PHILLIP SMITH - COVEN
Phillip Smith graduated from the University of Evansville with a major in English and minors in journalism and literature. In the spring of 1993, his stage adaptation of the Stephen King novel Rage was presented for three weekends. His stories have appeared in Jake Magazine, Inscape Magazine, Chicago Literati, and Literally Stories.
He was regretting setting up an interview on his thirtieth birthday. Instead of stressing, he could have been home, playing PS3 and drinking beer. With the economy and his lack of confidence on the phone, he agreed to the early-morning interview on his birthday.
He thought, if he had to, he could use his birthday as a way to get sympathy or prove he would do anything for this job. He had practiced how to slip it into the conversation.
"Yeah, I'm sure you noticed from my application it's my birthday today," he'd say. "I'd be willing to work on my birthday if it was necessary."
Every scenario had been thought of. For every question, an answer was prepared. There would be no curve balls, no awkward silences, because he ran this interview over and over in his head as he tried to sleep. This interview would be, no, had to be, perfect.
He was far from a perfectionist. His apartment was a mess. He usually wore a wrinkled T-shirt and previously worn shorts. Dishes sat for days or even a week.
But, now, he wore a suit he picked up at the drycleaners yesterday, shoes he polished this morning, even black socks that stayed up, instead of sliding down to the top of his ankles. He had two copies of his resume, his best pen (a graduation present from an uncle), and a leather folder with a new legal pad inside. He'd drawn a line down the middle of the first page. At the top of the left side, he wrote, "Info: Pay, Benefits, Etc." On the right side, he wrote, "ASK QUESTIONS!"
His original reason for being so prepared was he needed this job. He was laid off from his last one, and the severance package was going to end in two weeks. Two other interviews went nowhere, and one job offer just wasn't enough. He was being picky, but knew he could go back to Target where he worked during college. It wouldn't pay enough, but he'd be working.
The current reason he was glad he was so prepared was because of the splitting headache he had. Since around four o'clock that morning, it felt like a vise was trying to squeeze his temples together. And a prescription dose of ibuprofen (800 mg) hadn't put a dent in it.
So, he sat in his car, breathing deeply, trying to stay calm and not make the headache worse. Also, he was 30 minutes early for the appointment.
Okay, he thought, you're more than prepared for this. Just push the headache back.
He'd make an appointment with his family doctor. This was starting to feel more like a migraine than a headache. He'd never had a migraine, so wasn't sure, but it hurt like a son of a bitch. He hoped he wouldn't puke.
After a few more moments of meditating, he gathered his notebook and pen and started to go inside. The car was getting hot, and if felt like his tie was choking him. Sweat was rolling down the small of his back.
One advantage to this company was they had their own downtown parking lot next to the building. As he walked along employees' cars, a bum came around the corner of the other building next to the lot, which made him pick up his step.
"Hey, can I talk to ya?" the bum yelled.
He kept walking, hoping the bum would get the hint.
"Hey!" the bum continued, "weird tings goin' on in dat! Ain't right in dat!" pointing toward the building through him.
"Okay," he said, stepping onto the sidewalk, turning toward the lobby doors, never letting the bum get too close.
The office building lobby was very cool. The wetness on his brow turned cold, but this didn't help the headache.
The receptionist was a cliché, too perky blonde. She held up her index finger to him as she finished a conversation on her headset.
"That's right," she paused. "We'll see you then. Thanks." A pause. "Goodbye!"
She reached out and hung up the line. Her sweater was tight, with a V-neck that revealed tan cleavage.
"Okay," she said, sitting up, "how can I help you?"
"Um," he started, consciously keeping eye contact with her blue eyes, "I have an appointment with Ms. Mullen."
"Let's see," she glanced at the appointment book, "you're Mr. Simon." Looking back up at him, she said, "Please fill out an application," handing him a clipboard, pen and application. "Have a seat, and I'll let her know you're here."
"Thanks," he said, turning and walking to a seat. "You're Mr. Simon." God, he thought, that beautiful blonde only sees me as "Mr. Simon."
He sat, trying not to think of receptionists or headaches, when he thought he heard, He could be my father, he's so old.
He sat up, feeling sharp pains in each temple.
Did she say that? he thought. Had she hung up yet?
He rubbed a temple and tried to see what she was doing in his peripheral vision. Nothing out of the ordinary for a hot receptionist: doing her nails and answering the phone. It must have been his anxiety. He took more deep breaths.
