Smell Bridges Burning (The Intern)
I thought that I’d try to cheer up Boss. Rubbing my aching eyeballs, I thought that maybe reminding him that I only had a few days left at the Museum would make him a little bit happier. He’d be glad to be rid of me, now that he had a new, ass-kissing female intern to replace me. Plus, even talking to that old fossil was preferable to the misery of mind-numbing data-entry. I needed a reprieve, even if a few seconds were all I could realistically hope for. I spoke up.
“You know Boss, in two weeks I’ll be through with my internment – uh... I mean... internship... here at the Museum.” Agh! Freudian slip. Put my foot right in my mouth. Whoops. But it wasn’t like I hadn’t been thinking that exact thing ever since Goody-Two-Shoes showed up. I thought back to how much I had drank the night before. Coming to work everyday with a hangover was a bummer.
“You know Joe,” Boss burst out abruptly with contempt, “you’re absolutely right. Believe me, your absence from this place is something we both look forward to.” I think he knew it pissed me off when he called me Joe instead of my real name, Joachim.
“Now that we have Steffi, we don’t really need you at all,” Boss continued, his voice rumbling through layers of blubber. I had forsaken any hope of equitable treatment ever since the new intern arrived. “She works really hard. She makes her deadlines. You know, she...gets all her stuff done. And, you know, she never complains.” Yeah, and she’s a really good-looking slut and you’re a perverted old man, I added mentally. “You never hear her wimping and whining about how terrible it is to do honest work. In fact, I’ve never seen her when she’s not smiling.” I shuffled my feet, casually cracked a few knuckles, and waited for him to finish and tell me to get back to work.
“Why can’t you be more like Steffi?” he asked rhetorically, slowly shaking his head in disappointment all the while. “Well, get back to work.”
“Yeah Boss.” That didn’t go so well, but it was par for the course, lately. I cracked open a new auction catalog.
“The sooner you’re out of here, the better.”
I’d been working for Boss for almost a whole semester. He was a pretty harsh taskmaster, but we used to get along just fine. Then, three lousy weeks before I was set to have my Collections Department internship completed, a new intern entered the scene.
When I first saw her, I thought that the Museum job might finally yield some benefit. She was hot. I figured that, like me, she was in her early twenties. College student somewhere or other. I dared to hope for the best. We’d probably find that we had similar interests, similar backgrounds, similar tastes. My imagination got the better of me.
I didn’t bother me at first that her mannerisms seemed a little peculiar. For one thing, she came across like an airhead, but I couldn’t but hope that she was a little deeper than that. She was always conspicuously too enthusiastic about everything. She was always in a somewhat artificial-seeming good-mood.
Quickly, the situation took a two-fold turn for the worst. For one thing, I quickly came to realize that she was not really the type that would give it up. Well, not to a poor college guy like me. Not at all. She was the type that had no interest in love. But that was fine, because neither did I. Where were differed was in that she had no interest in good sex either. Don’t get me wrong; everything about her – her poise, her clothing, her musk, her voice, everything – reeked of sex. Everything from the way she let her hair fall around her face to her crimson toenail polish that was visible through her open-toed high-heels. But she wanted something back: money. She had plans to sleep her way up into society. That’s what she was about. It was obvious; she had no sense of decorum.
When she came around, the pecking order in the Collections Office changed completely, and overnight. Boss, even though he had to be in his fifties and was married, was having the same thoughts about her that I was: what do I need to do to tap that ass fast? Of course, as Boss, he was in a much better position than I was. There was, in fact, no question of competition between he and I: he was my boss for my internship, so he automatically had me by the balls. Or more accurately: by the diploma. He sensed her intentions at least as keenly as I did. Her smile said it all. Inviting, tempting, demanding.
Steffi kissed up to him all the time. It was revolting. He gave her all the fun and easy jobs like handling objects or getting them out of Storage, doing light research, giving the occasional tour, going to luncheons with rich Museum Membership holders, or traveling with exhibitions that we loaned out from time to time to other museums.
Meanwhile, to keep me busy and to keep me from interfering with his designs on Steffi, Boss piled me up with all the boring shit that he was responsible for making sure got done. So I did his job while he flirted with a girl at least thirty years his junior.
And she knew what she was doing.
The first chance I got to talk to her alone, Boss had given her a job folding fliers for Museum guests. I figured it was my chance to make some small chit-chat, find out a little bit about her, tell her some flattering things about myself. I had no time to lose: I was leaving in a couple weeks.
I was showing her the proper way to make the brochures, where to fold them and everything. As an example, I showed her how to fold the paper into three sections so it looked like a leaflet. She picked it up really fast, but it’s not like it was that hard.
She folded one really fast and reached for another one. She folded that and reached for another one. She folded that and reached for another one. She seemed totally focused. Her hands moved precisely. When I folded one, it usually wound-up looking pretty crappy. It was crooked and sloppy. The folds weren’t parallel. But I never gave a shit. Who cared anyway?
