“I’m sorry, we can’t use you,” the manager informed the boy detachedly. He opened his mouth to argue and then thought better of it. He knew that if he started, he’d start spewing like a volcano. It wouldn’t help anything. Instead, the boy just nodded.
“Thank you anyway, sir,” he replied numbly, and left. The manager had reacted kindly to him upon their meeting, but any amount of hope he’d felt was quickly squelched. It was his seventh job interview in two weeks, and his seventh letdown. This was the last interview he’d had lined up. It didn’t seem like much in the grand scheme of things; a twenty year old getting turned away from a fairly low pay position at a restaurant was probably a pretty common occurrence. But the boy knew that trading that position out for one of his three minimum wage, fast-food jobs would make a world of difference to him and his little sister. Little Clementine was just four, and she meant everything to the boy. After their daddy jumped, their other siblings, the four in between them, had been spread out between Aunt April all the way out in Nevada and a distant cousin in Maryland. But Clementine was too little, and too attached to the boy. Nobody else wanted her. So, they gave the boy a year to clean up his act, and he did. He did it for her. He got off the drugs, got his GED, got as many jobs as he could possibly handle, and rented a teeny apartment. And then, after that year, they gave her back to the boy. It was legal now, as long as he could keep them going. Which was why he knew he needed a better job. He was holding out for now, but he knew he was going to drop dead of exhaustion unless something changed. And being allowed to keep Clementine meant nothing when he was at work all day and she stayed with his girlfriend.
The next morning, a friend told the boy about a newly opened position he’d heard about. It would be perfect, just what he needed. The boy sighed. He knew his chances at getting the job were slim. Charges of drug possession and reckless driving, three years in juvenile detention, and his reputation as a high school dropout were all against him. He knew hoping to get this job was verging on insanity. His daddy had always told him that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But Clementine’s adoring little face popped into his mind, and so the boy gritted his teeth and went to set up an interview.
“Why didn’t you fight back? Did you want it?” The words collided with the girl like a physical force, like the baseball that had hit her in the stomach in second grade. They hit her the way the little pink line on the pregnancy test had hit her. Her father’s face looked back at her from across the table. Accusing. Consternated. Angry. But not angry with the man who had come out of nowhere and done this to her, left her to face the consequences and pain and brokenness. Her father was angry with her. Angry at her for giving in, as if she’d had a choice. The man had been so much bigger than her. He might have killed her, done worse than torn apart her soul and left a piece of him inside her.
Her dad was still watching her, as if he was waiting for an answer. As if he deserved an answer. She realized he never would understand.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” she murmured, standing up. She took little Clementine from her stepsister in the other room and headed towards her boyfriend’s apartment. She didn’t know why she had thought her dad would understand. Her step-mom hadn’t. Her stepsister, who was always on her side, had told her she was lying so she wouldn’t get in trouble for being pregnant. Her two best girl friends had looked at her weird, asked how she met the guy and what had she been wearing and then changed the subject. She hadn’t told anyone else. She was scared. If her dad hadn’t understood, maybe nobody would. But there was one person she hadn’t told, someone she knew she had to tell. Her boyfriend and best friend, and Clementine’s big brother. She knew he was exhausted and overwrought and wrapped up in trying to hold his tiny family together. She knew he might blame her, might even dump her. Nobody else had understood her pain and guilt and worry and fear. So why would he? She’d heard him say a hundred times that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But he had to know at some point, before her belly started growing and it all came out. So she set her teeth, clutched Clementine closer to her, and walked towards his apartment.
“What’s the matter with you? All you’ve done is mope around the house for the past week now,” his wife demanded. The man rubbed his forehead. Everything was falling apart, and he hadn’t even had to leave for it to start this time. He hadn’t told anyone about his fourth tour of duty coming up. He was trying to reconcile himself to it.
“I’m tired. Stuff at work,” he muttered offhandedly, and excused himself to his room, where he flung himself on his bed. The first time he’d gone overseas, he had left his first wife and nine-year-old daughter happily at home. He’d come back two days early, ready for an ecstatic reunion with his beautiful family. He’d been waiting on this moment through his past ten months of hell. Instead, he came home to find his wife with another man, and his little daughter giving him knowing looks. It had all culminated in a messy divorce, and neither he nor his daughter had seen his ex-wife since. He had remarried five years later, a single mom with a teenage daughter. He had come back from his second tour to find his second wife in a similar situation. He stuck this one out, for the girls, and for himself. It was all better now, at least on the surface. He had returned from his third tour to find his precious little girl dating a practically homeless deadbeat with a history of drugs and jail. And to top it off, this guy had dumped a three year old on his daughter so he could “work”. He still wasn’t sure whether the kid was the boy’s little sister or his daughter, no matter how many times he insisted it was his sister. And now, before he had even left for the airport, his daughter was telling him she was pregnant. He didn’t know if it really was rape or if she was covering for her boyfriend. If this was happening with him here, what would happen when he left again? He’d come back to another cheating wife, his second daughter pregnant, or maybe somebody dead.
He turned onto his stomach, pressing his face into the pillow. He wondered idly if he could pull some strings and get himself out of it. It was probably possible. But he needed the money, and no one else could take his place. They needed him. He’d have to deal with the consequences when he got back, or hope that there were no consequences. He tried to dismiss that hope as silly. Someone had told him one time that the definition of insanity was doing something over and over again and hoping for different results. So maybe he was insane. And maybe he could get through one last tour without anything going wrong.
“Why, Father?” the woman begged softly. The priest looked at her keenly. She needed an answer on this. Her husband never would talk about deep things with her. She still wondered what had kept her and those around her on their feet and fighting. She knew she had hurt her husband and their girls with her irresponsible romp. For goodness’ sake, she had hurt herself perhaps worst of all. The guilt, the feeling of worthlessness and dirt that had been a constant for months after her husband’s return and his quick discovery of what she’d been doing in his absence. She had turned to her childhood faith in desperation and fear, and it had left her with a calm and peace that nothing else had. She sat now with her pastor, asking him about life.
“Why can’t anyone just stay down? Why does my husband keep fighting our dirty wars, when I know he doesn’t trust me, or any of us? Why does my daughter demand respect for her, her baby, her boyfriend? Why does her boyfriend work himself to the bone, keep applying for better jobs, when he knows he’ll never get it? Why do any of them, any of us, think anything will ever change, ever get better?” There was a moment of silence. She laughed humorlessly, almost a sigh.
“I heard once,” she went on, “that it is the definition of insanity to do the same thing over and over and expect different results. So why do we?” The priest smiled at her softly.
“Because if that is true, then it is that small bit of insanity that makes us what we are. Hope is intrinsic to human nature. In this world, in all this dark and dirt, it is the only possible way to survive. As a human, we have no choice but to push the refresh button and hope for something new.”