Monday, November 23, 2009

A Twist Of Noir 267 - Katherine Tomlinson


Originally published by ELECTROBOOKS and third place winner of their international contest in 2006

It's a hot Friday in July, but the air conditioning's barely cranking and when you ask them to turn it up, they just snicker at you. And they have a job and you don't, so you sit back down like a whipped dog and try not to think about the chafing you can feel on your thighs and the dampness under your arms. And how you're ever so slightly starting to stink.

You had to go through an X-ray machine to get into the waiting room of the social services office, an X-ray like at the airport. But unlike the airport, the people stuck here aren't going anywhere.

You wish you'd brought something to read but who can concentrate with the noise of a hundred unhappy people crammed into a space that would be crowded at half the number?

The chairs are made for children and hooked together to be as uncomfortable as possible. You can understand why chairs in public places are made like that, to discourage homeless people from taking up residence, but who would want to spend a minute more than they had to in this awful place?

And that makes you think about what you're going to do if you can't pay your rent next month and how long it'll be before your landlord will evict you. You've been told the process takes a long time, but how long is that, really?

And you think about going outside to catch a breath of fresh air because you can see the wind is blowing, but if you leave, you're going to lose your place in line. And Jesus, you've been here since 10:15 this morning and it's 3:35 now and all you've eaten all day is a bite of a bagel. And you're about to pass out from the heat, but if you miss your turn, you have to start all over. So you sit there.

There's a young woman sitting next to you, a girl really, and she's got a baby with her. And you think, thank God, that's not me. Because the only thing that could be worse than sitting in a government office all day would be sitting in a government office all day with a hot and hungry baby.

And Jesus, what you wouldn't give for a cigarette! One of the smug clerks sitting behind a bullet-proof barrier keeps going outside to get her nicotine fix. She's rail thin with a bad bleach job and even though it's maybe 90 in the building, she's wearing a sweater over what looks like a granny dress left over from high school. You're wearing a suit and heels and full makeup because, well, you have to try, don't you? And the silk blouse underneath your jacket has gone transparent with sweat, so now you can't even take your jacket off.

You can tell the clerk is a hardcore smoker. She has her cigarette out of her purse before she's even out of the building, and she makes her lighter appear in the other hand like a magic trick. You think about asking her to breathe on you when she comes back, how you'd welcome the second-hand smoke. You had to give up smoking a couple of months ago. You went cold turkey and practically had the shakes for weeks. But a pack of cigarettes is almost five dollars and you can buy a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter for that. Or three big cans of water-packed tuna at Food 4 Less.

And you realize that you're obsessing over the skinny clerk with the heinous fashion sense because you don't want to think about why you're sitting here, what it means that you're willing to spend all day filling out forms and waiting for a five-minute interview with one of the people behind the bullet-proof glass.

The worst part is, and you're not being judgmental here, the worst part is that you're not like these people. You don't belong here. You started working at the Dairy Queen when you were fifteen. You paid your own way through college. You want to work, you really do. It's not your fault that two months after you were hired on at a sexy, the tech market nose-dived and you were left out in the cold while the two guys who started the company cashed out big-time. And with loser dust on your resume, the next couple of jobs were just stop-gaps that didn't quite fill the bill. And then there were layoffs and then there were temp jobs. And then there was nothing.

And Jesus, who knew it was going to be so hard to keep up the car payments once the paychecks stopped coming? You're parking it behind a friend's house so they won't repo it, but sooner or later, they're going to follow you and that's going to be it. And right now, you can't even afford a $52 monthly bus pass. So far you've kept the apartment because you had a lot of stuff you could sell on eBay, but if something doesn't happen soon, you're going to be homeless. And you've run out of the rice and pasta and cups of ramen noodles you stashed away when it was clear that the last job was heading south. So you're here, trying not to feel like scum because you're the first person in your family to qualify for public assistance.

And the thing is, there aren't any jobs out there. You went to the recruiters. And then you went to the job fairs. You registered with LinkedIn and posted your resume on the social networks and put out the word to everyone you know. And the only jobs available pay $8.15 an hour. And your friends who have jobs look at you pityingly and say, "Well, it's better than nothing", and you want to punch them in their smug, employed faces but you figure they'll find out soon enough that $8.15 an hour after taxes won't do anything but keep you from qualifying for Medical because you make too much money. And besides, as you've learned first-hand, the temp market is drying up because companies just make do when an employee is out, and if that means someone has to do two jobs for one salary, well, that's the way it goes. The company's know the unemployment rate has hit double digits. They know no one's going to complain.

