Nothing, Not a Thing
Sung J. Woo
Some people have their lives mapped out to the last detail; others take opportunities as they present themselves. So what happens if there are no opportunities?
You find yourself wearing sunglasses a lot, even when the skies are thick with clouds. Your mother has not yet asked just why you wear your sunglasses all the time, but she's going to. She has that inquisitive look about her lately. If she were to ask, maybe you would lie to her, tell her that your eyes have suddenly become hyper-sensitive, that sunlight, even in low doses, does nasty things to your vision.
The real reason, of course, is that you wish to be unknown. Nothing frightens you more than running into someone you knew in high school. You've never been very good at ignoring people. Throughout your life, you've always found the need to say at least a friendly hello. Besides, ignoring your problems is no way to solve them. You've heard that at least a million times.
But there's no way you're going anywhere come Thanksgiving and near Christmas. That's when they're all back. You've already crossed off November 23rd to November 27th, and you're going to do your Christmas shopping very, very early. Maybe tomorrow.
"Why are you wearing your dark glasses?" your mother asks in the car. She never says sunglasses, always dark glasses -- with that emphasis on the dark -- as if they're innately bad. It's 6:43 PM. There's no sunlight at all.
You ready your mouth for a lie, but before you can say anything, you find yourself taking your sunglasses off. "I guess I forgot," you say, and breathe out a sigh so deep that you fog up the windshield.
You carry up four grocery bags to your parents' apartment. "You're going to break your back one day," your mother yells, so you take only two bags on the second trip. Only one bag remains, and your mother carries that one up herself.
She puts away one item after another while you wait. Ever since you can remember, your mother put the food away and you folded the paper bags into a neat pile. She saves those bags for the bathroom garbage and for other things. She is, as you often jokingly call her, the kitchen goddess.
While folding one bag after another, you suddenly remember how you used to cover your books with grocery bags back in grammar school. You always wrote the name of the class, your name, and the classroom number on those brown covers. You've been having these flashbacks a lot lately. You wonder if it's about time you take up Bingo and talk about how glorious the "old days" used to be.
You were lucky this time, not running into anyone you know at the supermarket. But you know it's going to happen sooner or later. You're going to run into someone you know, and you're going to have to tell them your whole sad story.
You close the door to your room and lie down on the bed face-first. It's not even noon yet, but you feel like you've run 30 miles. You never thought you'd be this tired at 23.
You blindly feel for the remote control, and your hands finally find it hiding between the folds of your comforter. You turn on the radio to hear some loudmouth DJ making fun of one of your favorite bands, but you do nothing about it. Actually, it's kind of funny.
You slowly turn over and face the ceiling. Your room was turned into a study while you were gone for these last four years. You can see your father's business books where your favorite novels used to sit. And a lot of his bookkeeping stuff is piled on your desk. You thought about moving it somewhere, but you no longer have a use for a desk. After all, your time in school is over.
Your college diploma hangs over your bed. It's one of those laminated jobs. After graduation, while you were hanging out and drinking your summer away on campus, your parents took your diploma and had it sealed into a plaque.
Your old toys decorate the top shelf of the bookcase on the wall. Your mother did that just before you came back from college, as if to signify that all was good and that you were welcomed back with open arms and warm hands. But when you look at those toys now, one Tonka truck after another, you feel relentlessly out of place. You feel the way Alice must have felt in Wonderland after she grew really huge in that house. Strangely, totally, utterly out of place.
You've been back from college for a month and you still can't quite believe that you won't be going back to school. All your life you've gone to school. When September came, you were in a classroom, listening to the familiar buzz of a professorial filibuster.
The first week back, you were OK. It was like a vacation, like coming home for Spring Break. But for the last couple of days, you've been feeling empty and terribly lost, like a tongue poking around the spot where a tooth used to be.
You find yourself eating, sleeping, and watching a lot of television. You never watched television in college, never could find the time -- and there was always something better to do -- but now at home, alone, you cannot find a better companion. It is always there for you. Even when it's turned off, you can almost hear the voices of premieres and reruns, megastars and fadeaways, chattering endlessly in their electronic vernacular.
Of course, you could have gotten a job like some of your friends, who are now working in New York or San Francisco, some big city, typing at their keyboards and making deals with big business people everywhere. You tried, tried for a couple of places, going to interviews wearing your killer black suit and wing-tipped shoes, but nothing really piqued your interest. At that time, you really didn't care enough to do anything.
