by Michael Onofrey
“You’re not exactly overqualified, and you’re not exactly underqualified. It’s more like you’re disqualified.”
This was hardly what he wanted to hear at a job interview. And yet it seemed appropriate. He sat, looking at her.
Atop a thin neck was a round face, which was an extension of a long, thin body. Her head wasn’t necessarily large. It was just that it was round, whereas the rest of her was sticklike. Having followed her into her office from the waiting room, he had noticed this—slim body, round head.
“Mr. Finn, Mr. William Finn.”
“Yes, but people call me Billy.”
“I’m Ms. Real.”
Seated in front of her desk on folding metal chair, Billy checked the rectangular nameplate that was on her desk to see about the spelling of “Real,” and indeed it was: Ms. Real, Personnel Director. Billy almost smiled.
It didn’t seem Ms. Real had come to these conclusions—overqualified, underqualified, disqualified—just then, for Billy was certain that Ms. Real had studied his application carefully before asking him into her office.
In the waiting room, which served as an outer office, there was a Ms. Munoz who was stationed behind a modest desk, and who was mostly busy with a keyboard and a monitor. A man and a woman, who had arrived before Billy, were also in the waiting room. Both the man and the woman looked to be in their twenties, and they both had tattoos on their forearms. While Billy filled out an application form, he saw the woman go in to be interviewed. After that, while Billy sat waiting, he saw the woman leave Ms. Real’s office, upon which the man was sent in, intercom/phone on Ms. Munoz’ desk coming into play, presumably Ms. Real in communication with Ms. Munoz. But with the woman and then the man there had been no escorted entrance into Ms. Real’s office by Ms. Real, as had transpired with Billy. As for Ms. Munoz, she was far younger than Ms. Real, and she had more weight on her frame than Ms. Real. The time span between when the man left Ms. Real’s office and when Billy was escorted into the office by Ms. Real was considerable—a good fifteen minutes, time enough to study Billy’s application with care.
Ms. Real’s hair was black and thick and very short, and it clung to her skull in a way that resembled a bowl. Her face was white and her eyebrows black. Light red lipstick was on her plump lips. Her eyes were hazel. A pair of sleek, rectangular glasses sat on her desk, computer monitor nearby. A half-smile was on Ms. Real’s face as she looked at Billy. Not a mocking half-smile, and not an-attempt-at-wit half-smile. More like a feeling-of-concern half-smile. Billy had nothing to say.
“Circumstance has brought you to the wrong place, Mr. Finn.”
He listened to this, and again he felt it was appropriate, like “disqualified” was appropriate.
Ms. Real put her glasses on and looked down at Billy’s application. With the glasses on, she looked academic. She casually turned the application over and looked at the backside, education and job history. She took the glasses off and set them down on her desk and looked at Billy. Fluorescent lighting was overhead, walls of the office beige. On Ms. Real’s thin, white fingers there were no rings, nail polish the same tint as her lipstick. A leather band with a square wristwatch was buckled around her wrist.
“Well, it was just an idea,” Billy offered.
“Just an idea, Mr. Finn?”
“Yeah. I saw the sign out front the other day, the posting for ‘Shipping and Receiving Clerk.’ Of course I saw the ‘Bookkeeper’ posting as well, but . . . You see, I only live a couple of blocks away.”
“I assume that residence is a house. You didn’t note an apartment number.”
“Yes, it’s a house. As it turns out, it’s my house now. Anyway, I thought I’d give it a try, the shipping-and-receiving position. When I walked in and asked Ms. Munoz about it, she said the applicant had to be able to lift fifty-pound boxes on a regular basis. I can do that.”
Silence followed. It was a quiet office, but then came the whisper of overhead fluorescent lighting, a gentle hum.
“Something tells . . .” Billy began.
“Something tells me that applying for this job is a failed enterprise.”
The half-smile had faded from Ms. Real’s face, but now it reappeared. Donning her eyewear, she looked down at Billy’s application.
“There are extended gaps, the most recent of which is current. According to this,” Ms. Real said, and gestured with her hand, “you’ve been unemployed for a little over a year. Your last job was in Malaysia, Penang, an English teacher.”
