It was my third time back at the temp agency in as many weeks. They hadn’t found me work yet, but the lady, whose name I forgot as soon as I finished reading her business card, said that they’d gotten a new test they wanted me to do. I’d already taken the typing test, the spreadsheet test, and the data entry test, but she told me the firm’s clients were clamoring for more statistics and diagnostics, the percentiles and charts with which they could make the most informed hiring decisions in the history of business.
“They’re all very scientific,” she said, waving the tip of a pen at me like a fencer anticipating a lunge. “They want all the information they can get about our talent before we send them out.”
I couldn’t see what else they needed to know that wasn’t on my resumé, which was a full three-quarters of a page if I double-spaced it: University of Iowa graduate, English major, GPA withheld, experience tending bar, which displayed my aptitude for customer service and intimate knowledge of point-of-sale systems. For skills, I put “writing,” “editing,” and “good listener.”
“It’s a buyer’s market. They want the best of the best, things being what they are.” She thrust at me with the pen, and I had to concede the point to her. Things are what they are.
A kid from my hometown fell to his death from a cliff in California three years ago. His name, same as mine, was Peter Barnes. He was there on a trip with his family, running ahead with his younger brother as they hiked along the bluffs overlooking the ocean. The brother said that Peter had sat down on the edge to get a better view, but either he slipped or his perch gave way, and down he went. The father climbed down after him, but there was nothing that he or the Coast Guard could do.
I was back in Skokie when this happened, just out of college and living with my parents. They told me to come out to the living room, that I wasn’t going to believe it. When I came out the reporter was talking about how I had lost my life in a tragic accident. The details were all wrong, though. This Peter Barnes was 16. He went to Niles North High School, not Niles West. He played hockey and wanted to be a doctor. My mom looked over at my dad, sunken halfway into his leather recliner.
“Typical,” Mom said. “Pete runs off to California and doesn’t even tell us.”
“Sneaky Pete,” Dad said.
“And now he’s back to haunt us forever.” She looked up at me. “Isn’t that right, Pete?”
The lady led me toward the back of the office, weaving between empty desks and swivel chairs abandoned at odd angles in the aisles. As far as I could tell there wasn’t another person in the office, but the computers were all on, their monitors flashing screen savers of grinning children and lighthouses reflected in the ocean. The lady opened the door to a testing room and waved me in. The room was empty. The blinds were drawn, but they might as well have not been. A pall of fog had been milling around the Loop all morning, and in the warmth of the afternoon it had retreated upward, crowding around the tops of the buildings like clouds squatting on a mountain range.
“All right,” the lady said, closing the door behind her. “Give me 50 jumping jacks.”
“What?” I said.
“Come on, 50 jumping jacks, let’s go.” Her tone was flirtatious, as though I’d bet her a kiss that I could do it and she was calling my bluff. I felt some dormant urge to impress her wake up as she brushed some loose strands of chestnut hair behind her ear, so I walked to the center of the room and set to work. My tie flapped everywhere and my keys flew out of my pocket halfway through, but I gave her the 50, and 11 after that. The burning in my chest and the taste of metal made it feel like someone had stuffed my lungs with steel wool and sparked it off with a nine-volt battery.
“Good.” The lady came over and grabbed me by the wrist. She counted under her breath as she squinted at her watch, then let go and scribbled something down on a clipboard.
“All right,” she said. “How about some push-ups?”
My younger brother Ben told me this story a couple days after the news broke. He was home from college for the summer, and he’d gone over to the convenience store near our house to buy cigarettes. When he handed his cash and ID to the cashier, a young blond he didn’t know, her eyes got wide for a moment.
“Are you Peter Barnes’s brother?” she asked.
“Yeah, you know him?” Ben said, pleasantly excited.
“Yeah. We had some classes together in school,” she said. She was probably around 17, Ben told me.
“Neat. Like what?”
“I don’t know. Math and English, I think.” She looked at him like she had something more to say. Then she turned to the register and started scraping around for his change, not noticing when a nickel popped out of the drawer and skittered over the counter. She gave him an odd look as she pressed the change into his palm, and her hand lingered for a moment on his. Ben figured she liked him.
“Well, I’ll tell him you said hi.” Then Ben took his cigarettes and left.
