Thursday, December 13, 2012

And Then I Was in Traction

Hidden Rhetorical Questions
and how to handle them

Years ago I quit a job to take a promotion at another facility.  After several months I attended a sporting event where both companies were in attendance.  As I strolled along in front of the bleachers, clutching a diet cola and fixing the shoulder-strap of my purse on my shoulder, I greeted old friends and smiled at new ones. A woman I had known for several years waved me over.  “Melanie, Melanie, how are you?”

“I’m fine, Phyllis.  How are things going with you?”

“Fine, fine.”  She leaned forward and lowered her voice into a conspiratorial stage whisper.  “Tell me all about your new job.  Have you had any problems?”

It was a pretty dicey job, so it didn't surprise me she'd ask that question.  As it happened, I'd had big problems my second day.  Enough where I'd wondered if I'd made a mistake in taking the job.  “Well, it is going pretty well.  My second day there--”

“Frank,” Phyllis looked past me.  “Frank, how are you doing?”

I paused, not sure if her question had been rhetorical or not.  Perhaps she was just greeting everyone as they ambled past, and really didn't want an answer.

“Hey Phyllis, nice to see you,” Frank called.

Phyllis returned her attention to me.  “Your second day?”

With that encouragement, I continued. “Oh my second day,” I began, but her eyes glazed over and refocused somewhere behind me. 

“Wendy, how is everything with you?” she called.

There were people sitting all around Phyllis and I could feel my cheeks burn as they witnessed the snub.  Trying to cover the cut direct, I continued as if Phyllis were actually listening.  Perhaps the people wouldn’t realize how unimportant I was.  “Yes, my second day I got into a big fight, trying to protect my co-worker.”

Someone stopped behind me momentarily.  “I’m fine, Phyllis.  And you?”  Must have been Wendy.

This happened to me too often to be coincidence.  People would ask me a question and my answers were so uninteresting they could not be bothered to listen to them.  It made me feel small, like an ant in the shadow of an elephant’s footstep.  I straightened my shoulders and continued, “The person grabbed hold of my co-worker’s hair, took her down to the floor, and started snapping her head back and forth.  I jumped on top of the bad-guy and the fight was on.”

“I’m great, Wendy.” Phyllis grinned past me, occasionally flicking her eyes to mine to encourage me to go on.  “It is nice to see you and your kids.  They’ve really grown.”

“Yup,” I explained calmly.  “It took three deputies to break up the fight.”

Wendy and her kids must have moved along because Phyllis glanced at me again.  “Oh?”

“It was a rude beginning to my new job,” I said.

“Oh, I can imagine.” Her gaze slid past me again.  “Bill, how the heck are you?”

“When they pulled us apart, there was blood everywhere," I continued just to be obstinate.  "and a big wad of my co-worker's hair.  They rushed me to the hospital,” I added as an afterthought.  No reaction from Phyllis.  “And then I was in traction for a month.”

“Hey, Phyllis,” Bill barked.  “I’m the heck fine.  Glad to see you here.”

“Then they released me to one of those convalescent hospitals where I underwent extensive physical therapy,” I went on, folding my arms across my chest, juggling the cola, and jutting my chin.

“Glad to see you too, Bill,” Phyllis gushed.

Really warming to my subject, I plowed on, “I only just regained the use of my legs. 
The entire medical staff was amazed.”

“Where’s your wife, Bill?”

“Considering they were thinking I’d lose a kidney.”

“She’s working,” Bill answered, his voice distant now, as if he’d kept walking.

“But they think if I’m really careful I should retain my sight.”

“Bummer,” Phyllis called to Bill.

“But other than that, everything is going well,” I finished, sending her a friendly smile.

Phyllis returned her gaze to me.  “Wonderful,” she said.  “Glad everything’s going well.”

As I walked away, I heard snickering from the row behind Phyllis, and a few guffaws.  I felt a thrill of victory.  Someone had been interested, even if it was a stranger.  It gave me a new sense of confidence. I started my first novel shortly after. 


  1. So funny! You didn't miss a beat. You really just made your former co-worker look extremely rude, while you came off looking like a real fast thinker and hysterical.


    1. ...and you haven't stopped since!

    2. I'm sure she never knew. But since then, if someone starts drifting away during my answer, I always switch to the "And then I was in traction..." and it brings them right back with a guilty, "I was listening."

    3. Hi Melanie! I apologize for a comment completely unrelated to the above blog post, but I'm having a difficult time locating any other place on your blog to send you a message without just "commenting"...I'm fairly certain the problem is me, which is even harder to get to the bottom of. Anyhow, I bookmarked the link to something you wrote about my grandfather a few years ago because I simply loved it. I thought you might like to know that I've just finished building his site. It won't be live until Christmas Day, as it is my gift to my family this year, but if you feel so inclined :
      Take care and Happy Holidays!
      Anika Orrock

  2. Who's the bald guy sitting next to Uncle Mike in the picture?

  3. This is fantastic! However, I wouldn't have the patience to try and go on. I would have just walked away after her third hello to someone else.

    But I do love the traction line. Maybe I'll use it someday.

    1. Anne,

      I was young, and foolish, and still believed in Santa and the inherent good in others. I didn't yet understand people might ask, without the slightest interest in hearing the answer.

      If I had been wiser, I would have understood it was rhetorical, and there would have been nothing embarrassing or rude about walking away.

      I simply didn't know that yet. Thanks for confirming my current belief. :)

  4. Max,

    That DOES look like my dad, doesn't it? But alas, my trusty "public domain" source,, provided this picture.

  5. When are you going to blog about the time you described your career as an exotic dancer undercover for the CIA?

  6. OMG, I totally remember this. Kinda.


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