And you've got friends who are in the same boat as you are and one of them is doing nothing but sitting in her apartment, watching television all day. And in a way, you're glad she's so shell-shocked, because it means that she isn't out there competing for the same jobs you are. But, holy Jesus, there are a lot of bright, hungry kids on the job market, kids who'll work for minimum wage and no benefits, 'cause they're still living at home. It's not your fault your parents died in that car accident when you were twenty-five. God, wouldn't that insurance money come in handy now? Do you even remember what you spent it on?

Damn, it's hot. There's a woman in what looks like a size 56 t-shirt squeezed into one of the plastic chairs down the row from you. She's really hurting in the heat, you can tell. You wonder how long she's been waiting to get her food stamps approval. Like she really needs any more to eat.

You stifle that last thought because the last thing you need right now is bad karma, and the fact is, the first thing you found out is that it costs a lot of money to eat anything but carbs. You're already starting to get a little bloated yourself. The waist of your skirt is uncomfortably tight.

There goes that clerk again. You can practically set your watch by her. And now it's after four and they're actually locking the front door to keep anyone else from coming in. And what are you going to do if it gets to be five and they still haven't called your name? Do you have to come back the next day? Do you get to go to the head of the line? You ask someone and get a shrug in response. And you know, right then and there, that the whole system is designed so that you give up before they have to give you anything.

And you wonder if maybe you're in some way-station to hell. Maybe you really died three days ago when you slammed to a stop at that intersection to avoid the kid who came out of nowhere, skateboarding across the street.

The whole situation is starting to resemble a bad Twilight Zone episode. You went to the wrong office first because someone told you that you could just apply for your benefits at any satellite office and then when you got there, they told you you'd have to go somewhere else. And they weren't even sorry. And now it's going on eight hours that you've been here and, Jesus, it looks like all the employees are starting to leave and what are you going to do if they close and they haven't processed your application yet? You maybe have enough gas in the car to get home, but the little lighted gas pump icon is glowing and if you run out of gas, Triple A isn't gong to come because your membership has expired and you don't have the $60 it would take to reactivate it.

As the clock ticks toward five, there's suddenly a flurry of activity and a bunch of you get called up at once.

And now you're sitting across from some bozo who's been ignoring you all day who asks you asks you a bunch of questions and hands you a bunch of forms and you ask him what you can expect in the way of help. And he tells you that the maximum amount of food stamps a single person can expect is $125 but adds that hardly anyone gets that much and that probably you'll receive something like $88. And you say, okay, I can live on $88 a week and then he laughs out loud, because he means $88 a month and you wonder, Jesus, where did my tax money go all these years? Eighty-eight dollars a month? That can't be right.

And now they're hustling you out the door but you're not leaving until someone explains to you how you're supposed to live on $88 worth of food a month. Maybe if you were in Bangladesh, it would make sense, but this is Los Angeles, and the onlyway to do it would be to scrounge from your neighbor's orange tree and dumpsterdive behind the McDonalds up the street.

And you've raised your voice, which you don't like to do, and suddenly everyone has gotten kind of quiet. And you realize they're scared because you've wrenched one of the metal chairs right off its bracket and you only weigh about 115 soaking wet and well, it's a pretty impressive display of unemployed angst.

They're paying attention to you now, all right. So you feint with the chair, like you're going to heave it at the nearest plexi-enclosed cubicle. The one with the skinny smoker. You wish you had a cigarette about now because your heart is going like 130 beats a minute. You've read somewhere, probably in the L.A. Times before you had to give up your subscription, that nicotine actually calms schizophrenics and that a lot of crazy homeless people are self-medicating when they smoke.

And then you realize it isn't silent anymore because about a dozen police cars have pulled up to the front of the building and there's a hundred cops coming through the doors like they're storming the beach at Normandy.

And they're shouting at you to put down the chair, to stop what you're doing. But you're not a quitter. You never have been.

And so you raise the chair over your head and you take aim at the center of that bullet-proof window where the clerks sat and chatted and gossiped all day instead of helping people who needed their help.

And someone shouts a warning, but you aren't really listening.

And you heave the chair and when you do, three cops fire at you simultaneously.

And they all hit you.

And then you're dead.

And they win.

BIO: Katherine Tomlinson lives in Los Angeles where she works as a freelance writer and editor. Her fiction has been published in Thuglit, Astonishing Adventures Magazine, Acorn Newspaper and other print and online outlets. Her story "The Sin Eater" will appear in the January 2010 issue of Dark Fire.


Michael Solender said...

perfectly told tale of desperation. if the govmt can't push one over the edge - no one can.. very nice build and pacing to the climax that we all wish we had..

Joyce said...

This couldn't have been expressed better. I agree with the comment that it was pefectly told. And, they always do win, don't they...

David Cranmer said...

Very, very well done.

Cormac Brown said...

That was absolutely vivid, you did a fantastic job of putting us in the narrator's shoes. That was a wonderful story, depressing ending, and all.

Paul D. Brazill said...

A very strong story, indeed.