The Interview
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Ice"
Originally featured on 12-17-2007
As part of our series "Things Both Flat and Round"

Julie’s lips clasped themselves like interwoven fingers to contain the ice that her tongue pushed against them. Her tongue was determined. Julie was determined. Her first mortgage payment was due and Jamie, her deadbeat fiancee, was as good as broke. Her cat Claire had flees, and Julie wanted to hold life between her teeth until it slowly melted. She had had jobs. She hated jobs. She wanted a career. The ice felt good. It was a perfect saucer with a sharp edge that nourished as it shrank. That was exactly what a fulfilling career would feel like.

"Why do you suppose I offered you that drink?" Miss Dunbar’s manicured hands were crisscrossed atop her mahogany desk. Her lips were as thick as a strand of dental floss.

The office window overlooked mold-colored foliage on Nineteenth Avenue, and the fluorescent light above poked at Julie like the modulated squeal of her alarm clock. She tried to reach for an off switch, and then remembered where she was and how she was dressed: to kill.

"To make me feel comfortable." Never doubt the words that you speak while you are speaking them. Never let agitation or confusion show through your mannerisms.

Miss Dunbar’s whole face seemed to chew on itself, seesawing about a fulcrum in the middle of her nose. Julie wondered if the woman would be half as intimidating in a t-shirt and tennis shoes. "This is a job interview. Why would I want you comfortable?"

If they throw you a curve ball, that means they''re impressed with you so far. Chin up.

"No answer?"

Julie jousted her best smile. "I’m sorry, I thought you were being facetious."

"I was. I thought you were enjoying this repartee."

Julie bit her ice cube in half and fidgeted.

"I like to reintroduce hospitality into the workplace from day negative-one. A successful business starts with affable human relations. Do you agree?”

Always say yes. Are you available to start immediately? Yes. May we contact your previous supervisor? Yes, by all means. Do you have reliable transportation? Yes. Do you like sushi? Yes, please count me in for tomorrow’s luncheon with the president.

“No.”

Miss Dunbar looked pleased. Her scalp contracted slightly to shape a question mark.

“I think this discussion is irrelevant” said Julie.

Miss Dunbar laughed. It was a cultivated laugh that wiggled between the upper and lower decibel limits of her speaking voice and exited her mouth like a fly that refused to be swallowed.

“I see on your resume that you have some experience teaching children. What was the biggest challenge you encountered there?”

“Making them care.”

“And did you?”

A breeze from the ceiling fan slipped a finger beneath Julie’s lapel. She wondered what style of ceiling fan it was, but did not want to look up at the fluorescent light.

“-make them care?”

“Sometimes.” Avoid one-word answers. Always elaborate. Don’t make them do the work of asking questions. “I made a point to watch television and stay up on popular trends in their demographic.” And try not to sound like a textbook. The person on the other side of that desk has read a lot more textbooks than you have, trust me. “As a last resort, I could always talk about the new Bill Pilot movie to keep them engaged. It’s all about finding those common denominators. I’m a firm believer in those.” And if you utter something that sounds stupid or tacky when you play it back in your head, don’t kick yourself for it, just move forward. Remember that you are your harshest critic.

Miss Dunbar took Julie’s empty glass. “I serve my applicants a beverage so that I can observe how they drink it. Where they set it down, if they set it down at all, how they pace their consumption of it…if someone doesn’t finish their drink, I don’t hire that candidate; that means he or she will have no qualms about walking away from a job without completion. If one drinks it too fast, I might consider them for a position in sales. You are the first person ever to chew an ice cube in my office."

"And that means…?"

"That you''re persistent and inquisitive. And a pain in the ass."

"My references can attest to that." Never be witty. Let the interviewer be the witty one, and flatter them by laughing emphatically at their worst jokes.

“I can see that you have zero interest in working here.”

The liquid in Julie’s stomach became an ice cube again. “Excuse me?”

“And now you’ve wasted two words that could have been the first two words of a cogently constructed argument to the contrary. I have another meeting in fifteen minutes. What is my time worth to you?”

Julie sat back—realizing for the first time that her chair rocked backwards—with a tingle in all her muscles. “Um, ma’am, can I be candid? I mean, this hospitality thing, you just flat out admitted that it’s a stratagem for your psychoanalysis bit, and- not to demean it, but the fact that you casually revealed…shamelessly admitted what you shape your opinions on, that’s the real hospitality, that’s- I mean that’s the point, right?”

Miss Dunbar twirled her pencil. Her lips were even thinner than before.

“I also notice that you make breathing room for a high degree of levity and sarcasm in your one-on-one’s, and I’m not sure if you’re trying to throw me off guard or if you’re genuinely bored and having fun with this, or if it’s…but I do appreciate the humanity.”

Miss Dunbar looked at her silver watch, and then her eyes dove floor-ward for a deviant instant. Julie wondered what was down there.

“Okay, you’re right, I don’t want to be here. I’m sitting in this posh office, and even as I’m talking to you, there’s this voice in my head, this- this stilted career counselor coaching me to say the things I’m supposed to say to win your confidence by hitting all the right marks with all the right clichés, and I just want to knock him unconscious with a frying pan, but I can’t shut it off because I spent way too much time and money getting dressed up and networking with recruiters to push my resume in the door so that I could sit here and suck an ice cube and have you tell me what that says about my personality, and I just…I do want this job. What I don’t want is…I don’t know how to say what I’m-”

"How old are you?" The gravity in Miss Dunbar’s flesh was slowly receding from her collar bone.

Julie found the question repulsive. A smile surged up from the floor and through her constricted body like pressure from a punctured water main.

"It amuses you that I ask?"

Julie tensed her thighs and stomach and trapped the smile inside her body. It clawed and quickly gave up. "I made myself a checklist of stuff I wanted to emphasize—my volunteer work, my thesis, my gymnastics championships, my career goals—and not a mental checklist, I mean an actual typed, spell-checked, bulleted, streamlined beast. I had my mom look at it. And I never talk to my m-"

"The confident young lady who walked in here twenty minutes ago would not use the word stuff in conversation."

"Exactly. I hit all my targets. I had another checklist of prepared questions for you, and you nailed those. Yet we’re still talking. It’s these social structures…no one thinks about their frailty. It’s like that zen exercise where you repeat a word over and over—you know better than anyone how repetitive this interview thing can get. You do, right?"

Miss Dunbar inhaled.

"Of course you do. And I don’t know what you put in that drink, but you look like you need it more than I do."

Miss Dunbar inhaled again. “Laer Corporation would like to offer you a salaried position. You will receive a document in the mail detailing the benefits, sign-on bonus and company policies. Do you accept?”

The momentum in Julie’s chest tied her nerves into knots. Appear pleased, but not surprised. Don’t express gratitude—there is no generosity involved; they''re meeting their needs and you''re meeting yours. Don’t answer immediately. It’s the same inherent structure as dating; string them along, tell them you''re weighing it against other offers, and ask them for a decision deadline. Eagerness is unbecoming, both in social life and in business. Be calm and evaluate. Discriminate.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project

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