Jennifer had hung the last streamer. It had taken a long time because the H’s kept flipping assy-verys and hooking the O’s.
“If that was a party game I’d have never gotten it to work,” she sighed, her eyes moving over the empty store with a weary sort of peace. It was done, and when her co-workers came in the next day they would appreciate that someone, at least, had made an effort.
“It’s beginning to look a lot…” she whispered, nuzzling her itchy nose into the rather horrible sweater she had disinterred for the season. It was scratchy on the outside, and rather too warm for Florida most of the year, but with the heat automatically turned down- dimming with the lights as the cleaning staff took their leave- it had proven to be one of the few days of the year when she could enjoy the crackling warmth with no reservations.
“Ha, ha, ha,” she pronounced into the open room. Every flat surface, and it was a place full of planes and hard corners, sent her salutation echoing back. Perhaps it was a trick of the reverberation that made it sound so hollow and mirthless. Perhaps the stuffy chairs towards the front had filtered her.
It was time for her to leave as well. The Stouffer's lasagna she had put out to defrost- safely steaming away beneath an inverted monitor box which she had known would come in handy someday- had been niggling at the corners of her mind all day. Jennifer hoped, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that neither Snowflake, Blackmoon nor Hansie would have managed to dislodge the frowning fifth edition of Holes’, ‘Human Anatomy and Physiology,’ which rested atop; the half naked man on the cover keeping dinner waiting for her. She had considered adding, ‘The Annotated Sherlock Holmes,’ to the argument, but had decided to let Murphy- as an earnest young Pre-med/ Theater-arts dual major she had decided that it was ridiculous not to give the only man in her life a name- prove his worth, see what his gravitas counted for in the real world.
Shouldering her bag deliberately, Jennifer moved forward, or she meant to do so... Though she had worked in the office for three years already she somehow managed to forget the glass enclosure which nearly bisected the space. It was a leftover from the days when the shop had been a pet store, wrested from the hands of its mom and pop operators to become the new long-term, temporary headquarters of… wherever-the-hell-she-worked. Somehow in the change-up it had been forgotten, overlooked… that is, until it brought Jennifer up with a round turn, thumping solidly against her ribs and completely blocking her egress. It was one of the few wholly undecorated surfaces in the office and being more or less clear, had, in the reduced lighting, become the classic invisible box... the menace of mimes the world over, and since time was.
Jennifer, in no particular hurry, smiled mischievously.
“Ho, ho, ho,” she pronounced, forming the words with great care, deep in her chest.
The glass wall returned her message of cheer more naturally than had the room at large. Perhaps the sand, ash and limestone were capable of absorbing less? She did not know.
Tentatively, though Jennifer realized she was alone in that space, that budget restrictions had precluded security cameras for the umpteenth year running and that the large front windows, once full of cats and cavorting puppies, would now be showing the outside world only a slightly duller version of itself, Jennifer placed her palms flat on the glass. It was cold; she had not expected that. Then, as if the contact had released other senses which long familiarity had blocked, the odor of a musky body, of leaves and sour fruit, rose into her consciousness. One by one, Jennifer plunked her fingers down on top of the enclosure, just as she had done in Theater, when the glass walls in her way had been only make-believe. The actions were so connected with that portion of her life that the memory of another odor, of thick, cloying grease paint, filled her up like a kettle. She breathed in deeply.
“What do you think you’re doing?” said a voice.
It was an amalgamation of grunts and squeaks and the seconds delay the unusual pattern required before Jennifer’s brain could understand caused her to pause.
“Said get the fuck off my home,” barked the voice.
“No you didn’t,” yelped Jennifer automatically, snapping her hands to her sides as if she really were a robot.
A great hairy animal, darkly tan and odorous, lumbered from the hollow log at the other end of the glass. Its long claws clicked out a rattling tattoo as, like a miniature storm cloud, it made its way along the enclosure in a sort of waddling, heal-toe, heal-toe canter. Finally, in its own good time and not hurrying in the slightest, the thing reached the spot where Jennifer stood petrified. It fixed her with one beady eye.
