Christmas in the mortgage company meant free lunch at a Mexican restaurant--the kind of restaurant that pushes blue tequila Jell-O shots and turns into a suburban pickup bar at night. With lunch, we'd have an ornament exchange. The rules of the exchange were simple: Buy an ornament and give it away, with a five-dollar limit. How could I go wrong?
The ornament I brought was a small iron rocking horse, a beautifully handmade bit of welded art. I liked the solidness of it. That metal rocking horse could survive even if the Christmas tree tipped over, if the family fell apart, or if the ornament were forgotten, still tangled in branches and thrown into an alley to weather it out till spring.
Most mortgage underwriters and loan processors are women. The mortgage industry is a pink-collar job of counting pennies, checking signatures. Martha Stewart reigns in the breakroom, in magazines and conversation.
When we piled our anonymous, wrapped ornaments in the middle of the Mexican restaurant's table, it was Martha Stewart made manifest through wrapping. Nobody told me we were supposed to spend another five dollars, maybe more, on glittery bags, fuzzy pom-poms, ribbons, tinsel, gift boxes, and tags. I'd wrapped the iron rocking horse in a single piece of folded-over paper with clear tape and a stretch of red ribbon.
Over our meals--me with enchiladas verde and sour cream, the rest of the women with deep-fried tostada-shell taco salads--we chose numbers, then chose from the wrapped packages. There was a lovely white Santa, made of spun fiberglass like asbestos, and all the women wanted that Santa. I got a Fimo-dough elf behind a fake wooden yard sign pointing toward a vague North Pole. My humble bundle of a rocking horse stayed on the table until finally, at the very end, it was chosen. Unwrapped, I was sure they'd see its beauty. The woman, a processor, held the horse by its metal tail, then silently sat it beside her virgin daiquiri. The party was over.
Walking back across the parking lot, a red-haired woman who considered herself my friend said, "You would bring a black Christmas ornament."
It wasn't black. It was welded metal. I gave the red-haired woman my Fimo elf.
Layoffs were coming, sure as the new year. I should've known then that for layoffs, my name would be the first chosen.