The city bus rumbled over a rough spot in the road, jerking Larry back to attention. He had been obsessing about his socks. Larry was on his way to a job interview, the tenth one in less than a month, and the process had approached routine. He established the pair of slacks in his closet which looked the most professional and laundered them. He wore the tie which would paint the prettiest picture. All the kinks had been worked out, but the devil always seems to creeps out of the details, and so Larry was stuck with this sock problem.
Larry always felt like he possessed an endless supply of dark socks, starting in the days when he was attending college prep school and his mother delivered a laundry basket to his room every week, a basket heavily laden with neatly folded socks. In the years since then, due to the nonchalance of college classes and summer jobs, the dark socks had been lost by attrition. Over the course of the month, he had already worn every pair that remained, and they lay stinking in the clothes hamper even now, as he made the trip downtown for yet another job interview. The sock drawer told Larry the news: he had no choice but to wear blue cotton ones whose dye had faded to a shadow of its former brilliance. White socks were out of the question, certainly, and he could not stomach the thought of wearing moist, crumpled ones out of the hamper, so he went with the faded ones and hoped that no one would notice. That would never happen, would it? And even if anyone saw that his socks were not A-1 perfect, would that have a bearing on his eligibility for hire?
He didn't know.
Larry arrived in the lobby of his prospective employer's building with ten minutes to spare. The commute had been remarkably swift. All of these urban office parks plopped a bus stop at the front door, it seemed, and he wondered why anyone would take the trouble to drive to work when the bus was so blasted convenient. Then again, not everyone lived on a bus line as he did, so it would not be as reasonable for them. He projected the bus ride as a daily event and imagined it would be tolerable. A pleasant commute meant a lot to Larry. He considered it to be a deciding factor, along with the assurance of a flexible schedule. Not to mention a friendly group of co-workers; also, it would be ideal if there were some attractive single girls in the office. He pushed the call button for the elevator.
Spinning on his heel to view the lobby, Larry watched the seasoned corporate professionals stride across the shiny floor with purpose. Some of them took to the stairs -- perhaps they worked on a low floor? -- while others came to the elevator. A few visited the newsstand near the door and picked up a newspaper which would reveal exciting and mysterious information about the stock market. Not everyone bothered with the paper, but coffee was another matter. These professionals, all of them, clutching their cups of coffee -- Larry found it amusing. A sharp smile curled upon his face.
The elevator made a sharp dinging noise and reminded Larry of the task at hand. He was now surrounded by professionals, all of whom appeared to know where they were going. He took care not to rub shoulders or make eye contact with his neighbors; this seemed to be the professional way. The doors slid open. Larry stepped into the elevator.
Larry had become accustomed to these crowded elevators, having taken interviews in several skyscrapers. One person, usually a well-dressed man, says "What floor?" and all passengers quickly state their destinations as the self-appointed conductor punches the buttons in a quick sequence. Larry was pleased to see that this ride was no different.
"Thirteen," said Larry, smirking. The idea of stopping on the thirteenth floor felt odd to Larry -- many buildings in town skipped from twelve to fourteen in a phobic flourish. Larry had heard anecdotes about this particular show of superstition but never saw it in practice until he moved to the big city and started looking for jobs. An odd convention -- yet, in a way, Larry found it charming.
The doors slid open once again, and Larry stepped onto the thirteenth floor. Cool air invaded the space around his body. He had arrived in the office of The Bradbury Agency, and a smart-looking brass plaque elegantly announced that fact. Everybody, including the woman who called to schedule his appointment, referred to the company as "Bradbury," pretending that it had its own personal identity. Larry didn't buy that, but he liked what he knew about Bradbury. He had done his research and found them to be a highly creative advertising agency. In a perfect world, he would be reciting poetry for pay or twiddling knobs in a recording studio, but Larry knew that compromises become inevitable with the passing of time. He used one hand to smooth his necktie down his chest, keeping the other casually hidden in his pants pocket. He felt cool, confident. Socks were the last thing on his mind.
