While Gitte was refilling their mugs with fresh coffee, her roommate Barbette had turned into a Rhesus Monkey. Not a grown rhesus monkey, but a baby one.
Gitte set a mug in front of the monkey on the kitchen table, and the monkey picked up the cup with tiny hands and a pucker that deepened the lines on its face.
“Milk?” Gitte asked.
“God, no,” the monkey said. You never knew with Barbette. Some days, she acted like coffee without milk was indigestible, other days she swore black was the only way to drink it.
“You, on the other hand, should be careful,” the monkey said to Gitte, “you don’t want to excuse yourself during the interview. They’ll be on the lookout for that.”
“I’ll go before it starts,” Gitte said.
“Main reason old ladies don’t make good receptionists? Bathroom breaks. Clients arrive, and the front desk is in the loo.”
“I appreciate all of your well-meaning tips,” Gitte said, and took a gulp that pleasantly burned her throat.
“I want you to put your best foot forward,” Barbette said.
Barbette’s ears were comically large. Tufts of thin reddish hair were slicked back, but failed to cover her bony white scalp.
“Is my blouse ok?” Gitte asked. She didn’t usually wear bright colors, but Barbette had said she needed something cheerful.
“Very nice.” White bristle sprouted from the monkey’s ears and chin, and from above its large, lash-less eyes.
“Do not forget your resume.”
“Of course not,” Gitte said.
The subway car was stuffed with fish: Carp, mackerel, a few sharks. Gitte sat down opposite a largemouth bass perusing a newspaper. The bass looked at once outraged and resigned. At regular intervals, it opened its protruding lower lip as if to say something, but didn’t. Gitte herself had stopped reading newspapers months ago. There was no point. She tried to recall the ’10 secrets to landing the job’ by murmuring them to herself. Dress the part, check teeth before going in, arrive extra early, be polite and enthusiastic. None of these were secrets, surely?
“Are you alright, lady?” the bass asked. He had put down his newspaper. His eyes were glassy, his gills shone.
“Hah-ha—who is?” Gitte laughed. Don’t come across as a crazy person.
“Bit nervous, actually. Going for a job interview.”
“Ah,” the bass returned to his paper. “Stay away from politics, is my advice.”
“That’s good advice! Thank you.”
Compliment the interviewer’s taste in personal accessories or office furnishings. Ask insightful questions based on your research. There had been no research. Their electronic devices and internet connection had been sold and cut off respectively. Their library privileges revoked, due to overdue fines. Barbette had found the Help Wanted notice on some swap-meet bulletin board and set the whole thing up. All Gitte had was the company’s name and address, and the name of her contact there: Lucinda Fieldings. Lucinda Fieldings would no doubt turn out to be a cougar or exotic cat. Gitte might as well give up now. No—those were the thoughts of a loser—Gitte and Barbette were fighters. They would keep going for as long as they could.
The company was headquartered in an outbuilding adjacent to the main hospital, an un-assuming red brick, easy to miss if not for the large brass number next to its door: 774 Patterson Street. Underneath it, a small plaque read ‘Pharmtastic!’
Gitte rang what she supposed was the bell, and when nobody answered, slapped the lion-shaped knocker against the wooden door a few times. A white-haired goat answered, bright red lipstick smearing her oversized teeth. The goat’s eyes were light enough to appear colorless—was she blind?
“I have an appointment with Ms. Fieldings. As per the job posting?”
The goat turned her rump towards Gitte and Gitte followed her stumpy tail down a dimly lit hallway. The goat stopped. “This is the door,” she said.
“Is there a bathroom I can use?”
“Three doors down on the right. But this is the door.”
Gitte, washing her hands after doing her business, avoided the mirror over the sink. She used her wet fingers to smooth down her pelt. She assumed her teeth were alright; she hadn’t eaten anything since last brushing them.
In front of the door, she inhaled and exhaled a few times, then knocked forcefully.
The room was even dimmer than the hallway. It took Gitte a few moments to make out the shape perched over the desk. Once she did, she felt respect and longing.
Ms. Lucinda Fielding’s eyes were piercing behind horn-rimmed glasses, her beak dark and regal.
“Uh, hello. I’m Gitte.”
“Interesting name,” the owl said.
“It’s really Brigitte. Bree-git-tay. But people tend to mispronounce it, so…”
“Yes,” Ms. Lucinda Fieldings said. “Have a seat.”
Gitte looked around for a chair, but there was none. She took a few steps towards the desk and stood.
“And your last name, ‘Hahn’—German, I presume?”
“That’s right,” Gitte said, “I was born In Germany. Long story. Not very interesting, I’m afraid.”
