Last Interview on Earth

by William Schroeder

Last Interview on Earth

by

William Schroeder

I could feel my toes curling up into a fist inside my dress shoes.

"So, you don't know why I didn't receive a letter?." I asked.

"No, sorry, I don't know. I've only been here a month. Maybe it's just not our policy to notify people when a position has been filled."

The girl behind the desk was about twenty years old. She had fake blond hair and a fake tan, and she wore a half-shirt that exposed her bronze stomach. There was something shiny down there too, probably a piercing, but I didn't give her the satisfaction of a peek.

"The position has been filled. Okay. Well, I haven't heard anything since my interview.

That's why I made a trip by today. I've left two messages with the Director."

Bronzarella said nothing, she just cocked her head to the side, reloading the empty chamber of her mind with another round of indifference.

"Well, er, okay, that's what I wanted to know. I thought I might receive a letter, some kind of acknowledgement, anything."

"Yeah," she said, in a long, drawn out way, like she was consoling a puppy.

She reached for the phone cord and started twisting it around her finger. Her other hand was already busy twirling a pencil. I imagined the phone cord wrapped tightly around her neck, choking her till she passed out, and her head falling on the desk and impaling one of her eyeballs on the pencil. For five, long seconds, I stared at her, my upper lip in mid-snarl and my eyes vomiting poison. Bronzarella never blinked. She was the perfect kind of animated mannequin to post behind a front desk. Clueless. Disaffected. Impenetrable. She was completely inoculated against intimidation and had likely never even heard of the word.

I turned around and walked towards the exit, lunging for the door as if I was going to knock it off its hinges. I couldn't remember if I had pushed it or pulled it on the way in, so, I decided to spare the door my wrath and focused on the doorknob instead. I squeezed it as hard as I could, thinking it might crumple in my hands under the force of my indignation. But my palms were sweaty, and the knob slipped, making a pitiful, squeaking noise that would have made a mouse giggle.

While walking back to my car, I spotted an old friend of mine crossing the street, headed in my direction. I ducked into an alley and peered around the corner of a brick wall. The last time I saw Old Friend was in college, back when we were both broke, jobless, and carefree. Now I'm broke and jobless again, and carefree is something I only associate with children and tampon commercials.

What if Old Friend asked me why I was coming out of that particular building?

No, no, I didn't work there.

What if Old Friend asked how things were going?

Oh, terrific. Couldn't be better.

That was baloney, and it had a first name, B-U-L-L-S-H-I-T.

I wasn't in the mood to discuss my "current situation", and I didn't want to talk about being in a "transition period" again, as if being out of work was some wondrous stage before becoming a butterfly. It's just been easier to avoid people I know. I've gotten so good at it that I can slip out a back door or hide behind a giant pyramid of canned peas before anyone realizes they've recognized me. Most of the time, that has worked. Last June, however, when I was applying for a stocker position in a hardware store, I ran into an old high school girlfriend's husband. He was the manager of the place, and man, did I ever hope he'd forget my name. I left a phony phone number on my application just to make sure I didn't get a call back. My 20 year high school class reunion is less than a year away. I don't want to go.

As soon as Old Friend was out of sight, I left the alley and scuttled back to my truck. I was relieved, as if I'd avoided some kind of horrible plague that was only transmitted through well-intended questions. Maybe it's just not my policy to lie to an old friend.

On my way to the post office, I pulled into a convenience store to get ten bucks worth of gas. Ten bucks is what the bookstore gave me for the used books I brought in to them. I didn't like parting with them, especially not for a measly ten bucks, and especially not the ones my father gave me, but the money will pay for the gas that gets me to another couple interviews.

I had no idea looking for a job would be so expensive. I used to keep all my expenses written down in a special notebook, and I totaled it up once, just to see. I shouldn't have done that. It pissed me off and I tore out all the pages and flushed them down the toilet. Symbolic, sure, but not really satisfying. I should of chewed up the pieces and crapped them out. Crapped them down the crapper, yeah, now that fits. Somebody smart once told me that I could deduct the money I've spent on gas driving back and forth to interviews, as well as resume copies, new clothes, and maybe even a haircut or two, if I could relate it to job searching. I went to liberal arts college, so, what do I know about anything practical? I know a lot of pithy quotes though. That comes in handy when I need an esoteric way to describe how miserable I am. How do I loathe me, let me count the ways.

I've nearly blown through my savings, and I didn't have much to blow on to start with. I should have prepared for this, but I didn't, and that's just another thing to berate myself about.

