Clare looked towards Gertie, then back to Mr. Mulligan in quiet desperation. "Did you mean me, sir? I wasn't quite sure."
Mr. Mulligan did not laugh, or glare, or do much of anything. His expression stayed at a mild frown. "Yes, Ms. Arbor, I mean you."
"Okay." She sighed. "I guess I should start packing my stuff."
"You do that."
"But still. I had a good reason to be gone."
"She had a very good reason to be gone, sir," said Gertie. "I think," she added meekly, shrinking back into the surrounding gray.
"I was mugged this morning," supplied Clare, pouting. "Should I really be fired? I mean, I've been through the incredibly brutal and traumatizing experience of being mugged." She sniffled, wiping one arm over her eyes—secretly peeking at her audience's reaction all the while. "I'm probably never going to trust anyone ever again. And yet you talk about firing me? How could you?"
Mr. Mulligan seemed to consider this for a moment. He scratched his chin thoughtfully, appraising Clare in his mind's eye. "I suppose we do have the union to consider. It would not be fitting to have this stain on the company record. Yes, I should probably keep you on…for a while longer, at any rate."
Though true happiness was impossible in his presence, Clare managed a grin, "Oh, thank you, Mr. Mulligan, sir! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Mom—I—"
"Yes, yes, I know, Ms. Arbor," he said, and, as if bored with Clare, he turned instead to Gertie. The mild, yet frowning, expression on his face returned. "As for you, Ms. Holstein, what excuse could you possibly have?"
Shaking like a leaf, confused, she replied, "I was out with Clare. I was helping her out. She got mugged, and I thought I should buy her breakfast, get her back on her feet. Be a nice person. That kind of thing." She paused. "It's called doing a good deed, sir. I don't understand what I could have done wrong."
"It is quite simple, really."
"Yes, sir, I absolutely agree. There is simply no problem."
"No, you misunderstand." He smiled, the corners of his mouth twitching convulsively, as if unused to such a motion. Smiling really did not seem to be his 'thing'. "I said that it was simple, Ms. Holstein, because there is a very simple reason why I should fire you."
"What? F-f-fire me?"
"Yes, fire you. You aren't supposed to help people out. You're supposed to come to work promptly at nine, and you're not supposed to stop on the way. It doesn't matter what the reason is; I thought you knew not to stop, no matter what?"
"Isn't helping people a good thing? Yes, that's what they all say."
"Well it is?" Mr. Mulligan stopped, then shrugged. "I guess helping people is a reasonable thing to do. Nothing's in our policy against it, and helping people should not be discouraged. Also," he added, "more importantly, you have been a real asset to the Letter Sorting Department in the past, so one lapse in judgment should be forgiven."
Here Clare finally found a chance to say something. "Actually, Gertie is a total slacker, Mr. Mulligan. I'm the one who does most of the work in the office."
Gertie folded her arms across her chest. "Hey, wait a minute—"
"Very well. I'm docking you two weeks' pay, Ms. Holstein."
"What? No! You can't do that. I need the money."
"I'm docking you two weeks' pay, and I'm not changing my mind. I suggest that you make whatever arrangements you need to." Before she could say anything more, Mr. Mulligan had already gone, leaving the two women alone.
Clare looked over at Gertie, who was standing entirely still, hardly breathing. She offered up a bright smile. "Wanna buy some more jelly donuts?"
"Was it something I said?" Clare was trying hard to keep with Gertie, who moved quickly through the slate gray hallways. It was hard work trying to be fast as well as graceful and beautiful while she walked; it really was. "I mean, seriously? What's wrong with losing two weeks' pay? You've probably saved every penny you've ever been paid. I don't get what your big deal is."
They reached the Sorting Room. As they both walked in, Gertie slammed the door behind them. "You don't get it? Really? I need the money."
"Yeah, I need the money, too, but you don't see me complaining!"
"All right, I know what you're going to say, Gertie. And I really am sorry."
"Thanks, Clare, I—"
"I'm sorry that you've stooped down to saying you're fucking worse off than I am. I mean, really? No one has a goddamn worse situation than I do right now. My mom is totally limiting my goddamn allowance. She's stringing me along with a few hundred goddamn dollars at a time. Do you know how that makes me feel? Huh?"