“Yes.” Ms. Lucinda Fieldings picked up a piece of paper that Gitte recognized as a copy of her resume and inspected it.
“So you are ok with minimum wage?”
“Any wage will be an improvement.” Gitte laughed a laugh that sounded scary even to herself.
“Your duties are simple. Smile, receive, don’t ask any questions, deliver packages to the back room. Direct clients to the accountant and bid them a good day.”
“Easy enough,” Gitte said.
“Do you go to the bathroom a lot?”
“Good. Questions for me?”
“Not a question, but I really like the design scheme you have going on here. The artwork matches the hue of your magnificent feathers perfectly.”
“What a nice thing to say.” Ms. Lucinda Fieldings was beaming.
Barbette would be so pleased! The light was too dim to make out any details in the framed photographs behind the owl.
“So what exactly is it I will be doing here?”
Ms. Lucinda Fieldings’ beam went out.
“As I just told you: You welcome the clients, you don’t ask questions, you deliver the packages to the back room. You direct the clients to the accountant and tell them good-bye.”
“Got it,” Gitte said.
Ms. Fieldings sighed. “Finding competent help these days is just so very hard,” she said.
“I can imagine,” Gitte said. Agree with the interviewer’s opinions without appearing to ingratiate yourself.
“When can you start?”
“Oh.” Gitte was startled out of trying to recall the last few secrets (something to do with being gracious in the face of defeat, asking for another chance?)
“Whenever you want me to.”
“We open at 8:00 am. Be here at 7:30.”
On the subway ride home—the car now filled with howling jackals, wolves and young deer—Gitte felt delirious. Who knew? An old biddy like herself beating out the competition! There must have been competition; everyone and their mother was looking for a job. And Gitte had got one! Without trying very hard. Without remembering the last few secrets to landing the job. She and Barbette would have electricity, and water, and food. Keep their rent-controlled apartment and say fuck youpiss off to Mr. Witherstone, who yearned to evict them so he could charge new renters an exorbitant price. By the skin of their teeth, once more. Gitte was the one who had accomplished this. She must have given out vibes of genius or invincibility. Or something. The last secret came to her then. Be yourself. That one was a total joke. Gitte laughed.
“Are you ok, Ma’am?” A young antelope with overdone eyelashes.
“Just happy, child.” People still cared about one another in terrible times. Times were not so terrible, after all.
“What exactly will you be doing there?” Barbette was chopping things for a salad, which was to be their evening meal. In between chopping, she scratched her scalp and inspected her fingernails, probably looking for lice.
“What I just told you – do not ask me again.”
“Oh, somebody’s being a prickly pear this evening!” Barbette picked up a dirty carrot and gnawed on it. “Let’s not forget that I was the one copying the ’10 secrets to landing the job’ for you.”
“Let’s not forget that I was the one who got the job.”
“Fair enough.” Barbette added the chewed carrot stump to the salad. “Let’s not forget that without me you’d still be curled up in a the fetal position, following the election.”
“Fair enough,” Gitte said. She couldn’t think of a counter argument.
The salad had seeds, pieces of banana and flecks of dark in it, and Gitte excused herself saying she felt too excited to eat. Barbette was fishing bits from the bowl and licking them off her gnarled fingers. She didn’t seem to mind.
“Night, then,” Gitte said.
“We must keep up our strength, “ Barbette murmured.
The goat opened the door to 744 Patterson Street wearing a blue smock with ‘Pharmtastic!’ written in white across her chest. She handed an identical smock to Gitte, and some kind of bathing cap.
“Wear those at all times,” she said, “Company policy.”
“Yesterday was INFORMAL day. Today is business.”
“You’re not wearing the cap,” Gitte said.
“I’m not in ‘receiving’. I’m ‘accounts payable’. Big difference. Better not ask any more questions, lest you get sacked before the day is over.” The goat grinned her smeared lipstick grin.
“Got it,” Gitte said. She put on the cap and gown and looked for a receptionist’s desk – there was none. She found an orange plastic chair in one of the rooms off the hallway and dragged it to the front door. She sat on it and waited.
Around 9:30 am the bell rang and the knocker knocked.
Gitte unlocked the door to a panting Retriever.
“Hello. Welcome to Pharmtastic!” Gitte said.
“I got two in here,” the retriever said. “It ain’t been easy. Can we make this quick?”
“Of course!” Gitte took in the wiggling cardboard box from the retriever’s paws and handed it to the backroom trying not to disturb the contents. “Here we are. All done. And your name would be---“
“Never mind my name,’ the retriever barked, “I was told this would be no hassle. That you would direct me straight to the accountant.”
