She was a Seuss goose: a walking talking balking maker of rhymes. A speak freak. Whenever Susan was worried, frightened, excited, as she was now, a compulsion to rhyme climbed in her throat. As long as she could get her hands on paper and pencil, she might keep from blurting aloud a rowdy cloud of odd rhymes at odd times. She carried a pad of paper everywhere; it was in her lap to trap the words before they got out: Seuss goose, stress mess, rowdy cloud, mad pad, lap trap. If she could get them written, the litany of rhymes, she might have a chance at this opening. The other applicants in the room looked normal, formal, calm. Her pencil scurried furiously across the pad: storm norm, calm balm, job mob. She flipped to a new sheet, neat, discreet. In the interview, she’d avoid the zen of the pen, her crutch in a clutch, if she could. But now she scribbled zen pen, clutch crutch.
She had to work. Her dad, mad, had given her three weeks to find a job and somewhere else to live. “Time to grow up,” he’d thrown at her, rough, gruff, give-me-no-guff. Tough love, he called it, half right. Her mother had started to protest, but he’d turned to her and commanded “Don’t.” And of course she hadn’t, her concession a confession of her fear. Susan had dug her front teeth into her bottom lip to keep from sighing, crying, whying, bit harder to keep silent. He was already in the car pulling out. Her mother had hunched her shoulders, bunched her lips, exhausted as usual by her father’s ferocity and velocity. No help. Not for the whelp.
“Susan Milliken.” The interview cue. She could do this, pursue this employment. Perfect for her—all day on a computer, answering consumer queries, cheery. If she rhymed, there was sweet delete. The Dandy Candy company–even the name, its sounds the same, offered hope. If she could just jump the hump, the word hurdle, chance the face-to-face disgrace: the interview. She clutched her paper and smiled. So far, so good; so far, she could. She stood and walked into the interviewer’s office.
Mr. Moss was short and stubby, a little tubby. He wore an air of perpetual bother, like her father. He squinted through thick glasses at masses of papers on his desk, shuffling and ruffling them.
She hadn’t come completely unarmed against the swarm of unbidden words. Over the years, hounded by the echoing of her heckling schoolmates, she had developed tricks against her verbal tics. Now she recalled the formula—inhale, exhale—close enough to rhyming to be a useful diversion—inhale, exhale, don’t fail. Inhale, exhale, don’t flail. Inhale, exhale, not frail. She smiled at Mr. Moss, smoothed her skirt, waited a beat, took a seat.
Mr. Moss didn’t look up from Susan’s application to see her nod. She nodded larger, a spasm of enthusiasm, and smiled. Inhale, exhale, smile a while. Wait for fate.
“I see in your application that you’ve never been employed before. How old are you?”
“Twenty.” Susan waited, could feel it coming. “Plenty . . . old enough,” the addition offered apologetically, with another trial smile.
“You’ve never been a baby-sitter or a fast food countergirl?” He still hadn’t looked up, which made this ordeal feel easier, somehow. “Why not?”
“I . . . I’m shy. But I’m fine online.” Still the man scanned the application. Was he bored with his chore? Was she really just the next one on his long list, not much different from the others, not weird, not what she feared? The silence stretched over long seconds, hung in her lungs. He was waiting for her to explain. She felt the panic rising manic in her throat, and when the inhale-exhale mantra didn’t help, she tried her last trick.
Nothing rhymes with orange. Nothing rhymes with orange. Nothing rhymes with orange. Her lips moved but made no sound, and the interviewer wasn’t looking at her yet. Nothing rhymes with orange. Nothing rhymes with orange.
Finally, he looked up. Now the interviewer was looking through her. “Why should I hire you?”
She had been hoping for yes/no questions. She had planned for them. Yes, I guess. Oh. No. But those answers didn’t supply enough stuff. No dice, thin ice. Sink or swim; answer him. The words were racing, chasing, unlacing, a bumbling, jumbling tumble of words inside her head. Still inside her head! Not too late, then. If she could wrest her busy, dizzy brain away from its chiming rhymes and focus on her goal. Susan envisioned herself clacking away at the keyboard, responding to a customer, sending out explanations, comfort, answers, without drama or trauma, and she was calm enough to hazard whole sentences out loud. Suddenly an idea intervened, careened into her brain.