As I leaned up against my old truck, listening to the numbers tick by on the gas pump, some punk pulled up next to me in a powder blue sports car. He left his door open and stereo blasting while he pumped his gas. A vein in my temple started to throb, keeping time with the obnoxious beat of his obnoxious music. I thought about squirting gas on Some Punk and tossing a match at him. His screaming would have probably drowned out that stereo.

I walked inside the convenience store to pay for my gas and to buy a lottery ticket. The clerk was wearing black jeans and a black shirt that had some pedantic quote about social justice scrawled across the front. His greasy, black hair looked like the color of cheap spray paint. Even his fingernails were black. I asked Goth Clerk for my favorite lottery game and he mumbled through his tongue and lips rings that they were out. I could see a new roll wrapped up in rubber bands sitting on a bottom shelf behind him. I was going to point this out, until I noticed that there were three other people in the store waiting to check out too, so, I just slid on out. Who knows how long it might have taken Goth Clerk to untangle those rubber bands. Maybe it's just not my policy to be a bother.

Outside the post office, I pilfered through my truck, looking for spare change for the stamp machine. I had an application packet that needed to be mailed off as soon as possible. That's what a snotty lady told me over the phone anyway. I tried sending it by email twice already, but Snotty Lady claimed it never got there, and that I must have done something wrong. I wanted to tell her that I've been using email for years, that it wasn't that difficult, and that if she checked up her ass, she might find my application, and maybe one of the her thumbs too. But I didn't raise a fuss. That would just be asking for trouble. Cranky office workers drop things in shredders or behind file cabinets if you make trouble. A couple months back, I dared to inquire and double check about the status of my application, and I think I raised the hackles of someone sensitive. I know that's got to be why I didn't get a call back. It's just got to be. You aren't anything but a scrap of paper to be organized to HR people. Send anything you like, resumes, cover letters, or portfolios. Put your skills on piece of paper and origami it into a paper animal farm if you want, but they still won't care. Just don't go forgetting the trouble they go through just for you, keeping your records active for six months, just in case there are any future openings you want to be rejected for.

After fifteen minutes of digging through my truck, I could only find a dozen pennies and two gum-covered nickels, and I had to go inside to buy three stamps. The line inside the post office was long, and the people in it were shifting their weight back and forth as if a different position might make it go faster. Right before it was my turn, some lady walked in and flopped three boxes down on the counter. The postal clerk didn't notice I was next and helped her instead. This didn't improve my mood, for I was already running late for an interview and had to drive across town to get to there. I let out a long sigh and started tapping my foot, hoping Some Lady might hear it and acknowledge her poor line etiquette, or drop dead of shame. But she didn't, because I was really only tapping hard enough to make a scene in my mind. I could hear people behind me grumbling. I could tell they were disappointed that I didn't speak up, and I could feel their irritation shoving me in the back. I stood there frozen in an awkward position, and continued to wait, staring at an imaginary target on the back of Some Lady's head. Well, maybe it's just not my policy to be assertive.

I must have hit every red light on the way to my interview. My air conditioner is busted, and my dress shirt grew wetter with each stop. Usually, I keep an extra shirt hanging on a hook in the backseat. Usually. I drove past several familiar businesses along the way. Next to the Chinese restaurant was the package delivery service that I applied to several times before. They sent me a letter telling me I didn't have the right qualifications, even though the job required a high school education, and I have a college degree. I'm sure it was a form letter, but that didn't make it any less insulting. Any monkey can carry a box and a fancy clipboard and ask people to sign it. I would have been willing to start in the warehouse, with the other lower primates, and maybe I could have advanced up to driving my own truck, and got my own pair of official brown shorts and a tan on the left side of my body during the summer time. If only I had had more clipboard experience. I have bony knees anyway, and it's probably best I keep my Olive Oyl legs out of the public eye.

The behavior clinic on the corner sent me a letter thanking me for applying, and told me that they enjoyed meeting with me, like it was a treat for them or something. They hired an internal candidate and I think they had planned to from the beginning. The interview was a sham, a waste of my time and effort, but I'm glad they had a good time wasting it.

I hope they think fondly of me when they realize the person they hired instead of me is a slacker and an asshole. They'll regret their choice. That's what I like to tell myself.

The non-profit mentoring organization behind the tire center told me that I didn't possess the right experience, as expressed in the interview process. It's uncanny how they deduced that without even granting me an interview. Probably, another form letter that's sent out to everyone that wasn't hired. Just once, I'd like to get a letter designed just for me, like something that proved they read what I sent to them instead of tossing it straight into the wastebasket.

