The Candidate by Jim O’Loughlin

When we’re hiring a new professor, we all have an ideal candidate in mind. We want to hire a visionary, a future Nobel laureate, a colleague who will redefine Science and inspire all of us, fellow scientists and students alike, to rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of truth and understanding.

This story isn’t about that. No, it’s about the worst job candidate we ever had. I bear some responsibility here. I was chairing the search committee and had agreed to bring him in for an on-campus interview, even though I had my doubts. While his written materials were fine, when we did a phone interview, something about him seemed a bit off. There were a lot of long pauses, and we couldn’t tell if that was because of the candidate or due to a poor phone connection. But one of the other committee members, whom I will only identify as “the grumpy professor,” was sure he was the only candidate worth our consideration.

So we brought him into town, and I immediately saw that something was wrong. When I met him at the airport, I wasn’t sure at fi rst that he was the candidate. He was oddly underdressed, in a flannel shirt and torn jeans, and he needed a shave, but what was really weird was that he wouldn’t make eye contact with me. When I welcomed him and assured him that our current cold weather was unusual (only a slight fi b), he stared down at his shoes. On the drive from the airport, he stared out the window and only responded in monosyllables. I found myself talking a lot, about the university’s new science center and about our students, discussing the local housing market, the K–12 school system. By the time we reached the hotel, I had burned through most of my material.

At least he brightened up when we got to the hotel. At check in, we had a small gift basket waiting for him. He immediately grabbed an apple from it and began chomping into it while the desk clerk ran through the hotel amenities. I saw the fi rst sign of emotion from him when he was told that the hotel had a pool he could use. “Is it indoors?” he asked.

The clerk, reasonably enough, looked at him like he was crazy. There was a foot of snow on the ground and more in the forecast. It has been at least three weeks since temperatures had been above freezing. Yes, she said, the pool was indoors.

It was an odd beginning, but I told myself not to make too much of it. The candidate was likely nervous. God knows I had been when I was first on the job market and was the first female scientist hired by our department. I left him my phone number, told him that someone from the committee would meet him for breakfast, and said good night. On the drive home, I got a call. It was the candidate, asking if we would pay for any movies he rented through the hotel’s system. I paused. I wasn’t sure how to answer, but I said I thought it would be reasonable for us to pick up the tab for a movie. “Just one?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, more definitively. “Just one.”

It got worse. The next morning, one of the committee members—in fact, the grumpy professor, who had insisted that we bring this candidate in for an interview—was to meet him for breakfast, and then bring him over to campus. That morning I was in my office going through email, when there was a sharp rap on the door and the grumpy professor burst in. His face was ashen.

“I am so sorry,” he said to me, his hands shaking. “What? Did something happen?” I replied. “The candidate…” “What? Did something happen to him?” “Well, I suppose something did. Probably a traumatic childhood.” “No, I mean did something happen to him at breakfast?” “There is something seriously wrong with him. We need to cancel the interview.” “Slow down. We can’t cancel the interview. What happened at breakfast?”

The grumpy professor then launched into a description of a truly bizarre meal in which the candidate ordered three different breakfasts and then refused to talk, saying he was saving himself for the interview. “I had to sit there and watch him eat. For over an hour! And he chewed with his mouth open the whole time!”

None of this was good, but of course being eccentric didn’t disqualify someone from being hired as a professor. In fact, eccentricity might have been the only thing our department members all had in common. I told the grumpy professor to please give this candidate the benefit of the doubt, since we hadn’t even officially started the interview.

Well, you won’t be surprised that the interview was a disaster. The candidate still refused to make eye contact, still responded to questions in monosyllables, and then—and this one is still unbelievable to me—stopped in the middle of the interview to respond to a text message. Fortunately, the candidate was next slated for a campus tour with one of our undergraduates, because our committee was in shock.

