On my first day at the Cypress Park Market, my manager, Mike, handed me this ungodly green visor, you know the kind with the Velcro at the back, and told me that from now on I would wear it as if it were a princess crown – with that kind of pride. It had something yellow and decaying on its brim but I put it on and did a royal wave around the kitchen, which no one really found to be funny at all. The kitchen was small and cast from a pallete of gray shades: the dull steel appliances lined against the back wall, the scarred plastic work stations, the speckled epoxy countertop that customers leaned over to mutter their orders, all the while peering suspiciously into the fray.
The way it works at Cypress Park is basically you start out doing the worst of all possible jobs, and move on up from there, with the best of all possible jobs being about a four on a scale from one to ten, with ten being just okay. Mike had me cleaning bathrooms and scraping congealed mayonnaise from plastic dishes for my entire first month. By July, I graduated to sandwich making. Sandwich making is thought of by the general population as sort of a lowly art form – any old Joe can slap together a satisfactory PB and J, right? Wrong.
“Wrong, Aaron,” Yolanda would say. She always nicked me under the chin with one of her glistening purple nails while she was reprimanding me, and I always wondered about what kinds of rotting food products were stuck underneath those acrylic beauties. Yolanda was maybe thirty-four and very round through the hips, and she took great pride in her legacy at the Cypress Park Market. She had been working there for twelve years. Twelve. She enjoyed referring to the practice of sandwich making as “a lost gem dating back to the time of our ancestors,” but I was never sure if by ancestors she meant her archetypal housewife mother, or the hairy Neanderthals of old. Either way, she was a riot, and I took a lot of Yolanda’s phrases home with me.
“Aaron,” my girlfriend would say, “when are you going to get a real job?”
“Lisa,” I always kept my gaze level with hers, to impress how very serious I was. “Sandwich making is a lost gem dating back to the time of our ancestors.”
I was twenty-two, a recent graduate of a quasi-competitive university on the east coast of our great nation. I spent my days crafting meatball subs with Yolanda and her fake nails. I was not unhappy.
I’ve known Clause Hartmann since the fourth grade, when everyone made fun of him the second the calendar switched to December. To make matters worse, clueless Mrs. Hartmann really loved Clause in the color red, which meant that his sweaters, winter jacket, and backpack were all red. The poor kid barely stood a chance. Someone had to take pity on him, and I’ve always been a charitable guy.
We championed our way through middle school together, and made the most out of high school (which really meant lying on my stomach on Clause’s bedroom floor watching him study calculus for hours on end, even on Saturdays). I followed Clause to college only by some miracle from the admissions gods, because even my parents told me that I didn’t stand a chance at any school of Clause Hartmann’s caliber. No thanks to them, I was not only accepted but also managed to graduate in four years.
Clause has, since gaining independence from his mother, refused to wear the color red. After graduating in May, however, we moved into an apartment together on Red Maple Boulevard just north of the downtown, which I feel to be deeply appropriate, all things considered. Our roommates, Gordon and Sam, had also gone to university with us, and, like Clause, had real jobs. Lisa had a real job. My parents had real jobs, still, in their ancient and abysmal states of deterioration. Clause’s girlfriend, Candice, had a real job.
Always, from all sides, “When are you going to get a real job, Aaron?”
I loved this question, because the answer was so simple. “I already have a real job.”
Back to Yolanda I went.
“Aaron!” Mike emerged from his office, the door of which spelled MAN_GE_ in chipping letters. I was wrist-deep in tomato sauce, which was mushy and cool against my palms. I looked at Mike, eyebrows raised, and he paused for a second.
“What are you doing?”
I pulled my hands from the metal tub and said, “Just mixing the tomato sauce.”
“With your fingers?” Mike hefted the waistband of his khakis further north, toward his bulging stomach. He let his hands rest on his belt.
“I’m getting in touch with the art of sandwich making,” I said.
Yolanda shouted, “Amen!” from the other side of the kitchen, and my latex gloves dripped red goop onto the counter.
Mike exhaled with enough force to ruffle the order slips across the counter from where he stood. He said, “Watch yourself, Mr. Baker. I won’t tolerate buffoonery in my kitchen.”
I offered a salute that splattered tomato juice across the floor. “I’ll clean it,” I quickly said, and Mike sighed again.
“I came out here,” he said, emphasizing each word very carefully, “to tell you that your girlfriend called. She would like you to know that she’s stopping by in twenty minutes.”
I groaned. This was about the most recent batch of resumes.
“Look, Aaron,” Mike said, and rocked back on his heels with his thumbs still hooked over his belt. “I like you. But I don’t want your personal life playing itself out in my sandwich shop, and I don’t want your grubby paws in my tomato sauce.” He raised his eyebrows threateningly. “I don’t want to see or hear about either of these things happening again. Capiche?”
