By James Cato
When I hit rock bottom on my job search, I decided to try becoming roadkill. Older folks hoarded the market, so my friends and I all lived in our parents’ garages like discarded hobbies. And there were a lot of us.
A few of my friends had gotten opportunities by doing jobs nobody had asked for. People admired their initiative. Julie earned a letter of recommendation for making bird noises in someone’s backyard. And a law firm offered Bernice an internship as a lamp when they found her in their lobby—they loved the “lightbulb over your head” optic.
So I sliced the pelt off the deer head in the basement and strapped it across my back. I dunked my skull in black paint and pasted doo-das from the backyard along my spine, mossy sticks and feathers and whatnot. Meat salmagundi from the fridge would serve as my guts, dangling like udders. For extra zing, I lathered plum jelly over my exposed parts. By the end I resembled quite the gory beast.
As was necessary. I couldn’t lie there looking human. That was Rule #1 in my book.
Mom dropped me off on the interstate. I only had one friend who owned a car, Lola, and she was currently road-blocking in Texas doing her best impersonation of a radioactive snail. Apparently Spillionaire (the nickname for our parents’ company) was building a new pipeline which made crustaceans glow green. Lola hoped to land a non-profit gig.
“Now this,” Mom chittered on the drive, “is progress! Lots of kids your age take on unpaid work. Soon the jobs will start rolling in!”
“Mom,” I grumbled. “I’m thirty-three.”
She squeezed my arm comfortingly. Then she squeezed it again. “Just show initiative, kiddo!” She gave me a third objectively inappropriate and unhelpful squeeze. “Would you hop out? I have book club with the other Spillionaire moms in twenty. We’re discussing a novel about which shampoos to buy to save the environment.”
I hugged Mom goodbye, resenting her a bit. Just like a parent, to think that landing a gig in a declining empire is simply a code to be cracked easy as knuckles. On the bright side, the highway berm didn’t have much broken glass, and I could spread out my entrails in a meticulous way. One couldn’t be gauche with this unwanted volunteer work.
The rewards were immediate. Drivers skidded, believing that they’d encountered a dead cryptid. Children believed in dragons and fairies again. Truckers ignored me. It was more attention than I’d gotten in years. My blogs tended to notch three or four views, one of them Mom. As roadkill, I earned myself some real exposure.
Of course, somebody from the Department of Transportation would eventually collect me along with the other casualties. Perhaps an informal interview would take place. I’d upheld Rule #1, after all. If I hadn’t, drivers would’ve considered me another hobo and sped right by. Worse, some might have tried to help, but would have grown frightened when I shot up and delivered my elevator pitch.
Yet the collector never arrived. Things were slipping. Maybe they’d fired the carcass-dragger, shut down the whole department of carcass-draggers. I had plenty of company. There was a snake flatter than a pressed flower, a tread-mashed turtle, a bloated doe with a stomach turned green. Fruit flies took a liking to my plum and deposited larvae in my crevices. A coyote picked at my viscera and nearly joined me in death when a delivery truck screeched past.
Then I got my job offer, simple as that. It began like many others: a leg pulling. This time, however, it was literal. An old man with lamb chop sideburns tugged me down the way to his all-terrain four-wheel drive coal-powered F-1050 truck.
“Hey,” I hissed. “Quit it!”
“Gee!” he said. “I thought you were some kind of bear…how’d you like to be a taxidermy? Salary plus room and board?”
I’d scored a gig. Mom would be proud.
Taxidermy work had some real upshots. My boss, Trent, stuffed me, and I felt warm and full. I worried that he’d pose me in some tasteless way, like those horrible people who wire dead animals as if they were human children—squirrels drinking juice boxes and pheasants playing kazoos and cowboy salmon—but thankfully, he just wanted an impressive monster.
Trent’s problem was that his wife didn’t consider him very brave, which was in fact true. He hoped to change her mind anyway. “Hence my truck,” he said. “Hence my Invisalign retainer and camo jean shorts and pet tarantula (a.k.a. he who must not be named, or even looked at for too long). Hence yourself, the monster I defeated with my bare hands.”
I could call it couples-therapy on my résumé, which would look good.
Taxidermy work also had downsides, though. There wasn’t much upward mobility. I couldn’t visit home, or even the next room over.
But the worst part was being suspended in time. Everything started slipping.
“Spillionaire is drilling in our backyard now,” Trent sighed. He couldn’t afford a backyard, but the phrase meant something.
Legal arguments became ping-ponging shrugs. Fresh snowfall came dirty as ash, and Trent sluiced it off the driveway with gasoline. The tarantula escaped, and nobody noticed. One by one, the neighbors moved away on foot.
Yet I remained.
Gainful employment stretched endlessly as the neighborhood dwindled into extinction. Trent even left the house to me. Finally, I’d earned my own keep. It was as if the beasts squished on the interstate and stuffed in people’s living rooms hung around long enough to rule the world. Where was this road going, anyway? After all this time, landing a job was an exercise not unlike guessing the password to a dead phone.
It would’ve been silly to keep pretending everything was fine.
So I posted my two-week’s notice on the empty table.
Not quite sure what I just read but I couldn’t stop once I started it. Strange. 😉
I really enjoyed it. Strong original voice.
Laughed out loud when the tarantula escaped – and nobody noticed!
Loved the opening metaphor in particular: he and his friends lived in their parents’ garages “like discarded hobbies”–resonant!
Creative and disturbing.
Loved the outlandish creativity
A curious combination of Kerouac’s spontaneity and Kafka’s use of metaphor. I liked it!
I really liked this but felt it didn’t need to go on past the halfway mark. Becoming taxidermy was a great ending.
Fantastic, the matter of fact narration contrasted with the matter at hand- decline of the empire- worked great for me. Apathy incarnate.
“Yet the collector never arrived. Things were slipping.” Perfect.
Terrific story! The absurdity is so creative and I admire the way you address so much more than the narrator’s career problems. Well done.