I remember when this used to be a church. A real church. The priest stood up on the dais in his long white robes extolling all the virtues he struggled to possess and kept losing at the bottom of a bottle. The stained glass tableaus of this saint with a lamb and that saint with a sword are still up high looking down on all of us supplicants with their placid, uncaring faces. I’ve seen others in books where the saints cried from the love that almost poured out of their peach-colored faces. I guess the guy they hired was just too lazy or apathetic to put in that kind of effort.
There used to be a lot more pews. Now there are just six rows. Three on each side of the threadbare aisle carpet. Just enough for the few of us poor slobs who haven’t found a job yet. Or can’t keep a job. Can’t keep any job. No matter how hard they, or I, try. The place still has the same red cracked vinyl padded kneelers. I’m tempted to get down on my knees, but it’s never done me any good in the past so why start now?
“Harry? Harry Jameson?”
Jesus. Just two simple words that don’t mean that much, at least to him, not that much to me either, and I can already hear the pity dripping down the sides of his mouth. So much pity from a man in a pale yellow shirt, missing at least two buttons that I can see. No telling how many more are lost as the shirt retreats under his belly and into jeans faded by a lack of other sartorial options instead of choice fashion. I scratch at my scruffy chin taking in the days of scraggly facial hair that escaped his notice and is now running amok.
I follow him to one of the desks on the old dais. The laminate edges are peeling off and at least a few people got bored while waiting to see if they finally got placed in a job. Finally found that one thing that would save them. Jay loves Tina. What a stupid thing to proclaim at a Job Placement Charity. Unless you don’t get a job. Then maybe it’s the last thing you might proclaim. Maybe Jay didn’t have any hope that he’d be around much longer to proclaim that love. I feel you, Jay. I feel you.
“Okay, Mr. Jameson, or can I call you Harry?” he asked with all the practiced compassion a man could have. I don’t believe it. He has a job. He’s safe. It’s not compassion, he’s just grateful that he’s not in my position.
“Harry is fine.”
“Okay, Harry, my name is Caleb. It says here there you were only on your last job about two weeks. And about four in the one before that. Oooh, only one week in the one before that. That’s not very good, Harry, not very good at all. Is there anything that you can give me as to why those jobs didn’t work out?”
I mumble, “Other people.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing that I could point to, “ I shrugged. “ They just weren’t good fits.”
Caleb put down his clipboard and wrung his thick hands. His lips moved so slightly, practicing a talk he’s probably already given a dozen times.
“At this point, Harry, a good fit doesn’t matter. You just need a job and you need to stick with it. It’s the only way you’ll make it to retirement age. You're only fifty-five, Harry. 20 years. It’s not that far.”
“Feels pretty damn far to me. Especially if I have to work at some crappy, horrible job that barely pays a living wage so that I am forced to live in a rundown tenement filled with idiots who couldn’t hold on to any other jobs and, yes, I realize how hypocritical that sounds.”
Hell is comparisons. Roasting alive in the winter because the monstrous boiler for the crumbling building is just a few doors down from you in the basement while you can’t stop thinking of the climate-controlled seating area off the side of your old master bedroom. Avoid those broken springs in your mattress while you dream of memory foam that’s forgotten you. Picking the dying cockroaches out of your cereal because of the poisons in their carcass, while you chide your past self for throwing out day-old bread because you imagined you saw a hint of green. Grinding your teeth while your insipid roommate wearing tattered clothes from each of the last three decades hums one of the top 40 annoying songs of the moment. All while you fantasize about your wife singing her heart out in the shower.
“Look, Caleb, what do you have available? Just stick me in some dank hole and let me move on.”
“Harry, I just...I just don’t know what to do here. You got banned from any jobs that require a personality test. How does one do that without a mental illness notation,” he whispered at the end.
Harry leaned forward and whispered back,” By speaking the truth. Verbally and non-verbally. And just being a general pain in the ass.”
“That doesn’t leave a lot, Harry, which you know. You may know that better than anyone that’s been through here,” Caleb said shaking his head. Harry watched the dust fly from Caleb's keyboard while he squinted at the screen like the answers were in between all of those lines that were quite clear on just how poor a prospect Harry was. “I can’t find anything. No one will touch you. Jesus, Harry, even the Church of Good Works won’t touch you and they accept pedophiles.”