Letting out a great sigh, Gertie sank down into her swivel chair. Her head leaned back into the head cushion tiredly. "I can't possibly imagine."
"Yeah, you're fucking right. You can't possibly fucking imagine how it feels to be me!"
Flipping through some letters on her desk, her face remained impassive. "Indeed."
Suddenly, Clare laughed; she collapsed into her swivel chair in a fit of giggles, pushing it around for a full circle with a small push from her feet. Dangling her thin, straight blond hair behind the chair, one shake of her head sent it fluttering, light shimmering down it in ripples. Her head was leaned back over the top of the chair.
She pulled her head forward again, still smiling. "Aw, I can't stay mad at you, Gertie. You're too nice for that." And you're the only one who gives me any money, she thought ruefully. Crossing her legs, leaning her head back against the head rest, she seemed to think for a moment, before she said, "You know what? I think you need some cheering up." She turned the chair around to look at Gertie. "You know?"
Gertie looked up. "Sorry?"
"Well, I was thinking that we could go do stuff." Gertie looked blank. "Girl stuff." Gertie looked more blank; Clare groaned. "You know. Shopping?"
"I don't know. We have to work today—"
"All right, after work, then. Doesn't really matter what time we do it, right?"
"Yep." She picked up the next letter in a manila envelope. She looked it over and inspected it, rotating it through the air. Putting it back on the desk, she brought out a black felt pen, uncapped it, and wrote the words "Wrong zip code" on the envelope, tossing it onto a heap of other improperly addressed letters.
"Oh, come on," said Clare, quick to show her irritation. "You aren't still mad, are you?"
"No, not mad. I'm just going to be busy tonight, that's all."
"Oh, come on, what's wrong with having a little fun? You never get any goddamn work done anyway, so you might as well!"
Frustrated, she slammed both hands against the desk, palms down. As her face faced the desk, her eyes were all that moved towards Clare; she was seething with anger for a change. "I don't get any work done? What about you? I'll bet you haven't even looked at any of the letters in the cart!"
"I've looked at them!"
"Oh, yeah, sure you have. You've looked at the cart!"
"I have too looked at the goddamn letters!" Clare stood up, kicking her swivel chair backwards into the wall, where it dislodged millions of small gray dust particles into the air; she marched over to the mail cart and bent over, shoving her arm in, all the way up to her shoulder in the masses of letters. Her hand rooted around for a piece of mail until it closed around the perfect match. "Here we go." She tugged the letter out through the snaking path of letters and packages, of bills and foreclosure notices (which there seemed to be a lot of recently). It emerged as a wrinkled, old-looking thing. Clare turned it over in her hands, leaning back thoughtfully into her chair. "Huh."
"What is it?"
"I don't know exactly." Shrugging, she unbuttoned the skirt pocket containing the loaned fifty dollars, stuffed the much-crinkled and folded letter in, and refastened the button. "I'll look at it later, when I'm feeling less traumatized and tired." Craning her neck over the top of the chair, she stretched out her legs to their full length, and her feet slammed down onto her desk. Lazily, she looked up at the clock; she grimaced. "Seriously? That goddamn clock says it's only ten forty five. And lunch is at eleven forty five! Do I really have to fucking stay here for another goddamn hour?"
"Yes, so you might as well do some work."
"Are you fucking serious? I do all the fucking work in this department! Don't I deserve a goddamn break every once in a while? Shopping sounds pretty goddamn good right now."
Gertie was now on a brown boxed package. Turning it around in her hands, she shook it until the sound of shattering glass ran through the cardboard; she then set it down, reached for the felt pen, and wrote "Did not stamp FRAGILE." She looked up at Clare. "I don't think so; maybe on our lunch br—"
"But our fucking lunch break is in a goddamn hour. Do you really think it fucking matters if we leave early?"
"It does matter, Clare. We need to earn our—"
"We need to earn our pay? We need to fucking earn our goddamn pay? I already do enough work here for the both of us! Now, I'm starving, and I'm bored out of my skull, and I fucking need…wait a minute, what's in that package?"