But Steffi’s were folded with machine-like precision. Each one was absolutely identical. The creases were crisp. I tried to get her attention but she was riveted to her task. I watched her chest rise beneath her white blouse every time she reached for a new paper to fold. I was mesmerized by how quickly and surely her delicate fingers moved. I brought to mind images of her doing other things with those same fingers. Her nail polish was bright red. I thought of them clawing at my back. They were the fingernails of a heartbreaker.
“So, Steffi. What school are you from?”
“S.I.T.” she said primly, her lips barely moving and yet cleanly enunciating each syllable. She acted like I was really interrupting her. She stopped halfway through a fold and turned to look at me, her hands still on the paper.
“S.I.T.?” I asked.
“State Institute of Technology.” She seemed impatient. Her tone was not the playful one she normally assumed towards Boss.
“Yes.” Ice. Her face was completely still.
She was supposed to follow up.
She wasn’t biting.
This other time, Boss gave Steffi about fifteen pages of documents that he needed to have transcribed. She sat down at an empty desk across the room and pressed the button on the tower that would boot-up the computer’s hard-drive. I hated using that computer: it always crashed. Most of the computers in the office sucked. I was always calling tech-support hotlines to figure out what the heck was always going wrong with them.
As soon as that old Macintosh dinosaur was ready, Steffi entered the word-processing program. And her fingers just flew on the keyboard. Her nail polish was a red blur. She stared and the pages of documents in front of her as she typed. I couldn’t even distinguish individual keystrokes; it was all one blazing, furious sound of buttons clattering.
Like a typewriter, whenever Steffi finished with one page, she’d quickly move it aside and start on the next. BING! New page. A minute later: BING! Another new page. I halted my slow, laborious, index finger, clumsy, one button at a time data-entry just to watch her. It was incredible.
Waiting for the transcribed documents to finish printing on the Collections Department’s archaic machine took longer than Steffi took to actually type them! I quickly skimmed over her work, checking the grammar and the spelling. Everything was perfect.
I gave it to Boss and Steffi followed me, catlike, one foot in front of the other, impeccably poised.
She smiled brightly. “Did I do good, Boss?” Her hair ran down her shoulders.
“Joachim: why can’t you be more like Steffi?”
“Hey Joachim! Want to take a break from that data-entry?” Boss called from around the corner, in his office. Steffi immediately looked up from proofreading some official Museum correspondence before it was sent out.
I was so startled to hear that the Boss was actually going to cut me a break, that I was momentarily dumbfounded. I hesitated for a second. The air stuck in my chest. Then, before I could make a peep, Steffi piped up. “Joe looks a little busy right now, Boss, but I’d love a little change of pace!” I was at a loss for words. That fucking – ugh! Steffi looked at me cheerfully and smiled. Reflexively, I almost crushed the Styrofoam cup of cheap coffee that I held in my fist. With a hand trembling with frustration, I slowly set the cup down on the desk and struggled to maintain my composure.
“Don’t worry Joe, I’ll do it for you!”
“Look, don’t call me Joe, okay? My name is – “
The Boss barged in, trying to suck-in his distended belly to squeeze himself between metal filing cabinets and stacks of inventory books and auction catalogs. Between his fat stomach, his sickly, sunken eyes, and his thick, glistening lips, he reminded me distinctly of a bullfrog.
“Good, Steffi! Good.” He cleared his fat-clogged throat. “Now, you see, just before you came to the Museum, we got a new exhibit from the British Museum in London,” said Boss. He waddled around the corner. It was clear he was just talking to Steffi now. With elegant poise, she got up from her paperwork. “I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet Steffi...have you been in the China Gallery lately?”
“No Boss! I’m usually always back here!”
“Oh, well...we got this new object on loan just about a week ago, I guess. Cost us a considerable amount of money to get it shipped here. It’s really fascinating. It is so big that we had to bring it in with a forklift!”
“What is it Boss?!” asked Steffi with contrived enthusiasm. I watched the two lovebirds derisively, glancing up from my keyboard. One a sinister old pervert, the other a manipulative bitch, intent on giving him anything he asked for...for a price.
“It’s a Chinese lodestone! It weighs about two thousand pounds.”
“What’s a lodestone, Boss?” Steffi, that airhead, looked completely in awe. I quietly watched the two of them talk from behind the computer screen. I had become a mere fly on the wall. I wasn’t a part of the universe for either of them.
“It’s like a magnet.”
“Wow! A magnet!”
“Yes.” Boss cleared his throat again. “You see, the Chinese Emperors used it in their palaces to prevent assassins from bringing weapons into their courts. The idea was that anyone trying to bring a metal sword or dagger close to the Emperor would be foiled because the lodestone would attract the metal weapon to it. Of course, most of the stone’s supposed properties are just myth and superstition, you see. Hot air. Smoke and mirrors. But it’s still a fairly strong magnet.”
