Joe and I worked together forty-one years and for the most part we never disagreed. Normally after one of our interviews I would look over at his sheet of paper and see the same boxes checked off, then down at the bottom I would see that he too had circled TERMINATE or that he too had circled FIVE MORE YEARS. If one day we interviewed thirty people, I’d wager that Joe and I agreed on twenty-nine of those thirty. And if we disagreed on that one person, whichever of us had circled TERMINATE always got the final say.
Usually that was Joe. He was always harder than I was.
Why’d we work the job so long? I asked Joe that last week, the day before he was finally scheduled to go in for his first interview. We did it for our families, he said. For our children, so they could attend the best schools. We did it so our spouses only had to be interviewed every seven years instead of every five. We did it because the salary and the pension were both kick-ass, like high six-figures, right? We did it because it’s one of the most important jobs out there, no doubt. And we did it because we got to live till seventy before ever even having our first interviews. That’s a hell of a lot longer than most people.
~ ~ ~
There was one guy my first year on the job. I remember him well on account of how batshit some of his answers were. Like he’d forgotten the importance of the interviews, forgotten the world we lived in. He was a pretty average looking guy. Bald patch, scraggly eyebrows, pale skin, wrinkled lips. Maybe ten pounds overweight. And he got all dolled up for us. Wore this cheap blue Oxford with all the buttons done up and a pair of chinos that were two inches too long. Decent black shoes and an alright knock-off watch, too. In retrospect probably the nicest he ever looked. And he was at least kind of friendly looking. He had that going for him.
Not that any of that stuff made a difference. I wasn’t very sympathetic the first year. It’s how they’d taught me to be during training. And Joe. Oh boy. Joe was always the opposite of sympathetic. Like the furthest thing from it. One year early on I asked him how his newborn boy was doing. He just shrugged and responded: “I dunno about that crap. Ask my wife.”
So Joe started off this interview. He usually did.
“Al Brownie. Just Al?”
Al leaned forward in his chair.
“Yep. Not short for nothing.”
“Okay. Start by telling us your three strongest traits benefiting society, Al.”
Al was a little stumped by this. Over the years the questions always changed.
After a moment he went:
“Uh. Sure. My three strongest traits. Repairing cars, for one.”
We both checked a box. A good box. The world will always need repairmen.
“For two. Well, I’d say painting and polishing cars.”
Another box. Not as good this time. He’d basically repeated the same answer.
“And three. I guess I sure do make my wife laugh a hell of a lot.”
Al chuckled. We checked another box. This time an awful box.
Al had provided a completely meaningless answer. Being a repairman was fine and all. But you had to provide in more ways than one if you worked a tier one manual-labour job. That was the whole point. Or you had to be highly productive and receive rave reviews.
And why would we care about his laughing wife?
“What y’all writing down there?”
“Let’s move on. How would you describe your current health, Al?”
This was important. Working class-men had to be fit. Otherwise they should be replaced by someone younger, cheaper, in better shape. Someone more productive.
Al thought for a bit.
“Huh. Not bad. My daughter’s always saying I should smoke less and eat less bacon every morning and drink less Appleton’s at night. Bit of a pain in the ass, honestly. And I guess when I wake up sometimes I might feel a lot like I just been run over by a tractor. But what the hell you expect from someone been repairing cars basically all his life?”
He thought again for a second, like we’d asked another question. Then he said:
“Aside from that I’d say my health is good. Pretty good.”
Al had dug himself a grave. Smoking in this day an age, as a physical-labour man? Another terrible box. Bacon every morning? Imagine the cholesterol. And what was this nonsense about feeling like he’d just been run over by a tractor? How could Al expect to continue efficiently repairing cars during his possible remaining years? He was a ticking time bomb. Joe and I both checked off some more boxes. Again, very bad boxes.
“And your mental health?”
“Your mental well-being, Al.”
Al scratched his bald patch and flicked some dandruff on the floor.
“My mental who now?”
I looked at Al then at Joe. I’m pretty sure we were both wondering how Al had made it this far in the first place. He was fifty, meaning this was his sixth interview. One at twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, etc. Surely someone, multiple people even, had screwed up during one of those interviews with Al as a younger man. Or maybe he’d whacked himself with a tire iron too many times over the years and was only starting to act so deranged now.
It was my turn for a question.
“Do you have any evidence of your running a successful auto-repair shop, Al?”
We would go on to ask the required amount of twenty questions, but this was essentially the deal-breaker. Perhaps he could save himself by providing proof of a successful business.
We looked at Al. He looked away.
