Mythical Animal at the Coffee Machine

I got a Snickers bar forgetting my role as a mythical animal. I knew mythical animals should stick to foods grown in gardens, but I just wasn’t in the mood, so I slunk to the vending machine. I wondered if I would be noticed, and figured if I was, so little is known about the eating habits of mythical animals that it wouldn’t make any difference.

I heard people happy in the morning, asking each other about their weekends and probably making up stories (I was mythical, so I assumed everyone else was, too, and was just pretending otherwise).

“Oh, it was nice, we went down to the South Street Seaport, and they were having a street fair down there…”

“It was OK—we helped my father-in-law move into a new condo in Park Slope…”

“It was great! My sister was in town, and we went to this new club down in Tribeca—Capital R—and we stayed until they were ready to close…”

They didn’t see me, so my Snickers eating and coffee drinking didn’t offend them. As a mythical animal, I wanted to be glamorous and other worldly, and didn’t think it was exotic enough to eat Snickers bars and drink coffee in the morning. I should be off in a swamp somewhere like the Loch Ness Monster, or out foraging in a remote valley for rare berries.

Lacking rare berries, I skulked unseen to my cubicle. I had a window and liked to stare at the people across the street having meetings. I could easily see into a meeting room with a white, modern, almost plastic-looking table, two sofas and abstract artwork on the wall. A girl with a long, blond ponytail usually presided over the meetings, and the people she met with usually would smile and nod their heads at her and didn’t appear to say much. Either she was their boss or they thought she was so dumb they were just humoring her. A lot of times she would stand up, rather than sit down, behind her desk, as she spoke to them, and they would remain sitting and nodding and smiling.

In nearly a year of staring, they never once looked back at me, violating that phenomenon of the stared-at-the-back–of-the-head somehow feeling a stranger’s eyes on them, and reflexively turning to stare back.

“Gary is out today, do you want to look through his drawers to see if he left any spare change around?” Linda, the girl who sat in the next cubicle over, said to a work friend. “I’d like to stock up on my Hershey rations.”

I, meanwhile, had gravitated away from the window and into my work, calculating owed payments from the last month. I didn’t report to anyone in the office because my boss, Gladys, was based at another location, and I didn’t work with anyone else in the company, so I just e-mailed my completed tasks to Gladys, or texted her questions. Otherwise, I was left to my numbers and the write-ups of meetings and upcoming events I was charged with.  I was a public relations manager, so I spent my days alternating between writing press releases, and once a month, submitting accruals of money we owed event contractors.

My latest assignment—behind the accrual of numbers—was to promote a charity event for a new irrigation system. So I spent an hour or two  super-imposing eyeballs into cactuses. I also sifted through photos of dead leaves looking for just the right crevice to insert my eyeballs into. Nobody interrupted me in my work, looking for dead or dried up pieces of nature to insert my eyeballs into.

“Is it raining yet?” Emily Stone, an office mate, said.  “I want to go to the gym after work, but if it’s raining, I think I’ll just go straight home because I forgot my umbrella.” She was talking to Greg Norse, who sat next to her. The two of them sat on the opposite side of the cubicle wall to me. They had walked around to my cubicle, which had a window, but they had looked over (or under) me, straight out the window without acknowledging me. I didn’t mind that they didn’t acknowledge me because it helped me retain my mythology.

My eyeballs set to dried-up plants, I turned away from the screen in front of me, and began inspecting the florescent landscape. The office was washed in grays, and the aroma of lemony disinfectant was in the air. One of my coworkers was phobic of dust, and so at least a few times a day sprayed his cubicle with “all-natural” cleaning solution. It made my eyes burn, which was odd, I thought, since it’s supposed to be “all-natural.” In a way it made sense, though. Given my status as “the other,” things that didn’t hurt most people, hurt me.

The turquoise flowers Glinda tacked to her wall last week, across the cubicle aisle from me, stared unseeing at me, not unlike the people around me. There were abstract eyes weaved into the center of the flowers. I felt comforted knowing they could stare at me but not see me.  A lot of our co-workers thought the unseeing eyes were creepy, but they were the norm to me as a mythical animal.

