In this excerpt from Alpha Mike Foxtrot (a novel from Paragraph Line Books), Joe Dugan, a soldier recently released from active duty as medically unfit, applies for a job at a retail store.
First we walked to the back wall of the store, where a bank of computers were lined up under signs featuring happy youngsters, wearing the yellow golf shirts, leaping into the air. In one of the signs, a girl I assumed to be a representative of Hispanics was doing the splits in midair, her face frozen forever in a rictus of pure fun-ola.
I sat down at a computer. Cracked my knuckles. First came the easy questions. Name, date of birth, social security number. I could have told them my last weapon number, on my M-4 carbine, if they’d asked: 1979183. Then came the second part of the test, a modified Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. I’d read about this test in The Psychosocial Facets of Civil Affairs, a book that a lieutenant had loaned me back in Iraq. He thought I’d seemed a bit smarter than the rest. At least that’s the way he’d presented the book to me after morning formation, after chow at our luxurious dining facility with a 50-inch projection TV in the background telling us how much ordinary Americans loved us, especially schoolchildren with darling speech impediments.
I like to take charge, the computer stated. I could strenuously agree, or strenuously disagree, or there were two in the middle. Stealing is wrong, was another question. I am comfortable in large groups. Working long hours does not bother me.
According to the book there were many cruel assessments of my character available to the computer including, but not limited to, Lack of Ego Mastery, Defective Inhibition, Alienation (Self and Others), and Denial of Social Anxiety. Thanks to The Psychosocial Facets of Civil Affairs I knew what social type the computer was looking for: A relentlessly cheerful, extroverted, finger-pointing moralist. As long as I remained consistent over the course of the 150 or so questions, most of which were repeated over and over, they would have their chatty-churchy, back-slapping ratfink.
At the end of the test, a glowing pack of multiethnic people waved to me. A few moments later, an insistent voice over the intercom beaconed me to the customer service desk, which was in the front of the store. Kenny still wasn’t finished. Meet me by the security desk after they hire you, Kenny said, looking up at me. I saw that he was giving the exact opposite answers I had given, the ones I would have given if I’d been honest.
At the customer service desk, a chatty-churchy gal with no hips and cornsilk hair stood waiting for me. Joe? she went. Her name-tag announced her as being Hannah.
Yes, ma’am, I said.
Let’s go over to the furniture department, she said. A tiny crucifix hung in her cleavage, dangling there like a dare. Go on, Joe, tiny pewter Jesus seemed to say. Look at her jugs. They’re right here, dude, to my left and right. And he pointed them out with his tacked hands.
I observed her from the rear as I followed her down the racetrack. Nothing going on there. No ass. Nothing. Like a lot of women these days, she’d starved herself into having the build of a teenaged boy. I looked around the store as we walked. Screams of electronic death came from the video-game department. A bored sales dude stood watching us march past, a video-game controller in his hand. He looked me in the eye. Run! he mouthed at me. Then he busted out a grin and went back to engaging the virtual enemy.
Madonna’s chipmunk voice trilled out of the car audio department. Mew-zic, repeated the voice over and over as the bass speakers thumpity-thumped. A lot of the store seemed empty.
Hannah, who’d never introduced herself, sat down in a simulated office on an office chair with a price tag hanging off the headrest ($149.99 marked down to $79.78… Lowest Price!), behind a simulated wood desk with a price tag in a plastic picture holder ($299.99 marked down to $119.99… Lowest Price!). I sat in a green lawn chair in front of the desk. She had a printout of my psychological assessment and my typed-in resume that had only one job listed. Tiny freckles dotted her face and neck and down where Jesus was still pointing out her tits. Hey Joe! he went. There’s one and there’s the other one. Take a peek-a-boo. I dare you.
I smiled and kept my eyes up, making occasional eye contact.
Reading upside down, I saw the list of questions she was supposed to ask me and their preferred answers. When she read the questions out loud to me, I read the answers. I’d look up a moment before she did. When her eyes went back down to the page to make sure I was giving the correct answer, I’d sneak a peek down there to make sure that I was giving the correct answer, but not in the exact same words.
Q: Why did you pick retail?
A: I like interacting with people.
Q: Why did you choose Buy and Bye?
A: My family has always shopped at Buy and Bye. Everyone here is friendly and helpful.
