The Back of the Line
by Jeff Parker
As I turn into the driveway, a turn I know on memory, I don't even look up. I run into the back of a man. The top of my head contacts him first, then the rest of me.
"My bad," I say.
He gives me a little shove with a clipboard. "Watch it," he says, and hands me a pencil, which I fumble and drop.
There's a commotion, I see, now. A line of men from the door of the house all the way up the driveway to the sidewalk, where I am, at the back. All the men are filling out forms on clipboards with pencils. Cars stop in the street, pause, then back up to the curb. Men get out and in line behind me, and clipboards and pencils are passed back. There's been an investment made on someone's part in clipboards and pencils.
An application is clipped to each clipboard, your standard job app. with some questions whited out and new ones penned in. It's been through several rounds of photocopy.
Another car stops in the street. The driver points at the window of the house. Him and his passenger both squint, then the car backs on up to the curb. I have to step out of line to see what he was pointing at: A sign taped to the inside of the window next to the door, Boyfriend Wanted: Apply Within. The text is written in black marker, Sharpie, her unmistakable hand, on poster board. It's written big so you make no mistake from the street.
She wastes little time.
I rejoin the line but the guy who was behind me, who I'd just handed a clipboard and pencil in a friendly noncompetitive way, won't let me back in. He jerks his head. The guys behind him look up from their applications to give me the fuck-you eyes. I've never been good at lines, and I go to the back.
I start filling out the basic information, and, as others get in line behind me, I play along, passing the clipboards and pencils back, a little less friendly now, a little more competitive.
I'm glad she thought to give pencils rather than pens because I'm not so good at filling out forms either and keep messing up. I write above the blanks when I should be writing below them, my last name where my first should be, my city for my street address. I erase all over. I write n/a in a lot but at least I know to never leave a blank blank. Either write n/a or none. Like where it says Characterize your appetite for satisfaction. Use the back of this application if you need more space. I write n/a there. Where it says Your approximate annual income? I write none.
As I'm erasing and mostly enaying, I glance at the faces of those leaving the house. Some were invited inside for a moment, some leave after passing off their clipboards and mumbling thanks. You can tell a lot by just looking. I know the looks. I've gotten and not gotten many positions. To those beaten, pale, I nod my head and bite my lower lip. To those with a little spring in their step, I jut my chest out and try to look bad.
Then James comes out with that spring-step.
"James," I say, "James, man."
"I leer," he says.
"I know that."
"Some friend. He knows," he says to the sky, or Jesus I guess. "I'm at the bus stop yesterday thinking I'm casually giving this chick the eye when she snaps. Starts screaming at me right there. 'You numb pig. Why you leer at me? You're no man.' I said, 'Whoa. I hadn't intended to leer.' She called me out, man. And you knew."
"You look a little too long is all."
"There's a lot of things I never wanted to be that I've been, but I really never wanted that. Never."
Meanwhile the line moves forward and I move forward with it. James walks backward to keep up with me.
"So I'm heading home with this self-loathing, this label and thinking what I need to cure myself is a girlfriend. A real genuine girlfriend. One I can look at. Then I see this sign." He points over his shoulder to the poster board. "Serenity."
"You remember she's my old girlfriend right?"
"Yeah, but she cheated on you all the time."
"Still," I say.
"It's worth applying for, you know. It's free."
I walk in place in line to get my shoelaces vibrating and distract me from these tools. I'm in this habit of watching my shoelaces. They vibrate when my feet hit the sidewalk. It keeps my mind off her. When it's my turn I keep going up the steps watching the shoelace vibrations until the top of my head hits her, just like it did the guy at the back of the line, letting me know I'm there.
She looks not pleased to see me.
"How many goddamn clipboards and pencils did you buy for this?" I say without meaning to.
"You've got to be prepared just as much for success in your endeavors, my love," she says, "as you are for failure."
"So what are your qualifications?" She snatches the clipboard and looks over it. "This is not the free lunch line."
"I'm of average height," I say. "I drink but don't smoke. My feet are soft due to daily cocoa butter application. I miss somebody."
"It's smudgy," she says.
"I'm better with spray paint," I say.
"I have a couple weeder questions. What's the most interesting thing you could think of to do with this?"
She produces a pork chop bone.
I fondle it, long since dried and sharp, like fish teeth. "Slingshot," I say.
She jots something down on my application, in the space where it says Do not write here. For office use only. "I broke up with you for a reason: You're only the fourth motherfucker to give such an obvious answer today."
I sense I am not doing well and ask to use the bathroom.
"Step inside," she says. "I'm only giving you fair shake because I believe in equal opportunity for all scumbags."
Which I appreciate about her. In there, I take a little extra time. I never really thought I'd make it back. Sure, it used to be when we were broken up, well, once at least, she called me up and said, "Do you think you can get hard?" But those were different times. I breathe deep the smell of the Anti-Bacterial Country Apple Hand Gel, which is, for me, the smell of her.
