"Daddy! Daddy! Pick me up, Daddy!"
A big, tall giant of a man turned around. The small girl would have been terrified of him, but for his warm, inviting blue eyes. He smiled. "Do you want a piggy back ride, Ann?"
The girl giggled, her limp golden ringlets shaking with her laughter. "Daddy's silly. I wanna play airplane!"
"Of course, you're right. Silly Daddy." His large, brawny hands, strong enough to twist open a stubborn pickle jar without a can opener, grasped her underneath her arms and hoisted her upwards with the care and gentleness of a museum curator dusting the fossil exhibits. He lifted her high into the air, above his head, and looked into her pink, laughing face, the laughter reciprocated in his face. "Up goes the airplane!" he announced in the tone of a pilot coming over the intercom to announce a plane taking off into the dazzling blue ceiling above. He spun her slowly around in a circle.
"Nyeeeeeerooooow, shwoooooom," said the girl, imitating what she imagined an airplane to look like.
"That's right, Ann. We're coming in for landing now…"
BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP.
A loud groan emanated out from the mass of disorganized sheets on what could only loosely be termed a bed. An eye peeked out, grogginess still apparent from the fact that it was still half-closed. The eye was greeted by a room in nearly complete darkness, but for the small streaks of sunlight that maneuvered their way in through the blinds covering the windows, trying their best to keep an aura of nighttime, but failing. With both legs stretching out in opposite directions, one bending into the body, one moving out towards being straight, a woman's arm slinked its way out of the labyrinth of fabric, coming down with a hard thud on top of the alarm clock, silencing it instantly.
Sadly, that would not mean peace and quiet for her.
"Get up! UP! You're going to be late for work!" shouted a nagging voice. It paused. "Actually, you already are, but hurry up anyway!"
The mound of sheets and blankets and cloth groaned again, shifting slightly. One could imagine the woman underneath rolling her eyes, though her eyes were securely half-shut. "Five more minutes!"
A loud rap came at the door. "You've been asleep all morning! Time to get up!"
Poking her head out from under the sheets, she leaned her head backwards towards the floor, her long, straight blonde hair rippling against the brown linoleum carpet. She yawned. "Okay, Mom, whatever." She swung one leg over the side of the bed, then the other leg, and tugged on a corner of her dark red cocktail dress with one hand, while rubbing her temples with the other hand. "Ooh, my head." The previous night's events were coming back to haunt her, like an unwanted poltergeist playing pranks intended to amuse, but instead annoying everyone involved with their poor humor.
Picking up a nice, slightly wrinkled shirt and skirt at random off the floor, pulling the dress up over her head and draping it over the nearby table lamp, putting on the new set of clothes, she brushed her hair with a nearby wire brush, hard and fast. She had just pulled up her second stocking and slid her feet into a pair of open-toed shoes, when a great pounding sound reverberated through the floor, almost like the noise from a broom hitting against the ceiling. Muffled yelling rang through the room. "Hurry up!"
She sighed. "Yes, Mom." Rubbing her lower back, her eyes staring upwards towards the ceiling in exasperation, she stood up straight and walked on uncertain legs, wobbling towards the door. She ran her hands across the rough wooden door, before both hands grasped around the smooth metal knob, turning it to overcome the buzzing sensation in her brain. Unexpectedly, the door opened with a click; having put her whole weight against it, a choice exclamation fell out of her mouth, hot and angry, as she fell forward through the widening opening, flat on her face.
Propping herself up on one arm, she rubbed the bridge of her nose with her front two fingers of the opposite hand. She pulled herself onto her knees. "Shit, that hurt."
Her mother, nearly telepathic in her response time, called, "Language, young lady!" Pausing to allow an obligatory eyeroll, she continued, "Coffee's on the table. I made waffles!"
Stumbling down the stairs, holding the railing like a life line all the while, the woman folded one of the waffles, which were stacked neatly on a china plate in the well-lighted kitchen, into a small, mushy ball; she stuffed the folded waffle into her mouth. The whole, piping hot mug of dark, black coffee was funneled down her throat in one scorching gulp. There was barely time enough to choke out a hasty "Gotta run" through all the food and the overheated throat, before she dashed out of the kitchen, nearly tripping over an umbrella stand on her way out.
