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The Clown Chronicles
by Leah Mueller
It was an afternoon of dejection, following a long period of abject poverty that led to my decision to become a clown. I was so broke that I had given up having a checking account months beforehand. It had been three months since I'd paid my rent, and I had received a couple of eviction notices. While sitting at the Heartland Cafe, nursing a small plate of tofu, I noticed the following ad in the Chicago Reader:
Easy job! Man or woman with cheery disposition and friendly personality needed to dress as clown and hand out leaflets on Michigan Avenue, advertising the grand opening of the fun new adult education place, the Education Zone! Wear own costume. MUST be prompt, professional, and cheerful.
I pondered my possible new clown career. I felt fairly certain that I could fake a cheerful persona, but realized intuitively that my wardrobe lacked standard clown accessories. I had a rather silly looking pair of striped Guatemalan pants and a pair of red Converse high-tops, but that summed up the absurdity of my wardrobe. Perhaps it would be okay if I wore a shirt that didn't match my pants, maybe something in a plaid pattern. I wandered in a daze to the pay phone, and removed a quarter from the bottom of my purse, the sum total of my funds.
The interview was mercifully brief. A man with a loud, nasally New York accent informed me that he was the owner of the Education Zone, which was set to have its grand opening in Chicago in less than a month. He sounded both harried and arrogant, a combination that never failed to irritate me. “Do you think you have what it takes to be a clown for the Education Zone?” he barked, without a trace of irony.
“Sure” I said meekly. I really needed the job.
“Fine” he said. “Be here tomorrow, at exactly 10:00 AM. I'll see you then.” He gave me the address, and hung up.
Well, things were looking up. I had some beans and rice in the cupboard, a carrot, half an onion, and a job as a clown. Hopefully, the pay would be weekly. It wasn't exactly the job I had visualized for myself when I was a hotshot high school student with a weekly column in the town newspaper and my eye on a journalism career. But it would help to keep me from being homeless and starving, and that was an important start.
In the morning, I checked all of my pockets and the bottom of my purse, repeatedly, but was unable to locate coins for the subway. This meant that I would have to walk the entire eight miles from my apartment in Rogers Park to the Gold Coast, where the Education Zone offices were located. I had made such walks before, out of necessity, ever since I had attempted to board the subway with a transfer I'd found on the street, and the fellow in the fare window said, “Where'd you find this goddamn transfer? In the STREET? Don't all the pretty white girls have money? Get the hell out of here.” Chicago could be a very cold town. I started walking, cursing my stupidity. It was already 8:45. There was no way I would be there on time.
I walked fast down Sheridan to Broadway, past the vapid Loyola students who didn't have a care in the world (“Look at them,” one of my ex-boyfriends once said. “Not an ounce of rock and roll in any of them.”), through the trash-strewn streets of Uptown, then trendy New Town with its hipster bars, and Old Town, where I'd been born twenty-five years beforehand. From there, it was only another ten minutes to Rush Street, home of the Education Zone. Rush Street was the epicenter of everything I loathed about yuppie culture, and there was plenty to loathe about yuppie culture. Professional men sat in beer gardens, sun glinting on their Rolexes and their pints of expensive imported beer, staring at coiffed and manicured secretaries who wore power suits and carried briefcases. It was 1984, the year I had grown up believing the world would usher in an era of totalitarianism, the very height of the Reagan era. Greed was more than good, it was essential. My problem was simple—I had plenty of arrogance, and a huge sense of entitlement, but I was not greedy enough.
I found the address, bolted up the stairs to the second floor. It was 10:15. I had managed to cover eight miles in an hour and a half, a record for me. I decided to take this as a positive sign. I was a clown now; it was important to stay positive. My new boss stood at the top of the stairs, glaring down at me. A handsome but imposing man, his hair was perfectly feathered, and he wore an expensive, navy blue three piece suit. “You're late!” he screamed at me. “Let's get one thing straight, right off the bat—you must be ON TIME, EVERY goddamn day. You understand?”
This was an inauspicious meeting, there was no other way to interpret it. I didn't have time for regrets, however. “I'm sorry” I said simply. He gestured at me to enter, and I wandered into a large room that was empty, except for several piles of class catalogs, loosely bound with plastic straps. Two young African-American men sat on a small table, staring into a mirror while trying, somewhat ineptly, to apply clown make-up. “There's a mirror” my new boss said. “And your two new co-workers. Hurry up.” He left the room.
