November 29, 2016
Kem drives us through town. Shopkeepers raise blinds, flip open-closed signs. Street workers drop cones, drill, hammer. Then she hops on I-5 and all that’s replaced by morning traffic until we climb Cooper Point and the Worksource logo appears, stamped onto an office building wall towering over a 7-Eleven. In the parking lot her baby bump squeezes past the steering wheel when she leans over to kiss my forehead and drop a sack lunch in my lap. I half expect her to add “at school” to her “Have a nice day.”
I say good morning to Mindy at the reference desk. She smirks and says, “In for another shift, Gene?” I wink and walk past several banks of computers to take a seat between Jeremy and Sam. Nothing behind us but motivational posters on a small-windowed wall. Above us, huge black letters pasted onto white say, SUPPORT BUSINESS, PROMOTE EMPLOYMENT. Up front are classrooms where people learn to write resumes and ace interviews. We never go.
Last Monday, while I searched for jobs and contemplated the possibility of begging on the streets to support a child that probably isn’t mine, Sam sat down next to me and griped about collecting unemployment even though he’s nearly old enough to retire. Later, when I followed him outside for a smoke, Jeremy approached, a kid in a spiked leather jacket, with pink and purple hair. Sam carded him when he asked to bum one, and laughed as he reached for his wallet. You’d think the kid would pick someone closer to his age to commiserate with, but when we came inside, he sat down with us.
It’s quiet here, like a library, so we speak in stage whispers, talking shit while we adjust cover letters to send out with resumes. We all have similar qualifications. Not much. Maybe that’s why Jeremy sits with us. There’s no pressure.
He holds up his cell phone and warns us of spring showers. Sam turns to the window. I do too. I wonder if, like me, he’s wanting to go out there, to sit under that bright sky where there’s usually gray. I say there’s no way we’ll see rain, and point to the moon working overtime, a yellow glow on blue and white, where passing birds flap their wings a few seconds, then coast awhile before flapping them again, exhausting themselves for a chance to relax, the way, as boys, our legs pumped bicycles. The way, as men, we work. Worked.
Later on, when Jeremy warns us about rain for the umpteenth time, Sam tells him he doesn’t trust technology. I just shake my head.
“Whatever, oldies,” he says, and nods to the flip phone attached to my belt. Thick frames slide from his nose.
Jeremy, like Sam and me, finished high school with a low GPA, not long after his parents foiled his attempt to drop out senior year and get his GED. Unlike Sam and me, he doesn’t collect unemployment, doesn’t live in quiet fear that he’ll end up on the streets. His fear is that he’ll live with his parents forever. They want him to stay home, go to college. They even offered to pay his tuition. But he hates school and dreams of getting his own place, where he can drink and smoke and bring home girls.
Sam pushes back from his desk. “I ever tell y’all how I lost my job?” Sam’s from somewhere else. “Two words. Carl Perry. Ever heard of him?”
“The refrigerator guy?” Jeremy turns to us, gripping his armrest. “He’s famous.”
“Local commercials,” I say.
“Did some roofing on his house,” Sam says. “My ex-lady gets all excited, has me introduce her. Later on, not even a week in, guess who I catch her in the sack with?” He stares at us, open mouthed, as if he hasn’t asked a rhetorical question. “They both just sat there,” he says. “Watching me all quiet like they’re about to give me an intervention. Then she threw a pillow and screamed at me to get out of her house. Her house? I threw both their naked asses out.”
Too close to home. I print out an application, go to the reference desk, ask Mindy to make a copy. In the parking lot the other day she saw Kem’s belly, and now she’s asking me about the baby. I tell her just a couple more months, say I can’t wait, and drum my thumb on the desk, squinting into the bright light of the copier. When I get back to the guys, I slide the application into my folder.
“What’s that?” Sam asks.
“Yeah.” Jeremy says. “You holding out on us?”
I shrug. “Coupon. Wife likes candles.”
“I never thought I’d collect coupons like I do now,” Sam says.
“I’ll never use them,” Jeremy says. “No offense. I’m trying to get easy work straight out of high school and everything—college is for suckers, all that debt for nothing—but I’ll switch sometime down the road. Find something good.”
“Like what?” I ask.
“Something.” He steals my folder and pulls out the application. He stands up, flicking hair from his eyes as he reads it. “Definitely not a janitor.”
“Make it how you make it,” Sam says. “We don’t all got time for shame.”
Jeremy sits down. I snatch the application from him and tell him to find his own job.
“I am,” he says, sticking in an earbud as he turns to his computer. “I don’t want to mop up shit anyway.”
But the janitor ad appears on his screen. On Sam’s, too.
“Stay with your folks,” Sam says. “Go to school. Otherwise you’ll end up like me and Gene.” Sam touches his computer mouse and studies the screen. “When you’re old like me, too old for goals, you just do what you can.” Sam was my age, not quite thirty, when a sleepy trucker ran his pregnant wife off the road. I’ve come to envy his grief, more clear-cut than my own.
