I have a shorthand kind of career. Short tasks, short stays, short skirts. My temp agency is an uptown pleasure dome of powder-scented women and sensible soles. They call on Mondays and Fridays with the impermanent placements. After I prove reliably discreet and efficient, they send me to some priority clients. Personal assistant jobs. Jobs assisting with personal things. I won’t go into the details. My boyfriends call this “a great opportunity,” but they are company men. They bring their mugs to work and leave them on their desks overnight. They will go gray at these same desks while purchasing cubicle-sized funeral plots.
My boyfriends do not live with me, but some of their weekend sweaters do. Small, furry creatures in my closet of corporate attire. Sometimes, I return the wrong sweater to the wrong man, but they don’t mind. We aren’t anything long-term, they know. They have their nights of the week, a chain of open sweater arms spreading towards Sunday like woolen paper dolls.
I am out at the bar with the tallest boyfriend when a woman from the agency calls. Her name is Farren. We will never meet in person, so I am left to imagine her face: clean, lip-glossed, with blond eyelashes. Chinless, perhaps. Sometimes, her voice sounds like a recording. She is the one who calls me most, and her priority clients grow stranger and stranger. Just recently, she sent me to fill in for the chairman of the board of a major corporation. I signed documents I did not understand, sat in on conference calls, cast votes, and was finished with the assignment before anything could be explained. There was a woman standing at the exit, weeping, and I knew that in one of the many meetings, I had probably terminated her employment. The shoes I am hired to fill are constantly switching in size.
“What’s the job?” I ask Farren.
“That depends. Do you have experience with or training in seasickness?”
“Seasickness.” I repeat. The tall boyfriend raises his eyebrows in anticipation.
“It’s not referenced on your C.V. so I had to check. Answer honestly.”
I answer honestly. Within the hour, I am shuttled away from the bar in a black van and placed on a large boat. When the captain hands me timecards and a confidentiality agreement, the whole affair starts to feel official. The boyfriends come to the dock to say goodbye, and I can see them running towards separate points near the water, waving in the distance, little specks with arms in the air, my men.
I am filling in for someone named Darla on the maiden voyage of an unmarked vessel. Like any new company, they are still working out the kinks. Some of my new mates carry around weaponry in varying degrees. A dagger here, a pistol there. This is a relief. The worst kinds of offices are the ones where no one can tell who is in charge.
I file the daily logs and keep the desk materials clean and orderly. They pay me decently on this boat, just as the agency promised. Though I suppose I cannot judge the fairness of my salary, not having had any experience with boats. Most everyone is friendly in a nodding sort of way, or are they just bobbing up and down with the ocean? There is a woman in a torn, patchwork skirt, and she makes conversation with me. She says, Good morning Darla. I say good morning in response. She looks disappointed, sensing that I am not Darla, that I am only humoring her.
The nature of the vessel’s work is unclear, but I rarely have insight on the overarching projects of my employers. From what I can tell, every night large crates of supplies and provisions are brought on board, carried in silence and with the utmost care. They are kept under lock and key in storage. After one of these deliveries, my weekly salary is paid in three red stones, clear at the centers, taped inside a windowed, paycheck envelope.
There is a man with long hair who hands out the windowed paycheck envelopes, then wanders the deck at night, repeating conversations from earlier in the day. He reminds me of my crazy boyfriend, the one I date for suspense. Sometimes this man is perched on a post, flapping his arms ever so slightly. I see him every evening from afar, after I finish organizing the daily logs. When our paths finally cross, he tells me that very soon, I will be thrown overboard.
“They will throw you overboard, just wait,” he says calmly.
I do not pay much attention to him; no one does. Every office has a long-haired man like this one. If he gets under my skin, then there is a small porthole above the desk where I can watch the waves and feel at ease. The view is not life-changing, but it’s nice. I’ve never had a window at my workspace before.
Just when I’m feeling the thrill of the open waters, just when I’m learning to tie all the types of rope knots on my grub breaks, Darla returns. She brings back souvenirs for her coworkers, which is a pretty classy thing to do. A snow globe for the captain. A severed finger for the woman in the patchwork skirt. A box of saltwater taffy for the people she does not know as well. I help myself to a piece, impressed with this company, sorry to have to leave.
