birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

A Fresh Start

There I sat, in my car, idling in the garden shop’s parking lot. I was early to arrive, though I thought, way too late in my epiphany. I looked down at my jeans, my boots, my vest, critiquing and second-guessing if this was the right look for a first impression. Because I didn’t want to impress. I was trying to mute myself, smother my corporate lingo and shed my corporate skin. I had walked right out of office life in those oh-so-sleek stilettos, the ones that kept pinching me to see if I was sleep-walking through life or if I wanted something else.

“Something else” was quickly shaping up to be an experiment in anything outdoors. I’d radically redone my landscape, remade my basement into a garden shed with grow lights, and signed up for a crash course in horticulture. Now I just needed a job, both for the money and for a litmus test to see if I was on the right track.

There wasn’t an advertised position here, just word from a friend who said that garden centers staff up in January for the spring rush, and this shop was bigger than any in town. I took a deep breath, running through my mental checklist of what to say to the owner, who would undoubtedly wonder what was wrong with me for skipping out on such a shiny career.

“Hi. I’m looking for the owner,” I said to the young girl in tight jeans and an even tighter ponytail, who stood aimlessly at the cash register, chewing her gum. “I’m in the Master Gardener class and I was told this is a good place to find part time work.”

“Sure. Hang on a sec. Let me get him for you. Here’s an application while you wait,” she said, snapping her gum between smirks. Picking up a two-way radio, she barked to no one and everyone, as I heard it echo from distant places.

”We got a little master gardener out here looking for a job. She wants to talk to Steve.”

Steve was the owner, the man I’d researched like all of my work appointments, prepping for small talk and taking big efforts to appear casual, yet sharp. He had a reputation for being curt, cutting, and quick to say what he thought. The website photo didn’t show any of that, only a bald head and a broad, gap-toothed grin.

I was nervous. So nervous that I laughed out loud when reading the application that asked “Have you ever been arrested? Have you ever had a warrant for your arrest? Do you have a valid driver’s license?” I knew they wouldn’t be looking for my resumé, but I wasn’t expecting this. Still laughing inexplicably, I plowed through the grid of questions and hurriedly simplified my last three job titles, trying to dilute a career into something that showed I could handle a cash register and retail sales. Instead, I realized too late that I marked “YES” to every single box in that grid. Arrested...DUI...No license. Dammit! I scrawled the pen through it all, blacking out the column and surely blacklisting my name. So much for blending in.

“You can go on back now,” she pointed, directing me to a back door and a dark hallway that smelled of chemicals. I wandered through to the office, where two desks sat in the middle of stacks and stacks of papers and boxes lined the walls. Plants were clearly the priority here.

“Uh, hi. Thanks for coming,” a voice said, rising above the stacks and reaching to shake my hand. He was no balding, gap-toothed man. He was younger, tan, with lots of dark curls. The muscles and veins in his arm made a telling map of where he spent his time. And he looked at me like I had three eyes. I tried not to look shocked at his presence either, since I had over-prepared to appear so casual with the other guy. Completely thrown, I was mute. When I could make sounds, they were stutters. I couldn’t believe the silliness coming out of my mouth, warped, like I was hearing myself talk underwater. I handed him the form.

“I, I, I am not a criminal. I just want to learn about plants. I can run a cash register.”

He scanned the paperwork, frowning even more. “I don’t quite understand. Why are you leaving such a great job?” He rightfully poked. “...to work here?” he quietly added, looking around.

“I grew up on a farm. I want to go back to a farm. I can touch my neighbor’s house from my window. I want space. I want to grow my own food! I am starting vegetable seeds in my basement right now,” I spitballed, each statement louder and crazier-sounding than the last. I had untamable Tourette’s, shouting out phrases, trying to land on one that would melt the wrinkles from his forehead. And what a cute face, my inner voice whispered, distracting me even more and ignoring the mouth with a mind of its own. Stop looking at him like that, like you haven’t seen a good looking guy in an office. Oh but wait, you haven’t, in the 1,000 women with whom you worked, there weren’t any, hissed my other inner voice.

Regardless of the many conversations I was having, he was having none. Stumped, or shocked, he just sat there across from me, leaning back in his chair and looking through his eyebrows, still frowning.

Desperate for a do-over, I found new courage and a flat voice. “Look, I’ve run multi-million dollar budgets and teams of people. I can handle a cash register and counting bags of mulch.”

“Sure, okay, let me get back to you,” he said appealingly, finally smiling and sending me off with a handshake.

Despite my goofiness, or perhaps because of it, I got the job. As badly as I wanted to, I know I didn’t blend in. What I didn’t know is just how much I stood out. Months later, after many celebrated spring sales and happy work days in sunshine with plants and dirty fingernails, we had a beer and laughed about my rocky start. I asked him what he had been thinking, that day when his forehead wrinkled at my first impression.

“Hmm,” he pondered, wondering if it was time to tell. “I thought I had just met my wife.”

We were married outside, under a big pine tree on a sliver of land at a lake, at the end of an aisle of golden-leafed maples. We now live on a farm, complete with a red barn, chickens, and lots of plants. And I still love starting seeds and the excitement that comes with fresh starts and changing seasons.

My Mentor

He Told me About Hitler