Sunday, September 10, 2017

Fiction #74: Kathryn Mockler

The Job Interview: A Murder

I had always been a careful person, neurotic, in fact. I wouldn’t walk at night alone. Ever. I always double-checked that the doors were locked before bed. I touched the burners on the stove more times than I cared to admit before I left the house. I wouldn’t mix Tylenol and alcohol because it could harm my liver. I read directions on all my medications. Rarely would I jaywalk. I basically lived my life thinking the worst possible thing was going to happen at any moment, and I did my best to prevent it. The methods of operating my life in this way were the result of obsessive compulsions, a hypochondriacal mother, and the fact that we live in a nightmare with no plausible explanation for how or why we are here.

My husband and I had been living in Windsor, Ontario for about a year so he could attend a graduate program in visual arts. I had graduated from my master’s program in creative writing the previous year after which was I lucky enough to get a grant to write a book of poetry. However, the money was now running out, and I needed a job badly.

There were at least two reasons I always had trouble getting jobs. I suffered from extreme under-confidence and I had terrible anxiety making job interviews nearly impossible. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t be myself, and so it immediately turned potential employers off—understandably so.

Because I had been a student for years and didn’t require the type of clothing needed for a professional job, I didn’t have much in the way of a wardrobe. I wore casual clothes around the house and then I had my one outfit that I liked to wear when we went out. One night when we were at an art opening, a woman from my husband’s program to whom I had only spoken on a couple of occasions and didn’t particularly like, turned to me in front of a group of people and said, “Do you only have that one outfit? Is that like your uniform? Because every time I see you, you’re wearing the same thing.”

I don’t know how, but I managed to stammer an attempt at self-mockery—“Yes it’s my uniform. It’s the only thing I like to wear.”

Then I quickly excused myself to the bathroom and sobbed. Big wet sloppy tears were pouring out of my eyes. I could hear people chatting and laughing on the other side of the door. I cried like a kid who had just been picked on by a schoolyard bully—even though I was twenty-eight-years old. I felt shame and hatred and anger all at once. All my good comeback lines played themselves over and over in my head.

Yes, I really did only have that one outfit. It served as both my job interview outfit and my going out outfit—a black blazer, a light blue collared shirt with blue flowers, and black pants. It was the only outfit I felt good in since I had recently gained some weight.

So here I was in Windsor, Ontario looking for a job, a little more desperate than usual since “the uniform” comment. The problem for me in terms of getting a job, in addition to my confidence and anxiety issues, was that I didn’t have any skills. I wasn’t experienced enough to get a teaching job, and the jobs I had held in the past—house cleaning, dishwashing, and factory work—I didn’t particularly want. I was too terrified of people to waitress and I didn’t want to work a job where I had a use a cash register because I was too terrified of cash registers.

I had always longed to work in a bookstore or a library, but I could never land one of those coveted positions. So that pretty much left me applying for administrative work which was also proving impossible to get in this small economically depressed town in 1999.

I applied to several temp agencies and took all their demoralizing personality, word processing, and excel spreadsheet tests, and I looked in the paper every day to see if there were any listings for odd jobs. For a little while, things were starting to look up. I got a day of work answering phones at a paper factory, and I made it to the second round interview stage at the Nutrition Hut in the mall but ultimately didn’t get the job. They said I wasn’t experienced enough.

So I continued to scan newspaper ads until I found one from a company looking for some part-time admin help for a small family-run business. They were going to pay ten dollars an hour which was better than minimum wage. It sounded good to me, so I called the number right away and set up an appointment.

Even though I put on the “uniform” and told my husband that I was going to an interview before I left the apartment, I realized as I got off the bus and walked down what looked like a residential street in a run-down subdivision, I had not given him the address or phone number. That was kind of a stupid thing to do, I thought to myself as I stood in front of the house.

I considered just walking away, but there were a couple of kids playing out front—a little boy with a skateboard and a little girl wearing a pink dress and heavy black shoes, which made the place seem safe enough, so I decided to knock on the door.

A guy with a mustache named John wearing cut-offs and a dirty undershirt answered in bare feet. If this was a story, I thought to myself with a little laugh, he’d be a cliché. Since I started writing, a little game I played with myself was picking out people who I thought were clichés. John was a white trash cliché. The boy was a little boy cliché and his sister would have been a little girl cliché if she hadn’t be wearing such unusual shoes. As I straightened my black blazer and adjusted my blue flower shirt, I thought about the woman who had insulted me at the art opening and decided she was a grad school cliché. And although I didn’t know it at the time, I too would become a cliché—a dead girl cliché.