Steffi’s eyes were wide, her mouth agape. She really looked impressed. I couldn’t believe my eyes. She kissed so much ass that it disgusted me.
“You know, you see, it was somewhat like...the metal detectors we use in airports today. Except this was 2,000 years ago,” added Boss.
“Wowwww...” crooned Steffi in wonder.
“Yes, you see. It’s really quite neat!”
“So what do you want me to do, Boss?”
“This should be a really interesting job; I want you to take this charcoal here and a big ream of paper out of Supply and make a rubbing of the Chinese symbols that’re chiseled on the front of this thing.”
“Chinese symbols? Wowwww...”
“Indeed, you see. And would you like to know what they mean?”
“Oh boy! Sure I do!” she gushed.
Boss produced a spotty cloth handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbed his sweaty forehead effeminately. “They mean, you see, ‘How would you like to have dinner sometime?’” He twisted his ancient, cigar-reeking maw into the most horrible smile imaginable, exuding depravity and premeditated fantasies of plunder.
Steffi played the innocent little girl role to the hilt. “Aw, Boss...” She crossed her hands behind her and looked to the floor like she was blushing at his filthy flattery. She looked up with mirth, smiling graciously with sparkling teeth and shiny lips. “You almost had me going for a second!” she cried in her most shamelessly naïve-sounding voice yet.
Boss wriggled his fat fingers and chortled despicably.
She smiled back.
They stared at each other for a moment. He waited for her answer.
“Well Boss! I’ll get to work straight away!” Steffi swiveled on her heel, grabbed the chalk or whatever, and headed out the door. Boss watched her from behind as she left. Even from the desk across the room, I could easily tell that his beady, covetous eyes were focused on her ass. I almost burst out laughing: REJECTED!
As soon as she closed the door behind her, Boss turned to me. He licked his quivering lips. “What’re you looking at?”
“Nothing at all, Boss.” I shrugged my burning shoulders and cleared my throat. I tried to remember where I left my bottle of aspirin.
“Yeah.” He stalked towards his office. I ran a finger through my dirty hair, rubbed my eyes, and took a deep breath. I felt a headache building. I remembered that I had already finished that bottle of aspirin earlier the same morning. It was in the wastebasket of Office’s men’s room.
“Hey Joe!” yelled Boss suddenly.
“Those Chinese symbols mean ‘get back to fucking work!’” He swiftly slammed the door to his plush office behind him. The stench of sweat and tobacco smoke that had enveloped the entire room began to subside immediately.
I flipped his door the finger. “And this bird is the Chinese symbol for ‘get the fuck off my back ‘fore I have to get creative with a can of whoop-ass all up and in your face,’ you fucking bastard.”
I needed some aspirin.
My stomach was rumbling. I was getting so hungry that it hurt. I kept looking at my watch at intervals of just a few minutes. After about two static hours of chipping away at the catalogs, Boss’s fat head peeked around the metal filing cabinets.
“Joe: go find out what’s taking Steffi so long; I want to see her before I go home for the night.” He chuckled darkly.
“How about: ‘screw you, Boss’?” I muttered under my breath as I completed one last entry.
“What’s that Joe?” he asked quickly. I could smell his putrid breath from across the office.
“I said: I’m sure you do, Boss. I’ll just go and get her.”
“Joe. Just remember: you’ve got a couple more days. After that, we’ll be out of each other’s hair.” He spat his words with contempt through green teeth. “But until then, you’re mine. Now, be quick about it, son.”
I trudged into China Gallery. I didn’t notice many Museum guests; attendance was already tapering off for the day.
“Hey Steffi, Boss wants to know how come – “
Steffi had her back turned to me. She stood a foot from the lodestone. Fucking thing was big. She was holding the huge piece of paper up against the big magnet. In her other hand, she held the charcoal against the paper. She was about halfway through making the rubbing. But she was frozen right there, in the middle of a sweep. Not a muscle moved. I walked closer to her. She didn’t seem to hear me coming.
“Steffi?” I gently put my hand on her shoulder. “Steffi?”
Her head slowly swiveled to meet my eyes. I raised my eyebrows.
“Steffi?” she asked. “Who’s Steffi?”
“I am Steffi,” she repeated like she was trying to memorize something for a test. “Who are you?”
“I’m Joachim,” I prompted.
“Joachim.” She repeated slowly, sounding out my name carefully.
She stepped back from the lodestone and surveyed it quizzically. “What am I doing?”
“Making a rubbing of those symbols there. Are you okay?”
“I’m not...sure. One moment please,” she said politely. I waited. Nothing happened. She stared at the symbols on the lodestone.
“Boss sent me to find out what was taking you so long.” I waited for another second. “Hello?”
“I said, Boss wants you to get back to his office already.”
“How long have I been here?”
“Like, almost two hours! Hello?”
“Boss wants me to go see him?”
“Yeah. Are you sure you’re alright?”
“I’m not...sure. One moment please.”
