Susan Abernathy had previously enjoyed the newspaper each and every Sunday afternoon. But she had noticed lately that as soon as that newspaper thumped on the front porch, her stomach began to rumble. All because of those classifieds, she told her husband, Allen. Al, she'd say after a nice morning at church. Let's go out to breakfast. But Al, who was understanding and had also been unemployed before, just calmly explained that part of looking for a job was checking out the classifieds. Unless you don't want to get a job, he said, looking at her pointedly. Which is okay with me, if that's what you want. You know, Susan, he'd say, I just want you to be happy.
Sometimes Susan thought about that little speech of Al's. She thought about it a lot. Especially after spending two-plus hours looking at the Help Wanted Administrative and Professional ads. Then she would walk around the house mumbling about wasting her life in college getting a degree in English. If the dog happened to be in the room she would tell him about it. Business, business, business, that's what I should have done, she would yell, and her arms would wave around so wildly that the dog would panic and run into the bedroom. Al would try to explain to her the value of a liberal arts education, as if she didn't already know all that, and remind her of all the talents, skills, and abilities he knew she possessed. Usually that didn't work so well, and Susan would end up stomping out of the room saying hogwash under her breath.
Of course, Susan Abernathy loved her three children. It was natural enough for a mother to love her children and Susan knew she did; she loved them to pieces. But seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day was quite another thing. It made Susan yearn for her old job, or any job that would get her out of the house away from those kids. Al, she'd say when he got home at the end of the day, I bet they would take me back at the plant. I bet that new girl is doing a terrible job answering those phones. Al would only shake his heard and remind her of the reasons she had quit. Low pay. Too stressful. No advancement. But Susan Abernathy secretly thought that staying home with three kids was infinitely worse. No pay, she thought. More stress. No vacation. And she couldn't help it, she just couldn't, when two-year-old Jesse wet his pants for the third time that day, and she slapped his little bare bottom twice before she remembered how much she loved him. I've just got to get a job, she told his sad, tear-stained face.
So the very next Sunday Susan Abernathy skipped the Help Wanted Administrative and Professional ads and went straight to Office and Clerical. It was kind of a step down, but she wasn't getting anywhere and besides, a job was a job. She knew if she didn't do something soon, she would have to drag out her sewing machine and make appliqued potholders for Christmas presents. She quickly scanned the ads and circled several likely looking ones before she noticed an interesting notice for an employment agency. Big Bucks, it read. Challenging Career Positions with Top Employers. No Fee. Susan stared at that ad for a long time. She asked Al what he thought about it and he told her to forget about employment agencies. All they want is your money, he said. Susan explained about the challenging career positions, throwing in the part about the big bucks for argument's sake, and when she told him there was no fee, Al was convinced. So she thankfully put away the rest of the ads and with a freer heart made a fresh pot of coffee in order to finish reading the rest of the paper. Life was wonderful, Susan Abernathy thought.
The next morning was a big day for the whole family. No one had trouble getting out of bed. Even Susan woke up before the alarm clock rang, right at 6, just like the good old days. She fixed an elaborate breakfast for everyone, including scrambled eggs and some defrosted cinnamon rolls she had bought on sale last month. When the kids and Al were ready to leave, she stood at the door, ready to give them a kiss goodbye. Just like June Cleaver, Al told her as he left, obviously pleased. Susan decided to let that remark go.
After spending an hour trying on dresses for the employment agency interview and dropping Jesse off at the sitter, Susan pulled into the agency parking lot and was impressed by the building in front of her. It was very tall and strong looking -- like it could withstand any natural disaster that nature might throw its way. Surely a business in such an established building could find her a job. She went inside and took the elevator up to the seventh floor (another good omen) and paused outside the sign outside the office door. Executively Yours, it said. Then in smaller letters: Employment Agency for the Serious Career-Minded Professional. Susan wanted to pause and think about what it meant to be a serious career-minded professional as opposed to being a regular professional, but someone opened the door from within and she had no choice but to enter the office. There was also someone behind her, so she couldn't turn around and go home.
Susan found herself in a large room with a lot of people in it. In front of her was a line of well-dressed, sweaty applicants waiting to talk to a huge woman wearing an abundance of jewelry on every available body part. People were sitting everywhere filling out applications. Behind the fat lady, placement people were sitting and talking at makeshift desks, either on the phone or to people who had finished filling out their applications. Somehow, Susan was the last person in line. She figured the person that was behind her had high-tailed it out of there, and she was seriously considering doing the same when an extremely short man with a moustache turned around. Can you believe this? He asked her. He spoke with a lisp. Susan shook her head. She had this unreasonable urge to burst into tears. She looked down at the top of his head and noticed that he had a bad case of dandruff. Been out of work long, he asked her again. She told him it had been about four weeks. He turned around and started talking to a man in a dirty white jacket ahead of him. This is really great, Susan said to the back of his head. Just great.
