I made it into the interview room before the interviewer did. A few minutes later he entered without introducing himself, sat down at the desk and rearranged a neat stack of papers on the desk in a purely prosthetic gesture. “Hmm,” he began, “yes… well, we’ve looked over your file, studied it, and marked some revisions in the margins in case this isn’t your last interview. But you can look at those later. We all quickly agreed that you can demonstrate your suitability for the position by answering a single question.”
He gave me a fleeting, puzzled look, as if he didn’t understand that my answer was just a figure of speech. Then he cleared his throat and continued:
“Good. Here’s the question: What do you think of this question?”
“This question. What do you think of this question?”
My copy of Ready, Aim, You’re Hired! hadn’t prepared me for this. But I did know how fickle and vain management in various companies can be, and my mind raced to find some rhetorical bone to throw to him. After a few seconds I blurted out: “Well, that depends on which angle you approach it from.”
“Approach it from the angle of a new employee.”
I had been warned about this company. Working my way into this job wasn’t going to be easy. The place seemed to be staffed with chess players. On a whim I decided on a gambit, seizing on the gap in his logic: “Well, I think you’ll have to admit that it’s difficult for me to consider the question from the position of a new employee when I haven’t even been on the job yet. To approach the question from the angle of a new employee I think I’d have to spend a day or two in my new cubicle and then—”
“Ahh, the cubicle,” he interrupted, as if springing some trap of his own, “applicants these days are like teenage boys trying to make it with girls quicker than they know how, like hipster salesmen who think they can slither into someone’s living room and spread their brochures all over the floor before anyone can object. Do you think you can really get me to look the other way while you slip into the cubicle, settling into it like a hermit crab before anyone can do anything about it? Forget about the cubicle. Er, rather, don’t forget about the cubicle. Why don’t you take a look at it?”
He opened one of the drawers in the desk and pulled out a rolled up piece of paper that turned out to be an architectural blueprint. He ran his index finger across it until he had pinpointed the location of the cubicle in question, which was indicated by faint blue lines that I had to strain my eyes to see in the dim light.
“The cubicle is right here on the blueprint. But you’re still way out here in the interview container. The cubicle is your goal, but there’s no way you can get from the interview container to the cubicle except via me. So why don’t you cooperate? And if you don’t mind, there’s one thing I don’t understand: Why are all you applicants are so eager to get into the cubicle, when everybody knows that the minute you sit down in it, scan its dimensions and physical surfaces and construct a mental image of your new domain, the first thing that will happen is that all your cognitive faculties will reflexively begin to devise the quickest path of escape, either physically or mentally, back out of the cubicle? If you’d already answered the interview question, that would be an issue I’d like to hear you address. Which reminds me, let’s get back to the question at hand: What do you think of this question?”
My dilemma was clear: He was more than willing to talk about the cubicle once the subject came up, and discussing the cubicle brought us into the mental geography of the job I was trying to land, even if his attitude in that regard was far from encouraging. So by discussing the cubicle we at least entered the possible world of my sitting in it, and thus it was clearly in my interest to steer the interview back toward the cubicle. But it would be hard to broach the subject again when I still had not given anything approaching a satisfactory answer to the monolith of a question he had planted before me. I was about to give another shot at answering when he interrupted me again.
“And here’s another thing I just don’t get. All you applicants are in such a hurry to get into the cubicle that you fail to properly appreciate the interview process itself. Again, what are you in such a hurry to get in the cubicle for? No cubicle comes before its time. For now, you should be enjoying this interview, savoring the intellectual exchange between two potential colleagues. I’m continually amazed at how the very people we’re considering for hire hold the interview in such low regard. What if this hiring process is the most enjoyable part of the job you’re applying for? With that in mind, back to the question.”
Might as well try to humor him, to soften him up: “Well, this question is not something that I take lightly; it’s an extraordinarily well formulated question. My attitude towards it is something that deserves careful reflection, and even meditation, I might add.”
“That’s good. So what you mean is, give me the position and let me settle into the cubicle”—he was bringing up the cubicle again!—“so I can spend days on end meditating about a question I was supposed to answer during my job interview.”
“Not at all. It’s just that I thought that your question is too good to limit to the time we have for this interview. It’s the kind of thing I think we could only do justice to over a few lunches in the cafeteria. Maybe exchange some email messages about it. And, to be honest, I was expecting questions about some of my qualifications, such as my knowledge of computer software—”
“I should have known. First the cubicle, then computer software. What the hell do we care about computer software? Anyone can be trained to use computer software. We can train new employees up and down on the job, and nine times out of ten some brachycephalic young slacker with a blank slate will learn quicker than your cluttered, middle-aged mental desktop. Assuming, that is, that we can pry them out of their cubicles outside of the lunch hour. And the truth of it is that software programs only decrease productivity. Our internal studies show that computer software only makes people highly efficient at organizing lots of windows and doing absolutely nothing. Our motto is: More windows, less vision! as well as its converse: More vision, fewer windows! In fact, we did an experimental study with two kinds of office software, and had a third group outfitted with inoperable dummy computers that had no hardware or software in them at all—they were only empty plastic shells hooked up to worn-out mouses and keyboards. Need I tell you that the third group outperformed the two with the computer software by a significant margin?”
“I had no idea. Excuse me, but is there any way we can discuss the nature of the position itself? Other than the cubicle, I mean?”
“If you insist. What it is that you want to know?”
“Well, can you tell me anything about the duties and responsibilities of the position?”
“The duties and responsibilities are continually reassessed according to a set of evolving standards. Our experience has led us to operate on what we call “the greyhound system:” once a staff member has finally completed a work assignment to our satisfaction—when he’s “caught the mouse” so to speak—he’s no longer suitable for employment in our organization. We have to lay him off or put him down.”
“What the hell. Do the salary and benefits make it worth it at least?”
“I think I can say that your salary would be competitive.”
“Competitive with what—the race track?”
“With unemployment, for starters. You know something?—I’m beginning to get the feeling that you’re not much of a team player.”
I had heard that before from someone who must have been his managerial soulmate. I sat back in my chair, which whimpered an unoiled squeak. Despite his rudeness and lack of hospitality, despite the fact that I was in check, I still wanted to prove to myself that I could compete for the job, or at least win the small victory of actually catching a glimpse of the mythical cubicle. But before I could pull my thoughts together, he got up from his chair and announced:
“I’m afraid your time is up. I’ll step outside and write up a brief assessment of your interview, and then I’ll be on my way, I have several prior commitments that I can’t break, as tempting as it is to stay here and philosophize on aspects of this job with you.”
I stood up as well, increasingly confused by what was happening.
He spoke again before I could open my mouth:
“Oh no. You stay here. In order to receive due consideration for the position, you’re required to interview the next applicant. You can wait in the anteroom through that door over there. Good day.”
He picked up his briefcase and left the room without waiting for me to reply.
I stood there in the middle of the room for a few moments, wondering what to do. Was he even a member of the firm? Or another applicant? I thought for a minute and decided that since I’d stuck it out this far, I might as well have a cigarette and wait for the next applicant. I already knew the first question I’d ask him, a taste of the company’s infectious medicine.
About the author:
Stephen M. Dickey has published poetry in journals such as Hubbub, Colorado Review, and Indefinite Space, as well as numerous translations from Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, including Meša Selimović’s Death and the Dervish, Borislav Pekić’s How to Quiet a Vampire, and Miljenko Jergović’s The Walnut Mansion.