I held my breath.
She blinked a couple of times. Her dark, heavy eyelids stood in striking contrast to the surrounding skin of her face. Her eyelashes were thick and lush, drooping. Suddenly, her eyes popped open and her normal, perfect, straight-tooth smile broadened on her face. “Oh yes! Now I remember everything!” She dropped the materials she had and made a sharp turn towards the door. She started walking.
“Aren’t you going to bring...? Hey! You forgot your stuff here!” With her back to me, she just kept on walking. I hurriedly grabbed the paper and the charcoal and dashed after her.
It was all I could do to keep up.
Close on her heels, I followed Steffi back to the Collections Office. Her heels clicked evenly on the marble floor. Her self-confidence had returned.
Her walk was a study in grace. Her arms swung just so. Her hair bounced lightly. I was absorbed, however, with watching her behind as she strode her sophisticated stride. I could see the twin bulges beneath her skirt pressing tightly against the dark fabric. I ovserved the way her weight shifted alternately from leg to leg, pulsing like pistons.
I scrambled ahead of her and opened the door to the Collections Department. I suppose it was my little way of thanking her for at least having a gorgeous body, even if I hated her personality. If you could even call it a personality.
As I held the heavy door open for her, I tried to make eye contact. However, she seemed to be off in her own little world. She didn’t even acknowledge me as she stepped past into the room. She moved past me swiftly, with purpose. I caught a whiff of perfume as I looked at her clean, smooth skin.
I contented myself with that. The mere presence of her body was thanks enough. I closed my eyes and tried to memorize her features as I had seen them. I only had a few days left here, after all.
“Hi there, Steffi, my good lass.” Boss’s bad-tooth smile reached from ear to drooping, liver-spotted ear.
I walked into the room to set down the charcoal and half-finished rubbing. “Joe: back to work.” He didn’t even look at me. His eyes were welded to Steffi’s pleasantly three-dimensional chest.
I turned without a word.
“Here’s a box of, it looks like, a hundred or so pencils, Steffi; why don’t you go and sharpen them for me?” Out of the corner of my eye, as I reached for the doorknob, I saw Boss indicate a box that was on the bottom shelf of his bookcase. Steffi walked to the bookcase and bent down at the waist, reaching for the box. Boss watched gleefully as she took his bait. Her pert ass thrust straight in his direction.
“Sure thing Boss!”
“They’re for the Museum Docents. I’ve got that monthly meeting with them on Friday...”
“Sure thing Boss!”
“When you’re done, I need you to make a copy of this packet here and put it in the Director’s mail cubby across the hall. I know you normally stay late, but this time why don’t you take the rest of the day off?”
“Sure thing Boss! That’s very nice of you Boss!”
She jauntily marched across the hall to the conference room. A pencil-sharpener was mounted low on the wall beside the door.
I watched her ass as she glided in front of my table as she left. She was wearing that same dark skirt she wore every day. I often found myself staring at it, the better to approximate the contours of the flesh that moved and bounced and sweated beneath it all day. No matter how much time I spent gazing, I never could really tell if it was black or just very dark blue. And I say ‘spent,’ as distinct from ‘wasted,’ because the only thing I did at the Museum that was a genuine waste of time was actually working. Fucking terminals and keyboards. Date-entry. Day-in, day-out. At the very least, Steffi was something pretty to watch to take my mind off the drudgery. Even if she was just a perky but diabolical usurper. I thought about her breasts stretching her puffy white blouse. I saw her legs scissor, wrapped in tight, white hose.
“Joachim!” called Boss. I immediately snapped out of my dreamlike contemplation of Steffi’s body. It was like I was hit with a bucket of fetid swamp water.
“Uh, yeah Boss.”
“I need to leave a few minutes early today; you just keep at that data-entry. I’ll be back tomorrow. Have one of the guards check you out when you leave.”
“Oh...kay...What time should that be?”
“However long it takes you to get through that catalogue...It must be finished first thing tomorrow. You’ll probably need, what, two or three hours?” It was already almost five ‘o’ clock. It was near the end of the Semester; I had exams to study for! I was supposed to be out of here in a couple minutes, not hours. “Of course, if you worked a little more like Steffi you could be done in half that time.” With that last little jab, Boss left.
I closed my eyes, mentally preparing myself to resume the ordeal that was typing, data-entry, endless notebooks, my whole life. I enjoyed the quiet room for a moment. I inhaled a deep breath of air-conditioned gas. Numbers swam before my closed eyelids, scrolling up and down. Filing cabinets. Mouse pads. I could feel carpal-tunnel syndrome setting into its advanced stages. I tried to flex my fingers.
Boss’s head unexpectedly peeked around the corner, startling me from my exhausted reverie of self-pity. “Why can’t you be more like Steffi?”
Okay. Then, with that last little jab, Boss left.