The mother's sea green eyes expanded in worry. Right arm reaching across the table, she snatched up the brown paper bag sitting there. "Wait! Don't forget your—" The front door slammed shut. "—lunch."
It was a hot, muggy day. The sun was directly overhead, creating glare on every windshield and window in sight. Steam almost seemed to rise off the sidewalk, hissing loudly through the air. Hurrying down the steps, her flip flops flapping against the flagstones, as she walked through the stifling heat, the woman rifled through her genuine alligator hide purse. Lipstick, eyeliner, fingernail polish, rouge—everything important was inside except for what she desperately needed right now: a wad of cash. She stopped and groaned. She must have spent it all the previous night, and now that she wanted a taxi, there was no way she would be able to afford them. "Great," she muttered to herself, "now I have to walk all the way across the street in this heat!" Grumbling indistinct phrases, she almost leapt into the street, completely ignoring the cars that were forced to swerve and stop for her. Much honking of horns ensued.
In front of her were a set of iridescent glass doors. Shading her eyes, she looked at the sign above the door, mounted on the marble walls of the building. Her eyes were blurry, so though she could see the golden lettering on the sign, the actual words were far less recognizable. "Dead…later…orifice," she read. She shrugged; it probably was the Dead Letter Office. Legs shaking, unsure of themselves, she pushed the door. It didn't budge. A glare passing over her face, she tried pushing it again, this time harder. It still didn't budge.
"What am I doing wrong?" she shouted.
A young boy, about eight years old, and his mother were passing by the establishment at just that moment, and, after stopping to gape at this obviously insane person, the mother pushed her boy forward. "Come along, Kevin. It's rude to stare."
But the woman paid them no mind. She stared at the door with a fiery intensity. There had to be some reason for it. And the reason was all summed up in a sign on the door. If only she could read it.
"Pull…this…door…to…open," she read, squinting. Then it dawned on her. "Oh. Oh! I see now." She grasped the door handle with both hands, the right held over the left, and yanked it open with all her strength. A satisfied smile crossed her face as she saw it open. "Perfect." She passed in through the front doors.
After much confusion, five wrong turns, and a car chase through the main hallway, she finally entered through a door with a sign hung from it, the text "Sorting Room" written on it in dingy black lettering. The room itself was a typical workplace environment. The walls were gray, the floor was gray, the chairs and desks were gray, almost everything was gray. The only item in the room that was not gray was a cart inside the room filled with a large pile of letters in bright white envelopes and packages wrapped in dull brown packaging and yellow manila envelopes with the word "URGENT" written across them in capital letters. Only one other person was in the room.
It was another woman, a brunette sitting behind a gray desk with a matching gray chair, shuffling through a few letters on her desk. The gray checked dress she wore not only served as a professional outfit, but it also happened to allow her to blend almost perfectly into the room. She could have given the chameleons a run for their money. When she turned around, she smiled, the corners of her mouth curving upwards in weak, faint lines. "Hello there, Clare. Glad you could join me."
Clare barely gave her coworker a glance, staring upwards instead towards the white analog clock hanging on the wall. "11:40", it said. Putting her alligator purse down onto her desk, she said, "It's almost time for the lunch break. Lunch starts at eleven forty five, doesn't it, Gertie?"
"Great. The one goddamn day I forget my money is the day I'm here in time for lunch. This sucks."
"Well," said Gertie, pushing a strand of mud brown hair that had fallen out of its proper bun away from her face, "couldn't you eat the food your mom packed for you? I'm sure it's a good lunch and everything."
"Right, I definitely want to do that," Clare snorted. Her voice dripped with sarcasm. "And I also want to show up at work on time every morning, instead of actually having fun and having a fucking life. Yeah, that's what I want to do all right. Damned woman, she's been decreasing my allowance every week. It's getting annoying as hell. Besides, I left the goddamn lunch in the kitchen, anyway."
"Yeah, I know, my fucking cursing puts you off, doesn't it?"
"I was actually going to ask you how the party was last night," said Gertie in a whisper.
