For Friday fiction, this is a story I wrote quite a while back. It’s fairly long, so I have split it into 2 parts. The second installment will post next Friday.
Lions, Tigers and Bears
Larry slumped down in his chair and let the newspaper fall to the floor. It had taken less than 5 minutes to scan through the entire Sunday job section. Five pages of engineering positions and he hadn’t seen one new ad that came close to what he was looking for. All the jobs listed were either in another specialty so he wouldn’t be considered, or else they were entry-level positions where his experience and past salary would be seen as a disadvantage. Either way he was screwed.
He picked up the remote control, switched the TV on and half-heartedly clicked through the stations. With fifty-some cable channels there had to be something worth watching. He raced through catching glimpses of cooking shows, old movies and professional wrestling. Nothing held his interest. He clicked the TV off, tossed the remote back on the coffee table and closed his eyes.
It was two-thirty on a Sunday afternoon. Not much different than any other afternoon really. From outside the window he could hear the lazy drone of a lawnmower down the street. He listened to the kids splashing around in the pool next door. That was the only real difference. On the weekends more people were home. Larry stretched his legs, trying to get comfortable.
After five months of unemployment and no sign of change, he’d settled into a routine. His wife Donna still woke him up each morning before work, but as soon as she left he’d get back into bed. He usually slept until eleven. He would then get some breakfast and watch the soaps for a few hours before settling in for his afternoon nap. Today was Sunday though, and because Donna was home his routine was different. But she was outside now and there was no reason he could think of to stay awake. Larry took a deep breath and sank into the chair. Yawning, he was just about to slip under when he heard the back door creak open. He opened his eyes and quickly tried to sit straight and at the same time reach for the paper he had dropped. But it was too late.
“I thought you were going to mow the lawn?” Donna stood in the doorway, hands on her hips, head tilted to the side, passing judgement with her eyes.
“I thought I’d do that tomorrow.”
“That’s what you said yesterday.” Donna brushed her hair out of her eyes and stepped into the room. Though nearing fifty, she looked much younger. Unlike Larry, she’d maintained her weight and, with Clairol’s help, her hair was as blonde now as the day they’d first met. She nodded to the paper on the floor. “Anything look good?”
“Nothing new. It’s all the same thing though. I’m really overqualified.”
Donna opened her mouth to speak but closed it without saying a word. She folded her arms across her chest and stared at him for a moment before crossing the room and sitting down on the couch next to Larry’s chair.
“Why won’t you ask Jason if he can help you find something?”
“Donna, please – ”
“Larry, it’s been five months. We can’t go on like this much longer. Why don’t you ask Jason if he can just put in a good word or something?”
Larry slouched back in his chair. “We’ve been through this. I’m not going to ask your brother for anything. He’s a phony, and besides, I’d never hear the end of it.”
“Well if you don’t ask him, I will.”
“Donna – ”
“Don’t Donna, me. It’s settled.” She leaned back in her chair, a look of triumph on her face. “Oh by the way, I forgot to tell you; Jason’s going to be stopping over tonight.”
“He and Rose have theatre tickets. I said that we’d be glad to watch Charley.”
Larry gave a low moan as he settled deeper in his chair.
“Don’t act like that. He’s not that bad. Maybe you can hook up that old Atari from the basement. That’ll keep him occupied.” As she stood up to go, she reached down and ran her hand across the stubble on Larry’s cheek. “And it would be a nice change if you shaved before they got here.”
Larry waited until she was out of the room before he picked up the remote control again.
Larry was on his hands and knees connecting the Atari when the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it.” Donna called as she hurried out from the kitchen. Larry cursed under his breath as he tightened the final screw. He heard the door opening but stayed where he was making no effort to get up. He heard their voices from the entryway. Maybe if I just stay here they’ll leave quickly, he thought. Larry leaned against the back of the TV and strained to hear what they were saying. The words all blended together. He heard the tones and could tell Rose’s high-pitched whine above the others but couldn’t make out any of the words they were saying. His knees were beginning to ache as he shifted uncomfortably and kept his face down, hiding behind the set.
“What are you up to there, Chief?” Jason leaned over the TV, looking down on him.
Larry stood up guiltily. “Oh, Jason, I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Well, we’re only here for a second but I wanted to at least say hello.” Jason’s thick blonde hair was combed straight and his skin had the perfect shade of golf course tan. He looks like a Malibu Ken doll, Larry thought.
“Well, hello.” Larry said.
“How’s your job search coming, Ace? Any good leads?”
“Oh sure. There’s a lot out there for someone with my qualifications.” Larry tried to keep eye contact without success. “I’m just trying to make sure that I pick the right position.”
