Lake Effect: Excerpt


ONE

For Riley Kemp, the job interview is exactly like being stretched on a medieval rack. He sits in the chair provided which strangely resembles the ancient instrument of pain, the seat too low for his long legs and the frame tilted at an odd angle that gives no support. If he leans back, it feels like he’s going to topple backwards; if he leans forward, it makes him look too eager. So he spends more time trying to find the position that sends the right message than he does trying to answer the questions being put to him. He’s sure the chair is intentionally uncomfortable so he won’t get his hopes up too high. But his hopes are not high. As a matter of fact, they’ve never been lower.

As he suffers the tortures of typical interview questions, he decides the rack would be preferable because at least he would know the end is near. The torture euphemistically known as the job interview has been pulling him in all directions for what seems like an eternity. Add the one today to the last dozen or so he’s been on over the last year and it feels like he’s being stretched all the way to hell.

Riley has survived his thus far turbulent life because he displays a unified front at all times, never giving his adversaries the satisfaction of seeing him sweat, always maintaining his cool no matter now scared he feels inside. But all that has failed him now. Now he’s losing it and now it’s starting to take its toll. He is feeling things he’s never felt before and words escape his lips that he doesn’t mean to say. He’s sarcastic at the drop of a hat and it’s ruined more than one of the previous interviews. Chances are, he’s going to mess this one up, too.

After the last financial crisis, the auto dealership where he’d worked for over 15 years decided they didn’t need a sales manager anymore. He isn’t exactly sure why him and not someone else because some of the guys hadn’t put in the time he had but they had a different color skin and that made him suspicious. He didn’t fight it, though,  mainly because he thought he’d be doing something better in a matter of days or if not days, weeks. But now it’s been months and he’s still looking and not finding a new slot. He isn’t exactly bitter but he’s getting scared. What’s a 50 year-old black man supposed to do when he is suddenly out of work and his only skill in life has been bullshitting car deals with no thought to what it would be like if the jobs run out but time keeps moving in its relentless path toward an empty future?

“What skills do you possess that make you uniquely qualified for this position?”

A turn of the crank on the rack and he tries not to groan out loud. He has skills, for sure, but maybe none to uniquely qualify him for the job of “I just need to work.” This outfit wants someone to sell advertising spots for radio and television. Can’t he use the same bullshit it takes to close car deals? After all, selling is selling; what does it matter what the commodity is?

“What are your strengths and weaknesses?”

Another turn of the crank, this one more painful than the last. He is definitely aware of his weaknesses but doesn’t particularly want to elaborate on them in this setting. Errant husband, unsuccessful father, and dubious boyfriend top the list of his failures. Then there’s that thing about not ever quite figuring out why he has been put on this earth, what spectacular thing is meant for him. That spectacular thing he has never achieved. He is always going to be a 9 to 5er and always have someone else be his boss. And winning the lottery is certainly not in his stars.

And his strengths: he still has his own teeth. That counts for something, doesn’t it?

“Tell us where you want to be in five years?”

That makes him angry. They don’t really need to know his five-year plan in order to decide if he can make people want to market their products in 30 second spots. Hell, in five years, he’ll probably be dreaming of retirement; not worrying about advertising at all.

But he says, “I have a lot of skills that I want to put to good use. In five years, I’d like to be running my own public relations firm but I think I’d be okay selling advertising spots for Dalton Cummings.”

There’s a loud clearing of throats and the committee consisting of Ms. Henry, Director of HR; Mr. Jacobs, Sales Manager; and Mr. Rodriquez, someone called in to make it a 3-person multi-cultural committee, all shift in their seats at the same time. Ms. Henry crosses, then uncrosses her legs, leans forward in her chair and looks at Riley.

“We’ll be in touch, Mr. Kemp,” she says coolly. “Thanks so much for coming in.”

The morning had started out a whole lot better. He rolled out of bed after the first blast of the alarm clock and was in a relatively good mood considering what lay ahead. It was 6 a.m. and the job interview was at 9. That alone should have caused some anxiety but, instead, he headed straight for the bathroom and prepared to take on the day. He knew that by the time he showered, shaved, dressed, paused for a cup of coffee before hitting the freeway for the long drive into the city, this three-hour lead time would evaporate into nothing. The city was recovering from an Alberta Clipper and traffic would be stop and go all the way. Plus he wanted to get there at least 30 minutes before zero hour so he could go into the interview relaxed and calm.

