn’t respect you anymore, or respect me for—”
“What are you talking about?” I sputtered. “Why would I care what shallow people think? Besides, no one knows we’re dating, remember? You’ve said a million times how strict HR is about that.”
Daniel’s face darkened. He glanced around, probably making sure no one had overheard me. “I just think you deserve better than this.”
“I do deserve the best,” I agreed, pretty sure we weren’t making the same point.
Daniel smiled. “Good. So you’ll talk to Sloan—”
“No,” I told him, plucking a glass of champagne off a passing tray. “I won’t talk to Sloan. And you know, I don’t think I want to talk to you right now, either. So when do I start my new job?”
THE ANSWER WAS, before you have to shell out fifty dollars for the pedicure required to wear those peep-toe Michael Kors sandals.
Which was fortunate, since designer footwear wasn’t required at the landfill.
Neither was showering.
“I’m Burt,” grunted a grizzled gentleman with a salt-and-pepper beard that evidently doubled as storage for breakfast leftovers. He stuck out a thick paw that appeared to have served without benefit of protective gloves for the better part of a century. I hesitated only a second before taking it.
“JJ Shultz, I’m the new heavy equipment operator.”
“Huh.” Burt dropped my hand and scratched his crotch.
“So I’m really eager to get started,” I told him brightly. “I already went through the safety training and got my uniform.”
Burt stopped scratching and looked down at my feet. “That’s a nice touch.”
“Thanks,” I said, tipping my toe up to admire the purple laces I’d threaded through my work boots. “My sister is a handbag designer, so she made these with her scrap leather. I’ve got pink ones and a pair with blue polka-dots so I can switch with the seasons.”
“Good idea,” Burt said, nodding. “The pink hard hat looks good with red hair.”
“Thanks. My sister again. Her intern’s family owns an import/export company in Portland, and they got a whole boatload of them last week. I think the color was some sort of screw-up.”
Burt nodded. “Looks nice. I got an anniversary coming up. Maybe I could get the name of the company so I can see about buying one for my lady-friend?”
“Sure, it’s Sophronia Shipping. Let me talk to Macy and see if she can—”
“Sophronia?” Burt asked, frowning slightly.
I sighed. “Yes, that family. But it’s her uncle and they aren’t close and Macy is very opposed to—”
“No matter,” Burt said, apparently content to postpone a discussion of mob families until some other time. “So the boss says you’ve operated heavy equipment before. Which company you been working for?”
Burt frowned. “What?”
“Albright County Public Relations. I worked mostly under the district attorney for five years.”
Burt couldn’t have looked more confused if I’d told him my last job involved juggling flaming olives. “An office job? But—”
“Hey, it involves shoveling crap one way or another, right? Only here I get to crush televisions.”
At that, Burt looked a little sad. “Not anymore. Environmental protection and all that. They send TVs to hazardous materials now.”
“But you get to crush a lot of other cool stuff, right?”
His expression brightened. “Yeah. Bookshelves. Dead houseplants. Old carpet. Bags of rotten meat. Last week there was this piano—”
“Well let’s get to it,” I said, feeling giddy in my stiff new Carhartt coveralls and neon orange safety vest.
Burt nodded. “So you’re okay with this, um, job switch?”
I grinned. “If I’d had to spend one more day in an office, I would have strangled my boss with his necktie and fed the corpse to the vultures I worked with.”
“Fair enough. Still, isn’t it tough to go from a cushy office job to this?”
“Nope. I spent a lot of years thinking the cushy office job was what I was supposed to have. Now I finally get the chance to do the job I wanted to do in the first place.”
Burt seemed to consider this for a moment as he dug a finger in his ear, then inspected it. Flicking something over his shoulder, he gave me a warm smile.
“I like you.”
I grinned back. “I like you too. Can we crush some garbage?”
Burt nodded. “Let’s introduce you to your compactor.”
He said the word compactor with the same reverence many men would use to say The Bible or The Superbowl or Playboy. I looked over at the hulking machine with spikes on the wheels.
“I’ve always wanted to operate one,” I admitted. “Of course, you don’t really ever see them outside a landfill.”
Burt started walking and I followed, sidestepping a plastic bag that oozed something orange. He stopped beside the yellow machine hunkered at the edge of the pit.
“Here she is,” he said, caressing the metal with undisguised fondness. “The Caterpillar 836H Landfill Compactor and Wheel Dozer. She’s got a C-18 engine and a semi-universal blade arrangement with the optional secondary steering system and a GPS unit for grid navigation.”
“Wow,” I said, understandably impressed. We both stood there for a moment in respectful silence. I was the first to speak.
“Does it have a name?”
“Sure. Like a racehorse or a pirate ship or a sports car.”
“A name,” Burt repeated, sounding thoughtful.
“Shirley,” I decided.
Burt smiled. I smiled back. He reached up and picked something black from between his teeth.
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