A moderately plump woman escorts him into a fairly spacious office. He is rangy and he is along in years, six decades since birth. The moderately plump woman is about half that, three decades.
The office’s focal point is a large desk made of either wood or fake wood, mahogany perhaps. A padded swivel chair, black vinyl, is in back of the desk. A meek folding chair is in front of the desk. A few other folding chairs lean against a wall. The walls are beige. Also against a wall are a couple of gray filing cabinets. Some framed certificates proclaiming education and/or achievement, such as Employee of the Year, embellish a portion of the wall that’s in the vicinity of the desk. Those accolades are easily viewed by whomever might be seated on the folding chair in front of the desk. Gray mini-blinds at the room’s two windows are angled slightly open, muted sunlight emitted. Fixtures fastened to the ceiling provide more substantial light by way of fluorescence. A short-nap carpet blankets the floor. The carpet is an unobtrusive brown.
The moderately plump woman stops at the side of the desk and turns to face him, which causes him to stop and face the woman.
“We will conduct our introductions by bowing instead of shaking hands,” the woman says. “It is how the Japanese do it, and it is well known that the Japanese live longer than most everyone else on the face of this good earth. The Japanese are a very hygienic people, which might account for their health and longevity, don’t you agree?”
A curious expression has begun on his long face. Bifocals, horizontal line visible between upper and lower prescriptions of the lenses, are perched on his bony nose. Above the glasses a forehead stretches noticeably upward to dissolve into thinning russet hair that’s combed straight back. He is clean-shaven.
The moderately plump woman seems to be waiting for a reply, but it seems that the rangy man doesn’t know if the woman’s question is rhetorical or literal.
“Don’t you agree?” she repeats.
“Oh, yes. I agree.”
The woman smiles a half-smile, which dimples her cheeks. The man tilts his head and looks at the woman’s face with apparent interest. The woman, too, is wearing glasses, but unlike the man’s glasses, which are too large for his face, the woman’s glasses are rectangular and sleek, frames a transparent lavender.
“I am Ms. Connors.”
“I am Jack.”
Ms. Connors stands, black skirt to her knees, cream-colored blouse peeking through where a petite-styled jacket is fashionably unbuttoned, jacket black like the skirt, an ensemble in which the jacket is probably never meant to be buttoned. Low-heeled black pumps are on her feet.
“I believe your application reads: Jackson Bake.”
“Yes, and that’s because that’s what’s on my Social Security card and my driver’s license, but everyone calls me Jack.”
Jackson Bake is wearing clean khakis that are maybe supposed to look like chinos, but they are too baggy on Jackson’s long legs to be chinos. A short-sleeved blue shirt with a button-down collar, collar open, no necktie, retains a collegiate look. Jackson, though, is very much beyond college, if indeed he ever went to college. Powder blue sports shoes with a distinctive black check mark adorn Jackson’s feet.
“Mr. Bake, we are now going to bow.”
Jackson stands with a contemplative look on his face, or maybe a puzzled look. Ms. Connors registers a waiting look. Jackson seems to notice Ms. Connors’ waiting look, which is a look of impatience.
Jackson says, “Okay,” as if in response to Ms. Connors’ waiting look. This seems to satisfy Ms. Connors, albeit in a minimal way.
Ms. Connors begins a purposeful bow, which is formal, yet not stiff. Her bowing is smooth and graceful, hands lightly together while touching her clothing just below her bellybutton. With a gracious tilt of her head she looks downward at a spot a few feet in front of her shoes. Jackson views this with keen interest. When Ms. Connors reaches the nadir point of the bow she pauses for a fixed moment before beginning to raise her torso slowly until she finishes the bow in an upright, vertical position. Ms. Connors isn’t smiling, but neither is she frowning. In an elongated moment that ensues when she finishes the bow her eyes reflect tranquility that blends with a soft expression on her face. But then this ends when her hazel irises in back of her glasses latch onto Jackson.
Jackson says, “That was really wonderful.”
Ms. Connors replies, “Thank you.”
Jackson shifts his weight from foot to foot. Ms. Connors seems to be waiting again. Jackson glances around. His gray eyes gravitate to a large wall clock where a second hand sweeps serenely in an arc that constitutes a circle, no ticking.
“You are supposed to bow, Mr. Bake.”
Jackson’s view returns to Ms. Connors, who now has a hand on her hip, elbow jutting out. Jackson moistens his lips with his tongue.
“Oh, okay,” Jackson says, and jerkily attempts a bow that finishes too quickly and too abruptly.
