a liberating effect

By Suzanne Heagy

When Andrew’s stealth job search landed him a phone interview, he was excited. When it led to an invitation for a face-to-face interview, he was thrilled, not least because it included a trip to Tampa, all expenses paid. He pondered life in central Florida, land of alligators, swamps, and bikinis; no winter to speak of, no shrink-your-balls Chicago winter. The job wasn’t his dream job, but relocating to Florida would give him a fresh start and a solid reason to break up with Jessica.

The position was Catering Program Coordinator for a small college named after a saint. The duties and responsibilities included catering services for meetings, events, and conferences, supervising culinary student internships, and managing a budget. On the day of his interview, Andrew sat in the Provost’s office, a spacious corner room on the third floor of a building where monks had studied and prayed. In the courtyard below, palm trees waved their fronds over masses of blooming flowers.

Natural light fell softly on the gray padded furniture and the bookshelves that lined the walls. The Provost himself had a white, monk-like ring of hair and sat at a desk teetering with paperwork. He said, “We like to think we’re progressive here. Have you looked through the catering brochure?”

Andrew had, and he wasn’t impressed. “It provides a foundation. I think there could be some improvements.”

“What exactly would you improve?”

Andrew leaned forward. “What about a rotating menu of breakfasts? For example, a Japanese breakfast soup with broiled fish and bean curd. Let people have a taste of the world without ever leaving campus.” So far, the interview had been friendly. Lucy Baker from Human Resources had picked him up at the airport the day before. His driver and escort, Lucy reminded him of a long lost aunt. She gave him a tour of the campus and kitchen, where she introduced him to the kitchen manager. Old Bill, as he liked to be called, had been a sergeant in the Army and was dead serious about food safety regulations.

The Provost shook his head. “Our students don’t want fish. Our breakfast menu is quite popular.”

“Really?” Andrew doubted that people craved the same old Danish and scrambled eggs. “What about the appetizer menu? We could add African and Middle Eastern choices, even something as simple as chickpea salad, which makes a great sandwich.”

“Mr. Lansford, I’m not sure you’re familiar with our population. Our kitchen prefers to serve the classics.” The Provost sat back and interlaced his fingers over his abdomen. The look on his face said he understood something that Andrew didn’t understand.

“What classics?” Andrew demanded, unable to give up the battle. “Food is like language and culture. It changes all the time.” He knew he should just agree with the Provost, but he had a passion for gastronomic globalism that was also thwarted by his current employer, an Italian restaurant group.

“The classics, Mr. Lansford, are what they serve on menus all across America. We are not reinventing the wheel here.”

Andrew could make shrimp cocktails and cheese balls in his nightmares all night long. “I’m just saying that food is culture, and it never hurts to expand our horizons.”

At the end of the interview, the Provost stood. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Lansford.” He shook Andrew’s hand with a cold, hard grip. “If we’re interested, we’ll be in touch.” His voice sounded like the final bell.

Andrew realized then that he had blown it. Even though he knew it was suicide to smoke on an interview, he really wanted a cigarette.

Lucy Baker was waiting outside in the hallway. “Hello there,” his escort said, friendly as a worn out t-shirt with warm brown eyes and wrinkled trousers. “If you don’t mind waiting in the courtyard, I have to finish a few things in my office. Then we’ll head to the airport. You’ll be there in plenty of time.”

“Okay,” Andrew said, wanting to complain about the Provost but knowing it would be inappropriate. “I don’t think that went well.” He followed Lucy to the elevator and out into the courtyard where benches circled mulched islands of swaying, green shade.

“He’s not always easy to get along with, but his heart is in the right place,” Lucy offered without further reassurance before she left the courtyard.

A tiny lizard with a blue stripe down its back sunned itself on a paving stone. The tiny lizards were everywhere, darting in and out of the greenery. Near the bench where Andrew sat, huge red flowers stirred, their sticky, yellow stamens attracting fat bees. Birds cawed, and sunshine glittered on the palm trees’ silver silt. He was really digging Florida, even though he had blown the interview. And then there was the problem of his relationship. How would he break it off with Jessica now?  

The smoking cube hung above the tarmac at Tampa International, cantilevered from the wall of Airside A. Andrew sat inside it on a white metal bench and smoked. The cube was a perforated metal box suspended high enough above the ground so no one, he supposed, could pass anything illegal through the floor, walls, or ceiling of its golf-ball-sized grid. He could have felt caged, but he didn’t. The cube had a liberating effect.  

