The Stephen Dixon Award for Short Fiction recognizes an emerging fiction writer who is experimenting with form and expanding the boundaries of storytelling. Our winner is Kristina Ten with “ADJECTIVE” published in issue 72 of McSweeney’s Quarterly.
Day one at your new job, your coworker wants to know are you really an immigrant.
You brought both passports to HR. You feel ADJECTIVE about that now, but last night you were so nervous about getting it wrong, you PAST-TENSE VERB all the documentation you could think of. Two passports, plus your driver’s license, plus your social security card—which your parents had to ship to you rush mail—plus a copy of your lease, plus your four most recent bank statements, plus, for some reason, your membership card for a COSTCO / SAM’S CLUB / BJ’S on the opposite coast.
It’s your first job out of undergrad, the one you flew three thousand miles with a pair of overstuffed suitcases for, the one you broke up with your on-again, off-again GIRLFRIEND / BOYFRIEND / HAIRDRESSER / THERAPIST for, maybe even for good this time. To help with the moving expenses, you sold your aging MODEL OF CAR to a mechanic, who kicked lightly at the rust and said he was just looking for something his son could learn to drive in. Said he wasn’t the kind of NOUN who spoiled his kid with a Benz on his sixteenth birthday. You’d read that in this city, your new city, you wouldn’t need a car.
After a morning of paperwork and Reagan-era onboarding videos, your team takes you to a dim sum place up the street for a Welcome Lunch, on your calendar from one to one NUMBER BETWEEN THIRTY-FIVE AND FORTY-FIVE. Where you come from, it’s impossible for eight people to finish a restaurant meal within NUMBER BETWEEN THIRTY-FIVE AND FORTY-FIVE minutes, but you think maybe things are different here. Maybe in this city, where you don’t need cars, you don’t need time, either.
Inside, you gnaw at the ice shards in your water while the boss orders SHRIMP DUMPLINGS / PU-ERH TEA / NOT NEARLY ENOUGH for the table and one of your new coworkers suggests a get-to-know-you game. This isn’t the coworker who will ask if you’re really an immigrant. This is the one with the chunky-heeled Steve Madden boots and the slight twitch at the corner of her lip like she’s always on the verge of bursting INTO VIOLENT SOBS / OUT LAUGHING.
Boots’ get-to-know-me fact is that she brews her own kombucha at home, on the windowsill of her peeling Folsom Street Victorian. She explains the concept of a kombucha mother, says she named hers SCOBY DOO / RESTING BOOCH FACE / BEAUTY AND THE YEAST. Another coworker talks about their inflatable hot tub, another about a run-in they had with a WILD ANIMAL WHO WOULD KILL YOU WITHOUT EVEN THINKING, AS REVENGE FOR YOUR SPECIES MOUNTING HEADS LIKE HIS ON YOUR BASEMENT WALLS the last time they went camping up north. The coworker who will later have the immigrant question for now just says that he’s from Washington, DC, and, fun fact, did you know that in DC you can get booze at Starbucks? You did know about the booze—it was on every news outlet for a week straight—and you assumed he was from somewhere in the vicinity of DC. He’s wearing a Washington Redskins hat with the old racist name and logo, the ones the team got rid of years ago.
The intros blur together. When it’s your turn, your fun fact is that you’re what some people call double-jointed. You set your chopsticks down and demonstrate, using your RIGHT / LEFT hand to push the fingers on your RIGHT / LEFT: THE ONE YOU DIDN’T CHOOSE BEFORE hand almost all the way back to your wrist.
One coworker grimaces. The boss oohs.
On the walk back to the office, DC falls in step with you and says, “ADJECTIVE trick. But I expected your fact to be that you aren’t from around here.”
You glance up at him. He’s the senior copywriter, you know, someone you should probably try to get in good with. You SMILE / FROWN. “I thought Mary already told you all I moved here for this job.”
“No,” he says. “I mean here here.” He moves his hand concentrically as if stirring with an invisible whisk. “America.”
You flinch. You remember now that you passed by his desk this morning on the way to HR, carrying your assorted documents in a loose pile. Four bank statements, two passports.
You’ve noticed that, even though they’re synonymous and both technically correct, there’s a meaningful difference between saying “America” and saying “the US.” People who say “the US” usually mean the US, and people who say “America” mean something else entirely. Something BIGGER / SMALLER and harder to define. In the songs, it’s always America, as if that version lends itself more readily to images of UNDULATING WHEAT FIELDS / GREEN COPPER LADIES and WHITE PICKET FENCES / SWEAT ON PALE BROWS. As if abbreviation were profane, unpatriotic.
You’re always getting caught up in the nuances of words. You guess that’s why the agency hired you in the first place.
“Oh, yeah.” You KEEP SMILING / REARRANGE YOUR FROWN INTO A SMILE. “I was little when we came over, though.” You HAVE LOST COUNT / ARE PAINFULLY AWARE of how many times you’ve recited this exact line.