When I come out, I say, "You love scumbags."
"But I want the best one," she says, and hands me a plastic slingshot, the kids' kind. "And this? The most interesting thing?" she says.
"Pork chop bone," I say.
"Okay," she says, nodding, holding eye contact now. "Better."
She points me toward the couch. She stands and reexamines my application. "You find a number of my queries don't apply to you."
"This is some production," I say. "What did James think to do with the pork chop?"
"All applicant information," she says, "is strictly confidential." She's always been like this. Everything is official and efficient with her. "And that kind of thing won't get you the position, already a staggering improbability."
"I'm just saying," I say.
"If you must know, he had just the right answer," she says. "As for me, I've decided I want a guy who can do math."
"So. Here. You get to come back in the morning."
What she puts in my hands now is a two-page, double-sided math test. It's a photocopy of the test that Subway gives its prospective sandwich artists. I think I have one of these at home. She's attempted to Sharpie out the Subway logo at the top but you can still see. It's stapled in the top right hand corner. And a pink appointment slip for tomorrow.
I walk out thumbing through the Subway math test. It's mostly multiplication and division. There is some algebra on the back of the last page where your job is to tell what X is.
"Me," James is saying to this one guy when I walk in to the Laundromat Bar, and nodding his head a lot. He's at a table with four other guys, all of them from the line. They're hunched over their Subway tests. There's a calculator in the middle of the table.
"How long you been here?" I ask to be polite.
"Long," James says.
"I walked for hours," I say, trying to seem not annoyed. "I picked up my laundry. I came here to wash." But pretty soon I'm drinking and forgetting that my clothes are in the washer. We pass the calculator around the table. I do the multiplication on the calculator then work out the long division on bar napkins. It says to show your work, but I have to practice it a couple times before I'm ready to show it. James' tongue touches his nose when he writes. He shields his eyes whenever a woman falls into his line of sight. I see him peeking through the fingers though.
I don't say a word for a long time and James finally calls me out.
"Why are you taking this so seriously?" he asks.
"I'm trying to get things right this time."
"Maybe the gig isn't for you."
"It's for you then? Or one of them tools?" One of the tools bows up at this and James tells him he can sit the fuck back down. The tool listens to James. People tend to.
"I'm looking out for my buddy, and you never make callbacks."
"You leer," I say to James.
The new bartender gives last call.
"And I'm doing something about that. No thanks to you," he says and makes for the Galaga machine. He always gets on Galaga at last call because he can play forever. The old bartendar knew to cut it off before last call.
I switch out James' test with my own. Then I get up and leave.
In my pink home, I hunker down. All the lights off. I lock the doors and try the old creaky futon. James shows up several hours later, ramming parts of himself at the door. Chunks of asphalt shatter the window and land on the futon beside me. He's screaming something but all I can make out is "wooden" and "ordinary".
I take my pillow and the math test and crawl around the glass and back to the bathroom, shutting and bolting the bathroom door, then arranging myself on the floor around the toilet. With my elbow on the pillow it's actually nice. I may come here again. And the door muffles James just enough so that his ranting is background noise, like running water or a good ceiling fan or central air conditioning, which always comforts me at night.
I flip through his math test. There's ornate, intricate X's through every question. Different designs and shapes make up the lines of the X's, flowers, tribal, bubbles, little Galaga ships, and some horned demon X's. It's the kind of doodling he does above the urinals at the Laundromat Bar. Things made up of other things. There's a bar napkin attached with a paperclip. I wonder where he got a paperclip. The napkin is blank except for the fragrance of Old Milwaukee and an equation:
- Demand for Love______
James continues his tantrum in the street. I am curled up on the bathroom floor. Reading over this thing and having no idea what it means, an enormous feeling of inadequacy washing over me.
I remember then leaving my clothes in the washer at the Laundromat Bar.
By the time I show up tomorrow there will undoubtedly have been
and pints of beer poured over them, and, not having enough quarters to
rewash, I'll simply dry them. Instead of appearing at my appointment
the boyfriend position, I'll be sitting there watching flecks of
cigarette ash appear in the fog of the dryer glass.
James was right. I never make callbacks. Whenever I apply for a position, for any position, it's not enough that I showed up, that I filled out their application, that I talk to them face-to-face. They always want something more of me. No. I have to go do something, and it's either a math test or a reference or piss in a cup or some other meaningless thing I'll fuck up. It's always I never had a chance.
About the author:
Jeff Parker's fiction, nonfiction, and hypertext are published or forthcoming in Ploughshares, Tin House, The Mississippi Review, The Iowa Review, CutBank, and others. An excerpt from his novel _Restaurant_ will appear in an anthology of writing by skateboarders to be published by Soft Skull Press in Spring 2004.