Peaches was a show-stopper. It was hard having a roommate like this. Her golden head seemed to reflect the light coming in from our living room window so that the construction workers just outside, working on the building beside ours, couldn’t turn away. I was drab by contrast—a mousy brunette forever reaching up or stooping down.
Peaches didn’t deign to turn her head in my direction. Her small head was pitched upwards watching the birds flutter from branch to branch, the shadows of the tree playing along her back. “Do you really think it’s so bad to put cyanide in your boss’s pea soup?” I asked her.
She turned her head briefly and then returned to the flight of the birds. They were slowly skimming up above where even Peaches could lift her head to meet them. “Or what if I drove to Syosset and then accidentally bumped into him so he accidentally fell onto the tracks of the Long Island Railroad? Would you judge me for that?”
Peaches turned around, looked at me briefly and then stretched her petite body along the couch. It was a prime spot for a window-watcher like Peaches—a watcher of the slow construction outside in which something was forever being built—being built so slow and incompetently that you wondered if it ever would be inhabited. The construction was an existence unto itself. It wasn’t to be completed as much as it was to exist as an unending process. “Peaches, are you judging me? You don’t have the right to. I know for a fact that you hunt. I saw you with my own eyes dragging the sweetest bunny into Grandpa’s lake house last summer. If you can kill an innocent, sweet bunny, you can kill anything.”
Peaches scoffed at me, turning up her head and then tapping on the glass as the birds fluttered closer. She didn’t even bother turning back around when my phone vibrated on the windowsill near her. It was my friend Olivia, who had never met my boss, but was familiar with my travails. “I’ve been thinking of putting cyanide in Richard’s pea soup, or maybe his tomato soup—I can’t decide which—do you think that’s bad?” I asked. I didn’t wait for her to respond. “Or another idea was to rent a car, drive out to Syosset and then accidentally bump into him so he falls onto the Long Island Railroad tracks. Or maybe I could pay a couple of guys to get into a fight on the platform, and in the course of pushing and shoving, they would accidentally bump into him. Is that any better? Is it worse?”
“I guess it’s not that bad,” she said. “If the train came right away, it would probably be a quick death. The cyanide also would probably be pretty quick, so I guess that’s not bad either.”
Peaches, meanwhile, was glaring at me. She hated whenever I was on the phone, as if my voice was disturbing her peace or meditation, as if she was in an exclusive library, where instead of reading, she chose to sun herself by the window watching birds. But could she read? She seemed interested in whatever book I placed in my lap, but primarily to disturb it and distract me.
“Yeah, that’s what I figured,” I said. “All and all, worse ways you can die. The thing is, I don’t think you can buy cyanide at the drug store, and I think the train death might somehow get pointed back to me—there would be a whole investigation probably.”
“Yeah, probably,” Olivia said disappointingly. She was always the kind of friend you wanted around to talk about wishing death on others. She never judged and usually helped you either figure out the best way to do it, or why it was a bad idea. Sometimes she just met you for hot chocolate, or maybe a chocolate martini, and then the death plot seemed like a good idea all over again.
“Thanks—I guess that helps clarify things a little,” I said. We decided to revisit the cyanide in pea soup and death by accidental bumping onto the Syosset Long Island Railroad tracks the next weekend.
In the meantime, there was Peaches, forever preening and queenly being herself with her golden head and her big green eyes sometimes fixed on me for no reason. “What are you looking at, Peaches?” I asked her. “Isn’t it enough that I agreed to tack your awards to the wall?” She didn’t respond, yet again, so I got up and tapped the ribbons and certificates on the wall behind me. “Look, Peaches, I actually didn’t have room for any of this stuff, but I fit it in anyway.” Peaches made a peculiar sighing noise—her way of talking I suppose—and looked down and inspected herself, as if to say: “You can’t compete with all this,” and then went back to her bird inspection.
Olivia came over the next night to carry on our conversation about cyanide in pea soup vs. accidental bumping onto the Long Island Railroad Tracks. Who knows where she was headed in the getup, but she had on a silver sparkly cardigan with a black turtleneck underneath and off-white leather pants with tall, high-heeled black boots. She looked like she was suited up for a night of club hopping, though she had only been sitting in the office of her marketing firm all day, and was probably just heading home after our visit. Like Peaches, I guess you’d say she was a show-stopper. She wasn’t a strawberry blond like Peaches, but just a common blond with long, carefully blown out hair and a face that always looked tan, even in the winter. “Forget about the cyanide in the pea soup and getting him ‘accidentally’ shoved onto the Long Island Railroad tracks,” Olivia said. “You don’t want to go to jail—you’d probably get caught.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I guess there’s also the possibility that I’d feel bad if I did it.”
