The offices of the Handhold Program (for the Employment-Challenged) were situated in Suite B190 of the Jimmy Carter Federal Building on N. Summit Avenue. The “B” designated basement-level, so you’d know to press “B” on the elevator control panel. Roger Hempstead exited the elevator at three minutes to one in the afternoon on a Thursday and, concentrating on the surface density of his fingertips, adjusted the knot of his paisley tie. He was also wearing a navy blue sport coat and black wingtips. Roger Hempstead was six feet tall, of moderate build, full of workaholic tendencies, and looked, from a distance, in dim lighting, like Harrison Ford in “Witness”. Roger was forty-two years old. Or would have been, had he not died of a brain aneurism the previous year, so the very fact that he was there applying for assistance from the Handhold Program was proof of one thing—Roger Hempstead was no slacker.
The motto of the Handhold Program was “Replacing Problems with Solutions”. Beverly Craggmeier had it blown up and framed on her office wall, just because she could. It was a fact that, for the first time in her career, Beverly had walls. The current Democratic administration had first funded the program three years before, and as soon as she heard the news, Beverly had sensed opportunity and applied for the open position, abandoning her old cubicle and her old lecherous boss (Mr. Vernon J. Dawkins) at the Veterans Administration Benefits Department. When she packed up, all her belongings left their empty outlines traced in dust. Before the VA, she had languished in the IRS Personnel Office’s cubicles. Before that, there was no Jimmy Carter Federal Building, mostly because Jimmy Carter was still president. Another fact: Beverly Craggmeier’s federal employee number was five digits long. She was in charge of the entire Handhold office, and that included hiring newbies and assigning them eight-digit employee numbers.
Beverly finished her ham sandwich and cleaned the dirty lenses of her cat-eye glasses and opened the file for her first afternoon appointment. She got out the checklist she had to now fill out and submit after each interview. That was because Beverly was on disciplinary probation, thanks to some incompetency bullshit Vernon Dawkins cooked up right after she had left the VA. Vernon was a minimally-useful asshole who looked a lot like Walter Mathau in “The Bad News Bears”, except that Walter Mathau had manners and wouldn’t have hit on her nearly as much. She complained once, to the higher-ups, and all they did was make a big show of signing Vernon up for mandatory sensitivity training. Two days later, Vernon asked Beverly if she would help him with the training. Then he suggested that sensitivity training might work better if they were both naked over at his place, i.e. directly training the sensitive areas. That same week, the notice was posted for the open position at Handhold, and that was it for Beverly at the VA. Vernon Dawkins would have to train his own sensitive areas.
Roger Hempstead entered the waiting room and stated his name at the counter. A bored young Latino woman handed him a clipboard full of forms and a ballpoint pen on a leash. Roger took them. Or tried to. In his nervous state, Roger had forgotten to focus on fingertip density, and the clipboard fell right through his hand and clattered against the counter. He made a point of saying Oops, greasy pizza! and made a wiping motion against his pants before picking up the clipboard. For Roger, clothing always had a welcome weight and pull to it, and it was a constant reminder to him to concentrate on the surface tension of his perimeter beneath it, but the hands were a different story—they remained free and required constant mental attention. Gloves were not an appropriate accessory for the serious job-seeker.
The walls of the waiting area were a particularly surrendered shade of gray. Roger chose a seat against the far wall. There was a potted ficus in one corner, barely containing its misery, like a child sitting for portrait photography. There were three other people in the waiting area. Roger, in a prior trip to the Unemployment Office, had decided this much: that the unemployed often cultivated an aura of distinct unemployability, and he would use that insight to gain an edge—a sport coat and tie, shining like a beacon of possibility in a depressing sea of hoodies and sweatpants. He would need it, too, because despite their state of dress he knew that the others, at a minimum, had a pulse.
At ten minutes after one, the bored Latino woman showed Roger to Beverly’s office. Beverly wasted no time.
“So, Mr. Hempstead, the Unemployment Office was unable to help you. And why was that?”
“Because I don’t have a Social Security number” answered Roger.
“If you’re an illegal, sir, you need to start with Immigration and Naturalization” said Beverly, starting to close the file.
“I did have a number, it’s just that it’s no good anymore” said Roger.
Beverly eyed him over the tops of her eyeglass frames. She kept the file open.
She handed him one of the government forms he had already filled out. “You failed to check a box in Part Two of the 1026” she said.
“None of the choices apply to me” answered Roger.
Beverly didn’t have to look at her copy of the form; she closed her eyes and recounted the list from memory. “Part Two asks you for your particular employment challenge: vision, hearing, mobility, motor coordination / manual dexterity, mental impairment, emotional instability, psychiatric impairment, felony conviction, or substance abuse. Indicate at least one.”
