JunoMagic's Birthday Stories Playlist 2006
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Not Fade Away: 2. The Cruelest Month
They say that April is the cruelest month. But April brings the promise of new life, with the bursting of the first leaves and the sprouting of the first tender shoots of grass up through the cracked pavement. Of all the months of the year, she had always found January to be the cruelest, especially in this city, when the hydrocarbon soot of the streets turned the snow to brown slush almost as soon as it fell, and the biting winds off the lake froze it hard as a knife, slashing at tender bare ankles as they broke through the drifts. This past January had been no different, with its bitter news to match the bitter weather. However, this April was shaping up to be the second cruelest month of this annus horribilis.
What a fool I was to marry a lawyer, she told herself, as she washed her hands compulsively to remove the slimy feeling left by the pen she had used to sign away the last seven years of her life earlier that afternoon.
To give herself credit, she hadn't really married a lawyer. She had married a college junior who had promised her the world, the sun and the stars, and she had been too much in love with him to think straight when she did it. She had been just as much in love one year later when he talked her into abandoning her plans for art school to support the two of them while he got his law degree. It was a shared effort, a partnership for their future, he had argued, and her turn would come once he had passed the bar and was bringing in a fat paycheck.
For six years she had worked as a data entry clerk for an insurance company, getting up every morning and putting on uncomfortable clothing to sit at a desk and stare at a computer screen, transcribing the claims forms, typing the same idiotic details, fixing the same idiotic mistakes. It had been a living death for someone with a clever mind and a soul that wanted to create beauty, but she lived in the hope that someday things would be different.
Well they sure as hell were different now. Her beloved Michael Taylor, Esq. had surprised her two weeks after his law school graduation with the news that he was moving out. They had grown apart, he told her. She no longer stimulated his mind, or 'fit in' with his new circle of professional friends, and he had found someone else who did -- not surprisingly, someone from the firm where he had just been hired after interning there for the past three summers. They had nothing to their name but debt from his student loans, which he was most generously offering to take on himself --along with the earning potential her stultifying work had provided him. Of course, there was the implied threat that if she didn't roll over and keep the divorce amicable, half of that debt would find itself on the negotiating table as a fair split of their marital property.
"Bored, were you, Michael?" she thought as she took a mouthful of Listerine to remove the taste of the hypocrisy that smiling and keeping the anger out of her voice in the lawyer's office earlier that day had left. "You were nowhere near as bored as I was for the last few years, working all day and then coming home to cook and wash the skid marks out of your under shorts while you studied. And it was all for us, wasn't it?" Right, and monkeys could fly out of her butt. She spat.
She looked at her mirrored reflection dispassionately, telling herself that this was the face of a born patsy. Nondescript brown hair, eyes somewhere halfway between blue and grey, tall, thin, no bosom or butt to speak of. Michael had always complained about the flat chest, and he had become increasingly insistent that she get implants once they had the money for it. Well the titties weren't going to happen anymore, and that at least was a relief. She hadn't really wanted to have two alien lumps of bobbing plastic on her chest. She was no raving beauty -- a good solid six out of ten, assuming she was in a generous mood with herself, which she wasn't at the moment.
"So, what are you going to do with the rest of your life, idiot?" she asked herself. Not surprisingly, the mirror woman had no answer. She merely looked tired and pissed off - and a little scared.
As if the divorce weren't bad enough, the issue of what to do with the rest of her life had just become more pressing. She had kept this bit of information to herself this afternoon, not that Michael Taylor and his lawyer, a family practice associate at his new firm, would have given a rat's ass, but her most recent paycheck from Titanic Insurance had contained a pink slip and two weeks severance pay. Evidently, Titanic Insurance had discovered that the data entry clerks in Bangalore worked for one fifth the price of their American counterparts. Hooray for the age of instantaneous Internet communication that made such wonders possible! The entire Chicago office was being closed, effective immediately.