"Oh." For a few moments, there was a silence in the room. Gertie shuffled through envelopes in the pile on her desk, sorting them into categories of those that could be returned, those that could be mailed, and those that would be lost in the system. Clare picked at the nonexistent dirt under her well-manicured nails. They had been painted a vivid red the night before to match her cocktail dress, but now, they clashed with her simple gray work uniform. Finally she said, "Well, you know, the usual. Whoever was running the thing had a really bad catering service. I mean, their shish kebab was absolutely horrible! I tried some of their shrimp, too, and that stuff was so goddamn salty, I had to drink like a camel to get the taste out of my mouth. It was awful."
But when you got Clare Arbor started on something relating to her, it was impossible to stop her, just like trying to stop a train with busted breaks heading full speed down a hill was impossible. "And don't get me started on the music. Their stereo system was totally broken. The noise was completely distorted, and the sound quality was something awful. Let me tell you—"
"…you see, I met this totally cute guy there. I don't really remember his name, and I'm a bit fuzzy on what he looked like, but I know he had a shitload of cash. I'm going to another party later next week. I hope I can meet him there again. He would be a really good guy to hook up wi—"
She sighed. "What, Gertie? I thought you wanted to fucking hear about this. If you didn't, you could have told me, you know, instead of—"
"Late again, Ms. Arbor? Such a bad habit of yours," came a voice from behind her. Clare froze. "Yes, that's right, you're right to be afraid. Isn't it the seventh time this month you've been unreasonably late?"
"It's her eighth time, sir," said Gertie.
Clare shot her a glare, before turning around in her swivel chair and facing her employer. She could not help but sneer at his comb over hairstyle and gray pinstripe suit; she could do ten times better with her eyes closed. "I prefer to call it fashionably late, myself, Mr. Mulligan."
"No matter what you prefer to call it, Ms. Arbor, you are still late. You know, I am highly considering firing you. I don't know why I've kept you on here so long."
Clare shrugged, pointedly looking him in the eye with her sea green ones. "I don't really know, but I'm sure you have your reasons, don't you—sir?"
Mr. Mulligan likewise narrowed his watery blue eyes. He frowned. "Yes, I suppose I do. But I'm warning you. If you're late one more time, you're fired, understand?"
"Of course, Mr. Mulligan." She smirked as she watched him leave the Sorting Room to return to his own office. "Of course." When the door closed shut, Clare swiveled around in her chair back towards Gertie—or, more to the point, towards the clock hanging on the wall. It now read "11:43". Crossing her legs, she propped her arm up onto the desk, her face leaning against the hand. A loud sigh escaped her mouth. "I'm bored," she whined.
Gertie, an envelope still held up into the light in one of her hands, looked up. Her brow furrowed until it seemed like one straight, uniform line. "Sorry?"
"I said, I'm bored. I have to work, and I fucking hate it. It's so tiring, having to do all this work I always have to do. I do all the work for this department. You should really step it up, Gertie, because I don't want to have to tell Mr. Mulligan you've been slacking off. Because first, that's not a very nice thing to do, and I'm a very nice person, you know. Well, you know that already, but anyway, I also think I should give you a second chance. It's the decent thing to do. I mean…" It went on, and on, and on.
Gertie pushed a strand of muddy brown hair out of her face, tucking it behind an ear. She glanced briefly over her shoulder, before bending back over the letters. "It's eleven forty five, Clare."
This didn't deter Clare, who kept on chugging, a determined little engine that could not stop talking. "…and I just can't understand how—"
"It's eleven forty five. Shouldn't you be going out to lunch?"
"Oh, right. Thanks for reminding me, Gertie. I almost forgot to eat. I'm on a diet, you know." She tugged at her stomach, pulling out nonexistent flabby skin. "Do you see all this fat here? I'm fat, Gertie, and it's getting harder to fit into those cute dresses I see in those shop windows. You know the boutique on that one street, right? In that one nice place? The one with all the nice clothes?"
"Er—" Gertie barely had time to awkwardly scratch the bridge of her nose.
"Of course you do, everyone knows about that boutique. It's totally designer." Clare paused for a moment to take a small breath. She tapped her chin thoughtfully, then scowled. "But everyone knows about that goddamn place, too. The fucking clothes aren't worth shit if you are wearing the same goddamn dress as everyone else in the room."
