A is for anxiety, the creeping kind that climbs up your limbs, grabs your hair, while you’re clearing a jam in the printer, tosses you across the office, and makes you whine, What am I doing with my life?
B is for boredom, which sucks the air from your lungs as you sit at your desk, stale coffee washing over your tongue.
C is for Carol, who works for the photographer down the hall and wears the craziest outfits—pink, purple, green, blue, all vibrating together into an exuberant whole.
D is for the debt that keeps you in this job, coding surveys, proofreading marketing reports, nursing paper cuts.
E is for encephalitis, which is in the news and is scaring you this week, but you can’t not read the news, which then of course leads you back to A, and the question, the perennial question.
F is for fear, which wakes you in the middle of the night from a dream in which pterodactyls have carried you to the slopes of an active volcano.
G is for goat cheese—salty and almost sweet, which is what you think about during the meeting that recaps the marketing reportyou read and reread last week.
H is for helium, which makes balloons soar and voices squeak, and must be the thing that causes the consultant, in her serious dark suit, to speak in such an oddly pitched tone.
I is for Ichthyosaurus, the fish-lizard, which went extinct tens of millions of years ago. Mary Anning, a nineteenth-century fossil collector and paleontologist, found and correctly identified the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton. You ask yourself, why have you not applied to grad school?
J is for James, who delivers the mail and smells joyfully of vanilla. James makes you laugh but, after your boss points out that James likes you, James makes you nervous. You don’t want to give James the wrong impression.
K is for kangaroo, the animal you read about while waiting for this week’s survey data. You learn that the female kangaroo can produce two different kinds of milk at the same time, one for a newborn and the other for an older joey. Your mother, who calls during the afternoon, claims that kangaroo was your first real word.
L is for lettuce, which is what’s for lunch.
M is for Maureen, who is your boss but treats you like a friend and invites you to smoke menthol cigarettes in her office.
N is for the noise that engulfs you—jack hammers, car horns, screeching police vans—when you scuttle down to the street asking yourself why you still have not applied to grad school.
O is for oops, the mistakes you pile up: the typo in the executive summary, the phone message you fail to deliver, the confidentiality you accidentally breach. The office, its flat, blue light, the recirculated air, make you ill, but you love Maureen, her enthusiasm for the work, plus you have health insurance.
P is for potatoes, which come on the salad that Maureen orders for your lunch. They look hard and cold, but turn out to be salted, delicate, the best thing you have eaten all week.
Q is for quandary, which is what you find yourself in when Carol—vibrating, colorful—asks you out. You’re still seeing Lisa, even though she has moved to Denver to attend law school.
R is for the rest you need. You stayed up late, too late, talking on the phone with Lisa. Truth be told, you had the TV on during the conversation. Lisa sends you a break-up text first thing in the morning.
S is for steam, which rattles through the pipes of your building, overheating your room and keeping you awake one more night. Shards of your conversation with Lisa crackle in your mind.
T is for termination agreement, which is what Maureen asks you to sign, after days and days of conversation about your careless mistakes and lack of focus.
U is for the umbrella that Carol holds over you as you leave the office for the last time.
V is for Vivaldi, whose Four Seasons is playing in the cheese shop where you and Carol stop to buy goat cheese.
W is for the waltz you dance in the cheese shop with Carol. Lisa has vanished from your mind.
X is for xeriscape, the low-water, low-maintenance garden that borders the desert inn where you and Carol stay while you visit grad schools. Carol finds fun everywhere, even in airport security lines. She has you singing “Ode to Joy,” noon and night.
Y is for Yalta, which is where Carol, who studied Russian literature, wants to go on vacation next. She recounts Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog” over dinner, then apologizes for talking too much.
Z is for zoology, the graduate program you will start in the fall.
Katherine Gleason’s short stories have appeared in Derelict Lit, Gone Lawn, Juked, Jellyfish Review, and Southeast Review. She won first prize in the River Styx/Schlafly Beer Micro-Fiction Contest, garnered an honorable mention from Glimmer Train, and has published a number of nonfiction books.
FEBRUARY 10, 2020 / MUSEPAPER STORY PRIZE #48 / IT'S A JOB