Beginning to fill out the application, he quickly noticed a spot for birth date wasn't included. He felt stupid. Of course, a company couldn't ask that on an application. There's the first curve ball, he thought, filling out the rest of the application.
He finished the final blank in the application.
"Good morning, Mr. Simon."
He quickly looked up, startled.
"I'm Ms. Mullen." She held out her hand.
He took it trying to be firm, but not too firm, and thought it was odd he didn't hear her walk up to him. Must be the headache.
"Hi, I'm Stuart Simon, but you know that…" he trailed off, standing.
"Nice to meet you. Please, follow me."
She turned and began walking. As he followed, he finally got a view of Mullen. She was tall, a brunette, with long legs. He couldn't quite figure her age. She could have been older than him or younger. With the trendy eyeglasses, she had a naughty librarian feel to her.
Of course, he followed her without paying attention to where they were going. Mullen lead him past the receptionist area, a break room, a room of cubicles. She opened a door to a small meeting room and paused.
"Oh," he said, "after you," motioning her in first.
"Thanks," she said and walked in.
He stepped in and shut the door, checking out her skirt one last time before, thinking about the seating situation. Her office, obviously, would have been easy. The only option would have been to sit across from her. The meeting room posed a different challenge. The table sat eight: three on each side and one on each end. If Mullen sat at the head of the table, he had another easy choice: sitting in the closest seat at a right angle to her was the only option. If she sat on a side in a middle seat, that also would be easy as he would just sit straight across from her. The only curve ball she could throw at him would be to sit on a corner. That would leave him two options: first, he could still sit across from her, or, second, he could sit at the head of the table. Being across from her could indicate the future boss/employee relationship or that he thinks of her as a peer. If she thought that he thought of her as a peer, it could be a bad start to the interview. On the other hand, sitting at the head of the table could show comfort with the situation or his attempt to overpower or replace her. Since he had thought this out, if she picked the corner, he'd sit across from her, potentially causing the least amount of damage.
Mullen walked around the table and pulled out a corner chair. "Pick a seat," she said, motioning to the seats at the head of the table and across from her.
Is she fucking with me? He thought, taken aback. He'd obviously spent hours thinking about the seating situation. He just went through it now. Did she know?
He stepped forward and took the seat across from her, as he planned.
"Good," she said, sitting. "Let's start."
He opened his notebook as she opened a manila folder. He noticed she had his resume and application. How'd she get that? he thought, shooting her a strange look.
"This is the one you filled out when you dropped off your resume and made the appointment," she said. "I don't know why Clarisse had you fill out another."
He looked down and saw the application he just finished in the lobby below the copies of his resume. He moved it and the resumes to the left and opened his pen, looking at the notepad.
"I see you've been out of work for six weeks," she started.
"Yeah," he said, worried about the interview starting this way. "Laid off."
"Why do you think you were chosen over your other teammates?" she asked, coolly.
He had practiced this answer in the mirror: "I'm very open-minded and not afraid to say what I'm thinking even if it's not popular. I feel my boss wanted to keep the 'yes' people, so I was the odd man out." He started meandering from his script. "We butted heads over some issues, like, um…" He realized this could end up being a hole he couldn't dig out of, but went on. "Like whether to use Adobe Acrobat or a company-developed, web-based system for digital reports."
He finally stopped. He liked to talk and knew that was bad for interviews. I've got to keep my answers short, he thought.
"Well, go on," Mullen said. "How did you handle this issue between you and your boss?" She moved her hand and pen to begin taking notes.
Either she wants me to dig a hole or really wants to know how I handled this situation.
"Tell me how it went," she prodded again.
He'd just have to make it sound as even-handed as possible. "As I said, the options were Acrobat or a company-developed system," he started, using nothing he'd practiced. "I explained to her the pros and cons of each. Of course, there are more cons to the company-developed system. No offense to any self-made systems used here, of course."
"Of course," she said and smiled.
"A company-developed system takes time, and IT is always working on multiple projects. That makes development time long. They also tend to be more like duct-tape-and-binder-twine fixes than actual systems. Again, due to IT needing to spend manpower elsewhere, not because of lack of talent, though sometimes because of lack of talent. With my idea, Adobe Acrobat is relatively cheap and we only needed to purchase six licenses. Everyone else in the process could download the free Reader. And, Acrobat has a built in proofing function. I think it's called 'Review' and something." He paused. "Sorry, I obviously still feel very strongly about how it should have been done."