“Sure, I can understand that. But listen, if you’d like I can check around and see if we have something that might work for you.”
Larry fixed his gaze on Jason’s teeth, they were so white and perfect they had to be plastic. “No, thanks for the offer; but I’m really fine. It’s just a matter of deciding which position has the most long-term potential. But thanks for offering.”
Jason nodded, then put his hand on Larry’s shoulder and squeezed lightly. “Look Larry, Donna told me you were having some problems. I know it’s a hard thing to admit when you need help, but don’t worry about it. I’ll see what I can do.” He smiled, gave another squeeze, then glanced at his watch and turned away. “Well, we better get going. I’ll let you know.”
Larry tried not to shrink as he watched him go.
Later that night, as he watched Charley play the video game, Larry wondered how things had turned out like they had. It wasn’t all that long ago that his life had seemed so promising. Everyone always said he had so much potential. Only two years before he’d been made the lead engineer on the Dabney Cable project. If the system had worked as planned, he’d have gotten a big raise and a shot at management. Maybe even some stock options. But the program didn’t live up to expectations; after the merger his group was among the first to be cut. Now it was as if his life had zipped ahead on fast forward and suddenly he found himself old and unemployed.
Larry looked down at Charley. He was sprawled across the floor, a pizza slice in one hand and the game controller in the other. He chewed open-mouthed while he tapped on the joystick. His eyes were glued to the TV while effortlessly maneuvering his man through a maze, avoiding obstacles from all directions. The game music was too loud, an annoying calliope tune that Larry knew would be playing in his mind for days to come. As he gazed down at Charley, Larry tried to remember what it felt like to be ten. He vaguely remembered having a paper route. He woke up early each morning and rode all over town to get the papers out before getting ready for school. Looking at Charley, Larry wondered if he even rode a bike. It didn’t seem likely.
“You’re really zipping through this, Charley. Do you have one of these at home?”
Charley didn’t look back. “No, this is boring. I’ve got a Playstation 2 at home.” He stuffed the last of the pizza in his mouth, pushing the controller away and looked back at Larry. “Do you have any ice cream?”
Larry just nodded.
The next morning Larry was up at his usual time. After breakfast he scanned the newspaper and checked the help wanted ads before heading out to watch TV. He’d promised to mow the lawn before Donna came home, but there was plenty of time for that. He settled into his chair and was about to switch on one of the soaps when he noticed the game controller on the floor. Donna had found the Atari at a garage sale a year ago, figuring it would be a good thing to have for when the nieces and nephews came over. It had gathered dust in the basement until last night.
Curious, Larry picked up the controller, popped a game into the machine and switched on the TV. The goofy calliope music came up again as a menu appeared on the screen. Larry chose the new game command and sat back to play.
A cute little elf dressed in green with a red hat, looked back and forth as he walked through a forest. The graphics weren’t that good, Larry thought. The figure was jagged around the edges and walked in a jerky motion. It really wasn’t that sophisticated at all, nothing like they were able to do these days. He was just about to put the game back down when a tiger jumped from behind a tree and attacked his elf. Larry sat forward in his chair. He hadn’t seen that coming. The elf was now back where he’d started. Larry moved forward again, but this time he concentrated on the game. He remembered where the tiger had appeared and right before he got to that point he noticed a striped paw sticking out. He stopped his elf and the tiger ran harmlessly across the screen. This isn’t that hard, he thought. He moved the elf forward again – more confident than before. That’s when the bear mauled him from the other side.
Larry almost threw the controller across the room. He’d been ready for the tiger, he hadn’t expected a bear. He moved his elf forward again. He was ready for the bear. But his mind was concentrating so much on the bear that he forgot about the first tiger and when he came upon that tree he was attacked again. This time his elf sprouted wings, fluttered up to the top of the screen and the game over sign appeared.
He was breathing harder now. This was tougher than he’d thought. The next game he got past both the tiger and the bear, but was killed by a lion. The game after that he made it past the lion only to be pounced on by another tiger. He kept playing. By the end of the afternoon, near the time that Donna was due home; he’d gotten all the way through the forest, past a series of lions, tigers and bears, but was killed each time by a giant beaver.
Larry hummed the calliope tune as he mowed the lawn.