“Have you thought about getting Peaches involved?” Olivia asked. She patted Peaches on her golden head; Peaches shrugged her off and fell back into her daydream.
“I don’t know if Peaches would make any difference.”
“Are you kidding? Just being around her makes some people itch and start getting all antsy, clearing their throats and coughing over and over again. Some of them even start to cry—I heard that guy you had over last week sniffling,” Olivia said.
It was true that Peaches was extremely beautiful and had been a hit on the show circuit. It could be that her reputation proceeded her. “I know what you’re getting at—you think I should take Peaches into the office to meet Richard.” The thought of golden Peaches winding herself around my boss and then drawing away every time he reached out to her, and the effect—maybe even as of an irritant—she might have on him—made me laugh. She would cause discomfort and would refuse to be controlled. She wouldn’t care about his critiques or pomposity, the way I was forced to as his employee. Peaches was unemployable.
“Well, I suppose I could always try to bring her in, and see what happens,” I said. “What do you say, Peaches? Are you finally going to break your silence? How about a visit with my boss tomorrow?”
Technically, you’re supposed to call ahead about visitors, but since Peaches would be walking in with me, I figured, who cares? Peaches and I were such a pair—me in my retro short, tan shearling jacket from the ‘70s and my wool leopard beret cap, and Peaches as just her golden, delicate self with those luminous green eyes. The security guard smiled, and nearly cooed as we walked past him. “I have a friend with me today,” I said, smiling. “I can see that,” was all he said, like he was talking to a seven-year-old.
The elevator was the usual mix of cigarette smoke leftovers and cologne or perfume. By lunch it would be cigarette smoke leftovers, deli meats, vegetables, fruit and sweat. A fat half-bald man whistled so that Peaches turned her head to the wall, seeming to cringe. When we got to our floor, Peaches couldn’t be bothered, and almost seemed to be fighting dozing off. The lids of her big green eyes fluttered shut and then popped open again whenever someone passed us by on the walk-through hallways leading to my desk. “You act like a person on drugs,” I said to her. She looked at me, blinked a few times and then her green eyes—or were they yellow in the light?—fluttered half-shut again, contemplatively. She was so at peace when she did that, that she reminded me a little of a Buddha statue.
The florescent lights didn’t do Peaches and I well. We both preferred softer lighting. I had gotten used to it, coming to work five days a week, but Peaches seemed to find it revolting. After looking up once into the ceiling’s light panels, she quickly looked away, and nearly curled her lip up in disgust. Richard, as always, was standing at the filing cabinet to the side of his desk. He said he could think more clearly standing, and so, preferred to do his editing that way. The top of his filing cabinet was his standing-up desk. He never heard me coming. “Hi,” I said just loud enough to startle him.
“Hey, those are sound-proof feet,” he said.
“They’re cat feet,” I corrected him.
“Right!” he said. “We’re getting good numbers on that piece about selling wicker end tables in October. And the surprise is that piece by Santo on furniture varnish extending the life of dining room tables—it’s really taken off,” Richard said.
I couldn’t stand it any longer: “Richard, don’t you notice? I have a friend with me.” He looked me up and down, and to both sides, and did a half smile and a grunt. “What? New scarf, new purse?”
“No,” I said. Peaches was getting restless. She didn’t like being overlooked.
“The new series on the growth of the garden furniture market is almost ready to go,” he said. “I just have to sketch out the sponsored content box.”
I nodded my head and half smiled, mm-hmming and saying “oh,” every once in a while. “Now that we’re e-blasting every day it’s amazing how the site has really taken off,” Richard said. “Just getting it in front of their eyes—at a glance—every day—I—“
He stopped then and started sniffling and his eyes started watering. “What’s wrong, Richard?” I asked. “Don’t tell me you’re getting all choked up at our success.”
“I-I,” he started sneezing and rubbing his eyes. “It’s almost like-like” Sneeze, sneeze, sneeze.
“Like what, Richard?” I asked. “How about we talk about that content aggregator service you mentioned last week? Remember how you said we could probably get the same results by just re-using old stuff—stuff I wrote—over and over again, or maybe use an aggregation service that uses a—what was it you called it?—an algorithm?—to send us content calculated to appeal to our readers?”