“Shut your mouth,” it said.
“W-what,” stammered Jennifer.
“W-w-w-w what,” parodied the animal, tutting its head in an unkind imitation. Rearing up onto its hind legs it touched a leathery palm with one outlandishly long claw, as if enumerating points.
“Does not take direction well,” it said, peering at her over imaginary spectacles.
“What?” said Jennifer.
“What, what, or W-w-w-what, what?” inquired the animal.
Jennifer felt her face getting warm.
“I said, ‘what?’” she averred, somewhat more firmly.
“Oh… that what...” said the armadillo.
It was indeed an armadillo, and a fearsome looking example of his kind.
“Well, I’m not sure what the confusion is, Jennifer,” it began. “So let's review our intercourse to date, shall we? You laid hands upon my home. I inquired of you your intentions. You declined to answer. I requested that you remove said hands. You contradicted me. I told you to just hush that pretty little mouth of yours because I could tell our pleasant conversation was about to descend into a he-said-she-said quibble over semantics. Does that cover it? Or should I whip together a precis of the ‘whats’?”
Jennifer bit back strongly on the word she felt rising to her surface. Unsure of herself, she was afraid that it might indeed turn out to be another, what.
“Why, are you here?” she said at last.
“Because, this is my home. I’ve been here for fifteen years. Why are you here?”
“I work here.”
“Pfft! Call it work….”
Jennifer stiffened. “I do call it work,” she said. “I didn’t just, crawl in some night.”
“You wouldn’t be implying that I am freeloading from this establishment by any chance, would you?” said the armadillo.
Jennifer began to shrug.
“Don’t, just… don’t,” said the armadillo, holding up a hand.
“That… thing, you’re about to do.”
“That thing... that thing where you roll your eyes, just a little bit, dip your chin towards your shoulder and make moon cow eyes towards the ceiling.”
“I don’t do that.”
“Yeah, your right, I just made it up bitch.”
“Don’t… what? Did you just call me a b… a ‘B’ word?” Jennifer hissed.
The armadillos moved closer to its side of the glass.
“Why are you whispering?” it asked, in a hushed voice.
Jennifer glared at him. “What even are armadillos?” she demanded scathingly.
The animal lumbered onto its rear legs and crossed the final two steps which separated them to lean cumbersomely on the glass.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” it said, its voice lower still. “Actually, we’re fish.”
Two seconds to translate, two seconds to understand and Jennifer snorted, stuck halfway between a laugh and indignation.
“Oh, fuck you,” she said, and gasped, clapping a hand to her mouth.
“Yeah… yeah, that’s the ticket,” said the aardvark, brightening visibly.
“I can’t believe I said that,” whispered Jennifer.
“Me either,” said the armadillo. “I’m so proud of you! Gotta’ admit, I was expecting more of a, you know; frown slightly, down-roll your eyes and breath out through your nose, sort of… thing.”
“That doesn’t sound like something I would do; I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh yeah? Doesn’t sound like you?”
The armadillo planted a fist on its thick hip, rotating its weight and clicking its claws.
“Nothing like,” said Jennifer.
The armadillo pursed its lips.
“Okay,” it said. “Try it.”
“Yeah, try it. Give me a little frown, no not like th… there you go, now hold it and now drop your eyes… just a bit and- ha! Ha, ha, ha!”
It dissolved into wheezes, fumbling inefficiently at its eyes as Jennifer's face burned hot. It was some time before the armadillo could bring itself under control.
“This is… a place of business,” she said, drawing herself up as much as she could, hands held rigidly at her sternum. “A certain decorum is appropriate during office hours. It is not a low pot house, such as you would probably enjoy.”
“Oh, okay... Mrs. Claus,” said the armadillo, a slight hiccup of amusement still struggling to interject itself so that his vowel sounds rose and fell spasmodically.
Jenifer’s face threatened to color again, she was not sure why.