Harry leaned back and stared at the stained glass,” Just one of the reasons they won’t hire me. I still have standards about who I’m willing to work beside.”
“You’re going to have to get over that. Soon. You know what happens if it takes you too long to find a job.”
“Yeah. They kill me.”
I watch as Caleb absentmindedly makes the sign of the cross. There it is again. Gratitude. Because that prayer isn’t for me. He’s not praying for me to get a job, he’s not praying for my life. He’s thanking god for his own. Every one of them. Every last joker that holds even the most ridiculous job in the worst place, thank their lucky stars that they get to keep on living. That they may just make it to the magical age of retirement when they can stop and gracefully exit the workforce to make way for the next generation of thankful employees. I close my eyes and lean back, waiting for what’s coming next. Caleb clacks away at the computer and I hear the air sucked through his teeth.
“Three days. Harry, you have three days to find a job. Dear lord, that’s impossible. I...I don’t know what to do.”
“Just go back to being grateful that you’re not me. Then forget I ever existed.”
Caleb’s mouth opens and closes like a fat-mouthed goldfish as I get up and walk away. Through the rows of pews that still haven’t done anything for me. The sun blinds me as soon as I walk through the thick oak doors. I shuffle down the crumbling front steps, past two men in tailored black suits. It’s a beautiful day. Earlier, on the way out of my apartment building, I’d heard the bowtied forecaster crowing that the next three days would be just as beautiful. Some clouds here and there, an invigorating breeze coming in from the west. I’m sure the parks will be filled with screaming children throwing balls at each other’s heads and ducking the dive bombing kites of their grounded pilots. If I’ve only got three days to live there is no way I’m going to deal with all of that crap. My stomach tugs me to the left. Maybe it senses a good taco for one of my last meals.
I’m not sure how I ended up here. Oh, not the three days to live thing. I know that sad, painfully ordinary list of actions and inactions that made this moment inevitable. I’m just not sure how I ended up on this bridge. It’s about five miles from the church of no hope and I have no memory of crossing the streets or ducking down any shady alleys. Maybe the men in suits remember. I see them lounging unnaturally against the rail a few yards away. I'll ask them later.
It’s a beautiful bridge. Thick stone columns rise from the dark river of white-capped rapids. Arched handrails carved from the same white stone, wiped clean of pigeon poop every day. Scrubbed by someone lucky enough to have landed a job with city sanitation. One of those jobs that let you survive, even if it doesn’t let you live.
I used to drive over it every day to get to my old job, one that could provide for a family. Neither the job nor I was anything special. A white collar drone happy to be on autopilot in a business that relied on other businesses too lazy to do their own paperwork. I buzzed along with the thousands of others across the city doing work that none of us cared about, just happy to know we were secure. Do what you’re told and get things done on time. That’s all you had to do. Then, after a few decades, you retire and live out the rest of your days doing more things you don’t really care about while your children are in the midst of their prime drone years.
I don’t even remember what the billboard looked like this month. There’s one on either side of the bridge. Has been since before I was born. The Office of Universal Employment has dozens of them up in every city. A lifetime ago, my family and I were on vacation, traveling past fields of green corn stalks and green soy farmlands on our way to the mountains. In the middle of nowhere, we found a billboard next to an Amish farm. I can only imagine what they would think of the series of cartoon families with their current and evolving fashions. With their wide eyes and spotlight white teeth looking down at them in their buggies, extolling the virtues of work. They’ve tried various slogans, recycling some on their ten and twenty-year anniversaries.
Work, it keeps the country moving!
A steady job means a steady life!
Do your part, Go to Work!
When everyone works, everyone is taken care of!
Be satisfied with your work and you will be satisfied with your life!
Work is life!
That last one. That last one always stuck with me. It pops up every few years. Maybe the ad writers get bored or the cost of letters goes up. Work is life. I agreed with that for a long time and it is the most truthful ad. Maybe that’s why it never stays up as long as the others. No one can stare at that much truth for long. Work is life. Always with the subtext that without work, they will take your life.
