Friday, March 25, 2005

Friday Fiction: Taylor House, Chapter 6: "Interview"

Having moved in, Louis realized that his next move was to find gainful employment—and fast. He only had a few hundred dollars left in his savings, and that wouldn’t last him too long in his new locale. Even if he got a job right away, he wouldn’t be paid for at least a few weeks. The sooner he found a job, the better.

Back home—in Chicago, rather—he had several part-time jobs in high school and college, but nothing very glamorous. The best he usually came up with were various permutations of the food service industry. It was certainly nothing he wanted to revisit.

The next morning, he ate a bowl of cereal and scanned the want ads of the community newspaper, circling a few prospects. After an afternoon of phone calls, he came up dry. No one wanted to hire him. He didn’t have the qualifications. He didn’t have any experience. Experience was the really tough thing—no one hires a person with no experience, yet because of this, no one can actually get any experience. Scholars call this a “vicious circle”; old Linus would have just called it “life.” Louis figured the old man wouldn’t have been too sympathetic. He was, after all, the poster-child for the “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” generation—“ten miles uphill in the snow,” and all that.

Another day or two went by. Louis would scan the newspaper, check some employment websites online, and make some inquiries. He had made up a resume, such as it was, but he couldn’t avoid that noticeable gap in the “employment” section. There was also the matter of the six-month time gap after commencement. Graduates from Northwestern don’t usually spend their first six degreed months working part-time at a drive-thru window. Not unless they have theatre studies degrees. Louis didn’t have that excuse to fall back on.

Another week with no luck. Louis’ frustration grew with every passing day. It wasn’t like he was trying to find a career. All he wanted was twenty hours a week. Grocery money, maybe something extra for a movie. He didn’t think that was too much to ask for. The local economy seemed to disagree.

After almost two weeks without so much as an interview, Louis decided that his pride, however precious, wouldn’t make much of a diet. He resolved to begin applying to local restaurants. If nothing else, a restaurant job could score him free food once in a while. That would definitely help his budget.

That Friday morning, he set out in his truck, driving up and down the alphabetical streets of the island. He’d watch each restaurant pass, and would try to justify not stopping each time. This one looks dingy. That one looks dead. I could never work there. Oh, not there, either--I hate the smell of curry.

He rationalized his way past lunchtime, without so much as a single stop. He finally decided on a seafood restaurant with the prerequisite sailboat motif. He parked and walked inside. The greeter’s polo shirt was covered in a screaming neon fish pattern. She poured on the personality. “Hello! Welcome to the Shrimp Shack! Home of the All-You-Can-Eat Shrimp Bucket! My name is Wendy! Just one today!” Even her question was an exclamation.

“Actually, I wanted to talk to the manager about”

“Just a second!” Wendy spun around, ponytail whipping behind her. She seemed to bound back into the kitchen/staging area.

Louis took a seat on the padded wooden benches in the waiting area, trying not to wrinkle the copy of his resume that he brought. He looked around at the dĂ©cor. Oversized plastic fish, miles of netting, toy boats, parrots, and palm fronds covered the walls. Behind the greeters’ station was a chalkboard with what appeared to be a psychotic pirate, grinning madly, squinting with his unpatched eye, and shouting, “Arrrrrr you ready for some red snapper?” Louis decided “Long John Silver” must be the greeter for the dinner crowd.

After a few minutes, a man in a sailboat shirt and khaki pants came through the steel double-doors to the kitchen, with Wendy in tow. He smiled broadly at Louis and stuck out his hand. “I’m Steve Johns, the manager here at the Shrimp Shack.”

Wendy piped up, “This is the man who wanted to see you, Mr. Johns!”

Mr. Johns turned back to her, a forced smile revealing gritted teeth. “Thank you, Wendy. I”ll take it from here.” Wendy shrugged and returned to her station.

Johns took at deep breath and turned back to Louis, broad smile back in place. “Well, what can I do for you, sir? Any problems with your meal?”