With Boss finally gone, I struggled with button on the collar of my ill-fitting dress shirt. I loosened my cheap, beer-stained tie. I slammed a gulp of lukewarm, black coffee.
Back to work.
ZZZZZZIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRR! Across the dark hall, Steffi had sharpened another pencil. That was the easiest job in the world.
Meanwhile, my work was tedious. I had already been sitting at the damn computer terminal for about seven hours. My eyes were stinging and just raw from staring alternately at the bright monitor and at the tiny print in the auction catalogs. Cross-referencing digit after digit, entry after entry, line by line, page after arduous page.
ZZZZZZIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRR! And the electric pencil sharpener droned on and on. Pencil after pencil.
ZZZZZZIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRR! Each blaring noise chafing my ears. The Museum had just closed. Everything was silent except for the sharpening of pencils in the room across the hall.
ZZZZZZIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRR! Reminding me that Steffi was in the next room doing an easy job. Sharpening pencils was fun compared to the shit Boss had me doing.
ZZZZZZIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRR! She always gets the easy jobs. She’s gets every break. She’s got it so easy.
ZZZZZZIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRR! And I’m stuck here until I get this shit finished. I always get the worst shit to do.
ZZZZZZIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRR! It’ll take me hours. She’s fuckin’ sharpening pencils, and then gets to go home early.
ZZZZZZIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRR! Boss likes Steffi way more than he likes me. But I can understand why.
ZZZZZZIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRR! She’s always little-miss-perfect. Does good work. Plus Boss wants a blow-job from her.
I snapped out of my self-pity haze at the strange sound. What the hell was that? That sounded like one hell of a sharpened pencil. I got up and made cautiously for the door.
ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZIIIIIIIIIIRGUNKGUNKGUNKGUNKGUNK. I peeked out of the door. I looked left. The corridor was dark, empty, quiet. The visitors had all gone home. I looked right. Same thing. Not a soul. Light from Steffi’s room spilled out, flooding fluorescent brightness onto the spotless marble. I walked across the hall. My footfalls echoed down the corridor in both directions.
I stepped inside. On the table beside Steffi there were a couple dozen perfectly sharpened pencils lined up in a neat row. The box of new pencils lay opened on her lap.
Steffi was sharpening pencils in a frenzy. The room smelled like sawdust pencil-shavings. She went through one pencil after another after another. I stood there and watched her. She didn’t even notice me. Pencil after pencil. All the way down as far and she could stick one into the electric sharpener. Then she’d pull it out and fling the tiny, albeit extremely sharp, nub onto the floor behind her. Then she’d delicately select another pencil from the box.
“Uh, Steffi? What’re you doing?”
“This stupid machine isn’t working properly!” She flung another chewed-up pencil to the floor and grabbed yet another one. The box was emptying fast. The floor was littered with unused and wasted pencils. I walked over to her, carefully planting my feet with every step to avoid slipping on the pathetic remnants of the brand-new box of pencils. There was no question of avoiding them altogether; they absolutely covered the floor around her.
Upon approaching her, I noticed a sharper smell. The pencil-sharpener was probably overheating, never designed to withstand this kind of rigorous torture.
“Are you sure you’re feeling quite alright?”
“I’m fine! It’s this stupid machine that isn’t working right!” She held a newly mutilated pencil in front of my face. “See?!” She reached for another one.
“Um...you know what? Why don’t you just let me finish this up for you, okay? There’s only a few pencils left.”
“Would you?! That would be so nice of you, Joe!” She beamed.
“The name’s actually...ah, forget it, anyway.”
“A. Forgetit Anyway! That’s an interesting name!”
“Uh, yeah. Sure.” For all of her outward sophistication, she had a decidedly underdeveloped, juvenile sense of humor.
“Well! I hope you have more luck that I did with this broken machine! I’m going back to Boss’s office. I must get the letter I need to photocopy for the Director!”
“You do that,” I muttered as I bent down to start cleaning up her mess. At least it was a deviation from the data-entry, and all of the repetitive-motion injuries that such work entailed.
After a few minutes, I’d scooped what pencils were salvageable back into the box together. The pencils she had ruined – dozens and dozens of them – found their way to the rubbish bin. I went back to the Office.
“A. Forgetit Anyway: I must get the letter I need to photocopy for the Director!” She was carrying her pitiful little joke to an extreme.
“Go ahead.” I thought for a second. “Oh, yeah: our copier still isn’t fixed. You need to use the one in the Administration offices.”
“Okay. Thanks A. Forgetit Anyway.”
“The name’s Joachim.” She didn’t seem to hear me or care.
“I’ll need some paperclips.”
“Fine.” Patience was wearing extremely thin indeed. Some humor. I motioned to the dish on my desk. It was full of them.
She immediately reached into it to get a paper clip. But she got all of them at once. As I sat down, I heard the sound of metal paperclips rattling against porcelain. I looked at Steffi’s outstretched hand just in time to see all of the paperclips jump the distance of several inches out of the tray and stick to the skin of her hand and wrist. A few even made it up along her smooth forearm almost to her elbow. I did a double take. It looked like magic.
