Cora and Joan walked side by side from the lobby of their apartment to the courtyard. They were headed to the community mailbox to collect bills. Neither of them had regular access to the internet so they hadn’t opted into receiving their bills electronically. Besides, walking together had become a type of ceremony, though not one Cora looked forward to. It was just more evidence that she needed to do something drastic to keep everything intact. She felt nervous for the first time about her interview later that night because no matter which way she crunched the numbers, she needed more money than she currently had. A lot more.
Joan was happy for her opportunity to get a job, in her own way.
“The most important thing to remember is they absolutely cannot ask you your age.” Joan said, as they walked. “I’m sure they can guess by looking at you, I mean, surely they’d have some idea, but they have to keep the number they suspect to themselves. How old you are, Cora, is none of their goddamn business, remember that.”
Cora felt that Joan was practicing her lecture voice again, as if she was performing for an auditorium full of pensioner widows, hungry for each word, instead of just her. Joan had been a receptionist for a clinic for thirty years and was used to speaking slowly and clearly so people could write down what she was saying. She was patient, but Cora wasn’t taking notes.
She held onto a mug of tea she’d made in her kitchen before meeting Joan. She’d started bringing tea along a couple months ago to make the weekly process of retrieving her mail more relaxing. Today she held the warmth in her hands so tight it almost stung. She tried to concentrate on Joan and all her advice, but she couldn’t. She knew her mailbox would be stuffed with warnings of minimum payments overdue that she couldn’t pay for. The only mystery her mailbox contained was the number of notices it’d be this week.
“It’s downright illegal if they ask your age during an interview,” Joan added. Then, like a flourish added to top off a speech for a crowd hanging on to her every word, she said, “So don’t let them trick you into blurting it out.”
Cora didn’t clap, but she did nod before taking her first sip of tea. Peppermint steam filled her glasses, and she took them off to clear the lenses with a wave. She was sure the interviewer would be able to figure out her approximate age from her resume regardless of her saying it. She kept no secrets on her resume, and was careful to document each job she’s held during her entire working life, including her very first position in 1962 when she got hired at the baseball field concession stand as an assistant. That summer her main duty was opening glass bottles of Coke. Cora was proud of all her experience and felt no need to misrepresent it, it was all there, but thanked Joan for the advice anyway.
Joan got a job earlier this year again as well. Not full time, like Cora needed, but something to “keep her busy,” as she liked to tell the neighbour, though Cora knew it was for the extra money. Almost everyone in their buildings needed extra money when rent was hiked for the third year in a row last January. A few people already left to move in with family. They were the lucky ones. Cora’s daughter Bea didn’t have a room to spare for her, but she wouldn’t expect her to either. She wasn’t about to ask for the couch, not yet.
When they arrived at their mailbox, she unlocked her cubby, took the white envelopes and stuck them into her coat pocket. She didn’t want Joan to see, even though she had her own overdue notices to deal with. Today there were five. Thin and smooth, the lightness of these letters defied how heavy they felt in her jacket.
That afternoon Cora got ready for her interview. It had been five years since she worked, and she was excited and nervous about the prospect of reigniting the daily grind. She pulled the silver Bulova watch from the top drawer of her dresser. It had been a gift from the girls she worked with at the caterer when she retired. She slipped the shiny piece around her wrist and locked the clasp in place. The watch made her feel sophisticated whenever she wore it, and she was always extra careful not to damage it or scratch its delicate glass face.
Her small apartment was on the ground floor with a sliding door that faced the street. As she pulled her short hair into a low ponytail, she heard a small knock on the glass. It was probably Joan with another nugget of advice she thought Cora absolutely needed for her interview. Why couldn’t she just call and save the trip? Even though it was sweet that Joan had such concern over her success at the interview, it irritated Cora. Cora, after all, had held over a dozen positions, from shop clerk to banquet server, in her life. Besides, she’d only been retired for five years. She still knew what to do in the interview situation.
But at the sliding door, she saw David standing there. He waved both of his hands at her, a big smile crossed his face; his cheeks were red. He had his tiny school backpack with him, and his hair was combed to the side. When she slid open the door, he coughed twice.
“Grandma!” he said, climbing over the lip of the sliding door and into the apartment. He began sliding the door behind him.
“Wait,” Cora said, holding the door open. “Where’s mommy?”
“I’m sick,” he said, coughing again. “She dropped me off here on her lunch.”
