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Peter Swanson
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jobinterviewginelf.jpg
Art by Gin E L Fenton

 

The Job Interview

 

Peter Swanson

 

The least pleasant interview I ever had was with a couple named the Bingham-Andersons; I had answered their ad for a full-time nanny’s position.  They were young but lived in a tremendous brick brownstone on Commonwealth Avenue just outside Boston.  He worked in a publishing house in the city and she was an amateur painter.  Clearly the house had been bought with some inherited money.  They had a golden-haired little girl named Myrna who had just turned two, and who sat diligently on her father’s lap during the early parts of the interview.

“Myrna,” I said.  “What a sweet, old-fashioned name.”

“Thank you,” said Mrs. Bingham-Anderson, who had asked me to call her Amanda.

Mr. Bingham-Anderson said nothing, but an expression of pain crossed his face at what was clearly not his first choice for the child’s name.

“My mother nearly named me Myrna,” I told her.  “Because of the movie star, Myrna Loy.”  This statement caused Amanda Bingham-Anderson to sit up in her T-back chair and smile.  She was quite attractive, Amanda, one of those chiseled blondes that must have spent a lot of time at her spinning class.

“I did too,” she replied.  “I mean, I named her after Myrna Loy.  She’s my favorite actress.”

Another expression of pain passed across her husband’s face, like a spotlight flashing across a night sky.  He was a round-shouldered Harvard-type with a receding hairline that he’d tried to cover up by cutting his hair extremely short and growing sideburns.

“Dear,” I said to Amanda, “you are much too young to even know who Myrna Loy is.”

“I agree,” said Mr. Bingham-Anderson, who had asked me to call him Douglas.

“But she’s a beautiful child, isn’t she?”  I said to the family in general, smiling at little Myrna.  She hadn’t said anything, but had looked at me with that blank gaze that children sometimes have, a gaze that seems to ask:  Who are you, and how did you get invited into my world?  She had straight blonde hair that had never been properly cut and was still wispy at the ends.  I had yet to see her smile, but didn’t need to.  She was a child who, clearly, made the adult world earn its smiles and, truth be told, she didn’t need to smile.  She had a perfect little face, tiny upturned nose, full lips, blue eyes spaced far apart below a high, white forehead.  She looked like a cross between a porcelain doll and a glamour girl from the 1950’s.  She wore a white dress decorated with two perfect hand stains across the front that looked to be strawberry yogurt.  She was being good on her father’s lap, but her legs were swinging back and forth in rhythm against his knees, and you could tell she was ready to run.

Amanda smiled some more at me, and Douglas pulled a stack of papers, topped by my references, closer to him on the table.  We were in the dining room, paneled on one side by a bank of mirrors, and nicely wallpapered.  A lot of young folks these days don’t go in for wallpaper and I think it is a mistake.  The large living room I had passed through to get to the dining area was wallpapered as well; gray, with little pink roses.

I had worn my most conservative outfit, a charcoal skirt in wool, and a high-collared silk white shirt fastened with a brooch.  I knew that I must have looked like a sixty-year-old woman marooned in the wrong century, which, in some ways, I am, but I also knew that for many parents, a modern woman is not what they are seeking in a nanny.

“I see you’ve had a lot of experience.”

Douglas looked at me and I nodded and smiled.

“And I see you’ve traveled all over the world.  Excellent.  That’s excellent.”

“My husband didn’t like to stay in any one area very long, but he’s passed away now,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” said the wife, tilting her head a fraction to indicate sympathy.

“It was years ago, Amanda.  No need to be sorry.  The point is that I plan on staying in the area.  I’ve had quite enough traveling around.  There comes a point in one’s life when one must stay put.”

“And it says here that you were a nanny for the Wilbramsons.  Is that—”

“Yes. The Wilbramsons.” For certain people in Boston, the Wilbramsons were minor celebrities for both their money and their generosity.  If you haven’t heard of them, don’t worry.  Most of the world has not.

“Hannah is their little girl, yes?” asked Douglas, prying a little too much, I thought.  I nodded, but divulged nothing more about Hannah Wilbramson, one of my star charges.