“Whoaaaa...” I stood up slowly, craning my neck over the desk. My loose tie flopped into the half-full cup of cold coffee. I didn’t notice at first. “That’s...”
Steffi lifted her arm and held her hand a few inches in front of her face. Her eyes were wide, her lips slightly parted. She flexed her fingers and made a fist. She looked a little confused, not to say alarmed. I noticed one paperclip sticking sideways on the brightly polished nail on her index finger. Behind it, her face came into focus.
“Some trick, Steffi.”
Before I could say anything more – I had no clue what to say - Steffi used her other hand to pick one clip off of her skin. She used it to fasten together the two papers Boss wanted to give the Director. With a few jerky, faltering steps, Steffi walked out of the Office and into the corridor, dozens paperclips still clinging to her.
A moment passed.
The air-conditioning pumped.
I tried to digest what just happened.
“I’m going to want those back Steffi!” I cried after her. “You don’t need all of them!” There was nothing else I could think off. I suppose working in the Collections Office for so long had thoroughly bureaucratized my mind.
That was weird, but I put it behind me.
I was distracted.
I hadn’t eaten for ten hours and I’d been slugging coffee after coffee all day; I was hungry as hell. And I felt like I was about to throw up. I decided to head off to the Administration Offices behind Steffi. They had a candy-bar vending machine over there. I knew that eating was only allowed in the staff lounges, but I didn’t give a shit anymore. I’d eat wherever the hell I wanted. I checked my wallet to see if I had a fairly decent-looking dollar bill that the finicky machine would accept. All my money was greasy and wrinkled to fuck. Too bad. If that machine wouldn’t take it, I was ready to rip the front of the damn thing off its hinges. I needed something to eat. I was thinking about a Snickers bar.
I walked across the museum. It was totally deserted except for a couple of security guards. I got one of them to let me into the darkened offices of Administration. I thanked him and he continued his rounds.
As luck would have it, Steffi was still there, using the copier.
She was making a lot of copies.
I looked at the glass front of the vending machine. FUCK! All out of Snickers. Well, that was fucking typical! God...fuck it. I flattened out a dollar-bill as good as I could and then tried to put it in the slot. I was careful to make sure the little George Washington was facing the right way. The machine buzzed as it pulled the bill in.
Could it be?! It was taking my bill on the first try! I started to punch the buttons for a Milky Way bar. Then the machine spit my bill back out in my face.
“Oh,” I said shaking my head. “Oh, no. You fucker. Not this time.” I grabbed the bill and crammed it back into the slot. “You are going to fucking take this...” out came the bill. “I said: You Are Going to FUCKING Take THIS!” I shoved the bill back into the slot savagely. It came right back out. I lashed out at the machine, kicking it, slapping it, shaking it. There was nobody in the office but Steffi to here me, and she sounded busy.
“God! Damn! Fuck!” I was pummeling the vending machine. It turned out to be a remarkably effective method of catharsis. I just started beating the stupid thing up and continued to do so until a very pleasant sound unexpectedly entered my ears. It was the sound of a candy bar dropping into the machine’s basket. I had somehow knocked it loose.
“Oh! Well!” I was surprised. “That’s what I thought!”
I reached into the little collection tray at the bottom of the machine and snatched my hard-earned prize. I stuck the torn and tattered one-dollar bill back into my wallet.
I suddenly felt very mellow. In my universe, even a minor victory such as this occasioned an almost sublime sense of achievement for me. Everything was going to be fine. The candy-bar in my hand proved it. Even if it was a Twix bar instead of what I had originally wanted..
Oh yeah: what the heck was she doing?
Twix bar comfortingly in hand, I stepped around the corner to see what was up.
A lot of copies.
A sea of them had flooded out of the machine onto the floor. The rack where the completed copies were supposed to collect had overflowed long before I got into Administration. There must have been hundreds of identical pages all over the room. The smell of hot Xeroxes permeated the atmosphere. It stung my nose.
I looked around. There were five or six crumpled up wrappers for the big stacks of five hundred sheets that were for refilling the copier’s paper reservoir. Steffi was even standing on some of the copies that had flown everywhere.
“Is everything okay Steffi?”
She didn’t notice me right away. She was already getting ready with another paper-refill for the copier. Before she stooped to insert the paper into the copier, she turned to look at me. Her hair bobbed uneasily. Her perfect smile was somehow slightly askew.
“Oh, gee! I hate these stupid machines! They never work right!” She stood beside the copier and fed it the next thick pack of copy paper. “First the pencil-sharpener, and now this! Why can’t anything work right around here?!”
“Uh. I don’t...know...”
“Well! Thanks all the same, A. Forgetit Anyway.” Her puerile humor again.
“Right,” I said slowly. “You’re going to clean this mess up?”
She stood there watching the machine produce copy after copy.
