Quack, went my computer. My officemate Tara and I always tried to outdo each other with the dumbest alert sounds, like fart noises or snippets of awful songs, but even the funniest ones got old fast. The decrepit-sounding duck meant I had new email. It was from my manager, Renee. Lissa, would you stop by my office when you have a minute. I’d like to talk to you about something.
“Hey, look.” I rolled my chair back and pointed at the screen so Tara could lean in and read it. She was the one who got me this job in the first place. I was 27 years old, living in Seattle, tired of making like a buck more than minimum wage. I fudged my way into getting hired on as a contractor and she helped me get up to speed. Video production for computer training CD-ROMs sounded impressive, but it was mostly just clicking the right boxes and waiting for files to convert from one format to another. Once in a while we got to do something a little more exciting, like when the managers decided the courses might sell better if we filmed the staff writers talking about the material. I didn’t think people trying to learn database programming or whatever really gave a fuck about seeing the people who wrote the stuff, but we just did what they told us.
Tara shrugged. “What do you think that’s all about?”
“Don’t know,” I said. “Sounds kind of threatening.”
“Nah. It could be anything. Go see what she wants.”
I walked down the hall, past all the goofy posters. They looked like motivational propaganda but said things like Life’s a bitch and then you die, or There are those who try and those who just suck up to upper management. Having those almost seemed worse than the straight-up rah-rah shit. Like, is that the best you can do? Everyone here was always trying to convince you how unique they were, but it didn’t seem like they even bought it themselves. They seemed intrigued by me and Tara, people with lives outside of work that they couldn’t figure out. “What are you up to this weekend?” they’d ask. I learned that it was easier to be evasive, so they didn’t have to struggle with how to put my answer into some box they understood. A few times I mentioned a band I was going to see, but always got blank stares, followed by questions about what they sounded like. (“Uh, they’re like, rock and roll?” I’d offer lamely, knowing any specific references I might give would be useless.) Once I said I was driving up to Bellingham to go thrift shopping and they looked at me like I was a mental patient. Usually I said “Not much” or “Just gonna hang with some friends.” Then I’d let them talk about their plans for a hiking trip or sporting event or
movie. Movies were always popular. Everyone always went to see the latest blockbuster, especially if it was some geek thing with robots and wizards and shit. The week I saw Men In Black I had a lot to talk about.
Renee had her door closed, but I could see her through the glass pane. Her office was filled with stuff she obviously thought was classy. Instead of using the overhead lights she had a big halogen pedestal and two desk lamps that were supposed to look like antique brass, but you knew she just got them at Ross. I knocked and she waved me in, not looking up until she finished typing.
“Hi, Lissa, have a seat,” she said. “I wanted to let you know that we’ve opened a requisition for a Media Producer.” At first I didn’t get it, since that was already my job title. “It’s a full-time, permanent employee position. I thought you might be interested in applying.”
My head nodded, an automatic response. I knew that permanent didn’t really mean forever, but it still sounded terminal. Most of the employees had been there for ages and it seemed like nobody ever left. I always thought I’d stay for maybe a year or so, and then I’d figure something else out. It had been about seven months and I wasn’t even close to having a plan.
“People here like you, Lissa,” Renee continued. “Of course, I can’t guarantee anything. We’ll have to consider other qualified candidates. But I’d like to encourage you to apply.”
“Great,” I said, just for a thing to say.
“Great,” she repeated, and smiled. “Send me your resume as soon as you can. I’ll get it into the system so we can start the interview process.”
“Okay. Thanks.” I stood up to leave.
“Oh, Lissa. One thing you might want to work on is your visibility. Everyone should know who you are. Try to be more visible.”
I nodded again and walked down the hall. Visibility, whatever. It seemed like something straight out of those crappy posters. Invisible people never make an impression or some shit like that.
Tara wasn’t there when I got back. Probably on a smoke break. She’d told me they tried to hire her last year but she said no. “Why get stuck with only three weeks of vacation?” She had a pattern: work for six months or so and save up money, then take off on some adventure. Only a few more weeks and she’d be going to Thailand. Maybe Vietnam too. She was going to play it by ear.
But it’s not like I ever took those kinds of vacations. I never seemed to be able to get it together to plan something that big. Going full-time would be more money, and it seemed stupid to pass that up for doing the same kind of work. I didn’t want to tell Tara I was thinking about it.