David was in grade three and too young to stay home alone. Cora led him to the couch where he quickly grabbed the TV remote and searched for cartoons. When all he saw were daytime soaps, he switched it off and took out a book from his backpack about a dinosaur who could cross country ski, and began flipping through the pages.
“Have you eaten?” she asked.
He shook his head no, and Cora went to her kitchen to make him a snack. She pulled an apple from the crisper in her fridge and laid it on a thick chopping block. She still needed to get ready to catch the bus for her interview in time. Her hair was as she liked it, but she wanted to iron her blouse again and make sure she could find a pair of black knee high stockings. Since retirement, Cora wore mostly yoga pants and runners. Her daughter was always saying she should try a little harder, but Cora liked to feel comfortable. After she cut the apple into small slices, she put them on a plate and sprinkled some roasted almonds on top. The apple would be crisp, just like David liked it, since Cora had just bought it from the market up the street. When she handed David the plate, he immediately picked up a slice and started eating.
With David distracted with his food and book, Cora went into her bedroom to call Bea. She hesitated a minute before punching in the number to rehearse what she was going to say then she dialed the number. I need to go to my interview today.
“Mom, hi,” Bea whispered into the phone. “I can’t really talk right now. Thanks for bringing in David. He’s had this cold and the teachers don’t like the students in class when they’re sick. I don’t like being that mom, even though it’s bull shit.”
“It’s no problem at all,” Cora said, and paused.
“Great,” said Bea, quickly. “But, I’ve got to go. Rick is on his usual Wednesday afternoon tirade because of his weekly Thursday meeting with the partners.”
“Wait,” Cora said, bracing herself behind a cheerful voice. “I’m going to my interview in less than an hour. Will you be back to get him before that?”
She heard Bea take in a deep breath, and then cover the mouth of the phone while she told a co-worker where to find the extra printer toner.
“I work until 5 p.m. James can’t get him because it’s not his week to have him, and I can’t mess with the schedule, you know that.”
“Is there anyone in your building? I could walk him over before I catch the bus.”
“No,” she said, her voice sharp. “Why are you trying to get another job? You deserve to be retired now.”
While it was true Cora had earned her retirement life, she also knew Bea didn’t support her step back into the working life because it would mean a less available, free babysitter. When Cora brought it up last time Bea almost cried at the thought of losing free child care.
“I guess you could call Jennifer, the babysitter in the building,” Bea said. “I don’t have the money to pay her right now, but will have to figure something out.”
“Oh, it won’t be necessary,” Cora said. She didn’t want to put any more stress on her daughter. “We’ll be fine.”
“Whatever,” Bea said, with a sigh. “I really have to go. Rick’s back and needs a billion things from me. Figure it out and let me know what the plan is,” she said, and hung up.
Cora stood a moment with the phone in her hand. She could hear David try again with the TV and was flipping through the channels. She hung up the phone, and went to her sock drawer to find her black knee highs. There was still one pair squished in the very back of her drawer, and that would do her fine. She threw the black knee highs on the bed, and went to turn on the iron in her den. The den seemed like a luxury to her lately but the smaller units were less than $100 a month cheaper and it wasn’t worth losing the extra space. This was a toy room, a computer room, an ironing room, and a guest room for when Bea and David stayed over.
Cora unplugged the iron and walked out to the living room. David was on the floor beside the kitchen table with his workbooks opened.
“See what I’m doing at school?” He said, and pointed to small paragraphs carefully copied and math exercises illustrated with pizzas, elephants, and ladybugs.
“Very nice, David.”
She looked at her watch. Her bus would be leaving in 45 minutes. The service was only every 30 minutes, so she could not miss it. She called Joan and asked her if she could come over to look after David until Bea picked him up. She knew Joan would be available and that she would love to spend time with David, even though she hadn’t met him before.
Five minutes later Joan slid open the door.
“Thank you for coming over,” Cora said and turned toward David. “David, this is Joan. She’s going to stay here while Grandma goes out a while. Your mom will be here soon.”
David looked up from his workbooks, nodded, and then went back to scribbling in the margins.
“What do you have there?” Joan was already sitting on the floor before Cora went back to her bedroom to finish getting ready.
The interview experience was a lot different than Cora remembered. There were three people sitting across the table from her. They held multiple papers in their hands, and made notes after everything she said. None of them put their pens down or looked at her too long, and Cora wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing. For their final question, they asked her why she was getting a job after being retired. She knew this was coming and had rehearses saying that she needed something to do and missed the social aspect.
