Sunday, September 10, 2017

Fiction #74

New fiction! Issue #74
Submissions now open for #75!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #74: Harlan Yarbrough

One Mistake After Another

Rudy once admitted he preferred slender women, and Ysadore made sure he paid for that transgression.  For twenty-three years, she attacked him and criticized him for failings invented, real, and imagined.  Already tending ever so slightly toward the Rubenesque, she put on ninety pounds to become a caricature of the beautiful woman he had courted.  But Rudy loved her and submitted to her attacks and did his best to make her happy—a difficult task at best, but one that mattered to him.

Through two decades, Rudy wished his wife could feel glad for his love, for his desire.  He wished she could experience their lovemaking with a feeling of “He isn't making love to a tiny waist or a pair of pointy tits—he's making love to me,” but she apparently couldn't.  Instead, Ysadore usually avoided sex altogether, which left Rudy's large appetite frustrated most of the time.  Still, he persisted in doing everything he could to make her life as good as possible, not because he was a saint but because he was in love with Ysadore.

He faced an enormous conflict, when, after twenty-three years together and twenty-two years of marriage, Ysadore met a man who liked “curvy” women and fell in love with him.  Rudy felt devastated to lose whatever love there was from the person he loved most in the world.  At the same time, he wanted Ysadore to be happy, the same thing he’d wanted for twenty-three years.  He wished she could be happy with him, of course, but first and foremost he wanted her to be happy, to live the life she wanted.  Keeping his focus on that wish wasn't easy, but he worked hard at it.

Fred seemed like a decent sort, nothing special (except to Ysadore), maybe not as intelligent as Rudy or Ysadore, but a nice guy who might love her and care for her.  Rudy wanted to accept that, and he didn't dislike Fred—Rudy wasn't sure whether that made the situation easier or more difficult—so, although aching, he did his best to support Ysadore in her exploration and development of her new relationship.  She had the decency to feel guilty about putting Rudy through so much pain, but Rudy didn’t want Ysadore to feel guilty: he wanted her to be happy.  For his part, Fred seemed to sort of go along with whatever Ysadore wanted.

Mei Lin came from Hong Kong and taught biology at the university in the city.  When Rudy met her, he wasn't swept off his feet—he was still in love with Ysadore—but he was impressed.  Mei Lin wanted Rudy and didn't hesitate to say so, whenever they were out of earshot of Ysadore.  Rudy appreciated Mei Lin's attention, as well as her beauty and her intellect, but didn't encourage her—until the week Ysadore told him about Fred.  Even then, Rudy continued to wrestle with an inner conflict because of his continuing love for Ysadore,  but he did enjoy feeling wanted in a way he hadn't in a quarter of a century.

In the course of a difficult five months, Rudy and Ysadore made a relatively peaceful transition to separate lives.  Rudy moved into a too small house with one of their daughters, and Fred moved into the house Rudy and Ysadore once shared.  Rudy entertained Mei Lin most weekends for six months, until he went overseas for work.  As an immigrant himself, Rudy thought he could understand Mei Lin’s situation and outlook better than most and thought seriously about making a life with her.

Nevertheless he worried about their compatibility—or potential lack of it.  They talked about how they could spend more time together, but she felt no desire to leave the city and Rudy knew he could never stand to live in an urban environment.  Ysadore went on with her life almost as if no change had occurred.  Her feelings for Fred seemed to put a glow on everything, at least at first.

Her life seemed almost identical to the life she and Rudy once shared.  She continued to enjoy her many animals, the garden, and the orchard she and Rudy had planted.  Once their initial passion subsided, sex became an afterthought every three or four weeks.  Her younger daughter, Lily, continued her successful high school career and mostly got along OK with her mom and stepdad.  Lily didn't much like Fred but obeyed half of her father's injunction to tolerate and respect her mom's new partner.

The months Rudy spent overseas didn't do much for his emotional state—he continued to ache for his lost love—but they left him in a much better financial position.  He faced the pleasant dilemma of whether to add on to the house he and his elder daughter, Rosie, again occupied or to buy something else in the area.  He chose the latter option, which didn't effect much change in his life and made none at all to the pain lingering in his heart.  Mei Lin resumed visiting but with less intensity and less frequency than before Rudy's overseas trip.  Between those visits he enjoyed a couple of dalliances with female friends who expressed an interest once they learned he was single.  He still loved Ysadore but recognized after two years that he was better off out of that relationship.