Ms. Connors seems on the verge of saying something, but she doesn’t say anything. She steps to her left and sits down in the swivel chair. On the desk in front of her is a sheet of paper encased in a clear-plastic folder. To Ms. Connors’ right there is a telephone. To her left, a keyboard and a flat-screen monitor and a printer connote business in a contemporary mode. The arrangement of her desk allows for unhindered eye-to-eye contact between Ms. Connors and whoever might be seated on the folding chair in front of her desk.
“Please have a seat, Mr. Bake.”
Jackson sits down on the folding chair.
Ms. Connors appears dignified and composed in back of the large desk and in the comfort of her chair, but since she is small in stature the furniture surrounding her makes her appear smaller than when she was standing. Nevertheless, her confident demeanor greatly boosts her image.
“You are applying for a position in the shipping and receiving department, are you not, Mr. Bake?”
Jackson is negotiating the hard metal seat of the chair. His skinny rump is searching for cushioning, a futile endeavor. His long legs go out and come back. He leans back onto the chair’s back, but there is no cushioning there, either. The upper half of Jackson’s body comes forward to waver between leaning forward and sitting upright. His view is slightly downward as if he were looking for something on the floor, or maybe he’s contemplating discomfort.
Ms. Connors’ eyes dwell on Jackson. He seems to feel this, for he looks up abruptly to discover eye-to-eye contact. Silence is exchanged. Above Ms. Connors’ hazel irises, which are clearly visible behind her glasses, there is a delicate swath of white forehead, and above the forehead black hair glistens in a bowl-like configuration.
“Mr. Bake, are you or are you not applying for the position of shipping and receiving clerk?”
“Yes, I’m applying for that.”
“The position requires lifting fifty-pound boxes on a regular basis.”
“If I’m not mistaken, you told my assistant, Mr. Nordish, that you are able to lift fifty-pound boxes on a regular basis. Is that correct, Mr. Bake?”
“Yes, that’s what I told the man in the outer office there, and then he gave me an application to fill out.”
I imagine Mr. Nordish also asked if you possess a valid California driver’s license, did he not?”
“Yes, he did, and I told him I did. I put that down on the application form.”
“Yes, I saw that when I was going over your application. I simply wanted to confirm.”
Jackson is still unsettled on the seat of his chair, squirming and shifting.
“So, you can lift fifty-pound boxes and you are in possession of a valid driver’s license, which means a current driver’s license.”
Jackson’s one hand is resting on his lap, but his other hand keeps going back and forth between dangling at the side of the chair and his lap.
Ms. Connors starts tapping on the surface of her desk with her index finger, nail of which is lacquered red. Jackson stops squirming to look at the tapping fingernail, Chinese red.
“Mr. Bake, I am waiting for a reply.”
Jackson desists from staring at the fingernail that has now ceased tapping. He looks at Ms. Connors’ face.
“A reply to what?”
“A reply to lifting fifty-pound boxes and a driver’s license.”
“I thought we already went over that.”
Ms. Connors lets out a breath of air.
“Yes, to both,” Jackson says. “Fifty-pound boxes and a driver’s license.”
“Mr. Bake, what are your career goals?”
“What plans do you have regarding the future? What do you see yourself doing twenty years from now, Mr. Bake?”
Jackson brings a hand up to adjust his bifocals. The hand descends to hang at the side of his chair, which is what his other hand is doing.
“I hope to be alive.”
Ms. Connors cocks her head.
“That sounds rather pessimistic, Mr. Bake. Are you a pessimist?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You mean, you don’t know?”
“What difference would it make if I knew or not?”
Ms. Connors straightens her head.
“Mr. Bake, I’ve noticed something in your speech. It’s a little slow. Is English your second language?”
“Did you grow up with a language other than English? Spanish or Arabic for example?”
“I grew up here in Los Angeles, the East Valley. A couple of blocks from here, actually.”
“Is your nationality that of a US citizen?”
“Yeah, I’m a US citizen.”
“Do you possess a valid US passport?”
“I don’t have a passport.”
“I never went to any foreign countries. Well . . . I went to Tijuana a couple of times, you know, Mexico, when I was young. But you don’t need a passport to go there. At least not then you didn’t.”
“So you left the United States without a passport and reentered the United States without a passport.”
“Strictly speaking, yes. But everyone did. I don’t know about now, but that’s the way it was then. You didn’t need a passport to go to Tijuana.”
“When was then?”
“When was then? Oh, I see. It was when I was young. That’s when it was. But I’m not young anymore, you see.”
“The discussion of age, Mr. Bake, is not permitted except to ascertain if an applicant is eighteen years of age or older. But the issue of illegal alien is very much permitted in the context of employment. Why do you speak slowly, Mr. Bake?”
“I’m older than young.”
“Mr. Bake, it is paramount that we do not touch on the question of age.”
