Liddell Gibson looks up from the job application he studies and flashes a grin to Jazz, the man seated across the cafeteria table. Jazz returns it with serenity, and Liddell notes his concrete jaw, wide brow, and hint of stubble the same hue as his long Viking gold locks. They were about the same age, but Gibson had ten years of fast food service experience, six years as a manager.
“You studied creative writing in college,” Liddell says. “I don’t see any fast food in your work experience. In fact, I don’t see much work experience at all.”
Jazz stretches his long arms. The plastic round seat is too small, his knees almost graze the underside of the table. Still, he looks almost comically comfortable.
“If I’m hired by Big Brown Burgers, I promise to show up on time, be respectful, and listen to you and my coworkers. I want to help Big Brown Burgers succeed and promise to dedicate myself to achieving that glorious success. I have many talents—”
“Wait. Wait. You know it’s just a fry cook job?”
“Well, my girlfriend says I make the best fries she’s ever tasted. I roll them in truffle oil and sprinkle them with freshly-grated parmesan.”
Gibson sighs and turns the application over. Jazz’s references are the proprietors of Garden of Eden, a nudist camp outside town. He lets the form drop.
“Can you work a register?”
“I am confident I can learn to operate such machines. My real asset is my tongue: I can inspire my coworkers to outstanding performances with my words.”
“Jeez, Mister, I just need a fry cook. If you work out, you’ll move to the grill and assembly line. Maybe I’ll give you a chance on the drive-through window. You just listen and input the customer’s order, grab the drinks…”
Gibson notices Jazz’s attention had wavered to the children in the playground. Or maybe he was watching the mothers.
“I can also tell jokes,” he said. “Did you know J.D. Salinger wrote a book about fast food?”
“Ketchup on the Fries,” Jazz says. “I know poetry too.” He clears his throat and straightens. “Tell me not in mournful numbers, Life is but an empty dream—”
“Wait. Stop. Stop it right there.” Gibson’s eyes search the restaurant for a candid camera. His failure to spot one offers scant reassurance, so he asks, “Why are you really here?”
“I really need a job.”
Gibson sighs again.
“Look, I like you…”—He searches the application for a name—“Jazz, but I can’t hire you. You would never be happy as a fry cook. I’ll keep your application on file and if something comes up where I need a comedian or poet, I’ll call you.”
“Give me a chance. Please.”
“Buddy, I’m doing this for your own good. Go get a job that suits you.” He reaches into his pocket and produces a five-dollar rewards coupon. “If you’re hungry, you can grab a burger and fries—no truffle oil or parmesan, sorry—on the way out.”
“I don’t actually eat burgers. I’m vegetarian.”
Liddell’s hand slows half-way across the table. Jazz seizes it in his slippery palm and gives a firm squeeze before releasing.
“I’m sorry,” Liddell says and turns his back. Jazz sits a moment in the glow of the fluorescent tubes before gathering his briefcase, removing his jacket, and trudging off into the Ohio fall.
When winter returns, I know I’m going to crack. No one takes care of me anymore, and I’m falling to pieces, getting looser by the day, and even now my joints are strained by the heavy weight of a man. He must be cracking too, for he pounds me with his fist, and why would anyone want to hurt me?
“You are a failure,” he says.
He is right. All I ever offer is temporary support. I would give more if I were allowed, but the police chase the hobos from the park at dusk. Such an excuse sounds hollow though. When you serve, you must judge your success by supporters’ satisfaction. If people really loved me, I wouldn’t be falling apart.
“You have a college degree and can’t even get hired by Big Brown Burgers.”
His phone vibrates against me in his back pocket. It is unpleasant, and he doesn’t answer it until the fourth time.
“Oh, hey, babe. How’s work?” His voice is level now, masked by nonchalance. “Well, yes, I sure have had a productive day. It turns out that drug store isn’t hiring cashiers, but I gave suggestions for greeting card messages. They’re sending them on, and if they use them, it’s just like a publishing credit.”
There is a pregnant pause.
“Big Brown Burgers? The boss said I was overqualified. He says something right might come up.”
He leans hard against my back planks. I creak beneath his force, but the danger feels good, as if breaking may release some of my anxiety.
“I am trying.”
He is pushing harder. God, this feels good. Let it just happen already.
“I know you need security.”
One of my bolts pushes against the ragged splinters of its orifice, pressing hard against me, a connection I have missed. I am yielding so slowly. I want to capitulate, to give myself up unilaterally, without constraints.
“You know I want to have a baby too, Free. I want to be a father. Just… don’t worry, okay? Everything will be fine. I promise.”
He eases up, relaxing, and my glorious tension recedes. I swoon in disappointment.
“I love you too,” he says, and a moment later shoves the phone back in his pocket.
“You are a fucking failure,” he says, and the phone buzzes again. This time he answers it right away. He hesitates before speaking.
“Look, I never borrowed any money—”
There is a long pause.
“Oh, I see. I do apologize. I made an assumption, but at least I’m not a coroner.” He gave a peculiar laugh. “I mean, nobody was buried alive.”
He begins tapping my wood in a constant rhythm. It relaxes me, zen-fashion.
“An interview? Today? Do you mean right now?”
He straightens, and I groan and creak beneath his mass.