He looked back at Toni who was sleeping like she didn’t have a care in the world. He was kind of sorry she stayed over because he’d rather have been alone. As a matter of fact, he’d rather be alone most of the time these days. Whatever was good between them had evaporated since he lost his job a year ago. He shrugged his shoulders as he contemplated life without Toni.

After taking a pee, he went to the basin mirror to study how much work it was going to take to make him presentable to the world…or at least the small part of the world that would be judging him once again. Judging what he could or couldn’t do, what he had or hadn’t been doing, what he should or shouldn’t be doing. It was tough to be in this position—out of work and trying desperately to prove himself at his age. This time he wanted to be in better form than usual. His interviewer was going to be a woman and he thought maybe, just maybe, he could get his charm working for him one more time.

He checked his closet to see what he could wear that would make him look confident and successful. He hadn’t been doing any shopping lately so he pulled out the best he had—a clean shirt, black trousers and a well-worn sports jacket. It wasn’t his usual power outfit but it would have to do. Hell, he was living on unemployment and the last of his investments so today they’d get as good as he had. His words would have to impress because his wardrobe certainly would not.

But he really wasn’t too worried about this interview or how he looked for it. It’d be what it was and he’d do the best he could to get the job he didn’t really want. But if he got it, he’d do his best to earn his paycheck; if he didn’t, it’d just be one more in a long line of folks saying no thanks.

Trying to convince the world that he was a person with value was no big deal and nothing new. From boyhood to manhood, he had lived in a defensive mode, fending off whoever and whatever wanted to challenge his right to be a man; worse, his right to be a human being. As a black kid, he fought with his fists; as a black man, he learned to fight with words.

In high school he wasn’t the smartest guy in his class but he was charming and funny and all he had to do was figure out how to make a living being charming and funny. He saw himself doing more than the first shift, second shift, third shift routine his father had endured in the steel mill world. Besides, if you’re smart, he believed, you could make your way in any system. He fell into the world of selling cars quite by accident—taking a temporary job and making it permanent—and he thought he’d found his calling.

He looked in the mirror and was shocked to see the tired eyes of the stranger who looked back at him. Here he was getting ready to fight another battle and the person he saw was almost too old to take up the shield again. He was 50 goddamned years old and was beginning to feel the ravages of his time on earth. The color of his walnut skin was beginning to get splotchy and his once bright, fiery eyes were surrounded by soft, fleshy tissue.  His tight curly hair was almost completely gray and there were course gray hairs salting his moustache. The jaw line was especially troublesome because the flesh on his chin and neck was soft, no longer creating the firm line that he was once so proud of. It was getting hard to shave and he had to hold the skin tighter and tighter each day to keep his electric razor gliding in a smooth path across his jowls.

“When did you get so old, my man? Damn!”

The image in the mirror stared back at him for a long moment of surreal silence, then winked and flashed a wry smile. Then the image in the mirror changed and his reflection showed a face full of…what? Frustration? Worry? Anger?

Quickly he averted his eyes and looked down at his body. At least it had some semblance of his youth. He was still fairly lean, with only a slight paunch, but with the covering of a loose shirt or jacket, he looked quite slim still.  Actually, he thought, stretching his lips over his teeth to marvel that they were still his own, he looked quite good for his age. Good enough to attract a woman even. Maybe. He’d attracted Toni, hadn’t he? And she was 20 years younger than he and had a lot to offer a man. It was just becoming apparent that he wasn’t that man.

He cleared his throat, blinked his eyes a few times and said to himself, “Don’t worry, buddy. It’ll take a lot more than this to take you down.” Then he turned on the shower and jumped in before the water was warm. He laughed at the goose bumps that covered his body and felt a surge of exhilaration that he was headed for another fight for his life. But if he won this one, it would be the last because, after this, he’d try to get it right once and for now.

