Winner of the First Horizon Award for superior work by a debut author.


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Day 40

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My mom woke me up this morning with a call on my cell phone. She always opens with the same, “Oh, I’m sorry dear. Did I interrupt your job search?”

“Mom, its 7AM.” I rub my eyes with the bottom of my t-shirt as sunlight pours into the exposed window. The guys never bought curtains or blinds, so I usually bury my face into the sheets to avoid dawn and the hours and hours following.

“I know its 7AM. I’m on my way to work. Did I interrupt?” She asks again.

“No, I was sleeping.”

“Sleeping, hmmm?”

“Yup.”

“I can’t see how you could be sleeping when there are things to be done, but okay…” She always trails off at that point, so I have the opportunity to fill the silence with all the details on my job search. But, I can never seem to muster the desire to fill it in for her, so her words just sit like stale air through the satellite waves. “Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I spoke to Donny’s sister and she knows someone in the consulting world who might have a friend whose firm is hiring… Jackie, you listening dear?”

“I’m listening.”

“So do you want his email?”

“Whose email?” I yawn into the phone.

“Donny’s sister’s friend’s friend who might know a firm that’s hiring.”

“What kind of firm?”

“Does it matter?”

“Well, no. It doesn’t matter, but I think I should know more about it if I’m gonna email him.”

“Jackie, this is an opportunity. Doesn’t matter what it is. Just take the email and you’ll find out later.”

“Okay.”

“Okay, you writing this down?”

“Yes.” And she gives me an email address that I don’t write down. I just want her to feel like she’s helping, but honestly there have been way too many friends of friends of Donny’s sister to even begin to count. Sometimes help like this is nothing like help at all. Sometimes it only fills me with a five minute hope that bursts only a few moments after when I find out it’s just another friend of my parents who wants to lecture me on “putting a little more elbow grease” into my job search. But I don’t know how to say that nicely to her, so I just pretend.

“Let me know how it goes, dear. Oh, are you coming home for Teddy’s party this year?” She’s referring to my older brother, Ted. Whose annual celebration of his birth typically lasts the entire month of October, despite his close approach to thirty years-old and a shrinking group of guests who are willing to celebrate a single person for that length of time.

“Yeah, I’ll be there.”

“Good. Make sure you bring Jay. Teddy says he’s invited some girls your age that he wants you two to meet.” Wow, girls in their early twenties that Teddy either doesn’t want or has already been with and isn’t interested in. I’ve been there before, and I can promise you, none of Teddy’s throwaways are something to stick around for unless you’ve got a soft spot for train wrecks and other disasters. I’m not talking about looks, honestly. I can date a girl who’s not hot if she’s good to talk to or funny or interesting in some way. But Teddy’s throwaways are in a league of their own, usually with personalities as flat as the earth is round and giggles that sound like dumb porn stars at a pool party – and while that’ s all well and good in the movies, in real life, the sound of it makes me want to cut my own ears off.

Of course I don’t say any of this to my mother, particularly the part about Teddy’s conquests. He’s always been the shining gold star of the family and I wouldn’t want to get into a debate with her about it. Especially not at 7AM.

“We’ll be there, mom.”

“Wonderful. Also, I’ve been meaning to ask. I noticed a few calls on your cell phone bill to Canada. Are you applying for jobs outside the country, dear?” Yes, my mom pays for my cell phone. Do you think I could make the $70 monthly payment even if I put a cup on the sidewalk next to me and collected loose change all day? I don’t think so, and you know what, I’m simply not above anyone’s charity right now. And I need to make calls about jobs. So, yes, my mom does pay the bill and I’m okay with that.

“No, Doug’s been seeing this girl. She had a business trip to Canada for a month and he couldn’t afford the calls on his own phone. I couldn’t say no, with him letting me stay at the apartment for free and all, mom, I’m sorry–”

“It’s okay, dear. Just let me know next time. I got worried that you were leaving the country–”

“Not anytime soon.”

“It’s upsetting enough that you’re so far away from home–”

“It’s an hour and a half to Cherry Hill mom. Even with traffic.”

“It always seems longer…” I don’t know how to respond to this, so I don’t. “Anyway, I’ll see you at Teddy’s party, dear.”

“Sounds good.”

“Have a good day, sweetie. Good luck.”

“Thanks mom.”