“You got it,” I said, and he turned back toward his office.
“You got an Italian Supreme and a Vegetarian Special comin’ your way, Aaron,” Yolanda sang from the front of the kitchen, where customers peered in over the small counter.
On impulse I ran a hand through the top of my hair, and smeared myself with tomato sauce and whatever the hell else got mixed into the food tubs at Cypress Park. Yolanda bustled toward me with the order slips, her eyebrows screwing up to the top of her forehead.
“What’s goin’ on with your hair?” She put the slips down in front of me.
“I’m going au-naturale,” I said, and took off the soiled gloves. As I reached for a new set Yolanda let out a low whistle and turned away. “You kids, trying to be resourceful… tomato sauce as hair product, good lord….”
I set to work on the sandwiches, hoping to have them finished in time to rinse out my hair before Lisa showed up in her usual physical splendor, her own locks long, brown, and sporting a permanent sheen.
No such luck.
I was halfway through the Vegetarian Special when from the corner of my eye I spotted her glossy hair spilling over the counter and into the kitchen as she pitched herself forward to try and catch a glimpse of me.
“Aaron!” she yelped, and I dropped the banana peppers that I had been holding. “Come here!”
Like a kid walking towards his mother for punishment, I dragged myself across the kitchen toward my girlfriend, whose eyes were wild with fury.
“What kind of a game are you playing?” she demanded, without preamble. “I saw the resume that you submitted to Harper, Harper & Lee, Aaron. It was pure horseshit.”
Lisa really was a sweetheart, in the truest sense of the word. She spent her summers in high school working with underprivileged families in Africa, and lived in China for a semester during college, volunteering at orphanages and hospitals. She had been an engineering major and now worked for a company that designed water purification systems for impoverished nations. She was a saint, basically, and expected similar holy acts from me, even though all I could produce was a Vegetarian Special, although maybe not even that if I kept being interrupted.
“What do you mean?” I asked. I knew what she meant, obviously.
“What do I mean?” Lisa screamed. The few customers sitting on rickety plastic tables in the dining room looked up, alarmed. “You didn’t even include your highest accolades, Aaron, or your charity work. Did you forget that you’re actually intelligent? A functional member of society?” Her hands were pressed into the counter. “Do you even want a real job?”
“I have a real job,” I said.
She rolled her eyes, “This?” Lisa spread her hands outward, and lowered her voice so that only I could hear her. “Aaron, you are so much better than this. Present yourself with a goddamn challenge. How long did you even spend on that resume?”
Fifteen minutes. “I don’t know, Lisa, like an afternoon?” I watched her eyes narrow, and I added, “I’m sorry if I forgot a few things, okay? I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, Aaron, I’m sorry, too.” She shook her head in disbelief. “I’m really sorry you’re wasting yourself like this.”
I heard Yolanda’s heavy footsteps approaching from behind my right shoulder, and she carefully slid a plate across the counter. She had finished my Vegetarian Special.
“Sorry,” she whispered, and then bellowed, “Veggie Special!”
Lisa had pressed her lips together, and was watching me from what seemed like a long ways away. She looked kind of sad, or defeated, all of a sudden.
“What?” I said.
She shook her head, “I’m really disappointed in you, Aaron.”
Clause was eating a spinach salad with salmon when I got home from work. He had made it himself, unsurprisingly, and was leaning against the kitchen counter as he ate, in his pressed gray slacks and a pale blue button-down shirt.
“Hey, Aaron,” he said, and watched as I shuffled through the door. I was covered in condiments, as usual, hair still matted to my forehead and streaked with red.
“Hey,” I said, tossing my balled-up apron and visor onto one of the couches in our living room. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Sam had to work late and Gordon is at the gym,” he said, and took a bite of salad.
The gym. Such motivated people.
I opened the fridge and pulled out the milk to pour myself a bowl of cereal, and Clause casually said, “So I think I found you a potential job at my dad’s company.”
I groaned, with so much force that it actually hurt my throat. “Can we actually not have this discussion today? I’m pretty sure Lisa is already composing her breakup speech so I would really like to just not think about my career right now.”
Clause watched me move about the kitchen as I violently opened and closed drawers in search of a spoon. Once I had thrown myself into a chair at the table and started gulping down Cheerios, he joined me, and slowly said, “First of all, I doubt that Lisa is planning any sort of breakup initiative.”
I snorted and said, “Well, you weren’t there to see her guilt-tripping me at the freaking Cypress Park Market surrounded by the dregs of humanity.”
Clause took a bite of his salad and chewed pensively. Clause always looked pensive. He had these square, black glasses and a chiseled jaw that offset his flawlessly groomed hair, which I knew to be very silky indeed. Clause looked like the living version of one of those marble statues from ancient Greece. I slurped some more cereal.