I had what I came for. My food was in my hand. I bit my lip pensively. “I’m...going to get back to Collections...I have some work to do...” I cautiously backed out of the room, facing Steffi all the while.
God she was so weird.
I threw myself into the chair. What the hell was she playing at? I thought over the strange situation as I began to peel back the wrapper of the Twix bar. She was nuts! That’s the only explanation! Must be a combination of all the fumes coming off of her from all those health and beauty care products.
Suddenly, Steffi was in the room, shattering my first moment of peace. “Eating anywhere in the Museum except the designated lounges is forbidden! You know that! Particulate matter such as dust and crumbs can damage objects in our collection! I have to insist that you put the candy-bar away!” She spoke reprovingly in a very clipped tone. Quite unlike her typical manner towards Boss.
“What the hell is with you?!”
“A. Forgetit Anyway, it is forbidden to eat in these Offices!”
“My name is Joachim. And why do you care?”
She took a step towards me.
“You are not taking this from me,” I said adamantly.
When she got close, she stiffly reached out to grab my candy bar. I jumped back. Was this happening!? She lunged after me. I ducked behind some metal filing cabinets, putting them between the berserk Steffi and myself.
“Christ! Fine! Take it!” I shouted fearfully. She was crazy!
I threw it to her feet. She immediately bent down to retrieve the opened Twix bar. From the other side of the filing cabinet, I then heard a loud, trundling WHOOSH followed by a heavy BANG!
Steffi, still half-crouching, stumbled backwards. An unlocked drawer of the cabinet had suddenly jumped off of its rails and hit her in the head!
Steffi slowly straightened and shook her head.
“A. Forgetit Anyway,” she mumbled. She raised a hand to her head. With a dull metal CLUNK, it stuck there. There were still paperclips all over her arm.
Remembering suddenly what she was doing, she tried to reach down for the candy bar again. This time I watched as another drawer flung itself at her head. CLANG! It sounded like a church bell.
“A. Forgetit Anyway,” she stuttered.
I heard a sound like bacon sizzling on a skillet.
She started staggering around the room like a busted, ambulatory cuckoo clock with a few thrown springs and missing gear-teeth. Her arms and legs, joints stiff, flew in all directions as she spun around, out of control. She was shaking her head. Her lustrous hair was flung in one direction and then the other.
Finally, her waist bumped into my desk. I remember that it had a metal top, heavily scuffed up and slightly rusted. She toppled onto it, pinned to its surface. But she was still trying to walk.
I stared at Steffi’s straight-kneed legs swinging rhythmically in the air. Her thighs and calves looked taut. Simultaneously, her arms, locked rigidly at the elbows, rotated backwards and forwards. They were bouncing off of the desktop as she performed some kind of parody of a march. Her knees knocked evenly against the metal desk. But their movements were becoming labored. Her extended appendages started to move less surely, a little more erratically. The limbs faltered, slowed, jerked and shuddered. They were winding down. I exhaled deeply, stunned. In an unexpected last gasp, they suddenly sped up, furiously kicking to and fro. I jumped backwards. And, just as abruptly, they ground to an uncertain standstill, mid-step. It heard a sound that reminded me of a high-pitched electric motor slowing winding down.
A cheap metal book-end from across the room levitated and clobbered her in the head. It stuck there. More paperclips flew off of the desk and stuck themselves all over her neck harmlessly. Followed by an adjacent stapler. It banged her temple audibly.
Her skirt was hiked up. I could see where her white leggings ended. Then there followed a three-inch gap where the smooth, clear skin of the backs of her thighs was visible. Then her white panties. The fingers of her hands were all splayed out.
Her arms were flat at her sides, and her body lay horizontally keeled-over on the desk. She was staring straight down at the floor on the other side of the desk. Her legs finally stopped moving altogether. Her feet hover inches above the floor. I heard some crackling and fizzling noises from inside of her.
Afraid to touch her with my bare hand for fear of electric shock, I used one of the pencils she had just sharpened to lift up the back of her blouse. I carefully prodded her back with the eraser of the pencil as I cautiously pushed the garment up by degrees. The skin of her back was as bland and polished-looking as the rest of her body.
Between her shoulder blades, I noticed an indented area of her skin that was about three inches by three inches. I had bunched her blouse was up beneath her armpits. Curious, not knowing what to expect, I pushed down on the panel with the pencil. I applied some pressure.
I depressed the panel and some switch clicked. The panel flipped upwards on a hinge. Inside, to my amazement, I saw tangles of blue, red, and yellow sheathed wires. Ostensibly, the purpose of this hatch in her back was to permit access to several plugs or outlets inside of her. A heard a whining noise come from somewhere inside of her. It sounded like a video cassette-tape being rewound in a VCR. The sound was speeding up. I stepped back. It sounded like it was going too fast. Suddenly, it must have snagged something. It heard it jam. Motors strained. Something wasn’t catching. Motors pulled harder and harder. Something finally gave. Something tore. The motors spun loose, in neutral.