The tall one stands next to me and leans over the edge and spits into the river below. The taller one stands behind us and off to my right, almost out of my line of sight. Gold cuff links in the shape of shovels catch the light along with his Rolex watch peeking out of his robin’s egg blue shirtsleeves.
“It is a beautiful river, isn’t it?” the one next to me asks in a slow baritone. “A lot of people come here when they are in your position.” If I were looking to jump, his would be a beautiful last voice to hear.
“Are you in a choir?” I ask.
He chuckles,” I am. My mother’s doing. Got me started early and I’ve never stopped.”
“I’d love to hear you sometime. Any concerts in the next few days? Three or less?”
The taller one behind us clears his throat. We both stare back at him, but he keeps looking off to the sides. Birdwatching maybe. The baritone shrugs and takes off his glasses. Beautiful icy blue eyes.
I put my hand on his shoulder,” Whatever you are here tell me or sell me on, I think you’re being completely wasted with that voice and those looks.”
He blushes a bit and turns to the side,” Well, thank you very much, but I’m afraid it’s a little too late to switch careers. But, and here’s the pitch, it’s not too late for you to do something with your life. Just because something is short doesn’t mean it can’t be impactful.”
“Just because I’ve amounted to nothing until now, doesn’t mean I can’t do, or be something special?”
“Something like that.”
“And what is it I can do for you? Rob a bank, take someone out? Then what, you take care of my family?”
“Oh, god no. Why would we offer to take care of your family? That son of yours? Sheesh. Sorry for your grandkids and all, but no, we’re not offering to take care of them. We’re offering to take care of you. If you come work with us, then you’ll have a place to stay. Three meals a day plus snacks, when they don’t interfere with your work. It’s a cush job. A little bit of pain here and there, but if things go well you could be there a long time. Longer than three days.”
I stare at the gold shovels for a while, wondering what kind of hole he’s digging for me, “What’s the catch? What do I have to do?”
The muscly choir boy put his arm around my shoulders, “That’s the catch. I can’t tell you until you sign the contract. Strictly speaking, what you’re doing is acceptable, and pretty close to legal. It’s for a good cause if that helps your conscience.”
“A good cause you can’t tell me about?” Choir boy opened his mouth but there was another cough from behind. I never liked gambling. Always assumed that I would lose, which took the fun out of winning. Who wants to be proven wrong? And this felt like a really big gamble. Take my three days, which were closer to two now, or sign on to some secretive good cause. Die, or possibly live to regret it?
I slap him on the back, “Thanks for the offer. But I’m not ready yet. I have an appointment to make.”
I hear them whispering as I walk away. I don’t think they are as done with me as I am with them. But I didn’t lie. There is always something to take care of. Especially when you know your expiration date.
I’ve never been comfortable looking into my son’s eyes. Even as a baby. Such a deep and judgmental blue. His mother could do no wrong while I could barely make those diaper tabs stick. And his aim was just a little too good. Evelyn said it was all in my head. I’d say the proof was on my face. We’d laugh and stare at our perfect little boy smiling up at her. Always her.
I can see the beginnings of wrinkles around those dark eyes. In his eyes, his high-handed judgment has been validated by years of constant disappointment. When I lost my second job, I sat with my head in my hands. Eyes covered, trying to blind myself to the future. My fourteen-year-old son came from behind and gave me a perfunctory pat on the back. There, there father. You have my sympathies. A hallmark card would have had more empathy. Later that night, I got up to hit the bathroom from the plush couch I’d been exiled to. I came around the corner of the hallway and I could hear Evelyn sobbing in our room. I went to comfort her, to cry with her. I wanted her to know that it will be all right, I’ll find another job. It was just another lapse in judgment. But there she was, sobbing into our son’s shoulder as he told her over and over that she would be okay, that he would take care of her. He would provide for her as soon as he could. And she sobbed more, worried about how her friends at work would treat her, knowing her husband had lost a job. Another job. There was soft-hearted sympathy, lined with a light pity for the first loss. Maybe I had just needed a vacation. Everyone’s liable to lose it once in their life. But a second loss. She knew that light pity would be turned to lip-curling revulsion. And she knew that if I lost a third, it would make her a pariah. All her so-called friends would be terrified they might catch whatever was wrong with me. Not that she ever told them what was wrong with me. Or our son.