“Well!” I said pleasantly, as soon as he was out of earshot. “He's somewhat of an asshole, isn't he?” My two new co-workers looked startled for a moment, looked around furtively, and then laughed. I liked them immediately.
“I'm Jeff” the older one said. “I'm really an actor, but I'm broke, or I wouldn't have taken this job. I'm sure that's true for all of us.” The three of us nodded simultaneously. The other man was very young, no more than nineteen or twenty.
“I'm William” he said softly. “But you can call me Chill Will.”
Jeff stopped applying make-up to his face, looked into the mirror, and squinted in a critical manner at his reflection. “Do you have any experience painting faces?” he asked me. “Because this looks like shit. I'll scare the yuppies away, wandering down Michigan Avenue with a face like this.”
“I'm certain we'll scare them, anyway” I replied. “But yeah, believe it or not, I've done face painting a couple of times on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. Sit down. I can make you look like a clown.” Jeff obligingly settled himself into one of the plastic chairs. Ten minutes later, he emerged from the chair and peered into the mirror again. His face was decorated with Kiss-style, star-shaped eyes and psychedelic rainbow swirls.
“Nice.” he said.
Chill Will was next. I decided to go for a scary motif, ringing his eyes with sinister black and white eagle wings, with bolts of lightning emanating from them. Will was awed. “This is SO cool” he told me. “Man, I look bad-ass.”
I wasn't certain what our new boss would think of my artwork, but mercifully, he barely looked at us. “There's a push cart in the closet” he said, dismissively. “Load all of the catalogs you can onto the cart, and take them down to Michigan Avenue. These people are busy professionals, and they don't have a lot of time. Smile, and make sure you put the catalog directly into their hands. Remember to tell them that you represent the Education Zone. That is very important. I will be checking up on you periodically, so be on your toes.” He stopped for a moment, reached into his shirt pocket, and pulled out a twenty dollar bill. “Here's cab fare for your return.” he said. “You are to work until at least five o'clock, and be back here with the cart by six. Do you understand?” We nodded, and he turned away, retreating to his private office at the back of the room. The door clicked shut, and I could hear the dialing of a telephone.
We bundled the catalogs into a pile on the cart, securing them with two bungie cords. Fortunately, the building had an elevator that I hadn't noticed before, and we emerged onto Rush Street—three clowns, with a pile of catalogs advertising classes in sailing and investment banking, ready for action. As we walked down the street, we perused one of the catalogs for sales pointers, trying to determine exactly what we were offering.
“Look at this shit” Jeff said. “‘How to Flirt’. 'Do you have trouble meeting quality members of the opposite sex because you are just too shy to know what to say or do? You are not alone! In this six-week course, you will learn guaranteed ice-breakers, how to keep a conversation going and avoid awkward silences, and how to charm people from virtually the moment you walk into the room! Especially that dreamboat you've had your eye on!'”
“That's ridiculous” I said. “These yuppies are so uptight. Dreamboats are easy to charm. Just get drunk and throw yourself at them. Everybody knows that.” Jeff glanced at me appreciatively.
We arrived at Michigan Avenue, where we were instantly absorbed into the late-morning business rush. Our boss had given Jeff explicit instructions to position ourselves within a block of the Water Tower, and this we did. We pulled the cart to one side, and stared uncertainly at the stack of magazines for a long, awful moment. Obviously, each of the several hundred magazines would have to make their way into somebody's hands by the end of the day, or there would be hell to pay. To do this, we would have to proceed with our task, bulwarked by the ridiculous belief that the harried business folk would be happy to read literature given to them by a clown. As it turned out, this was not the case.
I hurried to the nearest corner, firmly grasping a fistful of magazines, and approached my first prospect, a forty-something woman wearing a fox coat which had certainly cost more money than I made in an entire year. The coat was obviously for show, since it was almost seventy degrees outside. I came to a halt directly in front of her, and held out a pamphlet with an outstretched hand. “Good morning” I said pleasantly. “I'm from the Education Zone, and wanted to make sure you had a chance to read this.”
The woman's disgust was both visceral and complete. She wheeled on the point of one of her stiletto heels, almost pirouetting in her haste to escape from me. The look on her face was filled with so much revulsion, it was as though I had handed her a venomous snake or a cup of dog shit.