"This?" Gertie looked down at the improperly marked package in her hands and shrugged. "I don't know. It's not our job to look at what's inside; we're supposed to just mark what is wrong with the packages and throw them back into the system, where they are disposed of in the Lost Letter Office. You should know that, Clare. They spent a whole day on it in training."
"Give me that!" Clare snatched the package out of Gertie's hands; unexpectedly, her thumb sank into something gooey inside. The once brown envelope seemed to bleed as it turned a dark shade of red. Quickly, Clare thrust the now-red package onto the table. Then, with careful tearing along the edges, she opened the envelope, pulling out a somewhat smashed, but still warm, pie. It was a cherry pie. "Oh, Gertie, this looks delicious! Do you have forks and plates?"
She shook her head. "It doesn't matter, though. The envelope is improperly addressed. It wasn't ours to open."
Clare's eyes widened. She held up the cherry-stained envelope in her free hand, examining it under the gray light. "Looks like it's got your name on it."
"'Gertie Holstein' is written all nice and neat in the middle." She smirked. "Improperly addressed?"
"Well it was!"
"You're not going to open it, even if it's addressed to you, because it's got the wrong goddamn format? Gertie, how could you turn down free pie? Think of other people, for once! I love pie, and I'm starving! Did you think of that when you decided this was for the fucking discard pile?"
"There are people besides you that have goddamn needs, you know. Why don't you think of me, for a change, when you turn down a goddamn still-warm pie!" Clare stopped to catch her breath. "Now, do you have plates and forks, or do I have to grab them from the break room?"
"Come on, Gertie! You have to admit, this pie is really good!" Clare had vastly enjoyed her pie and was in dire need of a napkin; much of her mouth was covered with the red filling. Slicing through the pie with her plastic fork, she balanced the wedge she had cut on top of her fork, and slid it into her waiting mouth. As she closed her mouth and pulled out the fork, she chewed the wedge, swallowing the crumbled pie in great satisfaction. Still starving, she ate another wedge, and another, and another, until finally, her slice was completely gone. With a smile, she reached towards the pie with her fork, meaning to grab another slice (her fifth) and plop it down on her plate. "Mm, this is good pie."
Gertie did not enjoy her pie nearly so much. Still on her first slice, she brought a small cut of pie to her mouth; though it was delectable, she swallowed without a second thought. "I thought you were on a diet," she said lightly.
Shrugging and sticking another mouthful of pie in her mouth, Clare replied, "Yeah, but I'm already pretty fat anyway. A few more calories won't hurt, especially after the traumatizing experience I've had! You can't deny that."
"That I had a traumatizing experience."
"I'm not denying it."
"Yes, you damn well are! It's"—she glanced up at the round clock hung on the wall—"eleven o'clock. We have only forty five goddamn minutes left until lunch break, and you are still not willing to go out to go shopping!"
"We still have work to do." Gertie tossed another envelope into the growing discard pile.
"But it's for your own good Gertie! We're going shopping to cheer you up after almost being fired by Mr. Mulligan. I mean, you might totally slack off on the job—"
"Thanks for that," said Gertie dryly.
"—but you still should be allowed to leave early if there's a good reason! Shopping is necessary for any woman in the workplace, and it is total discrimination against us if we can't do it on the job!"
"Yeah! In fact, there should be a special fund in the Dead Letter Office for women to go shoe shopping! We should be paid to satisfy our basic needs, Gertie."
"All right." Capping her excellent black felt pen, Gertie turned her swivel chair to look up at the clock. "It's eleven fifteen right now." She turned back to face Clare. "You have half an hour. Why don't you go and talk to Mr. Mulligan? I'm sure he'd love to hear your ideas about it."
Pondering this for a moment, she leaned against the back of her chair. It creaked from the pressure. She pondered numerous things, including but not limited to exactly how many pairs of stiletto-heeled shoes a new source of spending money would mean. "You know, Gertie, I think you're on to something there." Clare sat up straight; the chair instantly reverted to its old position. "It would totally solve a lot of problems for all the women who work here if we could just go shopping and stuff, to satisfy our deepest carnal urges." She grinned and stood up. "Thanks!"