One late Autumn evening nearly three years after Ysadore had moved Fred in with her, Rudy's 'phone rang.  He picked up the handset and heard her voice saying, “Rudy, do you think you could come over and fix the pump?”

“Why doesn't Fred fix it?”

“He can't do that.”

“He prob'ly could.  It isn't that hard.”

“Fred isn’t handy like you.  You know that.”

“Sure, but, really, it would be easy, even for him.”

“Trust me: he couldn't do it.”

“OK, then.  Can you manage until tomorrow, so I can do it in the daylight?  Do you have water on hand?”

“Some.  Yeah, tomorrow would be great.”

“Do you know what's wrong?”

“No.”

“OK.  Is that old blue pump still there—in case I need to install it as a temporary fix?”

“Yeah, I think so.  I'm pretty sure it's in the garage.  I'll look.”

“Good.  If you need more water tonight, you can get all you want out of the tap down the hill from the hen house.  It's below the tank, so you don't need the pump.  You can't take a shower or that sort of thing, but that'll be OK overnight, won't it?”

“Yes, Rudy, that'll be fine.”

“OK, good.  I'll see you tomorrow then, probably late morning or early afternoon.”

“OK.  Thank you.”

The next day, Rudy fixed the old water system, as he did for two decades before Ysadore met Fred.  He found the problem wasn't the pump but a severely clogged filter, cheaper and easier to fix, which he gave a thorough back-flushing at the tap below the henhouse.  He showed both Ysadore and Fred the old filter and how to install it and told them to pick up a new one next time they were in town. 

The next day, Ysadore 'phoned Rudy again.

“I just wanted to thank you for fixing the water,” she said, then added, “and to tell you how nice it was to have you here.  I've missed having you around the place.”

“You're welcome, of course.  You know me: I'm always glad to help.”

Another month passed before Ysadore 'phoned again with another request for help.  This time, Rudy drove over and fixed a broken rain gutter.  Fortunately, he left plenty of spare lengths of gutter and fittings, when he moved out, and noone had moved them.  He even found the glue he'd left behind, so fixing the problem took almost no time.  As Rudy stood by the door of his pickup ready to leave, Ysadore made as if to hug him, but he slipped into the driver's seat with as much subtlety and tact as he could.

The following day, Ysadore's 'phone call didn't surprise Rudy.  She thanked him again for his help and again told him she missed his company.  “I miss you, too,” he said, truthfully, “but you have Fred after all.”

“Yeah.  I don't know how much longer that'll be.  I'd rather have you.”

“Awww, that's sweet,” Rudy said, “but I'm still me, and you're still you.”

“We did pretty well the first time,” Ysadore replied.  “We lasted twenty-three years.  We can be really good together.  Wouldn't you like that?”

“I guess that's something we can think about,” Rudy answered and extracted himself from the conversation as quickly and tactfully as he could.

*

Graduated as a mathematician, Harlan Yarbrough has been a full-time professional entertainer most of his life, including a stint as a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry. Repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry have brought work as librarian, physics teacher, syndicated newspaper columnist, and city planner among other occupations. Harlan lives in New Zealand but returns to the US to perform.

Fiction #74: David Menear

Ragged White Ice

Her face was grey and dry and deeply lined, reminding me of driftwood stranded on the rocky shores back home. I sat up ramrod straight on the tattered plaid couch beside my mom’s sister, Aunt Anne. There was a tired and musty smell of damp ashes about her. Anne’s nose was a big jellyfish blob webbed with thin red veins looking like a crumpled old treasure map, but where the rivers flowed blood and not water. When she spoke, it was a mumbling, sandpapery sound that I struggled to understand. Between Aunt Anne and her husband John, sat a large, alert and happy looking dog. They had named him ‘King’. He was a caramel coloured German Shepherd splotched with patches of black, and some gold tufts over his bright and eager eyes. His long, shiny tongue dripped long lines of spit that dangled and swayed with his breathing in the hot dead air of the crowded apartment. I bent forward to see past King to peer over at John. He noticed this, and smiled at me with his wet and baggy red eyes. He only had a few teeth left in his mouth. They were yellowish-brown and had me thinking of rotten corn or cigarette butts. Still, I trusted his smile. He was wearing one of those white undershirts without sleeves that most men wear, stained a pissy yellow under his hairy pits.  The bottom half of his right pant leg below the knee was crumpled and empty, and draped off the couch like a puppet show curtain to the floor.