I glanced at her tits. They were round and small, like a pair of ripe peaches. The air conditioning was turned up to max volume, so a tiny pair of nipples poked out through the bra and 60/40 cotton/polyester blend uniform shirt. It was fairly quick. She didn’t catch me, I believed.
After question-and-answer time, she flipped through my resume. Why’d you leave the Army? she asked.
I’d been warned by counselors in my TAP class at Walter Reed to be careful when answering this question. For instance, saying that you’re sick of witnessing death and dismemberment on a daily basis may lead a civilian employer to believe that you’re a nutjob who’ll come in and shoot all your co-workers. Telling them that I was medically discharged would have the same effect.
I was ready for a change, I said.
Under awards and honors, you put down ‘Silver Star,’ she said. Is that a medal or something?
Yes, I said.
What did you get it for?
Um, I went.
That’s okay, she said. It’s all right if you don’t want to talk about it.
Actually, I was having problems remembering the rationale behind the Silver Star. I’d read the citation once at Walter Reed before mailing it home to Florida, where I was sure it would be shoved in a drawer by my mother.
The medal itself fetched $75 at an Army-Navy store in Ohio. The scruffy, potbellied dude behind the counter asked, You sure you want to sell this, man?
Yeah, I said. How much?
Hannah said, Thank you for protecting my family and fighting for my freedom.
Sure, I said. No problem.
We shook hands over the discounted desk.
She stood up. I stood up.
Follow me, she said.
I followed her. We wandered through the store again. Buy and Buy. How can I explain my disgust? I can’t. Honest people work there. Poor people spend their money there. But something about the place strikes at my very core.
Down a short, narrow corridor I followed her. On the right were two bathroom doors. Between them, a water fountain. A sign on the wall said, No unpurchased merchandise in the bathrooms, please. At the end of the corridor was a door marked Employees Only! On the left was a door marked Private. We went through the door on the left.
Behind the door was a small, messy conference room that doubled as an office, with plastic and chrome chairs stacked here and there, a white board on the wall marked up with metrics and other business gobbledegook, a thrice-marked-down refrigerator pilfered from the sales floor burbled in the corner, a fold-up conference table with a few stacking chairs arranged around it, and a smaller folding table with a computer a-top it and the manager of the store sitting in front of the computer, swearing. Cocksucker, he went, elbows astride the keyboard, knuckles propping up cheeks, glaring into the screen.
Doug? Hannah went.
Huh? he went, his back to us.
I have Joseph Dugan here, she said.
Potential new hire.
Oh, Doug went. He turned around to look at us. Right. For a moment, his face was blank. In a blink, it blazed with seemingly authentic cheer. My father could do that. I’ve always found it chilling.
Doug stood up and walked over. He was rail-thin, a few inches taller than I am, probably early forties. He made immediate eye contact and held it. We shook hands. Hannah handed him the paperwork. He took it without taking his eyes off me. Cop a squat, Mr. Dugan, he said, waving his hand in the general direction of the big table.
I walked to the other side and sat down, where I was treated to another whiteboard. This one had a question posed on it: Where is our mystic caribou? After reading that, I had the Pixies song ‘Caribou’ stuck in my head.
How are you today? Doug asked.
Caribooooo, howled Black Francis in my skull.
Outstanding, sir, I said.
He flipped through the paperwork. Jesus. Eight years in today’s Army, he muttered.
Yes, sir, I said.
Call me, ‘Doug,’ he said.
Yes, I said, brain re-calibrating, Doug.
So, I assume… He paused. Silver Star?
That fucking computer had to ask for awards. I should have kept it to myself. Permission to speak?
Don’t pay attention to those medals. The Army gives them out like candy.
I like your modesty, Joe. May I call you ‘Joe’?
Sure thing, Doug. I realized I was sitting at the position of attention. I relaxed and sat back in the uncomfortable plastic chair.
Let me tell you a story, Doug said. A few years ago I was let go by Sudbury’s. If you’re unfamiliar with them, they went into bankruptcy. Shut down a ton of stores. Then they went out of business.
It was the place with the little clipboards, I said, remembering. We had one in Sarasota. You looked through glass at what you wanted and wrote down the numbers on a clipboard. After you paid for it, the stuff would come rolling out of a little chute, like luggage at the airport. It was kind of neat.
Yeah, and Buy and Bye opened up next door to every Sudbury’s and out-priced us, Doug said a little bitterly.