Clare turned to go towards the door. Her originally black, but now more of a gray consistency, stiletto heels clicked against the floor, echoing against the gray walls. Walking all the way to the door, she opened it, expecting to find empty hallway, but finding something else instead. Shell shocked, she stood at the door, unable to move, her mouth just slightly agape. After taking a closer look at who was there, though, her surprise changed to wonder and excitement. "Oh my gosh, I can't believe you three finally came! I never expected this at all!" She giggled nervously.
"Well, aren't you going to invite us in?"
"Oh, yeah, right, sure." She moved out of the way to allow the three new arrivals past.
The three women walked in, single file, but regrouped back into a line in the room. On one side was a woman with olive skin and seemingly deep, dark eyes; on the other side was a frizzy-haired, wide-faced red head; and then there was the blonde in the middle, stunningly pretty in her own way. All three wore flamboyant, bright colors, stark contrasts against the gray of the room. The blonde surveyed the room, pursing her lips. "So…this is where you work?"
"Yeah. Exciting, isn't it?"
The dark-haired, dark-eyed woman shook her head. "No, not really. The gray décor is totally, like, wrong and boring."
The blonde gave her a withering look. She shrunk back, and the blonde began to survey the room again, until her eyes hit upon Gertie. A slow smile curled across her lips. "And who is this?"
"What? Oh, I'm sorry." Clare indicated towards Gertie. "Everyone, this is Gertie." Pointing from the brunette to the blond to the red-head. "Gertie, this is Nisa, Gwen, and Donna. They're friends of mine." She could not help but say the last sentence in a proud tone of voice.
"Pleased to meet you." Walking towards the three new arrivals, she offered the traditional friendly greeting of extending out her hand. None of the three took it.
Instead, the blond woman now identified as Gwen turned to Clare. "So you really work here? In the Dead Letter Office, of all places?" She laughed, prompting everyone but Gertie to do the same; Gertie merely looked a little miffed. "I mean, doesn't it get really boring after a while? Hell, isn't it always boring?"
"I resent that!" said Gertie. "This Office pays much better than a lot of other jobs, and it's not that bad, really. We attract a lot of the tourism for this town, and we provide a useful service to society!" She folded her arms across her chest and frowned in obvious disapproval.
Donna raised an eyebrow. She and her two compatriots looked at Gertie with a mixture of repulsion and pity. "Are you for real?" she asked. The three of them tittered.
"Guys, Gertie's not that bad! Just get to know her a little, and you'll see she's totally harmless."
"Get to know her?" Gwen snorted. "Right, I definitely want to get to know a person like her. No offense meant, of course," she added, nodding at Gertie.
"Do you want me to tell you why I don't want to get to know you?"
"Good. Because I don't really care, anyway." She turned back to Clare. "I mean, really, just looking at the room creeps me out. I don't know how you can stand to work here in these conditions. If my daddy changed my office to this, I would scream in his face. Wouldn't you?" Donna and Nisa nodded in agreement. "Yeah, I mean, as Nisa said—"
"I said something?" Nisa grinned. Her eyes were filled with odd mirth. "Was it a, like, really smart thing? Did I say something smart, Gwen?"
"Well, darling, on décor, your brain rivals Einstein's."
"Ooh, she called me smart!"
"I mean," continued Gwen, "the gray on gray on gray is just a little tiring after a while. It's like, there's all these different shades of gray all put together in some sort of scale...thing. I really don't remember what it's called. It's something like a gray-dient, or something?"
"Grayscale," supplied Gertie.
"It's like, there's this really ugly grayscale theme in this room, and there's no color. If I were stuck in this room all day with no other color besides gray, I'd go insane." As always, with her small laugh came raucous laughter from all the others except Gertie. "And, you know, if I had a choice, I'd probably wear some really pretty red dress or something. Don't you have something like that, Clare? I believe you wore it to Gayla Babcock's party this Wednesday. It made quite the impression, a very lovely dress."
"You think so?" asked Clare, a shy smile on her face, though she was not known for shy smiling.
"Oh, yeah. You totally distracted that guy I was trying to talk to. Too bad you got wasted, huh?" A slight hint of malice was present in this, but Clare did not seem to notice. "Your boss is a guy, right? Mr. Mulligan?"
"Yeah. But he's, like, a total buzz kill."
"Well, I think you could totally get an awesome bonus out of him, if you know what I mean. Just start walking around in that dress, and he'll totally be in the palm of your hand. You know?"