"So, your boss didn't take your advice?"
"Yeah, they still don't have a digital reporting system in place. At least not when I left," he answered.
"How did you react to her final decision?"
If I was honest with you, I'd say, "Pissed off."
She wrote a note quickly that he couldn't quite read. Looked like "honesty" was part of it.
"Um, to tell the truth, it was hard," which was true. "For a while I took only essential questions or issues to her and didn't make small talk with her. It was business only."
"Why do you think she went with the other system?"
"Politics," he said, thinking, Fuck, I wasn't going to go there. How is she leading me?
She adjusted in her seat. He thought she had straightened her back some.
"She was good friends with the IT manager, so she gave them the responsibility to create this new system so they wouldn't need to lay anyone off. What she didn't realize was eventually any new system would allow the company to lay off data processors and proofers. At lease with the Adobe solution, the new process would have been in place before lay offs were needed. And here I am and the department is working with a half-complete reporting system and is three people down."
He rubbed the back of his head. "That's probably more than you wanted to know. Sorry."
"No, that's fine," Mullen said, still writing a note. "It's good to know how you reacted."
He sat, playing with his pen, waiting for her next question.
"The team you might be working on is all women, right now," she started. "How do you work with women?"
One question he wasn't prepared for. He'd already made a couple of mistakes in his mind, so he decided to put all of his cards on the table. Mullen didn't seem annoyed with his long answers or that he was willing to at time butt heads with her.
So, he started, "Data.Com was owned and run by a lesbian." He paused to gauge the reaction. None was visible. "Whether that played into this, I don't know, but there were a lot of women in the company. I've worked for women, managed women, and even was on a cross-functional team that reported straight to the president. When I managed a team, I had to present our quarterly reports to her. So, I guess, I don't have any problem working with women."
But the president was a flannel-wearing, buzz-cut bull dyke.
"She wore flannel shirts to work, didn't she?" Mullen asked.
He almost startled, but somehow kept a poker face.
"Yeah," he kind of sputtered, "and had a buzz cut."
"Sure, I just remembered that there's another teammate here from your old company," Mullen said. "Sandy Parks. Did you work with her?"
"Actually, my team was an internal customer of hers," he replied. "We worked pretty close together when I was a manger, got a lot of stuff done. Feel free to talk to her about me. If I'd known she was here, I'd put her down as a reference."
"I will," Mullen said. "So, why weren't you still a manager?"
"Well," he was ready for this one, "the career path for the management position I was in didn't, um, allow for a lot of growth. Also, my last boss actively recruited me. She made some promises that made stepping back a position look good. And it was something I enjoyed, except the lay offs happened."
"Sure, sure," Mullen said, making more notes.
The rest of the interview was pretty routine.
Mullen closed her notebook. "Well, I feel good about the fit."
Wow, I thought I screwed it all to hell.
"Though I do have one more interview later this week." She paused. "Why don't we go meet the team and show you a bit of the office?"
Stuart Simon begrudgingly attended a picnic with his parents a few weeks ago. Two reasons existed for his hesitation: first, he was coming close to having to ask his mom and dad if he could move back in with them, and, second, his mom had told everyone in her family about his current employment situation. She was trying to use the family for networking, but most of them were retired or in an industry he wasn't qualified to work in.
Getting out of the back of his parents' HHR (also humiliating for a thirty-something), he slumped he head and slouched his shoulders, trying to use body language to keep the relatives' questions and suggestions at bay.
"Hey," his mom said, "maybe Richard can help you out. He told me he might have a lead. Come on."
She walked off in front of him. He shuddered. His cousin Richard was one of his strangest relatives. One, most of his mom's relatives were older, so Richard was a 50-something, second cousin. Two, Richard had to be on the autism spectrum. His social skills weren't great, and it frustrated Stuart that Richard was hard to read. Three, the rest of Richard's family was about the same or worse. His wife was this mousy thing with tons of anxiety (and tons of make-up). His two daughters were basically clones of him and his wife. Luckily, Buffy, the one like Richard, had married and moved to New Mexico, and Stella was a single mother and didn't show up to family functions often.
"Oh, hi, Richard," his mom said. "Hi, Sandy. How are you?"
They were the first relatives they ran into.
"Fine," Richard said.