Cafe patrons bustle around the small metal tables. A nearby couple leans in close to catch the whisper of their current love. A balding man sits back, arms crossed, while across from him his teenage daughter looks down at her empty cup, chewing her lip. I envy the man. My son has chosen a seat amid the cacophony. One exit to his back and another in his line of sight.
I glance around again, “This feels like a first date. Public place, very busy. Good way to avoid getting murdered.”
“Don’t start,” he says, taking a drink from his cup. Double espresso, half and half. No whip. His idea of being a grown-up. I have hot cocoa with whipped cream. Covered in fudge.
I take a drink and wipe the excess cream from my face, “How’s your family? Kids doing well?”
“They’re fine. Well provided for.”
“Not quite the same thing, but good to know. And your wife, Taylor, how’s she?”
“She’s fine too. Look, you called me, what do you need? Money, I assume.
“Always to the point,” I say. Looking down at my cup, chewing my lip, I take a deep breath. “I can’t find a job.”
“Go to an agency.”
“They can’t place me.”
I hear a sharp intake of breath. When I look up he’s staring off at the other tables. From the side, I can see my profile in his clean-shaven jaw, his sharp nose. My graying beard starts to itch. For a few minutes, his judgment rests on the heads of our fellow patrons, sparing me. Then it returns.
“And what do you expect me to do?”
“Well, I was hoping that I could come, spend some time with my grandkids...with you...”
My brow furrows, “Because I love them.”
“You barely know them.”
I lean forward and whisper, “Not for lack of trying.”
I stare at his pursed lips, holding back some retort behind worn teeth. I think back on curated videos of stylish children laughing in glee before they discovered they were being filmed. Then it becomes an action-packed chase over chairs, past the resplendent Christmas tree, or up a staircase covered in valentines. In my mind, I’ve put the look of my son’s home together with jagged stitches and missing pieces. I have no idea about bathroom fixtures or if the garage is a mess. One would presume, given the two kids, that my son and his wife have their bedroom. But maybe he’s more risqué than I think.
I open my mouth a few times. I know there are words to be said. A word.
“No. There’s no need for you to come over. They barely know you. There’s barely anything to know.”
I find a small bit of my voice hiding in the pit of my stomach, “I’m their grandfather.”
“And you have nothing to teach them but how to survive amongst the roaches. It’s bad enough we share your blood, we don’t need anything else from you. You’ll just be another name on the crappy family tree my kids will be forced to do for some class. Tossed away as soon as their teacher gives it back.”
“Why have you always hated me so much? ”
Jaime snorted, “Hate. I don’t hate you. Despise you, maybe. I have a life, work, that requires my attention. I give more thought to my coffee order than I do to you.”
“Still doesn’t answer my question.”
Jaime leans forward and pushed his finger into my chest, “Because you betrayed my mother. You made promises to provide for her. Made a vow. And you broke it.”
I stare through the tiny holes of the metal table at the shadows across my feet. Chin to my chest I tell him under my breath, “I wasn’t the first to break my vows.”
“What are you mumbling?” he asked, the left side of his lip curled up under his flaring nostril. So damn pompous. I think he got that from me. So sure of everything that I couldn’t know, right up until I beat the thing I didn’t know about to a bloody mess in my tiny gray cubicle. Probably stained those fabric walls for years. I did apologize to the janitorial staff as the police escorted me out of the office. I wasn’t a total monster. Or maybe I am because I want to tell him. Force him to see an alternate history where I’m not the bad guy. I’ve thought about it enough over the years. Fantasized about how I would lay it out and knock his arrogant perspective for a loop. But, I was the bad guy. She played her part and so did I. But the play is over now. The actors have left the stage. Let him enjoy his memories of the production. He’s going to hate me either way.