He could see clear through the grid at all angles, blue sky with clouds above, gritty pale concrete below. There was no imperative that he return to Chicago. If his life’s work required arguing over damaged produce, employee hygiene, and what constituted al dente, it didn’t matter in what kitchen he did it. And the lease on his condo expired in two months. She said she loved him, but she wasn’t that experienced. In fact, she was fourteen years younger, a gap that had begun to tell; she’d never heard of Gilligan’s Island until he showed her clips on YouTube. She said she loved him, but he knew he didn’t love her. She hadn’t even noticed that they hadn’t had sex in two weeks, not that Andrew hadn’t wanted to, but he thought it would be wrong to use her.

There were plenty of jobs he could land in Florida. Between tourists and senior citizens, cruise ships, casinos, and Disney, the state was kitchen city. He might not land his dream job, but at least he’d have the climate, hurricanes and heat instead of blizzards and tornadoes, shorts and sandals instead of snow boots.

The sun fell behind Airside A and cast a long shadow beyond the cube. An old man finished smoking, took his suitcase, and left. An older woman wearing fur-lined boots and a mini skirt came in and sat down. She smiled at Andrew, and he nodded back, not in the mood for conversation.

Thankfully, his phone rang. Unfortunately, it was Jessica. He decided to answer; there was no time like the present. “Hey there, Jessica. How are you?”

“I’m good. What time does your flight land?”

“Ten after eight. I’ll take the train.” They didn’t seem to have public transportation in Florida. He didn’t anticipate missing it, trains elevated or otherwise, loud and crowded, stinking like rotten potatoes and unwashed skin.

“Well. Tell me.”

“Tell you what?”

“Did you get the job?”

His girlfriend had been nothing but encouraging, telling him to go for the interview, wishing she could travel with him. He dropped his cigarette into the slotted ashtray and sat up straight. “I did. They made an offer, and I accepted the job. Can you believe it?”

He waited, and then she said, “Good for you. When do they want you to start?”

“They’re flexible on that.” A flock of birds sailed high overhead. “Hey, it’s almost time to head to my gate.”

“Okay,” she said. “We can talk when you get home.”

“We’ll talk,” he promised, hoping Jessica would realize on her own that the relationship was over.

After they hung up, he lit another cigarette. He thought about his belongings, what he would move, what could be left behind, when the older woman said, “Excuse me.”

“Yes?” he asked, hardly paying attention, his mind full of the future.

“I couldn’t help but overhear you. I don’t think you told the truth.”

She looked somewhere between sixty and seventy, around his grandmother’s age, though his grandmother had never worn a mini skirt or that much make-up. “Sure, whatever.”

“You said you had to go to your gate, and obviously, you don’t. You said, ‘I got the job,’ but it didn’t ring true. You didn’t get the job, did you?”

The cube was less liberating now. Andrew had lived in Chicago his entire life. He was used to the crazies who talked to themselves, who accosted strangers when you least expected it. On the street, he could just keep walking, but now he felt trapped. “Look, ma’am, why do you care? That was a private call.”

She stared back at him with antagonistic eyes, a cigarette posed in her right hand. “Lying hurts other people. It leads to anxiety and depression. Just a warning. You’re on your own, of course.”

On his own. That was what he wanted. “Of course,” he agreed, nodding. Whether or not he lied, his girlfriend would be hurt. The lie actually provided some comfort. He wasn’t leaving because he didn’t love her; he was leaving because of his career, something she could understand. She might not be happy in the short term, but she was young and would find someone else.

If the older woman would finish her cigarette and leave, Andrew would be happy. Actually, he was happy already. The decision had been made.


A Note About the Author: Suzanne Heagy’s first novel Love Lets Us Down (All Nations Press) was released is November 2015 and recognized as a finalist in the 18th annual Foreword Reviews’ INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards. Her short stories have appeared most recently in The Anthology of Appalachian Literature, Nikki Giovanni Volume VIII, and in Your Impossible Voice, Pleiades, and Untamed Ink, among others. Suzanne has served as the fiction editor of Kestrel, the art and literary journal at Fairmont State University, since 2008.