Across the cluttered room my mother looked uncomfortable, and embarrassed. She was lying flat-out in a battered Lazy-Boy chair that was stuck on recline. My kid sister Wendy was dozing fitfully, sprawled limply across her body, sighing softly and making cute little sticky noises with her lips. Dennis, my big brother and the oldest, is nine. He stood slumping against the wall beside my mom and my sister like some tough little bodyguard thug looking bored and kind of  pissed-off. I stared hypnotized, at a wood-framed picture on the bumpy wall just over his head. It was a scary painting of a long-haired skinny guy wearing only a big white diaper, or maybe a dirty gym towel. He was hammered to an upright wooden cross with big nails and was bleeding a lot from his hands, feet and stomach. Women with long, flowing white dresses and covered heads, knelt beneath him in the blood-puddled dirt. One lady was crying, looking far up at his drooping face with tears in her eyes. A few soldiers holding spears talked and laughed nearby. In the distance on a low hill there were more crosses with other guys dangling off of them too. I had to wonder who they were, and what they had done so wrong.

Dennis didn’t even notice the weird painting behind him. He was focused on a life-sized plastic leg propped in the far corner of the room. The leg shared the space with a no-string guitar, a blackened dirty broom, a crutch, a Donald Duck umbrella and a busted cane. Maybe the leg was stolen, snapped off of a Sears store mannequin as a prank. It just stands there propped calmly in the corner, naked except for a crumpled black sock and a scuffed-up shoe.

My father wasn’t here. I didn’t know why, but I did know that I didn’t miss him. I did miss the trees hugging our house, and the nearby ocean always calling out to me like a friend that wanted to play.
In front of King was a TV tray crowded with mostly empty beer bottles. Abruptly, John, grunting hard, struggles to stand. Pushing himself up off the couch, he’s swaying . I don’t know if it’s because of the beers or the missing leg. He brushes up against the table setting a bottle wobbling and then he hops wildly over to the TV set. Anne reached out and steadied the bottle, coughed, choked and then let loose a loud witches cackle. Dennis and I looked at one another with our eyebrows raised trying hard not to laugh. “Christ John!, you sit back down and finish your beer before you fall down.” she said. King smiled at Aunt Anne and barked brightly, his eyes sparkling with fun. John turned the big knob and clicked on the set. From the TV there was only a bunch of static hissing noise and the screen was nothing but grey ghosts and funny flickering lines. Mumbling, he fiddled with the rabbit ears until the picture was pretty clear. It was ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ just starting! I love the whistling music and wished I knew how to do that. John seemed crabby suddenly. He turned and announced, “You know-sometimes, I think the only way I can change my crappy life is by changing the channels on this damn stupid idiot-box.” I glanced over at Wendy to make sure she wasn’t scared. She was fine, her big brown eyes smiling at the show and happy hugging King.

Before we took the long trip to the city, I had heard my mother in the kitchen on the telephone. She was yelling and then whispering and crying some too. Mom sounded so upset and angry that I was shaking and scared. I only heard some scraps of what she was saying,  “...sleazy... disgusting drunk…pervert...sweet little girl...ruined...he’s sick...” The next morning we packed all of our things into one big brown suitcase. Mom said that we were allowed clothes for 3 days, 2 books and 1 toy. I couldn’t decide if I should bring my View-Master or Mr. Potato Head, and so, I packed 3 books. Wendy only wanted to take her rainbow striped Hula-Hoop. My mother started to say no, and Wendy started to cry, and then Dennis said he would carry it. And that was that.  

Blowing up hot dust and gravel a big bus lurched to a stop, picking us up on Cow Bay Road to take us into Halifax. Soon, we were on a train to Toronto for two days and one night of green and grey and bright blue skies. Starless darkness streaking by. Our mom kept writing stuff in a notebook, and sometimes looked up. Through us, or past us. She seemed determined, not worried. Leaning against the window Dennis was reflected in the black glass. He had two heads now, with two mouths that never smiled or spoke. Wendy and I, we ran around screeching and laughing, chasing each other from car-to-car, up and down the length of the train, again -and-again-and again. A navy guy growled at us to ‘shut-up!” A bigger navy guy told him to “shut-up.” Grinning and nodding he waved us over, and then slowly fed us little treats of jujubes and Cracker Jacks, as if we were stray puppies or squirrels at a park. Mom called us.

