For the first six months, he tried. He watched the job listings, took seminars on resume construction, signed up for online listing services. At the end of six months, he came to the conclusion that he was utterly unemployable.
He had time; the layoff came with a year-long severance. After that, he could ride unemployment for a while. After that, he could sell the house. But he wondered if this cushion was, in fact, a detriment. A little closer to financial collapse, a few steps nearer to the street, and he might have to actually do something: sell the house, go back to school, learn something he could actually use to get a job. Hell, cook pizzas somewhere. He seemed to remember actually enjoying that, back in college.
For now, though, he had time, and time was his enemy. He spent his days finding new ways to kill it. Inevitably, he could never kill enough of it, and fell back to remembering how productive he used to be, how valued. These thoughts grabbed him by the proverbial bootstraps and yanked him earthward; he could almost hear the mud sucking around his ankles.
The city itself conspired against him. Cupertino was a centerless San Jose suburb, blessed with rolling foothills, a population of quiet Asian-Americans and the corporate presence of the ever-resurgent Apple Computers. The company’s humongous headquarters rose up along Interstate 280 about the time that Jack was signing the mortgage on his house, ten years before. At the time, the state of the company didn’t seem to merit such architecture – white corporate mosque meets junior college campus – but then came the prodigal son, Steve Jobs, and the birth of the IPod. These days, Cupertino is back to its bustling self, packs of mild-looking tech-heads wandering the restaurants and coffeehouses of De Anza Boulevard with their photo-ID dogtags.
Jack’s neighborhood has benefited from this boom in ridiculous proportions. First came a hotel-condo complex at Stevens Creek and De Anza. The site once held a farming supply center, Cali Bros., back when the Valley was known as one of the finest agricultural areas in the world. The developers adorned their new complex with a public square, dressing it up with fine-laced fountains and a silvery jumble of Calderesque sculpture. Many said that this was, in fact, the city center that Cupertinans had long pined for. (Others said, “Are you kidding me?”)
Jack watches the fountain from a Starbucks across the street, consuming a Wall Street Journal and the last of his morning comestibles, a tall Americano. The drink was named by Italians for the American GIs who favored watered-down espresso over the exotic milk-espresso combinations concocted by the natives. The Journal is half-torture, because it contains great quantities of numbers. Numbers are Jack’s beautiful ex-girlfriends, the ones who dumped him, the ones who were probably out of his league to begin with. He misses their perfect boundaries, their black and white Rubbermaid immortalities.
“You think I deal in abstractions,” he once told a tech writer. “But I’m not. I can say, ‘Nine times five equals forty-five.’ Or, I can go out and pick up forty-five rocks, place them in groups of five, and guess what? Nine sets. Every time. Every, every, every, every time. Numbers are God.”
With the last page of the Journal comes the last drop of Americano, and sadly the first phase of his time-killing is over. He leaves the paper in a basket inside the coffeehouse, deposits his cup and napkin in a trashcan, then heads across the lot and down De Anza, boulevard of Spanish explorers. He crosses at Rodrigues, pacing beneath dying autumn leaves toward the Civic Center.
The Cupertino Library is another new addition, blocky but clean, fronting a wide concrete square with one of those bubbling-from-the-earth fountains that entices children in summer. One corner of the building is dedicated to a privately owned coffeehouse – a smart idea, but Jack doesn’t go there any more. The hip baristas with full body tattoos make him nervous. He wonders how many of them have done time, and he doesn’t like the pressure of trying to match their sardonic wits.
Jack trudges through the electronic gates, past the wall-length aquarium of tropical fish, and upstairs to the computer area, where he sits before a terminal and enters a card number he’s long since memorized. His email is weightless, nothing but Spam and messages from the job-seeking group he never attends. He thinks about trolling the employment pages at Craig’s List – at least to kill some more time. But the thought of all those jobs that he’s not going to get feels like a layer of gravel packed around his heart. He once thought of checking out the MISC section – just to see what kind of exotic, degrading jobs might be out there – but the idea just seems too goofy. Desperate measures work only in the movies. In real life, you get a real job – accountant, marketing director, investment banker – and you stick to it, because that’s where you belong.
A shaking in his chest nearly knocks Jack from his chair, and to his horror he realizes that he has forgotten to switch his cell phone to silent. The phone begins to emit its ringtone, a flurry of beeps that grows louder the longer the call goes unanswered. In his hurry to pull it from his jacket pocket, he fumbles it to the floor; he jerks his foot forward to break its fall and manages instead to kick it underneath the table. The ringtone gets louder. Jack drops to his knees and crawls forward, fetching the phone from a spot near some woman’s feet and flipping it open to answer.
“Hello?” he whispers.
“Jack? Must have a bad connection. I can barely hear you.”
“Sir?” A librarian is standing next to Jack’s terminal, tapping a foot. “Could you please take that call outside?”
Jack scuttles around and peers up at her. “Oh God, I’m so sorry.” He works his way to his feet and heads for the stairs.
“Jack? You still there?”
“Yeah. Just a…”
“Sir? You need to log off your computer first.”
“Oh! Right.” Jack returns to his terminal and hits the Logout button.
“Just a… right there.” The computer asks him if he really wants to log off, and he clicks on Yes. “Sorry. I’m at the library.”
“Ooh, I dig the library. All that forced silence. It’s so sexual.”
Jack paces past the librarian, who is, in fact, wearing a dominatrix expression – “Almost there,” he says, then trots down the stairs and along the aquarium. He’s worried it might be a call for an interview; he’s worried he’s already established himself as an utter dork. He splits the electronic gates and heads for the lawn, leaning on a statue of Winnie the Pooh as he catches his breath.
“Hi,” he pants. “I’m very sorry. Who is this?”
“Hah! It’s Thompson.”
“Is that the company name?”
“Flores, buddy! Thompson.”
Jack feels moisture on his fingers and discovers he’s placed his hand on some freshly deposited bird-turd.
“Jesus!” He holds his hand out like a dead fish.
“I’m flattered, Jack, but no, I am not your savior.”
“Jack, you never change, do you?”
Jack kneels to wipe his hand on the grass and immediately feels the wet lawn soaking into the knees of his pants. Thompson keeps talking.
“All right: take two. This is Thompson, and I’m calling to pay you back for your understanding during that little incident in Oregon. The wife and I are taking off to Italy for a month – a second honeymoon, God help me – and we need someone to keep an eye on the house, which just happens to be directly on the beach in Aptos. I thought you could use a break from the rat race.”
“Oh.” Jack struggles to his feet, looking like he’s wearing two dark kneepads. “I… I don’t know…”
“Let me paint a picture,” says Thompson. “Ten steps and you’re on the sand. You can watch dolphins and sea otters and pelicans from the deck. Dolphins! Otters! Now do me a favor, Jack, and say yes, so I can pay you back. Y-E-S.”
Jack sees no reason to do otherwise. “Yes.”
“Great! Now – you know that Starbucks on Stevens Creek and De Anza? Across from that weirdass sculpture? Meet me there in half an hour, so I can give you the keys. We leave on Tuesday.”
“Sure,” says Jack. “I’ll see you there.”
Jack turns on his own footsteps, surprised at this sudden development. He’s not sure if it’s all good, but he notices the crisp yellow of the leaves along Rodrigues, and decides that he’ll have a second Americano.
Photo by MJV