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Fiction Winter 2020    poetry    all issues

Cover of Fiction Winter 2020

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Cover
French silk sample book

Elisabeth Chaves
The Skin of Things

Daniel Gorman
The Last Lion in Mosul

Esem Junior
The Dueling Plumbers of Harvard

Edward Mack
Cottonwood

Bill Pippin
Texas Swing

Ryan Byrnes
One Last Lemon Soda in Tunis

Brittany Meador
The Eating of Apples

João Serro
The Lesson

J. Williams
False Truth

Janet Barrow
The Crossroads

Kathryn Li
Kingdom of Bees

Jan Allen
Outsourced

Jens Birk
The Church


Jan Allen

Outsourced

Outsourced. It was the only word I heard when our department head called the unplanned meeting. That was two years ago.

I can’t say I was passionate about my job after 37 years, but when I was told it was gone, I felt like a toddler who’d had her blankie stolen by a Big Corporate Bully.

Our Corporate Bully offered us free classes through a career transition company on resume writing, networking, LinkedIn, and interviewing. One of my previous coworkers, Brenda, talked me into attending them with her. She thought going back to school might be fun.

A career coach perfected my resume, which consisted of no college degree and one job. Then I found myself sitting at an oval table in the networking class, with William—as written on his cardboard nameplate—to my right, Samuel to my left, then two gentlemen who shall remain nameless (because I’ve forgotten their names), and finally Brenda.

The instructor, Zoey, asked us to introduce ourselves. She looked at William, going clockwise, and he began.

“Hi, my name is William Dunn. It’s nice to meet everyone today. I’m a certified public accountant specializing in financial auditing and . . . I’d like to put my expertise to work doing . . . Along with my 40 years of professional experience, I recently was awarded the . . .”

What the heck! I tuned out most of it, but I know an elevator pitch when I hear one. How anal retentive can you get? It’s not like anybody in this room of hangdogs was going to offer him a job.

I was next in line. I sat up straight and smiled. “I’m Regina Reynolds,” I said. I planned on adding something, not a 40-second pitch, but something.

I couldn’t think of anything. “Hi!” I added.

Samuel and the two nameless guys sold themselves with their own presentations, of which I cannot remember a word except “Samuel.”

Then it was Brenda’s turn. “Hi, my name is Brenda Sawyer. It’s great to meet you all. I was a contract analyst for corporate accounts in a medical device company for 34 years. I’d love the opportunity to put my skills to work in the medical device industry again or perhaps a medical research organization.”

Et tu, Brenda? At least she’d written my elevator speech for me.

Turned out William, who blinked like there were errant fleas he was trying to dislodge from his eyeballs and licked his lips like they were salt-water taffy, was not anal retentive. Turned out I was unprepared and unprofessional.

For the next three hours, Zoey talked about Everything Networking. I wrote down that seventy-five percent of people find their next job by networking, only five percent by applying for posted jobs. Otherwise, my note-taking skills weren’t as advanced as my aptitude for doodling daisies.

The next class was LinkedIn for Beginners. Samuel and the other two gentlemen were replaced by three young women with impeccably prepared speeches and attire. Their hair was professionally styled, highlighted or extended, they spoke in four-syllable words, and collectively they smelled like how I hoped heaven would. Where were the young women with nose rings that could easily be mistaken for boogers? That’s who I wanted to compete against for jobs.

I sat next to Brenda this time, and across from William. The last time, when he sat next to me, my eyes had been drawn to his hands, which were constantly moving, kneading dough or keyboard typing or who knew what. This time William executed a table-top performance, using his forearms as windshield wipers, polishing the table with his shirt sleeves.

Naively, since the class had the word “beginners” in its title, I’d thought I was going to learn how to set up a LinkedIn account. Instead, Zoey talked about Headlines and Posts and Groups and Connections. This is what I can tell you about LinkedIn: No matter how proud you are of your 1971 VW van or that 35-pound brown trout you caught in Lake Michigan, don’t pose in front of it or behind it respectively for your Profile Photo. What I can’t tell you about LinkedIn to this day is how to set up an account.

Lastly was the Interviewing course. There were no familiar faces in this class. Either the others had found jobs or tired of the process. I followed up with Brenda, and she told me the classes hadn’t been quite as much fun as she’d imagined. Her husband was the CFO of a software company, so she opted for early retirement.