"We're doing great," Sandy started. "I was worried you weren't coming." She winked at his mom. "When was the last time we saw you two?"
"I think your thirtieth wedding anniversary party," his mom replied.
"Right, right," Sandy said. "The girls are doing great. I still hate that Buffy's out West. And Stella and little Ruth had other plans today…" She trailed off.
"We've been good but busy," his dad said.
"Oh, very busy," his mom said. "And I told you about Stuart…"
As she trailed off, they all looked at Stuart, standing outside of their quartet. Everything he was wearing felt big. They looked big. He felt small.
"How are you, Stuart?" Richard asked with a blank look.
"I'm fine. I've got my resume online and have some potential openings."
Richard put his hand on Stuart's shoulder. It felt cool, not quite lifeless. "Those internet sites are useless," Richard said. "I'm surprised they're still around."
God, he's stupid, Stuart thought, even though he's an engineer.
"Yep, most of the internet is going to collapse in a few years. What you've got to do is send resumes to companies you want to work at even if they haven't advertised a position."
"Apply blind?" Stuart asked, surprised, thinking, No one suggests you do that, idiot.
"Try that," Richard continued, not even acknowledging Stuart's shock at the suggestion, "and send one to HR at my offices. I'll give you a good word."
With that, Richard patted Stuart's shoulder and began walking away toward the picnic tables and the rest of the family, leaving Stuart's mom and dad, Sandy and Stuart to just watch him.
"Um, should we start the surprise party?" Sandy asked.
"What surprise party?" Stuart asked.
"Oh, shit," Sandy said under her breath.
Oh, God, I don't want a birthday party, Stuart thought. Please don't be a party for me.
His mom gave Sandy a stern look, then turned to Stuart.
"Stuart, we through we'd try to cheer you up with a surprise birthday party," she said, rolling her eyes at Sandy's slip.
"Sorry," Sandy said and went over to Richard.
Thanks, Mom, Stuart thought. These are some of the dumbest, most inbred people I know, and I get to celebrate a milestone birthday with them while I'm about to move back home. Thanks a lot!
"Thanks, Mom." He hugged her. "But you're two weeks early."
"That was suppose to help with the surprise…"
"That's okay." He walked over to the tables where everyone was seated or standing. "Hey, everyone."
"Surprise!" they said together, then sang "Happy Birthday."
His mom brought over the cake. The only open seat near Stuart was next to Richard, so she sat the cake down there.
Someone, probably one of his cousins, yelled, "Make a wish!"
I need a job, he thought and blew. Only a third of the candles went out, so everyone nearby started to help until they were all out.
"Thanks," he said, sitting in front of the cake.
"So," Richard started, loud enough for all to hear, "what leads do you have?"
Is he retarded?
"There's a proofing position at Data Marketing Solutions," he said. "I expect to get an interview sometime soon because of my background."
"Data Marketing Solutions?" Even though they were outdoors, an indoor voice level would have been appropriate. Not for Richard. His voice probably carried all the way to the playground across the parking lot. "Don't a lot of lesbians work there?"
Everyone gasped at his comment. He ignored or didn't hear them.
"Um, you know, Richard," Stuart replied, "That was my last job: Data.Com. You said the same thing about it."
A few relatives giggled. Stuart's mom leaned in between Richard and Stuart.
"Who wants cake?" she asked, starting to cut it.
Under his breath, Stuart asked her, "Did you bring any beer?"
"You know we can't have beer around your Uncle Eugene. But your dad put a case in your car. Happy birthday, honey."
"Thanks." Stuart took the first piece of cake and took a bite, intentionally breathing slowly as he chewed.
Ms. Mullen and Stuart left the conference room. He thought about the interview and relaxed a bit. Then he realized that his headache was still there, just the adrenaline from his nerves about the interview pushed it back. Now, it was front and center again, and his vision was blurring some.
The lines of cubes were new to him, even though this set-up was probably the same from office to office. This added a sort of vertigo to his headache. Turning left here, right there, he'd never find his way out if he had to.
They walked into another room. Cubes still in rows, but some open spaces. The room seemed darker, like some of the fluorescent lights were out.
"This is our proofing area," Ms. Mullen said. "There are actually two teams. On the left are the Data Proofers, which is where you're applying, and on the right are the Quality Controllers."
He took in what he could. The proofing area was bigger. The QC area looked like work was just piled where it could fit. The open space divided the two areas, with a big folding table in the middle and a few chairs around it.