"You know, Gertie, I'm starting to get pretty hungry. Maybe I should go out to lunch."
"That's a good idea, Clare," said Gertie, smiling in relief. "I think you should get some food back into your system. It'll help you stay on task when you get back."
"Uh huh." Clare reached across her desk and grabbed onto her purse. She opened the clasp and fumbled through it. The contents rustled against the sides loudly. Sticks of lipstick. Rouge. Eyeliner. Nail polish. The usual. "There we go." Her wallet. Her fingers grasped around the wallet and pulled it out. She opened it and began rummaging through the bills fold. Or, at least, she would have rummaged through it had there been anything to rummage through. Sadly, the poor, worn wallet was completely depleted of all its value. There were no credit cards, no dollar bills, no nothing; all that was left was synthetic fabric with empty pockets. "Uh oh."
Clare looked up from her bag, over her desk, straight at Gertie. She opened her eyes wide, a plaintive look on her face and smiled sheepishly. "I don't have any money left. Could I borrow some of yours? Just for lunch, you see. I'm starving!"
"I don't know." Gertie squirmed in her seat, looking down at her hands. For what seemed an eternity, her eyes stayed there. Clare was just about to interject, when suddenly, Gertie looked up again. "Couldn't you go home to eat for a while? Your mom would probably be happy to make you something."
"Are you fucking serious?" exploded Clare, eyes glinting with steel. Gertie could not help averting her eyes again. "Really? Do you really fucking think that going home to my goddamn house would mean my mom would be happy to make me a shitty sandwich? Are we talking about the same person here? This is my mom, who cut off all my goddamn credit cards and gave me a goddamn allowance that is too fucking small! And you think I should go home for lunch?"
"Um, no, but—"
"You agree," she interrupted, "that I should go out to lunch today, then."
"I would, but—"
"Except I don't have my own money. I need to borrow some from someone. Now, don't you think that the person who has been slacking off the most and leaving the most work to me should be the one who pays? It would be the honorable thing to do."
"I guess, but—"
"So I should be getting some money for lunch from you, then. Glad we all agree. I think a fitting sum would be twenty dollars." Gertie's mouth fell open ever so slightly, but she was quick to shut it again. "You know how expensive the restaurants in this town are, after all. It's necessary to have a large food budget in this town."
"I'm waiting," said Clare, impatiently tapping her foot on the floor.
It's impossible to win against that kind of logic. Gertie could not do anything but admit defeat. She found that there was no choice for her but to reach into her small, gray purse and pull out a crisp twenty dollar bill. The money switched hands, and Clare grinned at the money. "You and I are going to have a lot of fun together!" After a few moments of silent musing at just how she was going to spend that lovely money, she looked up, a grin still on her face; it faded slightly when she saw Gertie was still there. "Oh, right. I meant I'm going to have a lot of fun choosing what foods I'm going to eat. Yeah. That's what I meant."
When Gertie still didn't say anything, Clare grew increasingly uncomfortable. She shifted her weight, the chair swiveling a little. Then a bright grin came back onto her face again. "You know what," she said, "I'm going to go now. Hungry, you know?" Clutching the alligator hide purse close to herself, she edged backwards for several steps. Then, turning around, she walked across the gray floor until she had reached the door. As the door swung shut behind her, Clare smirked. "Sucker."
Perfectly happy to be leaving the Dead Letter Office behind her, Clare strode out the door; she slung her genuine alligator hide purse over her shoulder, grasping the strap with one hand. Once outside, in full daylight, she stopped for just a moment, her eyes closed, breathing in the hot air around her. "Freedom," she said, a smile moving across her face. Then her head came back to standard position, her eyes fell open. Laughter. "This town will never know what hit it!" Purpose in every one of her carefully measured steps, all evenly spaced--perfect, long, elegant—Clare walked down the street. Except it wasn't just walking for her. She luxuriated in making sure everyone around her knew that she was a woman and that she was liberated. "Freedom."
She passed by the restaurants in the center of town. Lovely smells wafted out the doors, as businessmen and couples and little old ladies who hold book club meetings every week at their local cafes walked out, satisfied with wonderful, filling lunches. Her stomach growled; she was almost tempted to walk right into those restaurants and go crazy with buying food. However, Clare restrained herself. She wasn't just a common spendthrift, a shop-o-holic who went around buying food and stuffing it into her mouth until her figure went to pot—well, more so than it already had, anyway.