“No...thank....YOU” she managed to spit out. Then she hurried rapidly away in the opposite direction.
I had expected rejection, especially at the beginning, but nothing quite like this. Glancing down at my hands, I mentally calculated how long it would take for me to get rid of even half of the magazines. If I managed to convince two people an hour to accept one of the magazines, perhaps out of pity or social obligation, it would take nearly two days to rid myself of half of them. Of course, that would only be true if I worked for 48 hours straight. These were not good odds.
I glanced over at Chill Will, thinking that I could pick up some pointers from him. He was standing on the tips of his shoes, waving his arms around in the air in large circles. “Yes, folks, we're crazy!” he exclaimed to the startled passersby. “We've come all the way from the circus to tell you about the great new learning experience that is coming to Chicago! That's how crazy we are!” Suddenly, without warning, he propelled himself backward onto the cement. Bouncing up again like a beach ball, he continued his spiel. “We've got classes in everything from sailing to yoga! Check out our catalogs, people!” He tossed the catalogs onto the sidewalk, and people began cheering and lunging for them.
Well, this was certainly impressive, but there was no way that I was going to compromise my dignity by behaving in such a manner, that was for certain. On the opposite corner, Jeff was handing out catalogs with no difficulty whatsoever, smiling at everyone, and even shaking some peoples' hands. If he could do this, why couldn't I? I was a misfit, even among the clowns.
Dejected, I shuffled back to my corner, and began the long, arduous task of unloading the pamphlets. “Please, just take one, for God's sake!” I begged one man, and he snatched the catalog from my hand and walked away, without so much as a glance at me. After two hours of this, Chill Will came over. “Let me help you” he said magnanimously. He stared at my disheveled pile.
“Shit, girl, you've got a lot of those left over” he said. “Let me show you how to do things.” He approached a young businessman and smiled hugely, and then threw himself backward onto the pavement. This time, however, he did not rebound immediately. Instead, he lay on the ground, looking intently at the sky. He moaned slightly. The businessman and I were both horrified.
“Are you okay, buddy?” I asked Will. Will nodded slowly, then shook his head. “I don't feel so well.” he said.
We offered to help him to his feet, but he declined, and staggered back to an upright position, holding his head in his hands. Will's bad-ass clown make-up was utterly ruined, The eagle wings and lightning bolts were smeared across his face. He suddenly looked vulnerable and scared. “I'll be okay, really.” he said. “I think I'll just go sit down, and rest for a minute.” Will had already unloaded all of his catalogs, and had earned the right to rest. He sat on the curb, toes pointed towards Michigan Avenue, for a full ten minutes. Then he returned to my side. “Let's get this job done” he said.
At 4:45, we managed to convince a young, giggling woman and her boyfriend to accept the last two catalogs, and Jeff began to look around for a taxi. I had a sudden realization—I was the custodian of the cab fare, and, as such, I had special privileges not granted to the others, including the ability to decide how the money should actually be spent. “I don't think we should bother taking a cab home.” I said, staring at the twenty dollar bill. It was the most money I had seen in a week.
“There's a bar across the street—let's go and get a pitcher of beer instead. We can walk back to the office afterward, right?”
I had expected an argument about ethics from Jeff or Will, but there was none. “Damn, what a good idea...” Jeff said, awed by my audacity. Grabbing the cart, we sprinted across the street to the bar. To our delight, we discovered that ten minutes of happy hour remained, which meant we had enough for two pitchers, plus change for our subway rides home.
Halfway through the second pitcher, Will revealed that he was married and the father of twin baby girls, a fact that did not seem to make him happy. Jeff confessed that he was couch-surfing at Artist-in-Residence, a cockroach-infested haven for twenty-something slackers where I had briefly lived.
“What a coincidence!” I exclaimed. “Who are you staying with? I know everyone at Artist in Residence.”
Jeff confessed that he was staying with Carlo, a handsome young Hispanic man who was one of the biggest pot dealers in the building. I was, of course, no stranger to Carlo's wares. “I'll bring a joint to work with me tomorrow.” Jeff promised.
