For Mandy, the pinecone was the last straw.
She was sick of everything about her life in golden California. Sick of everything always being so hard, so expensive, so rushed. She was tired of jumping through hoops, one after another, each more convoluted than the last. She was tired of having the bar raised at work by the increasingly corporate university administration and simultaneously being shot in the foot—and then the other foot—by unreasonable edicts, so she didn’t stand a chance of getting over it anymore. She was sick of having bicycles on campus miss her by millimeters, as their undergraduate riders, late for class, punched numbers busily into a cell phone with one hand and wrote the last few lines of a phenomenology term paper with the other. She was sick of being tailgated belligerently by luxury Hummers and other "sports" vehicles larger than her apartment, and sickened by the knowledge that each of them gobbled up more gas in five minutes than would run a brick factory in a Sichuan village for a day. (She had to wonder: Was she the sport? Or even—having heard them wonderfully referred to as rhino-rammers—their prey?)
Besides the drivers and the bicyclists, she was sick of joggers, power walkers, rollerbladers, and the people who rode around the Stanford Research Park in those pokey golf carts that always pulled out into traffic just ahead of her. Also of the whole crowd that sat around outside Starbucks for hours with their laptops, drinking mucho grande double-decaf soy lattes with mandarin-pistachio-peppermint syrup. She was sick of pretty much everyone around her—the WAH moms and the OB-GYNs who seemed to need the license plates to prove it, the ITS consultants and the CEOs.
She was sick, indeed, of all acronyms, abbreviations, and the use of numbers for words, like "4 sale" and "2 night." She missed real words, examined lives, old-fashioned courtesy, Henry James novels, her mother’s homey Sunday pot roast, and lazy summer mornings inner-tubing on a slow, green-hearted river in the heartland of the country, somewhere far, far from the coast.
So she was in a foul mood already. She was about to be late for work for the third day that week, having had to search for fifteen minutes for her keys through the rubble that was her living room—though nothing she would call living went on in it. The keys had turned up eventually under a toppled pile of bills. Another meaningless day loomed at the end of her commute, but she had to rush to meet it anyway, because her boss—the bratty Brad—had told her yesterday that if she was late again he’d have to note that on her upcoming evaluation, and points off meant even less chance of a raise. Of making ends meet—or at least coming anywhere near. So she accelerated down the long, rutted driveway, with only fifteen minutes left to get to campus and find parking (ha).
And there it was—the pinecone.
Dead center in the drive, squarely in the middle, blocking her way. It was huge. The biggest, meanest pinecone she had ever seen. More like a porcupine or an aardvark, she thought, crossly. Or a large hand grenade. It wasn’t an identifiable child of Nature.
She didn’t have time to stop and get out to move it, so she swung the wheel of the ancient Honda, trying not to hit it. It would ruin her tire for sure. As she maneuvered up over the curb on the right of the narrow lane, the half-finished mug of Peet’s French Roast coffee she’d set on the floor tipped over and sloshed all over her shoe and the car mat.
She wasn’t what she would call late, getting in only a hair after nine, the beginning of core hours, but her boss called her into his office anyway for a chat about her attitude, because she hadn’t been there for the Crispy Cremes he’d brought in at 7:30 for the early arrivals in the department. (Misspelled doughnuts were another thing she was sick of.) Brad Carson was five years younger than Mandy and imagined that he walked on water because he had his MBA from Stanford. While he berated her, she stared at his screensaver, a picture of his two kids standing next to their black Lexus SUV blocking the view of the Grand Canyon in the background. His pious rebuke reminded her of the humorless patronizing pastor of her mother’s church in Wichita. He, too, she remembered, had been named Brad.