After another twenty minutes of checking boxes and clicking OK, I decided to call it a day and catch the early bus home. It was already pretty full and I had to sit next to some hairy guy reading a paperback. I tried to see what it was, but he gave me a look. Like I know you’re looking at my book, but I don’t want to acknowledge it, so I’m just going to glance your way for half a second and then lean away from you, you inappropriately nosy person. Totally passive-aggressive. Then again I’d probably do the same thing if that guy was staring at my book.
I looked away and counted the grooves on the bus floor. Then I counted all the windows, first the little panes and then the big ones. I always ended up counting when there was nothing to do. I’d almost finished counting up all the letters in the ads and bus poetry placards when we got to my favorite part of the ride, the bridge over Lake Washington. Clouds covered the sky, except for a few holes where sunbeams fell through, like golden rays from the hand of God in some old Renaissance painting. Working on the Eastside sucked, but that view on the bridge always felt like a reward for getting through the day. Sometimes when the sun was out, you could see all the way to Mount Rainier, and the lake would be crystal sparkly. Even on drizzly days it was still pretty rad.
Only a few people were left on the bus when we got to my stop. The hairy guy was still reading and didn’t even budge when I got up. Whatever, hairy guy. I walked up the hill to my apartment and turned the key in the outside lock. You always had to jiggle it just right. Some people complained, but I always figured it was one more defense against weirdos getting in. There were odd characters in the hallways anyhow, but they usually lived there or were visiting someone who did. I grabbed the junk out of my mailbox and went upstairs to my apartment. It always felt a little lonely to see everything just how I left it, even though I’d freak if it ever looked like someone had been there. I didn’t even like when the apartment managers came in twice a year to do the bug spray. They said you could be there when they did it, but I always stayed out as long as possible, in case it secretly turned out to be poison for people too.
I kind of wanted to talk to someone about the job thing. I called Carolyn, but she didn’t pick up. She just got a new boyfriend so I didn’t expect to hear from her for a few weeks or so, when the glow would wear off and one of them would dump the other and she’d need a shoulder to cry on either way. It happened over and over, so predictable I should have just made a calendar for it, like the ones that tell you when the tides are. One time I was in a bookstore and saw a copy of Dr. Laura’s book, Ten Things Women Do To Fuck Up Their Lives, or something like that, of course it didn’t say fuck. I thought about buying it for Carolyn. She needed help and I was out of ideas. But she wouldn’t have read it, and I pretty much hated Dr. Laura. I used to listen to her show in the car sometimes anyway, just for laughs, but then she’d always say something so heinous that I’d have to switch to the geriatric oldies station. That one was always reliable. It wasn’t regular ‘50s oldies, it was like Tiny Bubbles and stuff like that. But then my car crapped out and a new engine was gonna be two thousand dollars, so I never really listened to the radio anymore.
I called Lori next and got her machine. I hung up without leaving a message. Then I called Wally, but he was heading to some kind of party downtown. He asked if I wanted to come, but I wasn’t up for a party, I just wanted to get a drink or some dinner and just talk and stuff. Everyone seemed busy so I decided to just run out and get some food to go from Boston Market. I knew it was gross to eat there so often, but it was cheap and right across the street and sometimes that was all I could really handle. I ordered chicken with two sides, mashed potatoes and succotash. I didn’t know that succotash was even a thing until I started going there. I only knew the word from cartoons. Thufferin’ Thuccotash. Who was it that said that? I felt sad that I couldn’t remember.
I brought my plastic-domed bowl back to my apartment and got a knife and fork out so I didn’t have to be completely pathetic and use the free spork. The food wasn’t good and I sort of wished I’d walked a little further, maybe up to Broadway where I could have gotten something decent, but it was too late now. Boston fucking Market, why did I even keep going there? When all I had left were a couple of bones and a few sorry globs I threw it away and wondered what I should do next. I thought about renting a movie from the minimart down the street. They didn’t have much of a selection, just the big hits. At least I might have something else to talk about with my coworkers. Oh yeah, coworkers. The resume.
I turned on my computer and waited for the start-up screen. My monitor was messed up, the display was tinted pink and everything was slanted sideways, but I’d gotten used to it. I found my old resume and opened the file. Lissa Calverson. 1570 E. Olive Way #202, Seattle Washington 98112. Employment History. I hit enter a couple of times and started to type. February 1997 – Present: Media Producer. Responsible for, what was I responsible for really? Recording digital media and converting files between formats. Shooting the shit with clueless nerds. Taking extended breaks with slacking officemate.