You don't feel so badly for yourself -- for you are a young and healthy man -- but you feel terrible for your parents. They invested almost a hundred thousand dollars for your higher education and now you are home with nothing, not a thing. On the weekends, when your parents are home from their jobs, you almost don't want to get the phone. Because every time you get it, it's one of your mother's friends. What is your son doing? Isn't he out of school? Oh, he doesn't have a job. My child? He's in Harvard med. She's with Chase Manhattan. He's doing this, she's doing that. You can only hear your mother's side of the conversation, and you know your mother is ashamed because her voice gets very soft and whimpery when she has to say her son is home and no, he doesn't have a job. Hearing her say that is like being pricked by a pin. It's not fatal, but it really smarts.
Another miserable Monday comes. You go out every morning to jog a few miles, and you've done it for a month now, which must be a record. You run for 20 minutes, stretch for five, and do some push-ups and sit-ups.
By the time you are back in the apartment, both your father and your mother have left for work. Your mother always leaves some food behind for your lunch, and today's no exception. You've told her numerous times that she didn't have to do that, that you are certainly old enough to make your own lunch, but she doesn't listen. In her eyes, you're still just a baby.
Last night, before The Simpsons came on, you called Marty. He's about the only friend from college you talk to now. You've thought about calling other people, but it just isn't worth it. All they'd talk about is their new job and their new place and maybe a new love interest. You made the mistake of calling Chris a couple of weeks back, and he just blabbed and blabbed about how terrible his new job was and how he was getting only 32 grand for it.
Marty was one year your senior, and he's still living at home with his parents, working at a low-paying, dead-end publishing firm. Surprisingly enough, you kept in touch with him all last year. While you and Marty weren't very close in college, your friendship managed to grow through occasional phone calls and a barrage of e-mail. You even talked about renting an apartment together, once you landed a steady job.
You asked him for advice, and he told you to find some temporary employment agencies. "That's what I did when I got out of school," he said. "They find work for you. Companies hire temps because they don't have to shell out any benefits."
So you spend your morning with a bowl of Cheerios, a cup of decaf, and the Yellow Pages. You hunt for those temp agencies, and one catches your eye.
POWER-4 TEMPORARY SERVICESThere are a dozen more temp agencies, but you decide to call up P-4. You ask a woman named Rita if they have any time today to interview, and she tells you that Mondays are always out. You tell her to pen you in for tomorrow at 10, to which she agrees wholeheartedly.
Putting Quality to Work
After finishing your bowl of cereal, you start doing the dishes. Your mother told you not to do them, that it's her work, but you have been feeling so useless that you need to do something, anything -- even something as mindless and menial as dishwashing -- to find some reason for your present existence. After soaping, scrubbing, and rinsing, it's half past 11. You realize that your mother could do them at twice your speed, and probably do them a lot better.
The cheapest answering machine you can find is at Sears. It has one spy-sized cassette under a secret door and has two shiny buttons. You realize that you've never owned an answering machine before; your roommates and apartment-mates have always provided you with one.
According to Marty, having an answering machine was essential when you worked for a temp agency. The place he used to work for called him all the time, asking him to call him back to take a job for a day or a week, or if he were really lucky, a month.
You look for this $24.95 wonder in a box, but it's nowhere to be found. You search the area, but it seems like they don't have any in stock.
"I don't think you'll find any other ones," a woman's voice says behind you. You recognize that voice, but you're not sure from where.
You turn around. "Do you work here?" you ask staring at this tall, gawky looking woman. She used to be your English teacher back in high school. "Oh, Ms. O'Brien," you say. "How are you?"
She says she's fine and how are you doing and what are you doing here, shouldn't you be in school?
"I'm finished with school," you say faintly, looking down at the answering machine.
"Oh," she says. "That's right, you graduated last May. Congratulations. And from such a fine school."
"Well..." you say, looking at the answering machine.
"You did graduate with a major in English, did you not?" You nod your head. "Good choice," she says, and offers you a smile. You smile, too. "What's the answering machine for?"
"It's for my mother," you say. "I've got to go. It was nice seeing you."
"You too," she says, and she's about to say something else but you turn and walk away. That's how you'll always remember her: her mouth half open, her voice stuck in her throat, her eyes wide with pity.
You run out of Sears and go to Radio Shack, whose cheapest answering machine runs for two bucks more. You pay the man and rush to your car, head down, sunglasses on.
Inside the testing room of Power-4 Temporary Services, you transcribe a fake hand-written office memo on the word processor. It's not a terribly difficult task, but it's somewhat intimidating. You've never actually written a real office memo before, and it's been ages since you've had a real test -- maybe two or three years. But it seems simple enough, and after clicking away for a couple of minutes, you tell Rita that you are finished.