Gertie frowned. She smoothed down her slacks uncomfortably, pulling down on the blouse she was wearing. "There's a dress code here, you know. We're all supposed to wear white, black, or gray, and gray is preferred. I don't think it's ethical to do that, anyway."
Taking the frown with a grain of salt, Gwen pasted a smile on her face. "Oh, come now, you aren't really going to conform to that, are you?"
"It's my job."
"I think what Gertie is trying to say," said Clare, "is that it probably would not work that well."
Donna raised an eyebrow for the second time. She turned to Gwen, talking loudly, but still somehow exclusively, to her. "What's up with her taking the loser's side, eh?" Though Gwen lifted up a hand to this, Donna still frowned. "What? I'm just saying—"
"Yes, Donna, I heard you the first time. Let me handle this." She paused, adding a smile to dismiss the gravity of Donna's words. Though name calling and stereotyping was perfectly acceptable for perfect strangers, doing so for perfect friends was not. "So you say any other color beside gray is not allowed, eh?" Clare nodded. "In that case, I just have to point out"—a snicker came unbidden out of her mouth—"oh, forgive me. I just can't help myself. It's too funny not to bring up." She tried to keep her face straight, but failed miserably, breaking out into tittering laughter again. Uncertainly, Clare, Nisa, and Donna laughed along with her. "If you have to wear only black, white, and gray"—she snickered—"then why"—she snickered again—"forgive me, why are there jelly stains on your skirt?"
Clare looked down at her skirt. Pure mortification rushed through her veins, surging through her body like adrenalin, sapping away her energy in floods of fire. The once perfectly unblemished gray skirt was dirty, covered in sand and mud stains from the sidewalk, as well as jelly from the many donuts she had sampled for breakfast that morning. Some sort of whirlpool was having a disastrous effect on her stomach; it churned uncomfortably, a sickening feeling in its very pit. Looking around the room, her eyes darting from one person to another to another, from Donna to Nisa to Gwen, she averted her eyes to the ground in shame. They, her friends, were all laughing at her because she was ridiculous. She had even had her lovely alligator hide purse stolen, so she couldn't distract them with a shiny object using the purse. Unless...
"Hey, guys, let's not talk about my unfortunate skirt; let's talk about what you think of my"—she paused for effect—"new shoes!" Her hands motioned towards the ground, where her new stiletto heels were prominently displayed. Clare did not notice a sudden cry from Gertie; all she was looking for was a reaction from her friends.
She got what she was looking for. "Ooh!" squealed Nisa. "They're awfully pretty, Clara. Can I, like, have them? You know, just for, like, the party tonight."
Donna grinned. It was a rare sight for Clare, who smiled in relief. "Yeah, there's a party at my place tonight. Starts at eight. I convinced Daddy to hire someone really special."
"Really? Just for a normal party?"
As soon as it had arrived, her strange grin disappeared; a measure of scorn appeared in her voice. "No, idiot, it's my birthday tonight. I'm not splurging on something as typical and commonplace as a normal party. I'm not Gayla Babcock, after all!"
"Oh." Clare looked to Gwen, nonverbally pleading for help.
However, Gwen seemed only amused by Clare's predicament. A slow smile crossed her face; it looked as though she was about to laugh, but she did not. "Yeah, Clare, haven't you been paying any attention? Donna's been talking about it for, like, two weeks now at all the parties! But, then again, you've been a bit busy at all of them, haven't you?"
Gwen sighed, rolling her eyes. "It's too easy. I don't stoop that low." Glancing at the room of people around her, the slow smile returned. "You know, I have a totally awesome idea! Why don't we all go shopping for new dresses for the party tonight? You know you need to, Donna."
Suppressing a girly giggle, she moved a hand in front of her mouth. Regaining some composure, but still grinning, she replied, "You know me, Gwen. Always putting things off to the last minute."
"You know," said Clare, nodding to herself as she talked, "I was just talking to Gertie here"—she made a motion with her hands towards Gertie, who had been blissfully out of the loop for the previous five minutes—"about how I should totally take her shopping for new clothes and stuff to cheer her up for getting demoted and stuff—"
"Docked pay, not demoted."
