She hired a career coach after bombing her twentieth interview. The career coach told her that she must shorten her elevator pitch if she ever hoped to land full-time employment. He said, “You must whittle it down to one syllable, a single vocal gesture, stripped of all needless social lubricant, into which you can stuff your qualifications, goals, and even a bit of personality (if you can manage it). No one has time for anything else.”
She asked him what that might sound like.
He sat up straight in his leather wingback and said a charming cocktail of phonemes, ambitious and obliging and brief, a perfect little dose of professional information.
She went home and got to work, totally convinced. She long-handed a mountain of biographical information and then set about carving the perfect syllable from it. This was harder than the coach had made it seem. How to even start?
First she read her biography to a Voice Memo App and played it back at such high speed that the recording of her life was indeed condensed to a single vocal gesture: a screeching, awful coffee grinding of consonants. She memorized the horrible noise. When she recited it a bit too enthusiastically at the next interview, her updo fell apart. The rejection email followed swiftly.
She tried a new tactic, undeterred. She tallied up all the letters of her biography and stitched together a Frankenstein's monster of a word from the ones that appeared most frequently. “Blimpds," she said at her next interview, as matter-of-factly as possible, as if Blimpds summed it all up: herself, and him, and the interview, and the planet, and even his company. The hiring manager closed his leather folio with an impolite snap. "This is a car company," he said.
Next, she picked a word at random from her biography—Engagement—and lopped off its prefix and suffix to form the word Gage. She liked the slow, full mouthiness of it. She liked how it made her sound informed, perhaps even wise. She thought it sounded like a word you had to dredge from the blind depths of contract employment. A word you had to scrape bit by bit from the dirty cells of a spreadsheet. A word she had whittled like a shiv. A dagger. Her one perfect syllable.
It didn't work. Nobody liked Gage.
She tried a dozen tactics, but no matter what she did, her elevator pitch was either too plosive or sibilant, angular or ovoid, guttural or mushy. The interviewers, each one, politely thanked her for her time and had her plunged from the building. She realized soon enough that the career coach had been wrong. Reducing her elevator pitch to one syllable was both too difficult and too accommodating. So she tried a new plan.
She said nothing at all.
She sat on a leather couch across from a gregarious hiring manager. He asked questions—stupid easy questions—to which she connotatively nodded, smiled, and blinked, all in a polite way, all in an obliging way, and yet in a fully silent way. The hiring manager was bewildered. He'd never interviewed someone so reticent, so confident, so disinterested in self-preservation. She bewildered him, but what did that matter? Her resume, after all, spoke for itself. And anyhow, these face-to-face interviews were only for feeling out how the person would mesh with the rest of the office. And the office, if he was being honest, was chock-full of socializers. They could use some reticence—the more extreme the better. Furthermore, he wondered if it was possible that she was non-verbal and in his haste to interview as many applicants as possible he'd simply missed it. His cup of responsibility was overflowing these days, and his chronic eye-twitch could not bear an ethics audit. She was perfect, he assured himself. She was perfectly fine. She was, at the very least, fine enough for the entry level position to which she'd applied. He hired her.
She never breathed a word at her new job, terrified of obliterating the pretense under which she had gotten hired. She worked with headphones on, ate lunch out of the office, and placed a sign on her desk that said "If Urgent, Email Me." It worked, and so she worked, too, hard and solitarily, dreading the day when she would unwittingly stumble back into the unfruitful domain of speech.
The hiring manager, meanwhile, was terrifically proud of her. Whenever he needed a nice kick in the pants, he would look up from his desk to see her out there hustling beneath her canopy of silence, giving it 110%.
She quickly secured fast-track status. No manager complains about an employee who never complains, and no coworker feels threatened by someone who presents no threats. With each promotion, her fear of being found out subsided. Increasingly, as she acclimated to her life of silence, there was no secret to discover. At dinner, she ordered by pointing at the menu, requested a second glass of wine by tapping her glass. She nodded and smiled her way through conversations. Silently, she dated. Silently, she married. Silently, she gave birth to her daughter, and, through her unbroken silence, she counseled her girl on how to succeed in this chattering world.
GARDNER MOUNCE is a writer from Memphis, TN. He graduated from Clarion West in 2019 and the MFA program at the University of Florida in 2020. His work has appeared in Hobart, Michigan Quarterly Review Online, and elsewhere.