“Exactly” said Roger.
Beverly sighed. She opened her eyes and glanced at the motto framed on her wall. Then she said, “Sir, just what is your problem?”, and she knew there were two ways to interpret that question, and she was sure she meant both of them.
“I’m not alive” answered Roger, sheepishly, as if “drug-addicted” would have been a more preferable answer.
Beverly, having worked for the government for decades, had a survivor’s toolbox of instincts, and they were unanimous in telling Beverly that this was a gimmick. It reeked of a set-up. Of Vernon J. Dawkins. She would play along, at first, until she could root through her drawer for the mini-recorder.
“So, as in dead” said Beverly.
Roger nodded. “Matter-challenged, density-deficient, whatever you prefer.”
“Mr. Hempstead, you are applying to be a Handhold customer. We call our clients “customers” because we are here to serve them, and sometimes the best thing you can serve someone is a tough-love sandwich. We demand that our customers not define themselves by their challenges. Challenges are just temporary barricades, and you have to decide right now whether or not your barricade looks more like an eight-foot barbed-wire fence or a flimsy track hurdle. If you feel like a hurdler, welcome to the Handhold program. If you’re a fence type of guy, there is nothing I can do for you.”
Roger did not hesitate. He said, “I’m a hurdler, Ms. Craggmeier, definitely.”
It was not the response Beverly was hoping for, but she played along. “Are you ready to redefine your challenge as a unique and atypical giftedness?”
“Yes ma’am” said Roger.
“In that case,” said Beverly, “I may have something for you. Hell, maybe you could even work for me. But you need to understand, even if I manage to find you a position, you can only remain in the program for 1.5 years per federal mandate. We are here to provide handholds, not to hold hands. Understand? Eighteen months, tops. Then you’ll need to go walk into the light or something.”
“Agreed” said Roger.
Beverly closed the file. “Mr. Hempstead, I am going to give you a test. If you are the mainly-deceased go-getter that you say you are, it should be no trouble for you”. She explained it to Roger, then drew him a simple map, and never expected to see him again.
After Roger Hempstead had left her office, Beverly buzzed the front desk and told the bored Latino receptionist to hold her calls. Beverly needed a moment. Whenever she was reminded of the VA, all the scabbed hurts tore fresh again, and even years later, she could never decide which was worse, the feeling of Vernon’s hands groping her breasts, or the feeling you get when no one believes your truth. In the end, she figured, they were the same—your insides, the stuff that matters, leaves, and the thin shell that’s left behind drifts through the day somehow, barely enough to inflate your clothing.
Roger Hempstead entered the building prior to four-thirty in the afternoon, when the government workers streamed from their cubicles and out through the main lobby, into the waiting arms of public transportation. He took up temporary residence in a toilet stall until after five, at which point he made his way to the sixth floor. The outer door to Suite 600 was locked, as expected. Roger set the digital camera on the floor, stripped naked, and let his mind drift, enough to lower his density and pass through the maple veneer and hollow-core door, where he stopped and proceeded to concentrate on hand density again so he could turn the door latch and retrieve the camera and his clothes.
Beverly had told him that Vernon Dawkins liked to stay in his office, within the locked office suite, enjoying his own private happy hour from five to six each afternoon, at which time the cleaning crew arrived with their squeaky cartfuls of cleaning gear. During that hour, Vernon would sit at his desk and drink Black Label from a flask and link his private laptop to the office’s wireless network, visiting verboten websites like “Admin Assistants in Heat” while furiously throttling his genitalia.
Roger waited outside the office until the moans started to grow, then strolled in and introduced himself. Vernon shouted and fell backwards out of his swivel chair, banging the back of his head against the credenza. He was out cold. Roger snapped quite a few shots of Vernon, pants around the ankles, lots of visible pale skin in the midsection, made sure that some had a clear facial angle, and took a few more pictures of the laptop screen image as well, which featured a busty blonde peeling off a pinstriped camisole while straddling a copier.
It was almost five-thirty, and Roger considered sticking around to enjoy the cleaning crew’s discovery, but he had things to do, and a good night’s sleep was crucial. Based on the photos he had, tomorrow would be the first day of his new job, and his boss, a career bureaucrat with cat-eye glasses, probably valued punctuality as much as she valued the retirement of old debts.
Joe Kapitan lives a day’s forced march south of Cleveland. The Witness Protection Program made him an architect. His fiction has been published e-version (Annalemma, PANK, elimae, SmokeLong Quarterly, Emprise Review, etc.) and tree-version (The Cincinnati Review, A cappella Zoo, Bluestem, Midwestern Gothic). He blogs erratically here.