"So soon?" she says. "Wow, what a typer." You realize that Rita is the nice one and Colleen is the bad one. It's almost like the good-cop-bad-cop charade they use in bad police flicks. Rita is bouncy, attentive, and smiles and frowns to your every response. Colleen, on the other hand, is serious, professional, and straightforward. Colleen's got killer eyes, though, a shade of brown that's at once familiar and mysterious.
"Let's take a look at the results," Colleen says, staring you down. The automated grading system gave you an accuracy rating of 67% and a speed rating of "Very Fast." Almost all the mistakes come from a lack of knowledge in business writing, so you point out this fact.
"A lot of people such as yourself," Colleen says, emphasizing and enjoying her emphasis on the word yourself, "they come in here and say they're really familiar with WordPerfect. Experts, no less. But all they've done on their computers in college is type term papers. Uh-uh," she says, wagging her index finger in front of your face as if you were a bratty little kid, "that's wrong. What you need in the real world is business writing skills."
"These mistakes," Rita says, scrutinizing the graded paper, "are the same mistakes I made when I first started."
"Anyway," Colleen says to you, "you're pretty good at typing, though. Maybe we can find you some data entry jobs. Meanwhile, let me set you up with these videos." She leads you into a tiny glassed room in the corner. A TV-VCR combo is mounted against the far wall.
She gives you a pair of workbooks. The first one is titled Power-4 Philosophy. After a brief introduction, idiot questions about the badly-acted scenarios follow.
"Watch the video and follow with the workbooks," she says, and closes the door. It's like watching a red-eye infomercial. Strong-jawed male with dark mane, cute blonde female with perfect makeup. You recognize the woman. She played a leathery lesbian in a porn video you saw couple of months back, "Dare to Wet Dream." It's weird seeing her in a business suit and talking so much.
In the video, whenever the woman talks, the guy looks at you and nods. Then he smiles for a few seconds. Then he goes back to nodding. And when he talks, she does the same thing. It's like watching a pair of used car salesmen trying to double up on a customer. Hey, she's good, real good. Yeah, but he's better, a real pro. No, really. No, really.
It's too much excitement for one day. The workbook has answers for the idiot questions in the back, so you just copy them. You do the exact same for the second video, Power-4 Quality Service. It's the same duo, perfect man and perfect woman.
You imagine them ripping open their shirts: the guy with a yellow-and- orange P inscribed within an upside-down triangle on his pects, the woman with pink P tassels hanging from her nipples. It's so funny you double over laughing, earning an icy stare from Colleen.
The answering machine was so cheap that it didn't even let you record a greeting. All you were allowed to do was enter your seven-digit phone number, which was then melded into the Automatic Greeting Program. The sweet voice of a well-educated woman said, "You have reached XXX-XXXX. Please leave a message at the tone." It did the job. And when you get back from the temp agency interview, you find a message on the machine, your very first.
You play it and listen to some woman who called from Everglades Publishing looking for you. Everglades Publishing was one of two companies who interviewed you in the spring. Your heart beats a little harder as you dial the number.
"Hello, Mary Landis speaking," the phone says. You state your name and your business in your very best voice. She tells you that the assistant managing editor of Upbeat magazine would like to interview you. "Could you please come to our office in Manhattan?"
You're there. You're hip. You make an appointment for tomorrow. After you hang up, you head for the library. You have some serious catching up to do with past issues of Upbeat.
You take a quick peek at your wristwatch, and you relax. You've been talking to Helen D. McDougall for more than an hour, and she still looks interested in everything you say. You're looking dashing today, even down to your socks, a 12-dollar pair of Ivy League argyle hosiery. When you cross your legs, Ms. McDougall, the assistant managing editor, compliments on your spiffy attire. You wave her off and laugh a finely controlled laughter, full of good intentions and genuine humility. You tell her a little more about your work with your college newspaper, about all the deadlines you had to meet, the pressures of being behind the night editor's desk.
Ms. McDougall tells you a little more about the job, an editorial researcher position. Lots of phone calls, some paperwork, but most of all, detail work, she tells you. You need the eyes of a jeweler -- very, very careful -- but not sluggish. And you need to be anal-retentive. We pride ourselves in the accuracy of the reported material.
It sounds like a boring job, but it would get you out of your parents' house. It doesn't pay very much -- if you're looking to get rich in publishing, she tells you with a jackknifed smile, you're going to be very disappointed -- but it would be room and board, and probably a bit left over for some used CDs.
