“Tough Jobs” by Eric Rasmussen

08 December 2017 on Fiction   Tags: , ,

Nothing should have survived the garage collapse. Holy lord, if only you could’ve seen it. The outer wall crashed into the alley and the roof fell straight down. The west wall with the garage door half-stood, the springs still attached to the twisted metal track hidden under the rubble. The east wall in back looked fine, like nothing had happened, but the force of the cave-in blasted glass and dust and wood everywhere. You’d find pieces two houses down, if you looked.

Tony wasn’t even home to witness the disaster. When it happened he was completing a job interview, his stupidest one yet. The interviewer owned a bunch of carwashes, and he sat behind his messy desk in a sweater, even though it was summer, and a big bushy mustache, even though it made him look like a skuzzy pervert.

“I need someone to do marketing,” said the businessman.

“What does that entail?” asked Tony.

“You tell me. You’re the one with the…” The perv looked at Tony’s resume. “…the bachelor’s degree in business.”

“I know what marketing is,” said Tony. “Obviously. Are you thinking social media, print ads, event planning, something else?”

“I don’t give a shit, as long as I sell more carwashes.” The guy stared at the resume until Tony wondered if it was time to get up and leave. Then Mr. Mustache locked eyes with Tony and asked the official first question of the interview. “Are you some kind of Mexican or something?”

“No,” said Tony, who had a dark complexion, but was not some kind of anything.

“I don’t know what the hell I’m looking for,” said the businessman. “If I change my mind about the marketing, you can wash cars, right?”

“But I have a bachelor’s degree,” said Tony. “In business. I have a bachelor’s degree in business.”

Tony’s roommate Stuart wasn’t home to witness the garage crisis either. He had flown two days prior to Belize. He told everyone he was attending an “international herpetology conference,” but that was bullshit. His boss at the pet store sent him to a big black market gathering where buyers went to purchase illegal animals and then smuggle them back into the country. Down there no one cared, so they had wine receptions and classes on breeding your new Rainbow Ameiva whiptail lizards and workshops on the best ways to sneak handfuls of bearded dragon babies past customs. Stuart would arrive home in a week with a bunch of new reptiles for his collection and tons more smug reptile knowledge. “The black spiny-tailed iguana is the world’s fastest lizard. Guess how fast it can go. Twenty-two miles an hour. Can you believe that?” And then Tony would ignore him and keep watching TV or doing the dishes and Stuart would ask again. “Hey. Can you believe that?”

Of the two roommates, Stuart should have been the one at home to witness the collapse, or at least clean up the aftermath, because the damp, dark garage was where he kept all his pets. The snakes, skinks, geckos, the big ones, the little ones, all of them. Their cages and aquariums lined the walls from floor to ceiling, plus the containers of mice and crickets that served as food for all the creatures. The room smelled absolutely outrageous. The UV lamps made the garage windows glow like an alien science experiment.

But not anymore.

*

Tony parked on the street in front of his house after his stupid interview, and he couldn’t tell right away what was different. All of the scraggly trees still lined the sidewalk. The neighbors still hadn’t taken their yard couches inside. But he knew something was different, as if he sensed the open space on the far side of the house where the garage used to be. He walked toward the carnage, then saw the folded-over garage door, then ran.

When he rounded the corner he screamed a little, out of surprise and a little bit out of sympathy for the victims. But mostly he panicked because of Stuart. “I’m done paying all the rent,” Stuart said before he left for Belize. “If you don’t have a job by the time I get back, you’re gone. I’m serious.” Tony still hadn’t found employment, and now all of Stuart’s pets had died on his watch. He was so screwed, he screamed again.