The receptionist spoke quickly and smiled with great sincerity. Her name, according to the name plate on the desk, was Sheila Masters. "Welcome to Bradbury," she said. Larry considered this woman, Sheila, to be the most impressive receptionist he had encountered since beginning his job hunt weeks earlier. Not only did she face the drudgery with vivacious energy, but she also had an attractive figure and a sweet face. And no wedding ring. Larry was starting to get better at noticing those details. When a man is single at age 25, it becomes more important. She provided him with a clipboard and a number of application forms. As he sat in the reception area and scribbled his social security number repeatedly, the receptionist, Sheila, made some indiscriminate phone calls around the office. Larry heard the name O'Leary. He remembered scribbling that name on a slip of paper earlier in the week. Was O'Leary a man or a woman? He couldn't recall. Larry preferred being interviewed by women; he could fall back on charm if his résumé failed to impress.
Sheila interrupted his silent wish with a terse statement: "Mr. O'Leary will be out to see you in a moment." Larry shuddered. Instantly, his attitude toward this woman had become something entirely different. He tapped the clipboard with the ballpoint pen he had been given, and looked at the back of Sheila's head as she took another phone call. Had she been looking at him when she made the announcement? If not, Larry thought this to be impossibly rude.
Then Larry heard his name spoken out loud. Standing near the receptionist's desk, Larry saw a tall, portly man with a red face. "You're Larry, right?" asked the man. "I'm Ed O'Leary. Welcome to Bradbury."
Chatting softly, the two men ambled down the hall in search of a conference room. According to Ed -- Larry had been instructed to call the interviewer by his given name, which was Ed -- it was a nightmare to schedule time in a conference room for job interviews. "With all of the committee meetings and brainstorming sessions, it's almost impossible to reserve a space for a one-on-one interview. Too many meetings, if you ask me. I believe that there is such a thing as too much communication." Larry nodded. He liked the fact that Ed was so forthcoming. "We may need to use an executive office instead. Those fellows are always out of town. It's fun to sit in a VP's chair," he said, winking. "It makes me feel like somebody, you know?"
"Definitely," said Larry. He looked at Ed's greasy hair, combed back in clumps of grey and white. The man did not qualify as bald, but his hairline had certainly retreated far enough to come close. Larry noticed the deep lines in Ed's plump forehead and experimentally touched above his eyebrows to see if he had any such feature. He didn't. Not yet, anyway.
"Here we are," announced Ed. He opened the door to a small conference room that contained three chairs, a round table, and a lonely telephone. Ed fiddled with a little gadget on the wall that indicated when the room was occupied while Larry took a seat. Larry saw that his socks were showing and adjusted his slacks for maximum coverage. Ed finished his business and sat down opposite Larry. "I paged through your résumé this morning," he said. "You've never worked in advertising before, correct?"
"No." Larry shifted in his seat.
"Don't be nervous, now!" Ed huffed, acting jovial. "Everyone in this building had to start somewhere. Twenty years ago, I was the young kid sitting in that chair. Well...not that same chair, but you get the idea, I'm sure."
"I'm not nervous," said Larry. "If anything, I'm excited. Exited to discuss what I can bring to Bradbury."
"Well said." Ed pushed Larry's file aside and leaned forward. "I'll bet that you've been on a lot of interviews lately. Am I right?" Larry responded with a smile. "So what am I going to do next?" Ed asked.
"Unless I miss my guess, you're planning to tell me a little bit about yourself." Larry felt good about the rapport that he had established with Ed. He relaxed his shoulders.
Ed told Larry about his career at The Bradbury Agency. He had studied business administration in college but took some design classes, which led to a position at Bradbury in the early years. He listed a few of the ad campaigns that had been on his desk in recent years, and Larry nodded with a glimmer of recognition. Ed made a strong case for Bradbury as a strong, vital company. Seeing the wedding ring on Ed's finger, Larry imagined that Ed's marriage was arranged shortly after he nailed down a job at Bradbury and had been chained to the company ever since. Ed looked rather conservative; how long had he been engaged before getting hitched? A year, two? How many kids did he have? Larry knew his attentions were scattering, but he chose not to care. This part of the interview didn't matter, anyway.