“I’ll be there, and please may I add my thanks for your consideration. Once you hire me, I will help Hardship Collections prosper and—Yes. Yes. I’ll be right there.”
After he departs, I almost levitate, basking in the ecstasy of my accomplishment. I have always yearned to experience personal epiphanies but maybe the quotidians things I do matter more. I hope he remembers what I did for him once I crack.
Free, a tall healthy young woman sits naked at her computer. She removes a thermometer from her lips and adds a new record in her spreadsheet labeled, “My Fertility Cycle.” There are different columns for date, time, weight, temperature, and cervical mucus quality. A final column has the verdict: Day 19. She prints the spreadsheet and pins it on the wall beside a dozen others with a thumbtack.
Heavy feet step on the wood planks outside. She presses her lips together and stands, tossing her long waves of hair across her shoulders. A moment later the porch shower begins. Naturalists, she and Jazz almost never don clothing at home. Street dirt stays outside with society’s misguided morality.
She longs for him, to enter their shower and lather up his gold locks, to brush his back, or perhaps tease him, but Day 19’s weight is heavy on her. She is six years older than he is, and her biological clock ticks so loudly she cannot escape its pulse.
Instead, she sits in Sukhasana, her shins crossed and knees widened, eyes closed, and recites a mantra. When he enters, she tightens her eyes, resisting the impulse to abandon her position, but her intention defies her peace, so she gains nothing except frustration. When she opens her eyes, she is miserable, especially when she sees Jazz beaming.
“I’ve done calculations,” she says. “Like most women, I was born with between one and two million potential eggs. Do you know how many of my ovarian follicles remain?”
“No, but I know a biochemist who can tell me: My girlfriend! Such a beautiful and warm-hearted human being too. All these years you have supported me while I’ve studied. I’m so grateful.”
He reaches for her. She pushes him away.
“What’s wrong?” he says.
“Probably fewer than a hundred thousand.”
“That’s still three times the population of Kent.”
“I’m losing a thousand a month, though, and it will get worse.”
“Still, Free, you have plenty.”
He reaches for her again.
“No. I think we need to talk, Jazz. We need to talk about our future.”
Jazz’s smile disappears.
“I love you, Jazz,” she says. “And I love what we’ve had together, but… But I need a father for my children, someone I can rely on.” She swallows. “We can still be friends.”
“I don’t mind if you can stay here for a while. There’s plenty of room.”
“Oh, good. Maybe I can watch the conception. Do you have a father in mind yet?”
Her eyes narrow, and she crosses her arms.
“I thought you believed in me,” he says. “I thought you believed in my craft. You always tell me you love my poems and stories. Everyone does. Now, I’m not good enough to be your baby’s father?”
“No,” she says. “You aren’t going to make me feel guilty. I’ve supported you—”
“And I’ve been grateful. Didn’t I just say so? Hell, I do a lot around here. This place doesn’t clean itself. Dinner doesn’t cook itself. And I’ve been looking for a goddamn job every day for weeks. Dammit, Free. I thought we had something special, something eternal. I thought you were my soul partner.”
“Jazz, it’s bigger than we are. It’s biology. I am programmed to reproduce. It’s in my nature, and… And I can’t wait for you to grow up. I’ve been patient, but it’s been months since you’ve finished graduate school, and you still don’t have a job. That’s not normal.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.”
“It’s not normal. Almost all my friends are working.”
“Well, so am I, Free. I got a job today at a collection agency. Fifteen dollars an hour, forty hours a week to hound deadbeats into paying off their loans. How about that?”
She leaps to her feet, suddenly all smiles.
“Really? That’s not too bad at all. I’m overjoyed, Jazz. I am!”
Jazz wipes away sudden tears.
“Oh, yeah. Benefits in three months after probation and a raise to eighteen per hour, but they say I can get off the switchboard and become an account manager with a fixed forty K salary in a year. Is that good enough to make your babies?”
Her eyes meet his across their emotional gulf.
“If not,” he says, “How much more do I need?”
They both cry a few minutes. After, he stands and exits the room. She lights a joint, using a copper spittoon as an ashtray. The sounds of hasty packing punctuate her sobs. Jazz emerges a moment later dressed, carrying a duffel bag.
“You’ve given me so much, Free, but I also have needs,” he says. “I need someone who believes in me, someone who doesn’t just shower me with false praise but works with me to succeed.”
“You’re leaving me?”
“It’s not over,” he says. “Not unless you want it to be. I just think it’s important for us to know what we’re getting into, especially if we are serious about creating a family together. It’s easier to make babies than nurture them for life with love and kindness. That takes faith in each other, Free. Belief and commitment too! I’m ready, but I’m not sure you are.”
He opens the front door, steps through the shower, and drops his duffel bag on the porch with a thud. Then he leans back inside.
“I don’t mind waiting for you, though,” he says and dodges the flung spittoon.
She hears the joyous steps of his retreat. Her stomach cramps. Tomorrow is Day 20 and thousands more follicles will soon be condemned to horrific deaths alongside her bloody sacrifice to the moon.
Tonight she would dream of them, her population three times the size of Kent. She would hear them clamor in protest, their voices accusing her of betrayal, not against Jazz but them. And she would beg, wishing for something more than consolation for her dying babies, but having nothing for them, nothing at all.