I passed by the homeless shelter that I sent an application to for a case manager position. They sent me a rejection letter saying they had made an offer to a suitable candidate, and that the suitable candidate had accepted. That was peachy. It's always nice when they let you know how well things are going on their end. Perhaps, someday, when I can't afford my rent anymore, and I'm kicked out of my apartment, I can send them a note telling them how I found a suitable cardboard box to live in.

I shook my head as I drove by the city courthouse. I didn't apply for a job with the city, but I got a rejection letter from them anyway. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I read that one. So, I did both.

It's been ten months since I moved back to this town. I spent ten years here, going to college, making friends, dating, marrying, divorcing, all that jazz. But now, this place feels cold and distant, like a giant brush off, and I'm beginning to wonder why I came back.

No, that's not right, I do know why, but so what? It's like psychoanalysis, once you've discovered the reason for it all, and had that special breakthrough, what difference does it make? Nothing, that's what. Epiphanies are overrated. Lofty conclusions don't pay any bills, and deep introspection just reminds you even more of the things you hate about yourself. My advice; don't look inside. Ever. It doesn't change a thing.

I've done all I thought I should and could do. I called in every favor. I contacted every person I used to know, and applied at all the places I worked at before. I check every paper and website I can find, sometimes twice a day. But still, I've been turned down in every way imaginable. I've been too educated or not educated enough. I've not had the right licensing, right training, right certification, right degree, right major, right minor, and I'm sure my right sock didn't match my left once, so, there's that too. I even applied to substitute teach, but even that's not the same anymore. It used to be, that any greasy yak that had a pulse and could take roll was good enough to sub. Now they want official papers and specific credit hours. Please.

Why was this happening to me? Bad luck, bad karma, bad timing, bad breeding, bad breath? I'm tired of trying to figure out why. All I know is that I hate this town and it hates me. What's that old saying? You can never go back? I've never been much for trite philosophies, but I should have paid attention to that one. Hindsight sure is 20/20. Sometimes, it's fucking telescopic.

Every once in a while, I send my resume off to places that aren't in town, or even in the state. I can't afford to move anywhere, but I like getting a response anyway. Whenever I get a letter from out of town, I read it over and over and imagine that I'm already there, far away.

When I arrived to my appointment, my clothes were sticky and wrinkled. My hair was plastered to my scalp and my eyes were bloodshot. I looked like I'd spent the night in my truck. I was just thankful my truck got me there at all. That old mule isn't going to last much longer, no matter how much I whisper sweet, pleading words to it before I start it up.

I walked through the building's pneumatic entrance and the smell of stale produce reminded me that I'd been there before and that it used to be a grocery store. In the front office, a cheerful woman rose from behind a tiny desk and greeted me. She chirped on and on about how hot it was outside. I blew a bead of sweat off my nose, and with a straight face, I told her that I hadn't noticed. She stopped chirping and I was glad. While she looked for my name in her appointment book, I gazed around the room. The dcor looked thin and temporary, like it could be folded up and packed away in a hurry. It made you wonder how long they planned to be there.

Rows of florescent lights lined the ceiling, bathing everything in a sickly, gray color. I hate florescent lighting. They make me feel contaminated just standing underneath them.

Front Lady handed me a folder of information and escorted me to a large meeting room where fourteen other people were already waiting. They looked far too excited to be employees, and I quickly realized that they must be there for the interview too. There's nothing quite as awful as a group interview, and if you've ever been too one, I don't have to explain why.

I would have turned around and slipped out a backdoor if it wasn't for a specific fear telling me to stay. I was afraid I wouldn't get another call to interview for a week or a month, or two months, as had happened before. If I had left, it would be like walking out on hope, and sometimes a little hope can go a long way.

I was lured to the interview by an employment notice I saw a week ago advertising for an Enrollment Counselor. I was excited when I first read it. I had been a counselor before, and I enjoyed it. But things have changed. These days, people who sell fitness club memberships and water purifiers call themselves counselors. Even the seventeen year old telemarketer from Mumbai, who takes your personalized stuffed animal order over the phone, calls himself a teddy bear counselor. I knew my education and experience wouldn't really impress them, and that I'd feel ridiculous even bringing it up.

Everyone in the room was wearing their finest interview clothes. They looked smart, snappy, impeccable, and if a surprise business suit competition were to erupt, they were all ready for the walk-off.

I had forgot my suit coat at home, and my clip-on tie was already feeling insecure, like it wanted to jump off the ledge of my shirt collar. I tried to iron and starch my dress pants earlier that morning, but I just ended up with two creases down the front of them instead.