Larry’s routine changed over the next several days. Now, when Donna woke him in the morning he stayed up and played the game. By the end of the week he’d gotten past the giant beaver and picked up a magic rock; gone through the mountains where he had to avoid the Billy goats, avalanches and the Yeti. Again he’d won a magic rock. He was now navigating the suburban lawn, where he’d learned to avoid the dogs and lawn sprinklers, but kept getting killed by the lawn gnomes. He now had an intuitive feel for the game. Just a tap on the joystick and he could move in any direction. It had become almost like an extension of his body. In a funny way he felt a sense of accomplishment that he was mastering the game. The only frustrating thing about it, was that now every time he died he had to start over. It took a lot longer for him to get back to where he’d left off. That, and he felt guilty about how much time he spent playing. He resolved to get some projects done around the house over the weekend.
Friday night Donna cooked veal scaloppini for dinner, Larry’s favorite meal. The veal was fork tender, the sauce perfectly seasoned and delicious. It almost tasted too good. After working a full day, Donna had shopped for ingredients then came home and fixed a perfect meal.
Larry sopped up the sauce with a piece of the bread. He glanced at Donna then looked away. “This is delicious,” he said. “Thank you for making this.”
“Well, it’s been awhile, I thought it would be nice.”
“It’s perfect.” Larry cut a piece of meat with his fork and moved it around his plate. He hesitated a second and put it back down. “You know, I’ve been thinking.”
“I’ve been thinking, there’re some projects around the house that I’ve been putting off. As long as I’ve got the time maybe I could work on some of those. I was thinking that maybe I could start painting the house.”
“It does need it.”
“I think I’ll pick up the paint tomorrow and start with the scraping.”
“That would be nice.”
Larry ate another piece of veal. It tasted even better now. Now he felt like he’d earned it. He chewed slowly, savoring the texture and the taste – just the right proportions of garlic and wine, heaven.
“By the way,” Donna carefully cut her veal. “I spoke to Jason today.”
Larry gripped his fork tighter. “You did?”
“He passed your resume on to somebody at the plant. He says they’re interested.”
“They’ll probably be calling next week to set up an interview.”
“Oh. Well, that’s great. Just great.” Larry set his fork down. He didn’t feel hungry anymore.
On Saturday, Larry woke up early to get everything ready for painting. He spent the morning making a list of supplies he’d need for the job, determining how much paint it would take to cover the house and calling around to see who had the best prices on everything. By the time he got that all handled it was lunchtime. After lunch he went out to the hardware story to buy supplies. While he was there he came upon a demonstration on wallpaper application techniques. He sat through the whole thing. By the time he got home it was getting late; so he decided to wait it out. The sun came out in the afternoon, but by then it was too late to start.
Monday morning after Donna left for work Larry planned to go outside to start the scraping, but was having a hard time getting motivated. He finished reading the paper, drank his fourth cup of coffee and then changed into his work clothes. He got out the scraper, inventoried his tools and brushes and had one more cup of coffee to finish off the pot. He looked out the window. It was a beautiful day, clear and sunny, no excuses there. He gulped the last of the coffee down. He’d procrastinated long enough he thought. It was time to go to work. But first, he decided, he’d play just one game of Atari. Larry sat down at the TV, popped the cartridge in and began to play. He felt a rush as he moved the elf across the screen, moving in and out, getting out of harms way just in time. He cruised through the forest, effortlessly scaled the mountain and easily got though the lawn. He was doing great until he came to the lawn gnomes. Larry was ready for them though. He moved up cautiously, ready to retreat. One gnome moved in to attack, Larry tapped backwards and his elf moved out of the way. Larry moved him forward again. But this time, before he had a chance to react, the other gnome smacked him with his walking stick. Bam! Larry’s elf was back at the start.
“Damn!” Larry gripped the controller hard. He glanced at his watch, it had taken twenty-five minutes to get there. He took a deep breath and started over. This time he was in such a hurry to get back and battle the lawn gnomes that he was careless when he fought the Yeti. He cursed when the Yeti threw his elf off the cliff and he had to start over again. The third time he paid more attention to what he was doing and made it back to the lawn gnomes. But the result was the same. The game over sign flashed on the screen.
He nearly shook with rage. Too much caffeine, he thought. He hit the reset button and was about to start all over again, when the phone rang. He put the controller down. Let the answering machine get it, he thought, it’s probably a telemarketer anyway. It rang again. The sound was jangling on his nerves. He pushed himself out of the chair and hurried into the kitchen to pick it up.
“Hello?” he nearly yelled into the receiver.
The voice on the line sounded hesitant and unsure. “Uh, hello? Is this the Forberts?”
“Yeah, what are you selling?”
“Um, is Larry Forbert in?”
“That’s me.” Larry growled.
“Well Larry, this is Ronald Nelson from BDC Industries, I have your resume here…”
Larry felt his stomach drop. “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else.”