Richard’s face got blotchy then, as if he were breaking out in hives. He reached up to loosen his collar and took messy gulps of water from his Poland Springs bottle—not the liter size; just the pint size, so it was gone in about two minutes. He shook his head and held the empty bottle out to me, as if he wanted me to fill it for him. “What, you think, I’m your secretary?” I laughed. “Just kidding! Sure, I’ll fill it up—it’s the least I can do for the guru of web analytics—who still can’t figure out how to post pictures to Facebook. But, you know what they say, there’s no accounting for genius. Geniuses are often eccentric and hard to know. I guess you must be one of those,” I said.
Richard’s face, which now was flushed with hives, and with red, swollen eyes, bounced up and down as he nodded in affirmation that he was, indeed, a genius who couldn’t be troubled to learn such pedestrian things as how to post pictures to Facebook. “I’m going to go now to get your water, but Peaches will stay with you,” I said. At that, Richard shook his head vigorously from side to side. I guess Peaches wasn’t his type. “Don’t worry, you’ll learn to love her,” I said, helping Peaches wrap herself around his neck. Richard shrunk down in his swivel chair, nearly banging his head against the window as the chair rolled out of control backwards. “What? Don’t tell me beautiful, gentle Peaches frightens you!”
Richard was still swinging his head back and forth vigorously when I went to get his water, Peaches still clinging. I knew Peaches sometimes had a bad effect on people, but this was more than had I hoped for. I was in no rush—I just glided across the office’s modular carpet squares. I used to work for a magazine about catalogs, and one of the catalogs I wrote about sold modular carpeting—carpeting that was sold and installed in squares. So when I looked closely at the carpet, and saw that it was divided into barely noticeable squares, I knew that must be what they used. I guess it made sense—if someone drops fruit punch or a bottle of white-out, the maintenance man can just pull up a solitary square rather than having to replace the whole thing.
I counted each modular square, and smiled out of the corners of my eyes at co-workers I felt uncomfortable around. The copy machine was unoccupied, but a stack of papers was slowly slipping from one of its ends—I didn’t look long enough, but I think either the paper wasn’t inserted properly, or the outcome of the printing was no longer needed. The kitchen stank of fish sticks and a gassy (almost toilety) vegetable smell. I always avoided looking in the garbage because the peelings of vegetables and fruits repulsed me.
I decided a paper cup’s worth of water was enough for Richard, even though his oversized white ceramic mug lay on the counter at arm’s length. There was a shortage of water in the world, so who could chance wasting any of it? I could always come back for more, I reasoned. Plus, the ceramic mug would be heavier to carry, and was there any reason I should put added pressure on my joints?
Cologne so strong it reminded me of lawn spray, or insecticide, wafted up my nose. One of our maintenance men was refilling our coffee machine. There were little packets with different kinds of coffees and teas that needed to be placed into the storage trays. I half smiled at him, and slightly nodded my head, but kept my eyes fixed downward, toward the cold water dripping into my cup. I didn’t know if it was my imagination, but I thought I could hear Richard coughing and sneezing all the way in the kitchen. I figured maybe I should let Peaches sink in even more, and then maybe he would start getting used to her. She just had that effect on some people—their eyes might water and they might sneeze, but she was pretty cute, so that in between the wheezing and red, itchy eyes, you had to admit you still kind of enjoyed her company.
Just as the maintenance man’s cologne stench was gliding away, Melanie came in smelling of that cloying coconut perfume or lotion she used. She was one of those people who need to acknowledge everyone, so that a daydreamy nod will just be ignored and prattled over. Melanie was heavy, and evidently convinced her best figure asset was her chest because whatever the occasion—even business conferences—she wore tops low-cut enough to reveal at least the top of her breast cleavage. She also always wore an orange-y spray tan—the kind you can purchase in a bottle at the drug store. “Hey there,” she said with both words drawn out in a high-pitched whiny way. “Did you hear what’s going on with Richard?”
Melanie looked like she was stifling a smile while knitting her eyebrows together to affect a look of concern. She loved the travails of others—a coughing fit/medical crisis in the middle of the workday was exactly the kind of thing she most enjoyed. “No, I hadn’t heard,” I said keeping my eyes pinned to the bulletin board where someone had clipped a cartoon about wishing it was as easy to lose weight as it was to lose your keys or your mind.
“He’s coughing like crazy and his face is all red and puffy looking,” she said.
“Well,” I said, “it’s allergy season. It’s to be expected, I guess.” She looked at me for a second and then started making her coffee—a gross looking concoction that required two parts. In the first part the coffee was made and in the second part the sickly sweet foam was made, to be poured on top. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could take the time to make such a thing. It reminded me of the people who wait in a line snaking out the door to buy coffee from a café I always passed by on the way to work.