The boy from the front yard ran up to the door and said—“Hi, John, can I come over and play video games?”

“Not right now, Ethan. We’ve got a guest,” he said and let me inside.

I took off my shoes and looked around. The place seemed normalish enough, a little messy but nothing really out of the ordinary except all the furniture was white.

John said, “Our office is downstairs,” and he led me all the way to the back of the house. The house was long. It seemed to take forever to get from one end to the other. As we walked through the living room and then dining room and then to a little porch, the two kids from outside followed us along the side of the house. They banged on the windows and yelled things at us, and by the time we got to the back, Ethan and his sister were standing at the screen door.

“Who is the blonde lady?” Ethan asked. “Is she the same one from before?”

“None of your beeswax,” John said. He had this strange ability to be nice and mean to the kid at the same time.

“Can we come in, John?” Ethan asked.

“Not now,” John said. “Go home.” And he shut the door in the little boy’s grinning stupid face.

God, that kid is annoying, I thought.

“John,” Ethan pleaded. “I don’t want to go home.”

I do, I thought. I want to go home right now.

“Get outta here,” John said, this time with a firmer tone.

There’s a weird prickly feeling that you get when you realize that you could be in serious danger.

Some people call it a sixth sense or instinct. I remember a guest on Oprah talking about self-defense and how women have the ability to sense danger before they are actually in danger. It’s kind of like built-in radar, a protection device. It’s something you should always listen to, she said. It’s something you should never ignore because it could save your life. When you get these sensations, your body is trying to tell you something.

She was right. I had this radar. And I knew I had it. I knew I had it because when I took one look at the outside of the house the feeling was there—that sense or instinct that told me I might be headed for danger. A voice inside my head said, it’s not worth it—go home. And as I was stepping inside the door that same voice tried to stop me. I knew I shouldn’t have gone in, but I went in anyway because I wanted to believe there was a job that paid me ten dollars an hour. I won’t eat mayonnaise past the expiration date, yet somehow I managed to find myself in a strange man’s basement and no one knew I was there.

Before we went downstairs, John told me to put on some slippers because the basement floor was dirty. Along the edge of the porch, there were several house slippers of different sizes lined up in a neat row.

Did I mention that I was a germophobe?

The slippers were blackened with dirt and they smelled, and even though I declined them at first, John insisted. He didn’t want my sock feet to get dirty, he said, and there was a tone in his voice that made me feel like I couldn’t refuse. So I picked the least offensive pair and put them on trying my best not to show my disgust as I walked down the rickety steps to a newly renovated basement that smelled like Ikea furniture, cigarette smoke, and black mould.

Another man was sitting at a round table near a kitchenette smoking. He too had a mustache. And he too looked like a cliché. He looked like a cliché of a bad man who might cause me harm. On the table beside him—a 40 ounce bottle of rye and a shot glass.

This wasn’t a job interview. There was no family business.

“Would you like a drink,” the man said. It was a statement rather than a question, and like with the slippers, I couldn’t refuse.

I thought about Ethan, who in one moment I found as annoying as a persistent housefly and in the next, he became my lifeline who I prayed wouldn’t give up trying to play video games with John. Maybe he would break in. Maybe he would tell his mother that something terrible was taking place.

But in the end little Ethan couldn’t do anything to save me. In his last attempt to get inside—he banged on the basement window and waved with a dazed and crazy smile on his face. To be honest, he looked more like a maniac than any of them. Maybe he wasn’t a cliché after all. But John just ignored the kid and pulled down the blinds.

“I like your shirt lady,” Ethan said through the window.

Then I heard Ethan hop on his skateboard and ride down the gravel driveway, his sister clomping after him in her heavy shoes. I wondered if Ethan would tell the police that I had been there, that he had seen me? Would his sister? Were they too young to remember or would they even care?

I smiled and looked down at my pale blue shirt that just this morning I had considered retiring, not because of what the grad student had said, but because of the yellow sweat stains I found under the arms.

*

Kathryn Mockler is the author of the books Some Theories (ST Press, 2017), The Purpose Pitch (Mansfield Press, 2015),  The Saddest Place on Earth (DC Books, 2012) and Onion Man (Tightrope Books, 2011). Her writing has been published recently in Entropy, Cosmonauts Avenue, Public PoolThe Butter, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn.

Photo credit: David Poolman

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