“Yes, I came back from Penang a little over a year ago to take care of my mother. She was old and sick. She passed away last month.”
Ms. Real had taken off her glasses and was holding them in her hand while she looked at Billy. Billy, too, was a glasses’ person, but his were bifocals, which made him wondered why Ms. Real didn’t employ bifocals. It’d save her a lot of on-and-off with her eyewear.
“So you’ve been unemployed for a year or so, ever since . . .” The glasses went onto her face. “Your employment at Success, Success, Success, where you . . . taught English, English as a Second Language, ESL as you’ve put in parentheses.”
The glasses came off Ms. Real’s face in a practiced motion.
“Mr. Finn, what sort of institution was Success, Success, Success, if I may ask?”
“It was a storefront operation.”
Again the half-smile.
“Somehow, I kind of thought so.”
“And this private school in India, ‘near Bangalore,’ as you’ve written in the address space, The President’s English and the First Lady’s English . . . I’m curious about the name of this school, Mr. Finn.”
“You know,” said Billy, “I was curious about that too, so I asked about it. The owner told me that instead of The Queen’s English, which implied British English, they came up with The President’s English and the First Lady’s English because they wanted it to be known they specialized in teaching American English.”
“I see. And how about this other . . . establishment, Don’t Fail, Don’t Ever Fail, also ‘near Bangalore?’”
“Exams are very important in India.”
“But, you know, the funny thing is, Don’t Fail, Don’t Ever Fail failed. They went out of business—suddenly. There were six of us teaching there, and one morning there was a sign on the door. We were out of a job, and out of a month’s wages, which is why I shifted over to The President’s English.”
They sat, fluorescent lighting murmuring, and perhaps it was that lighting that now accented Ms. Real’s face in such a way to suggest weariness, particularly at the outer edges of her eyes, and all the more so as her half-smile diminished. Ms. Real put her glasses on and looked down.
“And before India there are gaps as well. Let’s see . . . work in Piraeus, Greece, ‘sanding and painting on a sailing vessel,’ ‘grape harvesting’ in France, ‘farm work’ on a kibbutz in Israel, Negev Desert.”
“According to this, Mr. Finn, you haven’t worked in the United States for thirty-five years.”
Her glasses came off in a nanosecond.
“Yeah, that’d be about right.”
“I can’t very well check with your . . . former employers, can I?”
“I put the email address of that last one, the one in Penang, down on the application.”
“Yes, and I tried it just now, and my email came back as undeliverable.”
“Oh? Well, maybe they changed their email address. Or maybe they folded up.”
Ms. Real renewed her half-smile, and again they sat, sharing the whispered hum of fluorescent lighting. A window, mini-blinds a third open, yielded thin sunlight. Billy’s first impression of Ms. Real was mid-thirties, but now he saw late thirties, which could have meant fortyish. The floor of her office was carpeted, a short, brown nap.
“Do you have any sort of credentials to teach ESL, Mr. Finn? I imagine there might be a need for that here, in Southern California.”
“No, no credentials other than experience.”
It seemed that Ms. Real was now looking at Billy differently. Perhaps she was noting his long arms and his receding hairline and his thinning, russet-colored hair that was combed straight back. And perhaps she was noting his age, which would have been around sixty. Thus a sixty-year-old man who was rangy.
“Mr. Finn, I’m going to tell you what I tell our other applicants. If you don’t hear from us within a week, you can assume the position has been filled.”
Ms. Real set her glasses down on the desktop, and with this Billy understood that the glasses were purposeful, for they were a means of gesturing, a means of communicating. Her hands came together on top of her desk, fingers intertwining. The expression on her face was not stern, but the half-smile was gone, as was everything else on her round face—glasses, expression, mid-thirties—gone. And yet . . . what was it? A wedge of sympathy, perhaps?
“I’m going to tell you something I don’t tell other people, Mr. Finn, for I feel you’ve made a genuine attempt at honesty here.” She indicated Billy’s application.
“Don’t wait for that phone call.”
Michael Onofrey grew up in Los Angeles. Currently he lives in Japan. A novel of his, Bewilderment, was published by Tailwinds Press in 2017