I was ten minutes early for work the following morning, a fact that was partly attributable to anticipation of Jeff's gift. Jeff winked as I approached the dressing table, and a feeling of joy almost overwhelmed me. The job would be considerably more bearable with the ingestion of THC, a drug that had seen me through many difficult times. I could hear the boss ranting into the telephone within the confines of his private office. He seemed to be having considerable difficulty instructing one of his New York flunkies in the intricacies of financial management. “No, no, no!” he shrieked. “I told you many times—do NOT put the funds into account number 63547! Put the funds into the OTHER account! Jesus Christ!” There was the unmistakable sound of a fist hitting a table, and then his voice abruptly became calm, and placating. “I understand that it is hard to keep track of such a large allotment of funds. I have every confidence in you. If you let me down, however, keep in mind that I can and will destroy you.”
Jeff stared at me, his eyes huge. “I think we had better put our makeup on fast, and get the hell out of here before he starts in on us” he said.
“But where's Will?” I asked plaintively. “This job is going to be impossible without him.”
Jeff shook his head, dislodging a shower of red glitter. “I don't think Will is coming back.” he said.
At 9:15, we came to the sad conclusion that Jeff was correct, Will had abandoned us. With great sorrow, we piled the stacks of catalogs into a cart and prepared to begin our trek to Michigan Avenue. The boss stayed inside his office for the entire time, although I could hear him clearly. Since his earlier outburst, his mood had shifted dramatically. He emitted a long, cackling laugh similar to that of a cartoon villain. “Yes, yes!” he cried out. “That's a brilliant idea—just brilliant! Money is seductive, isn't it?”
Jeff shook his head. “He has absolutely no idea what a caricature of himself he is” he whispered.
At that moment, the office door opened, and our boss stepped into the room. Ignoring Jeff completely, he gestured towards me. “I think I made it extremely clear to you that you are to smile for the entire time that you are on the street” he said, barely restraining his fury and contempt. “I drove past yesterday afternoon, and I noticed that not only were you negligent in your failure to smile at potential customers, you actually appeared to be extremely unhappy. This, of course, is unacceptable.”
“I was smiling” I said. To my irritation, I noted a hint of a whine in my voice, like a three year old trying to explain to her mother why she'd broken a plate. “Probably I was just tired at that moment.” The boss waved his hand at me dismissively. “There is no excuse.” he said simply. “Don't let it happen again. The two of you may go now.” He retreated to his office, shutting the door behind him.
“Where's that joint?” I asked, as soon as we reached the street. “Don't worry, I've got it in my wallet” Jeff assured me. “I won't have any trouble finding it. There's nothing else in there.” We ambled down the street, pushing the cart and ignoring the stares of the passersby. “I know of a secluded spot where we can fire it up” Jeff said. “There's a building a couple of blocks from here that has a little wooded area next to it. No one ever goes there. We'll have complete privacy.”
After a few minutes, we arrived at a slanted glass building that had tinted silver windows. It stood approximately fifteen stories high. Small, manicured bushes surrounded the building like random bits of stubble. In an attempt to create a bucolic setting, landscapers had arranged two iron park benches and a tiny tulip garden in a semi-circle, several feet from the building. There was no one else in sight. Jeff took my hand and led me to the side of the building, away from the wind. He leaned against the window and lit the joint. “Isn't this a great place?” he asked. “Don't worry, this building has reflective glass, so no one can see us.”
What a strange grip upon reality Jeff had—he felt certain that, since we were unable to see into the building, no one would be able to look out of the building and see us, either. I didn't ponder this too deeply, however. I leaned against the wall, inhaled the smoke into my lungs, exhaled with a relaxed sigh. “Isn't this a bank?” I asked, rhetorically.
Jeff shrugged. “It's some kind of bastion of corporate America” he said. “They're all the same.” He accepted the joint, inhaled deeply. “This is pretty good stuff. There's much more where this came from. I'll bring a joint to work every day.”
Suddenly, I had a sense that we were no longer alone. A man was walking around the corner of the building, making his way purposefully towards us. “Jeff, put out the joint” I hissed. “We've been spotted.”
Jeff rubbed the tip of the joint on the glass behind him, and stuffed it into the pocket of his baggy pants. “I'll handle this” he said.
The man drew closer, and I could see that he was the security guard, with a navy blue polyester uniform and a gun tethered to his hip. The guard's face was pale and covered with old acne scars. He appeared to be only slightly older than we were. He kept walking until he stood only a few feet in front of us, and sized us up, then smiled malevolently. “Good morning” he said. “What's going on?”
Jeff assumed an expression of nonchalance, glanced briefly skyward, and then directly at the man. “Not much” he said. “Just enjoying the morning.”