“I guess we don’t do as well as the place around the corner or the place down the block. And I woulda brought you my quarterly numbers, but I’m a bit bogged down at the moment.”
We were four questions in. It was the earliest I’d ever circled TERMINATE. Al was a dud. Basically dead the second he’d walked in and he hadn’t a clue. He couldn’t challenge the other car repairmen from his neighbourhood that we’d recently interviewed. Those who came in dressed in fine suits singing about their solid mental health and flourishing businesses. Some of them claiming to moonlight as overnight barmen or farmhands.
I glanced at Joe’s paper. He’d also already circled TERMINATE.
Al chose electrocution. I didn’t feel bad for him. I rarely did that first year.
~ ~ ~
My boy Lucas had his first and only interview just after turning nineteen. He wasn’t supposed to have it till twenty-five. Standard age for anyone’s first interview back then, apart from the ones born blind or dummies or cripples. Those kids never stand much of a chance. They’re just born messed up basically with TERMINATE stamped on their foreheads.
I’d been told that when Lucas did have his first interview, they would go easy on him. Piece of cake, in and out. But then he went and attended a rally the day after his birthday party. What a trailblazer that child of mine was. Woke up at nineteen and thought: time to wreak havoc. Even though I’d told him time and time again: no protests, no speaking out.
It was an anti-abortion rally outside city hall. I guess Lucas and his buddies disagreed with a lot, so a few of them strolled over with picket signs that said No More Forced Abortion! and We Can Have Two Kids If We Damn-Well Please! They threw bottles and cussed a lot. It was surprising that they weren’t detained right then and there. He came home with a bunch of socialism logos drawn on his arms, and he looked at me and went, well why was it okay for you to have two kids but I can’t? I told him the truth, which was that it had been a lot different even then. You could go see a sold out movie and not have to sit on your husband’s lap while your son and daughter both sat on your lap. You could work your job without worrying as much about competitors everywhere. You could still catch glimpses of the sun because the sky wasn’t entirely overrun with condos. There weren’t quite too too many people yet, and there were more resources to go around for everyone, and there wasn’t as much to worry about. Simple.
That’s bullshit, he’d said.
I just shook my head. He didn’t understand. Some people never do.
I knew what the protest meant for him. Sure enough the next day I got a call from my boss, Castillo. Did you see your son at the protests? I said yes. You know what this means right? I said yes. Can he come in tomorrow morning? And make sure he looks decent so he at least has a shot. I said will do. We hung up, and I thought maybe if Lucas was an environmental scientist or a farming/industrial expert instead of an aspiring poet, he would survive. But there was no use for an unestablished poet, or really just a poet in general.
Castillo let me stand behind the mirrored wall to watch the interview. It went poorly. Lucas had dressed like a hobo despite my telling him to wear a tie. And right before he went in he scribbled on his cheeks the words SCREW THE MAN in black Sharpie.
The guys interviewing him were tough. They reminded me of Joe.
“Hi Lucas. Start by telling us your three strongest traits benefiting society.”
Lucas was silent for a bit. Then he laughed and said:
“Screw your mother. Screw your mother. And screw your fathers.”
The men checked some boxes and I pictured Lucas being incinerated.
“Okay. Next question. What are your plans for a future career?”
“Screw your children and your siblings too!”
I wondered, would he give me the same answers if I was the one interviewing him? Because saying screw your children meant he was basically saying screw his own sister. Or would he just say screw you, directly to me? Then I thought, does he hate what I do for a living? He’s never really brought it up. And I know I only see him max an hour per day because I’m always stuck in traffic. But still, you’d think he would’ve mentioned it once or twice.
At the end of the interview both men circled TERMINATE. His father came and said goodbye that evening. His sister was busy studying. Lucas chose the guillotine. I went to watch, and before the blade dropped Joe noticed both of my hands shaking and told me to stop. This shouldn’t bother you this much, he’d said. I remember thinking, you’re right Joe, this is our normal and will continue to be our normal. So I tried my best to get my hand to stop shaking.
~ ~ ~
After Lucas, maybe I softened a bit. But only the smallest possible bit. Like sometimes I’d look over at Joe’s sheet and see that he’d circled TERMINATE while I’d circled FIVE MORE YEARS. And sometimes I’d get embarrassed and wonder if I wasn’t hardcore anymore on account of having seen my nineteen-year-old son with his head chopped off. You know how many heads I’ve seen roll? You know that throughout most of our lives these days we’re taught not to get comfortable around anyone? So what the hell was my problem?