I stand and stretch. Across the way, Mindy handles a line of folks at the reference desk. She gives a little wave, as if we’re a pair, in this together, trying to get through shitty jobs and unemployment. Through the entrance doors, I see a full parking lot, Kias, Fiestas, a couple of those Scions like kid cars, a Corolla with a rearview mirror dangling like a broken arm, cars that don’t shine even in the sun. Like us. We stare into screens, hope for money. Hope our wives are faithful, that their babies are ours. Better chances with a slot machine.
I’m tempted to whine about Kem and me, how once this baby pops out—once I see its half-white skin, compliments of the coworker she slept with when we split last year—I’ll leave her. Jeremy could use the warning. But I don’t get a chance, with Sam dabbing his eyes, sniffling about his girlfriend, though when he says they would settle their arguments by comparing themselves to healing ointments, hurting each other for a good purpose, I suspect he really misses his wife. Now he’s threatening to beat up the refrigerator guy.
Sam’s stooped and slow, has a gut, and he’ll soon be one of those pokey old folks who clog up Costco, using a shopping cart as a walker, but his grief coupled with his deep voice reminds me that he once lost a bouncer job after he cracked a beer bottle over a customer’s head. I can see him. A thick-necked bald dude strutting away from some guy bleeding beneath a strobe light.
“Not worth it,” Jeremy says.
“Mean to tell me Carl Perry don’t deserve what’s coming to him?” Sam asks.
“I’m saying let whatever’s coming to him come.”
Rain stutters, trickles down the windows and gutters. Jeremy grins. I want to agree with him, but the kid’s a kid. He doesn’t know: a wife and child’s not easy to let go.
“Don’t tell me a punk rocker kid like you believes in all that karma crap,” Sam says.
“We’re not superheroes is all I’m saying.”
Sam holds two fingers to his lips, sucks air. “Right, man, don’t wanna upset the universe, man.”
“I don’t believe in karma,” I say, “so much as I believe that one bad decision leads to another.” My head hurts. I spin around so I face the back wall. Motivational posters still there, cheering us on. A cat hangs from a tree. My eyes sting. I close them. The cat lingers a second, dissolves. “Someone who chooses to sleep around might end up with an unwanted child.”
For some reason, I turn to Sam then, and when we lock eyes, my face heats up.
“I get you,” Jeremy says.
Sam’s feet tap, nearly in sync with the rain.
“I get you, too. Perry’s still a fucking no-good.”
Jeremy scratches his stubbled chin. “Maybe he is. But how do you want to look? Desperate and jealous?”
“You wanna be alone at my age?”
“Replace her,” I say.
We head outside. I’m beat. Barely afternoon and it feels like the end of a workday. We stop at Sam’s truck, a battered pickup, fallen leaves damp on the windshield. A breeze stirs up that raw-egg sulfur smell. Fresh rain in the parking lot.
“Petrichor,” Sam says, looking up. Clouds block the sun. “That smell. Ain’t that what it’s called?”
Jeremy shrugs. I nod to a passing ambulance and wonder aloud if that’ll be the one to take Kem to the hospital. Jeremy hooks his fingers in his backpack straps and says that sounds like a lot of work. Then he lifts his chin and starts toward home.
“What?” I ask. “Having a kid or raising one?”
“Both,” he calls back. “But when you start parenting, appreciate the job while you got it. It’s not like a regular job. Your kids fire you little by little.”
Sam chuckles. “What do you know about parenting?”
Jeremy’s near the sidewalk, a car’s length away. “I’ve been watching my parents for eighteen years. I don’t think I’m done watching.” He wishes us good luck, sticks in his earbuds, and heads up the main road.
My suspicions about Sam’s strength are confirmed when he pats my back. I stumble.
He mentions that I never told him how I lost my job. “Caregiving, right?”
“Yeah. Assisted living. Accidently gave some dude the wrong medication.”
I give him the name of the place and ask him if I’ll see him Monday.
He grips my shoulder. “Gene,” he says. “If I could have any job, I’d take yours. Your new one.”
“After what she did?” It slipped out the other day.
He gets into his truck, cranks the engine. “Good luck, bud.”
I sit on a bench and watch ants lug a black carcass into the grass. I hear a clatter of footsteps and murmurs. I look up. There’s Mindy, with her coworkers. Returning from lunch, I suppose. Weaving into the flow, I bump Worksource employees to reach her, to ask if I’ll see her Monday. No, she says, she’s a temp. Then she says I’ll make a great father and waves to someone behind me. I turn and see Kem behind the wheel of our shared station wagon. She waves back, like she knows Mindy. When I realize she’s waving to me, I smile, then I turn toward the office and see Mindy headed inside. I stand there a moment, a long moment, gazing at the glass doors, opaque from this angle, until Kem honks the horn. I wipe my eyes and head for the car.
BERNARD GRANT is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, where he is a Yates Fellow. He’s also received residency and fellowship support from The Anderson Center, the Jack Straw Cultural Center, Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Mineral School. He holds an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University and his stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, New Delta Review, Lunch Ticket, Stirring, and The Chicago Tribune. He’s the author of two prose chapbooks, Puzzle Pieces (Paper Nautilus Press) and Fly Back at Me (Yellow Chair Press).
“The Way We Work” was written and produced as part of the Jack Straw Writers Program; originally published in Jack Straw Anthology.