“Just enjoying the morning, huh?” the guard asked. He reminded me of a gunfighter, taunting his adversary a minute before firing a bullet into his chest. “Well, isn't that nice.” He was clearly amused, but entirely in control. I had a sudden bird's eye vision of how we looked to him—two clowns, in full make-up, enjoying a joint while leaning against a bank building on a pleasant Tuesday morning.
The guard paused for effect, then continued mercilessly. “Hey, someone in the bank told me that you two were smoking reefer out here. That wouldn't happen to be true, would it?”
“Of course not” Jeff replied, with a hint of scorn in his voice. “We wouldn't do such a thing.”
“Wouldn't do such a thing, huh?” the guard said. Jeff shook his head. There was a heavy pause, as we waited to see who would make the next move. The guard grinned hugely, but all mirth was gone from his expression. “I don't want to pressure you or anything,” he said. “But how about the two of you get the hell out of here?”
“We certainly will. Thank you very much.” Jeff replied pleasantly. We disengaged ourselves from the wall and rapidly walked away from the bank, without looking back. I had an abrupt flashback to an incident with my mother that had occurred when I was five years old.
We were at the IGA on Sedgwick Street, where we often went to buy peanuts for the squirrels. Almost every day during the warmer months, we asked Ray, the grocer, for our two bags of peanuts—squirrel peanuts, which were unroasted and unsalted, and another bag of perfectly roasted and salted peanuts, just for us. Most days, my mother remembered to buy a box of raisins for me, as well, but on that particular morning, she forgot. Not wishing to be troublesome, I scooped a box off the shelf and jammed it into my pocket, but my mother somehow failed to notice this. Once outside, I nonchalantly opened the box and began devouring the raisins. My mother was horrified, lectured me about honesty for a minute or two, and then sent me back into the store to return the half-eaten box of raisins. I was mortified. After the ordeal was over, I trailed home after my mother, muttering “I've never been so embarrassed in my entire life.” repeatedly, while my mother bit her lip to keep herself from laughing.
“I've never been so embarrassed in my entire life” I told Jeff.
“I doubt that, somehow” Jeff said. He snickered. “That guy has forgotten the whole thing already. If he hadn't been on duty, I'm sure he would have wanted to share it with us.”
Our pace slowed considerably as we approached Michigan Avenue. People strode in all directions with their usual single-minded focus, unaware that there were suddenly clowns in their midst. I was still a bit rattled from my experience, but determined to make the best of my morning. I grabbed a catalog from the cart, moved towards a young man in a dark blue power suit.
“I'm from the Education Zone” I said, grinning hugely. He dodged me easily, as though averting an object that suddenly been hurled at him, and continued down the sidewalk without missing a beat.
The hours passed with agonizing slowness. Every few minutes, I looked at the Tribune Tower clock, only to see that the hands had barely moved since the last time I'd checked. The weather was much warmer than it had been the previous day, and globules of sweat began to course down my polyester-clad arms. I started to literally push literature into prospective customers' hands, which caused their fingers to reflexively clutch the pamphlets before they knew what was happening. Since I had finally found a method that worked for me, I applied it doggedly and humorlessly to all comers.
At exactly 4:55 PM, a car stopped on Michigan Avenue about thirty feet from me. The emergency lights flashed on abruptly. Our boss jumped from the car and began making his way in my direction. Although he was clearly furious, his suit was unwrinkled, and every hair on his head was shellacked into place. He stopped directly in front of me and gasped slightly, his face red. “God DAMN it” he exploded. “I told you to smile. You must smile all the time, or you will be terminated immediately. You're a goddamn clown, and clowns smile.”
“I'm not a clown” I said. “I'm a human being, and I'm tired. I hate this job worse than poison. You're an asshole. Go ahead and fire me.”
Without a word, he pulled a checkbook and a pen from his suit pocket. With a flourish, he flipped open the checkbook, and wrote me a check for sixty-eight dollars. “Sixteen hours at five dollars per hour” he said, tossing the check in my direction. “I took out your state and federal taxes.” He waved his hand at me dismissively. “Both of you may go now. Jeff, I'll see you in the morning.” The boss started to turn away, but I wasn't finished.
“You're a completely reprehensible human being” I told him. “You may think your money and your attractiveness will get you anywhere you want in life, but you're wrong. You can only screw people over for so long, and then your karma will nail you.”