This is what I learned in class: Take the glass of water they offer you at an interview. If you can’t think of an answer to one of their questions, taking a sip will buy you time. I learned that body language is more important than the words you say. I learned to always get their email so you can send a letter of thanks.

This is what I learned in real-life interviewing: I was never offered a glass of water. No matter how firm my handshake was, no matter how straight I sat, no matter how big my smile, I nonverbally communicated my age—or at least something close to it—57, much too old. As for thank-you letters, even the best detective in a Sue Grafton mystery wouldn’t be able to uncover an email address for anyone.

For every twenty customized resumes and cover letters I sent out, I landed one interview. Whenever I did, I was composed, I was confident, I spouted correct answers. It was a sham, and they all knew it.

The interviewers were usually nice, but ten minutes in, they were no longer making eye contact with me, and twenty minutes in, they were no longer making eye contact with each other.

What I’d done for the past 37 years was highly specialized, and I’d dropped out of college to do it. I quickly realized I wasn’t going to find a job with a salary anything close to what I’d been making. I cut back on spending, started interviewing for jobs that paid a lot less, and remained hopeful. At first.

It was interview number 13 or 14, probably unlucky 13, when one of the two interviewers asked me this asinine question: “If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?”

I picked up the portfolio that I’d leaned against my chair, got up and walked out. I was four office doors down the corridor, about to turn the corner to the elevator, when I realized I could actually go back—they’d still be in shock, wouldn’t they?—and say, “my superpower would be disappearing.”

But the interview had already gone badly. I knew the thanks-but-no-thanks signs by now. The elevator door opened, inviting me in, and I hadn’t pushed the button. I still remember how I felt that day when I stepped outside. The sun sifted some rays on my face, and I felt euphoric, because I didn’t have to send any stupid thank-you notes. But then a thick cloud blocked the sun. I remembered my dwindling bank balance, and I was scared out of my mind.

Soon I was applying for jobs that paid close to minimum wage while I worked nights as a waitress. I learned something: People who get hungry in the middle of the night don’t tip. All my credit cards were maxed out.

The only good thing that had come from my job loss was my friendship with Brenda. One day we sat on her designer sofa. “It’s a shame you don’t have a rich husband like I do,” she said. “Simon’s happy I’m not working. He was jealous of that design engineer who flirted with everybody at our Christmas parties. I wish you could forget about job hunting, too.”

It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and the two of us had drunk quite a few Black Russians. I liked White Russians better but felt I should forego the cream since I had no health insurance. “I know,” I said, “bummer.” I was concentrating on painting Brenda’s toenails.

“Gina!” Brenda pulled her feet out of my lap and grabbed the nail polish from my hand. “We’re onto something.”

“We are?”

“Look at you,” she commanded, “you could be gorgeous if you tried. And let’s face it. Loaded old men want skinny women, like you. You’re young, too, considering you’ll be under 60 looking for some rich old fart who doesn’t have much longer to live.”

Brenda disappeared, but quickly returned with her laptop. Her fingernails tapped. Her eyes darted back and forth between the keyboard and the screen.

“InTunE dating looks good. So does WeMelodious and Looking-Woopies. We’ll have to pay because that’s where all the rich old men will be.”

“I can’t afford it, Brenda,” I said.

“I’m paying. I’ll get you a makeover. And some decent clothes. No offense.”

“None taken.” I was wearing safety-pinned-at-the-waist sweatpants—the elastic at the waistband had forgotten its function months ago—and a frayed-at-the-neckline-and-sleeves T-shirt. I hadn’t combed my hair since Monday, and it wasn’t Tuesday. “But I can’t let you pay for all that.”

“Please let me.” She pressed her hands together in prayer. “Simon wants me to take up photography. This hobby will be much cheaper than a Nikon Coolpix.”

Brenda was a kid at a fireworks show. Maybe it was the Black Russians, but her enthusiasm was contagious. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt even a twinge of pleasure. Certainly not in the last year.

“Okay,” I said, “let’s do it.”

As Brenda studied the websites, a question flitted into my consciousness. I quickly shooed it away, but not quite quickly enough to forget what it had been.

What was the definition of prostitution?