“Well, let’s get down to business,” said Douglas, squaring away his stack of material in front of him.  Little Myrna wiggled but stayed put, and Amanda looked at them both.  With her face in profile I could see the tendons of her neck stretching and a ripple of anxiety course along her jawline.  “We just have a few questions, and a couple little tests,” continued Douglas, looking me awkwardly in the eye.  “Nothing too radical, we hope, but we want to make sure . . .” He trailed off.

“Oh, I understand,” I said.  “Of course you would want to ask me some questions.  It’s perfectly natural.”  What exactly did he mean by tests?

“All right then,” said Douglas.  “To the business at hand.  I thought I’d pass over some of the obvious questions.  Such things as past jobs, and so on, because I trust, from your previous experience, that you are fit to be a nanny.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Douglas shuffled his papers around and pulled them up toward him in reading fashion.  Myrna had slipped to the ground and was laying on the floor, tunelessly humming.

“Do you believe in God?”

“Yes,” I answered without hesitation, although I must admit it was a question for which I was unprepared.

“Do you believe that children should be raised religiously?”

“That’s a question for the parents, not one for the nannies.”

Douglas nodded, and Amanda smiled at him.

“What do you think is the worst problem of the twentieth century?”

Amanda, on hearing this question, almost imperceptibly put her head down and mouthed her husband’s name, as though, previously, they had agreed to leave this question out.

“Over-population,” I lied.  “And for some countries, I believe nationalism is the largest problem.”  I looked over at the chagrined Amanda.  “I don’t mind these questions, Amanda.  I realize this is an important interview and your husband just wants to make sure for Myrna’s sake.  Now, just so long as you don’t start quizzing me on the state capitals.”

They both laughed, relieved.  “All right then,” said Douglas, “What are your feelings on corporal punishment?”

“What I think,” I answered, “is neither here nor there.  As a nanny I would never inflict corporal punishment but I certainly don’t think it’s wrong for the parents.”

The questions went on like this for a while, a catalogue of relevant and irrelevant assessments of my views.  Little Myrna had long since ceased to play in her father’s lap.  Amanda had brought her some toys and she was now stacking plastic blocks on the carpet and talking to herself amiably.

After a multiple-choice question on the most common area in the house for a child to be burned (bathroom, by the way), Douglas casually slipped a manila envelope out from under my reference sheet.  He spilled the contents out onto the table.  I could tell instantly that they were ink-blot pictures, Rorschach prints, the kind used in psychiatric evaluations.  I held my tongue.  I needed a lucrative job such as this one, and if making a few innocuous replies about abstract ink shapes would get me the position, then so be it.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Douglas said, while flipping through the cards like a poker player arranging his hand.  Amanda smiled, but when I tried to meet her eye, she looked away and down at Myrna, who was now scolding the plastic blocks in a mimicry of adult talk.

“It’s a little unorthodox,” I replied, wondering if I could gently knock him off track.

“I realize that,” he said.  “But in today’s world . . . you understand.” He dropped the first card on the table, a print that, to me, looked a cross between a man being crucified and a butterfly.  “A butterfly,” I answered, trying to keep the irritation out of my voice.

“Good,” he replied and placed the second card on the first, being careful to align the edges so that it lay perfectly on top.  I told him that I could see the profile of a pig, even though I couldn’t.

There were five cards in all, and I took my time, and answered the blandest result I could fathom out of the random images.  Douglas remained straight-faced throughout the test, and at the end merely thanked me as he slid the cards back into their envelope.  I straightened in my chair, anxious to end the interview.

“Just a few more,” Douglas said.  “You’re doing fine.  I have a good feeling about this.”

He turned to his wife and whispered something to her about going to get something.  She whispered back, lower, so that I could not hear at all.  They were like a couple having an argument in a restaurant.  She seemed unwilling to do what Douglas wanted her to do.  Finally, he stage-whispered:  “Yes, I’ll do that part if you go get it.  Now, please.  We already agreed to this.” She got up, bent to ruffle Myrna’s hair, then left the room, not looking back.  I heard Myrna telling one of the plastic blocks that she didn’t like her tone of voice.

