More Terrible Ways to Make a Living

All through the winter, I stayed unemployed. I had a few interviews, each one a little more anxiety-making than the last—I’d stay up close to all night trying on different outfits and different hairstyles, struggling to understand what image I wanted to present. Young? Pulled together? Experienced but still hip? I worried that boots might come off as trying to look sexy, or an updo might seem too severe. Usually I defaulted to the same black tailored pants paired with a blouse that I hoped seemed normal-looking but hopefully also fun, purple with tiny birds on it. A jacket, even though I hated wearing jackets. Matte flats to match the blouse.

At the end of every interview, they asked, “What questions do you have for us?” and I recited the things I knew I was supposed to say, How do you measure success in this position? and What would you ideally like to see me accomplish in the first 30-60-90 days? but what I really wanted to say was, Do you think you consider the capacity for kindness a measure of success? and Do you understand empathy as an ideal accomplishment?

Maybe they read those other questions on my face, because I didn’t get any offers. By the time spring had come, I was ready for a break in the cold, but it was Denver, where March and April are usually the months with the most precipitation, and there was still the possibility of extreme weather.

My money was starting to run out, and I was starting to feel nervous in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. At first it was just drawing down my savings; that was okay. That is what savings can be for. Then my unemployment insurance ended, and then I still had some lingering bills from my divorce, and then suddenly I was looking at numbers that were dangerously close to zeros.

Sometimes it was hard to remember what had felt so important about my ex-husband, Jimmy. The inhale and exhale of him. Like the elevator at my old job, going up, just to come back down—all the electricity and cabling and safety inspections it took to make it compliant, the hidden infrastructure meant to make life a little easier, when in fact the stairs worked just fine and gave us some time to think, and a reason to get our breath going, to make sure our hearts were working.

When a springtime blizzard hit, I hadn’t prepared for it other than to fill up a couple of jugs of water. There was enough to make tea on the gas stove of my apartment and dip a washcloth into what was left of the hot water to wash my face, clean my pits, wipe my crotch. A couple of times, I drizzled water into an old box of mix to make pancakes that I seared in a pan and ate without butter or syrup or even peanut butter, because I was out of everything. It took three days for the power and water to come back on, but that was okay. The pancakes weren’t amazing, but I wasn’t freezing or starving. Mostly I just sat around, wrapped in a comforter. It was nice. I didn’t have much to do anyway, but it was a good feeling to not be actively avoiding anything.

Before my phone died, I had a text ready to send to Jimmy, but just as I finished composing it, which took way longer than it should have, the screen blinked to black. Then I was glad for it, that I hadn’t messaged him.

I hadn’t bothered to go out to charge my phone or laptop at a coffee shop or somewhere else with a working outlet because I didn’t have a lot of communication happening, and it was keeping me from texting Jimmy. Once I was all powered up and connected to the network, I was surprised to see that there was e-mail in my inbox, including a note from a company whom I’d met with so long ago I’d given up on them.

When the overhead light washed onto the dirty kitchen floors and filmy living room rug, instead of feeling grateful, I wondered what exactly I thought was going to happen and what I was going to see, besides my dirty apartment, illuminated.

Dear Katrina, they said, We have considered your background, and based on our conversation with you, we think you are the right person to help our organization grow. Attached please find an offer letter to return at your convenience.

I read the message three times, powered the phone back down, and turned off the lights. While I was sure I was supposed to be happy about this, I wasn’t sure if I was. It wasn’t the worst thing to work in an office. There were in fact many much more terrible ways to make a living.

Maybe the only thing I missed about Jimmy was having someone to bounce some ideas off of, and maybe the only thing I missed about my old office was that it was a distraction from Jimmy.

The text, which was still in my drafts, blinked. All it said was that I had paid the lawyer’s final fee, which was not actually true, and that I had gotten the letter he had sent me, which was true but didn’t change how I felt. I wanted to know if it would change how I felt if he replied, if we had a back-and-forth. An inhale after our exhale.

Part of me was excited about a new desk with new people and new ideas. Another part of me wanted to keep the lights off forever, and better yet, keep the power off forever, and just stay in a persistent state of half to full dark.