“Of course. First door to the left. The accountant’s name is Lisa. Have a pleasant rest of the day.” The retriever disappeared into the goat’s door and came out a few moments later, still looking harried. Gitte held the front door open for him and he rushed out without looking back.
“Have a nice day!” Gitte called after him.
The rest of the day was much the same. Every hour or so the bell would ring and the knocker would knock, and Gitte would open the door to find another anxious client proffering a cardboard box. She took the boxes and delivered them to the back room, then directed the clients to the goat’s door. Everyone was in a hurry, nobody appeared grateful or happy. Around four o’clock, the goat emerged carrying two mugs of tea. She handed one to Gitte and dragged her own orange office chair next to hers.
“I’d appreciate if you didn’t give the clients my first name,” the goat said. “It makes for an uncomfortable alliance.”
Gitte apologized. “I thought it was ok because it’s on your door.”
They sipped their tea in silence for a while. The goat brought out a pack of cookies from underneath her smock and offered them to Gitte.
“Oh, good,” Gitte said, “I’m starving.” She munched a cookie, which – in spite of being stale – tasted delicious. “Where do people eat around here?”
“In our five-star cafeteria,” the goat said. “Just kidding. You bring your own. Nowhere to heat or cool anything, so make sure it’s durable.”
“Thank you. That’s good advice,” Gitte said. She ate two more cookies, before handing the pack back to Lisa.
“I wish there were windows in this place.”
"What for?” the goat asked.
“So we could look out.”
“Ah, well,” the goat said, “Let me tell you something: as far as receptionists go, you’re not the worst. Just try not to wish for impossible things.”
Gitte was about to say ‘got it’ or some such when the bell rang and the knocker knocked.
“Back to the grind,” the goat said and with surprising agility wheeled her chair and self back inside her office.
"Welcome to Pharmtastic!”
The large Holstein cow barely fit through the door. Once she was inside, Gitte could see she was crying. The cardboard box she had brought was the largest yet. From inside the box came faint mooing sounds. “Please,” the Holstein said, “she is very young yet. Is there any way ---“
“Don’t worry about a thing,” Gitte said. “You’re in good hands here. The accountant’s door is the first to the left.”
The cow sniveled as she went past Gitte, and Gitte had to summon all her strength (thank Lisa for the cookies!) to drag the heavy box onto the ledge of the backroom entrance, which wasn’t the entrance to a room, but rather a chute ending in darkness, and push it through. She sat shivering in her chair recovering from the exertion when the cow came back and left without saying good-bye.
The Holstein turned out to be the last client of the day. Gitte waited until the 8:00 pm closing time before taking off her cap and smock. She folded them and placed them on the orange chair. There was no sign of Lisa or anyone else, and she let herself out in silence.
By the end of her first workweek, Gitte had settled into a routine that felt almost comfortable. The smock and cap meant she didn’t have to worry about clothing or hairstyle choices. She grew fond of her orange plastic chair. She challenged herself to be ever nicer to the clients while staying discreet and professional. The goat wasn’t much of a talker, but Gitte enjoyed their teatime together. Gitte bought crackers and dried fruits she thought the goat would enjoy and Styrofoam packaged ‘cup-o’noodles’ that could be turned into real meals with the help of the goat’s water heater. A few times, she tried to draw the goat out on the subject of Ms. Lucinda Fieldings (was she married? What did she do all day?), but the goat remained reticent. All Gitte found out was that Ms. Fieldings was a night owl who didn’t socialize much and that she was fair within reason.
“Within reason? What do you mean by that?”
"She’ll pay you if you do your job.”
The goat herself had been employed by Pharmtastic going on two years. “A record, I believe,” she said with some pride. That was all.
During her first weekend home, Gitte found that she missed the goat. She missed her duties as a receptionist. She missed the slow trickle of clients who depended on her professional guidance. She even missed the exercise that came with lifting boxes up and through the chute. Barbette was acting weird. For the longest time she had had a talent for finding things people had discarded as useless and exchanged them for items she and Gitte needed: a DVD jazz collection for a rusty but functioning teakettle; a batch of hospital receiving blankets for a working microwave; a tattered world map for a dining room table with mismatched legs. Queen of the swap meet, people called Barbette. Now she brought home stuff that to Gitte’s eyes was obscure, if not downright eccentric.
“What on earth do we want with this toilet roll decorated in crayon by preschoolers?” Gitte asked. “What is the use of a two-hundred+ collection of melted bottle caps?”
“I want us to have some beauty in our lives,” Barbette said. “We have to have beauty.”
