Edna stopped working thirty years ago when she got Word to live off the steady bounty of the government. Now, at sixty-five, she has been given the go-ahead by the Good Lord to work again. And she’d like to pick up where she left off, as a line-order cook at a diner. She’s had dreams of golden-flecked hairnets and spatulas so light, so inspired, they practically guide her hands. Edna hasn’t showered all week and I’ve never seen her wear a bra. She doesn’t take it well when I ask if she’s forgotten her medicine. She calls me little girl and tells me to listen. She doesn’t take that evil medicine because it puts God in shadow. She has no references but God, she has no employer but God, and she plans to tell this to anyone who asks her. I try to write her resume but what belongs in its sturdy middle glows the blankest white and floats away. Edna follows it out the window, watches it catch in the trees. She thinks this is all well and good. Some night soon an angel will whisper the name of her future employer, and the next morning she will go there and start working.
Michael learned stamping at the Marietta Correctional Facility. On his resume, we change that to the Marietta Institute and hope employers will be impressed with his five year commitment to the job. I grill him: What do you do if a co-worker gives you trouble? He says, I don’t make more trouble. I tell my supervisor. But after work, when maybe me and this guy meet in the parking lot… He lets that thought linger to its logical end: stitch its own sutures. Michael and I engage in a ten second staring contest. Do you know what an inner-censor is? He doesn’t. It’s the little voice inside that wonders if it’s wise to tell the truth. He says, Oh, no. I’m in AA now. I’m trying to be honest with people. Like you should know that once, after a job interview, when I didn’t get hired, I robbed the place. Another ten second stare. I win when he says But I don’t do that stuff anymore. I’m cleaning up, making amends. I recommend he let that one slide. Me and my buddy Brian—he’s in AA, too. Three years for carrying. We’re mentoring each other. I say, Careful now, I went to high school with a Brian.
I’ve worked a month when my boss informs me I’ve been selected to talk to our “client” Princess about why it was wrong to download porn on a company computer. I’m convinced they drew straws when I wasn’t looking and all of theirs pulled up long. Princess is six feet two inches and has a fetish for patent leather stiletto boots. I’m aware of what she could do to me in a parking lot. When my door opens she practically skips into the room yelling I’ve been a baaaad girl! I explain to Princess that if she wants to view pornography in the privacy of her own home, that’s none of my business. But, if she’s not careful at work, through a series of convoluted HR policies, she could find herself charged with sexual harassment. But she wasn’t out to offend anybody. She was doing a favor for a friend in prison she was sure was getting lonely. And, admittedly, that’s more than I would risk. Princess also has a fetish for dangly jewelry. She wears bangles on every available inch and tinkers with her collection of charms like a nervous teenager. Where’d you get that necklace? She asks. Your hair looks pretty.
Victor is trying to save the internet on a floppy disc. He can’t job search on the computer 24/7, he says. This way, when he gets home, he can slide that puppy in and get the latest. Victor just earned his clerical training certificate and got it laminated. He’s made friends with Clarence, who tells me every hour he has to rush home to keep thieves from stealing his social security check. Every hour I remind Clarence that his mail room is locked and video monitored. Okay he says, and counts out the minutes till he can ask again.
Victor keeps insisting he was once an accountant but can’t recall where or when. I ask for any specifics and he says I just did it. He wears a suit everyday but, on more than one occasion, I catch Clarence adjusting his tie for him. Victor, arms splayed, back pressed against the chair, as Clarence measures perfect proportions of knot and stem with his pinky finger.
Clarence was a magazine photographer out of Chicago in the 1960s. He tells me something happened and I know too much now not to guess. Before this job, I had a layman’s understanding of mental illness. Now, I have nuanced categories. Clarence is a paranoid schizophrenic with obsessive compulsive tendencies. Medication skims off the prickly layer, but it’s in the steady tapping of his shirt button, the subtle glances at his shoe laces. I’ve got his application in at the drug store. Someone will hire him, I hope, to work the machine that develops negatives.
But Victor has no tangibles to give: barely an address or a phone number. I must remind myself he wants to save millions of gigabytes in his pocket. He is the imaginary master of imaginary technology. His government check will keep coming, and he will not worry for it. The two of them take the same bus home. I wish they’d hold hands against the on-lookers. I wish they always had each other.