"Whatever. The point is, Gertie needs cheering up today, and I wanted to go anyway, so maybe we could all go as a group to that little clothing store around here, in the city core."
The three women stared at one another for a few moments. They turned back to Clare and looked back at one another; they then proceeded to devolve into hysterical laughter. Clare frowned. "Um…guys? I don't get it. It's a good store, though the service is a little less than could be desired; it has some unique finds and some really good designer stuff." Seeing they had not ceased their laughter yet, Clare added, "It's where I got the red cocktail dress you all complimented. You know, the one that got, like, everyone's attention? That one?"
Their laughter stopped abruptly. Gwen cocked her head sideways at Clare. "Really?" She exchanged a meaningful look with Donna. "That must have been a fluke. But there's a totally chic clothing mall uptown with, like, everything designer. You don't have to go digging around for a good buy, because everything's a good buy."
"Totally, Gwen," agreed Nisa. "I go there, like, all the time for clothes. Their clothes are totally fabulous, and the people who work there are, like, really smart. They make the best suggestions, like, ever."
Quick to turn the focus back to herself, Gwen said, "Yes, but let's get back to the point. So Clare, you want to invite her, do you?"
"I owe it to her, I think."
"Well, are you forgetting just how horrible her fashion sense is? I mean, just look at that hideous excuse for a blouse! It's all frilly and white and ugly, and it totally clashes with her pants!"
Nisa nodded, her face solemn, like that of a pastor presiding over a church funeral. "Like, if any of us were caught in public with that thing, we'd all totally drop down a lot on the fashion awareness scale. It would be a complete, like, death wish!"
"Nisa explained it perfectly. We can't afford to bring such a person along. It reflects negatively on us and noticeably decreases our social status. It's totally not worth it, Clare. You get that, don't you? Or do you insist on bringing her with us?"
"Oh, I don't know, I feel like it's my, I don't know, obligation to bring her along with us, you know? I don't know."
"Clare," said Donna, "if you bring that abomination with us on the trip, I might be forced to do something drastic. Like, I don't know, maybe not give you an invitation to the party?"
Gwen smirked and took the opportunity to make a crack at Clare's expense. "She's turning twenty four, Clare. How old are you going to be at your next birthday party? Or are you not throwing a party?" Clare did not notice the implication present, that not throwing a bash would mean social doom and complete ostracism.
But then again, she did not notice many implications present in the dialogue. Shrugging, she was not quite sure what to say. There were so many conversational and thought strands going at once, she did not know what needed to be said to whom and which thought should have been stated. Luckily for her, Gertie had been following the conversation quite well and chose this time to make a statement. "Clare, it doesn't matter, anyway. If it's too much trouble, I just won't go with you guys. Not a problem."
"What?" Clare could not understand why someone would turn down a free opportunity for clothes shopping. It was the woman's pastime, after all.
Tossing her blond ponytail towards one side as she instinctively moved her head, like a wild animal pleased with itself, Gwen smiled in victory. Clare could not help but frown a little as she continued speaking. "You see? She doesn't care either. If she doesn't want to come, and we don't want her to come, I don't see what your problem is."
"My problem is," she said, sighing in utter exasperation, wondering why no one else seemed to see her point, "we should take Gertie along with us to make her over. You know, totally go from nerdy type to socialite in an afternoon. She would be, like, a totally fun project. Like, do you guys remember the dress sewing project in school?"
As Nisa grinned, Clare smiled along with her. "Oh yeah, I remember that! That was a lot of fun! Daddy hired a lady to make it for me!"
"Yes, I remember my daddy doing the same," said Donna, a rare smile on her face. Clare smiled at first, but the smile faded when Donna's turned to a frown. "I got a C- on it for cheating. What the fuck was wrong with that teacher, anyway?"
"I don't remember that project. It got cancelled when I was going through school." Gwen shrugged. "I suppose your project idea might be somewhat amusing."
"Whatever. Let's go before rush hour hits."
Though Gertie tried to say something, presumably to politely refuse the proffered shopping spree, the three women had already turned to leave, and Clare, grabbing Gertie by the arm, dragged her along behind the them. All this was despite the fact that the clock on the wall only read eleven thirty.