Patty Somlo, 5/5/2014

Current Occupation: Writer
Former Occupation: Part-time Paralegal
Contact Information: Patty Somlo has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, was a finalist in the Tom Howard Short Story Contest, and has been nominated for the 2013 storySouth’s Million Writers Award. She is the author of From Here to There and Other Stories. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including the Los Angeles Review, The Santa Clara Review, the Sand Hill Review, Guernica, the Jackson Hole Review, and WomenArts Quarterly, among others, and in ten anthologies, including Solace in So Many Words, which won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for Anthology. She teaches writing to homeless men and women at a 24-hour shelter in Santa Rosa, California.

 

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THE APPLICANT

 

    It wasn’t an Official Layoff, Howard’s boss solemnly explained, that rainy afternoon in early autumn. The short, two-faced woman Howard had secretly despised for years then added, “Yet.” She was giving Howard notice as a courtesy, she said, so he’d have time to find other employment.

    Howard rocked between anger and disbelief. His jaw clamped shut. The only words he could muster were, “Who else?”

    “Mary,” his boss replied.

    Howard watched the boss drop her head, with its short bobbed cut, and proceed to pick at some loose, dead skin on her thumb.

    “Mary,” Howard repeated back.

    For eleven years Mary had been Howard’s assistant. Her name had effortlessly bobbed to the top of his potential layoff list. Every few months, Howard wrote Mary up for insubordination and calling in sick. Again and again, Howard recommended that they let Mary go.

    “Who else?” Howard asked, readying himself to hear the other names on his list. The budget crisis was worse than he’d expected.

    “That’s all for now.”

    His boss lifted her head and gazed out the window, admiring Howard’s fine view of the parking lot.

    Howard couldn’t come up with a reasonable explanation why he and his assistant, a woman who never crawled far from the cutting block, were the only employees being laid off. This had to mean that Howard’s boss saw him as an unwanted crust of dog doo stinking up the soles of her soft Italian leather pumps. After eleven years of arriving at his desk fifteen minutes before eight o’clock and staying promptly until five, working weekends and chalking more and more sick leave each year that went unspent, Howard was being heaved out the door.

    “Look at it as an opportunity,” Ellen Major, who occupied the office next to Howard, said.

    Howard struggled to smile.

    The rest of the day, he tried to adopt the old one-door-closes-and-another-opens philosophy, but that hopeful outlook kept getting swallowed by the knowledge that nearly every other employee was not getting laid off. When Howard passed co-workers in the hall, he noticed nervous twitches break out in their jaws, as if he was carrying a communicable disease they would catch if they came too close.

    Howard went home after work and delivered the grim news to his wife. The two of them sat down next to one another on the couch. Janet did her best to assure Howard that things would turn out all right. Even after clamping his jaw down tight, Howard wasn’t able to hold back the tears when they started to drop.

    Later that night, he slipped into the small dark office at the back of the house and flipped the switch on his computer. Job ads rushed by, as Howard pressed his index finger down. JAVA Technician, Customer Service Representative, Accounts Payable Clerk, SAP Manager, Army Recruiter – Be All You Can Be!  Professions popped up and rolled off, like apples and cherries on Vegas slots. No one was looking for a Personnel Manager. And why would they be, Howard wondered after all?

    What good had acquiring skills all those years done? Years analyzing people’s backgrounds and qualifications to see if they would be a good fit, testing them for drugs and deciding whether they should get a two percent annual raise or three. If Howard could do anything he wanted in life, what would that be?

    The first job Howard found was for a Veterinarian in a small animal hospital on the north side of town. He read the job description, reviewing the required qualifications and the preferred. Not surprisingly, he had neither experience nor the skills. He didn’t have the education either.

    “Perfect,” Howard said to the screen, in a low, breath-powered whisper.

    Writing the resume was easier than Howard would have thought. Let’s face it. Howard had worked in Personnel for more than twenty-five years. He’d read CV’s of lab technicians, systems analysts, performance auditors and wastewater treatment engineers. If that wasn’t enough, for years he had planned to do something else – go back to school, hitchhike across India and Nepal, become a forest ranger or a photographer for National Geographic.

    In the cover letter for the Vet job, he described his first dog Buddy. Dark-furred, he wrote, a gray, black and brown mix with a sweet face, and strong. Howard had trained the part-German shepherd himself. He walked Buddy around the neighborhood without a leash. When Howard and Buddy reached a corner, Buddy would sit and wait, his head level, his focus straight ahead, until Howard gave him the command to cross the street.

 

    Close to a year after Howard got the layoff notice, he still hadn’t found work. His wife Janet pleaded with him to look harder.

    “What do you think I’m doing?” Howard asked, his mouth contorted in exasperation.

    Sitting across the table from him, Janet had her large spoon raised above a bowl of granola.

    “I sit in front of that dammed computer every night checking the listings and sending my resume off.”   

    “It’s been eight months,” she said, trying not to let the anger she was feeling slip into her voice. “You haven’t even gone on an interview.”

    “What do you expect, Janet? I can’t control what other people do. They decide who they want to interview. Not me.”

    The more Janet nagged, the more Howard retreated to the quiet, poorly-lit space in front of his computer and entered the world of the applicant. He couldn’t explain the feeling to Janet. But only there did he feel the door of Possibility swinging open in his life.

    It was true that no one called to schedule an interview with Howard for Radio Station KGYY-FM’s Drive-Time On-Air Personality or City Attorney in Las Vegas or the Research Associate in the Oncology Department of Minneapolis General Hospital. But Howard wasn’t expecting that. What he craved was the chance to re-create himself, delighting each time a new Howard emerged on the screen. This wasn’t Howard Goldfarb, Personnel Manager, reliable and dull, hardly interesting enough to dislike. No. The latest Howard Goldfarb was a renowned medical researcher who, after the inevitable false starts, discovered the cure for lung cancer. Another day, he became Howie Goldfarb, whose brilliant repartee on the radio delighted thousands of listeners commuting to work each day.

    One year and seven months after Howard was laid off, his wife Janet left the house for the last time. She had taken most of the furniture, leaving Howard with a futon for sleeping, several old aluminum cooking pots and a few mismatched cups. When Janet yelled to Howard, “I’m leaving now,” he didn’t bother to get up. He was just putting the finishing touches on the latest version of his resume and didn’t want to stop.

    The minute he heard Janet start up her Toyota, Howard pressed the submit button. He knew it wouldn’t be long before he received the call, to interview for his old job as Personnel Manager, reporting to his former boss.  

One comment on “Patty Somlo, 5/5/2014
  1. Martin says:

    This story leaves me wanting more, because it’s truncated. But, nevertheless, well done. Yes, document the “new normal” post-Great Recession.

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