Gitte didn’t think the greasy toilet paper beautiful. The melted bottle cap mess reminded her of Armageddon. But she had enough respect for Barbette not to tell her so. She couldn’t wait to get back to work on Monday.
Confiding in the goat was the easiest thing in the world.
“My roommate and I—we used to be more than roommates,” Gitte began.
“Say no more,” the goat said.
“But once we got old—”
“I get it,” the goat said, “”No need to elaborate.”
Gitte was grateful. She had bought some dehydrated cherries from the newsstand in the subway station, and she liked the way the goat plopped them into her mouth—one by one—to suck on them.
“Living with another person is just so very difficult,” Gitte said.
“Tell me about it,” the goat said, but it wasn’t an invitation.
The goat seemed consumed by her own dark thoughts, so Gitte stayed quiet.
“Oh, hell,” the goat said after a while, and then, “Do you ever wonder why the clients you send to my office don’t come out looking happy?”
Gitte’s pulse quickened. She had wanted to ask Lisa this very same question a hundred times. And here was the goat, bringing it up.
“Why?” Her voice croaked, but the goat appeared not to notice.
“Because it’s blood-money,” the goat said, “Nobody in the world has ever been made happy by blood-money. They will hate themselves until the day they die.”
“Oh,” Gitte said, “That is so sad.”
“It’s sad, alright,” the goat said. “But what are you and I going to do about it?”
The next day, a Tuesday, a squinty-eyed fox opened the door to Gitte and said, “Hello! I’m Marge. Here to help you.”
“Hello, Marge,” Gitte said, “Where’s Lisa?”
“Accounts payable,” Gitte said.
“That would be me,” the fox said. “I’m accounts payable. Are you the receptionist?”
Gitte nodded. “That would be me.”
“You’re almost late,” the fox said and disappeared into Lisa’s office.
Gitte put on her cap and smock and sat down on her orange chair.
She waited. Nothing happened for what felt like a very long time. She was almost grateful when, around noon, the bell rang and the knocker knocked. A light-colored seal with enormous liquid eyes wobbled in. She barked something and then broke into a cry of human desperation.
“I feel your pain,” Gitte whispered, as she took the box from the seal and deposited it in the back room. “First door on the left is the accountant’s.”
Teatime came and went and Gitte ate her box of Cranberry-orange flavored cookies in solitude. She gnawed on the noodles in her ‘cup-o’noodles’ bowl, but they were no good without water. She missed the goat. She missed the person Barbette had been before she turned into a baby rhesus monkey. She missed… “Oh, hell,” Gitte said and wiped her eyes. Barbette had always told her she was too emotional. She spent the rest of the afternoon trying not to recall highlights from her teatimes with goat.
At 7:30 pm the bell rang, and rang again. Gitte waited for the knocker to knock, but it didn’t. Finally, Gitte opened the door.
“Yo—I was getting worried you guys had left for the day.” The turkey vulture was hard to look at. A skull of raw red skin, holes for nostrils, swollen wrinkles where feathers ought to be. Cloak of dirt.
“And what can I do for you?” Gitte said.
“Got four in here.” The vulture pushed a box towards Gitte. “Prime specimens. Cream of the crop.”
“Crop of what?” She didn’t know what made her go off script. The vulture blinked his deadened eyes. “Are you here to ask questions? I want my payout.”
“Fourth door on the right,” Gitte said, and once the vulture had disappeared into Ms. Lucinda Fieldings’ office, she dragged her orange chair underneath the door handle to jam it. She heard a flutter of wings and screeches.
Inside the box were four perfect human specimens. They were huddled together for warmth. As soon as Gitte removed the blanket they started shivering and let out little mews of discontent. Each had ten fingers and toes, and eyes and ears and noses and mouths in all the right places. Their little limbs punched ineffectually at the cold air. Gitte lifted the darkest one out of the box. He was sucking on one of his fists and wailing, and when Gitte lifted him to her chest, he weighed nothing. His hair hadn’t come in yet and his skull was covered in the faintest of fuzz. But he clung to Gitte’s body with determination. “There, there,” Gitte said, rocking him, “wait ‘til we get some formula into you.”
She and Barbette had enough money to afford concentrate. They had four arms between them. They had locks to lock out the world for a while, and they both had a need for beauty. They had locks to lock the outside world out for a while. They both had a need for beauty.
Helia Rethmann grew up in Germany where she worked as a journalist before emigrating to the US. Her fiction has recently appeared in Black Elephant, Intrinsick Magazine and in Pure Slush and Virgins anthologies. Her story ‘Blood’ won the December 2016 Two Sisters writing contest. She lives in Nashville, TN.