“When I grew up people spoke slower than they do now. Even on TV they spoke slower. I can hardly catch what people on TV and in the movies are saying nowadays because they are speaking so fast and so clipped.”
Ms. Connors pushes the clear-plastic folder to the side and places her hands on the desktop in front of herself, hands coming together, fingers intertwining.
“So you don’t understand English, Mr. Bake?”
“How could I not understand English? I’m sitting here talking to you, aren’t I?”
“If you raise your voice in a menacing manner again, I will be compelled to call security.”
Jackson brings a hand up. But the hand stalls in midair as if it has lost whatever purpose it had in elevating. He lowers the hand onto his lap.
“Let’s move on to the subject of operating a motor vehicle, Mr. Bake. Do you sometimes hit the accelerator instead of the brake?”
Jackson kind of smiles, a wry expression.
“Why would I want to do that?”
Ms. Connors sighs.
“Mr. Bake. I am sitting in back of the desk. You are sitting in front of the desk. This means that I am the interviewer and you are the interviewee, otherwise known as an applicant. The interviewer asks the questions. The interviewee answers them.”
“Did you have any problems navigating the parking lot and parking in the ‘Visitors Parking’ in front of this building, Mr. Bake?”
“None whatsoever. I walked here.”
“You walked here?”
“Yes. I only live a few blocks away.”
Ms. Connors leans forward in her chair.
“You walked here, Mr. Bake?”
“No one walks in Los Angeles, Mr. Bake, or anywhere else in Southern California for that matter, particularly if they are commuting to work or going to a business appointment. A job interview certainly qualifies as a business appointment.”
Jackson shrugs a shoulder. Ms. Connors looks at Jackson for a long moment. After that she looks at her wristwatch, a thin timepiece.
“Fifteen minutes are allotted for interviews of applicants applying for a warehouse position. We are nearing that time limit, Mr. Bake. I will ask you one or two additional questions.”
“Have ever been, or are you currently, a member of, or affiliated with, an organization or a group, or cell of a group, whose intent is the overthrow of the United States government, or any kind of organization or group or cell that has any sort of connection, directly or indirectly, with terrorist activities in the United States or anywhere else in the world?”
“Nothing beyond, ‘No,’ Mr. Bake?”
“Yes. No is no.”
Ms. Connors reaches over and flips the plastic file folder over and looks at the reverse side of the encased paper.
“Turning to the subject of previous employment, Mr. Bake, according to your ‘Job History’ you worked as a housepainter until three years ago. There is then a gap between then and the present. What have you been doing for the past three years?”
“I’ve been taking care of my mother who was old and sick.”
“Your mother? Does she require constant care?”
“Not anymore. She died last month.”
“I’m sorry, too.”
Ms. Connors hesitates in responding.
“Anyway, her Social Security benefits have stopped. That’s why I’m looking for a job. I need money.”
“Why don’t you return to house painting?”
“Well . . . I had a drinking problem, you see, so I removed myself from that environment—everyone in the crew drinking, and my mother needing help. She couldn’t do anything. So my coming back over the hill from the Westside worked out for both of us. And now, I don’t want to be a housepainter again. I’m looking for a more regular type of employment, a steady paycheck.”
“You’ve listed a Manny Martin as your employer for all those years you were a housepainter. But in the space provided for contacting former employers, case at hand Manny Martin, you left that space blank.”
“Manny’s no longer available. He died two years ago.”
“Manny died two years ago?”
Ms. Connors sits a moment and then eases back into her chair, hands coming off the desk, forearms settling on the padded arms of her chair. She appears to be thinking. Jackson watches this, and then he sees something on Ms. Connors’ face, and with this she comes forward to place her hands on the desktop again, hands coming together, fingers intertwining.
“A drinking problem—I believe you mentioned a drinking problem, Mr. Bake.”
“I started going to AA when I returned to the Valley, you know, to take care of my mother. I’ve been dry for nearly three years now.”
“That’s commendable. But if I am not mistaken, alcoholics are never really cured, are they? Alcoholism is an illness that persists throughout one’s life.”
“That’s right. But that’s been misunderstood and misconstrued. If you stay off the juice, you’ll be okay. It was hard at first, but things have ironed out.”
Jackson sits, silence surrounding him.
“Mr. Bake, if you don’t hear from us within five working days, you can assume the position has been filled.”
Jackson nods slowly. Ms. Connors stands up and comes to the side of her desk.
“Let us bow, Mr. Bake, to conclude the interview.”
Michael Onofrey grew up in Los Angeles. Currently he lives in Japan. His stories have appeared in Cottonwood, Evansville Review, Kestrel, Natural Bridge, Terrain.org, Weber – The Contemporary West, and in other fine places. A novel, “Bewilderment,” was published by Tailwinds Press in 2017.