Patty Somlo, 1/23/2011
Current Occupation: Part-time Paralegal
Former Occupation: Associate Editor, Pacific News Service
Contact Information: Patty Somlo has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, The Santa Clara Review, the Sand Hill Review and Guernica. Her debut collection, From Here to There and Other Stories, was published in November 2010 by Paraguas Books.
On the one hundred and third question, Roger Fong lost his voice. The question, like nearly all the ones that had come before, called on Roger to list his strengths and weaknesses. Men and women arranged around the rectangular table like bookends had pale complexions and far too much weight in their midsections. Several unbuttoned their jackets to permit themselves to exhale.
Roger needed this job desperately. But during the two-hour grilling, in which he’d begun to feel like a slice of raw beef, he had begun to despise each one of the interviewers. Even more alarming, he believed these creatures held his fate in the palms of their hands.
He let the silence after the one hundred and third question linger way too long. One woman with a bad blond dye job had already coughed twice. A man across the table, who exuded after-shave lotion that smelled of lime, was scribbling ever-smaller circles on yellow-lined paper attached to a brown clipboard. Roger tried to think of a single strength he had left, after waxing so eloquently about the skills and experience he didn’t have. In his application, resume, supplemental statement and cover letter, he’d struggled to convince these people that he knew how to handle complex accounts. As a temporary bookkeeper, he’d figured a few things out. When that assignment ended two months ago, Roger felt certain he had what it took to excel, if only he could find another job.
The confidence he carried into the interview, along with a stylish gray wool gabardine suit he’d bought on credit at Macy’s, was beginning to thin. He wasn’t even sure he could remember the one hundred and third question. Was it how would he upgrade the technology to make it more user-friendly? Or had he been asked to list his strengths and weaknesses with regard to user-friendly technology? Was this when they wanted to know how he might incorporate checks and balances into the existing system to prevent fraud? Or had they asked for his strengths and weaknesses when it came to fraud? His mind seemed to be chewing itself up in his head. He worried that weird expressions had begun popping up on his face. When he looked around at the people sitting like wallboard around the table, he feared that their bodies had started to throb.
He had a desperate urge to say how much he needed this job. He wanted to start by talking about his wife.
Her name is Alice, he would say, believing that a name helped to humanize a person. She is not too tall and used to be thin.
The last statement, he knew, would grab their attention. A slight pause might draw them in more, and then, a clearing of his throat.
Alice is not thin anymore because she is expecting a baby. The baby is going to be a boy.
The man across the table from the dyed blond stopped doodling and gave Roger a look the young man with the spiky black hair wasn’t sure how to interpret. Then the man in the red and navy blue striped tie spoke up.
“Did you want to respond to the last question or move on?”
“I’m ready to move on,” Roger said.
The one hundred and fourth question was posed by a woman at the far end. She wanted to know how this position might fit into Roger’s future career goals. Roger thought he should explain that he and Alice hadn’t planned the baby at all.
The condom broke, Roger recalled, and felt the ache in his belly that started the moment he noticed the rip in the thin latex and understood. Whatever goals Roger might have had leaked out of his life with his milky semen right then.
“Career goals,” Roger said next, and paused. The woman at the far end nodded and removed a pair of reading glasses from the bridge of her nose.
Roger’s stomach gurgled and he remembered that all he’d eaten was a small bowl of instant oatmeal at breakfast. He recalled when he was younger, before meeting Alice, that he dreamed of becoming a filmmaker. His father had discouraged him – there is no future in that – so Roger watched DVDs in secret and plotted out screenplays he hoped to sell. Roger knew the only real goal he had now was to vanish and let the problems of getting a job and supporting a child fall to someone else.
Instead, he inhaled deeply and took a moment to acknowledge each of the people in the room. Then he set the scene this way.
A young Asian man is sitting at the end of a rectangular table in a conference room that overlooks a parking lot. He has a critical choice – whether to answer the one hundred and fourth question, in hopes of snagging this job, or get up from his chair, tell the people in the room where to shove the one hundred and fourth question and jog out the door, prepared to begin living the rest of his life.