“Oh, no, Mr. Johns—“

“Steve, please.”

“No, Steve, I haven’t eaten yet.”

“Haven’t eaten? Wendy, why haven’t you seated this young man—what’s your name?”

“Um, Louis.”

“Wendy, Louis here needs a table!”

Louis held up his hands. “Wait, no, Steve! I didn’t come here to eat. I’m looking for a job. I wanted to know if you have anything available. Preferably wait staff.”

Steve thought for a moment, and then snapped his fingers. “Actually, we did have to let a few waiters go last week. I’m sure we could use another hand on deck.”

Louis nodded. “Great. Well, here’s my resume.”

“Hold on there, shipmate. I’ll need you to fill out a standard application.” Louis pulled back the resume, trying to play off his blunder. “Oh. Of course. No problem.”

“Great!” said Steve. He fished around in the shelves behind the greeter station and came up with a six-page application. “Just fill in as many blanks as you can now, and if you need to go back home and get information to finish the rest, that’s fine, but the application has to stay here.”

Louis sat down and began filling out the application. Steve stood for a moment, and then asked, “So, how long were you a waiter before?”

“Excuse me?” Louis asked, surprised.

“Oh, I’m sorry. How long were you a server, at your previous job?”

Louis shrugged. “Actually, I’ve never worked in a restaurant before. At least not one without a drive-thru.” He had hoped Steve would laugh at his weak attempt at humor. No dice.

Steve said, “Oh. Sorry then. We’re only hiring experienced servers right now.”

Louis made no attempt to hide his disappointment. “Oh. That’s too bad.”

“Sorry, Louis. But hey, if you want to fill out the application anyway, we can give you a call if a busser position opens up!”

Louis shook his head. “No thanks, Steve. But thank you for your time.” He trudged out of the restaurant, more disappointed than he probably should have been, this being only his first in-person rejection.

Louis drove around a little more, even less willing to ask for applications. After a while, he ended up on the Strand, part of the island’s famous shopping district. He parked in a small lot, and began walking down the bustling street. Both sides of the street were lined with shops, ranging from island knick-knacks to posh clothing outlets.

Louis walked down the half-full sidewalk, peeking in the windows of the shops. He stopped in at a coffee shop called the Magic Bean, and ordered a mocha. The barista was cute, but refused to make eye contact with him. Louis took his coffee and went back outside. That’s when he saw it.

At the corner of ______ and Strand was a two-story bookstore lined with windows and striped awnings. The marquee sign above the blue storefront said, “The Last Word.” Louis had always wanted to work in a bookstore. He checked to make sure no traffic was coming, and darted across the street, almost getting sideswiped by an absentminded cyclist in the process. He turned the worn handle on the front door, and stepped inside, chiming the bells hung over the frame.

The store was cramped. The aisles were narrow and circuitous, having no apparent organization or pattern. But every wall was covered with floor-to-ceiling shelves, and every shelf was full to capacity with paperbacks of varying size and type. Near the back of the store was the checkout area, a U-shaped island in the midst of structural chaos. Louis made his way to it, sidestepping browsers peering at book spines and teenagers sitting cross-legged in the floor, pouring over old Heinlein novels.

At the desk were three clerks. One sat in an office chair facing a computer screen; he couldn’t have been more than eighteen. Louis took the young man’s multiple ear piercings and Clash tee-shirt as a sign that the dress code here was lenient. A second man sat on the far side of the counter, paging through a Popular Science magazine. The third, the oldest and likely most senior employee, hung up the phone and took a sip of water from a bottle. He was the only one wearing a nametag (which bore the name, “Dan”). This one turned to the one seated on the countertop.

“Hey Trent, what’s the blast radius of a hydrogen bomb? 30 miles or so, right?”

Trent looked up from the magazine. “I don’t know--that sounds about right. Why?”

“Todd said he thought it was something like 120.”

“Oh, no, man, not that much.”

“That’s what I thought. The real problem is the wind, I’ll bet. ‘The nuclear wind.’”