He grabbed a corner of the collapsed roof and lifted, which was never going to work, except the wood was so wet and rotten that it crumbled apart, and Tony figured out that if he pulled and twisted he could make sections of shingle pop free, and just like that, little by little, he cleared a good portion of the single-stall garage. Every time he moved he paid attention to where he placed his feet to avoid stepping on any survivors, but only rocks and pieces of driftwood and plants littered the concrete floor. He found the first victim, the red snake with the black stripes, crushed by the collapsed frame of its aquarium. A roof beam smashed the tortoise’s shell while it cowered in its little plastic shelter. Crickets blanketed everything; every time Tony removed another section of roof, more jumped away. A couple of other smaller lizards lay amongst the rubble, newts or salamanders or whatever, but Tony was surprised. He expected way more bodies than he found.

They must have all escaped. This wasn’t a catastrophe, this was salvation. After the crash they all probably looked around, smelled the fresh air, saw the sunlight, and thought, “What the hell, let’s see what’s going on out there.” Tony expected to set up an infirmary in the kitchen, maybe shuttle all the wounded to Stuart’s pet store for assistance from the other employees. But the disaster didn’t claim many victims at all.

Tony kept pulling back sections of roof and moving aside shelving and tubs and containers, his khakis and his interview shirt and tie covered in dirt and sweat. He picked up a plastic bin that had been flipped upside down and about a million mice scurried off in every direction. This could have been worse, this could have been a lot worse, he told himself, until he worked his way to the wall of the house and found Lucy pinned in the corner of her cage. Lucy, the mature four-foot iguana, Stuart’s best friend in the world, and when she saw Tony she pleaded for help with her eyes, something Tony had never seen before from any animal, and his heart broke. It shattered. He pried away the bent sections of cage and carried her inside like he had watched Stuart do a hundred times, set her on the floor, and at that moment he understood he needed to rescue the reptiles. All of them.

*

Reptiles are creatures of silence and mystery, easily startled, quick to hide. People like cats because their affection isn’t given, it must be earned. But if you’re into animals that play hard to get, try a lizard. You’ve got nothing they want, ever.

Tony forgot this as he ran down the sidewalk and attempted to remember all the super dumb names Stuart had given his pets. Stuart thought old people names were funny. He called one of the snakes Stan, one of the big turtles Phyllis. Besides those, damn it. If Tony could have recalled more, he would have shouted them, as if the animals would come scurrying out of the underbrush, looking for treats and belly rubs. He scanned the tree branches and the lawns, the decks and the driveways, and found nothing.

Until he rounded the corner across the street from the elementary school playground.

Two boys and a girl stood under one of the plastic tubes kids crawl through from platform to platform. Their attention focused on what looked like a bright green jump rope draped over the cylinder, but it would move and the kids would jump up and hit the curved plastic and it would try to escape and obviously it wasn’t a jump rope. It was a snake, and those mean kids were harassing it like it hadn’t been through enough already. Tony ran towards them, sweating like he hadn’t sweated in years.

“Stop it,” he yelled. “What the hell are you doing?”

The two kids on Tony’s side of the playground equipment took off running, sending up a spray of wood mulch with their ratty sandals. The boy on the opposite side jumped, snatched the snake, then followed his friends. They dashed through the gap in the fence that surrounded the schoolyard and hightailed it down the sidewalk.

Tony hadn’t run since high school, but he was a grown-up and they were little kids so he caught up to them quick. The punk in back couldn’t go as fast because he carried the snake out in front of him with both hands. Just as Tony was about to grab the hooligan’s shoulder, the kid threw it into the yard they ran past. Tony stopped immediately while the gang turned down an alley between houses and kept running.

The snake must have been stunned because it didn’t slither away. Tony grabbed it behind its head, like he was supposed to, and supported its body, like he assumed he should, and carried the thing home. Halfway there, it came back alive and tried to wriggle away. Tony looked right into its eyes. “Hang on, dude. We’re almost there.”

*

One year earlier, after Tony graduated and needed a place to live, he found out his brother-in-law’s brother-in-law Stuart had a room to rent. Two weeks after moving in, Tony headed upstairs to bed one night and holy shit, he found an orange and white snake climbing the stairs in front of him. And Stuart? Stuart was at his girlfriend’s house for the night. Tony panicked for a moment, sure, but then he took a deep breath and grabbed the thing and carried it back down the stairs and out to the garage. He put it in the cage he thought looked empty.