It was apparent by the expression on my ex-employer's face that no one had ever said anything like this to him before. For a second, he appeared astonished, and almost hurt, and then he composed himself. Without a word, he collected our almost-empty carts, one in each hand. He straightened his posture, assumed an implacable expression, and walked away quickly, pulling the carts behind him.
“I'm sorry.” Jeff said, as soon as the car was out of sight.
“I'm not.” I responded. “I've been broke before. Poverty holds no terror for me. Let's cash this check, and then I'll treat you to a beer.”
We found a currency exchange near Rush Street, and I went inside to collect my spoils. The sour-looking female cashier scrutinized my face impassively, sized up my features through the clown-makeup, and quickly checked my ID to see if the two images were a match. She decided that they were, then handed me a small pile of money, which I placed into my wallet.
It took a few minutes for Jeff and I to locate a dive bar, surrounded as we were by yuppie hellholes. But then we found a good one, in the basement of a small building a few blocks from the currency exchange. We settled our weary carcasses into a booth, and I ordered a pitcher of Heineken. I reached into my wallet for a ten dollar bill to give the waitress. Something was amiss. There were too many bills in my wallet, a problem that I had never before encountered. A closer look at the wallet's interior confirmed it—the currency exchange had given me an extra hundred dollars by mistake.
“Jeff” I hissed. I pulled the cash from my wallet, and waved it under his face in a delighted manner. “Look. The currency exchange overpaid me.”
Jeff was so astonished, it was as though a miracle had taken place. “Wow, girl” he said, his voice filled with reverence. “You've got some pretty amazing karma.”
“Yeah, well, things like this happen to me all the time.” I said modestly. The beer arrived, and I poured myself a glass, then shoved the pitcher in Jeff's direction. “Are you gonna keep working for that guy?” I demanded. “You're the only one left. It's going to be lonely without me.”
“Well, I'll keep working until something better turns up.” Jeff said uncertainly. “I've been hoping to get an acting gig. I took my resume over to Goodman and to Second City. Perhaps they'll be in touch with me soon.”
One thing you had to say for Jeff—he set his sights high. We drained the pitcher, then ordered another. Finally, I began to have a difficult time pouring beer from the pitcher into my pint glass, and I decided to go home. “I think we'd better leave” I told Jeff. His face assumed an unhappy expression, which caused him to look remarkably like a clown from a velvet painting. I began to laugh hysterically, and Jeff led me from the bar, gently grasping my elbow.
“Are you okay to get home by yourself?” he asked me when we reached the street.
“Sure” I said. “No one ever bothers a clown. They're too busy trying to avoid catching whatever malady we have.” Jeff stood in front of me, weaving back and forth slightly.
“What are you going to do now?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I think I'm going to get the hell out of Chicago, and move to Seattle in a couple of months. I hear it's cheap to live out there, and they like artists.”
Jeff shook his head, convinced that I was in the throes of a bizarre delusion. “Well, I hope it works out.” he said. “No one ever really leaves Chicago.” He suddenly threw his arms around me. “I have fallen in love with you.” he said. He proclaimed this with a fervor that seemed unnecessary, as if had landed an audition for a coveted role that required him to feel love. Jeff was an actor, after all, he was only pretending to be a clown. Or maybe he fell in love with every woman who bought him beer. I pulled away from him, gave him a kiss on his paint-encrusted nose.
“Maybe I'll see you later.” I said.
Jeff nodded. “I hope so.” he replied. I turned and wandered to the subway, without caring even remotely whether I saw him again.
I ran into Jeff only a few months later, on the music floor of the downtown library. He was dressed in full make-up, and had even managed to locate a polka-dotted suit and a pair of ridiculously over-sized red clown shoes, but I knew it was him. He was preparing to put on a pair of headphones and listen to a record, when I spotted him from the other side of the room. “Hey Jeff!” I exclaimed, delighted. I ran over to him, drawing irritated stares from a couple of other library patrons. Jeff did not rise from his chair to greet me. “Oh, hello.” he said coolly.
“I'm leaving for Seattle in three days!” I said excitedly. “I got the money together for a one-way plane ticket, and I'm going to go live in this neighborhood called Capitol Hill.”
Jeff stared at the floor. “How nice for you” he muttered.
