…you don’t want to be caught on the wrong side…
Jason hurried through downtown as he dodged around other pedestrians along East Santa Clara Street. The glaring, late summer sun heated him from above and the unfamiliar tightness of his necktie stifled him. He loosened its knot and unbuttoned his collar as he moved quickly. He then turned south onto Market Street, walked a little further, and came to an oval island of grass and trees two and a half blocks long from north to south in the center of the city. Shadows cast by mid sized office buildings spread over the park. He ran diagonally across the lanes at the north end of the oval and slowed down onto the sidewalk.
Jason searched for Christine as he walked alongside the park. He looked all around anxiously, then finally spotted her sitting on a bench on the other side near the park’s southern end. Relieved, he stepped across the grassy field toward her as she was looking off in another direction seemingly unaware of him. He thought back to the first time they met, when he saw her across the room at a party as she was talking to friends, momentarily unaware of him until he came up to her and introduced himself.
Jason approached closer, then Christine turned and saw him. She smiled, and he managed to smile back. He arrived, dropped himself onto the bench next to her, and let out an exhausted breath.
“So how did it go?” Christine asked.
“Worst job interview ever.”
“Oh no, what happened?”
“It was a goddamn sales job!” Jason fumed. “Should’ve known.”
“Really,” Christine said with surprise. “The ad didn’t say that.”
“Of course not, that’s how they lure you in.” The whole event replayed in Jason’s mind. “First, they crammed all of us into this room and have us fill out this one page application that looked like it came right off the copier. And then before anyone can finish filling it out, some loudmouth jerk walks in and starts giving us this spiel about making sales, closing deals, and fleecing people. Then some other clown walked in and gave us the same bullshit speech, but even louder and more obnoxious!”
“That sounds nerve wracking.”
“You know what it was like?” Jason began. “It was like one of those weird, bad dreams in which you’re in some place where you don’t belong, and you just want to get out, but you’re not sure how.” The episode played out further in his memory and exposed new details. “And there were all these other people there who just sat there and bought the whole song and dance, just ate it up. And some of them even joined in all the clamor, like they were in a cult. Who acts like that?” he wondered. “I’ll bet some of them were plants,” he added suspiciously.
“I had no idea it was going to be like that,” Christine said. “It does seem that a lot of people are going into sales these days. Lots of want ads in the paper for sales jobs, guess there’s demand for it.”
“Not for me,” Jason rejected as the haunting memory of the event began to fade, “I can’t bullshit for a living.” He relaxed a bit more. “I thought salesmen were supposed to be friendly, like the Downtown Datsun guy. What happened?”
“Guess they all retired.”
“That’s too bad. And remember how the ad in the paper made it sound like a once in a lifetime opportunity?” Jason pointed out. “What a load.”
“Now that I think about it, it did sound too good to be true.”
They stared out across the park silently.
“Something better will come along,” Christine finally said as she placed her hand on Jason’s knee encouragingly.
“Yeah, but I’m going to need something more than ‘some college’ and just a few skills to put on my application. I guess I’m going to have to lie more.”
“It does help make getting a job easier.”
The irony struck Jason. “It’s funny,” he began, “when you’re a kid, your parents and teachers and all the other adults are always telling you to not lie and to be honest and all that. But when it comes down to it, you do what you have to get by, even if it means lying, and everybody is fine with it.”
“They should teach that on Sesame Street,” Christine joked.
“Yeah,” Jason said. “And you know what else is bothering me? Even if I did find a good job, how do I know that place won’t get bought out? And then they start firing people and making new rules and all the other bullshit that’s happening now at my current job. Feels like there’s no way out.”
“At least you’re still working,” Christine reminded optimistically. “No need to grab the first thing that comes along.”
“Yeah, that helps.” Jason continued to look out across the park. “I just hope something comes along soon.” He calmed down some more and his stress subsided, then new thoughts came to the surface. “You know, I always thought that showing up on time and doing a good job was all it took to make it through life. No one said anything about the office politics, ownership changes, secret deals, new rules, and the closed door meetings where everything is decided. I don’t know how much longer I can stand it there,” he worried. “Is it me, or has everything become too complicated?”
“No, it isn’t just you.”
“Good to know I’m not losing my mind at least.” Jason looked past the grassy field and up a new, beige colored twenty floor hotel across the street from the park as he tried to figure out his options. He looked over to Christine. “You want to get something to eat?”
“I was thinking the same thing.” They got up and started walking. Christine intertwined her fingers into Jason’s and their hands held onto each other as they went up the middle concrete path toward the north end of the park. They walked along then approached a fountain on their right. About two dozen jets of water shot up from the flat, square sectioned concrete. The water came up to just above Jason’s eye level then flowed back down in a foamy stream. Children in soaked T-shirts and shorts ran in and out of the water in front of watchful adults.