The next day Stuart returned and Tony said, “You had a jailbreak last night.”

Surprise popped onto Stuart’s face. “Not last night. He’s been missing for a week.”

“Are you serious, Stuart? Are you goddamn serious? That thing could have been in my bed? Hanging from the showerhead? You didn’t tell me?”

“It could have, but it wasn’t.” Stuart shook his head. “Relax. I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d freak out.”

*

The playground kids got away and Tony returned home with the green snake and put it in a plastic tub in the kitchen. He fed Lucy some bananas and decided to head out for one more search before dark. This time his walk down the sidewalk was slower, quieter. He watched for movement in the beds of leaves under the pine trees and in the open spaces at the bases of porches. But he didn’t need to. He just needed to look for old ladies huddled up around the trees.

He could hear their conversation from half a block away.

“That’s one of those Komodo dragons, I’m sure of it,” said the woman in the white capris and white hat.

The other old woman, in navy blue capris and no hat, turned to face her friend. “It is not. Komodo dragons are huge.”

“Not the baby ones. You think they’re born that size?” She looked back at the tree. “I saw a program on TV once. That’s exactly what they look like.”

“I saw the same program,” said navy capris. “They don’t look anything like that.”

“Oh, you saw it too? What did you think?”

“I thought, thank goodness we don’t live in a climate that gets many lizards.” She gestured at the tree. “Until now, apparently.”

White capris leaned in closer. “You think it’s poisonous?”

“I think you’d better get your face away from it, in case it is.”

Tony stepped between them and they both shied back. “It’s not poisonous at all.” He held one hand in front of the lizard and pushed it forward with the other. It slowly climbed aboard his palm. “It’s a chameleon. You know the color-changing ones? That’s why it’s brown right now.”

“Oh, I know those,” said white capris. “That’s right. Chameleons.”

“I didn’t know any lived around here,” said navy capris.

“They don’t,” said Tony, holding the reptile close to his chest and whisking it on home.

*

Tony’s next interview was twenty-four hours after the garage collapse, at 8:00 AM, at a bank. Not a crappy bank, either -- one of the ones downtown with dark wood and glass and granite and women in high heels and men who looked and smelled like new leather coats. Tony wore the interview shirt he had washed the night before and his other pair of dress pants because yesterday’s khakis had permanent stains from the garage search-and-rescue.

He said hello to the receptionist, then waited on a couch. He followed a different woman back to a conference room with a wall full of TVs, and talked to a man in a suit who crossed his legs and gestured with his pointer finger. The interview went better than amazing. It went better than amazing times a thousand.

The banker asked, “What do you hope to get out of this job?” and Tony said, “I want to build a career in the business and finance world, and this institution would be either a great place for that career, or an enviable first line on my resume.”

The interviewer asked, “What trait of yours will benefit us the most?” and Tony said, “I am a hard-worker, I’m honest, I can be fun, but more than anything I am dedicated. Whatever task needs completing, I will stick with it until it’s done.”

At the end, when pointer-finger guy asked, “Do you have any questions?” Tony said, “What are the prospects for advancement?” It’s what his professor told him to ask during the class period they spent on interview strategies, and the interviewer looked impressed. He nodded and smiled and explained the manager trainee program.

When they finished the banker led Tony back out to the lobby and shook his hand, and after the guy left, Tony stayed and spun a slow circle and looked around because this was where he’d be working, he just knew it. After the full three-sixty he locked eyes with the receptionist and said, “I think I got it,” and she said, “No, you didn’t. They’re hiring the assistant manager’s niece. They’re only going through interviews as a formality.”

“Are you sure?” said Tony.

“Pretty sure,” said the receptionist before she looked back at her computer and Tony went home.