"Let's see what the team is doing," Mullen said.
As they walked past two sections of cube walls, he realized he never planned to meet the actual employees he'd be working with. His headache got worse, beginning to actually feel the empty spaces of his sinuses.
At least it's nearly the end, he thought.
"We're nearly done," Mullen said, as they turned the corner around the last cube. "We won't bother the team for too long."
"Oh," he said, taken aback again. "Cool…"
The receptionist and Mullen both had to know what he was thinking to reply, or project, or whatever, like they had.
The proofing area was blurry at first. His headache even worse, he reached up with his free hand and touched his temple.
"Here," someone on his left said, "it's Tylenol."
He looked, and she came into focus. He pushed her hand away harder than he should have.
"Sorry, I've already taken ibuprofen. Thanks though."
Taking her in, she was a mousy, thin girl, probably just out of college with white skin, almost to the point of being translucent. Her hair was straight, short and jet black.
"So, here's the team," Mullen said, first pointing to the mousy one. "That's Marie. In the next cube is Sally. In the back is Gracie. She's the team supervisor. And then next to her is Kelly."
Kelly was the most attractive, thin but with nice curves. Her straight, brunette hair draped over her shoulders and cascaded over the top of her breasts.
Across from her, Sally was fortyish with blonde, short hair. She probably had young kids.
Then, Gracie had a grey flattop haircut. She wore a long-sleeve shirt that was large enough to cover up if she had breasts or not. The shirt was tucked into khaki cotton pants. She sat with her knees and feet spread apart, like she had a huge package.
But, what really stunned Stuart was the wart on Gracie's nose.
God, it's got hair growing out of it, he thought, like a…witch's.
"I'd have it removed," Gracie said, "but I've lived with it this long."
"How?" Stuart asked.
"Yer gawking at it."
"Um," Mullen broke in, "does anyone have any questions for Stuart?"
He scanned them and landed on Marie. She really looks like she's never seen the sun.
"How do you feel about overtime?" Marie asked.
"I'm, um," he paused. Does she leave after sunset?
"Marie's been working late on a special project," Kelly said.
"Yeah," he replied, "I'd be willing to work overtime if it was needed. I've even worked Saturdays."
"So," Gracie spoke up in her deep voice, "how do ya feel about workin' with all women?"
"Well," he stammered, "as I was saying to Ms. Mullen—"
The headache spiked!
They aren't lesbians; they're witches, all witches!
"What did you say?" Sally asked, looking like she'd been slapped.
"I'm—" he said, stepping backward, "not interested—" bumping into the folding table "—in the position—" he straightened one of the chairs "—anymore, sorry."
He turned to the other room and heard someone say, "That was odd," and then, "I was going to offer him the job."
He couldn't hear any more as he turned down a row of cubes.
Where's the lobby?!?
A woman rolled a chair backwards out of a cube.
"The lobby," she said, "is that way." She pointed to a hallway. "Follow it to the break room and turn left."
He carefully stumbled around her, followed the hallway to the break room and turned left, almost bumping into the desk where the receptionist was answering the phone.
"Hello?" Again, she held up one well-manicured index finger to him.
Ignoring her, he moved quickly to the doors.
"Mr. Simon!" the receptionist yelled. "Ms. Mullen wants to—"
"Tell her and your coven they can keep their job!"
He slammed into the door, took another step and slammed into the outside door. He was in the stale, hot, downtown air and grabbed at his temples – he'd left his notebook and pen somewhere – and turned to the parking lot.
Something bumped into him. He focused. The bum looked up at him. The smell of cheap vodka and vomit almost made Stuart puke.
Don't touch me!
"O-okay," the bum said.
And I don't have any money!
"Hey," the bum gave him a quizzical look, "yer lips ain't movin'."
"Evrything ya sed b'fore. Told ya, tings ain't right in dat." The old man tapped one of Stuart's temples, sending pain and shivers down his spine.
"No!" Simon pushed him to the side and went to his car.
"Not me!" the bum yelled Stuart's way. "You're crazy. Not movin' yer lips when ya talk ta people! Ain't right, I sed!"
After getting in his car, he started the engine to cool the interior.
Had to set up something stressful on my birthday, he thought, the headache ebbing. Happy fucking birthday!
As he drove out to the street, he could hear the bum, out of key:
"Happy birfday ta you-u-u!"