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**PRINT: FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI: Installment 24 features this part coming-of-age short by Chicago's Patrick Somerville, author of the Trouble collection of shorts out in 2006. | PAST BROADSHEETS |

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Peter Vaeth

The tiny receptionist led the applicant down the uncarpeted hallway. Fluorescent lights flickered on overhead, one by one, with each successive stride, lighting their path between peeling white walls. The ceiling lowered gradually as they walked; the applicant stooped lower and lower to avoid skimming his head, so that by the time they'd reached the end he was bent over, as if he were trying to touch his toes. The tiny receptionist was still standing upright, head inches from the ceiling, smirking.

The receptionist patted the top of a step stool, excused himself, and started back down the hallway. As the receptionist walked, the fluorescent lights zapped off, one by one, darkening his path, until he disappeared into the mouth of the reception area.

The only light that remained on was right above the step stool. The applicant sat down. He pulled his feet up on the wooden bars between the stool legs and hunched over as if he were trying to eat his knees.

Next to the stool was a storm window, with a potted tulip on its sill. Beige vertical blinds hung on the inside, blocking his view into the other room. There he sat, chin on knees, staring at his reflection in the window, straightening his tie. And waiting.

Soon he heard steps on the other side of the window, and then the sound of a burdened seat cushion exhaling. The blinds began to shake and turn. Between beige slats he saw gray-swirled sideburns and a triangle nose, the bridge of which was a perfectly straight hypotenuse; it looked as if it had been planed and sanded.

The bottom of the window lifted, clanging the blinds. A hand stuck out of the opening, raised a thumb, and drew back.

The applicant didn't know what to do, since he couldn't start it with a handshake. His back was starting to hurt from hunching and his ass was tingling. The how-to career books didn't account for numb-ass, or etiquette for speaking through a window. He decided to be cautious, and said nothing.

Finally a three-pack-a-day voice spoke from behind the window. --Well...

--Good afternoon, the applicant said.

--Yes. Shall we get this mission in motion?


The applicant waited for a question, but none was asked. He heard a metal clicking. Then smoke rushed out of the crack in the window.


--Yes. Well, as I mentioned on the phone, sir, I'm very interested in the position you have available-

--Wait wait wait. Let's do this right. Don't you want to play along?

--Uh, yessir. Playing along is, umm, definitely something I like to do. I've been known to play along quite well. In fact, on my resume--

--Come out and play, then. You know... Say it.

--Sir, I'm afraid that I don't...

--Forgive me father for I have sinned? Does that ring a bell?

--Forgive me father for I have sinned?

--There you go, much better. That's the spirit. Now do the rest, and let's kickstart this heart.

--Umm... The applicant could feel sweat tickling from his armpits down his side. He scratched a wet spot under his jacket.

--Listen, James, I have two more of these today, if you're here to waste my precious tie-ee-eye-ee-ime.

The applicant flashed to the bills piling on his counter, the half-box of Quaker Oats in his cupboard. He had to say something. Between the blinds the man was squeezing the bridge of his right-triangle nose. --Forgive me father for I have sinned, he started. --It's been two days since my last confession?

--Good, James, good! You had me worried you were gonna fade away rather than burn out.

--It's Len, sir.

--'Scuse me?

--My name is Len, not James.

--Yes, and every rose has its thorn. So tell me about yourself.

--Well sir, I believe the duties I've fulfilled in my current job have prepared me ideally for the position you're offering. In my current position I've been responsible for milling, hauling, schlepping, kvetching, mining, chumming, coordinating, hiring, firing, huffing, puffing, blowing houses down, as well as supervising, superceding, laying down the law, lending an ear, turning a cheek, taking the high road, keeping that high road clear of litter, and, umm, also I've done a good deal of faxing, outfoxing, and keeping one band-aid ahead of the bleeding edge.

--Sounds like you've been taking caring of business, every day.

--Yes, and working overtime.

--Workout. A cigarette butt flew out the crack in the window.

--Yes, sir, working out is one of my hobbies, the applicant said, as he stomped out the butt. --I'm also interested in spelunking, backpacking, backstabbing, stab jabbing, parasailing, sailing to Paris, hang gliding, hanging gliders, minting gilders, umm, oh yes, and astronaut pornography.

--Behind the basement, in the old man's Ford, no doubt.

--Indeed, sir. Indeed. The applicant allowed himself a smile. He was playing the game, all right. Yeah he was.

--Well, James, it certainly is an impressive resume, but I should warn you that our company is once bitten, twice shy.

--I understand. Completely. Complete understanding is what I...

--In the meantime, do this for me: say ten "That's a nice tie"'s, ten "There's no I in team"'s, and ten "Shout at the devil"'s. Can you do that?

--Yes sir!

--Now we are committed to hearing our other applicants, but if you do those things for me, I'll see what I can do about making you our sweet cherry pie.

--I will do those things, sir. I thank you for the opportunity and look forward to hearing from you.

--Talk dirty to me.

The window slammed shut, and the blinds twisted closed.

The applicant leaned forward to get off the stool. He started back up the hallway, the fluorescent lights flickering back on above him, one by one. The ceiling became higher, and he gradually straightened up. When he reached the reception area, he was finally able to stretch out, his back cracking release.

He looked to the receptionist desk, above which only the curly top of the tiny receptionist was visible. The stream of keyboard patter paused, and he heard a tiny voice say, "Make your own luck."

Peter reads and shakes, or he has been known to, at certain moments. Visit his funhouse here: http://www.fictionfunhouse.com.