He picked up the search as soon as he returned, but this time something occurred to him. He had a minuscule chance of seeing the animals as he completed his circuits around the neighborhood, but what about everyone else? The neighbors must have seen things. They could point him toward the crevices and other hiding spots. So Tony started knocking on doors.

Some people weren’t home. Others flipped out when they heard that a garage full of snakes and lizards had collapsed and released the animals into the neighborhood. A handful said they might have seen things, but couldn’t be sure, and one lady pointed Tony towards the spot near her garbage cans where she for sure saw a humongous brown snake, but Tony couldn’t find it.

Then he knocked on a door and a gigantically overweight guy with black curly hair opened it. Tony delivered his whole spiel about the garage. The guy nodded along.

“I might have seen one,” said the guy.

“Oh, yeah? What did it look like?”

“Kind of like a big fat snake with tiny little legs.”

“Yep. That’s definitely one of them.”

“But there was something real weird about it. Are you listening? This thing had a blue tongue like it just finished a…” The big man wiped his forehead and reestablished his balance. “…a blue-raspberry popsicle or something.”

“Sure. That’s one of the ones I’m looking for.”

“Or, or a cotton candy sucker. You know those little ones that turn your tongue blue?”

“It’s a blue-tongued skink. Where did you see it?”

The big guy looked back into his house, then over Tony’s shoulder into the yard. “Actually…” He ran his hand through his hair again, and took a few quick breaths. “I don’t remember now. It’s really strange, but I can’t remember. I’m sorry.”

“Oh.” Tony couldn’t take it anymore. He failed, and he kept failing. All the lost and scared animals needed him desperately, and he was days away from getting kicked out of his house. He hadn’t found anything since the chameleon, and Lucy, the most important thing in the world to Stuart, had stopped eating. She just sat motionless in the corner of the kitchen next to the stove. Tony didn’t know what to do. “Thanks anyway.”

As Tony walked away, curly said, “Hey, what should I feed a blue-tongued skink?”

“I don’t know. Most of them eat fruits and vegetables and crickets. I think they all love crickets.”

“For sure, for sure,” said the big guy. “And is it okay if I hold it?”

“Yeah, you can probably hold it.”

*

One other time shortly after they became roommates, Stuart got bit by a snake, right in that soft spot between his thumb and index finger. Stuart didn’t yell or anything. Tony found him in the bathroom with the snake attached to his hand, running its head under the faucet.

“What are you doing?” asked Tony.

“If he can’t breathe, maybe he’ll let go.”

"Then fill the sink and put its head underwater.”

“I don’t want to kill him.”

Tony descended the stairs and sat on the flaking leather couch to watch TV. Stuart came down ten minutes later with his snake hand in a big plastic bucket.

“I’m just going to wait until he releases,” said Stuart.

“That’s the best idea you’ve got?”

“Listen, Tony.” Stuart tipped his head and opened his eyes wide. “I’m not bleeding that badly. I can’t pry open his mouth with a screwdriver or ask him nicely to let go, obviously. Mind your own business.”

They watched half a movie before Tony went to bed, and by morning Stuart sported two pinhole scars that he showed everyone for weeks.

*

The light started to fade by the time Tony left the fat guy’s house. Tony learned in fourth grade science that reptiles are cold-blooded, which meant he needed to find sunny spots. He circled back to the playground and checked the broad west wall of the school. He paused by the concrete driveway aprons and swaths of sidewalk that caught rays between the tree gaps. He walked slower than before, because his legs hurt, and because his hope had pretty much died.

Two blocks from his house he passed a ramshackle duplex to discover a blocky 1970s home with a big west-facing balcony on the garage roof. Reptile heaven, pretty much, open and protected and bathed in sunlight. Tony approached the front door and rang the bell, but no one was home. He should have left, but he hadn’t found any animals all day, and his impending eviction hung over him like the summer heat. So he crept along the front of the house and down the side, up to the TV antenna tower. He climbed, double-checking each foot placement and handhold, until he reached the balcony railing. He hopped over.