Trent nodded. “I think I read in the paper somewhere that if a bomb were set off anywhere near here, it would be in Houston, and the Gulf wind would carry the fallout off…northwest somewhere.”

“Well, that’s good news.”

The silent teenager at the computer pumped his fist in the air without looking away from the screen, and declared, “Survivors!”

The younger clerk shook his head. “No, it just means we’d be left to clean up the mess.”

Louis listened to this exchange with morbid curiosity. The conversation, however interesting, was a bit too odd for his taste. His first impulse was to walk away without being noticed, but the older employee spotted him before he could make his escape. He asked, “Can I help you find something?”

Louis cleared his throat. “Actually, I was wondering if I could speak to a manager for a moment.”

The older man said, “Right. Trent, this customer needs a word.” The younger employee seated on the counter looked up, set his magazine down, and hopped down to his feet.

“Well? What can I do for you?” Trent asked.

“You’re the manager?” Louis found himself asking. This person couldn’t be any older than he was.

“Assistant, yeah. Is there something you need to find?”

“What? Oh, no,” Louis replied. “I was just wondering—are you accepting applications? For part-time help, I mean.”

Trent smirked. “Sure, fella, we’ll take them.”

Louis countered, “Let me rephrase that—are you currently hiring part-time help?”

“Oh. No.”

“Okay. Well, thanks, anyway.” Louis turned to make his way out of the store.

Over his shoulder, he heard Trent call out, “Well if you give up that easily, you definitely can’t work here.”

Louis turned back, baffled. “What?”

“You just gave up. You can’t want to work here that badly…”

Louis took a step forward. “But I do, really.”

Trent rubbed his goatee. “Really. Well then, leave, and then come back, like you really want a job.” He leaned on the counter and looked down at the newspaper headlines before him.

Louis asked, “So you…” Trent waved his hand, gesturing for Louis to leave. Still confused but willing to give it a try, Louis walked out, turned around, and walked back in. He took a few steps toward the counter and said, “Excuse me, sir.”

Without looking up, Trent said, “Get the hell out.”

The teenager at the computer started laughing, his voice cracking. Even the older employee couldn’t hold in a chuckle. Trent never looked up from his paper.

Louis realized he was being played for the fool. He tapped his fingers to his forehead, tipping an invisible hat, and said, “Thank you, gentlemen, for your time.” He then turned and walked out of the store, hoping his face wasn’t flushing noticeably.

He only made it a few steps away, when Trent came barreling out of the bookstore. He followed Louis down the sidewalk and said, “Hey, man, come on. We were just messing with you. I’m Trent.” He held out his hand, which Louis took after a moment’s hesitation.

“Louis Fielder.”

“Well, Louie, now for the interview portion. What’s the greatest literary work of the last century? In English, preferably.”


“Answer the question, Louie.”

Louis considered for a moment. “I don’t know. Some say it’s ‘Ulysses,’ by Joyce.”

Trent rolled his eyes. “Ugh, nevermi—“

Louis held up a hand. “But…I think anyone who says that is as pretentious as they are ignorant. My personal favorite? ‘On the Road.’” Louis saw that Trent was clearly impressed. That was just the response he was looking for.

“No shit.”

Louis shrugged. “Or Delillo's 'Underworld,' but that sounds almost as pretentious as Joyce. Anyway, I guess I’ll see you around.” Louis turned to walk away, trying to hide a smile.

Trent called out, “Hey, wait, man! Louie! Come back tomorrow, the boss’ll be in. We're looking for a day-shift guy.”

Over his shoulder, Louis answered, “Thanks. I’ll see what I can do.”

Trent smiled. “You’ll see what you can do? Smartass.”

Louis walked back to his car with an extra spring in his step. This morning’s events were disappointing, sure, but this afternoon he pulled through. Tomorrow’s interview may be just what he was looking for. He whistled as he weaved through the shoppers on the Strand.

Typical Louis. King of the last-second comeback.

No comments: