When we drove out of the mountains that morning, it was hot, the sun climbing higher in the sky as our car barreled down a neck of the Lincoln Highway through the Laurel Highlands.
Ethan was in his car seat, chatting away. My wife, Michelle, and I quizzed him about our weekend stay in the mountains, often asking if we had seen a black bear while hiking two days earlier. "Yes, we did!" he kept answering, a certain electricity in his words.
Our cabin that weekend was buried deep in Linn Run's cool woods, beneath a canopy of tall, prehistoric-looking trees. Cell towers sparsely dotted the mountain, like hair on an old man's balding scalp, and my phone had no service until we hit the main road nearly 10 miles away. We were, however temporarily, out of reach. For four days, I didn't check email, either personal or work-related, and during that time, I felt the muscles in my neck uncoil. The anxiety that normally hung in my chest like a lingering cold was gone.
Each night, after putting Ethan to sleep, Michelle and I stayed up late and talked and drank beer under clear black skies next to campfires built with wood we collected on hikes during the day. Against the pitch-black quiet of the forest, we laughed about things Ethan said at dinner and in the car; retraced our hikes and marveled at the family of foxes we had seen and how they scared the hell out of us; and remembered how cold the creek water was when we had kicked off our shoes and waded in. As the alcohol dulled my thoughts, I entertained the idea of selling our house and buying a cabin, living away from everything and everybody. I could get a job at the cement factory I saw during our drive up and pay the remainder of our bills selling junk and old toys on eBay. It was a terrible plan. I halfheartedly thumbed through the real-estate guide that I picked up at the grocery store, the same one I later tossed in the fire.
On our last night, we talked mostly about the future. With Ethan's third birthday a month and a half away, we discussed wanting a bigger family and how Ethan would make a great big brother.
This was, however, a precarious topic. Ethan's entry into the world had been marked by a two-week stint in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Allegheny General Hospital.
Born six weeks early, Ethan needed time after delivery for his lungs to fully develop. As soon as he was born, the nurses had to take him away in an incubator, drain the fluid from his lungs to help him breathe and keep him under close observation. After waiting through nine months of pregnancy to see and hold our son, we had to wait some more.
Because he shared the NICU with a dozen other babies facing equal or far greater challenges, visiting hours were limited to 20 minutes every two hours. We had to scrub in and scrub out each time we saw him. Only two people could visit at a time. So Michelle and I took turns escorting our family in to meet him. Depending on how well he was doing, we often just got to hold his finger through the opening in the incubator. We never got to hold him in that euphoric, post-delivery moment you see in old Merrie Melodies cartoons, with the father running around plugging cigars into his friends' mouths while the mother presents the new baby to the gathered crowd.
On that Monday in June 2009, however, as we left our mountain cabin -- nearly three years since Ethan's premature birth -- we decided that we somehow would make it work, no matter how unstable the economy might be or how fragile our introduction to parenthood had been. Then, as we cruised along the highway, my cell service returned. Voicemail notifications began chiming on my phone. I handed it to Michelle, so she could listen while I continued talking to Ethan about our adventures.
"It's someone named Tom from your work," she said. "He needs to talk with you as soon as possible." I looked at her blankly for a moment, then realized who had called. It was the director of publications at the nonprofit where I worked.
I decided to pull into the parking lot of a roadside antique shop so that I could get out of the car and return Tom's call. On my first attempt, his phone went straight to voicemail. I left a message. A couple of minutes later, my phone rang. It was Tom. He asked how I was doing and apologized for interrupting my vacation. He then launched into a monologue about the state of the magazine industry, followed by a list of challenges facing the auto industry. The organization where I worked as an editor reported on the auto industry in its publications. My stomach dropped. I was certain I knew where the phone call was headed. After nearly five minutes of talking, Tom finally made his point.
"I'm sorry to inform you that you got caught up in this latest round of workforce reductions," he said. "But I want you to understand this has nothing to do with your performance."
Panic welled in my chest as Tom continued, his choice of words lingering for a moment. To hear I had been "caught up" in this mess made it sound like I was a wheat stalk torn from the soil by a threshing machine. Maybe that was an apt way to describe what had happened. Regardless, I was feeling lightheaded. As Tom droned on, I tuned him out. After all, it was just registering that I had spent the past five years of my life toiling at this job, working long hours each week, writing and editing articles that were often so dull I wished someone would run into my office and punch me in the stomach just to break the monotony.