Most everyone brought their leather-bound daily planners. The women clutched them close to their chests like shields, and the men had theirs laid out in front of them on the tables, staring at them as if they were reviewing battle plans. One guy even had a briefcase. I haven't seen anyone carry a briefcase since 1986. I had a pen. It came with the folder Front Lady gave me.

The air was soaked with colognes, perfumes, and eagerness, and I found it difficult to breathe. I also detected a slight hissing noise permeating the room. I thought it might be everyone's inner pep talk leaking out of their heads.

Two interviewers came in and introduced themselves. One was short, the other tall.

Both were humorless and charm free. They weren't very interested in being there, but I knew that somehow we'd all have to find a way to be bright and spunky just for them.

After a brief introduction, Short Tall asked each person to stand before the room and deliver a presentation on the benefits of choosing an education with their organization. People began readying their laptops, overheads and other props to use for their presentations. I fumbled with my free pen. The first interviewee, a pretty brunette in a black business suit, poured candy on the podium to illustrate her theme on savings and value. The candy got away from her, and rolled over the side of the podium and onto the floor. Within minutes, she was so flustered that she had to stutter out an apology and excuse herself from the room. I felt sorry for her. It's not like it was the last interview on Earth. She should have just left. No one would have blamed her. She could have been home in time for Oprah. By the time it was my turn, I'd already decided that the best feature of my presentation was going to be its brevity. I walked up to the podium and quickly rattled off some thoughts about how an education makes a person more marketable. I also used the dry eraser board provided to draw some sort of diagram. While I was giving my presentation, I suppressed the urge to point out that if a company really believed in delivering top notch individual attention to their customers, then they might extend the same courtesy to potential employees and not make them endures these insufferable pony shows. But I locked all that sass away in my grumble box and delivered my lines as best I could. Maybe it's just not my policy to be dramatic.

When I returned to my seat, I noticed that my diagram was completely unintelligible from a distance. No one after me used the dry eraser board, and it made me nauseas to have to continue looking at the scribbling I left on it.

The presentations took over an hour to finish, and when they were done, I thought it was the Asian lady who did the best job. Her English was poor, and she frequently mangled the pronunciation of the company name, but she had a quirky way of underlining things in the air with her fingers, as if the words coming out of her mouth were visible. Next, everyone was paired up in blocks of three or four to participate in a lost at sea exercise. The only two people left in the world who had never heard of the lost at sea exercise were in my group. They were genuinely intrigued by it, which just made everyone else have to fake theirs even harder.

A half hour later, the individual interviews began. Half way through mine, I started to babble on and on about something irrelevant. Clearly, I shouldn't have stopped taking my medication. Those nice, little pills kept me focused and cleared my mind of static. Unfortunately, they also made my chest tingle, like a weird sunburn, and I thought I could get by without it. I was wrong. My mind was cluttered with dozens of answers for every one of Short Tall's questions, and I couldn't narrow down the right one for any of them. To be honest though, I'm not sure I would have had the answer they were looking for even if I had taken a dozen of those nice, little pills. When Short Tall asked what I had been doing since my last job, I panicked, and told them I had been finishing my novel and taking care of my sick mother. I don't think they bought it. I might as well have told them I had been panning for gold in the mud puddles at the park. If I was a mother who decided to raise her kids their first few years, or a disabled person who had spent some time off to adjust to his new handicap, would they have scrutinized the gap in my work history as much? I doubt it. In an attempt to save myself, I blurted out that old chestnut about searching for the right thing. Or, did I say I was looking for anything? They asked me if I thought I was a good fit for their company. I wanted to tell them that the question was stupid and pointless, and that they were stupid for asking it, and that I just wanted to be able to look someone in the eyes again without feeling ashamed, and if that meant I was the right fit, then they should offer me the job already, and I would promise not to start looking for another one for at least six months. Instead, I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and said something about wanting to grow and develop. It was horseshit.

They had advertised the position a half dozen times in the last eight months, so, apparently, they aren't overburdened with long time commitments from past employees. But with me, they were worried about turnover and they weren't good at hiding it, because I could feel them weeding me out with every suggestive line of questioning.

Sure, they might have been right to be apprehensive. I probably wouldn't have been there long, but I still wanted a chance to prove them wrong anyway. I knew what Short Tall wanted. They wanted people with sales or telemarketing experience and I didn't have any, and I wondered why they called me in to begin with. I don't fit into their career parameters, and I never will. It's not my goal in life to be a professional irritator and that's basically what those people do. They call random people at inopportune moments in the evening and blather some nonsensical script at them. I just can't imagine getting paid for that. Hell, people who plaster political bumper stickers on the back of their cars annoy everyone for free.