 

A few hours later, I find myself speaking broken English to a pack of very tall and blond Swedish tourists. The leader walks over and mimes the international symbol for Can I take your picture, conveyed through the holding of both of his hands in the air and the click of an invisible camera with his right pointer finger, followed by rigorous smiling and clapping by the others in the group. I nod to indicate my acquiescence and, next thing I know, I’m being flanked by two tall, slender men with blond hair and large smiles and a pair of beautiful women who looked so similar to their men they could have been siblings or spouses. Who knows about relations anyway, right?

Truth is, I’ve only been to Europe once, in Amsterdam about a year or two ago and it remains a total haze even to this day. Still, I point to myself while I say “Amsterdam” and mime carrying a suitcase, in an attempt for a shared moment with the enlarged eyes and smiles staring back at me, though it’s clear that they think I’m Dutch now. I think they’re rattling off names of cities I don’t know, but I continue to smile and nod anyway.

Anyway, after the photo had been taken and we went back and forth with smiles all around and multiple gestures to my sign and my suit and the sky above (the translation of which will remain unknown and trapped somewhere in the space between us forever), the leader points to my sign and asks, “You need job?”

I nod.

“Good luck.” He says with his thumb up and the pack moves slowly away like the ripples of a shallow, sleepy river. They giggle as they walk, pointing to this shop and that car and so on as the flash of their cameras shoot out into the foggy atmosphere around us.

 

This interaction with my new favorite group of Swedes reminds me of something I’ve been meaning to vent for the past few weeks. Now, I’m not sure exactly what kind of time you spend on the street, but this might not be something you’d be aware of unless people walk by you, around you, or over you a lot. Remember, I don’t know much about just yet, so maybe you’re a street vendor or one of those guys who hands out menus on the corner. If so, I don’t have to tell you this. You know what I’m about to say. But if you’re not one of those people, one thing you might not realize is that everyone – I kid you not, everyone – wears way too much fragrance. It just kills me; it wafts in my face and sends me sneezing for hours after you pass by. It gets trapped in my nose until I can no longer smell the delicious coffee Herm brings me or the roasted nuts simmering on the corner.

I’m serious though: perfume, cologne, shampoo, body spray, deodorant, candle wax, Febreze, who knows what else. There’s way too much of hovering around. I’m telling you, New York, you’re wearing way too much fragrance. And it’s time to stop.

I’ll tell you about one guy who doesn’t wear too much perfume. This homeless guy Snake Eyes who keeps trying to fight me for my spot. About every other day, Snake Eyes rolls by with one of those little black rolling suitcases with one wheel missing. Lately, he’s been giving me this look as he passes and adds, “You’re in my friend’s spot, suit man.”

I usually try to ignore him, but sometimes he’ll sit there right until I apologize for the crime I’ve committed against his friend. A crime I don’t know anything about. But, nonetheless, I somehow feel guilty when Snake Eyes stares me down, so I indulge him a little.

“Sorry man, but I’ve been here over a month.” I usually say.

“Well, he’s on vacation.”

“Your friend vacated his spot, so…” I hesitate, not sure if it’s such a great idea to provoke Snake Eyes. “It’s mine now.”

“He’ll be back soon. “ He leans toward me and whispers, “And he won’t be happy.

“I guess we’ll have to talk about it when he gets back.”

“He’s not much of a talker.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I guess you’ll do the talking for him.” He nods. “Where’d he go on vacation?”

“Queens.” He says, walking slowly toward Tompkins Square Park.

Just as Snake Eyes rolls down the street, I see Jenny burst around the corner with her own unique version of a gallop and a ballerina spin and I suddenly realize she hasn’t stopped by in awhile.

She smiles once she reaches me and says, “Hey Jack.”

As I’m sure you can predict by now, I tip my invisible hat to her and reply, “Afternoon, little lady.”

She sits down with a bounce as her long, brown hair climbs the wall behind her as it snags slightly on the brick. “I’m sorry I haven’t been back in awhile.”

“Not to worry. As you can see I’m still here.”

“It wasn’t because I forgot. I had tap class and soccer practice and some other activities.” She fidgets with her hair a little, pushing it behind her ears and then pulling it in front of her eyes and twirling it around her finger and so on and so forth.

“Sounds like fun.”

“I wanna be a ballerina when I grow up.”

“That so?”

She nods enthusiastically. “I was born to move.” How can you not laugh at that?  “What’s so funny about that?” She asks with a frown and I suddenly feel the unique guilt only palpable when you insult a child unintentionally.