“Looks fun,” Christine commented as they stopped to watch.
“Yeah,” Jason replied. He watched the flock of playing children then looked into the sun sparkled mist and saw glints of color. He thought back to when he was younger and all the long carefree summer days spent running through sprinklers, swimming in backyard pools, or hanging out at the beach. “Wouldn’t mind being a kid again,” he said partly to himself.
A mother holding an infant emerged from the ring of adults and carried her child into the fountain. She cupped her hand into one of the founts and then gently applied the water onto her child while the playing children tried not to bump into her. Jason looked upon the scene while still feeling preoccupied, then noticed Christine watching the playing children intently.
“I saw Randy the other day,” Jason brought up.
“So how’s he doing?”
“Well, he took me out for pizza, and paid for everything, with beers. He said he owed me.”
“Sounds like he’s doing better,” Christine said. “Right?”
“One minute he’s broke, then suddenly he’s flush?”
“So where did he get the money?”
“I asked him, but he wouldn’t say,” Jason answered. “And you know what that means,” he added ominously.
They stood quietly against the sound of the splashing water and playing children. “Are you sure?” Christine finally asked.
“What else could it be?” Jason said. He watched the activity around the fountain as he thought of that day, and remembered how Randy wouldn’t give a straight answer when Jason asked him how he was getting along. “I have been ragging on him lately about not being able to hold a steady job and never having any money.” The mother cradling the infant rocked her child a little more while the children played around her, then she sauntered out of the fountain. “Maybe I pushed him to it,” he added remorsefully.
“You can’t blame yourself,” Christine insisted. “It was his decision.”
“He probably felt like he didn’t have a choice.”
“But there’s always choices.”
“Well, he took the easier one.”
Christine shook her head. “That’s really too bad.”
“I should’ve paid more attention to what he was going through.”
“I know, it’s terrible, and I feel for Randy,” Christine said, “but he is an adult now, and he’s responsible for his own actions.”
“Responsible,” Jason said ironically. “Sometimes I wonder if he even knows what that is.”
They watched the children play in the fountain for a little longer then moved along. They continued north up the path and the sound of the splashing water faded away as they came alongside a wall of traffic noise.
“You know,” Jason began, “I actually used to be jealous of Randy. I always had chores to do, a little sister and brother to look after, had to be home by a certain time, but it seemed Randy could do just about anything he wanted, could come and go as he pleased, could stay up as late as he wanted. I thought he was so lucky.”
“You’re the one who was lucky,” Christine said. “He needed that kind of structure and responsibility. Imagine if he had.”
“Yeah, if only.” Jason noticed the concrete front steps and large white pillars of Saint Joseph’s Cathedral up ahead in his right periphery as they walked ahead. “Randy has been one of my best friends for almost as long as I can remember, and I thought it was always going to be that way. I just never imagined Randy not being a part of my life.” He dwelt some more as they walked along. “I know the smart thing would be to just let it all go and get on with my life. But how do you do that?”
Christine held Jason closer. “I wish I knew,” she consoled. “At least you’re concerned about him.”
“Doesn’t feel like enough.”
“You’ve done more for Randy than anyone else, and that’s all anyone can do.”
“I suppose,” Jason said. “Really too bad if that’s the case. I just wish he’d stop hanging out with Darren and all those other sketchy bastards. That’s a bad scene.”
“As long as you’re there for him, maybe he’ll see that and come around. It’s not too late for him,” Christine added hopefully. The park began to narrow as they approached its north end. “And I’m sure your next job interview will be a lot better than that last one.”
“Sure couldn’t be any worse,” Jason figured. “Got one interview tomorrow and another one next week,” he added. “And you know what else is bothering me, when my folks got married they bought a house and raised a family on one paycheck. Now you need two paychecks just to get by. I’m not trying to make excuses, but how the hell did that happen? I thought life was supposed to get better.”
“Yeah, that is a raw deal. And do you ever notice how older people always talk about how hard life used to be and everything they had to go through? Which is probably true, but things sure were a lot more affordable back then.” Christine let go of Jason’s hand and wrapped her arm around him. “But you know what, something good will come along. And it won’t be like that place where you just had that interview from hell.”
“I’m over it,” Jason said as he put his arm around Christine. He thought ahead to the upcoming interviews and wondered about other options.
They came to the end of the park and noticed a small plaque in front of a young tree. They stopped, read the plaque, and saw it was a memorial to a Vietnam veteran who was still missing in action. They silently looked upon it for a moment, then moved on.
© 2017 Robert Kirkendall