One morning, a couple weeks after Lucas’s interview, my husband cleared his throat and said Lucas was a damn selfish fool for going to that rally. His sister nodded. I sipped my coffee and stared out our skylight. Then they both looked at me and asked, what’s gotten into you, staring out the skylight like that, like you’ve got something high and mighty to say? I wasn’t sure how to respond. I didn’t want to feel the way I felt. But I did. For a while at least.
That day I went in and our first interview was this twenty-five-year-old Black woman. Her first interview. She was gorgeous. Perfect cheekbones, shaved head dyed blonde, sharp chin, sparkling teeth. And she was an upright citizen. Had acquired two degrees and had a high-rank job lined up at some up-and-coming farming & pharmaceuticals company. Nearly every box I checked off was of the highest magnitude. I remember thinking, no way you’re going anywhere. Not for a long time. Then Joe asked: “Any history of mental illness in the family?”
She hesitated, then sighed.
“Would you describe this history please.”
She went on to tell us how her mother had been depressed and blown her brains out two years after her birth. How her father was a raging alcoholic and had been TERMINATED ten years back. How her uncle was bipolar and had been TERMINATED, how her grandfather was also a raging bipolar-alcoholic but had died of alcoholism-related-causes due to the system not being fully implemented back then. She almost started to cry listing them off. It made me wonder why some people don’t just lie. I guess we would catch them down the road, after doing some proper digging. But still.
I knew what I should’ve circled. Centuries of studies showed it was almost inevitable that she would develop a mental illness. This was no doubt bad for society. Couldn’t have her calling shots at a new farming & pharmaceuticals company. Couldn’t have her calling shots anywhere, really. But for some reason I circled FIVE MORE YEARS. Maybe because around then I’d started dreaming of Lucas. His severed head would float up to me and recite poetry, which I enjoyed.
I looked over at Joe’s sheet and he’d circled TERMINATE. So that was that. I’d felt bad for the girl. What if she lived a long life and never developed any sort of mental illness? But then I pushed those thoughts and feelings very far away. Because that was the job. There was no time to feel bad for anyone. No time to mourn a selfish, moronic, sometimes remarkable son.
She chose the shark tank, which I respected. Hardly anyone chose the sharks. They tore you to shreds. After her I tried not to be sympathetic anymore. One day Joe said, quit being so soft or they’ll fire your ass.
Occasionally I still was soft, but never enough to get fired.
~ ~ ~
Before Joe hung up, I asked him, how do you think your interview will go?
“I’m gonna flunk it.”
“I believe in all of the hard work we’ve put in. Gotta keep the ball rolling.”
I thought about it. I didn’t want to flunk my interview. But maybe he was right.
“Well. You had a good run, Joe,” I said. He chose cyanide.
My husband’s been gone a while now. He made it to sixty. For most people that make it to sixty, that’s the end of the road. He chose the guillotine. Same as Lucas. Before he went I kissed him goodbye and said, thanks for some memories. He said, thanks for working the job, I probably wouldn’t have made it to sixty if not for you.
The last ten years without him went by fast. My daughter is still around because she works hard and contributes to creating valuable resources. She’s got a kid of her own even though I’d told her that was a bad idea, what with them doing first interviews at fifteen now. I asked her, what’s the point of bringing a kid into the world if they aren’t even going to see it past fifteen? And when we’re already running so low on resources? You don’t get it, mom, she’d said.
I haven’t met the kid yet. She sends me photos and I think he looks a bit like Lucas used to look, before his head was chopped off. Yesterday she called me and said, are you nervous for your interview next week? I told her, no, not really. Although truthfully I’ve been thinking about it more than I thought I would.
Then I told her that mostly I’ve just spent the time leading up to my interview considering which way would be the best way to go. When I was younger I used to think it was cyanide, like Joe. But that can leave you waiting a solid four minutes, which is a lot of time to think about everything you’ve ever done and everyone you’ve ever come across and whether or not what you did with your life was good or bad or worthwhile in any way.
Then I started thinking guillotine, like the boys. It would be nice to go out like Lucas. We never shared much together while he was alive. At least we could share this.
But now that I’ve had so much time to think, maybe the best choice is the shark tank. Like that girl who probably should’ve lived. It seems like the toughest way to go, and the people that watch you die will probably respect you.
Evan is a Toronto-born writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ryerson University. “The Shark Tank” is his first published work of fiction. The list of authors who’ve inspired Evan stretches far and wide (Saunders, Baldwin, Adichie, Adjei-Brenyah, Egan, Than-Nguyen, Vonnegut, etc.) He owes many thanks to these writers, and all the writers who push him to keep getting better every single day. Aside from reading and writing, Evan loves food, dogs, movies, and the Toronto Raptors. He would also like to add this: BLACK LIVES MATTER.
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