Short Tall pointed out that the position would be a dramatic change from what I was used to. They said I wouldn't be using my education and experience like I did at previous jobs, and wondered why exactly someone like me wanted to work there. Oh, I don't know, because I like to eat and pay rent and be not a loser, is that reason enough? Instead, I mentioned something about exploring, like I was some kind of Magellen of career exploration, roaming from interview to interview looking for the Lost City of Job Satisfaction. What I wanted to say was, "Why not?" That's a legitimate answer, isn't it? Actually, I wanted to ask them that question. Why can't I do the job? Hmmmmm? Was there something about my experience and education that suggested I couldn't learn to do it. Was I inadequate, inept, or incapable? I wanted it explained to me, just once before I walked out another door, what is this special trait or skill I'm presumed to be missing, and what have I missed out on in my education and in my life that makes me less desirable than the next guy, or the next Asian lady that speaks broken English, or the guy that brings a briefcase to an interview and has nothing in it but a thermos full of chicken broth? Basically, I wanted to ask Short Tall, "What makes you two such hot shit?" They certainly did a nice job squaring their ties, and they both looked well-versed in the operation of the break room snack machine, but other than that, they didn't look like much to me. And apparently, that's just how I looked to them too, because when they said their goodbyes, they called me by the wrong name, shook my hand with their fishy grips, and told me they'd be in touch. When I heard that, I had to stop myself from saying something about kissing my ass. Normally, it was my policy to follow up an interview with a thank you phone call or email, but on this occasion, I left thinking to hell with that policy.

After the interview, I stopped by my sister's house and checked my email. I pawned my computer last December, and I got two hundred and fifty dollars for it, which was about two hundred dollars less than it was worth. I know I got screwed, but it was more than I thought I'd get for it, so, at least, I didn't feel like I was raped. It was enough money to pay for new brakes for my truck, and I had enough left over to buy the supplies I used to make Christmas presents. The gifts were little crafty things, colorful and festive, and the people I gave them to were impressed that I made them myself. I was still embarrassed though. They were expecting more, I could tell. Disappointment is the worst gift of all.

My sister told me I could come over and use her computer anytime. She made me a key so I could stop by when she wasn't around, but she prefers me to come over when she's there. She says she likes having someone around to watch tv with. I try to drop by once a week and visit, but that's about all I can stand. Her house is a dark, lifeless, stinking cave, and the curtains are never open and the windows are always shut. She smokes and watches television through a haze of choking fog that constantly hovers around the glow of the picture tube like a stinky ghost. Even when she's not there, smoking and coughing and stagnating, it stinks. It smells like a flooded out dog kennel or dirty, mildewed clothes that have been left in the washing machine. I feel tired and ill every time I leave and I've never understood what she wants with a house to begin with. She only uses two rooms, the one with her bed in it and the one with the tv. That's one more room than I have in my miniature dollhouse they call a studio apartment. I could have afforded a house once, back when I had a good job, and if I ever get back on my feet again, I'd like to think about getting one of my own. I'd want it to be somewhere out in the country, away from slamming car doors and clunky footsteps on the stairwell. I could raise alpacas or aloe vera plants, and build clocks out of tree stumps. I could take long hikes and pick up gnarled branches and use them for walking sticks, just like Dad used to do. Or, maybe, I could just lie in the grass under a tree in my front yard and push a tire swing back and forth above my head. I wouldn't mind if it was an old shack in constant disrepair, as long as I had enough privacy that I could walk out to the mailbox in my underwear whenever I felt like it. There's no use thinking about it though. It's an impossibility, something that's more painful to imagine than to forget.

Whatever I think about my sister and her house doesn't matter. I'm still glad for her.

She is always good-natured, strong and confident, and she deserves nice things. Sometimes, when she laughs during her favorite tv shows, it makes me think that things aren't so bad. I wish I could be more like that, spontaneous and joyful, over something as simple as a tv show. But those things don't interest or amuse me. I haven't had a good laugh in months, and when I do, it oozes out like sap from a tree, and dries up just as quickly. I don't think there's much to laugh about anyway, except maybe my life, which is a joke, but I don't think I'm supposed to laugh at that. But I would, if I thought it would help.

I went to my sister's den and checked my email. There were still no responses to the four resumes I sent out last week. It takes ten seconds to reply to something, but I guess they were too busy for that. Imagine that, being too busy to spare ten seconds of respect to another person. I can't. I did find several penile dysfunction ads and some corny joke forwards from my Uncle in Peoria in my email. At least that gave me something to delete.