“Nothing. It’s nothing you need to know. You’re right. They don’t know me. You don’t know me. And that’s not going to change in three days. It could. But you won’t let it. You’re too damn stubborn, pigheaded, inflexible, obdurate...and that’s all the synonyms I can think of at the moment. So, I’m going to tell it to you like it is. And we’ll see if anything makes it through that thick skull of yours after I’m dead.”
Jaime places his head in his hands like a little schoolboy,” Please, father, teach me the wisdom you’ve learned after all these years being an unemployable crackpot. I’m sure it will be very enlightening.”
I grab his mocking hands and pull his face uncomfortably close to mine, mixing our chocolate and espresso breaths, “I love you. No matter how you feel about me and no matter how I’ve felt about you and my god have I felt plenty about you, I have always loved you and I hope that you and your children have something far better than what we’ve got. What you won’t have soon enough. Treat them better than you treated me. Maybe give them the benefit of the doubt from time to time. But just show them a little love. That’s all I got. No enduring wisdom from the trenches. Just get it in your head that I love you and always have.”
I let him go and walk away. Nothing else to leave him with but my love and the check. At least I take the two men in suits with me.
We Pledge Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the laboring public for which it stands, one nation, employed to the greater good, for the liberty and justice of all.
I don’t remember when the changeover occurred. Wasn’t hard. None of us particularly cared to say the old one every morning and none of us cared to say the new one either. My friend Taylor spent every morning contorting his face in a thousand directions snapping back every time the teacher sensed the quiet ripple of laughter under our patriotic intonations. The boy with a million impressions later followed the trampled path of so many class clowns straight into the military to learn the fine art of motivational screaming.
When he was a year out of Boot Camp, we’d headed to Bjorgen’s Burgers. In between ravaging bites of beef and pickles, he and his oversized mouth tried to convince me to march down the path he’d faithfully followed. Thick black caterpillar eyebrows arched in exultation over the physical benefits of excruciating pain before plunging into an exhortation on my duties as a man. He always did have a much higher opinion of my manliness than I did. Though I tend to think his hiring quota had more to do with that opinion than my actual masculinity. Too late for that now. With my screaming joints and ears brimming with gray hairs, I’m no longer their ideal candidate.
Who do you call when you only have a few days left to live? Old friends to relive your past? Mine abandoned me a long time ago. Old lovers so that you can go out with a bang? I burned my little black book and my last trysts were just sad for all parties involved. Should I call all of the people I hate to finally tell them off? Well, that’s never been a real problem, hence my constant firing.
Evelyn. My wife. Ex. I still have her number on my phone. Or at least I think I do. It could have changed a thousand times since we no longer need to schedule meetings after school at grocery stores to hand off our son for what he viewed as karmic punishment from another life. Sometimes her tearful eyes reminded me of the night we’d met in the city's third most popular dive bar, Melville’s Whale. The back of the bar was lined with molding books and half-filled bottles. I’d come at the request of a tall handsome friend. I saw the jealousy in her eyes when he hugged her more alluring friend. When I shook her hand, I watched her brown eyes glance at the floor, the same color as the whiskey stains she stared at. I noticed the soft curve to her right ear as she pulled her short blond hair behind it. I noticed the tightness in her jawline as she took control of her emotions. Because we both knew there was nothing to do but make the best of being in second place. I was already lost, wanting to hold those fingers again for just a few more seconds.
So I wooed her with an easy smile and a list of job prospects. While my overall sex appeal might have been questionable, I could offer up a sense of security. I was nothing if not sure of my future in some nameless corporation. We both knew that I would find work in Some Place that did Some Thing because that’s just how life worked for people like us. Even if we weren’t the best or the most beautiful in the room. It was our right. So we made our promises and we broke them. So who is there left for me to talk to? Who is left to see me?
I’ve come back to the bridge somehow. Damn. I really need to start paying attention to how I’m getting here. Maybe Choirboy and his friend know. I hear the squeak of their polished shoes. As they flank me, I register the crunch of gravel behind me and the slow whir of an electric door.
“Never really had a choice, did I?” I asked when my taller companion grabbed my waist and placed me into the van. The two of them stood in the doorway with haloes of light from the night lamps. “I don’t even get my three days?”