Besides, there were far better things for her to spend her money on. Far more interesting things. She strolled by a small clothing store, at first casually, pretending to be simply window shopping. It was not fitting to appear insane and obsessed with clothing, after all. Then, suddenly, a lovely pair of deep blue shoes with stiletto heels caught her eye. Her face moved right up next to the window, her nose pressed against the glass. Clare stared at the shoes with an avid fascination; they were the most beautiful shoes she had ever seen. Sure, she had about fifty other pairs of stiletto-heeled shoes already, but hey, a girl can never get enough stiletto heels. It's a fact of life.
In fact, she was so very interested in the shoes that she neglected to keep a lookout for passerby as she always did. She did not notice a bell clanging lightly, as someone exited the ice cream store next door; nor did she hear the telltale sound of footsteps against the pavement. Actually, she was not even distracted by the loud, nearly shouting voices of a young boy and his mother.
"But Mommy!" complained the boy in a nasal voice. His voice had the quality of one with a globful of something sweet and sugary lodged in his mouth. (As a matter of fact, at that very moment, he was ingesting a large quantity of vanilla ice cream.) "I didn't want an ice cream cone! I wanted the Super Duper Gianterific Deluxe Ice Cream Sundae Special! It's not fair, Mommy, you promised! You told me we were doing what I wanted to do today."
The mother tried to calm her child. "Kevin, please, darling. You know that sugar gives you nightmares. What would your father say if I told him I had let you eat that?" She did not do a very good job.
"Daddy lets me eat whatever I want. He bought me a big box of chicken from that fried chicken place, and he let me eat it all by myself!"
"I'm sure your father did no such..." The woman trailed off. Sadly for Clare, she was so engrossed in the shoe display that she never noticed this. It was only by shifting her position slightly that two people-shaped shadows appeared in her line of sight.
Turning around, her cheeks became a flaming red. Just as she was about to say something, the mother interjected, "Kevin, it's time to go now. Come on."
"But Mommy, why was that weird lady drooling all over the window?"
"Come on, Kevin." She grasped the boy's hand, ignoring the sticky texture from the boy's ice cream treat, and pulled him away. All the while, a fearful, paranoid look stayed on her face. It watched Clare nervously until the two were deemed far enough away from the obviously insane window-drooler.
Clare was still quite embarrassed. She hoped no one else had seen her disgrace. To attempt to justify herself in her mind, as well as in the minds of anyone else who could possibly be watching, she turned around and entered the clothing store. A small bell tinkled over the door.
Looking around the room, Clare saw the same quaint place she had been to many times before. It was a small store, without a large amount of clothing in stock, but what it did stock were all stylish clothes that, happily, were not worn by the mainstream party-goers. The shopkeeper, a pimply-faced, red-haired youth wearing a generic red baseball cap, nodded at Clare. "Do you have money today? If you don't, I'm going to have to kick you out. I can't make any more exceptions for you, you know. Sorry, but it's nothing personal."
Clare smiled sweetly. "Come on, now, Ruben. You think I don't know that?"
"I don't think so. I know so," he said dryly.
"Well, as a matter of fact, today, I do have some money." She fidgeted with the clasp on her purse, then rummaged around in it until she found her wallet. It was no longer empty when she brought it out. She pulled out the wrinkled twenty dollar bill Gertie had given her. "Viola!"
"Voila," he corrected.
"Whatever! Now, let me look around in peace, okay?"
He shrugged in noncommittal, yet implicit, agreement.
"Cool. There's a totally sweet pair of shoes in the window display that's calling my name. You don't happen to have another pair like them, do you?"
The shopkeeper held a vacant look in his eyes. It never seemed to leave—ever. If the whole world burned down in an apocalypse of fire and ice, Ruben's eyes would have still been staring ahead with absolutely no expression in them. He shrugged again. "No, those are for the window display."
"Yes, I know that, Ruben." He was really testing Clare's patience, which was virtually nonexistent. "I just want to know if you have another goddamn pair of shoes just like them. You know, for people to buy."