Oh, yeah. I remembered the Buy and Bye opening up in the strip mall in Sarasota across the street from Sudbury’s. Then, kaputski. The sedate and well-ordered universe of Sudbury’s was no match for the flash and low prices of Buy and Bye.
Doug said, I’d worked for them for 17 years by that time. Suddenly, it was all gone, along with my pension and stock options. A dark cloud raced across his face. Then the sunshine reappeared. I thought, this is my opportunity to get out of retail. I can leave. I’m free. I went to a job counselor and asked him what I could do instead of retail. You know what he told me?
He paused. This was the interactive portion of the interview.
No, I said.
He told me that if I wanted to feed and clothe and provide shelter for my family, I’d better go right back into retail. He smiled that salesman’s smile. And here I am.
I’m supposed to ask you a bunch of questions. The computer generates them. He tapped the papers in front of him. You got a Social Security card and a picture I.D.?
Yes, I said.
Joseph Dugan, I am offering you a part-time, seasonal, contract position at Buy and Bye at the rate of $8.50 an hour. Do you accept?
I accept, I said.
Welcome aboard, he said.
We shook hands.
I filled out a thick stack of paperwork in the adjoining break room. Yellow-shirted people flitted in and out, standing in front of the candy machine and standing in front of the pop machine. There was a long coat-rack along the wall, cardtables and cardtable chairs, a cheap sofa with the stuffing squirting out here and there and a 42-inch TV set blaring out its nonsense from the far wall.
A news channel was on. In the upper right corner, an America flag flapped. A stock ticker pushed prices relentlessly across the bottom. Above the stock ticker, another ticker summarized what the man on screen was saying. A big head, who claimed he was the last angry man in America, was blathering on and on about how many child molesters there are in the world and how the liberals are doing nothing to stop them. On the lower third of the screen: FACT: MORE CHILD MOLESTERS THAN EVER. The liberals were in control of everything according to the man and they were shoving civilization down a rocky cliff where we would crumble into nothing. And then the terrorists would win.
A commercial came on for Girls Gone Wild, which featured teenaged girls getting drunk and flashing their perky little breasts for fun. Little Girls Gone Wild logos popped up in strategic places and protected viewers from the wild girl nipples while the girls smirked sleepily. After that came a commercial suggesting that viewers who had any one of a number of vague symptoms listed on screen should consult their doctor and ask for a certain brand of pills. One of the symptoms was Loss of Productivity at Work.
The show popped back on and the last angry man in America continued shouting. Another head popped up in its own window. The angry man thanked him for coming and then, after a pause, shouted at him.
Kenny sat down next to me. You’re not going to get your paperwork done, Kenny noticed.
Oh shit, I got back to work.
Mostly what I was doing was signing my name to allow the company to test my urine whenever they wanted, agreeing that I was hired on a contract basis and could be fired for no reason whatsoever, and agreeing that the company could look into my credit history. I signed more paperwork there than when I joined the Army.
I went back into the office where Doug was swearing at the computer. Oh, he went, spinning round, his face snapping back into salesman mode. Hey! He took the papers from me. How ‘bout those I.D.s, then?
I pulled out my Florida drivers license and Social Security card.
Oh, he went. Out of state license.
How about this, then, I said, and pulled out my blue military ID. DUGAN, JOSEPH, SSG, USA-RET.
I guess that’ll do, he said. He left the room with them. I sat looking at the posters on the walls. In one, a man in a superhero costume was lassoing another man with a skien of Saran Wrap. The Saran Wrapped Man was dressed as a ninja. In the explanation below, I found out that the superhero was The Shrink Wrapper! and he stopped shrink, their euphemism for theft.
A kid in a yellow shirt came in. Hey, he went. New hire?
Yeah, I said.
Shrink Wrapper, huh?
I guess, I said.
Pretty gay, he observed. Doug around?
He’s photocopying my ID, I said.
Cool, he said. He shoved his hands in his pockets and whistled unsweetly. He stopped and glared at a chart across the room. No payout, he said.
None. Zip. Nada, he said. Having made his point, he took his hands out of his pockets and left.
Doug came back a few minutes later. Up close, I noticed that he seemed to have a lot of dried skin flaking off him. He smiled sickly. Here you go, he said, handing me back my IDs.
I put them back in my wallet and shoved it in my front pocket.
Come back on Saturday at 11 a.m., he said. He shook my hand. And thank you for protecting my family and the freedom of this great land of ours.
You’re welcome, I said.