Our Mother had gone out early to get money from someone at the government so that we could have our own apartment. Dennis, Wendy, King and I were all crammed in tight together on the couch to sleep. It was lumpy and smelled of stale beer and stinky old dog farts. The air was heavy with wet heat and yesterday’s cigarette smoke. Somehow, we all woke up at the very same time. Hungry, we shuffled along together into the kitchen rubbing our bleary eyes. John was there sitting on the floor, leaning against the cabinets near the sink, drinking what smelled like coffee. We stopped abruptly in a fuzzy line, bumping into each other and then silently stared. His scarred raw stump was sticking straight out of his underwear. It was like a one-eyed giant’s big ugly weiner. I felt sad and strange and struggled to breathe, remembering the emptiness I felt standing still and alone at the edge of the ocean. Frozen solid in my feelings I watched as a cold and hard wind creeped steadily beneath the clouds, pushing calmly across the grey water like an evil invisible spirit  leaving a plain of ragged white ice before me.

Mom came back to Aunt Anne’s after a few hours. She looked really, really happy. We were all sitting together crammed on the couch with King, watching Woody Woodpecker cartoons. Together, we all looked over at her and sang out, “Ha-ha-ha-Ha-ha-ha…”, just like Woody would. She laughed, and told us to hurry up and put our stuff back into the big brown suitcase. Mom said,”We’re going home kids.”

It was egg-frying hot again. Dennis and mom wrestled along the broken sidewalk with the heavy brown bag. I held on tight to Wendy’s one hand and scraped the Hula-hoop along in the other. No one seemed to have anything to do or anywhere to go around here. A few people were busy with gardens on their lawns growing what looked like giant brussel sprouts. Ugh. Mostly though, everyone just hung-out drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. I don’t know what they were all waiting for. We passed cars with no wheels and kids without clothes. Toothless mouths spat shiny black goop. There was some pushing and shoving and some yelling. Police came. Dogs barked, women hollered and glass broke. It was dreary and grey and crowded. It was Cabbagetown. It was scary and exciting. Now it’s  home.

Our new place was over a fish & chip shop at Sackville Street and a busy road with clattering and clanging streetcars. Around the back-alley we climbed up steep, creaking wooden stairs, that swayed from side-to-side as we clambered higher. The place was huge. There was nobody or nothing in it. Our voices bounced like rubber balls, loud off the walls in the welcome silent emptiness. We loved it. Our apartment, and our lives quickly filled up with new friends and furniture and school and fun.

Our mom didn’t have a job job. Because her job was to look after us, she said. She did work the few weeks before Christmas though to buy Santa stuff for us.  One night, she came home late and tired to her Christmas surprise. Our magic show! Still in her wet snowy coat we sat her down on the couch. Standing in front of Mom, between Dennis and I, Wendy stood with a shining goofy smile on her sweet little face. Slooooooowly, we raised a sheet in front of her and then we hollered out, ‘Shazam!’. We dropped the sheet, and Wendy disappeared. After a few anxious minutes, we raised the sheet again, and then suddenly dropped it, yelling out another ‘Shazam!’  And, there was little Wendy again, looking sly and shy, like she had a secret she’d never share.

*

Menear is most often described as an edgy, urgent, gritty and sometimes ‘transgressive’ short story writer with a soft heart and a sense of humour. You find him at that place where Salinger meets Cormac McCarthy for tea and cookies. In his first few years of writing Menear’s stories have been published in several respected Canadian literary magazines. DevilHouse produced his short story collection in 2014 that sold out in a few short months. He was selected for an Exile Editions anthology 'Canadian Noir' March 2015. David, a father of four, has spent most of his life between Toronto and Montreal but has also lived in big city England and quaint village France. He studied art in New York City. First novel publication is imminent. Menear is currently trying to pay the bills modeling and acting.

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

Fiction #74: Steve Passey

Exit Interview

     “The laborer deserves his wages.” - 1 Timothy 5:18

With the new ownership in place the layoffs began. The misery of working where the shareholder is the only acknowledged stakeholder and their margins come solely from your compensation (because no one has any ideas as to how to actually sell this shit) is a peculiar motivator, and so the carrot became severance; the stick became the creeping fear of what to do when severance runs out. No one thinks of remaining. No one aspires.

