After introspecting over the reasons I am applying to Lakeland Community College, I would have to say that my main influence was Jane, a young lady that I used to work with here at Joseph McElroy Sr.’s Loan Office, up until about three weeks ago. I never liked her that much, which may come as a shock to you, since I just wrote that she is my main influence for applying to your esteemed Institution. However, in this essay I will describe the story of Jane and how sometimes you can realize your dreams and goals in unexpected places.

When she worked here, we scheduled meetings for Mr. McElroy and answered his calls, but my main memory of Jane is that she spent a lot of time talking on the phone with her boyfriend, who went bald early and worked in Computers. Jane herself was pretty in an untraditional kind of way. She wore old-fashioned glasses with pink rhinestones in the frames, even though she was only 28, and red lipstick. A lot of times she would smooth her stomach with one hand and wonder aloud if she was fat. Being polite, I always reassured her that she was not fat, but I was Head Cheerleader my junior year in High School and weight-impaired people generally don’t listen to those of us who are athletic because they always seem to think we’re making fun. Whenever I close my eyes I can see her perfectly, because we spent nine hours a day together, on account of the job–more time than she spent with her boyfriend, is what she said one day.

It really first hit me three weeks ago, after Jane was gone, that it’s important to ameliorate up your life in any way you can. Jane herself went to college when she was 17 because she skipped the second grade. “I was bored in school” is how she explained it. (Even if the classes at Lakeland Community College bore me I will continue to do the homework or even ask for more work from the Professor.) Here in Mr. McElroy’s office she had her own desk with a coatrack and a pencil sharpener. She also had two lamps, but I think she bought those herself because we are only allowed to spend $150.00 a year on office decorations, and I know from my careful attention to expense reports that that coatrack was not cheap. After she was gone I threw the lamps away.

She hated bright lights and had painted the shades purple, and the paint kind of caked up, and mostly we all agreed we wanted to get rid of her things.

In college, she studied Creative Writing, which is how she ended up becoming a receptionist. At work sometimes she would write poems about running through forests, looking for her boyfriend, and sometimes she would print them out and give them to me for my opinions. I gave up trying to read them because they didn’t make sense and some of the sentences ran right off the page. What is poetry if there is no rhyme and rhythm? I would rather read serious literature like War and Peace, which is one of my favorite books because it is full of stimulating characters and once you pick it up it is nearly impossible to put down. But with Jane standing over me, watching me read her poems, I just counted to 20 in my head and turned the page, sometimes 25. Then I handed the pages back to her and said either “intense” or “descriptive,” because that is what I would want to hear if they were my poems.

Over time Jane began to aggravate on my nerves. For example, two years ago she stayed after work late to paint the office so we would make a better impression on Mr. McElroy’s clients. When I came to work the next day, the walls were painted her favorite color, Spicy Green Tea, and she was telling Louise about how tired she was from all her extra work. I lied and told her it was as beautiful as my favorite painting, “The Sistine Chapel” by Michelangelo, and that she should take the afternoon off, since I am able to multitask and handle several projects at once, like when I was in the Student Council at Stewardson Junior High School. But Jane said no, like I wasn’t mature enough. And then she spent an hour painting her nails, which were green too, while I answered all the phone calls.

To continue my story, one afternoon earlier this month, right when work was wrapping up, Jane said she was going to give her clothes to charity and wondered if I wanted some of them. “I am cleansing” is what she called it, “and getting rid of everything I don’t need.” I remembered that she had this light blue fuzzy sweater that made her eyes sparkle and I thought maybe it would be in the pile, so after work we rode the el to her apartment. It was pretty much what I expected, with cats wandering around on the furniture and paintings that looked like mustard and ketchup smeared together, and lots of plants in every corner, even some with dust on the leaves. She had piled all the clothes on her bed, and I tried to be casual about browsing even though it feels strange to be looking through someone else’s things while they watch. I really didn’t want to take a lot because I knew that the poor people at charity would have more use for them. In high school I gave canned goods to our local women’s shelter, and I would have even if it wasn’t required.

Jane asked me if I liked working with her, and I said yes. Then she stretched out on the bed, right on top of some dresses, and said, “I think I am going to go to Grad School in Vermont.” I can’t say that it didn’t disappoint me a little bit that she would be gone. I asked her who would take her job. “A monkey could do it,” she said. “Or you, I guess.” Her eyes looked kind of glassy and dreamy, which reminded me about the blue sweater, but she said it was her favorite one and she would keep it forever. It never seizes to amaze me how some people can become so attached to material possessions when there are people who have nothing in places like Darfur and other third world countries. She showed me a lime green cardigan instead. It had that smell that strangers have when you first smell their skin, like sausage. I didn’t want to try it on but I always feel this need to be polite, which is part of the reason I might become a Teacher.

“What about your boyfriend?” I asked her. “Isn’t he going to miss you?”

“He’ll come with me. There’s always a computer job open no matter where you go,” Jane replied to me. “That sweater is not flattering on you, but I will give you this floral dress, I got it for my sister’s wedding five years ago and haven’t worn it since.”

It wasn’t really my style, but I stuck it in my backpack. I thought it would make a nice gift for my sister, who took classes at Lakeland Community College for the first semester after high school and enjoyed it very much before she had to drop out to raise the baby.

Jane walked me to her front door and gave me a sausage hug and somehow one of her hairs got wound around my tooth and snapped off her head as she pulled away. “Don’t tell anyone at work yet about Grad School,” she warned, and rubbed her head. “I’ll tell them when the time is right.”

“OK,” I said reliably. “See you tomorrow Jane.”

But no one ever found out about Vermont because the next morning Jane died. For me it started out just like all the other mornings, except for a strange moment I had at Starbucks. I walked up to the counter and the blond lady said, “Can I help you?” and I looked at her and there was this funny moment where her face just looked so surreal to me, and all I could hear was the hissing of the foam machine getting louder and louder, and I thought, “I can’t believe I’m a person,” like it was my first day being born.

I had barely been in the office for five minutes with my cocoa still hot before the phone rang and I opened my message pad. It was Sandy, who worked down the hall in Human Resources. “Jane fell down this morning” is what she said, all breathy. “I mean she collapsed. On the sidewalk while we were waiting for the bus. I asked her what she had planned for the weekend and she looked at me funny and just slumped over right onto the concrete.”

I looked at my message pad. I had written “9:13 am. Jane collapsed–sidewalk.” I have a strong attention to detail, even in catastrophe, but this was so shocking that I put the pen down and then our conversation continued as follows.

Me: What did she say?

Sandy: They took her to the hospital. That’s where I am now. I mean–it looks bad. She’s not breathing on her own.

Me: Oh my god. Like you mean she’s going to–

Sandy: I think you should close up the office today and go home.

So I guess I said good-bye, but this was the moment, when I was setting the receiver down, that the strange Starbucks feeling came back and I don’t know if it was really a panic attack, although I am interested in taking a few Psychology courses at Lakeland, but suddenly those Spicy Green Tea green walls felt like they were closing in, so I went outside to wait for Mr. McElroy to get there. While I was waiting I smoked two cigarettes and then threw up right in the recycling bin, I guess because I was so melancholy.

That morning was one of those bright and sparkly numbers, the kind of weather where it hurts to have your eyes open even a little bit so you bunch up your face and all the skin pulls up over your nose and your gums are displayed for everyone to see. I sat right there on the sidewalk on Randolph in my skirt and stared up at the sun. You could say it was the kind of morning an angel would have smiled at, but Jane never did like bright lights, not even the fluorescent ones.

Her parents had to unplug the machines after two days of coma. That night I sat at home and reread the scene in my favorite book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin By Harriet Beecher Stowe, where the little girl dies. It was better to turn Jane off, is what Sandy told me, because the doctors said she would have been Mentally Retarded if she woke up, and we both knew that Jane would not have liked that.

I wore the floral dress to the funeral, even though it was too big and I worried when I first arrived that Jane’s mother would think I stole it, but she barely looked at me when I introduced myself. I told Jane’s mom that Jane had painted our office a very professional color and we were very grateful for that, but she just nodded and looked confused, and so I said, “I’m Courtney from work,” but then two girls with nose rings came up crying and I just slipped away.

I didn’t feel much of anything until I saw the big box up at the front of the church. I had one of those moments again where I swayed and thought, “I can’t believe I am a person and Jane is a person and Jane is in that box,” but then I saw Louise and I sat in the pew next to her. The priest started the service, and everyone started weeping and looking up at the ceiling like maybe she was floating around there enjoying the ceremony. I felt sorriest for Jane’s boyfriend, who was slumped down by her parents and kept shoving his glasses back up his nose and just keeping his hand there, palm flat on his face, for a few minutes at a time. I started to feel a little flushed in my face and worried about Jane, because I’ve never known anyone so young that died and was someone I knew so much. When you think about it, nobody really knows what will happen after you are dead, except we still all have to do it. And while it always feels normal to put an old grandpa in a box and close it up, it just didn’t seem right to do it to someone who wore rhinestone glasses and just four days ago was huffy about Mr. McElroy taking the whole pot of coffee into the boardroom. Then the dress started to get itchy and I was feeling like I needed to get it off me.

When it was almost over the accompanist decided to play a piece that I recognized from that Ford commercial years ago because I enjoy Classical music and the Arts, and suddenly my chest tightened up and I took a breath in but it came in really fast and I got dizzy. Louise started crying and that’s the time when I lost it too. I started thinking about how Yahoo! said 50 percent of people who have brain aneurysms die within minutes of a massive hemorrhage, and wondering what was going on in Jane’s head while she was lying there in the hospital with only her heart beating, nothing else happening in her at all, was she was thinking about her poems, and then suddenly I was filled with a deep regret for having spent the last five years since high school working as a secretary when the reality is that I could die any second now, you never really know when it is going to hit, and then you are dead and never had a chance to be a Doctor or Teacher or anything good.

Once the tears start, they have a way of building up momentum, and I really let them fall, thinking about brains and cigarettes and green paint and of how just a few nights before Jane was warm and smelly and she gave me this dress, and what would Grad School do with her application, and would somebody call the school and let them know she wasn’t coming anymore or would they call her name on the first day of class and give her a demerit for not showing up, poor Jane, and the song just seemed to describe all the feelings in my chest, even without lyrics or anything. Louise reached over and squeezed my hand and I looked right at her and thought about how she has been a secretary for almost 20 years, and pretty soon she would be dead too. She was probably thinking the same thing because she pushed her kleenex up to her nose and really wailed so I squeezed her hand tight.

In conclusion, when we filed out of the church afterwards the sun hit us really hard in the face. As soon as the doors opened it just flooded in and made the whole place seem sort of holy. I think it was about at that moment, with the song still in my head and the sunshine pushing through all the stained glass like a scientific prism, that I decided I needed to do something better with my life and I just knew right then that going to college at Lakeland Community College would be the best way for me to achieve my dreams. And if I am excepted into Lakeland Community College I will make sure to make the most of what is left of it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Shane Harrison.