“She’ll be right back,” Douglas assured me, and checked his watch.  “Just a few more minutes of your time.” He looked back through the large entryway into the living room, where Amanda had disappeared.  Then he picked out another envelope from his pile.

“Now these next pictures I’m going to show you are photographs, and what I’m interested in is your gut response.  Not your intellectual response, exactly, but how they make you feel.  If you could try . . .” He hesitated, a photograph held in his right hand, the back facing me.  I nodded, wondering what could possibly be next.

He flipped down the first photograph.  It was a department store Santa, but an African-American one.  In the line were several African-American families.  In the background I could discern a sign that said Macy’s.  “Santa,” I said.

“Yes, and?”

“A lovely black Santa for black children,” I replied and met his eye.

     “That’s right,” he said.  “Just your natural reaction.”  His voice was quite high.  I hadn’t noticed it until then.  I was a little nervous with just him in the room since it was becoming abundantly clear that Amanda was the saner half of this pair.  Truth be told, I was about to leave this job interview.  I understand how it is for these parents, entrusting their very flesh and blood into the hands of strangers, and I have answered many a personal question in my day, but this was a whole new experience for me.  I had reached that point where I was beginning to imagine the story I would tell Roger when this was all over, how it would all seem funny then.

     The next photograph was a fox in a trap, gnawing at his own foot.  You could see the boot of one of the hunters behind him, and the look of fear in the fox’s eyes.  I’ve long hated cruelty to animals and was suddenly less amused and more angry at being subjected to such an image without warning.  I looked up at Douglas, and told him as much.


          “Well, then, that is your natural reaction, isn’t it?”  he said.  I heard a noise coming through the living room.  It was a rhythmic squeaky sound.  I thought it was some kind of animal at first, then realized it was the sound of an unoiled wheel.  I peered around Douglas’s head and saw Amanda wheeling in a machine that looked like an airplane stewardess’s cart topped with mechanical paraphernalia, including a blood-pressure cuff.  I recognized it immediately for what it was, even though I had never seen one outside of television shows and movies.  It was a lie detector.

Douglas, ignoring the sound, dropped down the next photograph in front of me.  I glanced at it then looked away.  All I saw was a very arty and posed rear shot of a man bent over, his anus spread. 

I stood up and said to Amanda:  “Is that what I think it is?” Amanda looked helplessly at her husband, who had now stood up as well.

“You must understand—” he started to say.

“Please get my coat.  I’m leaving.”

“Please,” he said.  “It was going so well.”

“My coat.  Right now.”  I was quite angry.  Douglas turned and walked out of the room.  Myrna had stood up and gone over to her mother’s leg.  She was tugging on it.

“What’s that, Mommy?”  She pointed at the lie detector machine. 

Amanda crouched down next to her.  I heard her say, “That’s a toy for adults to play with, Myrna, like you like to play with your dolly house.”

Douglas returned with my coat, a hard expression on his face.  As he handed it to me he said, “We were nearly done with the interview.  Another five minutes.”  He seemed peeved that I was wanting to leave so soon.

“Interviews go both ways,” I said.  “I was interviewing you as well, you see.  You’re not the only job out there.  I can pick and choose where I spend my time, and whom I spend it with.  And that part of the interview, me interviewing you, that part is definitely over.  I’m frankly sorry I ever answered your ad.” 

I walked past the Bingham-Anderson family, father still standing, mother and daughter crouched on the floor, and made my way to the front entrance.

#

It wasn’t until I reached home that my nerves settled down.  My final words had provoked a surge of adrenaline in me that had given way to equal parts horror and humor.  I drank a full glass of water, then dialed Roger’s number.

“Well?” he said.

“No,” I told him.  “And they were quite strange.”

“You didn’t get it?”

“No, I didn’t get it.  I stormed out.  It was not worth it.”

“Not worth what?”  Roger was understandably disappointed.

“Look,” I said.  “They were insane.” I conveyed the details of the afternoon, as best I could. 