I continued relentlessly: “How are you doing? Are you really still working for the Education Zone?”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I had made an awful mistake.
“Well, of course I am!” Jeff snapped. He wheeled around in his chair, faced the turntable, and stared at it dejectedly. “Best of luck” he hissed. “Maybe I'll see you around.”
Clearly, Jeff was embarrassed by my presence, and upset by the fact that I had been afforded an opportunity that he was too frightened to grasp. It was too late for me to offer much in the way of appeasement, however. Instead, I wished him luck and wandered out to the street, where I was immediately swallowed up by the rush-hour traffic.
Almost thirty years passed before I saw my old boss again. It was 2011, and I had recently moved back to Chicago, without really knowing why. Jeff was right; it was a difficult city to leave entirely. One afternoon, while perusing Craigslist, I discovered the following ad:
Fun job! People needed to teach a variety of classes at the Education Zone, including psychic development, yoga, tai chi, and low-fat cooking! New classes beginning soon. Teach classes for a fun, well-established company with a good clientele! Call today!
I dialed their number from my cell, and the woman who answered assured me that the original owner of the Education Zone was still running the place. I told her that I was well-qualified to teach classes in Psychic Development, having built a successful practice as a tarot reader when I lived on the west coast.
“Oh, Richard will be happy to meet with you,” the receptionist said. “The person who usually teaches the class was called away unexpectedly to Texas. Can you come in on Thursday to meet with Richard?”
I felt a morbid curiosity about my old adversary, so I agreed without hesitation. The receptionist gave me an address on Ashland Avenue. Clearly, Richard had moved to cheaper digs since his halcyon days on Rush Street. Two days later, I arrived at the office, dressed to the hilt, ten minutes ahead of schedule. My old boss was running behind; I could hear that familiar nasal voice loudly discussing the intricacies of professional bartending with two other men. I tried to peek into the office, but I couldn't see him. I sat in the tiny, dark lobby and took in my surroundings. The vinyl-covered chairs were worn at the seams, and the antique tin ceiling sported numerous holes. The receptionist was dressed shabbily, as well, in a nondescript beige sweater with baggy jeans and ancient Ugg boots.
Half an hour later, just as I was about to give up in disgust, the office door opened and my old boss came out to greet me. “Sorry I'm late,” he said. “Come into the office and have a seat.” I was stunned by the squalor that greeted me inside the confines of his office. The floors were encrusted with dirt, in such copious amounts that the dirt had formed into solid piles in several places. Every raised surface was covered with paper. Several rusted filing cabinets disgorged additional paper onto the floor. I settled myself carefully into a chair. Richard smiled, and I saw that one of his front teeth were missing. He had aged no better than his office. His neck was red and puffy, although the rest of his skin was pale. The only aspect of his appearance that had not changed was his hair—it was still expertly feathered in a classic eighties style-dyed, combed and teased to within an inch of its life, and then sprayed into place. Richard placed a catalog into my hand. It was much smaller than I remembered, with tiny, pale photos and grainy font. “Here's a sample of all the classes we offer,” he said. “We usually charge about thirty-nine bucks a class. Do you think that's too much? If so, we can lower it.” He looked at me imploringly. “I'm sure you know these are rough economic times.”
It occurred to me that my remark to him about karma had been prescient, but, try as I might, I could find no satisfaction in this. I assured him that thirty-nine dollars was a perfectly reasonable cost for three hours of my expertise, and he looked relieved. I couldn't believe that I was looking at the same person who was going to bring the financial world to its knees during the eighties, when he was still an arrogant young man. What had happened to him was terrifying because it personified the economic collapse of an entire nation of arrogant young men and women, short-sighted and rapacious, suddenly faced with lack and the consequences of greed.
I told him I would think about it. Standing up, I shook his hand. “I look forward to working with you,” he said. He smiled, showing the gap between his teeth.
“Nice seeing you again.” I said, without thinking. He looked puzzled, and a bit sad, as though he hadn't expected me to leave so rapidly. “I mean, I'll see you again, I'm sure” I said, inching towards the door. I wandered through the hallway, where a small group of job-seekers had gathered, waiting for their chance to speak to the boss, and I debated whether to warn them, and then decided not to. Instead, I stepped out of the office and into the street, which suddenly seemed spacious and full of possibility.
#Unreal #Fiction #ShortStory #Clowns #CrappyJobs #Karma #Love
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