Now the interview is over and as he speeds east on Highway 2 headed for home, he’s pretty sure he isn’t going to get the job. The vibes just weren’t there. Actually, even when he had good vibes, he didn’t get the job. With bad vibes about every word, look, question and answer, he doesn’t stand a chance.

The weather is cold but just warm enough to let a heavy rain pound the shoreway. It snowed a few days before and now it is just a nasty, cold sleety rain and a cloud cover that makes the city look forlorn. But no more forlorn than Riley feels as the windshield wipers swipe across his view and almost hypnotize him into a state of I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care….

The last time he cared so little about anything was when Marjorie divorced him almost 15 years ago. As a matter of fact, he was happy to be a free man. So happy that he took a trip to Colorado to celebrate his new life. Marriage hadn’t been for him and the only thing he misses is Elizabeth. But he hadn’t been much of a father when they lived in the same house and he has been less of one over all the years that followed. He knows where she is and what she’s doing, but that’s about all. They don’t see each other or even talk. Sometimes he misses it, most times he feels she is better off without him.

At first, the marriage seemed good, but it started to cave when Marjorie decided she didn’t want to be the wife of a car salesman and she told him he needed to get a job that counted.

“You’re a loser,” she yelled at him.

“And your father was a CEO.”

In Riley’s estimation, Marjorie Hawley’s father was the real loser, a man who spent his life cleaning other people’s toilets.

“You have a nasty tongue, Riley Kemp, and I don’t know why I married you in the first place.”

“You married me because you thought I was a good catch.”

“Yeah, well, look what I caught,” she said disdainfully.  “For your information, my father had more integrity in his little finger than you do in your whole body. He just never caught a lucky break but you…you’ve had all the chances in the world and you just blow them away.”

She might have been right. Riley believed the best way to catch a lucky break was to hit the lottery. He hated working for folks who manipulated things by having hidden agendas fueled passive aggressively by super egos covered up with a smile and a handshake. But only 3 years of college made him an also-ran and he knew he’d never be a CEO. So he settled for what was in front of him and didn’t aspire for more. He was good at selling cars and made it work…until it didn’t anymore.

In the early years after the divorce, he always had a beautiful woman on his arm but even he admits that he was a dog. He wasn’t looking for a permanent bond and he didn’t find one. If he thought he could smell marriage on a woman’s breath, he’d cut it off before it got too messy. There were a number of conquests but there were an equal number of lost chances to connect with anyone who could really matter.

Yet as he moved lightning speed toward his fifties, Riley began to feel a longing he didn’t quite recognize: the longing to have someone he could count on, someone to be at home when he got there, someone to maybe spend his golden years with. It was a strange feeling and not one he welcomed. That’s when Toni popped up and he found himself wooing her as if he was a young man in love. They met on a night when he was extra lonely and out drinking to absorb the bad feelings coursing through his blood. She smiled at him and he asked her “what’s a beautiful lady like you doing out by herself.” She didn’t call him on his bullshit line and they ended the evening in Riley’s bed making desperate love.

Eventually Riley tried to get her to move in but she wouldn’t. Now he’s glad she refused. When he finally gets the courage to tell her it’s over, all she’ll have to do is leave.

And he won’t go looking for anyone else to be there when he gets home. He has nothing to offer and the home he comes home to is a two bedroom apartment that he can barely afford these days. His savings, unemployment and a few odd jobs now and then are all that keep him from being homeless. Besides, he looks forward to coming home to an empty apartment with only his dog Caesar waiting for him. But Caesar is getting old, too, and whenever they are home alone together, they are like two old duffers shuffling from room to room, knowing each other’s moods so well, hanging tight when they need companionship, going to their separate corners when they are grouchy and want to be alone.

But even if life with Caesar isn’t enough, it is very quickly becoming apparent that Riley lacks the tools go courting again. All the women who intrigue him are strong, independent and self-contained. And he is not so strong any more, barely independent and lacking substance. He fears they will be drawn in enough to go to bed with him and then not ever want to see him again. They for sure won’t want him there in the morning when they wake up. It doesn’t surprise him; he has always been at odds with whatever the trend is.

But women are not his problem. At least, not directly. He currently doesn’t care to impress anyone of the opposite sex with the exception of maybe the woman who interviewed him this morning and will perhaps decide his future.

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