There are two types of rich men. The first drives a Lexus, a BMW, or a Mercedes-Benz. He lives in a multimillion-dollar home and spends his winters far, far away from it. He leaves wads of cash in not-well-hidden places to test you, and you’d better believe he’s counted every last five. Oh, and he plays a lot of golf.

The second type of rich man lives in a modest home and drives a Ford or a Toyota. It’s tricky to tell the difference between a rich man in this group from a have-not-much. Either way, like the ostentatious rich man in the first group, he plays golf and has a housekeeper. But you can tell the rich man from the not-so-rich one by how many mailings from charitable organizations rest on his table. Also, the richer the man, the more his offspring’s expensive smiles resemble the bared teeth of junkyard dogs when they are introduced to you.

I liked Gus for being the second kind of rich man.

I liked that he wore a Timex watch.

I liked his smile.

I liked that he went to the gym most mornings to meet his buddies, walk the indoor track, and drink the free coffee.

I liked that some of the mailings on his table were thank-yous from those charitable organizations.

I liked that his son and daughter and their spouses visited him often. They kindly close-lipped smiled at me.

Gus wanted to fly us to a place he co-owned in the Bahamas for the weekend but I didn’t have a passport. So he drove us instead to the Upper Peninsula, where he rented a cabin on Lake Superior. He was hoping, he said, that the Northern Lights would show off for me.

Brenda didn’t buy the lace bra and panty set I wore. I’d bought it online when I cashed in my 401k. The money wasn’t going to last me to retirement, especially with the penalty I’d had to pay out, but it was getting me through for now.

Gus lay on the bed in his boxers. He’d watched me undress. I’d done it slowly, and I let myself be flattered that he had an erection, pill or no pill.

I didn’t love Gus, but I’d had sex in my life with men I’d liked a lot less, and a few I even disliked in inexplicable ways. Yet, as I walked as sexily as I could toward the bed, I started to cry. My tears shocked me, perhaps more than Gus, and my weeping quickly transformed into gasps for air. I made it to the bed, which I sat on the edge of, and Gus shifted closer and rubbed my back.

“Oh, sweetheart,” he said, “what’s the matter?”

“I’m so sorry,” I managed between sobs, “my father died Wednesday.”

Gus sat up. “Gina, why in the world are we here?”

“No, it’s not like that.” I grabbed some tissues off the nightstand. “We were estranged. I hadn’t seen him for 20 years. I didn’t think I cared about it.”

We sat on the side of the bed together, and Gus held me until I stopped crying. Then he guided me gently to a lying position and combed the hair at my temple with his fingers. I knew he wasn’t expecting anything from me at that point.

I kissed him.

He asked me if I was sure. I nodded.

I didn’t cry again until I heard Gus’s sleep-breathing. My dad and I had been read-poetry-to-each-other close. He’d died 12 years earlier. This made me a prostitute, and also a liar.

“I can’t do this anymore,” I said.

I was sprawled on Brenda’s couch inside her greenery-laden screened-in porch while she clicked away on her laptop.

The problem with online dating is that this, too, is a competition. We’d discovered the idea Brenda had was far from original. Instead of competing for jobs against college grads with superior experience to my own, my competitors were women who were willing to date and marry not only men old enough to be their father but old enough to be their grandfather.

After five months, Gus had recently dumped me for a woman three years older, not than me, but than him. At least I’d seen the aurora borealis.

“OMG, Gina, come here, look at this!”

“I told you, Brenda, I’m done. I’m sorry, but I’m done.”

“No, I heard you, but you have to see this. It’s that guy from our LinkedIn class, the one who kept sweeping invisible crumbs off the table. He’s on InTunE.”

Apathetically, I unfolded a chair and pulled it next to her at her desk. Our foreheads conked accidentally.

“No,” I said, squinting at the man’s profile, “that guy’s name was William, this guy’s name is Liam.”

“Liam’s a nickname for William. Like Liam Neeson’s real name is William.”

“Who’s Liam Neeson? Is he the design engineer your husband hated?”

“No. He’s—” But Brenda was busy enlarging the photo. “It’s him, I know it. It’s that doofus from our class.”

Maybe.

“Look,” I said, “that guy might’ve been a little weird, but he wasn’t a doofus. I bet he got another job right away.”

