By David Kaplan
Kenneth Daley scribbled endless swirls on the back of a blank, white envelope before throwing the pen across the kitchen table. He was up at 6:30, even though he wouldn’t be working today. And this was the sixth — or was it the 10th? — pen that stopped working as well.
He was trying to complete an application a friend of a friend gave him two weeks ago. After another sleepless night, Kenneth hoisted himself out of bed and walked the 24 steps to the kitchen table. The application was for a “Seasonal driver helper” at the local UPS in Coralville. The job was only part-time. And it would probably just be temporary. But it did have some benefits and it sounded easy enough. Those lingering thoughts are why Kenneth kept the application on the table for the past 13 days. He wanted the job; it was just that he didn’t want it that much.
Kenneth fairly enjoyed his last job as a dental technician. He studied for it and had past the certification program with “flying colors,” as the manager of the medical network told him when the results were in. Kenneth had no idea what “flying colors” were, but he assumed it was a good thing. He had moved to the U.S. from Trinidad two years ago and still shook his head at most American idioms. He was sure no one knew what “flying colors” actually were and why they were a sign of success.
His mom was so proud when he told her he passed the exam. “You’re a doctor!”
“No, no, mom,” Kenneth laughed. “I’m not a doctor. But I’m important to the doctors.”
He worked at an Iowa City dental office on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays. The hours were great: 10 to 4, with an hour for lunch. Most of the work was fairly boring, involving clerical work. Mondays were largely spent filling orders for dental prosthetics or restorations, like dentures, bridges, veneers, inlays, and crowns. But occasionally, there was some art to the work. He would be called upon to help create molds of patients’ teeth using plaster or wax. Sometimes, a procedure would call for the use of porcelain or even metal. The art was in matching the color and shape of the model to patients’ teeth.
“You’re like the Rodin of molars, Ken,” Dr. Hudack would say. “Rodin was a great, French sculptor. Jill and I went to his museum in Philadelphia last fall with the kids and—”
“I’m quite fond of Rodin’s work,” Kenneth said with a gentle smile. Inwardly, he bristled at the assumption of ignorance Dr. Hudack often addressed him with. “Did you know that when Rodin unveiled his monument to Balzac — you know, the great French author? — one critic found its originality thrilling and likened it to a ‘slap in the face.’”
“Well, a slap in the face! How about that?” Dr. Hudack said with a chuckle as he quickly backed out of the examination room and closed the door to his private office.
But more than condescension, Kenneth was more bothered by how late Dr. Hudack would pay him.
“I can’t get this motherfucker to pay me!” he would say over and over on his car ride home.
After months of pleading, he then shifted into a more demanding mode. The relationship with Dr. Hudack and his staff grew mildly chilly. Then it grew bracingly icy. So Kenneth quit.
Kenneth sat staring at the dried up pen as it perched on the left side corner of the table. He blinked twice and shut his eyes and heard the pen fall to the floor.
“Well, that’s it then,” he said, looking up at the harsh fluorescent light.