“You better go check on him,” she whined. “He’s liable to choke. I heard of that before—people with a bad allergic reaction who get so swollen in the throat and chest they can’t breath.”
I didn’t say anything, and turned on my heel with the water. “Well, I’m bringing him water, anyway, that’s something. I hope he doesn’t choke before I get there—my trip to the kitchen will have been wasted.”
Sure enough, Richard’s coughing made a symphony that preceded me back to our work area. He had swiveled his chair even closer to the window and now his head was hanging out. Peaches wouldn’t loosen her grip, and clung to his neck.
“Poor Richard!” I said. “I’ve brought you your water. Wouldn’t you like some?” He turned and grabbed it from me so fast some of the water sloshed out against us both. He then gulped it down fast as if he were taking a shot a whiskey. A flight of two birds, plain looking sparrows, near Richard’s window, diverted Peaches and she loosened her grip and moved away from Richard and toward her favorite seat in any house (or office), the window. She followed the birds’ small jumps from branch to branch in the trees below, and her eyes tracked them as they flew up toward us.
“My God!” Richard said, rubbing his neck and rolling it from side to side once Peaches released him. “My allergies,” he lamented. I laughed as if the whole thing had been a joke and we were just two pals having a good time, or that I was a very ignorant person.
“Oh, I didn’t know. Do you have allergies?”
He smiled and nodded his head. “Time to time,” he said. Peaches had slid from the window, and was now behind me. I was on the periphery of Richard’s cubicle.
“Peaches has that effect on some people. I don’t have that problem, luckily.”
“As I was saying,” Richard continued, “the content aggregators can provide us with cost-effective service, and we’ll be able to re-use news produced by other publications—for a fee, of course—”
Peaches watched Richard’s hands move back and forth over his desk shuffling mounds of papers and rearranging Post-it notes thumb-tacked to his cubicle wall. He regarded her out of the corner of his eye the way you would keep track of a mosquito or fly buzzing around your patio dinner.
“It’s just—it just rubs me the wrong way when you lump my work in with the people who just provide ancillary support,” I said as Peaches moved closer to Richard and rubbed against him. He tried to move out of the way, but Peaches was too lithe and fast. He sneezed and his eyes began to tear. “It’s like putting the people who sell commercials in the same category as the people who star in the TV shows.”
“I also know TV shows make a lot of money in syndication—because of the sales of commercials,” he said.
My own metaphor had backfired. He was determined to under-represent my contribution in order to bolster his own. The more he acknowledged how much I do, the more his bosses would wonder what he does. “I just don’t like feeling like an easily replaceable cog in a large machine.” I pulled Peaches toward me for support. She was unsympathetic as usual. “You may be surprised that it’s not quite as easy as you thought to find someone who does everything I do, and is as reliable.”
“Well,” Richard chuckled, “No one is irreplaceable. Listen, very recently I was asked to justify my position.”
I just stared at him and nodded. I couldn’t say what I wanted to say: “Ha! I would have loved to hear that—hear how you made it sound like you’re such a big contributor when all you do all day is offer criticism of others’ work. Always as if you’re a visiting consultant who breezes in with his observations and suggestions, and then breezes out before it’s time to do the work you recommended.”
But I just continued staring and nodding. It was 12:30, his usual lunch hour. He always ate at the exact same time, like he was a laborer who was mandated to take his lunch break at the same time every day. Richard’s can of pea soup was set aside on the edge of his desk next to his second over-size white ceramic mug and can opener. Peaches tapped it and watched as it slid. “I can help you with that, Richard,” I said. I’ll take that to the kitchen if you want and heat it up for you.” Richard waggled his nose and wheezed slightly as Peaches crept closer. “Yeah, thanks, that’s great.”
Pea soup is an interesting thing. There are so many ways to make it even better—with just a small addition or two. I’m not a cook—had the gas turned off on my stove and oven years ago—but I might have a flair for creating pea soup with a twist. I had the kitchen to myself because most of the other employees were in a conference in the meeting room, so I took my time, surveying the supplies I had brought in my purse—or just happened to have, as luck would have it. I had my birth control pills, ibuprofen, Tums antacid, catnip and a vial of something I couldn’t identify, which Olivia must have slipped in.
Olivia was always traveling, so there was no telling what it could be. She liked to surprise her friends by slipping little gifts into their purses when they weren’t looking, sometimes even removing the label to increase the surprise. It could be sea salt from the Dead Sea, medicinal crystals from a medicine man in Belize or the crushed bones of a sea urchin. There was no telling with Olivia. “Well, what the hell?” I said aloud. “It’s not like it’s cyanide.”