“I do… all this, as a public service,” she said primly, gesturing around at the decorations. “So that everyone can enjoy the holiday, since they have to be at work anyway. It’s not part of my job, I don’t get paid, or anything, I just- oh, shut the hell up!”
The armadillo had begun giggling, but the vehemence of Jennifer's explosion, ringing from the still walls, shocked them both so much that for a moment it was as if they stood together on the same side of a natural disaster, gazing up at a boiling Mount Vesuvius.
“Hey, I’m sorry lady,” began the armadillo.
“Oh, just shut up...” she gulped, slashing away at the water which would boil up and make her look like a fool.
“You don’t know anything, you’re just a stupid little vermin; you know that, that’s what you are, a stupid little... big, rat, that’s what, a rat wearing armor so you can say any darn hurtful thing you please. You… you don’t know what it's like. Nobody brings me food or… or flowers. Nobody pays for my rent and, and everything, and… I don’t know.”
Gruffly, the armadillo patted her hand. He might have been trying to bounce a ball.
“I know, I know, it’s not easy babe,” he said.
Jennifer rolled her eyes and gulped, a weak stream of laughter making her sputter.
“Don’t call me babe,” she said. “I’d rather that other, ‘B,’ word than that.”
“Could use both, like that ass jacker, Chad,” said the armadillo, nodding as he leaned up against the glass so that they both looked towards the front of the office.
“Yes!” Jennifer enthused. “That ass… jacker?”
She snorted, it sounded like a rifle shot, and tried to speak, but another burst of laughter chopped her up so that the only words she managed were, “Ass jacker,” again, before dissolving against the side of the enclosure, gasping out great hoots of amusement.
The armadillo tittered deprecatingly.
“Yes, well, maybe-”
“No, no! That’s great,” gulped Jennifer. “You hear that, you ass jacker!”
But, of course, no one did hear her, and the words echoed sadly back from the empty places, from every wall and divider. Finally, neither knew when exactly, sobriety crept back over them and the two stood, elbow to elbow.
“Ass jackers,” Jennifer said again, but in a normal voice and the armadillo nodded.
“I hate this place so much.”
They turned to look at each other, neither quite sure that they both had spoken exactly the same words. But they had.
Again, they had spoken simultaneously.
With a nod, Jennifer deferred. The armadillo bowed curtly.
“Why don’t you leave?” he said. “They don’t appreciate you here, they don’t use you to anything like your full potential. You’re their office… serf. You think you make the coffee and sweep out the potties and decorate the office because you want to, but if you didn’t do all that stuff, imagine the crass comments and dirty looks you’d get.”
“I get crass comments anyway,” muttered Jennifer. She shook her head, forcing a smile which caused the armadillo to wince.
“But, that’s life,” she said, shrugging. “‘Got’s to pay da bills.’”
“Fuck that,” muttered the armadillo, looking like he needed a drink.
“Ahh, easy for you to say,” said Jennifer, looking as if she had already had two, or four, jostling his hairy little elbow.
He gave her a look.
“How you figure- oh, the name’s Marvin, by the way.”
“Marvin?” she said. “Really?”
“Nope,” said the armadillo. “You couldn’t pronounce my real name; it’s all up in the snout. Anyway, how you figure?”
“Well, you can leave anytime you want, just, walk out the door. Sure, you’d have to, what’s the word? Forage? Scrap around? Find your own food; whatever, bugs and stuff, but you could.”
“Uh uh,” said Marvin, waving an airy claw. “Wrong habitat. I was an import. Ol’ Marvin and his wife brought me in right before they sold out and I just sort of, went with the ship.”
“Yeah, that’s where I got the name. I said you couldn’t say mine, but actually Armadillo’s don’t even have them really, not individually, you know, not like humans.”
“Sure, I get ya, but I see armadillo’s all over here; it’s the sunny south.”
“Different type. I’m from Brazil; Florida ain’t sunny enough.”
“What’s the difference?”
