Mallory thought these new conditions in Cincinnati were agreeable. There were a lot of murals in her neighborhood. A four-level bookstore was within walking distance. A man named Gypsy Frank photographed people on the street whose outfits he found especially fashionable.
That is, she thought these new conditions were agreeable until she caught herself talking to characters on a sitcom rather intimately. One character was being called out by another and she said, “That was so cold but so true,” aloud. Then the thought-snowflake drifted down to gently force the realization that she didn’t know this character at all and was actually thinking of someone she knew back home. A friend from school who accompanied her to the Hunan Kitchen once in order to fulfill an “ethnic food” requirement for Home Ec.
“We might as well visit the koi pond at the mall,” this friend had said, grabbing a hunk of General Tso’s with a hollow exuberance.
So maybe she needed to start socializing, she admitted to herself. The only striking interaction that’d occured since she got here was when a man at the bus stop had solicited her. She tried to retaliate by spitting on his shoe but it ended up being the dribbly kind that just hung from her chin.
Mallory decided to start small. She greeted fellow residents in the building. One of them, Kyle, cobbled together a living with several different jobs. He taught a driving course at local high schools and received undue double birds from drivers simply because of the “Student Driver” sign permanently displayed on his Civic.
Mallory could say what she wanted to about Kyle, but he’d actually helped her land an interview with a flashy startup she had no business working for.
“It would be a personal comfort to me if you’d let me fix your car,” Kyle said to her when they were getting their mail from the metal cubbies in the apartment entryway.
Mallory had already said all manner of things to reject this offer but it was clear to her now that he wasn’t really asking. He’d mentioned something last time about a steep discount if she publicly endorsed his rap career across all social media platforms.
“Well isn’t this just typical,” he said, pinching a box that was lodged so tightly in his mail cubby it seemed the cubby had been built around it.
“The postal worker can’t be bothered to put mail in the right spots but somehow manages to fit this in here.”
Impressed by the oddly specific skills and deficiencies of the USPS, Mallory used this particular marvel as an excuse to slip away upstairs.
According to the internet, one could prepare for a job interview by anticipating certain common questions.
After a meaty afternoon filled with a game called Strengths and Weaknesses, Mallory attempted to extricate some compelling challenges from her past that ultimately grew her as a person.
Only one memory stood out: She’d almost drowned in the Penn Hills wave pool as a teenager. Right after the lifeguards flicked whatever kind of switch turned on the sea simulacrum, there was so much commotion that the drowning itself had been drowned out. She was able to pull herself unceremoniously out of the water after several attempts, learning the hard way how to move with the waves and not against them. The lifeguards had looked on from their perches, completely unaware.
There had to be a better story.
If only they would ask her a softball question like her favorite animal. She could answer that. Anteaters are the perfect creature because they are where ugly and beautiful intersect into one animal.
And then, there she was in an old house converted into a business with long hallways that abruptly ended, refusing to lead anywhere.
She was at an impasse, but just a literal one. Everything felt like it was in good metaphorical shape. At least for the time being.
Eventually, she stumbled upon what looked like a conference room littered with balloons, brightly colored plates and napkins, a mangled cake, a precinct of crumbs on the table, and disrupted chairs, completely abandoned to look somewhat ghastly, almost unrecognizable.
The woman interviewing Mallory found her wandering through the building and led her to a tidy, closet-sized room.
“So what brought you here?” she asked.
I’m fleeing Western Pennsylvania, Mallory wanted to say but did not want to say.
At some point, she was left alone to fill out a form even though she had already sent in a bunch of expository paperwork. When completing the address portion, she blanked. Her head seemed merely ornamental for several seconds.
Beginning to feel vertiginous with a mental claustrophobia, she remembered that in her last job she’d had to use sick days as mental health days. If she got this job, what if there weren’t enough sick days? Just say you’re going to the DMV, maybe. If you say you’re going to the DMV people would just feel bad for you. They’d be too bored to ask followup questions. That excuse is just fake enough to seem real, she strategized to herself.
The woman, Paige, returned and walked her out. Paige wore heels that made pleasantly confident clacks down the hall. She smiled and muttered something indiscernible to Mallory, which Mallory actively chose to take as some profound aphorism.
Mallory returned the smile and said, “That...that is something truly unknowable, really. Completely unanswerable.”
She walked to her car and hoped what she said was relevant to whatever Paige had actually said.
She noticed an old man in a coffee shop the next day who looked like her sweet, dead Uncle Errol and took it as good luck. The old man matched her eye contact and held it, slowly closing the notebook in front of him at the same time.