“Ask him,” Brenda said. She nudged her laptop in my direction.

I didn’t move my fingers toward the keys but I bent my head closer to the screen. “He’s sort of cute, isn’t he?”

Brenda shrugged. “I guess. You don’t notice it in person because he’s moving.”

“I don’t know how to send a message, Brenda. Will you ask him how he’s doing for me?”

He answered immediately. Brenda read: “I remember you, Regina. I found a job I like a lot better than my old one. How about you?”

“Tell him I’ve gone from thirty-four dollars an hour to four, but that now I get tips.”

Brenda typed. Then she read aloud: “You wouldn’t want to meet me at Aromas Saturday at 10, would you?”

His negative sentence construction made me smile. “Tell him ‘sure.’”

She tapped away on her keyboard for a lot longer than it would take to type four letters.

“It’s a go,” she said, setting her laptop aside.

I’d parked 30 feet from the entrance to Aromas, but I was drenched by the time I made it inside. It was that kind of rainy day. I was 10 minutes early, but Liam was sitting at a table with two coffee cups. He stood up when he saw me.

In a sweatshirt and jeans, he looked more oddballish than he did in business casual. His arms were proportionately too long; at the end of them were his fidgeting fingers. He shook his left leg, as if it had fallen asleep while he sat waiting. He grinned, and his whipped-cream mustache turned up at the edges.

We sat down. He made sure my butt hit the chair before his did.

“I got you a chai tea latte like you said.” Like Brenda said.

“Thank you,” I replied.

It took him a second to focus in on my face, as if he had to locate who was talking in a crowd. Magnified by the lenses in his glasses, his dark eyes were huge. The out-of-style frames he wore occupied most of his face.

His lips moved, forming a soundless phrase or two, before he said, “You’re welcome.”

Somehow, I knew Liam passed many hours searching for plain women on dating sites, then no time pursuing them. Somehow, I knew, even though we’d connected through InTunE, that Liam didn’t think of this meeting as a date. I could only imagine how ratcheted up his quirks would be if he thought it was.

I didn’t want to complain about my miserable life, so I started our conversation by complaining about general subjects. I started with TV commercials. I hated when their sole goal was to be funny—which they failed to be, in my opinion—and nobody knew what they were selling. Liam added that he hated ringing or dinging in commercials because he thought it was his phone ringing or dinging. I griped that any sound in a song resembling a siren noise should be banned, in case you’re listening while you’re driving. Liam added that a song covered by a second artist is never, ever, as good as the original version. No matter the topic, he matched me criticism for criticism, except his comments were funnier. I found myself laughing until my stomach hurt. In the last year and a half I’d forgotten how good that felt.

We monopolized our corner table for a couple hours, but then Aromas started filling up with the lunch crowd, and soon there was only one empty table.

“I guess we should go,” I said, “I had fun, Liam.” I captured Liam’s busy hands and stilled them under mine on the tabletop, and I’m not sure if it was to convey what a nice morning I’d had or to still his hands on the tabletop.

He looked down, and I could tell he thought the latter. I’d spoiled a perfect morning.

His words were curt. “Me, too.”

He tried to stand, but I held onto his hands.

“I want to see you again, Liam. I don’t care about your idiosyncrasies.” What was I saying? “Oh god. I hope you are aware you have idiosyncrasies.”

The edges of his mouth turned up. “Yes. I know I’m never going to be the guy who gets the girl. But sometimes my peculiarities are helpful. Employers see Rain Man in me. They know I’ll be good with numbers.”

“What’s a Rain Man?” I asked.

He cocked his head. “Like in the movie. Dustin Hoffman? Tom Cruise?”

I nodded. “Oh.” My nod changed to a shake. “I’ve never liked movies.”

“I hope you are aware there’s something wrong with you if you don’t like movies.” I think that’s when I fell in love with him, when he tossed my ‘I hope you are aware’ phrase back at me. “Um, I don’t know what your plans are today,” he said, “but there’s a one-hundred percent chance of rain until this evening. I’ve got dozens of DVDs and an 80-inch TV.”

I wanted to spend the day with him, but not necessarily watching movies. Maybe I could think of something else for the two of us to do on a rainy day.