There was a group of us that would meet at an “Authentic Naples Pizza” Friday after work. It was owned by Syrian emigrants, or possibly Lebanese. I am not sure. After four months – which would have been the completion of my training module, had it ever happened – I was the only one still with the company who attended these “meetings.” Everyone else was a “former employee.” We speculated as to the quantity of the next round of severances. We surmised that those who stayed on in any position of authority only did so because of their accidental and wholly fortunate possession of grainy cell phone video of the CEO fellating a donkey.  We spoke semi-seriously of crossing the street to other companies run by the same dictums, more seriously of going back to school, or even reluctantly of reenlistment. I discovered that the others had created a betting pool as to when I would be told that I was redundant, and as to when I’d sit in the group as one of them and not a living reminder alternately envied or derided as still being employed by “the company.”

One veteran – the first to quit the new regime – made it every time. He had crossed the street to a competitor. He was doing alright. He’d buy the new people – the ones who had just quit or just been let go - a drink. He was our eminence grise. I think he gets there Fridays about noon, because a lot of people quit at noon on Friday and need someplace to go and celebrate. People got fired Wednesdays first thing in the morning, but they’d have some severance and be there Friday to be with those who had emancipated themselves. These are the good times. They are a lot like the old times, with the alcohol and friends but without salary and benefits.

The exception to this was the former Vice-President of Human Resources. Apparently she was from some place called “Saskatchewan”. She had worked for the old company in the same position before the buyout. She had always been “Kathy” until the new company took over and she began referring to herself as “Kate” and demanding that everyone else do so. Only the new hires would do it. They didn’t know any better. Our guy, our eminence grise, and the other more experienced people called her “Kathy.” She’d always correct them, always have the last word, but the next time they saw her it’d be “Hi Kathy.” When newly-statused former employees were divested by the company and done their last ever meeting with “Kate” they’d come to our meetings. We taught them to refer to her as “The Kunt from Saskatchewan,” making sure that you knew it was “Kunt” with a “K.”

When she was let go she came to the pizzeria on the Friday. No one acknowledged her presence or responded when she asked how things were. After all, she’d let them all go; she’d been there while they put their children’s drawings and their boxes of Kleenex in a box. Look around our table and you’ll see the ghostly image of what used to work there, a couple of young guys in their twenties and a lot of middle-aged ladies working for “benefits”. It was a pink ghetto for the most part, and she’d walked them all out. If they quit she’d sat there and blacked out all of the comments they put in their exit interviews, condescending to tell them that “You don’t want negative comments about one employer to follow you to your next one.” She seeded employer review websites with positive reviews – these are written by freelance copy writers for modest fees and their signatures on standard non-disclosure agreements. She did all that and they’d made her a Vice-President for it. She fired us for them and then they fired her. The world goes round and round, summer, spring, winter and fall. But she wasn’t one of us – was never one of us - and now she was here trying to be one of us, just like she’d tried to be one of them. No one would even look at her.

Finally our grey eminence asked her “So, Kathy: Is it true your grandfather had been a capo in the camps in World War Two?”

Everyone had heard about this. Someone in her family had written a book. Apparently the old man had been a trusty of some sort in one of the camps, a dutiful and efficient servant of the Nazis. When the Russians had liberated the camp the prisoners he’d overseen strung him up with barbed wire and beat him to death while he hung there. The inmates beat him with planks torn from the buildings, beat him with stones, beat him with their bare, bony fists and even - for those too weak to beat him with anything - the weight of the hate in their eyes. The Russians watched and cheered. After all, you can understand the master being the master, but it is the servant who betrays his own.

“Fuck you,” she said. “Fuck all of you. So what if my Geed was a capo in the camps. He lived better than the rest of them in there, and longer than most. And my severance was bigger than all of yours combined.”

She got up and walked out. She forgot her coat. No one said a thing until our eminence held up his glass in a toast and said: “So passes the Kunt from Saskatchewan,” and we were just us again.

“Who had me lasting longer than her in the pool?”

I asked this and the other’s laughter rang out of the building and into the street and we returned to our particular stasis, like any other group of weary drones fallen from their wrecked and drying hive. No one touched her coat. It was still there when the last of us left; hanging by one shoulder on the chair she had sat in when she tried to join us.

*


Steve Passey is originally from Southern Alberta. He is the author of the short-story collection "Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock" (Tortoise Books, October 2017) and chapbook "The Coachella Madrigals" (Luminous Press, August 2017) . His fiction and poetry have appeared in more than forty publication worldwide, both print and electronic.