You tell him, “BEND THE FINGERS OF ONE HAND BACK ALL THE WAY TO YOUR WRIST; THIS IS THE NUMBER OF FINGERS THAT BREAK.” You are rounding down, like always.
“Oh.” He contemplates this, and the two of you walk the rest of the way in silence.
“I’m curious, then,” he says finally, as your group reaches the office, and the boss, at the front of the line, badges everyone in. “Do you really consider yourself an immigrant?”
The rest of the day, around outdated phishing videos, sexual harassment videos, and a tech session with the agency’s long-suffering IT guy, DC wants to know EVERYTHING / EVERYTHING / EVERYTHING about you. He wants to know if English is your first language, and if English is not your first language, do you still speak your first language, and can you still READ / WRITE / RECITE THE ALPHABET / SAY THE WORDS YOUR PARENTS ONCE PUNISHED YOU FOR SAYING, LIKE BITCH, ASS, TIT in your first language, and if not, why not, and if so, at what level. He wants you to rank your proficiency according to the scale he’s seen on LinkedIn: elementary proficiency, limited working proficiency, minimum professional proficiency, full professional proficiency, or native or bilingual proficiency. You try to explain that you aren’t sure how to answer that. You’ve been in only one professional setting, and it’s this one.
He wants to know if you DREAM / FUCK / AGONIZE OVER EVERY TINY DAILY HUMAN INTERACTION in that language, if you give yourself PEP TALKS / GUILT TRIPS in that language, if you think in that language before translating it into English in your head. He posits this scenario: you have a run-in with a WILD ANIMAL FROM BEFORE while camping up north, and the SAME WILD ANIMAL charges—in which language do you cry out for help?
For centuries, the country where you were born has been plagued by censorship. Your cousins send cryptic HOUSE PET GIFs from tapped phones and have no word for “war.” You’ve joked that it must be cultural: your own nagging self-doubt about what you’re allowed to say.
Months later, a woman from another team will roll her eyes and tell you not to bother with DC. That at company happy hours, he likes to get shithouse drunk, wax nostalgic about his FRAT / PINK PANTY–DROPPER PUNCH/ DEAN’S LIST days at Georgetown, and start every sentence with “Just to play devil’s advocate…” She admits he’s a great copywriter, just exhausting as a person. Tells you not to take his polemicizing to heart.
But day one at your new job, you don’t yet know this. You’re wearing your cleanest, SUPERLATIVE ADJECTIVE, least pilly cardigan, with the fake pearl buttons that haven’t yet fallen off, and jeans, because you read that in this city, nobody wears slacks unless they’re a PROFESSION THAT REQUIRES THE HANDLING OF DEAD BODIES or a PROFESSION THAT WOULD MAKE YOU PERSONALLY WISH YOU WERE DEAD. Still, the way DC looks at you, you imagine he imagines you in a permanent Halloween costume. Sparkly REMEMBER THAT DATE YOU WENT ON WITH THE ASPIRING ENTOMOLOGIST; HOW BEFORE SHE KISSED YOU, SHE TOLD YOU THIS PART OF THE BUTTERFLY, WHEN PINNED TO A DISPLAY BOARD, FEELS NO PAIN, or furry tail, or caked-on alien makeup. There’s nothing you can do to avoid being a spectacle.
DC’s followed you into the break room with his bag of organic YOUR MOUTH FILLS WITH LAKE WATER; IN THE SECONDS BEFORE YOU DROWN, THIS DRIFTS IN TANGLES AROUND YOUR BARE FEET crisps. The office is too warm, and your head’s fuzzy from all the videos, and it’s EARLIER, YOU BENT YOUR FINGERS ALL THE WAY BACK TO YOUR WRIST; HOW MANY OF THEM ARE NOW A DEEP VIOLET, SWELLING? minutes till a fresh pot of coffee. You’re not thinking straight, so you engage.
“I’m immigrant enough to not be allowed to be president.”
He smirks, delighted you’ve taken the bait. “Well, that would be pretty unlikely anyway.”
You’re not sure if he means it’s unlikely because you’re a WOMAN / WOMAN / WOMAN, or if he’s assuming that because you’re on the copy team and have a degree in creative writing, you must not have a knack for geopolitics or international affairs, which is patently TRUE / FALSE. Or maybe he’s just talking about the statistical unlikelihood of anyone anywhere rising all the way to become that country’s head of state.
The copywriters sit with their backs toward one another. Boots says it’s to minimize distractions, but all you can think about is how at any moment, DC might be turned around in his ERGONOMIC MESH-BACK / CORE-TRAINING EXERCISE-BALL chair, analyzing the slump of your shoulders, the antennae he has—by sheer force of will—caused to sprout from your head.
At NUMBER UNDER TEN THAT RHYMES WITH ALIVE, WHICH YOU ARE LUCKY TO BE, ALL OF YOU ARE, AFTER EVERYTHING IT TOOK, YOUR PARENTS ONCE LOVED TO REMIND YOU o’clock, the boss tells you that you should head on home, says something about not letting these workaholics keep you late on your first day. He winks at DC, his star writer, and DC lifts his chin, grinning.