I knew I'd have to call the HR offices again, and ask them if they received my application material. That'll just make me seem pushy if they did get it and, for whatever reason, weren't inclined to respond to it. It would save them and me a lot of time if they would just reply. I know I'm one person, maybe one person among dozens, but nobody likes being ignored. They don't understand. They don't care. Why should I? When I start to think about the few things I have left to lose, it's a pretty short list. At this point, what would it matter if I sent out a big fuck-off email to all of them? If I burnt down some bridges along the way, so be it, at least I could warm up my tv dinners by all the fires left in my wake. No, better yet, I should go to their offices and wait till someone gives me an answer I can live with, till someone explains why I haven't had my emails or my letters or my phone calls returned, and why they treat people like their nobody. I can't waste gas money on that kind of face to face drama though. Oh, but I'd like to. I'd like to do a lot of things, most of them vengeful and spiteful.

I used the computer to check the resume I have posted on a career search website and found that I still didn't have any hits. That makes four months now. Apparently, the main advantage to online job sites is that you can be ignored on a much faster and larger scale. I read some news while I was online. They keep talking about all these jobs that Americans won't do. I've applied for sanitation jobs, at recycling centers, and maintenance positions, and I'm an American. I'm German and Irish and I guess that doesn't make me the correct kind of hyphenated American.

All the counseling and student support jobs I apply for say that women and minorities are encouraged to apply. Does that mean that everyone else isn't encouraged to apply? Most of the positions I didn't get were filled by women. I know this, because I did some sneaky digging and found out. Good for them. Girl power, and all of that. I hope they rot into lonely old spinsters, and keel over dead knitting mittens for children they never had time to have. Of course, I'm not bitter about it. No, not at all.

I should have been a plumber, like Dad. Or, maybe, I should have went into the healthcare field, like my sister. She is a nurse and she's always in demand. She's good at her job, the best, and patients like her immediately. She keeps leaving me brochures and pamphlets from the local community colleges. It's not like I haven't thought about going back to school. I have, and sometimes, it seems like a great idea. Other times, it seems ridiculous. I've paid my dues with school though. I put in the time and whatever groove I had when I was going just isn't in me anymore. Besides, I'm not into kowtowing, groveling, and humbling myself more than I already am just searching for a job. I'm certainly not going to do it for some tenured professor who's job is guaranteed for life, no matter how bad they suck at it.

I did take a non-credit business class last month. The instructor was only 24 years old and already owned his own small company. I sat in the back row and acted like I was reading the syllabus as the rest of the room chatted with each other before class started. Fifteen minutes into class, I was having trouble just figuring out which page everyone was on, and by the time we took a break, I felt so lost and insignificant, that I left and didn't return.

Before I left my sister's house, I used her bathroom and discovered that she was out of toilet paper, again. Sometimes I wonder what she would wipe her butt with if I didn't come over and change the toilet paper roll for her. There were no spare rolls under the sink, so, I peeked in her storage room, and there, I found her tiny dog curled up on the hard tile floor next to a puddle of it's own urine. I took the pathetic ragamuffin for a walk before I left. I'm no fan of her dog. I'm not a fan of little, toy dogs, in general, for that matter. They're always under your feet, one misstep away from a broken leg, yours or its, and they're always starting something they can't finish with bigger dogs in the neighborhood. Still, it rarely sees the light of day or any fresh air, and I just can't let that slide, even I am against keeping fancy rodents as pets. Maybe it's just not my policy to ignore an animal in need. People though, they haven't been much use to me lately. Screw them.

Mom said she'd have dinner ready by six, and when I got to her house, she was already putting homemade biscuits on the table. She's a terrific cook, always has been, but even she couldn't get Dad to eat during his final days. She tried everything in her magic mother cooking pouch, but he couldn't stomach any of it. His medications and the cancer ruined his appetite for all food, and the only thing he wanted was ice cubes. It wasn't long before he didn't want anything at all, except for it to be over. There were very few things in my father's life that were out of his control, and when he decided that he had had enough, he was gone in just two, short weeks. Just like that, gone, and me and Mom are still here, confused, angry, and afraid. Wherever he went to, it's got to be better than here. At least he doesn't have to watch me fail. Not in person anyway.

During dinner, Mom asked me how my interview went. I said the same thing I always do, that it went ok. We often talk about how my job hunt is going at the dinner table. We especially like to reminisce about the ones I thought I was close to landing, as if they were fish that just up and got away. One of our favorite stories is about a position I was certain I was going to get, until the funding was pulled out from under it. Just poof, no more money and no more job. Well, these things happen, we thought. There's another one about the woman who would have hired me, but her conscience just couldn't let her offer such a meager salary to someone with my education. We decided that she was just being nice, but there was something about her explanation, or rationalization, as it were, that made it even more cruel than any other time. Being nice won't keep my electric on another month.