The space looked like a tropical resort. Plants lined the perimeter, with lounge chairs circling a babbling fountain. Tony could have pictured himself reading a book up there in the afternoon sun, except all over the floor, in between the pots and the chair legs, lay squished geckos. Someone had stomped them like enormous bugs. Their damp entrails stained red circles in the wood floor.

Tony found one still alive, hiding on the wall behind a palm frond. He grabbed it and held it loosely in his balled hands. He stood on the deck and stared at the steel tower and had no idea how to get it back down.

*

The lady in the teal dress with big earrings needed someone to help with her scrapbook stores. She owned six, but she knew little about office management or marketing or human resources or any of that. So she took out an ad and Tony responded and a few weeks later, forty-eight hours after the garage collapse, he sat at a big table surrounded by paper cutters and pictures of moms smiling with their kids.

“I’m assuming you don’t do much scrapbooking yourself. How do you see yourself fitting in with our family?”

Tony sighed. “You’re right, I’ve never scrapbooked. But the fundamentals of business are the same no matter what you’re selling. Managing people, selling a product, inventory control, all that.”

“Fantastic,” said the woman. “Absolutely fantastic. Off the top of your head, what sort of marketing strategy do you envision?”

Tony noticed himself slouching again, so he sat up straight. “I’d certainly look at advertising in publications your customers read. Family magazines, the local paper. And maybe you could sponsor some youth sports leagues or parks or something, get your name in front of people taking pictures and looking to preserve memories.”

The woman covered her mouth and her giant earrings swung back and forth. “Oh my God.”

“I’m sorry if that was a dumb answer,” said Tony. “It’s been a really, really weird couple of days.”

“Don’t move,” said the woman.

“Why?”

She pointed at Tony’s shoulder. He kept his head still and strained his eyes to see what she referred to. On his shoulder sat a little orange, black, and white newt.

“I’ll get something to kill it.” She kept her eyes on the lizard while she felt around the table for a pair of scissors.

“No, no! It’s okay.” Tony picked the reptile off his shoulder and held it in his cupped hand. It lifted its front legs one at a time, back and forth, as if deciding whether to make a break for it. But then it settled. Its head bobbed slightly as it breathed. “My roommate is the reptile manager at a pet store, and this week he’s in Belize.” Tony told the woman the whole story, the collapse, the pets he’d found so far and the pets he’d lost. He mentioned the interviews that pulled him away from the search, and how many times he’d had to do laundry in the past three days. “I should have been taking pictures. It would’ve made a great scrapbook page.”

The woman laughed. Tony had more interviews scheduled for later in the week and in the weeks to come. He had more resumes under consideration, and more job listings to find and pursue. He faced hours of scouring the neighborhood for lizards and snakes, and the terror of explaining to Stuart what happened. He soon would need to find a new place to live. Right then he wanted the scrapbook store job more than anything else he’d ever wanted, and he petted the newt and looked at the businesswoman and her earrings and tried to think of something else to say.

The woman nodded, slowly at first, then faster. She pointed at the newt and said, “I’d shake your hand, but…”

Tony tried to find somewhere safe to set the animal and he checked his pockets and turned to consider the tables and bins of art supplies and the look on the woman’s face told him he probably got the job, but either way he definitely needed to try harder.

Eric Rasmussen teaches high school English in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He is pursuing an MFA from Augsburg College, and his work is featured in Fugue, Sundog Lit, Gulf Stream, South Carolina Review, and Volume One Magazine, among others. He serves as editor of the regional literary journal Barstow & Grand, and fiction reader for Split Lip Magazine. His website is www.theotherericrasmussen.com.

Kelsey Melamed is an elementary school teacher in Maryland whose photography has been featured in SoulPancake: Chew on Life's Big Questions by Rainn Wilson. You can follow her work on Instagram at @kmelam2.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Comment
error: Content is protected !!