"Let's talk about the position," Ed said. "You'd be helping one of my teams write copy for print campaigns. You included some snazzy writing samples with your résumé, so I know you have a way with words. Tell me about your talents, and how you can -- "
Without warning, a discordant buzzer began to blare in a stuttering rhythm. Both men were shocked by the sudden sound. Ed quickly identified it: "Fire alarm!" Larry nodded. He used his two index fingers to cover his ears, making like a competent individual who reacted to stimuli appropriately. "The alarm gets dusty," Ed shouted, "and then it goes off for no good reason! It should stop in a minute!"
They waited together. Even with his ears protected, Larry could feel the effects of the alarm on his eardrums. They tingled, and it grew more intense as the noise continued for one minute, then two. Larry saw groups of people walking past the doorway, presumably to the fire exit. Some of the people were laughing; this was not lost on Ed, who finally caved in. "Must be a fire drill!" he said. "We'd better head outside!"
Thirteen flights of stairs. Had there ever been a time when Larry walked so many steps on purpose? Why would anybody do such a thing? What would it be like to climb up the stairs once they reached the bottom? Every step of the way, Larry hoped that the obscene trumpeting sound would come to a sudden halt. Then he and Ed could return to the little conference room and finish the interview. If not for a matter of dumb luck, Larry wouldn't even be present for this ridiculous fire drill. Annoyance approached anger.
Ed seemed to be feeling the same way. The two men walked shoulder to shoulder down the stairs, surrounded by evacuating professionals who took this to be a get-out-of-jail-free card. Most of them were engaged in light-hearted banter; some were already fidgeting with their cigarette lighters in anticipation of a short smoke break. Two or three of the older employees looked more like Ed: weary, bothered, overwhelmed. Larry stayed quiet as they went down, down, down. Between floors, the fire alarm could barely be heard, but when they approached another door -- LOUD! They couldn't have reached the ground floor soon enough.
The stairway emptied onto the sidewalk which ran along the east side of the building, closer to the freeway. Larry saw that the sun had disappeared behind the clouds, and the day had become gray and lifeless. He shivered.
Ed called to Larry. "Let's head across the street," he said. "Every time we do one of these, the firefighters tell us to get away from the building. We're supposed to congregate on the other side of the street." Ed shook his head and pressed his lips together. "This seems like a lot of trouble, doesn't it?"
"Yes," said Larry. He noticed that the other employees weren't making a move to cross the street. Inside the building, the alarm continued to blare.
Ed waited for a break in traffic and stepped into the street. Larry followed his lead, though he felt a little silly for doing so. He kept forgetting that this man, this stocky red-faced man with greasy hair, could be the one obstacle between his current situation and a regular paycheck. At this point, it felt irrelevant. The two men arrived at the other side of the street. Ed let out an exhausted cackle.
"I'll bet this is the most interesting job interview you've taken all month!" he said.
Larry rolled on his heels. "Interesting? Yes, we can say that. Unique, I'd say."
"Where else have you interviewed, Larry?"
The younger man hesitated. "Oh...I'd rather not say. There have been so many of them, and -- "
"You can speak frankly with me, Larry. Come on," Ed said, giving a little wink, "we're not upstairs right now. Nothing but two guys talking on the street, that's what this is. How many interviews have you taken? Where does Bradbury fit in?"
"I haven't kept count," Larry said. He forced out a laugh to keep the conversation light. "Ten? Maybe more than that. Twelve or thirteen." A fire engine screamed around the corner. Before it could roll to a complete stop, two men wearing heavy coats had hopped to the street to control the crowd. Like Ed had predicted, the other employees were instructed to cross the street.
"Look at that," Ed muttered. "They've got their axes in hand, don't they?"