Meeting Brenda and Simon for dinner was a terrible idea. I knew this. But I’d met many of Liam’s friends in the last six months, and he kept pushing to meet mine. I didn’t want him to think I’d been putting it off because I didn’t have any friends, but except for Brenda, I didn’t. There were women I liked at the restaurant, but none of them had suggested getting together outside of work. I didn’t want him to think it was because I was embarrassed by his ‘peculiarities,’ because I loved that part of Liam, along with everything else.

So here we were, finishing our meal in an adorable establishment with great food. I was thinking if I could get a job at a place like this, the tips would be better, and maybe I could limp through for a few more years to 62, when I could start collecting social security.

After the waitress gathered most of our empty plates and walked away, Simon turned to Liam. “So where do you fit in, in this scheme?” Warning bells started ringing in my head. They were tinkling though, not an air horn.

Liam cocked his head, but he didn’t answer.

“Let’s get dessert,” Brenda said loudly. “They have apple pie, Simon.”

Simon ignored her. He was still focused on Liam. “When I picked up Brenda’s laptop last week by mistake and saw her InTunE and WeMelodious accounts, I freaked out, let me tell you. I thought she was cheating, you know?”

I wondered how Simon got so far as to look at both of Brenda’s dating sites ‘by mistake,’ but by now I was busy going deaf because of the blaring air horn.

“But then Brenda told me what the two of them were up to.”

“Simon,” Brenda said, “shut up.”

But Simon was mad. Calmly participating in small talk through dinner, with this amount of anger seething, deserved an Oscar. I knew all about the Academy Awards now. Simon and I spent a lot of time watching movies, curled up on his couch, and spent more time critiquing them afterward. Simon kept talking to Liam. “These two are trying to find somebody with money for Regina to marry because she can’t find a job.”

“I’m sorry, Gina.” Brenda said to me, inadvertently verifying that what her husband was saying was true. “He promised me he wouldn’t say anything.”

Liam stood up. His hands shook as he took some bills out of his wallet. Four twenties fluttered onto the table like autumn leaves, enough for all our meals. “I want to talk to you outside, Gina,” he said.

Simon’s sigh was a growl. How frustrated he was, not being given the opportunity to witness the confrontation he’d arranged.

I followed Liam outside, leaving my purse and jacket behind, and as soon as the door to the restaurant closed, the cold wind slapped at me. Liam turned around so we were facing.

“Liam, it’s not true.” But I looked at Liam’s face, and I knew I had to add, “Well, some of it’s true.” How could I ever explain my relationship with Gus? Even dates that Brenda arranged for me which ended up being platonic had left black marks on my soul.

“I’m confused,” Liam said, “Do you work where you said you did?”

I had no idea what Brenda had typed that day, and I tried to remember if Liam and I had ever talked about our jobs, except to share if our work-day—or in my case, work-night—had been good or bad.

“I work as a waitress at the truck stop down by the highway.”

“Let me get this straight,” Liam said. I cringed as I readied myself for my transgressions to be listed. He looked calmer than I’d ever seen him. I assumed anger wasn’t an emotion his face projected properly. But all he said was, “You want to marry me?”

Even considering my financial struggles, I’d never been happier than since I met Liam that morning at Aromas. “Liam, it’s not—”

He put his index finger on my lips, repeated, “You want to marry me?”

“Yes, but I want to explain—”

“For the past five months, I’ve been asking myself how I could ever get a confident woman like you to marry a dorky guy like me. Now I find out we’ve wanted the same thing all along.”

“Liam, Brenda and I . . .” I shivered. I had no idea where to begin.

He took his jacket off and draped it around my shoulders. Then he grabbed the lapels of it, pulling me closer to him.

He whispered, “After we’re married, how does your scheme work? Do we have sex anymore?”

“Brenda and I never got that far. I guess you and I will have to make up the rules from here.”

Liam’s grin was competing with his glasses’ frames for taking up the most space on his face.

Someday soon I’d explain everything.

Or maybe I wouldn’t.

Jan Allen would like to thank the Sixfold creator, also her friends in the Clifton Fiction Writing Workshop. After revising a story as suggested by her fellow Sixfold fiction writers, it received honorable mention in the 2020 Saturday Evening Post’s Great American Fiction contest. Her short stories have appeared in Sixfold and The MacGuffin.

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