If this were a work of bad fiction, it would be time to put on the Metallica CD, the one with Fade To Black on it, take out the gin and the razorblades, and make an end to herself in a hot bath. Instead, she poured herself a glass of cheap box wine, kicked off her shoes, peeled off her pantyhose and sat down at her computer to hit the job sites. Might as well take advantage of the technology while she could still afford the ISP.
Fortunately, her résumé was up to date, other than the change back to her birth name now that the papers were signed. A résumé that never changes was the only benefit of being trapped in a dead end job for years. A few keystrokes in her word processing program, and voila! The name of Taylor was down the history chute along with the asshat who had given it to her.
She began by checking her email. It was all spam - her parents were dead, she was an only child, and most of her childhood friends had drifted away over the course of her marriage, put off by her chronic lack of free time and Michael's chilly treatment of them.
"Refinance your mortgage." What mortgage? What home equity? She'd be lucky if she could pay the rent on this third floor walkup come next month. She hit the delete key.
"You have won two million dollars in the Liberian Lottery." Don't think so! She hit delete again.
A nonsense subject line from an unfamiliar address was next. She was tempted to delete it sight unseen, but took a quick look just to be on the safe side. Uh-uh, don't even have one of those, and I wouldn't want it bigger if I did. Although, my dear departed husband might have been interested. She stifled a giggle and hit delete again.
Another cryptic subject. This time, it was selling something called the Jackrabbit. Her finger moved to the delete key and then stopped. Now was not the time to be wasting money, but you just never knew when something like that might come in handy. Any port in a storm, eh? As she saved the email, it hit her; she was really and truly single again.
She sent her résumé to every data entry and file clerk opening in the metropolitan area, ignoring the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach at the thought of actually showing up to do them for the next forty years. And then, in a quixotic mood, she checked out the job openings for graphic artists. As she feared, most called for art school credentials she did not possess, but one entry caught her eye. An outfit called Dale Toy Company was looking for an entry-level designer/illustrator. Familiarity with video games was a plus. No degree requirements were listed. All that the listing asked for was a résumé and a sample of the applicant's artwork.
She stared at the screen for several minutes. She didn't have a snowflake's chance in hell of getting this job, or even landing an interview, but a small voice of hope at the back of her mind would not be still. It was probably the wine, she decided, but what did she have to lose? It wouldn't even cost her a stamp if she could get her scanner to work.
The only hurdle was the sample artwork. She had stubbornly refused, despite Michael's nagging, to part with her student portfolio, but it was buried deep in the apartment house's basement storage area and would take her at least a day to dig out. She pulled a piece of paper out of her printer, took a pencil stub from the cup on her computer desk and looked around for something to draw.
The tiny back bedroom that served as a home office was a mess. There was no help there. The window looked out on the back yard where all that was visible were the topmost branches of a lone tree. It was early spring, and the leaves had just begun to unfurl. One branch had a single, fully opened leaf at its tip, and she began to sketch it, making the leaf the focal point of the composition, with the sea of neighborhood rooftops as a background and the hazy outline of the Chicago skyline showing faintly in the distance.
Why anyone would care about a leaf never occurred to her, especially if that someone was working for a toy company and interested in cheerful packaging artwork. But something about the solitary scrap of nature against the urban backdrop had spoken to her. And, bottom line, it was all she had to draw at the moment. When the sketch was completed, she set it on her scanner bed and set it to save as a JPEG.
"Please, please, don't give me any trouble this time," she whispered, as she listened to the familiar clunking noise of her crotchety machine making the scan.
The result wasn't half bad, and she attached the file to her résumé without any touching up and sent the whole email off to Dale Toy Company, feeling certain that this was the last she'd ever hear of it. At least she had tried.
In fact, she had almost forgotten about it by the next morning when she turned on her computer, and she almost deleted the email from laransen@DaleToyCo.Rivers.org, thinking it might be another attempt to sell her 'adult' novelties. Instead, it was the notification of a job interview the following Monday, giving a downtown address and instructing her to report to a Linda Singer in Human Resources.* * * * * * *
To be continued . . .
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