Nelson laughed nervously. “Well, no problem. I have your resume here. Jason Mills recommended you quite highly. Your experience is in a somewhat different field than what we do, but I think it could still be a valid fit. I was wondering if you would come in this Wednesday for an interview?”
Larry tried to catch his breath. “Wednesday, what time were you thinking?”
“Let me check my schedule.” Larry thumbed loudly through a phone book on the counter. “Sure, I can make it at two.” He wrote down the details, thanked Nelson and hung up the phone.
Larry leaned against the counter, his heart pounding and his breath short. This was his first interview in almost two months.
The rest of the day Larry felt energized. He started scraping the house and kept at it long after Donna came home, not quitting until it was almost too dark to see. The next day he got a haircut in the morning and worked the rest of the day. He felt better than he had in ages. The possibility of working again, having some purpose in his life, an identity, was exhilarating. It bothered him that Jason was involved, but he could live with that.
On Wednesday, he felt like a teenager getting ready for his first date. He worked some in the morning, but the anticipation made it hard to keep at it. He laid out his best gray suit on the bed. Donna had ironed two shirts for him, one white, one blue. He spent half an hour matching the shirts and suit with his ties. He finally settled on the white shirt and a red tie with yellow crests. Larry smiled as he looked at himself in the mirror. His collar felt tight and his pants weren’t as loose as he remembered them, but he looked good. He looked industrious, important. Larry decided that he’d have to wear his suits more often.
He left for the interview early and arrived with half an hour to spare. He sat in the parking lot and listened to the radio until it was time to go in. He checked in with the receptionist and was quickly ushered back to a small private office.
“Hello, I see you found us OK.” Ronald Nelson sprang up from his seat and rushed forward to shake Larry’s hand. He was a slight man, about Larry’s age, and his thin hair was combed over to the side. “Sit down. Have a seat.”
Larry sat down as Nelson went back to his chair. Nelson picked up Larry’s resume and appeared to study it. “This is a very interesting resume. I see your experience is primarily as an electrical engineer. We’re one of the leading suppliers of water pumps for the automotive market. Have you ever worked with anything like that before?”
Larry thought for a minute before replying. “No,” he said. “Not that I can think of.”
Nelson smiled nervously. “Well, any kind of mechanical engineering? Any experience with it at all?”
“No, not really.”
“Maybe back in school, did you ever study anything along these lines?”
Larry shifted in his chair. “I could have. I really don’t remember much though.”
Nelson picked up a pencil and chewed on the eraser. “Mr. Mills spoke very highly of you,” he chewed some more. “Well, I guess you could learn then.”
For the rest of the interview, Nelson told him all about the job and the benefits. They set a second meeting for the following Monday, when Larry would meet the head of the engineering department.
Donna was already there when he got home, waiting on the edge of the couch.
“Well? How did it go?” she asked.
Larry shrugged. “Pretty good, I guess. They want to see me again next Monday.”
Donna jumped up and hugged him tight. “That’s wonderful news!”
“It’s a lot different than what I’ve done before.”
“But it’s something you could do, right?”
“Sure, I think I could do it,” he nodded his head. “With a little time, I’m sure I could do it.”
Donna kissed him on the cheek. “That’s wonderful news. We should celebrate. Let’s go out tonight. Somewhere nice.”
“Well, I am wearing my suit.”
“You make the reservations while I go and get ready.” She gave him another squeeze. “This is so exciting.”
Larry smiled. It was exciting. On the way home, he’d fantasized about what it would be like to work again. He already felt more confident, more substantial. It would be an adjustment – getting up early, learning how the company worked, the particulars of his job and how to fit in with the people there. But that was exciting too. He reached under the counter, picked up the yellow pages and leafed through the restaurant section. Some place nice, he thought. Some place expensive and romantic – this was cause for a celebration. Maybe he didn’t officially have the job yet, but it sure looked like he’d get it. After all, Larry thought, he was a damned good engineer. Nelson had clearly been impressed with his resume.
Larry had been running his fingers down the page, scanning the listings for something Italian, when Donna came back into the room. She turned her back towards him. “Could you zip me up?”
Larry leaned in to fasten her dress. She smelled good, with just a hint of the perfume he’d gotten her for Christmas. He leaned in closer and nuzzled her neck.
Donna arched her neck as he put his arm around her waist. “I’ve been nervous about this all day,” she said. Larry pulled her in tight and nibbled at her earlobe. “I don’t know why,” she said. “Jason told me it would work out.”
Larry fought the urge to clamp his teeth on her ear.