“Your eyeball flowers are creeping me out,” Hillary, one of the other girls sitting around us, said to Glinda. “It reminds me of one of those paintings where the eyes follow you, only this is much worse because the eyes aren’t connected to a person. They’re just stuck inside a flower.”

The disembodied eyes did follow the observer everywhere, but I saw them as no different than the people across the way in the view from my window. I saw them, tracked their movements, but if they looked back at my window, they gave no indication that they noticed me.

“Why would a flower need eyes?” Hillary said. “What does it need to see anyway? All it does all day is grow and wait for bees to come along.”

Why does anyone need eyes, I wondered to myself. I worked alongside people like Glinda and Hillary, and they never noticed me, anymore than the eyeballed flower noticed them. The florescent lights glaring down on me, I looked up, and noticed a few of them flickering, which reminded me of stars twinkling at night. With the daylight from the windows and the florescent illumination overhead, I felt that it was too bright to distinguish anything. If it’s dark outside, and there’s just a little light here and there, from a stray lit-up window, a full moon, or a gathering of bright stars, particular things are pointed out to you—like a spotlight on a stage in a darkened theatre.

Maybe my mythical self was too much the same color as the lighting overhead, so I blended into the cubicle walls and the windowpanes. I thought maybe people who were far away, like the workers across the way in that other building could see me if I stared at them long enough. Maybe I was like a painting that you have to stand back from to fully see.

That’s when I decided to start slinking around more instead of doing my work. I was always so reliable maybe that was the problem. Nobody bothered to think of me because they could take it for granted that I would turn my assignments in on time, and that there was no need to worry about me. I was punished for my superiority. My grandness as an employee turned me into a mythical creature.

So, I got up and began rustling papers on the edge of Glinda’s desk, the way an animal in the woods might slink up to the parameter of a person’s backyard and begin riffling through the hedges or nosing around in the garbage.  “Somebody looks as though she’s been neglecting her skin,” I said as loud as I could, knowing the kind and gentle rarely were noticed. “I think you’ve been washing your face with sandpaper, Glinda.”

“Did you hear something, Hillary? It sounded like a woodpecker outside, or one of those birds with an annoying cawing sound.”

I knew I was mythological, but never thought of myself as part of the bird family. I thought I was more closely related to the Loch Ness Monster. Except, of course, that I had better taste. I began knocking on Glinda’s desk, and changed my tact, now insulting her work. “This work really isn’t your best, dear,” I said sarcastically.

“There it is again!” Glinda said. “It’s that weird bird sound again, like a bird that’s been injured and can’t fly up off the sidewalk.”

Well, I kind of felt like a crippled bird, but looking at myself in the long mirror in the ladies room (I was a female mythical animal), I never noticed any feathers. I didn’t think I had wings because I never got any place fast, so how could I be flying?

They were mistaken about my bird status, but it was possible I was some other non-human being they felt free to only see in their peripheral vision. How about a unicorn galloping at the edge of the woods, or here in the city, at the edge of the stores’ entrances? Or maybe a centaur shaking down the vending machine in the copy room because her second candy bar of the day got stuck?

I banged the vending machine as hard as I could, and the eyes of those around me fixed on the Snicker’s dangling mid-candy bar row, but looked past me again. “Weird,” Steve, one of our accountants, said who sat nearby. “It’s the haunted vending machine.” Another co-worker wondered, laughing, if we were having an earthquake.

With commotions and negative commentary getting me nowhere, I decided the thing to do would be to start stealing. I would jamb the engagement ring of a gal named Bethany who sat around the corner from me into the vending machine.

She usually took off her ring to wash her hands, so I would follow her into the ladies room, steal the ring and then find a crevice in the vending machine to drop it into, so along with Milky Ways, Twizzler’s and potato chips, you could insert a few coins for a chance to win a diamond engagement ring. If I acted soon, the machine couldn’t be opened and the ring easily retrieved because the repairman was on vacation. Ordinarily, you could call the vending machine company to help out with something like this, but our company was so cheap, it bought the machine from a vending supplier who was now out of business, and had it stocked with leftovers from the CEO’s home. One time we even noticed miniature bottles of Scope and packets of Lactaid alongside the candy. I guess he thought he was doing us a favor while at the same time cleaning out his medicine chest.