She shakes your hand. "You're a really strong candidate," she says, and it actually seems genuine. She wouldn't be able to say it in that way if she didn't mean it.
"Thank you," you say, giving her a fairly hard handshake. You're still not too sure about shaking women's hands. With men, you shake as hard as you can. But with women, it really all depends on the woman and her attitude.
"Ms. Landis in Human Resources will be in touch with you very shortly," she says. "We need someone right away."
"Thanks again," you say, and close the door behind you. On your way to the elevator, you take in the surroundings. It's like all the other publishing houses you've ever been to. The senior editors and above have their own offices and the assistant editors live in their maze of cubicles. You'd probably have your own cubicle, too, and your own felt wall for pinning up little New Yorker cartoons.
It wouldn't be a great job, you think as you muse to the quiet hum of the elevator, but it would be a living. At least for a little while. And when you get this job, maybe you'll go back to Power-4 Temporary Services and tell Colleen she can shove her attitude up her fat butt.
You watch talk show after talk show, then reruns of old shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. You were never a fan of Bewitched, mostly because it was made after Jeannie and was a cheesy copy of a great idea. You hate that -- copycats with no creative abilities of their own, vultures who feed on the leftovers of geniuses.
When you told your parents about the interview, they were ecstatic, especially your mother. After hearing the wonderful news, her whole tone was different in her phone conversations with her friends. She didn't even talk about you, but you could tell from her peppy little voice, slightly higher and faster, almost chipmunk-like, just how happy she was.
But now two weeks have passed and nothing. No phone calls, no messages. The answering machine just sits there doing nothing. Sort of like you. Except it doesn't eat as much.
You've done the dishes, the laundry, even cleaned the toilet with a scrub pad, left it so clean that it could be the star of a Ty-D-Bowl commercial. You rearranged the closet, which didn't need rearranging, but you wiped and scoured and dusted and shined and now that closet is immaculate, hypo-allergenic, brilliant.
Your mother doesn't ask, but when she comes home from work, she has that look, that hopeful look. But all it takes is one glance at your face and she knows that nothing has happened.
But something did happen. You broke down and called Everglades yesterday afternoon, and Mary Landis told you that you were a very strong candidate but they hired someone else. Somebody who wasn't exactly more qualified, but "more directed for the position," whatever the hell that meant.
You hear the slow steps of your mother coming back from work. It's half past four, which is a bit earlier than usual. There is no longer that hopeful look about her face. She's already given up on Everglades Publishing, so there's no reason to tell her anything. She shuffles in and goes into the kitchen.
"Did you have enough for lunch?" she yells from the kitchen. "Yes, mom," you say sleepily. You've been watching TV since you got up. "You know that Marty called last night, right?" "No," you say, although you heard her answer the phone call. She comes out of the kitchen and goes to the answering machine. "I taped this note here for you," she says, bringing a ripped corner of a newspaper. You take it and put it in your pocket. She goes back into the kitchen, clanging pots and turning on the water.
"He told me he got a new job," she screamed from the kitchen. You never understood why she insisted on talking with the faucet running, because she could never hear what you were saying.
"Yeah," you say to yourself, vegetating on some PBS documentary on the birth of the universe.
"He says it pays pretty good," she yells again. "Yeah," you say again.
"Call him back. He said he hasn't talked to you in ages," she says. The bearded host guides you through a computer-drawn movie of the universe. It's going backward, and everything becomes smaller and smaller, then there's a humongous explosion. Or implosion. It's hard to tell when everything is going in reverse.
You get back from your daily run to hear the phone ringing. You somehow find the strength to rush up the stairs.
"Hello," you say into the phone, trying to silence the panting. "This is Colleen from P-4, and I think I'm talking to the right person." "You are," you say, and sit down on the couch. "Got a data entry job for you, but you have to start today. Can you do that?"
"Today?" you ask. Marty warned you that temp services were like this. Today's Friday, too. But then again, if wasn't as if you'd just had four previous days of backbreaking work.
"If you don't want it, I'll give it to someone else," she said. "Take it or leave it."
"All right, all right, I'll take it," you say. She gives you the address, the directions, and the name of the person you have to report to. After you hang up, you take a quick shower, eat a quick tuna sandwich, and quickly jump into your car. It's a 45-minute drive, and you wonder if this is really worth it for three measly days of grunt work.
The directions are not correct. You pass three traffic lights instead of two after turning off the highway. Maybe Colleen was trying to screw you up, laughing hysterically in her office right now as she showed her awful videos to more overeducated and underemployed victims.
