The background specialist called a dozen people this morning, his Rolodex spinning like a saw blade. But he saved this woman’s interview for last. In hushed tones he tells her that she alone knows the character of Stephen Pusateri, a potential hire for the specialist’s client.
“But I haven’t seen Steve in twenty-five years,” the woman protests over the phone.
From the specialist’s well-maintained desk, a file eight inches high. At his right hand, three pens — blue for positive news, black for neutral, red for negative. He switches pens mid-sentence with a dexterity that terrifies his co-workers. He alphabetizes to the sixth letter.
“We’re a different kind of agency,” the specialist says. “Most companies contact the three references provided by the applicant. We catch candidates off guard by contacting everyone but those three.”
“I’m not sure,” she hesitates, and the specialist hears the muffling sound of a phone pressed to cheek. “The cuts still bleed.”
But the specialist never doubts her compliance. He holds her file as well; her children are in school for another three hours. Her husband usually cancels their Tuesday lunch date. Plenty of time.
“Steve broke my heart,” the woman says, her bitter voice in desperate need of a mournful soundtrack. “I wasted no time, told him no lies. I kissed his cheek in shadowy corners, my hand squeezed his in forbidden seconds. I asked him for marriage. After uncountable moments he gave me his answer — ‘OK.’ Never had two letters sounded so sweet.”
“But his façade soon cracked,” the specialist says, “like the crust on a crème brûlée.”
“More like the ice of a frozen pond in spring,” the woman corrects him.
“I saw his impish eyes from across the room,” she continues. “I caught his smoldering, tormented interior growing beyond his control. Bursting from its barriers, in retrospect. And then the double life emerged.”
“Good, good,” the specialist says, blue pen a blur.
“He had a blond on the side,” she says. “A redhead, too. A virtual collector of women, accumulated without concern. I wept and confronted him. I reminded him of our marriage pledge, but these others — the goddamned harlots — had begged as well, and each in turn secured the pledge reserved for me: ‘OK.’ Still I embraced this would-be bigamist before he dismissed me with a shrug of the shoulders that shattered my young heart.”
“And how old were you?” the specialist asks. Switch to red.
“Four,” she responds. “Then we graduated from St. Aloysius Preschool. He moved away for kindergarten, on to other conquests. Miss Kowalski pulled me aside in class and said he’d write. But no letters. Not to this day.”
“Not a one?” the specialist asks. He thinks of her as a young girl, crying in the church pews with a heart crushed to powder. The specialist would have observed the scene, had he attended the same class as the woman, his notepad tattooed in black ink. Since childhood — always noting the longing stares passed between couples, cataloguing the graceful arc of a classmate’s football pass, making inventories of the cliques and circles of others — lifelong friendships growing solid like cement.
An education, he claims. As an observer, he learned the moving parts of people.
“Have you ever experienced such heartbreak?” the woman asks him.
He sets the pen aside. He searches for a moment in his own life where love was strong enough to hurt him. He wonders if he himself can boast of a transgression-free background — intentional or otherwise — that the lives in his files cannot.
He instead thinks of his desk. Of his three colored pens. The job usually deflects such personal questions. But now his cue escapes him.
“No,” the specialist responds with perfect honesty. He takes a breath. “But please — remember the interview’s real purpose.”
“It’s good you’re thorough,” she says. “People think their actions don’t matter, they can plow through regardless of consequence. But these little things do matter, don’t they?”
“Yes they do,” the specialist says. “It’s my life’s work to find the answers.”
He thanks her and hangs up. A sliver of Steve’s file moves from inbox to outbox. The folder’s still thicker than the specialist’s fist.
Time to dig again, back to the clues that really count.
He flips his fingers through what’s left — Steve’s transcripts from a graduate school that’s not Ivy League, but grows the vines. Executive reports, sworn deposition from a man whose popsicle stick castle Pusateri destroyed in a jealous rage. The winning entry in a sixth-grade anti-drug poster contest — negated six years later by the discovery of marijuana. Goals never adhered to, opportunities never pursued. What to say of the subject?
The man hides somewhere in here, the specialist thinks, looking toward his papers. I’ll find him sooner or later.
JASON PECK’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Smokelong Quarterly, Cheat River Review, Bartleby Snopes and 100 Word Story.