These "almost" stories make us feel a little more optimistic, as if getting so close is some proof that the whole thing isn't a lost cause, or, that I'm not a lost cause. These days, those stories aren't lifting my spirits like they used to, and I can't remember why they ever did.

As my mother and I ate lasagna, a tear welled up in my eye and I told her that I was pathetic. I wasn't just feeling sorry for myself, I really meant it. I had thought about it objectively, and it was a fair evaluation of myself. Why deny it any longer? She told me I most certainly was not pathetic and made me promise I wouldn't say that I was ever again. I said I wouldn't, but by the time I had finished my banana crme pie, I had already broken that promise a dozen times.

After dinner, I climbed up into the attic to rummage through some old boxes that I stored there after my last move. As I sat on an old, red water cooler, I noticed the sturdy, green bookshelf that my father and I had made many years ago. A set of wildlife encyclopedias lined the middle shelf. I thumbed through them, and was reminded of when I was a kid, sitting beside my father in his bed, listening to him read aloud about all the different kinds of animals. It wasn't long before I was putting the names together with the photographs, and by the time I was four years old, I could name nearly every animal in the entire set by their picture alone. I opened the volume marked P-R and read through the familiar names. The letter Q was the shortest chapter. I closed my eyes and said the names aloud to myself. Quail, Quelea, Quokka. I still remember.

When I was ten years old, I told my father that I wanted to be a zookeeper or an entomologist when I grew up. He thought that was a very fine idea. The summer after my first year of college, I caught a virus and was extremely ill for weeks. I got better physically, but not mentally, until I met a girl, and I clung to her like she had been my miracle cure. She wasn't a cure though, and when she got tired of me needing her like she was, she left. I know my parents hoped that I would get back on track after she was gone, and that I'd pick up where I left off and continue on with my dreams and goals. But I had forgotten how important those dreams and goals were, and cared little for anything other finding the next someone to depend on.

Some people are just better off alone. Maybe I'm one of them. My heart is a blackhole and I shouldn't let anyone else get sucked into it. I'm no saint for protecting others. It's about saving me from me, and I guess it always has been.

Stacked next to the bookshelf, was a column of cardboard boxes, each with my name written in black ink on the side. I pulled the top box down and looked inside. Under several old winter sweaters, that I don't have the heart to throw away, or the bad taste to continue wearing, I found half a dozen red and blue plaques. The plaques were employee awards that I received while working as a career counselor at a high school. The students voted me their favorite this and that every year of the four years I worked there. I have the awards listed on my resume. They haven't helped much, and I've been thinking about taking them off. It seems like such a long time ago now, that I was a Somebody of the Year, and I don't think it really matters to anyone anyway. Not even to me.

On the way home, I stopped by a grocery store to stock up on instant oatmeal, dried milk, and peanut butter. Impulsively, I reached into a cooler and pulled out a six pack of cold beer. It looked delicious and I wanted some. I felt like I deserved it. It was the only thing in the world I wanted at that moment, and it only cost four bucks. I wanted to be drunk, that's all. I just wanted to be drunk and fall asleep drunk and, hopefully, wake up drunk. I guess that's how alcoholism starts, wanting something to help you not care and doing anything to get it. I was taking my first steps towards drinking my cares away, and it didn't matter to me whether those little steps turned into giant leaps. I didn't want to face what was waiting for me at home. Not sober. Not this time.

The cashier at the check out lane was cute and friendly. I was seconds away from being friendly back, until she gave me the total, and I realized I didn't have enough cash to pay for everything. I set the beer back and didn't look at her again. I should have remembered my policy about not splurging, and now I've got one about being friendly too.

When I got to my apartment, I got my mail out of the mailbox and sat in my truck and read it. My name was spelled incorrectly on the first letter I opened. It was a rejection letter from my alma mater. It said that my qualifications were impressive, and that the position had been filled, but that I was free to apply for future openings. The person who got the job must have had super duper impressive qualifications. Maybe they knew a secret handshake or the answer to an ancient riddle. The second letter was a donation solicitation from the same alma mater. My name was spelled correctly. That didn't surprise me. When a place wants your money, they make sure you feel like the only person in the world that can give it. When a place doesn't want your money, or, in this case, your service as a potential employee, then it's a bother to even get your name right.