I got to hear that baritone sigh one last time, “If those three days really mattered to you, you probably wouldn’t be in this situation. But, we like to make it seem like you have time. A last choice. A last chance to exercise some control over your destiny. Plus, it’s less hassle if you come of your own free will. Do we have to stick the bag on your head?”
I sniffed at the burlap sacks in the corner, “No, I’m good. Sorry I won’t be able to hear your concert. Break a leg.”
“You too,” he said as the door slowly closed. The van was pretty roomy. At least four or five more people could get kidnapped today and it wouldn’t feel too cramped. There was a large metal wall between the middle row and the driver. I knocked, but there was no answer. I buckled up for safety and leaned the seat back a few inches. Tinted windows made the world passing by look like oil spilled in the parking lot. At least this time I had a good excuse for not knowing how I got to where I would be going. Not that I thought I would care for long.
The door slid back to reveal two very large men in white lab coats. Against a backdrop of white gloss cement, their heads floated above their starched collars. A little overly muscled for scientists, but I have heard it is a rigorous discipline. I step out into the blank sea and feel a little exposed. In my green shirt and blue jeans, I’m the only solid body surrounded by more floating heads and hands drifting around. I’m ushered down one hallway and then into the next. Past doors with tiny windows framing glimpses of people that I know I’ll never see again. They lead me to my own door with its own tiny window and I step inside.
More white. All over the walls and ceiling. The mattress on the floor and the bedsheets. Even the light, which I could not even tell you where it was coming from, would have been called white light. Someone decided to stick to a theme. Sterile Madhouse, perhaps. The mattress was the softest place to sit. And the only thing to sit on. So I sat in the corner, on the floor. Now the tiny window framed the bobbing heads of the scientists. Which got very boring. So I laid down on the cold floor. Smooth, shiny, freezing. It felt like my old quartz kitchen counter. Were they planning on cooking me and serving me on the floor? If so, providing a bed seemed a little silly.
A young dark-haired doctor comes in with his clipboard, marking away at some official document. Or playing sudoku for all I know. He looks at me with furrowed eyebrows and sucks on the edge is his pen. With a flourish, he marks the paper (maybe he finished the puzzle) and walks out as quickly as he walked in.
Hours later, maybe minutes, possibly a decade, a doctor comes with more salt than pepper comes in, fidgeting with his glasses and another clipboard. I wonder if they all have their own? Do they name them? Do I care? I would name mine Patrick. The stiff old man stood at the door and watched me with tiny eyes that gave off that “German scientist of a certain time” kind of vibe. I start to miss that three-day expiration date.
“Do you know what we do here?” he asks in a soft kindly voice. No German accent, which I find disappointing. He sounds like the kind of grandfather I would have wanted to be.
“In the great working spirit of this country, you have donated your body to science.”
“Donated may not be the word you’re looking for. And I’m not dead.”
“Which is the beauty of your donation!” The smile lights up the lower half of his face. We have entered the pageant portion of the evening. I watch his eyes that improbably narrow even more while he delivers his spiel about the gift I’m giving to my country. The gift of a body that would otherwise end up in a decomposing garbage bag, rotting away in a forgotten corner of some cemetery that can only afford a groundskeeper once a month. The gift of a living specimen for them to test out all sorts of new drugs. Drugs to help this country’s great workforce continue to flex its economic might well into its geriatric years. The doctor starts to tell me the history of this venerable institution built on the bodies of people who couldn’t do their part anymore. Of course, no one who was demonstrably crazy or too infirm would end up here. That would be monstrous. And skew their data.
After ten more minutes, I interrupt him, “And if I want to rescind my donation? If my dream is to end up in a decomposing body bag? Forgotten in some corner?”
My god, those eyes! I swear they could collapse in on themselves and form a black hole, they’re so narrow. “Once you’ve donated, you cannot take it back. No refunds.”
I laugh. A ghostly reflection in the white wall inches from my face laughs back. At least he gets the joke. I have a new job after all. A job I can’t quit. A job I can’t be fired from. A job I’ll work until I die. And Work is Life.