He laughed while I was telling it to him, and at the end, he sighed.  “Tell me about the little girl.  Myrna?  She was perfect, yes?”

“She was, Roger,” I replied.  “But the family was not.  The family most definitely was not.”

We agreed to meet tomorrow and go over some options.  Roger was clearly irritated with me but he had not been there.

Truth be told, she was the perfect little girl.  I still think about her to this day.  Those eyes and lips, like a full-grown woman’s beauty on top of that child’s body.  The photographs Roger could have taken would have brought in a lot of money, more than we had seen in a while.  Not to mention selling time alone with her to some of our richer clients.  But I tell myself now, as I told myself then, that one must have standards.  I really could not have worked for those people.

 

 

 

 

neverlie.jpg
Art by Mr. Byron 2010

Never Lie to Me

 

Peter Swanson

 

On the night they became engaged, in a double room of a Holiday Inn in Burlington, Vermont, Jessalyn held John’s face, looked into his eyes, and said, “You will never lie to me.”

 

“Okay,” John said, his heart still fluttery from the proposal.

 

“I need to hear you say it.  I need to hear you say that no matter what, no matter how terrible it might be, you will never lie to me.  Can you say it?”

 

He did, and Jessalyn, taking a deep breath, pulled him in tighter.  “I won’t either, darling.  I promise.”

 

Eight months later on their wedding night, she repeated the request after they fell exhausted onto their hotel bed at midnight.  “Mr. and Mrs. Christopher,” John said.

 

“Do you love me?” Jessalyn asked.

 

“So much.”

 

“You promise.”

 

“Forever.”

 

“And you promise you will never lie to me.  That would be worse than if you stopped loving me.”

 

“I won’t stop loving you, and I won’t ever lie to you.  Should we go to bed?”

 

“I have something special to wear,” Jessalyn said and slipped into the bathroom to put it on.

 

John woke early the next morning, exhausted still, but unable to sleep, details from the wedding cluttering his mind.  He felt terrified and grateful, like a man being given the riches of the world.  Jessalyn was now his.  He felt as though he’d wrenched her from a family unsuited for her, an enormous clan from somewhere in western Pennsylvania.  He’d loved her from the first moment he saw her, from the day she began work at the bookstore.  He loved her tiny-boned body, her gorgeous, spooky eyes, and long blue-black hair.  Her intelligence was daunting, her matter-of-factness revelatory, especially for John, coming from a long line of evasive Rhode Islanders.

 

He slid in close to her under the plush sheets of the pricey hotel.  “Day one,” he said, waking her up.  “How do you feel?”

 

“Great,” she answered.

 

The Christophers had been married for just over a year when the issue of deceit was raised again.  Jessalyn, after a block party in the leafy neighborhood in which they’d bought their house, asked John if he was attracted to other women.

 

“Uh, sure,” he said.  “Not that I’d do anything about it, of course.”

 

“No, I know.  I was just curious.  What about that woman Maddie from across the street?”

 

“Which one was she?”  John asked, cracking open a cold can of beer from the fridge.

 

“Blonde.  Directly across the street.”

 

         “Not really my type.”

 

“You wouldn’t lie to me?”

 

“No, of course not.”

 

The blonde across the street was John’s type, in so much as she would be just about any middle-American male’s type.  Still, it wasn’t a lie exactly—he had no desire to be with Maddie, or any other woman other than his wife.

 

After a touch football game in early fall that was organized by Maddie and her husband Steve, the subject came up again.  John supposed it was because, in a moment of childlike joy, he had dragged Maddie, who was on the opposing team, down to the perfectly-tended lawn, where the two had succumbed to a fit of laughter. 

 

Back at their house, shutting windows against an approaching cool front, Jessalyn asked John if he was sure he didn’t find Maddie attractive.

 

“I’d be lying if I said she wasn’t.  She is attractive, don’t you think?”

 

“So, she’s your type?”

 

Steve opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again.  He felt the hesitation that a fish might feel, eyeing a worm on a hook.  “Okay, if by my type, you mean do I find her attractive, then yes, she’s my type.  You happy now?”

 

“Why would I be happy?” Jessalyn turned and left the room.