You finally get to Savon Equipment, a huge building at the end of Fulton Road. At least Colleen got that much right. You touch up your hair, straighten your tie, and head for the entrance.
You can't remember the last time you've done something as mindless as this. Enter item number then S then Y then N then N then F12, RETURN, thank you, next. Over and over again. You're not entirely sure what you are really doing -- for all you know, you may be typing the launch code sequence for an ICBM to North Korea.
You've become intimate with the keyboard and the computer screen, which is a familiar shade of amber. Colleen's eyes are exactly that color, you realize in the middle of one entry, but you keep on chugging away, one line after another. Your life has become quadchromatic: white, green, amber, and black. The sheets you are using are the wide, white-and-green computer printouts, the kind that computer geeks ogle and giggle at.
Barbara, the woman you reported to, was in charge of all facets of computer life in this company, and it shows. She's tired and groggy and talks frequently about her upcoming vacation. She has a foreign accent, probably Czechoslovakian, although you can't be sure. "My name is Bar-ba-ra," she said when introducing herself, pronouncing every syllable, and it dawned on you that Barbra Streisand was the only woman named Barbara whose spelling and pronunciation correlated.
You get up from your chair and stretch. After downing four cups of coffee, your bladder thuds for some relief.
Savon Equipment has some of the widest halls you've ever seen. You could probably walk these halls for a month without ever bumping into another human being. No wonder the workers look the way they do.
A man walks by you and looks at you funny. It's the tie, you think. Barbara was dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of faded jeans. It was Friday, Dress Down Day. You are probably the only guy in the whole place with a tie today. You briefly thought about taking it off, but then what would the people think? He had the tie on, and then he took it off. Wouldn't that be worse than just wearing it?
When you get back to work, a girl is sitting in the booth next to yours. She smiles in a friendly way and keeps your gaze until you break it. You make some idle conversation throughout the day while sizing her up. She's kind of cute, you think, maybe a little short. You have lunch together, and she plays with your food. She's a high school dropout, and she likes to smoke grass. Her name is also Barbara, but she pronounces it like everybody else.
She's only 16, but she kisses better than any girl you've ever been with. Her lips are strong and assertive. Her tongue is everywhere inside your mouth, probing, pushing, shoving. She tastes like honey.
The car is so hot that it's all fogged up inside. Barbara pushes you against the door, her hands inside your shirt, her long, strawberry-scented hair covering both of your faces.
You try to remember when you last made out in your car, and you realize that you've never done it. When you were in high school, you never had a girlfriend, and in college, there was always a room available somewhere.
She starts taking off her shirt, and you can see that she's not wearing a bra. They are sad little mounds, barely big enough for your hands, but you cup her breasts anyway.
And when she has her hands on your belt buckle, you start sobbing. She's off of you in a flash, as if shocked by electricity. She is silent, completely still, and watches you without blinking. She's pushed herself as far away as she can, smearing the condensation on the window.
"What's wrong?" she finally says. "Did I do something?" But you can't tell her anything because you're crying louder than ever, wailing away. You can't tell Barbara how low you feel, how you have no idea what you want to do with your life, how your mother can't stand the sight of you, how you thought about fucking her anyway even though it would be statutory rape. All you can do is let the tears flow on and on.
Eventually she comes to you -- crawls to you slowly and carefully -- to hold your quivering face against her bare breasts.
The phone rings and you let the answering machine pick it up.
"This is Colleen from P-4," it says, but you pick up the phone before she can finish. You turn the TV down with the remote, Gilligan's voice fading slowly to silence. It's another data entry job. She gives you the directions, which you copy onto the back of last week's TV Guide.
You leave the turnpike on Exit 15 and get on Route 46. You go for half a mile, trying to find Gate Drive. You make a left and search for a brown and white building immediately on your left.
You keep driving for a couple more minutes, but you can't find it anywhere. You eventually turn around, looking for a road sign. You're on Payne Drive. It was probably the fork a couple of miles back; maybe you should have veered right instead of left. You study the directions on the back of the TV Guide, but they tell you nothing you didn't know before.
You backtrack and try to find Route 46, but somehow you end up on Route 17. Route 17 looks just like Route 46. There is no difference.
Sung J. Woo (email@example.com) is a longtime InterText contributor and was the editor of the online Zine Whirlwind.
InterText stories written by Sung J. Woo: "Bleeding Hearts" (v4n1), "Nothing, Not a Thing" (v5n2), "Business" (v6n2).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 Sung J. Woo.