My assignment ends the next day, and that is when I am thrown overboard. Darla thanks me for covering for her just as I’m walking the plank. You’re a real gem, darling, she says, and she throws a life preserver down to express her gratitude. They are throwing the man with long hair overboard, too. It turns out he wasn’t crazy after all. He was filling in for the parrot, Maurice. He grabs me by the waist as we jump into the ocean, holding me against his belly. There is salt water coming up around and into my ears, and I cannot help but respect the man for his clairvoyance. I open my eyes underwater and see his long hair flowering and branching out in front of his face.
We do not drown. We wash up on a beach, and the man with the long hair says, “This is where I am from. I brought you here to start your next placement.”
He walks me to a phone so I can confirm the assignment with Farren. We trudge past abandoned anchors at the port and I think, this is not a place that books round-trip tickets.
“Farren? I finished my job on the boat.” We are at a pay phone on a deserted road. The man is squeezing the water out of his hair and onto the gravel.
“Oh that’s great to hear. They were very pleased with you.”
“Thanks for the feedback.”
“Don’t forget to update your résumé!”
“I won’t. I’m a stickler.”
“That’s why you’re in such high demand. It must be nice to be in high demand.”
“Sure, it’s super.”
She gives me instructions on where to go next. The longhaired man, it turns out, is my new employer. Sometimes, he takes temp jobs when work gets slow. Times like these, he says. I understand.
I have one more quarter, so I call the boyfriends. Specifically, I call the funny insurance representative. When he answers his phone, he is at my apartment. He has let himself in to pick up an old sweater, and has run into two of the other boyfriends. They are sitting on the sofa watching a game. Would I mind if they continued to watch games on the sofa? They have so much in common, so much to say to each other, it turns out.
Of course I don’t mind, and it’s so great to hear them shout hello at the receiver. It’s great to hear my voice too, they say. Am I expecting to be away on business for much longer? Probably not, I say.
The longhaired man is named Carl, and he is something of an entrepreneur. His small murder business sits in a tidy shack not far from the water, which is convenient for dumping the bodies. Location, location, location, he says. He sounds like my real estate boyfriend. I laugh and wash his weapons every morning, adhering to the cleaning manual he developed. I am filling in for his buddy who is currently serving some time. Carl does not always pay in money, but he feeds me and gives me a place to sleep, a small cot next to his desk in the shack.
I take initiative from the get-go, and amortize the cost of Carl’s equipment. He is grateful when I help him approach his daily schedule with more efficiency, and sometimes he lets me assist in planning the logistics of the murders. I update my résumé regularly to reflect all of my new and varied skills. On Sundays, there is free time to explore the place that Carl calls home, and I find that I love it quite a bit. I love the weather and the people who sit near the dock. I love my job; it is maybe the thing I love best about this place. Files and documents come and go by way of the shredder, but murder is a task that lasts. It’s nice to have my head in something steady.
Eventually, Carl asks me to join him on a kill. I am lying on my cot and I say I need to think about it. I think about whether or not I can do this with my bare hands, then return home and brush my hand against my favorite boyfriend’s cheek. Planning is one thing, but the execution is a different story. Carl says I wouldn’t have to do any of the dirty deeds, just administrative duties: watching the door, looking malicious. I say OK, I think I can do that.
Unfortunately, the administrative duties are the hardest of all. At the specified location, there are more doors than I accounted for. Which one do I watch? Carl is holding a gun to a man’s temple. Relax, honey, he says to me. You’re doing fine. I open a compact mirror to make sure I look malicious, but when I look in the mirror, I am not looking at the doors. When I am looking at the doors, I am not looking at the mirror. I see a police officer in the background of my reflection, and we’re just as good as busted.
“She’s not a part of this,” Carl says. “She’s just filling in for my other guy.”