The lodging of the engagement ring in the vending machine interested me because it was something Bethany was always waving around and smiling about, and getting noticed for. As a mythical animal whose existence had not yet been recognized, I was very resentful of that attention. Why should a sparkling ring garner so much recognition when my stampedes and habitat were so brilliant?

My markings must offer me camouflage like a zebra’s stripes or a leopard’s spots, but when I looked at my reflection, I only saw plain flesh-colored skin. However it happened, I was effectively camouflaged to those around me, so sidling around the corner at the sink counter in the ladies room and snatching the ring wouldn’t be hard.

Bethany, as I contemplated my plans, stared at her ring, holding it up closer to the florescent lights on the ceiling, twirling her hand this way and that. She once joked that she stared at it so much people were going to begin to think she was a mental patient.

When she got up from her desk, I followed at her heels—she wore that over-done red-bottom-of-the-shoes fashion—following her straight into the stinky ladies room.

She stopped to admire herself—her newly ringed self—in the long mirror. She twirled her hand and then walked back and forth like a strutting peacock, watching her reflection to see what her ring would look like as she strolled down the street. “Yoo-hoo, oh Bethany,” I said, as though I were hollering into a canyon or an empty hallway that echoes easily. “Do you hear me?  I’m going to steal your wonderful new ring and hang it by the potato chips in the vending machine so anyone who wants can extract it for 85 cents.”

She began happily (or nervously?) humming to herself, taking off her ring and washing it, as she did several times a day. She had just gotten the ring last week, and was still excited enough about it to act like that. She was like a teenage boy who kept washing and waxing his new car.

She slipped the ring off her finger, and began rubbing it under the water (she didn’t trust the ladies room soap enough to squirt any of it on her prized gem), and swaying from left to right, as if she were swaying to music (or as if she were agitated?).  When she turned her back to gaze one more time in the long mirror, I reached out my hand, paw, or whatever it is you’d call a mythical animal’s appendages, and snatched it.

I twirled it along my index finger, and then my ring finger, seeing what it felt like to be marked by someone else’s possession. I didn’t feel bad for having taken it because I didn’t think it was worthwhile to be marked by possession and, also, because I didn’t think it meant anything more to Bethany than any other attention-getting piece of fashion.

I held the ring in my hand, winding all my fingers around it, balling my hand into a first around it, and walked out the bathroom door.  “Oh, tra, la, la, la, I’ve got Bethany’s ring, and, oh, tra, la, la, I’m going to hang it in the vending machine like a bag of potato chips,” I sang as loudly as I could, with no response.

Bethany was still in the lady’s room, so probably hadn’t realized yet that she’d lost it. I wondered how much hysteria there would be, and whether the opportunity to insert my presence would finally arrive. As soon as I heard the clacking of her heels down the hall, back to her desk, I sashayed there (mythical animals like to transport themselves in style), and lingered, waiting for her to notice there was something she was missing.

She got back to work for a minute or two, typing into her computer, and then all of a sudden she gasped. As she went for her mug of herbal tea with her left hand, she must have finally noticed what was gone.  “Where’s my ring?” she asked with an increasingly rising voice. “I must have left it along the sink in the bathroom.” She shoved her chair back and ran back down the hall to check. I, meanwhile, laughed, twirling the ring around my forefinger. It’s horrible to lose something, or to take something you enjoyed taking, but have no use for. But it’s funny nonetheless.  Well, I have to admit, I was having fun with it, though I knew there was nothing for me to do with an engagement ring.

When she came clamoring down the hall a minute or two later, raking her hand through her hair, rubbing her hands back and forth, and pulling at her fingers with reddening face and eyes, I looked to the Snicker’s, Three Musketeers and Milky Way rack in the vending machine.

I didn’t have to prowl or even hide the ring up my sleeve. I held my forefinger high in the air, continuing to twirl the ring as I marched to the candy bar rack of the vending machine. On my tippy toes, I tried to insert the ring into the machine, and when that failed, I stood on top of a box filled with office supplies and slipped it in, stretching and angling my hand until the ring looped over the rack with the hanging Snickers bars.

“I don’t know what could have happened, this is crazy!” I heard Bethany wail. When I rounded the corner back to my cubicle, I saw her pacing up and down the aisle next to her workstation, frantically rubbing her hands together. “I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said, her voice choking with a sob.