There was a knock on my door. That almost never happened. If people came to visit they had to call from outside to get buzzed in. I clicked Save and looked through the peephole. It was Julia from down the hall. She looked all frantic, and her makeup had smeared into the little wrinkles at her eye corners.
I opened the door. “Lissa, Jeremy got out again,” she whined. Jeremy was her ferret. He had gotten loose last week and practically the whole floor had to help look for him. Somebody finally found him hiding behind the stairwell door. Julia cleaned up the ferret shit he left behind, but it stunk for days.
“Calm down,” I said. “It’s okay. I’ll help you look.”
I grabbed my keys and locked the door behind me, wondering how long this would take. Fucking ferrets, I didn’t even like them. They had those weird long fingers and claws and they always looked mean, like they wished they could kick your ass and steal your food. One time Julia asked me if I could feed Jeremy and play with him while she was out of town, and I lied and said I was heading to Portland for the weekend. Then I got so worried about her finding out that I ended up driving down there for real. That was when I still had my car and could do things like that.
We split up. I went downstairs, she went up to the third floor. I looked in the elevator that no one ever uses and she checked the stairwell. Then we looked behind the door where he’d been hiding last time. She said she’d already checked, but I wanted to make sure.
“Fuck,” Julia said. “If William and Barry find him I’m gonna get kicked out of here.” Those were the apartment managers. They’d lived here since the seventies. No one ever really saw Barry much, William was the one who did all the work. He was cool if you didn’t cause any problems. Pets were forbidden, but Julia always said ferrets shouldn’t count since they were so small. When they did the bug spray she’d hide his cage under the sink and sneak him out in her backpack.
“How did he get out, anyway?” I asked.
“I was playing with him and then I went down to check my mail. I must‘ve left the door open.”
“God, Julia.” I always closed my door when I left the apartment, and I didn’t even have a pet. It was just common sense.
She groaned. “I know, I know.”
“Are you sure he’s not inside?”
She nodded. “I looked everywhere.” It seemed like she was waiting for me to tell her what to do next.
“Let’s go look again,” I said. “Maybe he came back.”
We walked down the hall to her apartment. The door was still open a crack. She pushed it open and there he was, sitting on top of a chair, chewing on something brown. He gave me a squinty look, like he was cursing my name. The feeling is mutual, I thought. Stinky-ass weasel-looking motherfucker.
Julia squealed, picked him up, and started to give him kisses. “Widdle Jerry-werry, mama was so worried about you!” That was my cue to leave. Julia asked if I wanted to stay and drink some wine. I said no and she thanked me and I left.
I unlocked my door and sat on the couch. Wine sounded good, but not with a ferret. I thought about going out to buy some at the minimart, but I didn’t feel like leaving the apartment again. I got up to see what kind of booze I had, in case somehow there was something good that I’d forgotten. But there were just a few odd liquor bottles, stuff that gets used once or twice in some crazy cocktail recipe, then you drink up all the normal stuff and it sits around forever. I had sweet vermouth, crème de cassis, and an airplane-sized bottle of Goldschläger that somebody gave me on my birthday and I’d never opened. I knew it had to be safe and everything, but the idea of drinking those floating pieces of gold leaf made me nervous. Fuck it, I thought. You only live once. The ice in my freezer was old and smelled musty, but I dumped a couple of cubes into a wide glass with Texas Jigger on it. I found it in a Tacoma thrift store on one of the weekend voyages I always took with Carolyn when she was between romantic disasters. We thought it was funny. Everything’s bigger in Texas. The bigger the jigger. Or something.
I took the cap off the Goldschläger bottle and poured. The gold flakes fluttered around like a celebration before settling on the bottom. I opened the crème de cassis and put a splash of that in there too. I didn’t know if that was a good combo, but it seemed less pathetic to make it a cocktail experiment, not just guzzling stuff down without thinking.
I stirred the drink with the Boston Market spork and thought about the job. I never wanted to be like those people at work, coming in every day wearing jeans and a t-shirt, maybe a button-down if it was a special day. Makeup that looked like no makeup. Crappy gold jewelry from chain stores at the mall. Cry-for-help posters on the walls. But I didn’t want to end up like Julia either, forty-something and still in this crumbly apartment building, wearing too much eyeliner and chasing after a ferret. Screw it, I thought. I’ll give them the resume and see what happens. I might not even get the job anyway. I lifted my drink and took a sip. It tasted terrible.