Yet in the morning, I made a cup of tea, got on my laptop instead of just scrolling my phone, and digitally signed the offer letter. Without work, I had too much time to examine my life, and way too much time to think about Jimmy. It was Thursday, and I filled out the paperwork for a drug test, a background check, and a credit evaluation. I didn’t even have to talk to HR, since I’d been entered into the system, and the system gave me a timeline to pee in a cup, report any felonies or misdemeanors, and submit my social security number for verification. Outside of a fresh urine sample, I was sure they already had all my information, but I made the appointments and entered the data in the online interface anyway. I decided not to feel creeped by the algorithm’s prediction that I had an 89% chance of passing my drug test, 70% (average, nothing to worry about) that I would check out in terms of credit and criminal history, and that my probability of retaining the job for more than two years was 73.5% based on those and other factors.

“WOULD YOU LIKE TO CONFIRM YOUR APPLICATION FOR KATRINA?” the screen blinked, displaying Yes, No, or Go Back options.

Yes. I clicked the green button, but nothing happened.

I clicked again, but again, nothing. I wondered if I had waited too long and my application had expired, even though the date on the offer letter was still within range.

My laptop was newer and had a touch screen that I barely used unless the mouse was frozen, but now I jabbed at the green button, fingertip to polarized glass, stabbing at the Yes while the interface did not respond. I let it sit for a minute while I got a glass of ice water, and clicked again. This time it went through and I was directed to the confirmation screen. “GOOD LUCK,” it read in bright-green letters just as my phone dinged with a confirmation message.

I deleted the system text, and then sent a new one to Jimmy. Still unemployed, I wrote, any chance you could take the rest of the divorce bill if you are working?

Sure, he replied. Not a prob. Should have offered. Knew you were in a tough spot. Get my letter?

No! I wrote. You sent something?!

Don’t worry about it, he wrote. I don’t remember what I put in there anyway. Ha.

Haha, I tapped on the little screen. Maybe for the best.

After that, he didn’t reply. I ate the last dry pancake and made another cup of tea, drank another glass of ice water. Hot and cold.

The algorithms, really, didn’t keep me up at night, though I wondered what a few days without data input, like when the power was off, would do or had done, and I wondered if Jimmy and I could have been predicted. I might have married him anyway.

People say all the time that we only have one life, and they say to live our best life, but outside of clicky content or taking off to an ashram, the specifics, at least to me, seemed pretty thin. There was one time, just before things got really bad with Jimmy, that we had a momentary break in the tension, and one evening he made dinner and I cleaned up the kitchen, and we both took a glass of wine out to the front porch and watched the people of our neighborhood go by on their evening walks and bike rides. Across the street, a man whose name we didn’t know was getting out of his car with a vase of flowers and he dropped the whole thing, and the roses and lilies and what looked to me like spider mums sprayed across the driveway, broken glass glittering and the water spreading into a dark spot.

Jimmy laughed and said that the guy was now in bigger trouble than whatever had prompted him to buy flowers in the first place.

“We’re all in bigger trouble,” I had said. I had a stash of vases under the sink in the laundry room, but I didn’t move to get the guy a new one, though I easily could have.

Instead, we watched him pick up the stems and then the glass, and then we went inside. What would have changed if I’d left the porch—shown the guy some kindness, disrupted the loop that Jimmy and I were in? It might have saved us all.



About the Author

Wendy J Fox‘s collection, The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories, won Press 53’s inaugural award for short fiction and was released in 2014. Her debut novel, The Pull of It, was published in September of 2016. In 2017, she won Santa Fe Writers Project’s grand prize for fiction, and her novel If the Ice Had Held was published on May 1, 2019. Other work has appeared or is forthcoming in COG Magazine, descant, Euphony Journal, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Hawaii Pacific Review, The Madison Review, The Missouri Review online, OxMag, Painted Bride Quarterly, Pisgah Review, PMS poemmemoirstory, The Puritan, The Tampa Review, Tusculum Review, Washington Square Review, and ZYZZYVA, among others. To view more of her work click below.