"Firemen are interesting characters. Is there any other profession where carrying an ax is considered to be a good thing? How often does someone thank you for bringing your ax?"
Ed cracked a wide grin and chuckled. The obedient crowd had been successfully herded across the street, and now the two men were surrounded by dozens of office workers. Larry could see a similar group forming further down the road, and another one in the front of the building. The firefighters were now running into the stairwell, one after the other. They all looked so intense. Could this really be a fire drill?
"Hey there, Ed." A petite lady with a familiar face walked between Larry and Ed. "Have you seen Sheila?"
Ed shrugged. "Not since this morning, Stephanie. Is there something wrong?"
"No, no. I'm just looking for her, that's all." The woman disappeared into the rabble. Ed had called her Stephanie. Wasn't that the receptionist? Her name was Sheila, wasn't it? Maybe Sheila had been on her lunch break when Larry walked into the lobby, and this one, Stephanie, had simply been filling in. That seemed reasonable. Larry wondered what the real Sheila looked like.
"Twelve or thirteen interviews, huh?" Ed scratched behind one ear. "Do you have any more scheduled for today?"
"Bradbury is the last one on my list," said Larry. "I saved the best for last, of course."
"Flattery will get you everywhere," the older man joked. They shared a laugh. "The whole interviewing process is pretty crazy, isn't it? You seem to have a sensible attitude about it. Tell me, Larry -- which question do you hate the most?"
"You know as well as I do that there's only about ten questions that get asked in a job interview. Tell me the one you hate the most, and I'll skip that one. Fair enough?"
Larry watched the flashing red lights on the fire truck and thought about it. He smiled. "I got it. 'Where do you see yourself five -- or ten, or whatever -- years from now?' That one gets me every time. There's no good way to answer that question."
Ed tapped his toe. "You don't have an answer for that?"
"You're not married, then? No kids?"
"No, sir." Larry looked into Ed's eyes. For the first time, he felt that he might have said the wrong thing. "This is still just two guys talking on the street, right? I don't want to shoot myself in the foot."
Ed smiled broadly. He really looked old. "Don't fret, young man. There's only -- "
"SMOKE!" Somebody yelled that word, and within moments the murmur of the crowd became a roar. Dozens of fingers were pointing at the building. Both Larry and Ed swung their heads to see the smoke. What could it signify? Everyone had their own ideas:
"That's not normal."
"Where's it coming from? Is that an air vent, or -- "
"It's so black. Can it be an electrical fire if -- "
"What floor is that?"
"Eight, nine, ten -- "
"That doesn't look good. No, it -- "
"I think it's the twelfth floor. There's a fire on the twelfth floor --"
"Black smoke -- "
"This is a real emergency, it's not -- "
"Who's up there? Is that Bradbury?"
Larry took a few steps away from Ed. This situation had gone from pleasant to surreal to horrifying in a few short seconds. A second fire truck arrived with horns and sirens wailing.
"I swear I can see flames. What could have -- "
"The sprinklers are probably putting it -- "
"What's the worst that can -- "
All of the color had drained from Ed's face. Larry couldn't imagine what was going through his mind, and he didn't want to think about it. He checked his watch. The Bradbury Agency had swallowed up his whole afternoon, and he had plans for the evening. When he looked back to Ed, the older man was rubbing his eyes and shaking his head back and forth. Sheila approached -- no, her name was Stephanie. Stephanie came up to Ed and asked a question which Larry could neither hear nor decipher. Her bright eyes were wide and frightened. She looked terrified. Ed put his corpulent arm around the small woman and squeezed her shoulder.
The pillar of smoke grew thicker. Was that a good sign, or bad? Larry couldn't guess. He took another step backwards, and then another, and before he could figure the motive for his actions, Larry was walking down the sidewalk on his way to the bus stop. He could feel beads of sweat emerging from the pores on his forehead and the back of his neck. His whole body felt warm and damp.
Good thing he had worn cotton socks that morning. Yes, that was a good thing.