“I’ve got a two foot long whipper.”
“Oh… a What!”
“Just kiddin’ babe, nah, but I can do this…” With a sound like a suitcase being shut Marvin whipped himself into a ball.
Jennifer shrieked in excitement and clapped her hands.
“That’s marvelous, I’ve only seen that in cartoons, never real life, but, I supposed that all of… you.”
“Nope,” said Marvin, unfurling himself and spinning around on his back. “The plates are too tight on these locals.”
“Mmmm, and you’re nice and loose, Marvin.”
“I’m so loose I swing like a garden gate.”
“So, you are stuck here.”
Time crept on.
“Well,” said Jennifer suddenly, slapping the glass.
Time crept on again.
“I could decorate your… enclosure,” she said. “If you wanted me to, help you get some Christmas presents, and stuff.”
“Pfft, you don’t think I could, if I wanted?”
“Aren’t you stuck in there?”
“Nah, I climb over all the time. Come here, let me show you somethin’.”
Marvin flopped down to his feet.
“Don’t be checkin’ out my ass back there,” he said, as he waddled towards his hollow tree.
“Ass jacker,” muttered Jennifer.
“Ha! Just kidding anyway; go ahead and look… if you're sure you can handle it.”
“I’ll try to restrain myself.”
“You better, I know karate. Okay, here we are….”
“Hey, that’s my red stapler,” said Jennifer, leaning over to peer through a hollow knothole.”
“And isn’t that….”
“The charger for the new XL-17 handheld units that they’ve been looking all over the office for? Yep.”
“And blaming me for it….”
“Right! Right,” exclaimed Marvin, slapping down his tail with an aggravated harrumph. “Look; look at all this stuff. I’ve got Betty's left glove and Ken’s spare box of thumbtacks. Those are Rick’s keys and Sandra’s engagement book, the wallpaper sample that Fred was supposed to get matched and the company newsletter master sheet.”
“Wow, nice decorating,” Jennifer nodded, straightening. “So, I suppose you could have gotten people gifts for Christmas, if you’d wanted to.”
“Sure I could’ve, I go all over this complex, all the way to the end of the plaza, but I’ll be damned if I nick Christmas presents for these, ass jackers.”
“Well, I wouldn’t if I were you either.”
Marvin smiled ruefully.
Jenifer looked into his beady eyes.
“That’s… kinda what I’ve been doing, isn’t it,” she said, frowning. “Stealing from myself to give to people who don’t appreciate it?”
“Who don’t deserve it,” amended Marvin. “Who don’t deserve you.”
Jennifer blew out her cheeks. The world outside the windows looked extra bleak, as if it were painted on.
“Got to pay the bills,” she sighed.
“Sure you do,” said Marvin, and leaning over the edge of the enclosure he slapped her straight on the bottom.
“You cheeky little blighter!” cried Jennifer, leaping back out of his range.
“Ha! I’m Brazilian, what you expect, babe!” said Marvin, laughing. “Here; I didn’t get anybody in this place a present, ‘cus fuck them, but here, for you; it’s Chad’s cell phone.”
“Don’t call me babe, and what am I supposed to do with this?” said Jennifer, turning it over in her hand.
Marvin shrugged, the movement traveling all the way to his jingling claws.
“I dunno,” he said. “Maybe… pay it forward… give it to his wife?”
“Perhaps I’ll just do that,” said Jennifer primly, sliding the cool rectangle into her sweater pocket. “And perhaps... I’ll bring a Stouffer's lasagna with me tomorrow and work late.”
“Perhaps I’ll be here,” said Marvin. “I am nocturnal.” He looked at his claws.
“You know,” he said. “The studio two slots down is looking for part-time teachers; Intro to Acting; emoting, projection, that sort of stuff. It doesn’t pay much, but they have classes on the weekends.”
“Is that a fact?”
“It’s a fact.”
“Fuckin’ ass jacker,” sighed Jennifer, reaching over and scratching Marvin behind the ears.