"Sandi from HR will be calling you after we hang up," Tom continued. "She'll go over COBRA and severance information, and any other questions you have."
When I looked over my shoulder at our car idling in the gravel lot, Michelle had the back door propped open and was entertaining Ethan. She smiled when I looked her way. I thought about the conversation we had the night before, how hopeful we both were about the future. And then I thought about how everything had just changed.
It turned out that 30 employees were let go that day. A few months earlier, 30 others were let go. And before that, 25 were laid off. "All difficult but necessary actions" we were told in a group staff meeting following the first cuts. Then the company stopped convening staff meetings to talk about its problems. With its fate intertwined with that of an auto industry in turmoil, everyone feared his job would be next.
And as the company thinned out, clusters of workers were seen crying or whispering to one another about all the changes. I would hear about certain people who were let go, people I knew. But I never recognized all of the names. After a while, though, I stopped seeing certain familiar faces in the halls and realized that there were many people I would not see again. And now I was one of them, reduced to another name whispered among co-workers.
When I woke the next morning, it felt as though I never slept. The alarm clock on my nightstand began chirping at 6 a.m. I silenced it with a smack of my hand before slowly getting out of bed. Dull gray Pittsburgh sunlight broke through the wooden shutters in my bedroom. Exhausted from the nonstop rush of adrenaline of the past day, my bones and muscles ached. My spine and shoulders were tight again, all the good of my family's mountain escape erased with a single phone call.
The woman from Human Resources met me at 7 a.m. as promised. Before she motioned for me to come inside, I watched the CEO park his Cadillac and silently walk past me -- as if he were ignoring a panhandler.
The boxes on my desk were full within minutes. On the drive in, speeding across the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I mapped out just how I would empty my office -- what would be thrown away and what would be saved. I would gather my things, I decided, then say my goodbyes and vanish. I wanted to be a ghost in that building. Seep in like smoke, then disappear forever. As I was cleaning out my office, there was a knock at the door. When I looked up from my desk, Pat, one of my co-workers, was standing there, shaking his head.
"Maaaatt..." he said, the lonely vowel in my name hanging in the air for an eternity. "I don't know what to say."
"There's really nothing to say," I replied. He told me it had been a pleasure working together. I said the same. We shook hands and said goodbye.
Little from my cubicle was worth saving, it turned out. The tangle of lanyards from press trips and trade shows was the first to hit the trash. Then came an avalanche of papers -- old press releases, notes from staff meetings and time-sheets collected for the past five years. All meaningless. I filled the large trash can in my office, then another outside my door next to the copier. My only hesitation came when I caught sight of the peace lily next to my window.
The lily had been a gift from my parents, who surprised me with a visit during my first week on the job. Proud of my new position, they walked in with the plant, smiling the way parents do when they are innately happy about the success of their child. The wicker planter had a blue celebratory ribbon woven around its midsection. For five years, I kept that plant alive, even as pressing deadlines and a daunting workload kept me busy. For weeks on end, I would forget to give it water, then its brown, curling leaves reminded me of my neglect. Then I would make up for it, trimming the brown leaves, watering it regularly and turning it daily so all its leaves could warm in the sun. Then I would forget again. It's as if the plant were a biological monitor of my indifference toward my job. I would try hard to care, pretend I was a career man who didn't dread staff meetings, corporate Christmas parties or all-day training sessions. But no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that things weren't all that bad, the space between the start and end of each work day always felt like a waste of time.
The peace lily ended up surviving a few days longer than I did. On my way out, I dropped it in the overflowing trash can next to the copier, loose dirt and leaves falling to the industrial-grade carpet.
Matthew Newton (firstname.lastname@example.org) has written essays, many about class and culture, for The Rumpus, Colorlines and Thought Catalog, and his reporting has been published by The Atlantic, Esquire, Forbes, Guernica and Spin. "Death of a Good Job," his first e-book, is available from Amazon, iTunes and Barnes & Noble. He lives in Churchill with his wife and two sons and blogs about visual culture, urbanization and miscellany at matthewnewton.us.