The Office Scandal

Prickly, Prickly Cactus

Even the Cactus Blooms Sometimes

My first boss, back in 1977, wasn’t a friendly man. In hindsight, I see that he was a very good boss: He set clear expectations, provided feedback on performance, dealt fairly with employees, applied policies consistently, followed through on promised actions.

But he didn’t smile. He didn’t make small talk. He shut down any venture into chat: I learned quickly that he did not wish to hear about my dog’s latest escapades or the term paper that had drawn my labor late into the previous night. And so, in my dealings with Mr. D., I spoke when spoken to.

In other words, he was businesslike. But at 18, my experience with adult men had been confined to my father, my uncles, friends’ dads, teachers, men we knew from the neighborhood or church–friendly guys who took an interest in me. So I didn’t recognize businesslike when I saw it.

His demeanor scared me, because at my tender age his civil reserve looked just like mean. “Mean” seemed to be the general opinion of my cohort, the part-time cashiers.

It seemed to me that Mr. D. was downright prickly.

And so I was nonplussed one day as I walked into the office to punch in.

I found Mr. D. standing next to our office manager’s chair, one hand resting gently on her heaving shoulder, the other offering her a tissue. He murmured, “there, there.” Pain, but no awkwardness, hung in the air. I slipped quietly away, backing out the office door into the plumbing department of the home improvement store.

Startled by the scene, I nearly tripped over a display toilet.

I didn’t know what to think. Another coworker arrived a minute after I left the office, breezing in to make her own discovery. She emerged a moment later, eyes glittering.

She stage-whispered to me. “Did you see what’s going on in there? With Mr. D. and Lana?”

I shrugged and continued to my post at a cash register at the front of the store.

A short while later, Lana hurried past, eyes red and somber and focused on her path. She skipped her usual stop at the checkstands to chat and pushed through the door, car keys already in hand.

The cashiers twittered through the shift, between ringing up sales and dusting endcaps and offering refunds for unused paint rollers, about what could be going on with Lana and Mr. D.

Patty whispered, “I came in to get my check on Friday and they were in the lunch room together.

Sarah said, “I saw their cars parked side-by-side in the parking lot on Tuesday.”

My stomach churned as I listened. By closing time, speculation had turned to certainty in Patty and Sarah’s view: “Something’s going on between them,” they agreed. “What else could explain it?”

We trooped to the back of the dimmed store to lock up our cash drawers and punch out. Above the time clock, Mr. D. had posted a memo on the bulletin board:

“Lana Hostead will be on leave for the next week. Susan Burg will assume her duties until she returns.

Lana’s mother and brother were killed in an accident in Kansas today.”

I looked at Sarah and Patty, expecting to hear some kind of admission that they’d horribly misread the situation.

Silently, they punched their cards and walked away.

It took me years, and a stint or two in supervisory positions, to understand that Mr. D., the boss, was a sliver of Mr. D., the man. When the thought finally emerged, I wondered whether he’d wanted to laugh with me over my silly dog, or to encourage me about the value of the late nights spent on history papers. I considered the precautions a middle-aged man might take, managing a bunch of nubile young women.

I have decided that the compassion I saw bloom the day Lana’s world shifted is a truer image of Mr. D. than the businesslike boss who donned quills to maintain a distance.

13 Keep your tongue from evil And your lips from speaking deceit. 14 Depart from evil and do good; Seek peace and pursue it. 

Psalm 34:13-14 (NASB)


  1. Very insightful. I can empathize with that eighteen year-old Sheila, trying to make sense of relationships in the workplace. All of it was education, yes? We all had to learn those awkward lessons about how the world works. And, your observation about how easily relationships can be misjudged and rumors started–you painted a vivid picture of why we need to exercise caution.

    Great cactus picture, by the way!

  2. Thanks, Nancy. Sometimes that 18-year-old Sheila crops up, even now. 🙂

    When you come to visit us I will take you on a cactus tour.

  3. I wish I'd conducted myself more like Mr. D. when I taught sixth grade. I might still be teaching had I not gone in entirely too soft and gotten run over by a bunch of kids.

  4. That sweet spot can be so elusive, Brandee!

  5. Loved your story of Mr D. He was acting in propriety with all the young women under his direction. He may indeed have enjoyed your stories of your silly dog. 🙂

  6. Hazel,
    You said it. Thanks for coming by.