“It’s not that it’s funny, it’s just…it’s a cute thing for a kid to say that’s all.”

She rolls her eyes and throws her arms in the air. “Don’t call me cute, okay?”

“But you are cute. How old are you? Eight?”

“I’m nine, but why does everything have to be cute just because I’m nine.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry–”

“People don’t take me seriously. Am I too young to have a real dream?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Mama says I have to work real hard and I am.”

“She’s right. Working hard’s important.”

She looks down at the concrete and asks, “Are you working hard?”

“Trying to.”

Pushing her hands flush against the pavement and lifting herself slightly off the ground, she asks, “Why’re you just sitting here, then?”

“Just because I’m sitting here doesn’t mean I’m not working hard.” Jenny glances around, seemingly perplexed. “I got my job search websites on my laptop. My resumes. It’s all here, just in case. I try to network with people as they pass, that sort of thing.”

“Still sounds like you’re just sitting here.”

“It’s more than what it looks like, Jenny. A lot of things are.”

A slight wind picks up as papers and empty coffee cups dance toward us and, among them, pieces of a torn up lottery ticket. I catch a few numbers as they fly by, but they continue their waltz of freedom downtown, lifted by the wind and disappearing forever before I can collect the pieces.

Jenny doesn’t seem completely satisfied with my explanation, which is one of the things I’m beginning to really like about her. “Isn’t there somewhere you can go to work on your dream? Like I go to my tap class?” She asks.

“Like a tap class?” She nods. “That’s a good question. Let’s see if I can shed some light on that.” Looking out onto Avenue A, at the throbbing pedestrian flow and the late lunch crowd seated in outdoor plastic furniture, the buses and taxi cabs swarming all around us, I’ll admit, it was hard to believe that I wasn’t just sitting around like Jenny said.  “Okay, let’s put it this way. Imagine you went to a tap class and there were a thousand kids lined up to get in–”

“But there’s only five girls in my class.”

“Imagine there were thousands.”

“But the room can’t hold that many.”

“Just close your eyes…” And she does.  “Imagine thousands of little kids who look just like you, dress just like you. Basically, they’re just like you–”

“But I wear a sparkly blue outfit and the other girls usually wear pink.” She seems content with her explanation. Case closed, her eyes say.

“Well, on this line, there are two hundred girls also wearing sparkly blue.”

“But, my hair is all sparkly too.”

“There are a hundred girls with the same hair.”

“That’s impossible.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Why?” She asks.

From across the street, I hear, “Get a job asshole.”

“Hey, watch the language around the kid.”

“Sorry.” He says without much conviction as he turns the corner.

Jenny turns to me with a look of understanding, “It’s ok. My brother says the “A” word all the time. My mama says it just means he doesn’t have a more intelligent word to use.”

I smile with the knowledge that this guy just got schooled by a nine year old and doesn’t even know it, “Now where was I?”

“Lots of girls with the same hair as me at my tap class.”

“Right… so, with thousands of girls, some of them are going to look the same. It’s just the way it is.”

“But I tap better than all of them.”

“Ah ha. Good point.” Her eyes brighten as I say this. She clearly likes making a good point. “Let’s imagine you look like them and you dress like them, but you’re right, you still have the chance to show your stuff and tap better than all of them when the time comes.”

“Exactly. I’ve got good stuff to show.”

“But, now imagine a room made for five girls that’s stuffed with a thousand girls who look just like you.”

She narrows her eyes, “Okay, so..?”

“Well, is there any space to tap in a room like that, in a room made for five girls that now has a thousand girls?”

She opens her mouth to contest, but pauses. She then shakes her head sadly. “So, I can’t show my stuff because the room’s got too many dancers?” And I nod. “So you’re sitting here because your room has too many tap dancers too?”

I nod, slower now.“Way too many tap dancers.”

“Will your room ever get bigger?” She asks.

“I don’t think so.”

“Will there ever be less dancers?”

“I’m not sure.”

We sit together, each with our own image of a tiny little room with a thousand tap dancers trapped within its walls and unable to move and sit like this until she tells me it’s time to go home for dinner.

“I have ceramics tomorrow, but can I come over on Monday?”

“Sure.”

“You’ll still be here?”

“The world gonna change before Monday?”

She shakes her head.

“Then I’ll be here.”

She says somberly as she walks away, “See you Monday, Jack.”

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