The last letter was from the hospital. I didn't open it. I knew it was a bill. It'll take me months to pay off that trip to the emergency room. Panic attacks feel a lot like heart attacks. Everybody knows that, but I forgot, and now it's 500 dollars for a false alarm. Oh well, maybe I won't live long enough to worry about paying it.

While walking up the steps to my apartment, I saw the kid in 2-B riding his bike around the parking lot in the dark. His parents were probably having sex. They run him off when they do. As I stepped inside the door of my apartment, I paused and closed my eyes, and said my usual, silent prayer. When I opened my eyes and looked at my answering machine, I saw the same unblinking, red digital eye staring back at me, same as I had left it that morning. The glowing zero felt like a total, the sum of my life, and I think I'm beginning to take it personally.

I checked the cord and made sure it was plugged into the wall. I checked the batteries too. It seemed to be working properly. I get messages sometimes. Most of the time it's just the sound of a click, no one speaking, and then I remember it was me checking my messages and fumbling with the password number.

I went and sat on my thin mattress that lies on the floor and I rubbed my hair forward and back, thinking about the interview I had next Monday. It was for a company I had already interviewed with twice already, and all I could think about was how I'd failed to impress them the first time, and how I was going to have to sit there and smile and glad hand the same people who had already decided I wasn't good enough for them once before. I hated them. I wasn't even there yet, and I hated them. I hated them for how humiliated, helpless, and resentful I felt, and I wished there was some way they could feel the same and understand, if only for a few seconds.

What was so special about all the people who were hired over me? Were they that much better? Were they more qualified? Did they know someone special? Did they blow someone special? Surely, I was the next in line for some of those positions, I just had to be. I thought about my rifle and how my Dad always told me that I was a good shot. Surely, that's some kind of transferable skill, and one that I imagined that I could put to good use. If I knocked off my competition, just like I knocked off quails and ducks.....

Yes, but what if I didn't get the call right after? What if I didn't after the second time, or the third. What if I wasn't even close on the list of call backs? That would be even worse than not getting it in the first place. It's better not to know.

Still, I wanted someone to feel the way I did, to carry around this shame and garbage, at least for a few seconds. I couldn't help myself. I wanted someone to.... To what? Pay?

I wondered if Bronzarella would raise that other eyebrow if some strange white powder appeared in her office mail? I was probably stupid enough to write my return address on the envelope though. No, I wasn't an idiot, stop thinking that, I whispered aloud. Am I not a good person? Was that it? My sister likes me, and so does my mother. What was wrong with me? I walked to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror, thinking I could find an answer in my reflection. Over the course of the day, a rash on my neck had developed and it was bright red and itchy. It looked like a scar from a noose and I was sure it would never heal. My face was sunken and gray, and that would never heal either.

Ten years had been carved into it over just the past three. My eyes were dull, like the water in an old rock quarry. I didn't recognize myself. That's a bum on the streets, that's who that is, I said to myself. That's a bum that doesn't have what it takes, that doesn't have what anyone wants. I felt sick. I felt terminal sick. Every day had been worse than the day before it, and there was no pill that could save me, and writing in my journal wasn't going to help, and there was no self-help book that addressed my particular problem, and no hypnosis was going to make me forget, and no amount of crying or screaming would provide relief, and there was no nice, little pill that could mask the defeat in the squeaky voice I used in every interview. I was tired of being an applicant, of being an interviewee, of cramming my name here and there into those impossibly small boxes as if my experience, my education, and my life warranted no more space than that.

Everything seemed beyond my control. Everything except one thing, and I finally understood why my father stopped eating.

I pulled open a closet door and reached for my father's bolt action. I sighed and laughed a little, thinking about how ironic it was that I had inherited it from him. That rifle was the only one I had left. I had sold all the rest he left me and that made me a little apprehensive about using it, because in a few seconds, I would have to explain to him why I pawned most of his favorite guns. He's not going to be very happy about that, I thought.

Then, I heard a knock on my door. When I opened it, I saw the kid who lives in 2-B standing there in the doorway.

The toe-headed little fellow was grinning at me and said, "Hey, Mr. Williams, I thought I'd tell you that you left your truck lights on."

"Thanks. That's nice of you to let me know. I didn't think you knew who I was. "

He said, "Of course I know you," and then he scampered off.

I went out and turned my truck lights off, and when I returned, I put the rifle back in the closet. I thought about next Sunday's classifieds, and how there might be something in it worth waiting for, something that fit just me, something someone might be willing to give me a chance at. You never know, and after all, sometimes a little hope can go a long way.

As I drifted off to sleep, I wondered how Kid 2-B knew me, and more importantly, why was he so nice to me. Maybe that's just his policy.

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