 

The following day, a Sunday, they had planned on taking a long bike ride along the converted rail-line that ran behind their starter home.  They had done the ride a few times before, in May and June, before the heat of that particular summer made it unbearable.  The bike trail stretched for twelve miles, past the forests and meadows and backyards of three adjacent towns.

 

“You go without me,” Jessalyn said.  She’d been near-silent since the conversation that had followed the touch football game the previous afternoon.

 

“Not a chance.  We planned this.  Please tell me you’re not still upset about what we talked about yesterday.”

 

“You lied to me.”

       

“No, I told you the truth.”

 

“If you told me the truth yesterday, then you lied to me before, after the block party.  Either way, you lied.”

 

“Look, I guess I changed my mind.  Can’t you just accept that it’s possible I changed my mind?  Let’s go on this bike ride before it starts to rain and then we can talk it over this afternoon.”

 

Jessalyn consented to go biking, and they set out heading west along the path, the skies overhead darkening with rain-clouds.  Because of this, the path, normally overrun with other bikers, Rollerbladers, runners and walkers, was comparatively quiet. 

 

They made good time, Jessalyn in particular pedaling furiously, and staying consistently ahead of John.  The path, every half mile or so, would intersect with a road, mostly winding country lanes, but occasionally a busier route, cars and trucks whipping by, oblivious to the bikers trying to cross. 

 

Since the majority of the bike path was in a tunnel of foliage, making it hard to get a look at the road you were crossing until you were right up on it, the unwritten rule was that whoever crossed the road first would wave the trailing biker over if no cars were coming.  Jessalyn, doing this for her husband that afternoon, had noticed that, once he got the signal from her, John would barrel ahead, not even looking for cars on the road he was crossing.  He had total trust in her—blindly following was the phrase that repeated itself in Jessalyn’s mind—and it reminded her all too sharply of his prior betrayal, of the way in which she would never be able to blindly follow her own husband again.  Everyone eventually lied to her.  Even her own husband, who’d sworn he never would.

 

Highway 133, although barely a highway, was, by far, the busiest intersection along the bike path.  Approaching it, Jessalyn looked left and right, spotted a fast-moving van coming along from the south, but had enough time and pedaled across. 

 

Once on the other side, she turned and watched John, coasting through the dappled light of the path toward the two-lane highway.  She looked at the van, now only about fifty yards from the intersection.  Turning back toward John, she felt her arm go up, felt herself waving him toward her.  As before, he pedaled straight ahead, not even looking in either direction as he merged onto the route. 

 

The van hit him straight-on before the driver even had a chance to apply the brakes.  Both John and the bike went flying through the air. 

 

All was silence for a moment.  Then the world started again with the scream of the van’s tires on the asphalt, the clatter of the bike rolling down the road.

 

 John made no sound at all.  He hit the side of the road, kicked up a cloud of dust, then just lay there, the top of his body twisted in the opposite direction from his legs.

 

Later, after the funeral had come and gone, after the mourners had come and gone, Jessalyn found herself bothered by the events that had occurred.  It did not bother her that John was dead—the John she thought she knew had died the moment he had lied to her about Maddie from across the street.  She felt about him the way she had felt about sick dogs that had needed to be put down. 

 

What bothered Jessalyn was that she found herself wondering, late at night, if by waving John across that route, she had, in a way, lied to him.

 

Could a gesture be a lie?  She didn’t think so, exactly, because lies, as she knew them, were always composed of words.  That was why animals could not lie, why humans were the only ones capable of it. 

 

In time she convinced herself that waving John into the path of that upcoming van had been a gesture not only honest but in good faith.  She had not been telling him the road was clear, she had been telling him that she wanted him to be hit by that van.  There was no deceit in what she had done.  And when she had finally come to that decision, it became a true comfort to her to remind herself that in the course of her brief marriage she had never once told a lie to her husband.

 

 

Peter Swanson lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. He has recently appeared or will appear in Asimov's Science Fiction, Measure, Orchard Press Mysteries, and Unsplendid. His story, "The Job Interview," appeared in Yellow Mama.

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