“Bethany,” I said, standing right behind her. “Why don’t you get yourself a Milky Way Bar or a bag of potato chips to make yourself feel better?  Chocolate and potato chips are good way to mourn the loss of an engagement ring, especially ‘cause you have to tell your fiancé about it tonight.”  I laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed.

“I need chocolate,” Bethany said. “I just got a bad craving for it.”  She darted her head around and looked across the office, as if she thought she heard something but wasn’t sure.

I heard her coins jangling against the inside of the vending machine, and wondered when she would notice the additional “snack” among the candy bars.  She kept turning her head to the side, seeing “me” maybe in her peripheral vision, but deciding to ignore or doubt what she saw. I say “me” rather than plain me because I was mythical, and as a mythical animal, I didn’t know myself whether I existed.

I heard Bethany smacking her lips as she ate her Milky Way bar, and at the same time, I heard high-pitched squeals from the copy room, where the vending machine was.  It was Jill from Data magazine, a publication devoted to the needs of data analysts. She didn’t know about Bethany’s lost ring, but she did happen to spot a $10,000 diamond engagement ring alongside the Snickers. In fact, as luck would have it, she put 85 cents into the vending machine, and she got a two for one—a Snicker’s bar plus an engagement ring. No bad dates required, and chocolate to boot.

Jill trotted out of the copy room in the orthopedic clogs she always favored—and which she had painted a design of clouds and snails on—and announced to everyone her great luck. “I got a Snicker’s plus an engagement ring for 85 cents!”

Bethany cheered up at the news her ring had been found.

“Jill, you have no idea how relieved I am!” Bethany said, extending her left hand toward Jill, and sighing with a laugh. “So, where did you find it?”

“It was in with the Snickers bars in the vending machine.”

“But I was there just a few minutes ago to get my Milky Way!” Bethany said.  “I don’t know how I could have missed it.”

“Yeah, a diamond ring usually stands out in a crowd of candy bars,” Jill said.

“Well, the important thing is you found it!” Bethany said breathlessly. “I’m very grateful!  So, where is it?”

“In my drawer, all locked up and safe,” Jill said.

“Well, thank you very much for taking such good care of it!” Bethany said. “I hate to ask, but would you mind getting it for me before I forget?”

Bethany was trying to be as nice as possible, which was touching considering that I never thought much of her as a human being. Us mythical animals don’t feel a kinship with most humans. So, to see one acting kind of nice was a happy surprise.

“I was thinking it was mine now,” Jill said without laughing.  “After all, I was the one who saw it among the Snickers. You were there just a few minutes before me and didn’t see it. You’d think if it was yours, you would have spotted it right away.”

“This is ridiculous!” Bethany said. “Everyone around here has seen me wearing it!”

“But why didn’t you see it in with the candy bars in the vending machine like I did?”

“I can’t believe this!” Bethany said, beginning to whimper and pace back and forth.  “I don’t know—maybe my eyes aren’t as good at seeing details as yours.”

“I don’t know how you could miss a diamond ring hanging on a rack with candy bars. It seems like one of those things that anybody would notice.”

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I just know that’s my ring!” Bethany yelped, starting to sob with frustration. “I’m going to talk to HR about this.”

I was enjoying the scene quite a bit, especially since it “appeared” that no one saw me. Well, it was bittersweet, I suppose. No one saw me, and I had hoped hanging the ring on the Snicker’s bar wrack would finally bring attention to myself.  But on the other hand, I was enjoying that fantasy of being a fly on the wall when something really funny happens—it’s even more funny because no one knows you’re there listening, and, so, no one alters their behavior. You get a chance to see people as they really are in a silly crisis.  Jill was smacking her lips as she ate the Snicker’s bar. The ring drama hadn’t made a dent in her appetite, and she didn’t care about Bethany’s angst. I started back to my cubicle to be unseen watching the blond pony tail girl and her work group across the way through their enormous glass windows.

“Hey you,” I heard just as I turned on my heel (or hoof?). “Pretty funny, huh?” Jill said to me. “Bethany is such a spoiled brat, who cares about her anyway?  I’m sure he’ll just buy her another one. She gets whatever she wants in life.”

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