Whatever it was, it was in liquid form. Could it be an exotic kind of vanilla extract? It was clear with maybe the slightest tinge of blue. I dashed in a drizzle across the sinking peas. I thought about tasting it, but then realized that wouldn’t be a good idea since then it would ruin the surprise. I wanted to enjoy the surprise of seeing Richard discover for me what this stuff was. I figured there was a better than average chance it was something he would like—well, maybe not better than average, but not too much worse than average. Upon closer sniff, I smelled something like almonds. Could it have been almond milk, or a sample of an Almond Joy milkshake (if such a thing existed)? I guess we would find out—or Richard would, anyway.
Back at his desk, Richard was sitting as far from Peaches as possible. Peaches, aware of her beauty, leaned against the window, letting the sun show her off. To Peaches, the sun wasn’t an orb in the sky that lighted the day and grew plants and trees; it was her personal spotlight.
“What were you doing, re-growing the peas?” Richard said, snickering. Just as he got cocky, Peaches took a few steps toward him, and he shrank into his seat—as much as a six-foot-one man can shrink into a seat.
“Yes, re-growing them, especially for you,” I said as sweetly as I could. Peaches, meanwhile, slithered her warm little body against Richard’s back, causing him to visibly shiver.
“It’s just little Peaches. She’s pretty, isn’t she?”
Richard began nervously shoveling pea soup in his mouth and nodding his head. Peaches was such a petite thing. How could anyone be afraid of her? It wasn’t really a life-and-death allergy, was it? Or whatever it was that was wrong with him whenever Peaches came around. She sidled up to him again and he started choking and turning pink. He even started gagging. Was it Peaches and that effect she happened to have on some people? Was it the pea soup complemented by Olivia’s surprise?
“Well, the interesting thing about content aggregators is they don’t actually know anything because they aren’t actually there. They’re just algorithms, Richard, that’s all,” I said.
And Richard coughed and coughed as Peaches sidled up against him, her golden coloring rich in the noon sun. Her head was turned toward the window, and she seemed to be counting the black birds flying by, her head darting back and forth like a person watching a tennis match.
Richard cleared his throat and pushed Peaches away. “It’s the number of times we’re in front of their eyes,” he said. “The content is less important.”
“Alright, then why bother picking everything apart—if what we run isn’t that important, then who cares—why scrutinize everything?”
The truthful answer from him, I guessed, was he just enjoyed the tearing and raking apart process too much to give it up, even if it was unnecessary. “We’re trying to provide a value to our readers,” he said in between coughs of increasing intensity. Peaches rubbed against his back, and then his eyes started watering, too, and his face became inflamed again. “Tastes, tastes—tastes like—“ he burbled.
“Yes, Richard, what does it taste like? It would be good to know because my friend—” I couldn’t get out what I wanted to tell him about the mystery ingredient because, as usual, he was interrupting me—this time by his choking, coughing and general distress. “Always interrupting me, just like you,” I said patting his back while Peaches continued to slink around him. Richard’s face started to show tinges of purple in little blotches here and there, and his eyes became bloodshot.
“How’s the soup?” I asked. “I didn’t want to ruin the surprise, but a friend of mine gave me a little something to try—an herb or seasoning of some kind, I think—so, I thought, what the hell, I’ll add it in.”
Richard was coughing again, but this time he was making less noise. He was burbling sort of. Peaches was more merciless than me, and kept slinking against him and watching him with big green eyes. “What do you think?” I said. “What do you think of the taste? I bet it tastes better now. That Olivia, she always picks out the best stuff.”
I was just on too much of a roll to stop—I loved too much that he finally couldn’t interrupt me—so I just kept going, and Peaches took the cue and kept bumping up against Richard every time he tried to take a deep breath.
“Of course content aggregators, content aggregators—there’s no telling what they could do for your lunch, Richard. Maybe you could just keep some of them in here to create an automated algorithm for determining what soup you’ll have day to day. You know, pea soup today, tomato cheddar tomorrow, New England clam chowder the next day, chicken noodle the next. But then again, what does it matter what you have for lunch? It’s how it’s presented, not what you’re eating, right Richard? Right?”
His head was nestled now on the desk like a grade school child taking a nap. I thought I saw him nod, but I wasn’t sure. Peaches decided he was a good sitting spot, so she nearly sat on his slumped down back.
“Peaches once killed the sweetest bunny, Richard. You know that?” That time I thought I saw him shake his head saying no, but I just couldn’t be sure.
“Anyway, I don’t want to keep you from your work, so Peaches and I better get going. You probably want to start researching content aggregation services this afternoon.”