The police officers nod and ask me to leave. Walking away from the job with my hands over my head, I can’t help but feel angry with Carl, and the way he chooses to show his appreciation for my hard work. I am shocked to realize that I expected more, more than what I was promised, more than something short-term. I suddenly feel silly for expecting anything at all.
The time I spend now is time I spend alone. I live outdoors on the beach and sometimes I wait for boats to come and reclaim the anchors, to come and reclaim me. I cannot reach Farren; she cannot speak to me directly because of the botched assignment. We’ll get back to you soon, she says.
I call the boyfriends with a stray quarter. Specifically, I call the cook. It turns out they are together, sitting around my old coffee table. What are you doing, I ask? It turns out they started a book club. The cook brings the snacks. I remember them snickering at my book clubs and knitting circles, and I wonder why theirs is any different. He says all of them will be friends for life, these boyfriends. I’ve really built something lasting for them, something they can count on.
I go to Carl’s trial and watch his sentencing. I go to a bar on the other side of town, and think about the bar at home, and the boyfriends, and their favorite drinks, none of which are on the menu. A little boy is sitting outside the bar, and I go out and talk to him instead of talking to myself.
“What do you do here?” he asks. He cannot be more than 9 years old.
“I look for jobs,” I say. He does not laugh, but nods in a serious way.
“I have a temporary job for you. I will pay you money.”
I agree to follow him to his home, and to perform the job of being his mother. There is no one else in his apartment, and the building seems all but abandoned.
“Where is your real mother?”
Abducted by pirates, he says, but she will be home soon. I imagine Darla knitting a flag with her special knives, and stay silent.
The boy does exactly what he said he would do, which is pay me to cook and clean and give him advice and tell him a different story every night. Sometimes I am supposed to scold him or punish him, and sometimes I am supposed to yell for no reason, get sad, and stare out the window. I tell him stories about some of the jobs I’ve had, and even the boring stories make him squirm and scream. I decide not to tell him that the stories are true.
He is as pale as potatoes and skinnier than the women at my agency, so I perform some extra work that he would not have known to ask about. Like researching medicine and malnutrition and dietary supplements. He tells me about his ten-year plan, about how he wants to run a business when he grows up, how he could run a business very fairly. A business he could pass on to his kids, something that would stick. I notice that when I say certain unfamiliar words, he repeats them later in conversation, sometimes mispronouncing them, which makes my heart feel larger than ever before. I use the money he pays me to buy medicine from a man at the bar, and my little boy’s cheeks turn pink again, if they were pink to begin with. I remember the time I almost had an accidental little boy of my own.
“Why are you using your salary for my medicine?” He is kneeling in his chair so that we are the same height.
“Because I care about you, and you’re sick.”
“You’re not supposed to care about me. That’s not your responsibility.” “Actually, it is,” I say.
“Not anymore. I promised you a job, not a family,” he says.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t just leave you here.” I place my hands down on the kitchen counter, which I have come to think of as my kitchen counter.
“I will call the police,” he says, and I know he will, and that I won’t be as lucky a second time around. “This transaction,” he says, “is not open to your interpretation,” and he pronounces interpretation in a way I am no longer allowed to correct. As I leave the apartment, I am scolding him, punishing him, yelling for no reason, getting sad and walking out the door.
It is two full weeks of unemployment before I see a boat in the dock, and boats do not come to this place anymore. I run to the dock with everything I own, which is practically nothing. There is a woman waiting for me on the deck. She says, Good afternoon, Darla, and I cannot help but feel at home. The real Darla feels terrible about the way things left off, and so the captain will ferry me to wherever I am needed. Call it severance, she suggests.
When I am safe and looking through my old porthole, I think that maybe I should have busted Carl out of the slammer. Maybe I should have forced the little boy to come to the boat with me, to escape and get healthy and grow up and start his business in New York. But Carl did not want my help. The little boy did not want my help either, not anymore. There are lots of different kinds of mothers. He never specified which kind he wanted.
I do not see the boyfriends again, which is not a surprise, but I miss them in the worst way. I am very tired, and I have a feeling in the back of my throat. I try to swallow it down, but the feeling stays.