“Well,” he said, “I can imagine she’s beginning to worry.”
When I didn’t say anything, he continued, “It is September, Aaron, and you haven’t even landed an interview with a reputable company yet.”
I let out a slow exhale, and placed my spoon gently into the cereal bowl.
“Look, Clause,” I said. “Not a single one of the applications that I’ve turned in has been for a company that I found on my own, the reason for that being, I don’t want to work for these kinds of people at these kinds of places.” I raised my eyebrows at him. “I know that you and Lisa are super determined to make something of my life, but what’s wrong with it now? I’m happy, man.”
I picked up my spoon and began to eat, and Clause said, “Aaron—”
“Mm-mmm,” I held up my hand, palm facing him. With cereal in my mouth I said, “I’d rather work with Yolanda than those pretentious suits who spend half their life in rush-hour traffic.”
“Let’s just look at your resume,” Clause said, low and steady. He was never worked up; he could manage anything, even me. “We can do it tonight. I think you’re missing a lot of really key things, Aaron, that make you a great candidate for the position that I found.”
I shook my head and chewed.
“Come on,” he said. “Do it for me. And Lisa. She loves you.”
Lisa. I paused for a moment, mid-chew, and watched her stand at the end of a runway in my mind, with the wind blowing her hair. Lisa could have been a Victoria’s Secret model if she hadn’t had higher aspirations. She could have given up on me, the flat tire that kept dragging her over to the side of the road, ages ago. She could have chosen a much more driven boyfriend to begin with, and she was going to change the world, with or without me. When we were freshman in college, Lisa told me that she had known right from the start that one day I would be her husband.
“Make yourself someone who deserves her, Aaron,” Clause said. “She wants what’s best for you.”
We were silent for a moment, watching each other from where we sat at opposite ends of the table. “What is best for me?” I finally asked. “Doesn’t the world need sandwich-makers, too?”
Clause shrugged, “I think you could find something to do that would be much more intellectually stimulating, and much more financially realistic. Do you really want Lisa to pick up the check for the rest of your lives?”
I glowered at him. I glowered at Lisa from inside my mind. I glowered at my parents, tucked away in Wisconsin, probably dialing their cell phones right that moment to ask me if I had found a real job yet.
I sighed. “What’s the job?”
When I got the PR job with Hartmann Magnetics, Lisa was so happy that I almost didn’t recognize her. After an entire summer of gloom, she was almost a schoolgirl again, clutching at my hands and kissing all over my face and wanting to go out to dinner and breakfast and for coffee and to pick apples.
She also wanted to go shopping.
“We can start at Saks,” she told me, and reached for my hand as we cut across the parking lot toward the shopping mall. She was glowing. “We’ start with pants, at least five pairs to get you through the work week, in neutral colors. And from there we can move on to shirts, and then the best part, ties and cuff links.”
She leaned her head onto my shoulder. Her hair always smelled so good.
She said, “I’m just so proud of you, baby.”
This was nice, but I didn’t say anything. Would she still have loved me if I made sandwiches for the rest of my life? The word unconditional popped into my mind, but some questions are better left unasked.
Clause had submitted my amped-up (and admittedly, more truthful) resume to his father’s company in the middle of September, and I had been offered an interview within two weeks. My interview had not been with Mr. Hartmann himself, but somehow, I had still gotten the job. (“I told you you’re smarter than you think you are!” was Lisa’s squealed justification).
I would start on the first of October.
As Lisa pulled me forward toward the racks of suit jackets and pressed pants, I couldn’t help but feel that I was leaving something behind. A small but clamorous part of me was keenly aware of the smell, here: clean and crisp, not at all reminiscent of banana peppers and tomato sauce.
My cubicle at Hartmann Magnetics was the size of my bedroom at the apartment, but in terms of quality, this space was significantly lesser by comparison because it did not include my bed. I missed Yolanda.
“So we abide by the general workday standards of approximately nine am to five pm, five days a week,” my quickly balding co-worker, Frank, explained. He hefted a box onto my empty desk and said, “This is some paperwork that you can start with today. I’m right next door if you have any questions, Aaron.”
I blinked and he was gone.
I sank into my desk chair, a decently comfortable piece of furniture, padded in a faux black leather, that wheeled so that I could zoom from one corner of my space to the other in times of crisis. I turned on my computer and watched it boot up. I rocked back and forth in the chair. I put my feet up on the desk. I tried to stretch my arms out behind my head, but the white and gray pin-stripe shirt that Lisa had chosen for my first day at work was too restricting to allow for much movement.
The computer turned on, and a message flashed across the screen: welcome to hartmann magnetics. please enter your login key and passcode.
I opened the box that Frank had given me, searching for the right paper to reference, and typed in my username and password.
The screen changed, and a new message appeared at its center: welcome, aaron baker.
I had been absorbed into the machine.