Sensing danger, I backed further away from the spurious girl’s meltdown.
Something else in her body started squealing like a tape-recorder set on fast forward. It sounded like gibberish; it was completely unintelligible. It accelerated and increased in pitch. It almost hurt my ears. Suddenly, there was a large POP like a punctured balloon. A wisp of gray smoke rose for the open panel on her back. A sudden blast of blue and white sparks spurted from her body, angrily smoldering. The chipmunk-like squealing halted immediately and was replaced by a garbled baritone monologue. The sound was too slow and low for me to understand it either.
The counterfeit girl was powering down. Or breaking down, I guess. After a moment, her deep voice rumbled to a stop. The tiny blinking lights visible within her blinked out one by one.
Oh fuck. What am I gonna do?
I wasn’t hungry anymore.
Suddenly someone rapped loudly on the door. Very loudly, like he was pounding with butt of a pistol or a club. It had to be a guard.
I heard keys jingling as he searched for the right one.
Hurling myself into action, I flicked off the lights and turned off the computer in one motion. I was jarred. I burst out of the door faster than he could get in and shut it behind me. I pushed past him and out into the hallway. He looked at me, startled. I gave him a fake, toothy, guilty grin.
“What it is, pops!” I tried to control my heart rate and breathing. It wasn’t really working.
“Everything all right in there?” He jerked his head toward the door, fingering his holster.
“What? In there? Uh, yeah. Fine. Why?”
“I heard something.” His fingers closed around the doorknob. Real slowly. “You sure everything’s okay?”
I consciously tried to speak slowly. “Yeah. In fact, I was just leaving for the night. Can you sign me out?”
He thought for a second. Took another look towards the door. His suspicion seemed to evaporate. He seemed satisfied. Confidence returned. He smiled. “Sure. Just follow me to the front.”
Using his keys, we made sure the door was locked behind us.
My skin was freezing; sweat in frigid air-conditioning.
Man. She was robot!
When I got home, I started drinking. All the while, I was thinking back to the little talk Steffi and I had had when she first began at the Museum. “State Institute of Technology...” I shuddered. I couldn’t sleep. I paced all around my dimly lit apartment. Kitchen – bedroom – hall – living room. Then back again. Living room – hall – bedroom – kitchen. And so on. I kept sipping on porter. I couldn’t eat. Hours passed. When my roommate came back with his girlfriend at around 4 AM, I just went into my bedroom. Didn’t say ‘hi’ to them or anything. I sat at my desk for three more hours then, still drunk, took a shower and got ready to go back to work.
There were police cars in the parking lot. The Museum was closed. They were turning visitors away.
An officer waved me down. Rolling down my window, I explained that I worked at the Museum. I showed him my nametag.
I got more nervous as I parked and got out of my car.
The corridors crackled with police radios.
There was crime-scene tape barring entrance to Boss’s office.
An officer let me past their barrier.
Boss was inside. His fat face was in his hands. His bulk was situated in a small chair. The one I usually sat in.
My head was swimming.
Detectives with notepads and flashlights. Dusting fingerprints. Taking photographs.
“Thank goodness you’re here, Joachim, my boy.” I looked around, trying to place the voice. It was Boss. He was looking up at me.
“Has anyone told you yet, Joachim?” I looked at him dumbly. I was still expecting to be arrested. “No? Well, it turns out Steffi had been stealing things from the Museum. Surprised?” He waited. I was still stunned by everything. “Me too.” He exhaled audibly. It was almost a despairing sigh. A flicker of pity sparked in my heart. “She was caught with some items as she was leaving last night. I’m afraid we’ve seen the last of her, Joachim.”
“Of course you know what this means, my boy. As soon as the police get everything they want, you and I are going to work harder than ever to keep things running around here.” I wasn’t listening.
A cover-up? Did I detect the hand of the ‘State Institute of Technology’ at work? Why would they go through all of this trouble on my account? Why protect me? I couldn’t concentrate. Too drunk.
Not protecting me; protecting themselves, their experiment?
And I never touched her.
How would they know?
I spotted my Twix candy bar innocuously laying beside the filing cabinets, unnoticed.
Boss cut in.
“Now, the museum is giving all of its employees five days of paid vacation. You see, they’re closing for the rest of this week.” I started listening. “So that means that, technically, your internship is over.”
I stopped listening after that.
“But I really need you to stick around for a while. I mean, we’re friends, right? Now, when the police pack up, I want you to see to the rest of those catalogs. You never finished them last night. But, given these circumstances, I think I can forgive you this once.”
The flicker of sympathy died.
“No Boss, I think I’m going home.”
“Joachim! I need you here now!”
I pushed past a pair of officers.
“Haven’t I always treated you fine?!”
I was already gone.
The parking lot outside was warm. The sun played its warmth on my skin. I cruised past the police checkpoint and out onto the road.