The people gathered in the room had the sort of look she had always imagined unemployed people to have. They looked rumpled and desperate -- as if they had had to borrow carfare and a pen. She met the eyes of an older woman who was dressed in what appeared to be a twenty-year-old prom dress, and then the oddest thought popped into her head. She wondered what all these sad people thought about her, Susan Abernathy. But she was different. She had been out of work only four weeks and she knew she could have lots of jobs if she really wanted one. Lots of them. But she was being picky because she wanted a job that was worthy of her education and abilities, not something that paid next to nothing and would be a bore to do. She wasn't like these people who looked as if they were at the end of their respective ropes. The short man in front of her turned around again and asked her if she had the time. She told him, figuring he had probably pawned his watch. She was suddenly glad she had worn her new shoes.
Susan Abernathy, she told the big receptionist. Susan was fascinated by the large silver seahorses that were hanging from the receptionist's wobbly earlobes. She took the application form from her and filled it out hurriedly, writing, "see resume" wherever she could. Most of the people around her had also brought resumes, she noticed, and this unsettled her a bit. She took her application back to the receptionist who popped her gum at her and nodded toward an empty chair. Surprised, Susan sat down without a word. She didn't know what she had expected, but it wasn't sure wasn't this.
The woman next to her was wearing a hat. It had a flower on it but looked quite nice, considering. Susan Abernathy could not remember seeing anybody wear a hat since she was a little girl, but the woman did look like a professional in a Mary Poppins kind of way. She was wearing a watch, too. Been out of work long, Susan asked her. A while, the woman answered. I was an executive secretary for twenty years to the same man and then he fired me for some cute little thing in high heels. Susan did not know how to respond to that. But I'll find something else, the woman told her. She leaned over confidentially. You and me, we're different. Not like these bums standing in line. We got class and we'll get us a job real soon, you'll see. Susan murmured an agreement and looked away until the woman's name was called. She noticed that the back of the woman's dress had a spot on it. Class indeed, Susan thought.
Susan sat quietly for a few minutes. She figured it would probably be at least half an hour before her name was called. She watched the short man with the moustache ask his neighbor for the time twice in five minutes. She wondered what important engagement he was late for. Maybe Gilligan's Island is on soon, she thought meanly. She figured she would have to wait longer than half an hour -- maybe closer to forty-five minutes. She went over in her mind what she would say to the interviewer. She was certain of one thing. If he picked up that phone while she was talking, she would walk out. She had better things to do than sit around and wait like those other people were doing. They looked like people waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, bone-weary and resigned.
Another ten minutes went by. Susan became tired of watching the people around her and looked at her watch. It was almost eleven-thirty and Jesse would be getting hungry. She had told the sitter that she would be back before lunch time and the sitter had assured her that she would take Jesse to the bathroom, but Susan knew he would never go for anyone but her. Susan thought about Jesse. She thought about how nice it would be to pick him up at the sitter's and surprise Al at the office. Maybe he would take them to lunch. But then he would ask about the interview, and what would she tell him? She decided to wait five more minutes. If they didn't call her name in five more minutes, she would leave.
She was almost certain that five minutes were up when an elderly gentleman sat down next to her. Hello, he said. She nodded back. He wore a suit with a blue paisley tie. He carried a briefcase that looked as if it was full of expensive pens and pencils, and he wore a watch. Susan asked him how long he had been out of work. He looked amused by her question. A couple days, he answered with a smile. Susan wasn't sure whether he was kidding her or not. She asked him what kind of job he was looking for and he laughed. I figure about the only jobs that will suit me are those challenging career positions with top employers kind, he said. You know -- those big bucks that have waiting for us. He leaned over conspiratorially and his eyes were full of merriment. I suppose that's the kind of job you're looking for, too, he said, and he laughed again. Only Susan didn't think he was laughing because he thought it was very funny. No, he seemed to be laughing at the very idea of any of these poor people actually finding a job. Even worse, he seemed to be laughing at her.
I'm not like them, she stammered. The elderly gentlemen nodded sympathetically. No, dear, of course you're not, he said. But his eyes crinkled at the corners and his mouth twitched. You're special, as you should be. Don't worry, dear, you'll find the perfect job with these people helping you. This did not make Susan feel better. In fact, the more he said, the more confused she felt. She didn't understand what he was insinuating, but his mocking tone made her feel very uncomfortable. She stared into his eyes for a long second, trying to think of the appropriate response, and then looked up to see several people watching her with concern. She stood up, suddenly in a rush. I've got to go, she said to no one in particular. I have to pick up my son from the sitter's. The short man with the dandruff gave a little wave. She looked down at the elderly gentleman. The five minutes are up, she told him. He nodded, somehow understanding what she meant. Go, he said. It's for the best.
It wasn't until Susan was in the car that she realized how true that was. Her family really did need her at home right now. Jesse was only two, after all, and Al did like having dinner ready when he got home from work every night. Sarah, who was in first grade, was always asking if she could be a room helper. Maybe she could just stay at home for a couple of years and learn how to be a proper wife and mother. Who needed a job anyway? What she really needed were some hobbies, some interests. She decided to stop at the sewing store and get some fabric before picking up Jesse. Those appliqued potholders would make great presents for all the relatives, and she would save some money besides. If she were going to be a stay-at-home mom, she would have to watch the pennies now, and she would start by canceling that newspaper subscription. She was pretty sure that Al wouldn't mind. After all, he just wanted her to be happy.
Originally appeared 2003-12-20