The lady was finally done with me around five, after the push-ups, sit-ups, and a set of wind sprints, which she had me do in the main part of the office because the testing room was too small and no one was around anyway. “Did I make the team, coach?” I’d joked between gulps from a paper cup, but she’d just smiled and told me I’d hear from them if anything came up.
The Red Line station was predictably overrun. Everyone was wearing sports jerseys and talking about how badly they wanted to win. I waited through three northbound trains, each already full, with everyone on the platform looking through the windows like children looking for their mothers in the supermarket. The third time the driver gave his usual bit about there being “a train behind me,” which I guess was true in the abstract sense, like how the sun is behind the moon during a solar eclipse, because it was a whole 20 minutes until the next one came.
It was evening by the time I took my stop in Uptown. My girlfriend, Molly, would be home. She worked for an ad agency, where she put together images of beautiful people drinking beer on boats, editing the bottles they had barely touched so the labels all faced forward. She told everyone that she hated it, but the money was good enough to keep us both in the apartment while I pitched in whatever I made at my increasingly sporadic nights at the bar. I knew Molly wanted to break up with me, because she acted like I did with the girlfriends I’d wanted to break up with, barely kissing back, sleepy wherever we went, quick to annoy at my jokes. But she stayed, maybe because we’d been together for two and a half years, or because I’d have to move back with my parents if she called it quits.
The building was one of those old-construction hotels that got turned into housing at some point. It had those elevators with the mesh doors you had to slide yourself, apparently designed to pinch off the fingers of thoughtless bellhops. The hallway on my floor, freshly painted but dimly lit, smelled of curry powder and weed. The lights were off when I got into the apartment. Molly wasn’t home.
I told Molly the story about the other Peter Barnes when we first met. This was a couple months after I came back from college. A friend of mine invited me out to a party down in Chicago with some people he knew from work, and I said I’d go. I was already in a bad mood when we got down there, because the train might have recently housed a pet store from the smell of wood shavings soaked through with hamster urine, and I was tired by the prospect of listening to the advice of the attendees who already had jobs, or, even worse, being forced to commiserate with the other sad sacks who didn’t.
The party was mostly as I expected it, cheap beer made cheaper by what we brought, floating next to my friend as he chatted with his coworkers, constantly being asked what I did for a living. Eventually my friend got dragged off to play Kings, and I made my way for the door, but Molly caught me before I could leave. She was hosting, and later admitted that she’d stopped me because she was worried that others might think the party was dying.
“The first person leaving is like the stopper getting pulled from a tub, you know?” she’d said, fiddling with the tab on her can of beer.
So we talked. Molly was a University of Chicago graduate, where she’d studied graphic design and studio arts. She was interning with an ad agency downtown, but didn’t like it. She threw her head back when she laughed, always dropped her once-daily contacts on the carpet before bed, and apologized for the long strands of hair I peeled off my body in her shower the next morning.
I told Molly about the kid that died in California, which she thought was hilarious. I told her about the frantic calls my parents had gotten, and the story about Ben and the gas station girl. I said that hearing the newscaster say my name on the air made me feel like I’d won some sort of important prize or game show.
I did my best to keep myself occupied while I waited for Molly to get home. I changed out of my sweaty interview clothes. I microwaved some leftover curry and rolled it around in a bowl of rice while I checked the online job boards, each still showing the same couple dozen positions that the companies refused to fill. I must have applied for all of them, even worked up the bullshit cover letters for each one, but hadn’t heard back. I called Molly a couple times, but every time I got put through to her voice mail.
I tried to think if there was anything else I should’ve been doing. Molly wouldn’t stay out without saying something. But I was going by how things had been before, before the work slowed, before the money stopped coming, before Molly stopped asking me if I wanted to see a movie or go to dinner because of the look I’d give her.
It was getting late. I was tired, all of me, but I knew I couldn’t stay here. My transit card had just enough to get me on the northbound train. If I left then I could still make the connection back to Skokie.
As I stepped out, my mind caught on a thought I’d been having ever since the accident. It’s of the father, climbing down the cliff. The ocean is breaking its teeth on the rocks. He can hear his wife calling to him from above, and the thrum of a helicopter in the distance. Even as he looks for the next foothold he knows it’s already too late. The time where he could’ve intervened is long gone, if there was ever anything he could’ve done at all. He’s descending and thinking I’ve never done anything wrong. I’ve never done anything.