The boss disappears into a conference room, open laptop balanced across one forearm.
“I have a theory,” DC whispers. “Want to hear it?”
You look longingly toward the door. “OKAY / NO.”
“There are only two kinds of people in this country,” he says. “Indians and immigrants.”
You wince. He continues.
“Either you’re an Indian or you’re an immigrant. Either you were here first or you moved here. Get it?”
You consider this for a moment. There are nuances you don’t want to get into just as the office is emptying out, the street outside REMEMBER HOW THE ASPIRING ENTOMOLOGIST COULDN’T FLIRT LIKE A REGULAR PERSON; HOW DURING YOUR DATE, SHE TOLD YOU WASPS MAKE THIS SOUND BEFORE THEY MATE, THE SAME SOUND THEY MAKE BEFORE THEY STING with evening commuters. But for now, you think, for the purpose of leaving, this makes a fine amount of sense.
You nod. “Sure.”
“Sure. That sounds right.”
“Wait,” DC says, eyes alight. “Are you serious?”
“What?” You feel something you thought you had a grip on floating away from you, a FISTFUL OF BALLOONS / PAPER AIRPLANE / MOTHERLESS BIRD YOU FOOLED YOURSELF INTO THINKING YOU’D RESCUED lost to the wind. “I’m agreeing with you.”
He laughs. Animal Encounter Guy and one of your other coworkers are huddled in a corner, testing how their proposed tagline copy sounds when read out loud. Boots is a few desks over, concentrating hard on a page of blocky text, earbuds in.
“You really believe that?” DC’s leaning forward, elbows on the knees of his corduroy pants.
You say again, more ADVERB this time, “Yes?”
You think maybe this is one of those tests where the important thing isn’t whether you answer right or wrong—the important thing is that you give your answer confidently, and stand behind it 100 percent. “Yes.”
He peers at you, his face inscrutable beneath his Redskins cap. “So you really think I’m an immigrant?”
Suddenly you’re not so sure about this being a test. Now it feels more like a SPRINGS SNAP OVER YOUR HAND AND A METAL BAR CRUSHES ANY REMAINING FINGERS THAT WEREN’T BROKEN ALREADY; REMEMBER THE NAME OF THAT MECHANISM.
He shakes his head, turns back around in his chair, and mutters something under his breath. You DO NOT / WISH YOU COULDN’T hear what he says.
Later, your on-again, off-again GIRLFRIEND / BOYFRIEND / HAIRDRESSER / THERAPIST will ask, with a jealous edge to their voice, whether DC was maybe just flirting. And you’ll say no, you don’t think so, but you won’t be able to articulate why.
It will take you a long time to learn the agency lingo: terms like touching base and blue-sky thinking and moving the needle, and how to talk to CLIENTS / BOSSES / COWORKERS/ WILD ANIMALS WHO WOULD KILL YOU IN AN INSTANT WITHOUT EVEN THINKING so that they think they are the ones who came up with your idea in the first place. There are unspoken rules, frustrating homonyms, a vocabulary that contradicts itself constantly and changes on a dime.
You realize how your mother must have felt, all those years ago, coming here with a wailing daughter on one hip and a Webster’s dictionary in her pocket. It makes you feel THERE IS ACTUALLY NO WORD FOR THIS IN ANY LANGUAGE.
Later, much later, when you are at a different job, in a different city, DC will reach out to you on LinkedIn. His message will say something about an urgent project, and that he’s in dire straits, his NECK / ASS; IF YOU PICK ASS, SAY IT IN YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE is really on the line with this one, and he needs somebody to do a translation for him. Just a couple of pages. He’ll pay, but he needs it done quickly. By end of week. Sooner. He thought of you immediately, from your time together at that company. If he recalls, you’re CHOOSE ONE FROM THE LINKEDIN PROFICIENCY SCALE ABOVE; SECOND-GUESS YOURSELF AND CHOOSE ANOTHER.
He sends the emoji of two yellow hands praying. He tries to butter you up. What he remembers most about you, he says, is that you were always so SYNONYM FOR EASY, SYNONYM FOR DOCILE, ANTONYM FOR WILD. You don’t tell him what you remember most about him.
He needs you to do a quick translation.
You type back, with what few fingers you have left: I’m sorry. I’m afraid I can’t be of help.
He replies: What? But he VERB ENDING IN S this. What’s your NOUN? Why won’t you VERB him? He doesn’t VERB why you’re VERB ENDING IN -ING such a WORD YOUR PARENTS ONCE PUNISHED YOU FOR SAYING, IN ENGLISH NOW. You were always ADJECTIVE like that, come to think of it. He was just VERB ENDING IN -ING and now you’re ADVERB VERB ENDING IN -ING him. Can’t you at least VERB a NOUN? Then the PLURAL NOUN would VERB and the YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN HERE could YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN HERE to YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN HERE for the YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN HERE AGAIN and AGAIN.
You shut your laptop.
You push away your desk chair.
You stand to go.
You FIND THE RIGHT WORD.