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Public At Large



By Mike Quinlan

It had been a bit of grace. She’d spent the morning, or the better part of early afternoon, which she had allowed to become morning, affixing bare-boned biographical details—name, address and phone number, like a demented, regressive mantra—to job applications, their neatness, squares, and monochromatic lettering in juxtaposition to the swirling, improvisational plans she was alternately hatching then discarding in her jumbled mind.

As in grade school she’d carefully printed out her name in the individual boxes of the applications, (__________ ____________), conscious of each exaggerated, over-sized pen stroke, her tongue protruding slightly from her mouth the way it did when she self-consciously over-concentrated on something simple, then restless over her crooked teeth, like an overactive child in church crawling hard-polished and oft-occupied pews with lazy familiarity. Years before, in a yellowing paperback physiognomy book she’d absent-mindedly been flipping through, bored and wandering alone through a gigantic, fluorescent-lit Goodwill with huge, rain-streaked windows like crude stained glass, she’d read, bemused:

Teeth: White, lustrous, shining, pearl-like, of equal size and thirty-two in number, indicate fortune. If the teeth are big, dirty, crooked, a woman is unlucky and unworthy of anyone.

There it was, in black and white. A revelation! She had laughed then, but it seemed true enough now, sitting here alone in the backroom office waiting for her interviewer, dander in the flattened carpet, peeling paint, the sharp smell of mold and stale air saturating the room. And yet it was her good fortune to even find the place, just as she was ready to give up. Stumpknockers Bar and Grill. She’d spied the elongated sign off Route 441, nailed squarely to the second story of the building itself, and jutting out slightly from between the facsimile of two sea-green shuttered windows. As her car pulled into the gravel drive, a slight chalky dust emanating from the tires’ rotation before immediately dissipating in the late afternoon sun, she’d thought, why not? At a local chain restaurant, among the myriad applications earlier that afternoon, she had to admit she’d been intimidated by the good-looking wait staff and servers loitering and flirting in the entryway, a blonde girl nearly ten years her junior—no longer a peer, as she might have considered her only a few years earlier—handing her the application with casual scorn, a fixed, self-possessed look in her eyes that seemed remarkably like hostility.

Face: It is said that if a face is round, soft, flushed-red, smooth, the lady is considered fortunate. She is respected, a good administrator, she can control all situations with confidence.

She’d left dejectedly with the single sheet of thin paper, not bothering to fill that particular one out.

“I like you,” he says, her interviewer now facing her, a photographer assessing his portrait, his eyes moving down over her application with a look of vague pain or maybe befuddlement, the reluctant officiant of a solemn rite. “I like you,” he repeats, nodding slightly, as if he was only now ready to accept this startling turn of events. He’d left the door to the office ajar, so that the incessant din of the restaurant dining room reaches her ear, the reality of this lackluster place beginning to press upon her. There are no profundities amidst that chatter, she thinks—just the numbing repetition of forced pleasantries and bored exchanges. She sees the waitresses outside flit from table to table, their modest ankle-length jean skirts floating like denim bell jars over dirty, very-much-lived-in white sneakers: Mennonites. There was a large community of Mennonites in this area she remembered. Strange angels.

Legs: If the calves are tapering, round, and fleshy, it indicates that such a woman is pious, religious, and will do good deeds.

These women, with near waist-length versions of the hairstyles she recognized from her junior high school days, would be her coworkers. What would she say to them? She tries to picture herself interacting with them, but cannot.

Could she not say politely to the interviewer, “Excuse me, I’m sorry, I’ve made a mistake…” and graciously as possible exit the interview? But he is still talking, oblivious to her growing unease, her composure and even posture beginning to buckle under the unpleasant prospect before her, one that mere minutes ago had been appealing—the notion now embarrassing, a joke. An unfair and unfortuitous succession of events had tricked her, prodded her sinisterly in this unattractive direction. All she has to do is put one foot in front of the other now and leave. And that is my right, she consoles herself, as though this were in question.

Feet: While walking, if the full foot falls on the ground and all the toes touch the ground, it is a sign of fortune.

Allowing herself to walk out now, through the unresisting front door, out into the cloudless twilight sky above, an eerie silence greeting her, she is larger than life, emboldened with the rush of an easy, if temporary, escape.

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