“The best test . . . try me out. I’ll work a day for free. See? Then you can hire me or fire me.” There. A blurt, a splurt of words, but a viable option. Possibility bloomed like a smile.
Mr. Moss, potential boss, riffled more papers, the motion sounding like the ocean. “Yes, well, I do have to interview the other applicants. Thank you, Miss Milliken.” He began to stand, to indicate the door with a pudgy hand, but Susan was riding a brave wave of hope into the next few words.
“Please, if it’s feasible, give me a chance.” Her own boldness startled her. “Excuse my . . . I . . .” Now Susan heard the ocean in her ears, the tide of words washing in to drown her, and she fled the office before she gave voice to that troubling, doubling and tripling of sounds.
She was halfway home before she realized that she hadn’t let those matched-word catchwords escape. At a stop sign she waited for the flood, but it didn’t come. The dam held; the eruption was quelled. The words pinballed around in her head but didn’t reach the air. Pinball. In thrall. Windfall. All in all. Just thoughts she fought and defeated.
Maybe it wasn’t too late to salvage the job. She could e-mail the company a question and see how it was answered. Then she could write her own answer, a better letter, and send it with a note to Mr. Moss. Or bring it in. Susan floated home in a balloon of hope.
“Didn’t get the job, didya?” her father roared as she tried to slip in the door.
“Not yet. Just let . . .” but her father had already turned on the TV, and Susan had to wait until he’d fallen deep asleep to move silently, self-reliantly past him to the computer.
Two days later, Susan was at Mr. Moss’s door when he arrived.
He squinted at her, Mr. Moss at a loss. “Do you have an appointment, Miss?” He didn’t even remember her. That could be good; it made her normal.
“Oh. No.” The preparations she’d made paid off, delayed, today. Heartened, she plunged on. “But you need to read these, please.” She handed him two papers.
When Mr. Moss glowered, Susan didn’t cower. He opened his office door with an official click and motioned her in. After reading her first neat sheet, a theoretical, hypothetical consumer question followed by Susan’s response, he mumbled, “Not bad. Not bad at all.” He hesitated, then waded back in. “But that job’s gone.” He dropped the two sheets on his desk, where they swam in a sea of papers.
An intuition struck Susan with the force of an unexpected rhyme. Mr. Moss was a social misfit, just as she was. He hid behind his thick specks when vexed. Bereft of the formulas of the interview, a scripted, predicted interchange he controlled and could mold, he fretted, he sweated. His discomfort was shamefully comforting to Susan. They rhymed, she and he. At first, a burst of difference, but in the end, they were alike, twinned, pinned to their deficiencies.
Maybe, unkind to this reminder of his own awkwardness, he was lying about the job in a bid to be rid of her.
The unread sheet bore her quick explanation of her tic, her herd of words, her clime of rhyme. It ended with a plea to see her skills and not her ills. The letter was a showcase of those skills, laced and graced with her best rhymeless prose. Mute, resolute, she reached onto his desk, breached his pile of papers, and handed it to him. When Mr. Moss ducked suddenly to read the proffered page, Susan held her breath, quelled her words, stilled her lips, steeled her nerve.
“So. You make rhymes? Show me. Do one.”
Susan opened her mouth to speak, but no words released themselves. She was rhymeless, speechless, voiceless. She couldn’t even breathe.
“Well?” Mr. Moss grabbed a wrapped-but-unlabeled Dandy Candy product and bounced it again and again against the edge of his desk, a metronome to time her rhymes. Just as Susan was sure she would choke, he spoke, broke the terrible silence.
“Name this candy bar.”
She gasped for air but didn’t drown, found her inhale-exhale rhythm, and the names came: “Star Bar. Bunch-O-Crunch. Fudge Nudge. Lime Time. Licorice Swish. New Blue Chew. Pal-O-Mallow. Very Cherry. Rare Pear. Jel ‘n’ Melon. Choc Rocks. Tickle Brickle. Giraffy Taffy. This Be Crispy. Can Go Mango. You Get Nougat. Gum From Yum. Miles of Smiles. Orange Binge.”