“Retirement is boring,” she added. The interview panel laughed.
“We have a lot of former retirees working here,” said the one with glasses. She was the shift supervisor and looked to be the youngest.
The words former retiree rung through her ears. When she decided to leave work at the caterer, she hadn’t thought she’d ever have to work again. Her pension, which had seemed so big and so adequate for her modest lifestyle, took a nosedive when the markets took yet another tumble earlier that year. She wasn’t eligible for Old Age Security because her pension was just a few dollars too high. So there she was. Crisp shirt, dress socks, combed hair—all in preparation to make a good impression and hopefully get a minimum wage job to save her from her mounting debts. Her overdue notices were beginning to keep her up at night. She hadn’t told Bea about them. Bea had her own worries. It was easier not to talk about money.
“Oh, wait,” the supervisor said. “I have one more question. You’ll have to learn our computer system. How comfortable are you using computers?”
“Very, very comfortable.”
Cora was so confident in her answer that she even convinced herself it was true. And maybe once she got on one and clicked around, it would be true. David could always show her a few things the next time she visited. Bea knew everything there was to know, but she couldn’t ask Bea. She’d be too suspicious. Failing that, she could take one of those free classes at the library. Her whole career was spent in the service industry, learning a computer could not replace her knowledge of a working kitchen.
“Excellent,” she said, writing down another note. “That’s good to hear. I know it’s an obvious question, but we have to ask. You’d be surprised.”
On the bus ride home, Cora pulled her hair out of the clips holding it back and breathed deeply. She’d been alone a long time. When Bea left home to live with James because she was pregnant, Cora moved into the place she is now because it was smaller than the townhouse she rented and more affordable. It was home but the more expensive it became the less she could afford the dental visits, the high blood pressure tablets, the bus tickets, and the groceries.
By the time she got home, it was late. When she opened her front door from the apartment hallway she expected the lights to be off, but it was bright when she walked inside. She heard the TV.
“Grandma!” David said and ran to her.
“What are you still doing here? Where’s mommy?”
“She’s still at work.”
Cora started to feel panicked at the thought of David being at her house alone. “Where’s Joan?”
“She had to go to work. I’m hungry.”
She hugged David and walked him to the kitchen where she pulled out a box of penne noodles, and filled a pot of water and placed it on the burner. She poured the noodles in before it fully boiled and then she waited.
“Where were you, grandma?” David asked. He was only wondering.
“At an appointment.”
“Mom goes to those sometimes, but she brings me with her. I hate it.”
“Well that’s why I didn’t bring you along, but I know you don’t like it. But you should be good when your mommy brings you with her.”
They ate the noodles with margarine and pepper. As they finished, Bea knocked on the sliding door.
David ran first to open it and gave her a big hug, then he coughed a couple of times, as if making sure his mom knew he was still truly sick.
“Thanks again, mom,” Bea said. “You’re a life saver.”
She looked exhausted. Cora wanted to confess that David had been home alone for two hours this afternoon, but she couldn’t. It would have worried her too much. Cora knew she was the only person Bea could look to for help. The thought of betraying her trust made her feel clammy all over.
“Get some rest, sweetheart,” Cora said to David. He was packing his bag.
“How did your interview go?”
“It was fine,” she said, careful not to say too much. “You know how these things are. Lots of competition with younger people. I don’t think it looks promising. I doubt I’ll hear from them.”
“Well, at least you tried. Maybe it’s just not meant to be,” Bea said, unable to hide the smile on her face. “Okay, let’s go home, David.”
First thing in the morning, Cora’s phone rang. It was McDonald’s.
“I’m calling because we want to offer you the job,” she said.
“Congratulations. We only have the night shift right now, but you could transfer to dayshift when something opens up. It can happen fast, don’t you worry. Do you accept?”
Cora paused before saying anything, not because she didn’t want the job, she needed it. She paused because she felt thankful for the night shift. She could make extra money and still be there for Bea and David during the day. Bea wouldn’t even need to know. Cora would make this work. She wouldn’t even tell Joan. Her job would be invisible to everyone but her.
“Yes,” she said. “I’ll take it. Thank you, thank you.”
She listened to the woman on the other end, and picked up the pen by the phone and wrote down the details of her first day of work on the backside of one of her bills.
Cora, the former retiree, would report to the night shift at 10 p.m.