"You could buy the one in the display."
"Yes, but I salivated all over the fucking thing. Just give me a goddamn pair of shoes like the ones in the goddamn display!"
"We don't have any."
He smiled blandly. The blank look in his eyes still did not match the smile, though. "We don't have any, Ms. Arbor. If you'd like, though, we have a black pair."
Clare was really irritated now. Any sane person would have cowered behind something in fear, that something preferably being eight inches of sheet metal. "What makes you fucking think that I want those goddamn black shoes?"
Ruben looked down, pointing. Confused for a moment, Clare looked down at the ground as well. On her feet, she was wearing a pair of plain black flip flops, dusty and gray from exposure to the layers of dust in the Sorting Room. She groaned, looking back up at Ruben with a fierce glint in her eyes. "Well, yeah, of course these goddamn shoes are black, but that's because they're for my fucking job. I don't wear these; I don't even fucking like these!"
"We have the window display shoes, and we have a black set. Which would you like, ma'am?"
Grimacing, Clare looked around the room. She drummed her fingers against her purse, producing dull, regular thuds. It was a difficult decision to make. On one hand, the window display was positively drool-worthy, but on the other hand, even if the other set was black, they were stiletto heels, which always make a pair of shoes worthwhile, no matter the color.
"Hm?" She realized she had been staring intently at the floor for a full minute, nodding off into thought. And that's never a good thing to do while shopping. Snapping awake, she continued, "How much does a pair cost?"
"Nineteen ninety nine, ma'am."
Decisions, decisions. "I'll take the black pair, Ruben."
"Excellent choice." She handed over the twenty dollar bill, now quite rumpled, to Ruben's ready hand, waiting outstretched for payment. He bent down under the counter, the money still clasped tightly in his hand, and emerged with a bundle wrapped in tissue paper. "Here you go, ma'am. Would you like your change?"
Clare scowled. She snatched the bundle from his hands, stuffing it into her purse. "Keep it. It's the last business you'll ever get from me."
"Yes!" She was right by the door, grasping the door handle in her hand, looking over one shoulder scornfully at the shopkeeper. "And I mean it this time!"
"If you say so."
The door shut with a slam. The small bell went wild with noise.
"Stupid goddamn shop. Too small to have enough colors for one goddamn pair of shoes. Goddamn kid persuades me to buy black shoes for those goddamn prices. What a fucking rip-off of twenty goddamn dollars…" Clare stormed down the street in a rage; if one looked closely enough, it was even possible to see a small, gray storm cloud hovering over her head, thundering and flashing lightning. Angry thoughts ran through Clare's brain. But then. Suddenly. Gertie lending her the twenty dollars for lunch. Lunch break. Work. Clare stopped, allowing pedestrian traffic to push past her. "Work."
Clare looked up into the sky. The sun was no longer directly overhead; the air, though still hot and muggy, was no longer unbearable like it had been around noon. One thing, however, was perfectly clear: her lunch break had been over long ago. She really ought to have been back at work by now. Back at work, sorting through mail with Gertie, hoping to avoid Mr. Mulligan and his infuriating, annoying lectures on work ethic—
"Meh." If Clare was honest with herself, she really did not care at all. She shrugged. "Whatever. Screw work." Quickening her pace, she adjusted the shoulder strap on her purse and began to stride forward confidently once more. Walking down the street, she saw people going about their daily lives around her, doing one trivial thing or another. Two muscular men were lifting a piano up to a high floor in a building with ropes and pulleys. Six or seven small boys played baseball in the streets. One of them roused many enthusiastic cheers from the girls in the sidelines; he was clearly a crowd favorite.
The surroundings changed gradually. As Clare walked further and further from the city core, the surroundings became dingier and dingier. Finally, Clare seemed to have reached her destination. She stood, two feet firmly on the floor, in front of a slightly run-down bar. At the moment, Clare really could not afford much else, as chagrined as she was to admit it. She sighed. "Here it is. Here's the goddamn dump." Despite her proclamation, however, she had no qualms with entering it.
A/N: All due apologies go to J. D. Salinger.
Also, One and Two have been reformatted from their original versions. Sorry for any confusion.