The tone of his voice controls the meaning of the question. His words are dismissed as silent observers. He isn’t asking what intrigues me about the gas station or convenience store industry. No, the tone is in control, and it wants to know how badly I screwed up my life to end up here.
“Why do you want to work here?” he asks. His upper lip nearly kisses his nose with indignation.
His words fling off his lips, as carefree as children in a bouncy house. But his tone means business. His tone wants answers. His tone demands the truth in all its ugliness. His tone will accept nothing less than the splitting open of my life for examination and judgment. He is the manager. I am applying as a clerk. I owe him answers. Poor people always owe something to someone.
I glance at his computer screen and notice an unfinished game of solitaire. He needs to move the queen of hearts over to the black king and free up that ace. He catches me looking at the screen and clears his throat. Answers. Now.
The truth is easy. It pings around my noggin like the silver ball of a pinball game. I don’t want to work here. That’s the truth if you really want to know. No one does. No one has ever wanted to work here and no one ever will. I’m pretty sure even you don’t want to work here.
But the manager of this gas station/convenience store isn’t on a quest to find the larger truth. He has no meaningful intention of keeping it real with me. He just wants to hear my damage so he can deem me worthy of another shot.
“I need a job,” I answer.
Nothing scares young people more than middle-aged poor people.
At that moment, I know I’ve killed his dream of becoming a hero. His fantasy of posting my story on Facebook to humblebrag about helping a woman who was down on her luck. Don’t praise me, he would write, I just did what anyone else would do. I imagine him practicing, just for a second, what he will tell BuzzFeed or Upworthy after his status goes viral. Now, none of it will happen, and he hates me for it. I stole his glory with my average life.
But everyone needs a job, he says. There must be more. There must be a why. Why does a woman twice his age want to work here?
Without a clear indication, without a marker of some sort to pinpoint when I careened off the path of the American Dream, he won’t know what mistakes to avoid. He could be looking into his future. This must terrify him. Nothing scares young people more than middle-aged poor people.
False stories fly from my brain to my lips, but I refuse to open my mouth. I can make up any number of lies to appease his curiosity as to why a woman his mother’s age is looking for an after-school job.
I took a wrong turn and spiraled out of control, but I am working my way back. One day at a time. Man. Just one damn day at a time. I could methodically flip a 30-day chip through my fingers to drive home the commitment to my sobriety. Clenching the coin in my fist, kissing it, and pointing to the heavens with closed eyes might be overkill.
Maybe I was a stay-at-home mom. Married my sweetheart 25 years ago and now my youngest has entered high school. It’s time for this lady to get her life back. Whoot. First order of business, get a job! Exclamation point. Smiley face. Just wait until the moms at soccer practice hear about this. What a hoot!
Or better yet, I was a corporate attorney making millions until I realized it was meaningless. I checked out of the corporate bullshit game and now want to serve humanity by selling Bud Light and Marlboros to a steady stream of burnt-necked workers wearing hard hats and safety-orange T-shirts. Fuck the man, man.
I could say any of these things, but I don’t. I stick with the truth. I need a job. Like millions of Americans, I’ve always held a job — not a career, a job. Crappy jobs no one wants. Jobs meant to be the starting-off place, not the ending up-position. I’ve been a waitress, a bartender, an administrative assistant, a background researcher, a retail clerk, a dog sitter, a gardener, a waitress, a waitress, a waitress…
And once, I tried out to be a maid. Really. It was a tryout. After the first interview, the couple hiring couldn’t decide who would be best at cleaning their toilets and loading their dishwasher, so they called two of us back for a scrub-off.
During the initial interview, I sat on the edge of the most massive couch I’ve ever seen, answering questions with a manic enthusiasm better suited for a game show than an interview as a housekeeper. I suppose, to be fair, the couple needed a giant couch. A regular sofa would have resembled doll furniture in their huge living room. I didn’t dare sit all the way back, or my feet would have stuck straight out. The position I was applying for had me feeling small enough without being swallowed up by a king size couch.
In the end, my perky enthusiasm wasn’t enough to seal the deal, but it was enough to keep me in the running. It came down to one other woman and me. The couple decided to have us come in for a test run of scrubbity dub and fluffity fold. A cleaning one-off, a mop-and-glow smackdown. May the best poor person win! Anyone with dignity would have told them to piss right the fuck off. Anyone with rent due in a couple of weeks asked, “What time do you want me there?”