“I think we should just cancel his research presentation and put an end to this,” the grumpy professor insisted once the candidate had left. I said we had an obligation, ethically and probably legally, to give this candidate the same consideration as anyone else we brought to campus. We couldn’t treat him differently just because he had performed poorly so far. Then I got a call. It was the student who was giving the candidate his campus tour. She seemed nervous. She said the candidate had told her that he wanted to check out the neighborhood immediately off campus and that he would get lunch on his own and find his way back later.

I audibly sighed. Things continued going wrong. The candidate was late getting back for his meeting with the dean, who had perhaps the tightest schedule on campus, and who gave me an annoyed and perplexed look when I came by afterwards to pick the candidate up. The candidate’s formal research presentation was poorly attended, which was perhaps a blessing in disguise, since it consisted of him reading sections of his dissertation’s literature review word-for-word off of PowerPoint slides. When our youngest junior professor, a very sweet, very tiny woman with a soft voice, asked him to “clarify a point from the presentation,” he practically bit her head off, shouting, “Did you not hear what I said?”

The exit interview with the committee was brief. We all just wanted it to be over. Afterward, the junior professor came to me and said she couldn’t drive him to his hotel because she wouldn’t feel safe alone in a car with him. The grumpy professor told me he refused to have another meal with the candidate. That left me, as the committee chair, having to deal with him. I recommended an early dinner at a restaurant on the same block as his hotel. The candidate shrugged. We had a quiet drive to the restaurant, and he got us a table while I called my husband to explain why I wouldn’t be home. When I got to the table, the candidate already had an open bottle of wine and an appetizer plate of oysters in front of him.

I sat down, not expecting him to look up at me. I wasn’t disappointed. Nor had the grumpy professor been exaggerating about the candidate’s table manners. I may never be able to eat oysters again. When it came time to order I had to stop him before he asked for multiple entrees. “I’m sorry,” I said. “The university can only pay for one entree.”

The candidate shrugged and order the lobster/steak combo, which was the most expensive item on the menu. I had a salad. I tried to get the candidate to talk about the day and how he felt things had gone. He shrugged. He ate. I talked about the university. He did not seem interested. I started to get a headache. When he tried to order another bottle of wine, I said no, the dinner was over. I’m sure my voice had a tone, but the candidate just shrugged again. I paid the bill and we left.

The weather had turned. Snow had begun falling while we had been eating, and it covered the ground like a white sheet, muffling the sounds of traffic. “Well, I don’t remember that being in the forecast,” I said.

The candidate said nothing, and I had had it. “Look,” I said, “when someone makes an innocuous comment about the weather, you are supposed to make a similar, inconsequential response. It’s how people relate to each other. If you can’t make that minimal gesture, I’m not sure you are suited for interaction with humans.”

But before the candidate could respond, we heard the sound of a metal-on-metal crunch, followed by a second crash. Across the street, a pickup truck had slammed into the cars on either side of it in an attempt to get out of a curb parking space. As I watched, the pickup hit the bumper of the car behind it again. The pickup was not parked in that tightly, so the driver must have been drunk. With one final sideswipe, the pickup cleared the cars and made its way into the street. I hadn’t noticed, but the candidate had run out in front of the pickup and now put up his hands. The driver honked, but the candidate stayed there, blocking him, with his hands raised. The driver leaned on the horn, and the candidate responded by slamming his fists down on the hood of the pickup. The driver jumped out of the pickup and ran right up to the candidate, screaming “Get out of my way!”

The candidate held his ground and screamed back. “You just hit two cars. You can’t drive.”

“Get you—you get out of my way!” The driver pushed the candidate, who held his ground. Then the driver wound up to take a punch. The candidate saw it coming. He stepped back so that the punch missed and then the candidate landed a huge uppercut to the driver’s jaw. The driver fell to the ground unconscious. The candidate picked the driver up like a baby and carried him back into the pickup. Then he took the keys out of the ignition, closed the door, and threw the keys high onto the roof of the adjacent building. It had all happened in seconds.

The candidate turned to me, cupped his hands and shouted across the street, “Some people just don’t know how to behave decent.”

Then he waved goodbye and walked toward the hotel. Snow continued falling, flake after flake on an altered landscape.