After scrubbing my little heart out, I didn’t win. There is no way to recover from losing a competition to be a maid. Six years later, I replay the day in my mind and cannot pinpoint the exact moment I blew it. My best guess? I struggled with the shelves in the refrigerator. I took them out easily enough to wash, but putting them back was a challenge. They simply refused to slide correctly. At one point, I panicked thinking I’d broken one, but I recovered like a champ, and no one was ever the wiser. The lady of the house was upstairs, blissfully unaware that her side-by-side nearly got the best of me.
After the first interview, the couple hiring couldn’t decide who would be best at cleaning their toilets and loading their dishwasher, so they called two of us back for a scrub off.
Unless of course there was a nanny cam.
For all I know, at this moment a dinner party is winding down with a group of millionaires crowded around the latest MacBook Pro. They sip expensive wine and howl with laughter at the nincompoop who couldn’t figure out how a refrigerator shelf works.
“Look, look, you can see the moment she starts to panic.”
“Don’t play it again. I can’t!”
“I take it you didn’t hire this genius.”
Most days I don’t remember my crushing defeat. Most days. I don’t dare mention it to the manager holding my application. He doesn’t deserve to have that kind of power. I don’t think he can handle it.
“Do you know how to work a register?” he asks.
Come on now? Do I know how to work a register? Name tags and registers are my playground, pal.
Before I can answer, he ups the ante with, “A touch screen register?”
Ah. Bringing out the big guns.
I do know how to work a touch screen register, but not from a job I’ve held. I know from shopping at Walmart while on food stamps. They’ve installed self-service checkouts, and I like to use them even though I know they’ve cost someone else a job. Self-service checkouts are anonymous. No one can see you discreetly swipe your SNAP card. People in self-service stand back a few feet. They give you space. They have boundaries. Respect. Or maybe they’re all on food stamps, too.
Full-service customers breathe down your neck, especially those fuckers — shifting their weight from one foot to the other — in the 15-items-or-less line. Are they afraid someone will snag one of their items from across the rubber barrier? Why do they need to be so needy? Maybe, because it’s full-service, they feel entitled to know what’s going down in their line. They sigh a lot. They roll their eyes.
There are rules in a full-service checkout. If you dare to write a check, like some throwback to the Kennedy era, you better have it filled out before you reach the cashier. No one has time to put up with your nonsense. And if you even think about paying with food stamps, your cart best be filled with white boxes stating what’s inside: crackers, macaroni, cereal, milk. No name brands for you, you lazy bastard. Full-service serves you rules and judgment. Know your place or step aside.
I prefer self-service. Self-service minds its business.
I don’t tell the manager of this gas station/convenience store the truth about Walmart, food stamps, or my experience with the self-service register. I nod and say, “Yes, I’ve worked a touch screen.” A small lie. One I can live with.
We sit in silence. I stare at him. He stares at my application. Something bothers him. I can tell by the way he rubs his beard and tries not to look at me. I think he resents being unable to rescue me. Maybe if I looked poorer, he would feel more at ease. A missing tooth or a notable hole in my shoe could do the trick.
“You have a working vehicle?” he mutters, not looking up.
“Yes.” It’s another lie. I don’t own a car, but I live with a friend, and she owns a car, and I can borrow it whenever I need, so for me, it’s the same thing. How I perform the job is his business. How I get there is mine. Self-service, Bud. Self-service.
He twists his chair, swinging to the left, swinging to the right. He sighs.
Finally, he asks, “The last job you had was in 2012?”
“Yes,” I answer. I offer nothing further. I hope he lets this slide since I’m applying for a position as a store clerk, not gaining government clearance for the CIA. He gives me the side-eye. He has no intention of letting this slide.
I say that I am a writer and unfurl a jumbled mess of un-writerly words about how I wrote some things that allowed me to not work for a while. I don’t add that writing some things only pays bills for a short time. I don’t say the electric company sent back my opinions when I tried to use them to keep the lights on.
“What kind of things do you write?” he asks. I don’t think it’s necessary for him to raise his eyebrow, but he does. The eyebrow feels skeptical. I’m convinced his tone, and his eyebrow, spend a lot of time online. Part of me wishes I were hiding a meth addiction instead of my writer-ness. His eyebrow would probably respect a meth addict over a broke writer. His eyebrow disrespects writers because he is the manager of a gas station/convenience store and hardly anyone writes about the managers of gas stations/convenience stores.
I shrug the question off. I try to be small. “Just some essays,” I say.
I want to throat-punch him for getting me to bring that part of my life into a place paying minimum wage to sell blue-flavored slushies and unleaded gas.
He’s bored of me now. I’m not broken enough to make him feel safe. He sets my application on his desk and abruptly says, “I have some other people I need to interview, but I’ll call you.”
We both know it’s a lie.
As I stand to go, he turns back to his game of solitaire, clicking the mouse to flip the next card.